What Will Happen if You Don’t Ride Today?

It’s really hot here. How hot is it? I’m not saying. People get competitive. You’d just say it’s hotter where you are and then I’d have to recite our altitude, I’m much closer to the sun. You’d have a retort and the places on my body that are clammy would only get clammier. I’d still be hot, but I’d be in a worse mood about it. It’s the middle of summer. Even the sunsets burn even hotter.

We’re still recovering from the Fourth of July. Fireworks are illegal here, but apparently true patriots don’t care. My tradition for the holiday is to lay in bed watching the horses be restless all night, with the dogs are pressed against my side quivering so much the sheets are vibrating their way off the bed, and all the while telling myself that isn’t smoke I smell. It was a rough night that set all of us up for July fifth, when the new neighbors put a bunch of cattle on their twenty-acre pasture. So, my mare ran laps for a few hours, tail flagged, snorting, and beautiful, warning us of this dire threat of alien invaders, while the geldings stood at the fence, glassy-eyed and frozen on the spot. It would have been a lousy day for a ride.

Sometimes I wonder how many training issues, emotional damage, and injuries to humans happen when we think we must ride. And are we riding for their welfare, for our own, or because of some obligation from the vast but imaginary crowd of onlookers? As usual for the horse world, we have extremists on both sides. People who believe horses must be ridden every day for competitive soundness and mental focus and people who don’t ride their horses ever, saying that a relationship with a horse can be totally fulfilling for both on the ground. Some will say that competing horses is cruel, and it is if you train like a monster. But we aren’t all monsters. Others will say that horses get bored if they wander around and eat all day, which is what they were designed to do in the first place.

I notice there is always defensiveness on both sides of this conversation. Most of us hear a parental voice telling us what we should do with our horses when truthfully most of our parents would rather we didn’t have horses. So, we sit taller and feel worse about ourselves. Or it’s the culture in the barn, or expectations from strangers who know nothing about horses? Maybe you learned it on a video from someone who has an ulterior motive about your horse, or you got hung up on a cowboy fantasy. After all, movies about gray-haired women mucking probably don’t have the same theatrical appeal. Maybe feeling guilty is a habit, but now riding more is on the same list as dieting or beginning an exercise plan or volunteering in your community. It’s the list of things we would do if we were better people but, in the meantime, it’s the list of things that we fail at. Egads, how did horses get on that list?

I also notice there is a voice missing in the conversation.

Your horse doesn’t care if you ride him or not. Horses do care about living as close to “natural” as possible. Horses have three primary needs: free choice forage, the company of a herd, and room to move at liberty. These are the big three requirements and most riders, trainers, and animal behaviorists agree. Beyond that, good health care and farrier work. Something’s missing here, too. Riding doesn’t even make the top ten on the horse’s list.

Back in the day, we thought it was all discipline and dominance. We proved our toughness in the heat of summer. Do you know that horses get hot quicker than we do? Heat builds in muscle, and because they have a higher ratio of muscle to bone than we do, heat has a greater impact. Black horses want you to know color matters. His version of hot is different and now we’re back to “How hot is it?” The horse is right, dark-colored horses struggle more but research says that all horses heat up ten times faster than we do.

Back in the day, we thought horses needed to be worked six days a week. We thought young horses needed the discipline and competition horses had to hold their edge. We also had lameness issues in the extreme, early arthritis and tendon problems from starting too young and riding too much. There is no edge to hold, just peaks and valleys. We were about repetition and drilling, but brain science shows we will get farther by quitting when the horse does the thing once, and he gets time to mentally process it. Three days a week are plenty for performance horses and we tend their mental health. It ends up that the quality of the ride is more important than quantity. Will we ever learn that?

Back in the day, we thought we knew better than horses. We didn’t trust that they would remember how to be ridden if they have a day, week, or year off. Horses, and especially mares, would like you to know that they have profound memories. They have the largest amygdala of all domestic animals. When will we finally trust their intelligence?

As much as all of us love the romance we have with horses, one hard truth remains. Horses were not put on earth for us. They have a rich life of their own, rewarding bonds with herdmates, and the constant equine reality of a prey animal. Marginally domesticated, they remain true to their natures.  There are things about humans that horses like, but we aren’t the center of their lives. We are only a hobby.

How do horses feel about being ridden? I suspect they take that cue from us. It’s about as fun or miserable as we make it.

It’s up to us then. What would it mean if we gave horses a couple of months off a year? To give their backs a rest and to tune up our horse-crazy girl thrill. Horses would be sounder, and we’d be less complacent. It seems obvious they’d pick July and December off.

We could use the mental health days to make peace with societal expectations and the number of should obligations in our lives that don’t truly support us. Lighten the load of guilt baggage we carry daily. We could remember that standing next to a horse is a privilege that most don’t know. The rest is all gratitude. Ride or not, as you please.

It’s July and if we get defensive about how hot it is, imagine how defensive we get about horses. Soon, we’re defensive about being defensive. It’s really clammy around here now, but the geldings have a suggestion for that. Take a dirt bath, shake it off. No one cares if you ride.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

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Anna Blake

70 thoughts on “What Will Happen if You Don’t Ride Today?”

  1. Oh, how this made me laugh:

    After all, movies about gray-haired women mucking probably don’t have the same theatrical appeal.

    I love it – and it’s true, though these days I would love to watch a movie about a gray-haired woman who lives with her horses, mucking and hanging out with them and talking about what she knows.

    I’ve taken some heat in the past from trainers who balked at my giving Keil Bay the final say on whether we had a ride or not. He’s a good sport and I figured out quickly that if he said no to a ride something was wrong and I needed to listen. Sometimes he said no at the bridling moment, though that stopped when I removed the flash, then the cavesson, and finally the bit itself. Other times the no came when tightening the girth, and that stopped when I got a new one and didn’t tighten it as much as I’d been taught to. When he resists at the mounting block I know to stop and listen. A few times it was that I had not tightened the girth ENOUGH and I found out why he kept moving away from the mounting block when I insisted on getting on and the saddle slid halfway down his barrel and I ended up on the ground. Other times there were issues that needed chiropractic care, but it was always something real, not just him being difficult. If he says no, I listen and I respect his decision, because he’s not lazy (do horses even have that capacity?) and he particularly loves the end of the rides when he gets a peppermint and I tell him how amazing he is. That he puts up with the things I ask him to do under saddle and that he generally does them beautifully when I take care of my self up there is part of what makes him such a great horse. He seems to enjoy having been ridden – and most times when I ask him to join me at the barn for a ride, he arrives at the gate seeming happy enough to be there. Maybe the peppermint is enough to entice him, or maybe he understands that I won’t demand if he says no.

    It’s hard to stop the should voice especially when we’re bombarded with it from so many directions. All those reasons why we “should” ride every day and push through resistance and not let them win their battles – those things make it hard to even have a conversation.

    Today it’s hot as heck already this morning and Keil Bay is 31 and I’m 60 and I think it’s because of the way we’ve partnered through the years that we still have a lot to talk about even when there is no saddle or bridle or arena involved. And you can bet he still gets that peppermint!

    Reply
    • And I definitely WOULD watch a movie about gray haired women mucking!!! It would definitely keep my attention.
      I think your 31 year old is so lucky to have you – and you are so lucky to have him. “Shoulds” are to be ignored, right?

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    • So good Billie! I too have learned, partnering with only 4 horses (two lesson, two of my own) to date, since I started riding in my late thirties, if my horse “balks,” there’s a reason. Am I lucky or just listening carefully? Maybe a little of both, but I err always first on the side of listening; and I don’t indulge my friends’ language about their horses’ being willfully troublesome. This article has been a nice relief as we’re heading into a heat wave in the midwest this week. So I’ll arrive earlier than my usual 1:00 training time, which is the only time my trainer is available, to get the coolest possible option before my boy, and let him decide. I see some tree covered hacks in our future!

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      • Thanks! Living in NC, in July, Keil Bay and I relate to your 1:00 training dilemma. We’re not riding this summer, but we’re lucky that our arena has huge old oaks at H and F. Since we bought the farm the shade conferred by them extends further and further, so even on the hottest days there are stretches of shade to ride through and stop in. My old goddess mare Salina is buried just outside A, which is in one of the shady parts, so we often stop there to visit with her. This stopping in the shade would not be in a training session with any trainer I’ve ever worked with, but Keil Bay and I like to do our own thing! 🙂

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  2. Thanks for writing this one, Anna. Loved the part about gray-haired women mucking. We’ve had an unusual July-cool, cloudy, windy, rainy, but I’m not complaining as I don’t like hot. I rode my horse this week for the first time in almost a year after being thrown badly, not his fault at all! I can relate to the on-ground comments & believe that any time spent with my horses, whether riding or not, is the best. Just being in their company fills me with peace & tranquility.

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  3. I have a question. How long does it take for a horse to lose fitness when not ridden? It’s hot here too in NC, perhaps too hot to ride except maybe very early in the morning, but I don’t want my horse to “lose” his fitness, which is in a good place right now. He’s turned out at night but in the cooler barn away from the flies during the day.

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    • There are so many variables, age, breed, etc. that it’s impossible to guess without details about your horse. Just like humans, the plan is to peak for show season or the Olympics… but general health will stay level. I wouldn’t worry; fitness is an average not a constant. Did that make sense??

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  4. Yes, it’s hot! Yes, the 4th festivities turns our critters inside out! Yes, my horses don’t care whether I ride or not! Cuts down on “issues.” Yes, I love Billie’s comments, too. (And Maggie’s!) Yes, love the idea of being part of this tribe!

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  5. It’s hot here too! Love your comment Billie Hinton. 🙂 Also what you said Anna, “After all, movies about gray-haired women mucking probably don’t have the same theatrical appeal.” That made me laugh out loud. Hope you all have a great day with your equines, and manage to stay cool somehow. 🙂

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  6. Hey, I didn’t think to mention this but this year on July 4th I added in one new thing to my July 4th “let’s all stay sane and not get injured” routine, in which I feed wet dinner tubs early, set them up on either side of the barn with fans running on high to act as white noise machines, with stalls open to paddocks where they can move about but not as a whole herd and not all over the farm. I give them clean water buckets with Rescue Remedy and fresh hay pillows and I sit out there with them with a glass of wine and my cell phone in hand in case I have to call the fire department, the sheriff, or goddess forbid, the vet.

    Generally they get agitated enough that I end up opening the arena (which is thankfully right by the barn and both are in the dead center of our farm) and letting them all go in there together, since it’s the safest fenced area on the farm and they can run around without me worrying too much.

    This year I had samples that came with a recent order of something called Confidence EQ. I decided to try it out and see what happened. It’s a pheromone gel that you apply to the outer edge of each equine nostril. My husband and I applied it to horses, pony, and donkeys right at sunset. There were a few distant booms and then about an hour later, things got fairly noisy, with our neighbors across the street setting off those loud, long-lasting “sizzlers” that the horses seem to hate. I applied more gel to all of them (we hadn’t applied the full recommended dose initially and even with the second dose still didn’t approach the full amount) and I was sort of shocked to see that they spent the entire time of fireworks (8-11 p.m.) standing quietly and eating from their hay pillows! I never had to open the arena, no one took more than a casual step from one hay pillow to another, and the worst that happened was they did some soft snorts at the very loudest booms. They never get TOO crazy and the fireworks this year weren’t the worst we’ve had (though not the least either) but I have never seen this herd so quiet on July 4th. I’ll definitely try it again if there are loud noises to contend with.

    The gel itself has a mild smell that they were fascinated by. Basically all I had to do was put it on my fingers and they nosed into it themselves. I have no stake in the company but I was pretty impressed! Either the gel helped or they all simultaneously decided fireworks are just No Big Deal. 🙂

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  7. I do struggle with “should I ride today”, so many reasons too ride and just as many not to. So most often I do not, and when I don’t I feel guilty, so it was so nice to read this post. As always right on the money.
    My horses all have shelters (we have 2 little herds as two of the geldings don’t care for one another) and pasture plus we feed hay morning and evening. And I know my gelding doesn’t care if I ride him or not (UNLESS he’s seen me riding someone else, in which case I get the stink-eye). He’s happy with a hello and a morning pat. So thanks again for a perfectly timed subject that not only made me laugh (you should have seen old grey haired me mucking out this morning in the heat!!) but made me feel MUCH less guilty about not putting my 73 year old body in the saddle.

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  8. This may be my favorite. I want to go through it with a highlighter – two, in fact. One for the sentences that are mini writing workshops, and one for the truths about horses (and humans near horses). Thanks for providing my daily dose of laughs along with all the truth. Yesterday I saw one of those mathy posts about calculating the heat, humidity, angle of the sun, and the first 17 digits of pi to decide if you can safely ride. The title was “When is it too hot to ride?” and I thought “Summer” which didn’t turn out to be the answer they were going for. I stand by it.

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  9. I can testify that sweet and wonderful things have happened in my life by NOT riding my horses, for actually an extended period of time. I think Cash & Bear would say the same ..

    I remember the last time anyone rode Cash. A female trainer at a boarding barn where he was. As she pushed om him hard and MADE him go round the grassy arena, fighting with him for almost every jerky, resentful , sweaty step he took, she said ” this is the kind of horse you have to ride every day, without fail, or he will be totally unmanageable.”

    My fellow boarders were so sorry I had acquired a horse who was out of his mind , they said. I was sorry I had let the trainer ride him while we all.looked on with dismay & sinking hearts.

    Cash moved to the country with me, and his mind is so much less troubled , not more as trainer predicted. I bought 3 acres plus gained another horse, Zen Bear. All these miracles occurred only because at a fork in the road, I chose not to ride Cash. He sure doesnt mind ! And neither do I. Tho’ I do hope to ride Zen Bear, just a wee bit.

    Thank you, Anna, for reminding me of a milestone in my horse journey !

    I

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  10. I love this, Anna!! Thank you for the voice of sanity during a time when many of us are so uncertain about everything. It’s too hot/humid/rainy/whatever to satisfy some random opinion of what “should” be. I love that my guys have some woods to escape to. Here’s to some cooler days ahead!

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  11. After morning chores, the idea of putting on britches, boots and a helmet (or even just the helmet alone) was too hot to even consider. Another hot day, another no-ride day. All is well with the world and my horses are happy. I will wait until it is cooler to ride and I’m sure my mares will thank me.

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  12. Anna,
    One of the best articles I have ever read about horses. Basic. But so few humans seem to know these things. It’s maddening – at any barn I’ve ever been, these basics seem unknown to most. Thank you for articulating simply these truths. I also think you’ve just made many horses happier, and their humans more grounded in what a horse really is, and has been, for millions of years. We would do right by wising up to it, and respecting it. The fun begins there. Sincerely, Gina O.

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  13. My two got a quick grooming and bath (and I sprayed myself too!), then their anti-fly stuff put on (mask and sheet and spray their legs) and we went to find some grass to eat!

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  14. What a timely article, as yesterday and today I decided to forego riding as it was extremely hot and grossly humid, which both the deerflies and horseflies love! I thought it wasn’t going to be enjoyable for either of us, even if we stuck to the shadiest trails. Thanks for your article☺️.

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  15. Thanks so much for this, Anna. “Sometimes I wonder how many training issues, emotional damage, and injuries to humans happen when we think we must ride. And are we riding for their welfare, for our own, or because of some obligation from the vast but imaginary crowd of onlookers?” I am so heartily tired of that crowd of onlookers and trying to please them. Time to move on. A dirt bath, huh? May have to look into that! 🙂

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  16. Thank you Anna! So much wisdom here. And thanks to all the wonderful comments, too. Ha, it’s mid-winter here in Oz, so some of us worry about if we “should” go out in the cold and the mud… Ha ha and i love that you say that anything that anyone of 73 says is RIGHT! GO the grey-haired chicks!

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  17. Another really great essay Anna! And the comments have been especially fun.

    I do NOT do hot well. Never have. Can’t imagine I ever will. I’m a Fall/Winter gal. We’ve had a REALLY unusually hot several weeks in N. Michigan. We’ve been getting up at 6:30am in order to get gardening, yard, and horse chores done before 9am. (6:30 is crazy early for someone who is typically still awake at 4am)

    I’m positive my horses are much happier we’re NOT riding. They dislike the heat enough that they are ignoring the pasture we’ve opened, preferring the round bale feeder in the shade. I had my hubby hang a heavy-duty tarp across the front of one side of the run-in. The run-in is 40×12 for our three horses but faces mostly easterly, so there’s no shade in the morning. I wasn’t sure my mare, who is a tad quirky, would deal well with the new addition, but she figured it out pretty quickly. There’s a decent amount of shade from trees just outside the fence line to the paddock, and several in the pasture, but they prefer to dose in the run-in, so now they have some shade in there too. The flies have been brutal this year as well, so I’ve added some cedar shavings to the pine in the run-in. Not enough to make it smell obnoxiously hampster cage-ish. Just enough to maybe repel some of the bugs.

    What we won’t do for our herd!

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  18. Now here’s a mantra to be repeated and acted upon daily-
    « Horses were not put on earth for us. We are only a hobby. (..) standing next to a horse is a privilege (…) The rest is all gratitude. Ride or not, as you please. It’s about as fun or miserable as we make it. »

    I wish I’d read this then… when I felt vaguely uneasy every time I saddled my horse… clearly recognizable as guilt… antispecist me, opposed to the subservience of all other species by man…or ahem woman and here I am, prying my horse away from his mates and his grass… on a trail ride in the- potentially unsafe (his probable perspective)- woods for a few hours of…sheer selfish joy (my perspective absolutely). Twenty years on, from the perspective of your wisdom, I think he did enjoy walking the trails, trick riding little kids or sorting the cattle…

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  19. Thank you for being a companion on my horse journey. Whenever I feel like I *should* be doing something (my therapist and I call it the ‘tyranny of should’ – A-type perfectionist girl’s Achilles heel) I think of you. When I watch a youtube video trying to figure out what my young mare is trying to tell me, you’re next to me being a sound voice questioning if being so loud and whippy like the trainer suggests is really needed. Today I had a bad day, geyser burst and general incompetence, and I walked out in a huff. Somehow, in a blink of an eye, all three my horses (the big mare, and two minis) were right there. Indigo the mare just let me scratch and harass her (she’s generally choosy about when and where,) and the two minis were licking me and just saying, hey human, it’s OK, we’re here. I actually dozed off leaning into Indigo. It was a moment of reward for being respectful towards them, I think. Thanks to you.

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  20. I’m honestly not bragging but it’s cold here (Pacific northwest) . April weather at best. The horses are just fine with it but I’d love to go out without a coat.

    We ride when we have time. Sometimes it’s a couple times a week, sometimes once a month. The horses don’t have amnesia in between.
    Equally, the times I screw up and act accidentally like a jerk are remembered. Working hard to keep the balance on the non-jerk side 🙂

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  21. Thanks Anna – this was a very timely piece. I am on enforced “rest” for 6 weeks while broken ribs heal. I’m finding that I’m being pressured to keep my horse in work and today, at the 3 week period, I decided to do a gentle lunge (just walk/trot) as he gets a bit excited at canter. Well Dusty had other ideas and I was teetering on “run for your life” mode. I think I will wait for the other 3 weeks before I do anymore than gentle, side by side interactions.
    So enjoy your warm weather and we’ll enjoy our frigid weather.
    Cheers
    TJ

    Reply
    • He doesn’t sound like he’s lost his condition… sorry, hope you heal well, and keep an eye on the possibility of the two of you coming out of this time ahead. Thanks for commenting.

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  22. Not riding today? I am not and thank you Anna.

    I have four horses. Two miniatures in their late teens are retired from Combined Driving competition. They are my clowns.

    The mid-twenty year old “big horse” gelding is retired from Cowboy Mounted Shooting competition, dealing with PPID and ringbone. He is my rock.

    And the 11 year old OTTB, adopted for a dollar as a companion horse for the other gelding, won’t be ridden again because of a tiny sliver of bone in his ankle. He supplies me with daily goosebumps, gliding across the big pasture, suspended above the grass. He’s my eye candy.

    I’m glad it’s OK not to ride. I am happy on the ground, taking care of my boys. They, whether they know it or not, take care of me.

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  23. oh Anna- thank you for this post. We here in Maine get these days and weeks of temperatures that can go into the 90’s and humidity in the 70 percent range. I get a headache even being outside in it for more than a few minutes, being 68 years old and all. All I want to do is move slowly, as I suspect my big horse does too. But at the back of the mind is that thought “Well, I spent 10,000$ on this horse, and his board is $7000 a year and farrier comes to $50 every 5 weeks, and so on, so forth…”. We humans are so conditioned into “getting our money’s worth” out of everything, that it drives us to do things where we should just let them be. I often think, especially with the 2 month quarantine we just went through, would I be better off not having my horse, if I can’t ride him everyday? And I always come back to, even if I could only see him a couple of days a week, it’s OK. He’s happy where he is, he is healthy, he is always glad to see me and he NEVER forgets anything he’s learned. When I see him, it’s wonderful and it doesn’t matter what we do or do not do. Thank you again….

    Reply

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