Are We Over-training Our Horses?

My Grandfather Horse was so good with latches he could have broken out of Alcatraz and made it back to Colorado, but he wasn’t special. We all brag about how intelligent our horses are when they react to the sound of our car driving up the driveway. They’re geniuses when they know it’s dinnertime, or when they nicker to us as we walk into the barn. Science has proven that horses recognize humans from years in their past and other studies show horses recognize the emotions on our faces. Don’t these things sound a bit self-serving, even egotistical? As if it’s the horse’s highest calling to be our lap dogs.

I’ve known horses who were good problem solvers, and good communicators. Horses with an amazing sense of survival. Ones who are quick learners and try hard to get it right when we ask them. But then we also joke about a horse intentionally getting our clothes dirty, and how smart they are to beg for treats. We acknowledge their intelligence in our insults and praise for them. But in the quiet moments, beyond peer pressure and the daily grind of horse care, every moment we stand next to a horse, we’re in awe of their presence, totally aware of their intelligence.

Why would we think they are smart everywhere but when we “train” them?

We do repetition after repetition as if a horse’s memory is not at least as good as our own. We drill the same obstacle a hundred times, until the horse is dull and tired. So worried our horse will act up in front of the vet or farrier, we micromanage their heads, fingers gripping the clip of the lead rope, because we don’t trust him to stand on his own. Soon we aren’t sure if we have agitated the horse more than calmed him. Do we value our horse’s manners more than their expressions of anxiety?

How often do we pop the lead rope on a horse’s chin and correct him for sniffing things when he’s walking down the barn aisle, not noticing that we’re slowly killing his curiosity? What about the times we pull on his face without noticing, only to shut him down and wind up with more problems? How often do we race up close to scratch a horse where he’s scratching himself as if he’s incapable of doing it himself? Sometimes in our attempt to help horses, we end up micromanaging them instead.

Micromanaging is a lack of trust, but we do it with love.

That’s why conversations about training are so complicated. No one reading this is an abuser. You’re here because you love horses. We aren’t the ones cracking whips and gouging horses in the ribs with spurs. But are we acknowledging their intelligence or dumbing them down? Do we go too far, using baby talk while taking the same baby steps year after year, all the time demeaning their intelligence? Do our horses secretly think we’re slow learners?

There’s a problem with repetitively teaching horses things they already know how to do. It can be soul-killing. We end up in the silent dark Valley of Learned Helplessness. A horse can become disinterested, unmotivated, and generally apathetic. Becoming so shut down that it feels like he’s lost the will to live. Other names for this kind of horse are kid-safe, pushbutton, or dead broke.

I wonder if we take training too seriously. If we don’t make it more about flattering ourselves and less about the horse’s mental state. Too harsh? I’m almost sorry. It’s just that I keep meeting horses who would tell us they have had too much training already. Too much pushing, too much correction, and too much noise. Things that created their problems in the first place. What they genuinely need is to recuperate from training. For all our talk about wanting to partner with horses, we have a hard time allowing the horse to have his say.

Sometimes it has to be their turn, but what does that look like? Less training, more curiosity.

Wild or feral horses are intensely curious, and endlessly engaged with their environment. We are used to seeing playfulness in our “domestic” youngsters, but less so as they get older. Less so when living in stalls, when separated from herd life, and even less in aged horses. We expect to see some changes with maturity, but clients in The Barn School are working with elders who are rediscovering nosiness and snooping again. Curiosity is an antidote for those horses shut down by fear-based training. It’s transformational when they are listened to and find their voices. It’s never too late.

The challenging part for us is to put our hypervigilant training skills into “training” curiosity. It’s hard because it looks like inaction. As we allow choice and autonomy, the horse leads us along while they investigate. It goes against what most of us learned about training. Picking a fight is much easier. We have to trust they will want to work with us. Doing less takes remarkable patience.

Here’s a List of Fourteen Ways to Engage a Horse’s Curiosity (and not over-train):

  • Stop at the gate. Breathe. No, really do it. Take three deep breaths, put a smile on your face as if it’s a job interview, and leave your mental trash on the ground around your feet. Put only your best self forward.
  • Notice your body language. Is it different while training versus when you’re mucking? Stick to the mucking persona; horses like it better.
  • Do you change if you’re being watched? Of course, so video yourself constantly. It helps with self-awareness and works like a lesson in listening when watched later.
  • Rather than claiming all the space is yours, acknowledge the horse’s primal need for space (non-collision.) Exhale an apology, step back, and notice his eye soften.
  • Speak less with your hands and voice and more with your body. Seem less confusing or aggressive to horses.
  • Care less about what you want and more about your horse’s mental welfare. Because kindness makes training happen quicker.
  • Become less demanding and more understanding. Adopt an affirmative listening attitude.
  • Be less dominating and more of a partner. Allow your horse curiosity and choice.
  • Build trust rather than sowing doubt. If the horse didn’t do as you hoped, call it good. Ask a better question next time.
  • Hang out less and intrigue a horse more. Be kindly ambitious. Focus and have a plan, not that you care.
  • Forget complacency and be more interesting than grass. Lift your energy.
  • Give more and take less. Let it be about the horse.
  • Respect your horse’s intelligence. Not as a joke, but like penance for those who didn’t see it before.
  • Did you notice the list to engage a horse is all about you? Do you like yourself more already? Perfect. The horses will, too.

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24 thoughts on “Are We Over-training Our Horses?”

  1. “Kindly ambitious” is a great way to think about it! I believe you called it “patiently persistent” in Bhim’s training diary. It’s a way of accepting the horse’s input but not negating your own. They are beautifully brilliant in being themselves, but we do have a responsibility to teach them certain behaviors so they can be healthy and let others help them too.❤️

  2. I wonder about the talking thing. When riding, I talk to my horse a LOT, and I sure hope he is ignoring it. I do it to keep myself focused on him, to remind myself constantly how delightful he is, how much fun he is to ride, how much he tries, what he notices. I don’t expect him to respond to what I say, but rather, how what I say feels in the saddle. It is tricky to keep my mind totally present (and not zipping around – “squirrel!”), and I have found that speaking my observations of our ride out loud helps a lot. At least a couple of times you have mentioned that all of that talk is annoying to a horse . . . oh, dear . . . are you sure? Is this something I should try to minimize?

    • I understand what you are saying, the benefit for you. And you’re right, he’s ignoring you. I’ll say it this way: If your leg constantly bounced on his flank, he’d become dead to the aid. He’d block it out so he can listen to the environment but then also become less responsive when you need a leg aid. I hold my focus by counting my inhales and exhales because I want a voice cue that will work when I need one. I will always choose a voice cue over a physical cue, less is more. So I want my voice to be special. Here is the question I have back: is talking inside our heads enough? I do say affirmations, just silently. They read our bodies by our Calming Signals. Just my opinion. Thanks, Sue.

  3. Thank you for the reminder, Anna! The last thing I want to do is to kill the curiosity of my new youngster. I am working on the balance of having enough energy to keep him engaged but not so much to push the young green Thoroughbred over the edge. Tightrope walking would be easier!

  4. Great post! I would only add to your list: Be willing to accept that a ‘training session’ might be a lot shorter than you planned. I think we often set out planning a 30, 45, or 60 minute session, believing that the time is important or that we need it to reach our ‘goal’. But if you’ve had something that has seemed a struggle (e.g., just a soft relaxed walk) and your horse gifts you with it in the first few minutes of the session – stop there! Too often it becomes tempting in that moment to move to the next step/phase – but often we need to take the win and enjoy the moment that something ‘hard’ came easily.

    • Patience. The hard part. For the last year, I’ve posted every session with a reactive rescue I’m working with. The longest session is 20 minutes. What is it with humans and hour blocks of time?? Thanks Lia.

  5. Thanks, Anna. These 14 ways are great. While I’m not in the saddle anymore, I do need to “behave myself” when I interact with my boys. I must say being in touch with nature as they are, I’ve always thought my horses – and everybody else’s – are very much intelligent beings.

  6. A huge amount to like in this post and that will make a difference to our horses. For me, courtesy of an old and very experienced horseman, the only thing missing in the list is Feel. Not physical feel though. Feel what is coming from the horse and what is coming from you. Even becoming aware of this helps. Working through Feel is spectacular. And your list flows on……

  7. Just re-read for the umpteenth time. It’s exactly this thinking and awareness that can make a monumental difference to our horses wellbeing, which flows onto ours. Submit as an article to places! When I bought my young Morgan she was a Supreme Champion in hand, with an opportunity to compete in an upcoming national under saddle. She had 30 rides under saddle. Time was short, pressure was on, past trainer wanted to forge on, get on with it, work hard and get to the competition. The horse was “performing” in the arena however, if you paid attention you could feel, she was on a path to be a horse that is compliant (because horses are generous, forgiving and present) until the day they aren’t. When they are then labelled a problem, a challenge, too strong, too stubborn, too dull ….and it’s us who’ve pushed them into those labels. I was lucky to have the time and funds to go as slow and quick as was right for her and I have a spectacular horse and relationship. The horse already knows how to do everything we just need to ask the right question. We’re the dull ones!!!

  8. Just like everything in life, “relationshippping” with horses is such a fine line, isn’t it..
    Thank you for the weekly thoughts, reminders, and challenges!

  9. Excellent! I think my favorite, and the most challenging, is “be more interesting than grass”. And of course, encouraging curiosity. Our relationships (imo) should be fun, which may be why I love to pony. The 3 way conversations are often hilarious.

  10. Dear Anna~
    I can’t tell you how wonderful and important this post is. I have some horsy ‘friends’ on Twitter and I’d love it if you posted this particular piece there. I’ve volunteered at Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, NY for almost 14 yrs., where thoroughbred race horses ‘kicked off their shoes and retired.’ We don’t retrain, we let them be horses again. But when some people rescue horses and then want to train them for their own riding, I sometimes think it’s all about them, not the horse. At OFCC we’re happy when one of our guys remembers some manners, like backing up or walking politely when led. I know horses love to have something to do but our guys just get a lot of love and TLC, good vet care when needed, and 2 meals of grain and hay a day.
    Please consider posting this on Twitter. Thanks so much for your insight and experience. ~Pat W Cohan

    • I believe in your version of retirement. Your “old friends” sound wonderful. Thanks Pat.

      I quit when Musk refused to continue to link Wordpress blogs to X, and just generally because it isn’t the twitter than I loved. Then I got hacked to bits on FB. But I’ll give it another try for you.


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