Too Good To Be True? Finding Your Horse’s “Happy Place”
Posted by Horse Listening
Did you know that through riding, you can help your horse achieve a happy, content outlook on life? Sounds ridiculously far-fetched? Too good to be true?
We have already discussed the Top Nine Ways to Prevent Your Horse From Finding His “Happy Place” in Riding in our previous post – so this time, we’re going to tell you how to find the “happy place” we all so desire for our horses.* The ideas below are written with riding in mind.**
Try a few of these tips and see the results you get from your horse. Then comment below and share your insights.
The outside of the horse mirrors his internal state.
Horses don’t lie. Without a doubt, you can clearly “read” how the horse feels just by watching him being ridden (or riding him yourself – then, you get even more feedback). Essentially, the horse’s “outline” tells you his state of mind. Of course, you need to know what to look for, but once you can identify the communication signs, you will know exactly what is going on inside the mind of the horse.
A round, forward-moving, enthusiastic horse is in his happy place. His ears will be lightly forward (occasionally flicking back and forth on and off his rider) and he will be moving with expression. He looks like he is enjoying what he is doing, and moving on his own initiative.
In contrast, the unhappy horse is reluctant, sluggish, ears back (not necessarily pinned), and looking like the movement is belabored. The strides are short, the back is hollow and the horse is not “using” himself well enough to be comfortable under the rider. He will have a tendency to be on the forehand, and inconsistently responsive.
Have a consistent “yes” and “no”.
Horses are just like the rest of us: they thrive on positive feedback. In establishing your riding parameters, you must communicate “yes” and “no” regularly and consistently. In fact, you might need to communicate one or the other message as quickly as stride to stride! If you communicate less frequently, you will not be helping the horse and he may end up wondering – what am I doing wrong?
Many riders use a low, soft “goooood” voice aid to reinforce the correct response from the horse, however, the same effect can be gained by saying “yes” through the body. If you can find a “yes” answer physically (release of your joints, following through the seat versus resisting, or allowing through all your aids), you can communicate the “yes” message faster than you can say it. And this is the way your horse can find his happy place – because he knows where he stands and gets regular and consistent feedback quickly enough to be able to respond to it and find his place of comfort.
Listen for the snort and feel for the licking and chewing.
There is no more obvious sign of the horse in his happy place other than the snort. A little snort is a good sign, a loud, wet, heart-felt series of snorts that rock you out of the saddle is ideal! (Have a snorting contest with your riding partner: who can be the first to get a snort out of their horse? Who can get the most snorts out of their horse?!)
In general, after the snort session, you will find the horse licking and chewing like he just ate something exquisite and tasty – and yes, the horse can do all the above even while trotting and cantering. The final sign of contentment is the saliva that coats around the lips of the horse. A dry mouth usually denotes discomfort or stress of some sort; drool is a key indicator of “happy place” heaven!
Do something fun!
When the “learning” part of your session is over, or if you want to take a brief reprieve after a difficult stretch of work, let the horse do something he likes. One horse might enjoy a stretchy trot; another prefers a lengthen; still another gets a kick (not literally!) out of a flying change! Every horse has one or more favourite exercises – listen carefully to your horse to identify his preference, and then use that movement as a moment of celebration!
Look for any excuse to celebrate!
Everyone loves a celebration! Don’t leave your horse out – invite him to celebrate with you at every opportunity; in fact, look for excuses to celebrate! Did he just struggle through a particularly difficult movement? Celebrate! Did he lick and chew and release his topline for the first time in the ride? Celebrate!
I’m sure you’re starting to get the idea. Let me know if you gave any of these tips a try, or if you have any other “happy place” tips you can share. Happy riding!
* The assumption is that all the other bare necessities (feed, shelter, etc.) as discussed in the previous article have already been met.
** Note: The “happy place” discussed here is the one your horse can find in the ring, during the lesson/workout/training session. There are many other ways to change up the routine (e.g. go for a trail ride) but that is a completely different topic!
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What You Ought to Know About Instant Gratification In Riding: How long do you have to wait to see results in riding?
A Cautionary Horse Tale: Rider responsibilities with respect to the horse.
Blueprinting: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Why it is essential that you learn to ride correctly in the first place.
In the Beginning (riding): What are the first steps in riding?
Riding (with a capitalR): What happens after the first steps?