I see the sales listings all the time that mention an all round horse that can go any direction. Physically that may be true, but often in work I come across a horse that is shut down, going through the paces, or best-case scenario LOVES their job.
It’s so important to look at the emotional and mental aspect of our horse when choosing a discipline. Some horses CAN go in any direction, but not always.
Try New Things
Conformation is a significant factor in discipline.
I’ve been lucky to work with Mongol horses, barrel horses, ranch horses, and of course hunter/jumpers. It is incredibly obvious when a horse loves their job. Sometimes they get a little too excited.
But how do you know what job your new horse will love and if that is right for you, unless you try different things?
When I bought Ferrous, he was incredibly arena sour. He would be cinchy and hard to move forward. Yet, when I brought out ground poles and small jumps, he perks right up. Quickly I realized I need to stimulate his brain in order to keep him from shutting down and challenge him a bit. Now, no two rides are the same. I don’t walk/trot/canter then cool down by rote. Often I canter after a long warm up, then work on leg yields, change of direction, and transitions. I don’t have a plan so my horse can’t anticipate me. I also, will make sure we have poles available and as a reward we do those near the end.
Now, Ferrous doesn’t need a stick OR spurs.
Of course, we don’t always ride either. Sometimes we will hack around the property, go for a walk and explore in-hand, and play at Liberty.
The point is to keep things interesting for your horse and try new things. That is the only way you will learn what they love, and of course, what they don’t.
Change the Routine
Many horses become shut down when they are in a program without variety. Worse case scenario: they buck, spook, or become cold backed. Best-case scenario, they shut down and become lazy. I know I become bored, frustrated, and end up putting little effort in myself- I like to change things up and cross train. My husband and I bought a Mirror and while I haven’t been consistently working out at home (I’m unmotivated by nature), when I can kick my butt I usually choose between pilates, yoga, dance and kickboxing.
There are more reasons to keep things spicy than just the mental aspect. Alternating groundwork, pole exercises, transitions, hacking, and more means using different muscles and ligaments. As a result, you and your horse become more fit or long-term health.
Last summer I rode a top level endurance horse that has won Tevis- a 100-mile race over a mountain- at a gymkhana. It still feels surreal to ride such a performance animal. The owner periodically takes him out to these events to keep him active and let him have a little fun. Many top athletes take their horses on hacks periodically so they don’t make them arena sour and give them a brief break.
Take a Break
A vacation is good for the soul, for both horse and rider. This last year resulted in a little too much time out of the saddle for me at lockdown at Covid-19 onset, and then for the rest of the year when work was incredibly busy. I was lucky that I could continue to work, but I didn’t balance my work/family/horse balance well. Then the timing was always off- when I would have time free, something would happen and my horse would be unrideable. Such is life! Still, as guilty as I felt (and still feel) Ferrous seems happy to be a paddock pet when he needs. Truly, he seems spunky when we ride now!
As for Delight, he hasn’t worked in almost six months. He was behaving poorly while in a showjumping program and my goal for him was so be a horse for a while. While he’s been living in a herd and enjoying his downtime, we’ve been doing ground work and playing at liberty to build our relationship. Ideally I’d love to back him and make him a trail horse, but I’ll let him tell me what he wants when the time comes.
After all, I will ride the horses I have and play to their strengths to make a happier horse. and ultimately, a happy human!