Horses (Likely) Don't Love Being Ridden: A Primer on How to Make it Suck Less
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Do horses love being ridden?
We need to talk about the elephant in the room. It might be hard to discuss, but it needs to be talked about. Ready?
Horses (likely) don't love being ridden.
I say “likely”, because while scientists have yet to devise a way to accurately ask large number of horses how they feel about being ridden, there has been research done that looks at horse preferences as it relates to ridden work. For example, whether horses prefer to stay and work in an arena, or quit riding to rejoin herd mates and/or obtain food in the barn (quit)(1). Or whether they prefer to be ridden in a hyper-flexed head-and-neck position, vs. in a more natural headset (natural)(2). Or whether they willingly choose to jump obstacles over a certain height or avoid them (avoid)(3).
For the purposes of this blog, I’ll use this definition of love: ‘to have a strong liking for; take great pleasure in’. If horses loved being ridden, they would likely show enthusiasm for what ‘sets the stage’ for riding to occur. They would line themselves up at the gate, voluntarily run into the barn when the gate was opened, and position themselves where they could readily be tacked up - all without any other cuing, or purposeful training. By contrast, my dogs (likely) love going places with me in the truck. If they get a hint that I am heading out they take themselves to the truck. There, they eagerly wait for me to open the door and lift them into the cab.
How I’ve decided they (likely) love going with me in the truck is based on their behaviour: their happy enthusiasm for what ‘sets the stage’ for me to get in the truck (boots and jacket on, pick up keys). As will become more apparent when we look at the horse’s behaviour, it’s important that I don’t impose my feelings on having them in the truck, and conflate those feelings with what they may be feeling.
If horses loved being ridden, humans likely wouldn't need whips or spurs or other gadgets to get them to willingly participate in equine sports. By contrast, my dogs behave as if they love going engaging in dog sports with me. I've never had to use a whip to get them to dock dive, nor drag them on their leash during agility or Rally O training. Horses have evolved to move great distances, almost continuously. When movement is thwarted, as happens when horses are confined to stalls or paddocks, horses may exhibit rebound behaviour – an increase in locomotory movement - when they do have opportunity to move again. But such behaviour shouldn't be equated with love for the human-chosen activity in which we wish them to engage.
In my work I meet horses whose behaviour indicates that they clearly don't even tolerate being ridden, let alone love it. I meet horses who need to be cross-tied to be groomed and saddled, to prevent them from biting the human. I meet horses who buck explosively under saddle, or who swish their tails angrily when cued. I meet horses who are nervous at the mounting block, or who rear or bolt under saddle. Observing a horse's behaviour can give us clues as to how they feel about an activity.
Why ride horses at all?
To be clear, I believe that some horses should be trained and ridden. The act of training and being ridden can be physically and mentally enriching for a captive horse - and all domestic horses are captive. Many kept horses lead lives that are sub-optimal when it comes to physical, mental and emotional enrichment. Ironically, this is often those who receive the most expensive care. Even my own horses, who are fortunate to live in a small group on two large pastures, lead lives that aren’t as enriched as they would be in more natural conditions. To be fair, their lives are also much easier: they receive food, water, and any necessary medical interventions or pain control 365 days a year.
To this end, as responsible caregivers, I believe that riding and training can - and should - be made more tolerable for horses who are suited to it. Here are a few ideas on how to make it suck less:
1. Make sure your horse isn't experiencing any pain.
It feels silly to have to say this, but it is a verifiable fact that horses can feel pain. Whether acute or chronic, untreated pain is a welfare issue. Horses are also silent sufferers; they don't vocalize when in pain, but they do consistently display certain behaviours that are linked with pain. Recent research has shown that even subtle signs exhibited while ridden can reliably indicate the presence of pain in horses(4). Numerous studies have shown that pain may be misinterpreted by riders and trainers as the horse just ‘behaving badly’. I am frequently called to see cases where pain is the primary cause for the unwanted behaviour, and until pain is treated, the unwanted behaviour cannot be addressed. If you are unsure whether your horse is in pain, book an exam with an equine veterinarian.
2. Avoid the use of punishment.
Many popular horse training techniques frequently include the use of punishment. Unfortunately, many owners are falsely led to believe that the training practices they utilize are not punishment-based. Punishment is anything that makes a behaviour less likely to happen again in the future. With horses, this usually involves the application of a painful or frightening stimulus the moment the horse does something the person doesn't want to happen. If you want riding to suck less for your horse, this is where it becomes your responsibility to study credible information on the basics of horse behaviour, and how horses learn - what's known as 'learning theory' - and apply that to your training and riding.
3. Maintain your physical fitness, and ride a horse appropriate for your skill level – under the watch of a qualified instructor.
We expect our horses to be athletes under saddle, and we should hold ourselves to the same expectations. Maintaining our own fitness and balance makes it easier for our horses to carry us. Riders should also ride horses appropriate for their skill level. A novice rider can quickly confuse, frustrate, or even inadvertently punish a horse without supervision. Novice riders may also unknowingly train horses to display unwanted behaviours. Novice riders should also ride under supervision as horses should not be expected to habituate to unnecessary pressure from legs or reins. Horses may become unresponsive to a rider’s hand or leg when the rider does not understand the effect of pressure, or the timing of when to release the pressure. This is a real welfare issue.
4. Ride a horse capable of doing the task you want them to do.
Understand that it takes time to physically develop horses, and teach them to be able to mentally cope with what we want them to do. Recognize also that not all horses are suited to the jobs riders ask of them. It is unfair to ask a horse to perform physical maneuvers of which they are not capable. It is also unfair to not mentally prepare a horse to cope with what is asked of them. Horses must be purposefully prepared to cope with what humans ask them to do, and it is the human’s responsibility to do this.
5. Be a better trainer: minimize the number of training gadgets you use; avoid training practices shown to physically or mentally harm the horse.
Horses are easily taught, and easily controlled – without the need for gadgets or harsh training. How this is accomplished is easy , and my friend Sarah says it best, ‘Use your brain to train’ (see #2 above). Gaining this knowledge will not only help you become a better trainer, it will allow you to recognize training methods that should be avoided, such as punishment and flooding.
6. Learn training techniques that give the horse more choice and control over what happens to them.
When animals feel a sense of control over unpleasant events, they are better able to cope. While it may seem counter-intuitive, horses can be taught to willingly engage in mildly unpleasant events such as injections or clipping. Knowing this, as horse people we should acknowledge that lip chains, chiffney bits, twitches etc. shouldn’t be considered everyday management tools, or used for routine training. Rather, such tools should be reserved for true emergencies or other situations where temporary restraint is needed, but chemical restraint is not possible. This simple , but profound, shift in thinking can trickle over into our work with horses under saddle, resulting in increased welfare states for the horses in our care.
7. Ensure your horse's 'other 23 hours of the day' don't suck.
As much as possible, make sure your horse has full-time access to what I like to call the 3 F’s – Friends, Forage, and Freedom. Horses have evolved to never be alone, to trickle feed forage with no periods of imposed fasting, and to move and engage freely in a wide range of normal behaviours. By making sure your horse’s needs for the 3 F's are met, they stand a better chance at being able to cope with what is asked of them.
To better understand this, imagine that you have a job that you don’t love. Given the right boss, you may like how it physically or mentally challenges you, and you can tolerate going to work without feeling any undue stress, but you don’t love it. Now imagine you have no control over choosing one of two life scenarios:
You live in a tiny, barren apartment. You are denied the opportunity to have friends and enjoy the countless benefits social interactions offer. You eat only one meal a day, and experience distress when made to fast in this manner.
You live in a modest apartment with opportunities to be physically and mentally stimulated. You are physically active, and have a social network that provides emotional support and the opportunity to engage in normal social behaviours. You eat as you have evolved to do so, and experience no periods of fasting which you find uncomfortable and stressful.
How do you think your work life would be affected by the quality of life you lead outside of work? You would likely be able to better tolerate the job you didn’t love if your life outside of work looked like scenario B. The same can be said for your horse.
In summary, while it might be hard for to hear, while ridden exercise can provide enrichment for some horses, horses likely don’t love being ridden. Therefore, as their caregivers, it’s up to us to try and ensure that all 24 hours of their day are as pleasant and tolerable as can be: don't ride horses experiencing acute or chronic pain; avoid training techniques that cause the horse to experience fear or pain; maintain our fitness, and participate in on-going, supervised lessons with a qualified instructor; ensure your horse is physically and mentally able to do what you are asking; 'use your brain (not pain) to train'; give choice and control wherever possible; ensure your horse has access to the 3 F's as much as possible, and take steps to make being ridden suck less for your horse. 1. Horses' behavior and heart rate in a preference test for shorter and longer riding bouts. König von Borstel, Uta et al.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research , Volume 7 , Issue 6 , 362 - 374
2. Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses. Uta Ulrike von Borstel, Ian James Heatly Duncan, Anna Kate Shoveller, Katrina Merkies, Linda Jane Keeling, Suzanne Theresa Millman,
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 116, Issues 2–4, 2009, Pages 228-236, ISSN 0168-1591
3. To jump or not to jump? Strategies employed by leisure and sport horses. Górecka-Bruzda, Aleksandra et al.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research , Volume 8 , Issue 4 , 253 - 260
4. Application of a Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram and Its Relationship with Gait in a Convenience Sample of 60 Riding Horses. Dyson, S.; Pollard, D. Animals 2020, 10, 1044. Image from https://pixabay.com/users/ivabalk-782511/