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Is my new horse happy?

From: Jessica

To a fellow 'Jessica' I just wanted to say that I think you are a terrific horse person. You really seem to know how to 'read' and relate to horses in a wonderful way. Keep up the great work - Even though I am only 18, I hope to be as knowledgable as horsemen & women like you one day.

About 3 1/2 weeks ago, I bought a new horse - she is a beautiful 8 year old Andalusian/TB mare. I am planning to take her to University with me next year to complete my Equine Management course, so I need us to become a real team - especially when my riding gets better and we start competing. I have been riding for some time, but only casual trails on a farm. I have never learnt any basic dressage that I know is so important. So I am basically starting from scratch with my new girl. Her education level is moderate - my instructor says she knows all the basics but needs to be reminded of it all, taught to respond, and not get away with things anymore as her old owner has obviously let her do.

My problem is that she seems to be sluggish when I ride her, not wanting to go forward with energy at all. At the moment I don't know how to work her 'on the bit' but she doesnt seem to have enough impulsion from behind. She is fairly responsive to my (admittedly, sometimes wobbly & not yet as precise as they should be) leg aids but just seems to be a bit 'down' in her attitude towards everything. I love to try & take her out on trails to give her a break from the arena but she is always trying to head back for home - I have to work quite hard to make her go forward, when I really want her to relax and enjoy it. Even when I 'hang out' with her in her paddock or stable, or groom her, she doesnt really seem to acknowledge me. When I go to catch her for example, she will stay where she is and prick her ears to me but wont come running. I am a very loving person towards horses, I always try to talk and pay lots of attention to her but I'm just not sure how we're getting along. I just want to ask your opinion if it sounds as though she is happy or not. Could it just be that we are not quite used to each other yet? I have had her saddle fitted properly so she shouldnt be in pain, I give her 3 or 4 days off every week so she is not over worked, she gets fed for her needs perfectly, has a paddock all day and other horses around for company, but could there be something I am missing?

I guess one could easily not worry about a horses attitude & feelings - get on, ride, and put it out in a paddock and forget about them but how my girl feels and her overall happiness is so very very important to me. Is there anything I can do to help her get to know & like me & enjoy her work? I know that as my riding improves that will help her too, but riding aside - how can I get her to like my company? I thought of doing some natural horsemanship with her at home. What do you think?

Thankyou for your time reading this, If anyone can give me some advice I know its you.

Best Regards, Jessica & my horse 'Jenevieve'


Hi Jessica! Thanks very much for the kind words - and please stop worrying. After three and a half weeks, you are barely getting to know your new horse, and she is barely getting to know you. From your letter, it's clear to me that you're looking for two things: a horse to be your friend, and a well-trained, fit, supple, responsive horse that's a pleasure to ride. You can have both, and this mare can probably BECOME both, but neither one of these things will just HAPPEN. Well, that's not quite accurate - it is, of course, perfectly possible to purchase a well-trained, fit, supple, responsive horse, but if the horse is also sound and fairly young, it's likely to cost the earth!

It's good that you are concerned with your mare's feelings and her enjoyment of her life - those are things that should interest every horse-owner.

If you want her to enjoy your company on the ground, spend as much pleasant time as possible with her, and make it clear to her that you enjoy HER company. If by "natural horsemanship" you mean employing the sort of chase-and-retreat methods of domination made popular by certain showmen, I wouldn't advise it. If, on the other hand, what you mean by "natural horsemanship" is spending a good deal of time sitting quietly in your mare's vicinity, watching her as she interacts with other horses, and then spending more time grooming her and handling her and building her trust in you, then by all means do exactly those things. I would call that "horsemanship" pure and simple - paying attention to the horse, getting to know the horse, letting the horse get to know you, building your communication skills, and teaching the horse that it can trust you. You can spend any amount of time doing those things, and not a single second of it will be wasted. Don't give her "days off" every week if by "days off" you mean days when you do nothing with her; instead, do something with her every day, whether it's riding, groundwork, or simply hand-walking or hand-grazing her. If you want her to consider you a trusted friend, you need to build up a large collection of friendly, pleasant interactions. It's much easier to do this if you spend some time with her every day.

If you want her to enjoy your company when you are riding her, there are four things you can do that will help a great deal. First, try to maintain the same friendly, courteous relationship when she is under saddle. Many riders are kind and gentle with their horses until they are actually sitting on them, and then seem to undergo a complete change of personality. Suddenly they become unfriendly, aggressive, demanding, and angry - constantly badgering the horse to do this or that or the other thing, asking again and again without ever giving the horse a chance to respond, failing to let the horse know when the response was what they wanted, etc. Instead of assuming that she knows everything she should know, and needs to be reminded or chivvied, or punished for not doing things that she "ought to" know, try this: assume that she knows nothing, that you need to teach her everything, and then TEACH her everything, being as clear as you possibly can, asking for one thing at a time, giving her time to respond, and rewarding her generously when she shows ANY indication of offering the behaviour you want.

Second, you are absolutely correct in thinking that improving your riding skills will make an enormous difference to your relationship with your mare under saddle. Everything that you do to improve your overall fitness, strength, and balance will help your riding. Take some lessons on a school horse, so that you can make mistakes and improve your understanding and technique without having to worry about what you are teaching your mare. Improving your riding is a lifelong process - take it seriously, and begin as you mean to go on. Along the way, you'll discover that your mare's "forward" gear will improve noticeably - and it will improve each time your own riding skills improve, because as your riding improves and you progress through the various stages, you will find it much easier to (first) stay out of your mare's way, then (later) give her clear, soft signals to do the things she already knows how to do, and (finally) to help her learn new things.

Third, don't be in a hurry. Don't try to be on a set schedule! Your mare is not on a schedule, and you can't ask or expect her to become THIS happy after X number of weeks, or to like you THIS much after four weeks, or four months for that matter. Did your mother ever tell you "If you want to HAVE a friend, BE a friend"? This applies to horses just as much as it does to humans. Be the sort of person horses like, be clear and consistent and kind, and your mare will come to trust and like you and enjoy your company. It may take weeks or months - but it will take the time it takes. As many children find out when they first go to school, there's no way to force any individual, equine or human, to hurry up and become your close friend. It takes time and thoughtful effort to make a friend, and no matter how much thoughtful effort you invest, the time will always be an important factor. Be patient.

Fourth, continue to do what you're doing in terms of monitoring her saddle fit and overall comfort level. Just as some people change personality when they deal with a horse under saddle, some horses change their behaviour dramatically as soon as they are wearing a saddle and bit. 99% of the time, there's a physical problem involved - that is to say, PAIN. Horses aren't static; their bodies change over time, and the best riders and horse-owners are those who make it their habit to be aware of the condition of their horses' teeth and backs, and the fit and adjustment of their bits and saddles (to name just TWO important factors in the comfort of horses that are being ridden). If you're always aware of your mare's comfort level and taking active steps to ensure that she is always comfortable, you will never find yourself complaining that your mare dislikes you because she runs away when she sees you approaching with a saddle on your arm. If that ever DOES happen, it's a sign that something is wrong, and that something about the tack or the work she does under tack is causing her pain and apprehension.

After only three and a half weeks, she can't possibly be expected to view you as a dear and trusted friend. Start building the trust between you, build it day by day, make your interactions pleasant, and she'll begin to enjoy your company and look forward to seeing you arrive every day. If she's already standing in her paddock or field, with ears forward, whilst you come to get her, that's a good beginning. She may never come galloping when you whistle, unless you specifically train her to do so - many horses just don't do this on their own. But if you always treat her fairly and kindly, the day will come when you'll approach the fence and call to her, and she will nicker and walk over to you.

Jessica

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