Even though we spend a great deal of time making sure our horses are physically at their best, it is also our responsibility to consider their emotional and mental health. In fact, the horsemanship program I teach, developed by Pat Parelli, puts the mental and emotional state of the horse before the physical training.

Having fun “play” sessions with your horse not only stimulates his mental health, but also has a positive effect on his overall health.  So rev up your imagination and learn how to create a playday for you and your horse.

Organizing is half the fun

Since horses and people both tend to do better in groups, we’ll focus on developing an exciting playday in a social setting. Get a study buddy or, better yet, a bunch of them. Magic happens when like-minded folks get together; creative juices flow and you feed off each other, coming up with even more fun and innovative things to try.

Follow the rules of brainstorming

Write down every thought. Do not comment on any idea until after the list is done. This stimulates the creative process – once you get started, one idea feeds the next and sometimes it’s hard to stop! After you’ve made the list, you can go back and discuss the merits of each suggestion.


    Have a graduated set of descriptions attached to each task you’ll attempt. Label them “Easiest”, “Challenging”, and “Wow!”

Everybody Wins

Don’t make this into a contest or competition. Even with the best of intentions, principles get compromised when rivalry kicks in. Support each other to achieve as much success as you can. Everyone wins this way, especially the horse.

Before you start

Have Pat’s natural horsemanship program, or something like it, in your tool kit before attempting these challenges. Stay safe while having fun. Find out more about the Parelli program through the links on my web sit www.DavidLichman.com

You can challenge your horse mentally, emotionally and physically and many of your ideas will not be limited to just one focus.

Mental challenges-think puzzles

Straddle a Pole

Let’s take the ground skill challenge of asking your horse to straddle a log or a pole – the hard way. Can you get the horse to step over the pole so it lines up under his belly the long way with his right feet on one side and left feet on the other?  It’s not much of a physical challenge, but you may stir up some emotions. So, how can you solve the mental puzzle here?  Think laterally! What are the components of the solution?  Ask yourself if you can:

1. Without a pole, adjust the hindquarters and forequarters independently without the horse drifting forwards or backwards in the process.

2. Ask the horse to put one foot over a pole as if she were going to cross it. How about the other foot, both feet, one hind foot, both hind feet?

3. Request your horse straddle just a line drawn in the sand and graduate up to a lead line on the ground before attempting the pole.

4. Use approach and retreat rather than going direct line.

Do you see how you can build this strategy into all your playday tasks?

Limbo anyone?

Another fun mental challenge is the limbo bar. You can use a lightweight PVC pipe which can be raised or lowered easily and isn’t securely attached to the supports. This way you can start really high and build confidence as you work your way down. Horses learn to stick their noses under it and lift it up out of the way.

Here’s a hint – teach your horse to move forward while asking him to keep his head below his withers. The horse’s natural tendency to pick his head up when you ask for forward movement will ruin your limbo attempt unless you teach him otherwise. Ask for lowered head with your hand on the halter or the horse’s poll and reward the slightest try at forward movement. When you approach the obstacle, have the ears below the level of the bar before asking for forward, and soon you’ll be the limbo star.

Have a Ball

Other mental health puzzles include getting your horse to push a big exercise ball with his nose or feet. Teach him to push it forward through a simple course or fetch it for you. Ask your horse to go out and around a cone or barrel and come back to you while you sit on the fence.

Build health with emotional challenges

Desensitization and confidence-building challenges definitely help a horse’s well being. Horses that are nervous and scared in the human environment will have higher levels of adrenalin and endogenous steroids which can lead to ulcers, infections and lowered immune response to invading viruses.

Emotional challenges are anything that would tend to scare your horse but in reality would not hurt her. Plastic bags, tarps, gunshots and farm equipment are good examples. The best thing to do is to teach your horse a coping strategy that is compatible with relaxation. When you teach them to lower their head you can use that behavior to help them overcome their fear. Start with an object you can control – like a plastic bag on the end of a stick.

As you shake the bag, ask the horse to lower her head. Quit shaking the bag each time her head gets a little lower until it reaches all the way to the ground. The horse learns to cope with the scary bag by lowering her head into a submissive, relaxed position. She may not be relaxed at this moment, but over time she will accept the scary thing. Soon she will relax and then begin to generalize this response to other frightening situations.

Of course, there are some things you can’t control such as tarps blowing in the wind, or traffic. For these, retreat to a distance the horse accepts and keep his feet still long enough for you to ask him to lower his head. When his head is down, he will think, “I’m down here in this vulnerable position. I’m not dead. Maybe this thing will be OK.”  Over time you will be able to get closer and closer until he can handle it right next to him.

Advanced Emotional Challenges

  • trailer loading with something hanging over the doorway
  • impulse sprinklers blasting on a tarp on the fence
  • marbles or pebbles on a tin roof
  • fans and leaf blowers with streamers

Put it all together with combination challenges

Some tasks will have qualities of both mental and emotional challenges, sometimes even with a physical element. For instance, asking your horse to step up on to a small pedestal with all four feet is an example that contains all three challenges. In cases like this, break things down into smaller steps such as front feet only, hind feet only, and lower and larger pedestals.

In the saddle

Any new challenge you offer your horse should be done on a line on the ground first. That’s the easiest and safest place to learn. Once things are going well on line, try them at liberty. Only then should you proceed to mounted challenges, keeping in mind you can always dismount and refresh the lesson on the ground if things are not going well.

Now that you’re equipped with some ideas, get out there and start playing. Not only will you both have some fun, you’ll stimulate your horse’s mind, body and spirit.

Previous articleWestern Saddle Fit
Next articleMiniature Horse Therapy
As one of Pat Parelli’s top rated instructors, David travels all over the world helping people to get extraordinary results with horses. David has a special and personal interest in the gaited and iberian breeds, and is the author of Gaited horses, naturally! - A set of 2 DVDs and a book which addresses how Parelli Natural Horsemanship applies to gaited horses. Part 2, cantering is now available as a single DVD. www.davidlichman.com