You know how to cater to his physical needs, but what about his psychological ones? Supporting the emotional health of your equine athlete contributes to his performance and well-being.
A horse that’s happy, trying hard, and is eager to please will always out-perform one that’s mentally stressed and looking for a way out. If your horse is stressed, he’s not thinking well or trying hard, and you’ll never be successful in your chosen discipline. To achieve top-level training, however, performance horses spend many hours engaged in physically and mentally rigorous training routines — often in indoor arenas and with little or no respite for the horse’s emotional health. Mental/emotional breaks are necessary in order to keep a horse healthy, happy, calm, and performing at his best.
Nurturing the “try” in a horse, while taking care of his emotional health, are not things that happen accidentally. There are many things you can do to keep your hard-working athlete’s attitude fresh, and his mind in the game. Even if your horse is kept with a trainer, you can find ways to improve his emotional state with small gestures that mean a lot.
Stop and smell the roses
Simple things, like taking your horse out of the arena for a short ride down the road or across a field to relax and see the horizon, helps her stay mentally fresh for the next training session. Too much repetition and drilling can make a horse resentful and sour, while rewarding him with a break when he does something brilliant and puts forth effort makes him want to try harder next time.
Hand-walk your horse out to a tasty patch of grass after his training session and let him look around and graze for a short time. Being in a natural environment is relaxing, and this is excellent bonding time for you and your horse. Research shows us that horses need to see the horizon to feel safe. Getting outside is especially important if your horse is kept inside a stall without windows.
Mix it up
A simple way to keep your horse’s attitude fresh is to occasionally do something totally different from his normal training regimen. For example, you might take your reiner out to gather cattle. Challenge your jumper with trail course obstacles. Take your dressage horse on a hack. Be creative – a short groundwork lesson or thorough grooming session outside the barn is a nice break and gives you a chance to further bond with your horse.
Like us, horses occasionally need a re-boot, and once they can relax and be in a more natural environment, they come back to the training routine with fresh energy and a more trainable mindset. If you’re looking for a real break for your horse, consider loading him in a trailer and hauling him to a new location for a ride – even if it’s in an arena. Sometimes just a change of scene will energize a stressed horse.
If possible, use an outdoor pen to turn your horse out with a buddy so he can romp and play and interact in a herd setting. Social interaction, fresh air and sunshine are incredibly important to your horse’s emotional health.
Horses are very tactile animals. Touching other horses with their muzzles and yes, even running, kicking and sparring with them is perfectly natural and supports their expressive well-being. No one ever lost a competition because his/her horse had a little hair missing from rough-housing, so let your horse be a horse. Don’t increase the risk of injury by turning him out with bully horses, but if he has buddies, let him play.
Keep it fun!
During the wet season when turnout may be limited, a romp with another horse in the arena is helpful. When our own performance horses need exercise to stay fit, but we aren’t riding that day, we free-lunge them with three or four other horses. It’s a lot more fun for them that way – like a party! Herd animals need the herd, and the chance to race, romp and play with another horse.
Many top trainers will welcome your help in giving the horses under their tutelage a mental and emotional break. Often, they do not have the time themselves, but may be grateful for your help in supporting your horse’s emotional health. Try not to get in the way of your horse’s training regimen, but fill in the gaps. Even a nice relaxing rub-down after a training session can work wonders.
Keeping the performance horse healthy is an ongoing challenge, and most of our focus tends to be on the physical aspects of health – joints, feet, chiro, conditioning, etc. But horses are incredibly emotional animals and their mental well-being is as important as any physical concern. Any performance that you ask of the horse requires him to think and process information, so keeping him happy and eager to please is critical!