Do horses enjoy working, or would they rather stay out in the field with their buddies all day every day?
Nearly every rider has wondered if her horse actually likes being ridden, but plenty of us have avoided asking the question for fear of the answer. Trainers like Shawna Karrasch have studied this question by giving horses the freedom to choose whether to work or not without fear of negative consequences.
Many horses willingly and happily opt to work with humans and express positive behaviors while being ridden. On the flip side, some horses run the other way when they look up from the round bale and see a halter in hand. Others are compliant during catching and saddling, but pin their ears and wring their tails in agitation while ridden.
So, some horses simply enjoy working and others don’t?
Rather than thinking of the answer as all or nothing, it’s wiser to understand which circumstances tend to make riding more or less enjoyable in general.
In the words of Louise Hay, “If you’re going to clean a house, you need to see the dirt.” If you want to make your horse’s experience as positive as possible, you need to be open to their feedback and willing to make some changes.
If your horse shows negative responses to riding, for example, it’s time to figure out where those feelings are stemming from. In this article, I help you understand how to learn the signs of content vs. agitated horses — and what to do about it.
How do you know if your horse is happy?
First things first, make sure that you have a basic understanding of how horses express their feelings. If you’re newer to the equestrian world, it’s worth reading this great Equus Magazine article about equine body language.
Signs of horse contentment:
- Relaxed, floppy, sideways ears
- Lowered head
- Standing squarely on all four feet
- Back foot and hip cocked
- Drooping, relaxed lips
- Licking and chewing
- Slow blinking and soft gaze
- Rhythmically swinging tail
Remember, every horse is different and may not communicate everything they are feeling all the time.
Signs of horse discontentment:
- Pinned back or quickly swiveling ears
- Raised head
- “Snaking” behavior in the head and neck
- Legs spread apart with weight in the rear
- Pawing, stomping feet
- Back foot raised
- Flared or quivering nostrils (when not breathing heavily from work)
- Pinched muzzle and lips
- Tight skin around darting eyes
- Whites of the eyes showing
- Tail clamped down or swishing
Before trying to interpret how your horse feels about riding, get in touch with your horse’s feelings out of the saddle.
Take note of how your horse acts/responds when doing things you know they love (e.g. belly scratches) vs. how he acts/responds when doing things you know he dislikes (e.g. getting a bath).
Pay special attention to facial expression, shifts in energy level, and body language during positive and negative experiences.
You can then use this info as an emotional baseline to help determine when your horse is feeling positive or negative emotions under saddle.
Your mood impacts how your horse feels, too. Want to leave your anxiety at the barn door? Check out our 32 Tips for Nervous Riders.
What if my horse shows a negative attitude while riding?
It’s important not to punish your horse for expressing his feelings, especially if he shows displeasure about the activity you’re asking of him. We need our equine partners to give us feedback so we can get to the bottom of what specifically is causing the negative response–and address it.
Liking something vs. disliking something is based on the circumstances surrounding it.
If your dog came up and gave you a big wet kiss on the cheek, you’d laugh, wipe off the slobber, and tell him you love him. On the other hand, if a person you didn’t know planted one on ya, you’d be pretty darn freaked out. You might even react physically by slapping the stranger or running away!
Does it mean you hate all kisses all the time? No, it means that the circumstances matter more than the action itself.
The same is true for your horse.
When horses communicate that they are less than thrilled about riding, it’s our jobs to start asking questions.
- What circumstances might be causing your horse to show signs of discomfort, agitation, anxiety, fear, or other negative feelings?
- When did you first notice the behavior?
- What happens right before it?
- What happens right after it?
- Are there any times, other than riding, that the horse acts this way?
Investigating what your horse is trying to tell you offers the chance for mindful experimentation.
Switch up the circumstances around the behavior, and see how it affects your horse’s response.
For example, tacking up in one location instead of another might change your horse’s attitude when it’s time to ride. Testing out different ideas can help narrow down the true source of your horse’s displeasure–and ease their angst and yours.
What can I do to make sure we are both having fun?
First and foremost, make sure your horse is not in pain. Comfort is key.
Proper choice and fit of tack is essential, and basic vet exams should be done to ensure there are no physical issues causing your horse’s discomfort (e.g. hoof problems, body misalignment, ulcers, joint pain).
Incorporating some of your horse’s favorite things into your riding routine is a great way to help them feel positive and excited about the work.
If your horse loves being with other horses, try riding with a buddy. For food motivated horses, reward positive behavior with their favorite foods.
Small gestures can boost your horse’s motivation and willingness under saddle significantly.
Giving your horse the privilege of choice is also important. Whenever possible I let my horses ride during their preferred times of day in their preferred locations.
Some horses prefer working on a variety of different skills in different locations, while others feel more confident sticking with a consistent routine.
Choose a discipline your horse enjoys rather than simply the one he’s good at or bred to do.
Pay attention to what they don’t like doing and do like doing. Do less of the former and more of the later, and you’ll likely see your horse’s attitude about riding perk right up.
Don’t be afraid to try different disciplines until you find one (or more) you both like. If you’re interested in Western options, check out 20 Different Types of Western Riding.
They Rode Happily Ever After
At the end of the day, is there a definitive answer about whether horses enjoy being ridden? The short answer is sometimes they do… and sometimes they don’t. (Sounds a lot like our moods, right?)
It’s most likely that horses like or dislike riding based on whether they like or dislike the specific circumstances that occur during and surrounding the activity.
Every horse is different. As a rider, your job is to get to know your horse both in and out of the saddle. Be brave enough to encourage your horse to “speak up” and considerate enough to listen and make compromises for the betterment of you both.
You’re on the same team. Making progress will be a whole lot easier when you’re both heard (or should we say “herd”) and happy!
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I get my horse to relax when riding?
To begin with, make sure that you are relaxed. If you’re tense or nervous, your horse will be as well. Consider taking a day “off” and going for a trail ride with some friends. Sometimes a break from training makes all the difference.
In the arena, you can practice making spirals (at a walk, trot, or canter). Make a twenty-meter circle at the walk, then slowly make the circle smaller and smaller. Once you’re at a ten-meter circle, slowly go back out to a twenty-meter circle.
Practicing transitions or making frequent changes in direction can also help your horse calm down and focus on you.
How do you ride a horse without hurting it?
Check your horse over before each ride. Make sure he doesn’t have any heat, swelling, or sore spots (like on his back). Properly fitting tack is also important. If the bridle, saddle, or girth is pinching or rubbing, riding will only increase that discomfort.
Horses are just like people in that they can get sore if overworked or asked to do too much, too quickly. Know your horse’s current level of fitness and respect it, increasing his workload slowly.
Finally, be conscious of your actions in the saddle. Don’t yank on his mouth, kick him excessively, or plop into the saddle every time you post.
About Becky Ruhl
Becky is obsessed with finding ways for horses to thrive. She’s all about sharing her ideas on her Insightful Equine Blog and hopes to inspire others to find optimal ways of working with horses. When she’s not buried in horse projects, she loves spending time with her boyfriend, traveling, and hiking with their two squishy-faced Boston Terriers.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- 6 Easy Clicker Training Exercises for Horses
- 20 Different Types of Western Riding (With Video Examples)
- Keep Calm & Ride On: Meet the 3 Calmest Horse Breeds
- 32 Things You Can Do Now to Calm Your Riding Nerves Forever
- What Are Some Ways to Gain Confidence Horse Riding?
- 3 Fear-Free Secrets to Gain Your Horse’s Trust & Respect