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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

The illusion of choice

If you want to see how your horse really feels about something you have to give him other options.

“My horse loves his stable” - what if he has adequate forage, shelter and friends outside and you leave the door open?

“My horse loves jumping” - take all the tack off and just leave him in the arena, does he canter round a course of jumps by himself?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing these things with horses, I’m just saying its far too easy to overlook what is really going on and then use the stories we tell ourselves to ignore things we may be able to improve for our horses.

The horse industry as a whole is not great at reading behaviour and this unfortunately means very obvious signs of stress or discomfort often go completely unnoticed or are seen as benign. If we want to improve our relationship with our horses we really need to look at what they’re trying to communicate to us.

It is a common sight to see a horse in the cross ties, scowling or lifting a leg while the saddle is being put on, that is pretty loud communication. Yet these horses go out and perform and we’ll say they “love their job”. There are more subtle signs you maybe haven’t noticed, bracing the neck, a worried face, looking back at you, a little sclera showing in their eye. These are all signs of anxiety and discomfort and should not be ignored. If your horse is not relaxed about being tacked up loose then there is something that needs to be addressed instead of plastered over by tying them up and ignoring them.

I always like to see horses tacked up loose if the owner thinks it is safe and there are no issues there. I’m working with a very quiet, stoic pony who initially seemed to be “fine” to tack up, interestingly as soon as he realised there was no head collar around his neck when the bridle came out he shot back into his stable and didn’t want to catch. It turned out he had kissing spine and ulcers but he was so stoic his only behavioural symptom was being backwards in the arena. By giving him more choice he was able to communicate very clearly.

I often meet horses who are really not okay. Unfortunately we’re really good at misinterpreting anxiety and stress as excitement, there is a bit of a myth that its as simple as ears forward = happy horse. So you can see how easy it would be to brush over some awkward tacking up behaviour if the horse seems “happy” once he’s out hacking or approaching a jump.

I don’t really have a conclusion here, these are just some thoughts swimming around in my head today. I’m not trying to make people feel bad for doing things with their horses, I just think we need to be honest with ourselves about what is really happening so we can do better. Do you just want to feel good about what you’re doing with your horse or do you want your horse to feel good too? 🐴

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