Recently, I was out at the barn and found myself drawn into a conversation with a fellow boarder about her horse’s problems. I had my mare tied in the cross ties and was going about my grooming routine. My boarder friend was talking to me about some issues she’d been having with her mare.
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An Unhappy Horse
“She just doesn’t seem happy,” my friend said, somewhat exasperated. “She’s cranky when I get her out of her stall, she’s cranky in the arena, it just hasn’t been fun riding lately.”
I was slightly taken aback, because my friend’s horse was one of the sweetest at the barn. The mare always nickers when I arrive, begs for treats when I walk passed her stall, has her ears pricked forward whenever I see her, etc. “Really,” I replied. “She always seems so happy to me.”
“No, she’s not happy,” my friend insisted. “Maybe she doesn’t like it here. Or maybe it’s the feed, have you noticed them changing anything? I don’t know if I should try some different supplements or what. Maybe it’s the saddle, or she’s sore.”
Look at Yourself
Wow, I thought to myself. This is a bombardment of “what ifs”. I wasn’t worried, honestly, as this seems to happen to a lot of horse owners. Sometimes we go through a period of time where our horse seems “different” or “unhappy”. As a result, we immediately try to pin the reason for the horse’s behavior to every single outside influence or factor we can think about. Commonly, we don’t really ever look at ourselves and our own interactions with our horses.
Horse’s Problems in the Making
“So, how long has this been going on?” I asked.
“About two weeks,” my friend replied. “I just don’t understand. I’ve been getting her out almost every day. Maybe she’s sore, can you look at her for me?”
I asked my friend to get her mare out, as I was almost finished with mine. I promised to just hang around and watch her as she went about her routine. She went to the stall and haltered her mare, who had nice soft eyes until my friend rushed up to her and pulled the halter on rather quickly. The mare seemed to take a little step back into herself. My friend led her out of her stall rather abruptly and brought her down the aisle muttering something about “see, she doesn’t want to walk-on next to me”. The mare looked slightly scared, honestly.
It got worse from there. My friend was quick, abrupt, and took every little tale swish, ear turn or movement as something bad. By the time she tightened the girth and led her mare to the arena, I could tell that the mare was in full apprehension mode. I watched as she rode her, with only a short warm up. Every time the mare pulled out of her headset, my friend got on her case. Every time she hesitated to follow a cue, my friend got more frustrated, until finally after about thirty minutes, she rode over to the gate and said “I’m done. See, she’s just being a pill all the time now.”
Your Horse’s Problems May Stem From You
It was time for me to say something. “Are you sure that it’s her and not you?”
My friend seemed surprised, taken aback, actually. “What do you mean, it’s me? She didn’t look sore or uncomfortable to you? Unhappy?”
“She didn’t look sore, but she definitely looked unhappy.” I said. “But I watched for thirty minutes while you picked on her and watched you in the barn where you jumped on every little move she made.”
Our Difficult Life Issues Can Negatively Impact our Horse Interactions
My friend had actually scheduled a vet exam for the following week. She was convinced that there was something medically wrong with her horse, but I was convinced it was her own behavior and exasperation getting the best of her. Upon a little further talking, I found that she had recently been laid off from work, bills were piling up, she was having some trouble with her oldest son in school – basically, her life was stressed and she was bringing that stress out to the barn.
Change Your Routine and Ride for Fun
I suggested that she postpone her “lameness exam” for a week and just take two weeks to try and re-center her relationship with her horse. Perhaps she could try an every other day schedule, I suggested, where she would ride one day and turn out and “hang out” the next on an alternating basis. I also recommended that she not “ride for training”, but rather “ride for fun” for the next few weeks; give her horse a break, throw out some ground poles and have some fun, hack around the property a little bit, etc.
On top of all of these ideas, I also challenged her to leave her own personal stress at the barn door and mindfully attempt to just have fun with her horse; to give her mare a break and enjoy her for the amazing little horse that she is. Reluctantly she agreed to my suggestions, though she was still fairly sure that a change in feed, new saddle or possibly moving barns would be the ultimate answer.
Happy Rider = Happy Horse
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I ran into my friend again at the barn. She had a huge smile on her face as she rode up to me on a mare that looked completely content. “You wouldn’t believe how different things are!” my friend exclaimed. “It took about a week, but I kept at what you suggested and she just keeps getting better and better. I feel like I have my old horse back again.”
This report did not surprise me. Sometimes the answer to a problem isn’t in “testing” or “feed” or “outside factors”, but rather within us as riders. This is not to say that we should dismiss things that could be health related, but it’s a good lesson that we have a lot more influence over our horses than we think that we do.
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