Preserving (or Resurrecting) Joy in a Young Horse

There are dozens of articles online that will describe how to effectively compel a horse into reacting quickly to your aids. In my lifetime as a student of many a trainer, I have heard dozens of voices telling me similar things; “instant response”, “swift correction”, “accept nothing less than 100% compliance”. The irony in this method, with the goal of “enthusiastic response”, and “wholehearted effort”, is that it takes into account neither enthusiasm nor the horses whole heartedness. In fact, the effect can be quite the opposite – chipping away at the precious joy of movement every horse is born with.

There is no pretty way to hide the fact that this common solution to an unfortunately common problem is to utilize fear based training methods. The problem with fear based training is that it often has unwanted side effects, including one which I see time and again with the “lazy” horse. This is that fear/pain based techniques can and do effect behaviour, but leave the underlying emotional responses unchanged, increasing the chance of future problems. Effectively, a horse which has no internal motivation to engage will most likely relapse into “laziness” and unresponsiveness, especially as they become dulled to not only the natural aids, but the punishment as well.

That is where the importance of joy comes in. I believe that a horse who does not find joy in the task will never truly excel, and that to tap into their greatest abilities we must find a way to access that internal motivation. To bring joy into the confines of the arena – we must rethink not only how we motivate our horses but also how we approach education. Why is it that there is such a prevalent issue with motivation throughout the equine population? If we can address how common education of horses could be contributing to their lack of motivation, we could prevent this issue in many horses – improving both the lives of the horse and their riders as well.

To do this we must look closely at how horses are commonly trained and worked. Scrutinize the timelines and expectations placed on young horses and the teaching methods and regiments they are subjected to over the years. Personally, I have seen the long term lasting change that is possible through addressing the shortfalls of traditional/mainstream horse training. To be able to take a horse from bracing, obstinate and unenthusiastic, to eager, animated and impassioned without using escalation. By utilizing positive reinforcement, cultivating a strong sense of play, exploring creative movement and creating a space where learning is joyful, we are able to foster willing partners while still attaining classical achievements.

A complete overview of how we can rehabilitate a horse with low motivation, or how to create a haven for the horse to learn where joy and intrinsic motivation is prioritized, is not possible to contain within the confines of one article. But I would like to share with you a few simple steps that you can take to begin to facilitate this:

  1. Minimize education through punishment. This is the single most important step in my opinion, and the one which may require the most shift from within. In striving to reduce or ideally remove punishment from training, we must learn to reorganize our way of training to set the horse up for success to avoid scenarios where punishment may be perceived as necessary. (Bonus: a horse who feels confident in their ability to succeed will have more motivation to try than one who is shut down by punishment).
  2. Find what lights that joyful spark in your horse, and figure out a way to incorporate that thing into your training. Does your horse love to go on trails? Incorporate more trail work, or combine short, low expectation arena sessions immediately followed by fun time on the trail. Does your horse love to play in water? Find a way to do more work in and around water. Is getting to run their favorite thing? Incorporate that into your training routine more.
  3. Prioritize more ground work, especially with the young horse – and bring a level of playfulness into the ground work as well (safely, of course). Going for walks or jogs in hand and exploring new terrain. Experiment with free lunging without a whip or rope – can you motivate your horse through play rather than pressure? (I always recommend a helmet during ground work.)
  4. Reward more, even for small tries. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t treat training, utilizing positive reinforcement is universal – appreciating and rewarding effort is a prime way to ensure that effort is repeated. (While we’re on the subject though,please consider that R+ and treat training can be utilized alongside traditional training. It is a key part in my personal training method, and can offer many advantages over primarily R- based methods, especially when it comes horses who are dulled to pressure.)
  5. Keep sessions short, for the most part. Especially for young horses, hour long riding sessions drilling transitions or circles can be more than just boring. Frustration can lead to resentment, and nothing demotivates faster than having such negative associations related to riding.
  6. On that note – mix it up! Doing the same thing every time you take your horse out can make even the most fun thing become tedious. By crafting a broad variety of activities to learn from, you and your horse will benefit from both the mental and physical stimulation.
  7. Train yourself to stop giving useless aids – in all areas of horsemanship, not just riding. Become more in tune with what and how you are asking your horse to do things, and recognizing when you are giving unnecessary cues will help you refine your communication and stop dulling your horse, too.

This article and this list, just scratches the surface of this topic. If you would like to learn more, I will be releasing a video series subscription on this in the future, so please keep an eye out. If you would like immediate support, I am available through long distance or in person training, to design a program to help your horse to rediscover their joy.

6 Replies to “Preserving (or Resurrecting) Joy in a Young Horse”

  1. I love it! It gives me new things to think about. Question: why do you recommend wearing a helmet whilst doing groundwork?

    1. For safety reasons, when I am encouraging play and engaging in play behavior I want to encourage everyone to protect their heads, especially if your horse has never interacted with people in that way before.

    1. It has a lot of parallels, for sure. There’s a really great book drawing amazing insights from horsemanship and herdsmanship to apply to working with people and being a more effective leader/employer. It’s called 5 Roles of the Master Herder by Linda Kohanov – I highly recommend it! It’s really beautiful

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