To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.


Equine Mental Health
Happy horses are a joy to ride!

Lack of equine mental fitness is a common cause of injuries to both horse and riders. Three components of mental fitness are: relaxation, focus on the rider, and self-confidence. Although these elements are interrelated, I will discuss them individually.

Relaxation is important because a stressed or anxious horse will have muscle tension. Relaxed horses can stretch their muscles and limbs, have fluid movements, and are comfortable to ride. Tense horses have semi-contracted, muscles. This can cause a host of problems including body pain, lameness, refusals, stiff gaits, lack of extension, ulcers, and behavior problems. Horses entrapped in tension-pain cycles can break down completely.

Scatter-brained, unfocused horses are dangerous to ride. Unfocused horses do not move with their riders. They may even forget they have a rider on their back. They may be distracted by new surroundings, a rustle in the bushes, spectators, the smell of a dog in the distance, a desire to return to the barn, or any other of the myriad of stimuli that takes their attention away from the task at hand. Easily distracted horses are spooky and can become so lost in their own thoughts or emotions that they do not even respond to the strongest of aids and can run off with their riders.

Self-confidence is just as important for the horse as for the rider. Self-confident horses learn new movements quickly. They are eager and proud to perform. Horses can demonstrate lack of confidence by resistance, nervousness, unresponsiveness, or dullness.

If you realize that your horse lacks relaxation, focus, or self-confidence, you should solve those issues before thinking about performance-based work-outs. There are many things that you can do to increase the enjoyment of riding for both you and your horse.

Let’s think about some things you can do with your horse that will help him relax. Spend time grooming and walking with your horse on the ground without doing any work at all. Gentle messages and stretches appear to feel as good to horses as they do to humans. Do not work your horse until he is lathered-up or exhausted, or chances are, he will not look forward to the next work-out. Stop working while your horse is still feeling fresh and enjoying running around with you and he will look forward to the next time.

If the horse is not focused chances are there is too much going on for him to concentrate, his rider is not engaging enough for him to bother with, or he may want to be somewhere else altogether. Providing your horse with praise and edible rewards for focusing on you is often a quick fix. Other solutions can depend on the particular discipline the horse and rider are pursuing.

Sometimes, if arena work is required, horses can be helped to focus by playing follow-the-leader with a knowledgeable horse they know and like. It is also helpful if an indoor arena is used to cut down on the stimuli until the horse can focus better. If trail or endurance riding is in order, riding with a friend helps as does keeping the rides short until the horse becomes accustomed to all the sights, odors, and sounds around him.

If you want to increase your horse’s self-confidence, adopt a training strategy based on praise and rewards for doing a good job rather than punishing your horse for his mistakes. Praise will go much further than criticism including the subtle criticism involved in the heavy use of rein and leg aids. Introducing new skills from the ground is a good confidence booster. A great activity for both of you is to teach your horse a few tricks such as opening a mail box, kicking a ball, or “smiling. Be sure to use a praise and reward system such as a clicker or “Good and Nice” (the method I use).

To build your horses confidence while mounted, do not ask for too much at once. Keep your aids very clear but gentle. Rather than riding many imperfect strides, ride several great strides, stop, and offer lots of praise and an edible reward, then gradually increase the number of great strides.

When your horse is relaxed, focused, and self-confident, your time together will be more rewarding and safer for both of you.

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.


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