As riders, we enjoy spending time with our horses. The time at the barn spent laughing with friends, cuddling your horse, and, of course, riding is often the highlight of our day, as evidenced by our willingness to part with large sums of money just for the privilege of sharing a sport with our precious ponies! However, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us, the question must be asked: do our horses like being ridden? Is riding as richly rewarding for our horses as for ourselves? Do our horses hate riding, merely tolerate it, or actively enjoy it?
There’s no scientific study that can definitively confirm whether horses enjoy being ridden. Horses will enjoy riding more if:
- There is no pain
- The rider is skilled, compassionate & effective
- The horse is well-suited to do its job
- Training is fun & the horse’s choices are respected.
A Google search of “Do horses like being ridden” or some variation of that question will bring up hundreds of results. The answers to be found within those articles range from “yes, he knows you look after him and pay for his food, and so he wants to make you happy” to “no, why would any animal subjugate himself to the torture of a bouncing Heffalump of a human with aspirations of being a dictator to a one-horse kingdom.”
In all honesty, neither of these answers should be trusted and instead should be spiced with a liberal dose of skepticism because neither of these answers was based on scientific research! Scientists have not yet discovered a way to measure a horse’s enjoyment or lack of enjoyment when participating in an activity.
Research Into A Horse’s Enjoyment When Being Ridden
Researchers have learned how to observe and record physiological and behavioral indicators of pain, stress, and anxiety, but we cannot ask the horse about their subjective experience. So instead, we need to extrapolate data and look for areas in which we can improve our horse’s comfort and how a horse may communicate his enjoyment or lack of enjoyment for a particular activity.
Signs That Your Horse Does Or Doesn’t Like Being Ridden
The simplest answer to this question is if your horse voluntarily chooses to participate in riding-related activities, then there is a high chance that he enjoys riding. However, the opposite is also true. If your horse in any way resists riding-related activities through avoidance, aggression, or shutting down, then the horse probably does not enjoy working and riding.
A Shut Down Horse And Learned Helplessness
Shutting down can occur with any horse, but particularly with gentle, low energy horses like drafts horses or lesson ponies whose protests are ignored or even purposefully punished. The horse learns that he has no choice except to accept whatever happens to him and will develop learned helplessness. These horses often present with a pathological lack of interest and curiosity, similar to institutionalized babies who have realized that their cries are always unanswered and ignored.
Shut-down horses are occasionally described as going or being “silent” and can often be one of the hardest horses for compassionate horsemen to help. However, time, patience, and respecting the horse’s choices can work wonders with drawing these defeated horses out of their shells.
A horse with learned helplessness will not fight, but neither will they find enjoyment in riding or spending time with humans until their mental state is addressed.
Physical Behaviours indicating Enjoyment Or Discomfort
The behaviors listed below are often the same behaviors observed when a horse is experiencing pain, discomfort, or anxiety. However, common sense allows us to assume that the experience of pain, discomfort, or anxiety would not predispose any creature, humans, dogs, or horses to enjoy the activity that causes the aversive feelings.
|Behaviors Indicating Enjoyment
|Behaviors Indicating Discomfort
|Comes running to greet you when they see you in the field
|Is difficult to catch
|Is easy to tack up and mount
|Is difficult to tack up and mount; he may bite, kick or continually move away.
|Whickering gently to the rider
|Hysterical neighing for his paddock mates
|Interest in his surroundings with a predominant focus on the rider
|Either an apathetic lack of interest in surroundings or dangerously explosive spooking
|A calm enthusiastic willingness to participate in the riding activities
|Refusal to move or perform specific activities
|Straight, supple, and rhythmic movement
|Napping (When a horse continually tries to go back home, to his stable, or to his horsey friends)
|Sweating appropriate for the weather and physical exertion
*This list of behaviors indicating enjoyment or lack of enjoyment is not complete.
Some Horses Whisper And Others Get Out Their Megaphones
The manner in which horse tries to communicate their feelings to you will differ from horse to horse. Some horses are true drama queens and will throw all their toys out of the cot for every minuscule irritation. In contrast, those who are stoic campaigners may show only a small deviation in their behavior in response to an enormous amount of pain or anxiety.
Horses may demonstrate their discomfort in many different ways, and it is up to the rider to recognize these signs and address the issues. It may take some detective work and even a critical self-evaluation of yourself as a rider to find the source of your horse’s unhappiness. Still, it is worth it to unlock your horse’s happiness by addressing the issue.
Horses For Courses
Over the centuries, humans have bred different horses to perform different jobs. The American’s bred quarter horses to be hardy, clever cow ponies, the Arabs bred Arabian horses to carry them for hundreds of miles every day in hot climates, the Europeans bred warmbloods to be specialists in English riding disciplines, and the draft horses were bred to be the weightlifters of the horse world.
In short, every horse breed was developed for a particular purpose that dictated what the ideal conformation was, how tall they should be, what type of temperament is acceptable and what kind of job they would excel in.
A Heavy Weight Champion And Long Distance Running
Like humans, horses tend to enjoy activities they are good at and have a natural affinity for; Percherons, Clydesdales, and Shires are draft horses bred to be a low-energy powerhouse designed for long hours of steady pulling.
The Fauresmith is a famous South African endurance race, with a 205km (127miles) course run over three days. Asking a draft horse to complete the Fauresmith would be the equivalent of asking a Suma wrestler to run an iron man competition. The wrestler is incredibly strong, but he is not built for long-distance endurance, and neither is the draft horse.
Your draft horse will quickly begin to associate riding with absolute exhaustion, body pain, and a disappointed, impatient rider which will rapidly diminish his enthusiasm for his job. Whereas an Arabian bred to complete these long distances will thrive in this environment and not only excel but also enjoy the time spent with his rider in the open countryside. That’s not to say your draft won’t enjoy a gentle amble through a quiet forest on a relatively SHORT outride!
Finding Your Horse’s Sweet Spot
Choose a discipline that allows your horse to shine, that makes him feel like a champion, and enjoy his time spent with you. Like you, your horse likes to do things that make him feel good – that doesn’t mean that your horse wants to compete or needs to always be in the medals! Horses don’t care for human accolades, but they enjoy partnering with a person and doing something well.
Like A Snowflake, Each Horse Is Unique
It is vital to remember that each horse is unique and that while blanket statements and trends may be observed in specific breeds, this does not mean that every horse will fit the mold.
For example, I’ve just discussed that horses were bred for certain disciplines and enjoy doing something they are good at performing. Yet, I know of three Clydesdales crosses competing in Prix St George dressage and numerous Arabians who have successfully ridden Grand Prix dressage. Neither breed is bred for this!
Both Arabians and Clydesdales should, by all right and reason, find dressage much more difficult than the purpose-bred warmbloods or Pure Raza Espanola, and yet here they are not only competing but thriving in their misfit of a discipline!
A horse is more likely to enjoy doing something they are bred for because it is easier for them, but don’t let your preconceived notions about what a horse should or ought to be doing rule out the possibility of enjoying a variety of disciplines.
You Can’t Train Pain
Every year desperate owners spend thousands of dollars on trainers recruited to help their troubled horses. A vast number of the issues seen in these horses are due to pain or remembered pain. While a trainer can help a horse to move past the memory of pain, they should never attempt it with a horse who is in pain. It is unethical, misguided, and futile attempting to train a horse who is in pain. Additionally, a horse in pain will not enjoy riding and may develop negative habits that persist for a lifetime if forced to work while in pain.
Pain and discomfort can be acute as with an injury, chronic, subtle, or extreme; if your horse is playing up and refusing to do something or behaving differently from normal, first rule out pain before moving onto alternative solutions.
What Do Shoes And Saddles Have In Common?
In recent years, researchers, professional riders, and trainers have realized the importance of ensuring the saddle fits BOTH the horse and rider. However, the cost of saddles can tempt people into cutting corners and “making do” with a saddle that doesn’t fit.
I would like you to consider a scenario. You are on a camping trip with your two-year-old, and your husband kindly packed your bag for you. Unfortunately, he packed your teenage daughter’s hiking shoes, and she wears a shoe one size smaller than you. It’s only one size difference; how big of a deal will it be? You really want to go on this hike, and you can get your foot in the shoe. It’s a bit tight, but it’s only one day! So, you set out with your toddler strapped into their carrier backpack, and off you go.
At the start, it’s not so bad. Thirty minutes in your feet feel a bit ouchie, an hour in your feet are burning, and five hours in your feet are an unsalvageable mess of blisters on top of blisters, raw bleeding spots, and damaged nerves. Now imagine doing that day after day after day because that’s what we do to our horses when we ride them in an ill-fitting saddle. It’s not surprising then that horses don’t enjoy being ridden in a poorly fitting saddle.
We can’t always see the damage, but it’s being done. I recently attended an autopsy where the horse was euthanized for chronic lameness and spinal issues. The autopsy revealed extensive scar tissue along the thoracic spine where the saddle sat. The poor fit had damaged the musculature causing entrapment of the spinal nerves and degeneration of the vertebral joints. This horse lost his life due to a poorly fitting saddle causing chronic, untreatable pain!
Saddle Fitters To The Rescue
Occasionally, a skilled saddle fitter may be able to re-flock your saddle and use shims to adjust the fit of a saddle to improve a less-than-ideal fit, thus saving you some money. These fixes are best used as a temporary measure on a horse that is rapidly changing shape. Treeless saddles and saddles with adjustable trees may be a viable alternative for horses that change shape frequently or where the same saddle is used on numerous horses. It is best to discuss your goals and needs with your saddle fitter before buying a saddle to ensure your horse’s wellbeing and your bank account’s long-term health!
A Bit Is Only As Harsh As The Hands Holding The Reins
As long-time horse riders and owners, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this saying, and in some respects, it is true. A skilled rider can and does use even harsh bits with empathy, subtlety, and precision.
However, this old adage does not tell the whole story because each horse’s mouth is shaped differently, and each horse has their own personal preference. Some horses have low pallets and thick tongues; others have forward placement of the teeth and fleshy lips.
The bit and bridle need to fit neatly into the space available within a horse’s mouth and accommodate the shape of the horse’s head in order to ensure the horse’s comfort. Horses will also have personal preferences; some prefer firm pressure others will tolerate only the barest whisper of pressure.
Ensuring your horse’s enjoyment while riding means listening to them and working with them to discover what tack and equipment optimize their comfort.
What Does The Rider Bring To The Table
A rider is at least 50% of the equation when determining whether a horse will enjoy being ridden. Riders who are physically fit, are an appropriate weight for that horse, and can give clear, unambiguous aids will be much more pleasant for a horse.
It is easy to get a horse to like your when you offer compassionate, effective leadership and position yourself as a “safe” place for the horse. Horses are not like dogs, and most horses are not that impressed with cuddles and pampering. Some of them might like and even enjoy it, but it does not answer the biggest question each horse has “are they safe with you.”
A trainer who clearly communicates the rules of the game to the horse and is consistent in enforcing those rules will have already established a positive rapport with the horse, as long those rules are fair. However, trainers who can help a horse find relaxation and trust are those that the horse will love. These trainers have satisfied the natural fear of a prey animal and given the horse a place of calm refuge. These horses will learn to love riding!
Training Techniques Used
Not all training techniques used in the horse world are ethical, legal, kind, or compassionate. Techniques that physically damage the horse, even temporarily or tie a horse down in any way, should be avoided at all costs. Hurting a horse will damage their trust in you, elevate their fear, stress, and anxiety, as well as potentially inflicting permanent damage.
Horses who are tied down in any shape or form will be unable to express themselves and may either slip into a state of learned helplessness or fight until they’ve injured themselves to such an extent that they can’t fight any longer. A horse trained this way is not obedient; he’s defeated, and a horse educated with fear will always be a dangerous and unpredictable animal to be around!
A positive association with riding and general handling can be achieved through a systemic approach to training using either positive reinforcement or pressure and release. Both approaches, when used correctly, can yield amazing, almost magical results.
There is no definitive answer on whether horses enjoy riding or not, as scientists have not yet objectively measured a horse’s enjoyment. Each horse is an individual, and as such, each horse will have a varying degree of pleasure when being ridden, dependent on a few different factors. A horse in pain will not enjoy riding, nor will a horse who is subjected to harsh, abusive techniques. A horse will enjoy being ridden if:
- They are used for a purpose or sport which they enjoy and find easy.
- They are free of pain and discomfort.
- The rider is skilled and compassionate when dealing with a horse
- The rider uses ethical training practices to teach the horse the skills he needs to know
- The rider nurtures the horse’s trust and becomes a place of safety and relaxation for the horse