How do I know when my horse is tired?
This is a common question that is often answered in some variation of…
“When you feel you don’t have any horse left.”
Well, that’s great, but what if you have a horse that just seems to keep going no matter what???
I hear you. I have this exact issue. Athena has so much heart and so much stamina that it’s hard to tell when she is tired. In the 5 years of working with her, I’ve never had a moment where I didn’t feel like I had any horse left. She just keeps going. That’s saying something, especially for a 3/4 Friesian, living in Hawaii with warm and humid weather to boot!
To add complexity, Athena is a quick leaner and likes to be challenged. But, she also gets bored easily with repetition. So each week it’s a delicate dance to create a training plan that includes enough review and practice of the steps we know so we can continue to perfect them, but also introducing new material to challenge her mentally and physically. It mist include new material but so much that she gets frustrated and gives up mentally because she isn’t physically able to do the new steps that I’m asking. As her rider and owner, it’s up to me to observe her behavior and find the line of just right. Talk about pressure!
So here are some signs to look for to help you notice the other “behaviors” your horse may be giving you that could indicate tiredness, even if he/she isn’t slowing down!
1.) The quality of your training has diminished.
Example: I’ve been working on a more collected canter with Athena. There were days or moments in our ride when her canter was round and slow with a nice rocking horse feel and then times when it was flat, fast and she was leaning on my hands horribly. I started to pay close attention to when the canter was good and when it wasn’t. Turns out the canter was always really nice early on in our rides, and then it would slowly degrade. So I decided to do shorter riders, with a higher expectation for her to be round, slow, balanced and not leaning on my hands. I tuned into how she felt through our ride and if she gave me what I wanted once, I praised and we ended on that note. There were some rides that were only 20 minutes long. It felt like I had just tacked up! Athena felt so proud of herself for knowing exactly when she had executed the canter at the moment when I was asking. We started with just a single 20 meter circle in the frame I was seeking. That was enough for her. Over the course of the next few weeks, we continued to build from that single 20 meter circle to completing two and three 20 meter circles in a row. Next we progressed to half the arena, and now we can do a lap around the entire arena. Athena is physically able to maintain a slower more collected canter with a nice soft contact in my hands. Mentally she is excited again to go to work and is so proud of herself that she is “Doing it, just like I asked!”
2.) The gait gets faster, lacks rhythm with shorter strides and your horse loses roundness
Example: I see this a lot in my trot work with Athena. At the beginning of our rides, she goes right to work; head down, back up and a nice even rhythm. Her trot stride feels smooth and has a heavy solid feel to it. When she is tired, she drops her back and her head comes up. Even if those two things don’t happen, her stride gets short, choppy and she feels really fast. It also takes a lot more effort for me to keep her attention.
3.) Lack of sensitivity If you normally have a very sensitive horse and suddenly they aren’t responding to your aids, it could be an indication that they simply can’t. I find this with Athena. Most of the time, I just think about what I’m going to ask and she does it with the softest of cues. If she stops responding, it’s usually because she is tired.
Example: Athena is acutely “tuned in” to my breathing and my seat. If I exhale, she slows or stops. If I tighten my abs and slow y seat, she slows or stops. When she stops responding or her response starts to become selective, I know she has gone into “auto pilot” or is heading into z’check out” mode because she is tired. It’s a lot of work to slow her speed and stay round and collected so she defaults to ignoring me and remaining fast. Worse yet, if I apply leg to ask her to be more round, she shoots forward and gets faster! If I ask for more bend with my leg, the request being “stepping over” or “stepping under” rather than “move over and bend” she uses my leg cue to avoid moving differently. Instead she will just go faster as if she could talk she would be saying, “Can’t do it Mom, but I’ll go faster so I can give you something… See, I’m trying.
4.) Irritability & tension
Example: Suppleness and collection take work for your horse,especially the heavier breeds like Friesians. Keep in mind that new steps and tasks are also mentally and physically challenging. Your horse needs to develop the muscles and the understanding forwhat you are asking. If you push too hard or ask for too much and they either can’t do it physically or don’t understand, the response from your horse can often be attitude. This may be more of a mare thing, but “attitude” can present itself as tail swishing, bracing against you, being overly argumentative and holding tension in their body. Athena likes to work with me but when it starts to feel like she is working against me, that’s my cue that we are teetering on the brink of a melt down and it’s time to find a good place to end for the day. It’s obvious to say, but we try our best to avoid this final straw. 😃
5.) Sore body
It’s good to note that our horses get sore just like we do. A regular massage and body work routine can be very beneficial in helping elevate or minimize sore muscles for your horse. To help Athena stay in peak form, she gets a massage once a week. I also use the Liquid Titanium Therapeutic sheet by Fenwick. It promotes circulation and increased blood flow with our compression and aids in the healing process for sore and tired muscles. It’s the perfect way to end our training session; Bath, Fenwick cooler and some quality hand grazing time.
These are just a few things I have noticed with my horse when she is tired. Be observant and consider making a change if you notice some of these traits happening in your riding session. This decision can go a long way towards maintaining a good relationship with your horse as well as keep your training program moving forward with consistent progress and success.
In July of 2015, I welcomed Athena into our family. She had just turned 5 years old and was very green. To say I had no real idea what I was in for is an understatement. But, with excitement, a healthy dose of apprehension and a lot of logistical planning, Athena traveled from Washington State to Maui, Hawaii. Her journey included a 2 day trailer trip with a commercial horse transport company from Seattle, Washington to LAX International Airport. Arriving at midnight she hopped on a horse dedicated 747 Jet from LAX to Honolulu, HI to clear quarantine before proceeding on the last leg of her adventure, an overnight barge trip from Honolulu to Maui where she finally settled into her lush 2 acre pasture and our journey together began.
During my pre purchase visits I could see that she had some basic ground schooling and had been lightly started under saddle. However, once settled in her new Maui home, it became very clear she was a handful. I had seen indications of this but now that it was just her and me, her true colors were showing like a bright rainbow banner of spirited personality. Despite her sass, she had many endearing qualities and I saw loads of potential. To this day, I still believe we were meant for each other.
To begin with, she had zero ground manners and would frequently take off, zipping the lead line out of my hand as she galloped off, clearly very proud of herself. I learned early on to ALWAYS wear gloves, or suffer the blistered, rope burn consequences.
She was hard to catch. In her two acres of pasture I would spend hours chasing her around, just to put her halter on. I quickly decided we needed a “Catch pen” where I would lure her into the smaller space staked out with temporary hot wire fence, feed her a small bowl of Timothy pellets and close the gate behind her while she was eating. It was still a game of chase, but at least it was one I could win now.
Grooming her was an ordeal. I couldn’t pick her back feet up without her kicking out at me. If I touched her chest, she would bare her teeth as if to bite. Although she never did “get me”, it was none the less unnerving. I would get through the currying as quickly as I could, doing my best to dodge her tossing head, tail swishing and overall pissy nature. When she was in a “good” mood, which was completely on her terms, should would approach me, looking for wither scratches.
It was endearing, in a way that made me think there might be hope that she might want to be with me. But, with a kicking habit it was also scary and I found myself trying to push her away which ultimately lead to her spinning around, pinning her ears, pointing her hind end at me and giving a little bunny hop buck in my direction. Then trotted away tossing her head, satisfied that she had shown me who was boss.
Tacking up was a wild dance. With saddle in hand I would approach her and proceed to chase her around the hitching pole until I could get close enough to throw my dressage saddle over her back. As I would tighten her girth, I had to jump back to avoid a nip as she reached around with her teeth. Installing cross ties, helped. Instead of going around and around in a circle at least it was just back and forth.
Getting on was an adventure at best. It was a solid 45 minute ordeal of asking her to stand next to the mounting block. Once I finally had her standing, usually crocked, I would put one foot in the stirrup, which always illicited a side ways and/or forward step away. Thinking I could still get on, I would begin hopping around on one leg as she circled around and around the mounting block, moving further and further away with each step. Eventually, she would step far enough away that I could no longer remain on the mounting block and keep a foot in the stirrup. In the last moment of tension, I would slide my foot out of the stirrup as she backed even further away pulling me completely off the block. On occasion the reins would rip out of my hands, leaving Athena “free”. Sensing her new liberty she would run off, parading around the field in full tack, reins dangling around her neck and me hoping she didn’t get her leg caught.
Once I finally managed to get on, the presence of my legs made her jump forward. To her my, leg always and only meant go forward and go faster, even to the slightest touch. She was always tense and unsure. Nothing I seemed to say or do helped to calm her down.
With jazzy steps, her head held high like a giraffe, we would venture down towards my makeshift grass arena at the bottom of the field.
If we were lucky, we didn’t encounter any flying pheasants which would inevitable send Athena into a spooking tizzy of whirling energy, trying to escape the “monster” from the grass. It was quite an ordeal. Many days, I found it was “enough” to get on and go for a walk.
For six months, August to January we continued to push through all the ground and mounting issues and persevered to get to the highlight of the week, our one hour Dressage riding lesson. But, that proved to be just as frustration and pointless. It would take a solid 30 minutes of walking and struggling to get Athena to be calm and focused. She fought every request. Pushing against my leg and shooting forward into a faster trot. She had no supple movement and no left or right lateral movement of any kind. She would get her tongue over the bit constantly and then toss her head vigorously, swishing her tail in even further protest. We mostly worked on walk and trot. In January we introduced a little canter. That was another exercise in courage, as every canter started first with a bucking fit. Once the canter smoothed out, it was nice, unrefined and fast, but had elements of riding a rocking horse. A sign of good things to develop in time. But, by that point my nerves were shot, my heart pounding and my legs were Jello. I ended our rides exhausted and distraught. Athena ended our rides pissy and anxious. She didn’t understand what I was asking and I didn’t know how to explain my requests. There was a huge gap between us and it was growing bigger with every session together whether on the ground or in the saddle.
I pulled into the barn ready to for some much needed time with Athena. I love pulling into the barn and looking out to her pasture. She usually perks up, hearing me pull in. But, today she was happily grazing in her pasture. The sun’s rays were still warm, casting an afternoon glow across the barn. I planned on riding in the upper arena, to practice what I’ve been working on in my lessons.But the weather was so calm, so perfect that I decided to venture into the outdoor arena.
The outdoor arena has been spookyville. It seems that every time we’ve been out there lately there has been a scary noise or birds have flown up from the edge, startling Athena every time. To say it’s “rocked her confidence” would be an understatement. Every time we go out there she can hardly focus on me, being so worried out the scary monsters that lurk in the trees and bushes surrounding the arena. We’ve been doing long line and lunge sessions out there and it’s been getting better. So today, with the sun shinning, the air still and the farm workers quiet, I decided to brave a ride in the outdoor arena.
Our upper arena lessons have been fantastic. Athena has been focused, calm, and ready to learn. She has really been trying for me in our lessons which has been super exciting. We’ve even been doing a lot of canter work and as of Monday, no bucking in the transition. Whohoo!
The outdoor arena is almost the exact opposite. Our corner’s were non existent as she braced against my inside leg, her head bent to the outside in a complete counter to the circle as she stared out at the boogie monsters she was convinced were hidden in the grass. Her trot was hollow, short and tense. It was nothing like my indoor arena rides.
I had two options; be frustrated that I wasn’t getting the same focus and relaxation in the outdoor arena as I have been during our indoor rides, or revamp my expectations for the ride today and simply go back to the basics. Every time I ride I try to always do whats best for my horse and clearly what she was telling me today was “I’m uncomfortable, I’m nervous, and I need you to be my support.” So that’s just what I did. I focused on corners first. When she would counter bend I would circle her around and around until she gave me even the slightest bit more bend and then we would move on. I focused on the skills she was already comfortable with and already understood how to do. No reason to add new things to the ride. This was a confidence building ride, not a training something new ride today. I didn’t push her forward, if she felt that she needed to go a little slower I let her, as long as she was still going forward to some degree. Adding pressure to an already tense situation just creates more tension. If she wanted to look, I let her for the first few rounds around the arena, again as long as she was still going forward. At first I felt like a yo-yo, fast and then slow and then fast again. It was discouraging to feel like we had completely reverted to what our rides had been months ago. But, I kept consistent and even with my hands and my seat, not pushing, and not holding. By being consistent my hope was that Athena would start to normalize to me, my breath and my rhythm.
About half way through our ride she started to relax. Our corners started to round out, the contact in my hand began to even out and her trot started to become round and rhythmic again. We had success!
As riders we need to let go of our desire to micro manage our horses. It’s hard to do… I know! But, it’s so important to teach them how to respond when they are nervous and to teach them the the tools to unwind and relax with out constant restrictive control from us. That was what today’s lesson was all about. I didn’t chase Athena with long rein, short rein, circle circle circle. I rode the spooks forward, as if they didn’t exists. I would give subtle reminders with a wiggle of my fingers to drop her head when needed, but didn’t fight with her. It was like a caring hand on the shoulder saying “ we’ve got this. I’m here, you are ok.” Athena responded with lowering her head creating a posture for relaxation and calmness. As we went through our ride she began to seek this position more, and worry less about what was around the arena. It was an exciting lightbulb moment.
As I walked around the arena, cooling her out, I reflected on our ride. It wasn’t the ride I had planned, and we certainly didn’t “progress” in our flat work training, but we did make progress. It was a confidence building ride. We started tense and spooky and ended calm and relaxed. That’s improvement. Our ride wasn’t perfect, but today we laid the foundation for further growth. Athena learned how to work through her anxieties and look to me. We struck a balance between allowing Athena to work through her own anxieties, and learning how to look to me for support. I practiced keeping my own emotions in check and staying steady and consistent with my hands, seat and legs and giving Athena something consistent to come back to and seek out in her moments of tension and spookiness. It was a very rewarding ride in a very different, but still successful ride.
When you go out on your next ride remember to have an open mind and align your expecations with what your horse is telling you for that day. Every day is different, and every ride is different, especially when working with young horses. Sometimes taking a step back to fill in the “gap” in your horses training is more beneficial than plowing forward with your flat work training per the schedule you’ve set in your head. At the end of the day it’s all training, and all the pieces really do fit together to build a well rounded and happy horse who wants to advance through the levels.
Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride and have fun!
It’s been a week of rain, rain and more rain here in Hawaii. We’ve managed to sneak out between the showers to enjoy a few rides down the road to at least get out, but mostly it’s been a week in creative horse training.
During one such break in the weather I looked out at our flooded round pen and sighed…. It’s going to be a while before that is usable. I looked at Athena who was looking curiously at me. It was if she was asking, “Ok Mom, I’m ready for today’s adventure….what are we going to do today?”.
The ground was really too wet to safely ride; the trails were saturated and the arena was being used by lessons. Hmmmm, what was I going to do today? As I stood there gazing out across the farm and in particular the flooded round pen, an idea sparked. I had never taken Athena through water and therefore I had no idea how she would react. Will she have fun in it? Will she avoid it? Will she be afraid of it? I had an Arab growing up who was petrified of the water. Not a great combo when hacking out.
I could feel my excitement brewing. We had a plan for our session today! I quickly finished grooming Athena and put my rubber muck boots on. Excitedly and carefully we made our way down to the round pen to play in the puddle.
As it turns out, Athena loves the water. I kept her on the lead line at first… you know, just in case. She was curious at first, giving it a good long sniff to make sure it was safe. With a few encouraging words from me, she took one step and then two, three and four and before long she was splashing through the water with ease. I thought she might roll, but nope… or at least not this go around! Thank goodness!
She seemed generally at ease in the water. In fact she wanted to drink it. Nothing like fresh mineral rain water I suppose. I wasn’t thrilled about that and we ended up playing a game of yo-yo as I tried to keep her engaged in our activity together and Athena trying to drink the muddy water as she plodded along. Yuck!
I eventually took her off the lead line and let her explore on her own and about 45minutes later we wrapped up. It had been a very productive session. Athena enjoyed her time out and about, working with me, trying something new and expanding her confidence and trust in me.
So often as riders we get focused on just riding. We forget that there is so much more to training and creating a well balanced horse than what goes on in the saddle. We expect our horses to behave in the exact moment we need them to, whether it is at a horse show or just during a lesson or even for a free ride. But, have we put in the time to expose our horses to all the different elements in our human world? You can’t predict or control the weather and one day you may have to ride a Dressage test in the rain. Have you ever worked in the rain before? Or on a trail ride, you just might encounter a puddle. Are you and your horse prepared?
It’s important to always be safe and some days are just too rainy or snowy or whatever to safely do anything. Be cautious and always safe first! But, some days just aren’t good for riding, but there may be another activity you can do with your horse. Look for the rainbow amongst the clouds and be creative in your training. Remember, the things you often find normal and routine could be different, exciting or even scary for your horse and therefore a perfect training opportunity!
I am a firm believer in teaching horses ground manners and especially around feeding for ease of feeding and safety.
Horses in a herd establish a hierarchy and pecking order for who gets to eat and when. Just watch a herd sometime. If the lead mare comes into the group, the other horses will give way to the lead mare. If a lower ranking member doesn’t immediately back away the lead mare or higher horse will pin ears, etc. to reinforce.
When you are with your horse, your horse should look to you as the leader. If you have a horse who pins their ears, kicks out at you or exhibits aggressive or pushy behavior they are telling you that you are below them in the hierarchy of the herd. This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially around feeding.
To begin training ground manners around feeding bring a whip with you to help establish your personal bubble of space. When you step into the stall, pasture or paddock and your horse approaches you with ears pinned you can swing the wip left and right in front of her legs. If your horse stops great, if he/she proceeds forward change the direction of your whip to up and down in front of his/her face to get his/her attention. Please note, the idea isn’t to make contact with your horse, just to establish your space and presence. Although your horse may walk into the whip… but they will likely only do that once.
Once your horse stops a safe distance in front of you, wait. Your horse will eventually lower his/her head and lick and chew, which is a sign of acceptance. WAIT for this shift in attitude and behavior before you place the food on the ground or in the feeder and turn to walk away, letting your horse move forward to eat.
Patients is really important when establishing new boundaries. Give them time to process and hold your ground. In the beginning, your horse may stop and look at you but not lower his/her head or lick and chew. He/she may even pace back and forth or toss his/her head in frustration and they will probably also try to just go around you to get to the feed bucket. Just be patient and persistent. These are learning moments. Your horse is trying to figure out what the right answer is. The lick and chew is acceptance of you as the leader so be patient and wait for it… it will come. When I first started working on this with my mare the first session took like 30 min and a big tantrum before she finally settled and accepted that she had to be calm and patient before she was allowed to get to her food. But it doe get better with each session. Now, my mare calmly waits for me to put her food into her bucket and for me to back away. Every now and then she needs a reminder… But it’s so nice to not be feeding with her head in the bucket before I’ve finished. Good Luck!