How Much Should You Work Your Horse?

I was lucky enough this year to attend a day of the local clinic of a famous clinician. I have studied this clinician’s philosophy, watched videos, read articles, etc. so was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch him work live. As I expected, I agreed with much of what he said. Therefore, one comment that I vehemently disagreed with stuck out like the piebald pony on my property amongst all the other horses that are bays.

I won’t pretend to recall his exact wording. A participant asked about how much a horse “should” and “can” be worked. The clinician responded with his opinion that most “pleasure” riders will be done long before a horse will. That you cannot “override” or “overwork” your horse. That riders should ride as much as possible, I assume to improve their skills as a rider and their fitness. I had to bite my lip to not voice my disagreement aloud within hearing of other audience members.

As a life coach, I belief in relativism. What is “right” for me, or “right” for one horse, is not the rule and is not absolute. So, I am willing to believe that there may be riders out there that thrive off of riding long hours every day and/or horses that thrive off of being ridden long hours every day. The clinician with his experience on ranches knows far better than I do the limits of a horse’s endurance and a fit rider’s endurance. However, that statement is not true for me or any horse that I have attracted into my care.

I am the type of person that thrives in my relationships with my horses when I am taking the time to take care of myself and rest plenty. That usually means riding 3 or fewer days a week. I keep things interesting in my own fitness by doing other things to stay fit from all of the work around the property that is necessary when you have horses, to weight lifting, walking and running. Similarly I try to keep things interesting for the horses to maintain their fitness. The key to this is A LOT of ground work that varies by the day. Ground work also significantly improves my skills as a rider. I get to see how the horse moves, increase the finesse of my feel, improve our communication, and PLAY.

Honest to goodness magic occurs in the rider, in the horse and in their relationship when a thorough and well thought out tool box of ground work is at their disposal and used mindfully.

For example, my once show horse, Uno, lived his first couple of years with me in the regimented world of being a show hunter, where he lived in a stall with a run, was turned out when weather was nice and ridden 5 days a week. He was often closed down, grumpy and lazy verging on lethargic. You could feel when you walked up to him with a halter, that even though he stood politely and waited for you, that he wasn’t necessarily thrilled to see you, and knew exactly what we were going to do that day, because it was always the same!

Now, less than a year of being at my property and outside of the show world, he is turned out 24/7 with a shelter, will often go a week in between rides with 3 ground work sessions in between. The progress we make in our riding relationship is astonishing, far more than I have ever experienced by riding 4 or 5 days a week. Furthermore, as a human that wishes to feel loved, it is a wonderful experience to go out to my horse, with or without a halter, and have him excited that I am coming over to him and looking forward to doing whatever it is we’re going to do that day because he doesn’t know what it will be! But he knows that since I’m involved, it will more than likely be something different and fun.

I operate on the firm belief that, when possible, if I put away a horse after enough ground work or ridden work that the horse has gotten exercise both for his/her body and brain AND he/she still has energy, the horse will probably be happy to see me again tomorrow; if I put away a horse after enough ground work or ridden work that the horse is absolutely exhausted in body and brain, the horse will probably not be thrilled to see me tomorrow. This belief is definitely based on myself as a person, as well as the horse I have attracted, such as Uno, Shapparel, the miniature donkeys, and now a friend’s horse that is on the property to participate in coaching this summer. The above may not work for you or your horse, BUT, if you have a horse that tends to be “grumpy,” “cranky” or “lazy” I highly suggest giving it a try.

Something I did agree with the clinician about is that we, as humans, tend to be “greedy” as riders and horse people. I think this “greediness” is what leads us to exhaust ourselves and our horses when working together. We decide on something to work on in the session, and then we want it PERFECT. This is problematic for a horse’s learning in several ways, but going into that is a whole other article! Here’s what I suggest trying the next time you work with your horse in any way:

1.    Decide on what you want to work on in a session with your horse
2.    Warm up enough for whatever you want to work on
3.    Try it ONCE
4.    Take a walk break and THINK
5.    Think of what the goal is (how you want the movement to look and feel) and where you and your horse are at based on your first try.
6.    Then think of a step in between your goal and the reality of where you and your horse are at.
7.    Cut that step in half so that it is even smaller and easier to reach. Make THAT your goal for your session with your horse.
8.    Try it again
9.    As soon as you reach your new goal from step 7, even if it’s in your next try in step 8, be finished for the day.
10.    If you try 2 or 3 times and have not reached your goal from step 7, take a walk break and THINK AGAIN. It’s probably necessary at this point to cut your new goal from step 7 in half again.
11.    If you try 2 or 3 more times without success, I highly suggest taking another walk break, and deciding on something that you know you and your horse can do well. Do that, and then be finished for the day. I then suggest asking for help from someone knowledgeable that can watch on the ground and help you out on another day.

Try the above process and let me know how it goes. What amount of work is right for you and your horse? Do you find that more is more or less is more? If you’re having trouble figuring out what exactly is right for you and your horse I’d love to help you explore your options, so please leave a comment below.

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About the author

Ari Sizemore

Ari Sizemore is a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach and an equine education expert. She is the founder, coach and managing partner of EquuSynced LLC, a company that specializes in introducing and re-introducing kids, teens and adults to horses. Ari works with the full range of horse lovers, from individuals who just want to be around horses, learn to groom them and possibly do some ground work, to aspiring riders, to riders with decades of experience who seek a mutual, respectful, and holistic way of building relationships with horses. www.equusynced.com

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