To Ride, Or Not To Ride

As people become more aware of horse cognition and welfare, the question of whether or not we should even ride them comes up. I have friends struggling with that question, and I ponder it myself, now and again. The question as to whether or not you choose to ride horses is certainly a personal one. I have no intent of supporting or admonishing either position. However, as I am providing advice on how to be a better rider and partner for your horse, I thought it was worth taking a pause to address the question.

Recently there have been studies to try to determine if horses ‘like’ being ridden. Is that even the right question to ask? There are many things that we all do in life that we don’t necessarily ‘like’. Do your kids like going to school? Some do, but many most certainly do not. Yet, we know that the best path for them, in life, will be an educated one. How does that apply to your horse? Well, how many ads have you seen for people trying to re-home horses who cannot be ridden? My veterinarian was given the responsibility for a herd of over 20 horses when her friend died. None were rideable. She was on a race against time, as the other parties to the estate wanted to stop paying for those horses (sadly, one of those beneficiaries was a veterinary school whose trustee got impatient enough to suggest euthanizing all the remaining horses so they could get their money). It took my friend the better part of a year to find homes for most of those horses. In the end a few were euthanized, and she took in one herself. The simple fact of our society is that most people who can afford to keep horses want to be able to ride them – so if your horse is trained to be ridden, it has a better chance of finding a home should something happen to you.

Of course, not all homes are created equal, and many horses who are ridden (likely the vast majority) do not have great lives, and probably find riding a torment. When I hear of studies that try to get to what horses like, related to riding, I always question the ground that they are starting from. Do they understand what quality training and riding really is? I have seen movement studies use Olympic Dressage as their baseline for quality – while most of us see horses in tension, with wringing tails and gaping mouths. If that is your baseline for quality in anything, you’ve already blown the whole study!

Riding is not the only reason to keep horses, but it is the main reason people have them (Photo by Andrey Petkov on Pexels.com)

So, here is my very unscientific experience that continues to inform my choice about whether or not to ride. I start by giving you insight into three Appaloosas. For those who do not know, Appaloosas are known for being WIIFM horses – ‘what’s in it for me’? More than any other breed I’ve worked with (and I’ve worked with a broad variety), you have two choices with Appys – either bully them, which usually ends up in a fight you cannot easily win; or find ways to make them feel that what you want to do is something they’ll like doing. (Modern breeding has changed a lot of that, with many being more Quarter Horse than Appy, but these three were all Appy in attitude!)

Wicki – My first horse, he was kept out in large fields with multiple horses. Some people like to say that if a horse’s needs are met – friends, freedom, forage, and water – they would prefer not to have anything to do with us. I have certainly known horses like that, but I quarrel with the generalization. When I would come to the gate and call, Wicki would leave all of that behind and come trotting over to get caught. Generally every time I took him out it was to be ridden. Since we were Eventing, sometimes those rides were hard work – jumping, roadwork and conditioning. Yet, without fail, he would come trotting over, away from food and friends, and be ready for whatever adventure that day brought.

Ben – He not only had all of his needs met, but he was deeply in love with a mare. The one time they were split apart it was worse than weaning a foal from its mother! So much chaos did they create that her owners relented and brought her back so all could be in peace again. Yet, whenever I drove up to the barn, everyone knew that I was coming because of Ben’s whinnies of greeting. When I would take him away from his beloved Joy, not a whinny did he utter back to her. I somehow rated even above his beloved Joy. I spent most of my time at the barn, so our interactions were far more than just riding – yet most days I did ride him. Without fail, he would put his head in the halter and walk me to the grooming area.

Wicki was an enthusiastic Event horse who seemed to love his ‘job’

Coffee – My mother’s horse is not the most enthusiastic worker – and he is perhaps the most opinionated horse I’ve ever known! When we started getting him back in shape this year, he would try to steer us away from the grooming area and out to the front where there was grass (we spend the winter hand grazing them in the front so I don’t have to mow much in spring). If he was eating, we had to coax him away from his hay. This behavior caused my latest pondering as to whether we should work and ride horses. But I persisted, keeping a close eye on his attitude about work. It was not long before he was once again leaving his hay to come over. Now that I’m actually riding him, he seeks me out, soliciting my attention and pointing me to his halter. He no longer tries to avoid the grooming area. In fact, I thought I’d be nice one day, and go get the tools to groom him in his stall, so he could continue his breakfast for a bit. I turned to leave and he followed me, so I let him trail along (no rope) and he walked into the grooming area on his own, standing untied while I got him ready.

These are just three examples of horses who seemed to enjoy their work. Wicki loved eventing, once even completing a course on his own while I hung on, disabled by an injury, only my voice to guide him. Ben hated eventing, so I gave it up rather than giving him up. But he loved to jump, going around the course looking for the next fence, willing to jump anything as long as it was in the arena. Coffee hates jumping, but seems to be enjoying the ‘dance’ that is Dressage in our little world. He was only a week back under saddle and offered collection without prompting – I simply asked for a bit of better alignment, by seat alone, and got lovely elevation volunteered.

When I was training horses for other people, the scenario repeated itself over and over again. The horses ranged from eager to sour, from bold to frightened, from safe to ‘dangerous’ – but to a horse, after just a few weeks of working together, they all came to greet me like a friend. Every horse learned to enjoy its job, becoming a relaxed and willing partner. A Thoroughbred who was a nervous wreck around his owner became so relaxed that I could gallop him with the reins draped on his neck. A mare known to be the sourest in the barn became relaxed, trusting, and friendly. A mustang thought to be unmanageable became a youth horse. My veterinarian was known to tell people “Every horse loves going to Camp Lia!”

Ben and I doing what he enjoyed the most – he’d even do it on his own, for amusement

I have often pondered why these horses were so apparently happy in their work that they willingly came to work each day. Each was very individual in their personalities and backgrounds. Some were equally friendly and motivated with their owners – many were not, which is why I had them in training. (It was my ability to help ‘problem’ horses that usually got me a client.) Over time I’ve settled on the following reasons I believe these horses responded so well and actually seemed to enjoy the work:

  • I listened to each of them. Every horse had it’s issues that had to be addressed. That might be lack of confidence, actual fear, confusion, or just a background of dysfunctional relationships with humans. Each horse required a different approach, and I did my best to find that and give it to them.
  • I made friends with them. I’ve never shied away from treats and hand grazing. If you want a partnership, there has to be something in it for the horse. Many of the things we humans want, such as nose to tail grooming, are not enjoyable to the horse. On the other hand, a good withers scratch or face rub can be a welcome gift!
  • I educated them. Too many riders and trainers think they can just get on and start doing things, then wonder why the horse begins to act up. We underestimate the amount of time, and all the little steps, required in teaching a horse how to do the many things we’d like them to do. Instead of beginning with the ABCs, we expect them to write full essays from the start! I took each horse back to kindergarten to fill in the gaps in their education, and in turn improving their confidence.
  • I am a good rider. It cannot be said enough that when we ask a horse to carry us we have to be the best burden we can. Many of these horses had riders whose lack of skill caused anything from confusion to actual pain. I was once able to take a mare who had bucked her rider off several times that day and, after a short warm-up, ride her softly around a course with no issue. The simple secret was to show her that I would not harm her by hitting her in the mouth or landing on her back over each fence. A good rider not only can sit well, with quiet legs and hands – they can also adapt their style to fit the needs of each horse.

All of these points are offered simply to show the experiences that I’ve had that have shown me how horses can go from being unhappy while being ridden to be more enthusiastic participants. It is pertinent to why I do not think the question of whether horses ‘like’ being ridden is a simple one.

People often point to indicators of why they think horses hate being ridden – expressions, attitude, even pain. Most of the reasons I have heard seem tied more to a poor relationship or poor riding than to any innate attitude of the horse. Certainly a horse who has a bad experience will not be keen to repeat it – and if forced to repeat it daily will likely shut down or turn sour. I have had jobs where I was bullied by a boss or coworker. It had a profound effect on every aspect of my life! I have also had jobs where I loved the work and those I was working with. I could not wait to get to work in those days! If we fit the job to the horse, and become a teammate rather than a bullying boss, why would they not enjoy the work?

No question this horse must hate being ridden

Horses are curious creatures who, in my experience, love to learn new things. I have watched as many horses will utilize newly learned activities and skills even in their ‘leisure time’. My mare, Dani, was an unimpressive mover growing up – but once she became my ‘dancing partner’ you could find her doing extended trot, pirouettes, collected gaits, etc., while at play. Yes, other horses may do those things naturally when at play – but it never occurred to her to even try until she’d learned them as new skills. At the same time, focusing on known activities that a horse finds fun can make for an enjoyable partnership. Dani and her brother, Java, both were jumping on their own while still young foals – and both enjoyed it as a ridden activity.

Do I think that there are horses who hate being ridden? Absolutely! Judging by what I see, I would say most of them do. But do I think it has to be that way? No, I do not. Just as you don’t mind giving a pony ride to your little niece, I believe horses can be happy to let us ride. However, if some little kid you hardly knows asks for a pony ride, and then they bounce around on your back, hang too tightly on your neck, and bang their heels into your ribs, you would probably get pretty resentful about it.

It is a perfectly valid choice to keep your horse and never ride it. As long as your horse has what they need, including interesting things to explore to feed their innate curiosity, then they should lead a happy life (just please provide for them in your will). There are unmounted activities you can share, like horse agility, obstacle courses, tricks, etc. When I have the opportunity, I like just taking a walk up the road with our ‘explorers’, Coffee and Roxie (the other two prefer life at home, so far). There is nothing that says you have to ride in order to enjoy your horse.

By contrast to the above photo, this horse seems quite contented taking his rider on a hack

In the end, whatever path you choose, we owe it to our horses to listen to what they are telling us. If your horse is very dull, or is acting up, try to figure out why. Either can be a sign of pain, discomfort, dislike for the work you have chosen, or frustration that they don’t understand what you want from them. If you can rule out pain, the next examination needs to be of yourself. Are you an easy burden (this includes checking both your riding and your tack for fit)? Have you laid the proper foundation for what you are asking? Are there activities your horse might prefer to the one you are pursuing?

Asking whether or not you should ride your horse may be a good question to consider. However, I think the better question is “How can I be a better partner for my horse?” Whether or not you ride, this question will hopefully lead you to a better relationship – perhaps one in which you no longer have to ask whether your horse minds being ridden.

4 replies

  1. Conditioning your horse so that they are physically capable of carrying weight on their back without stress is rarely mentioned by those engaged in the riding controversy.
    Old-time cavalry manuals spent most of the first year ‘acclimating’ a horse to their rider. Connective tissue takes up to nine month to heal/respond to stress. So ‘hardening’ their horses back by increasing the resilience of the connective tissue was an accurate metaphor.
    Dr. Nyland’s research on the Kikkuli method of conditioning showed that once horses were fit, they could carry a rider without an increase in heart rate. Before they were fit, adding a rider, no matter how light weight, caused a significant increase in heart rate.
    Besides Kikkuli’s horses, cavalry remounts and Nyland’s endurance Arabs were all raised on pasture, free to move and socialize until they were mature enough to start schooling, somewhere between three and five years old.
    I do not know of many who are willing to start their horses by working at slow gaits- walk and trot that first year. But I am sure that a horse that is properly conditioned and sound may feel very differently about a rider than a horse is not fit or has back injuries. Putting weight on the back of an overweight, unfit two year old could well cause lifelong back problems and it is easy for me to imagine those horses would resent be ridden!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have yet to find anyone, these days, who truly knows how to start a horse – taking the time they need to get strong, find their own balance, and learn all the very basic responses that set them up for success in what we ask of them. I remember one older work (Seunig, perhaps) where the author advocated only walking for the first year under saddle. Can you imagine anyone today being that patient?! Starting horses considerately and properly is a lost art!

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      • Which is why my ‘Light in the Saddle’ series accordioned into six volumes.. I wanted to explain WHY as well as what to do. Of course, it is a lot simpler to take a stand against riding than it is to start a horse properly, so I doubt my series will ever be a best seller. But getting it out there does at least make me feel I am doing what I can for the horse….

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is a challenge in this era of short attention spans and instant experts – but all we can do is keep putting the information out there and hope they help someone out there, especially some horses.

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