Every time you ride your horse you are stressing them. Even when you are not riding them certain paddock conditions will stress them. Sorry, not sorry for being so blunt. The truth is I've spent a lifetime trying to justify what I do with my horse. For me it was a constant battle of seeing such a beautiful, majestic, free spirit and subjecting it to conforming to structure, "behaving like a good horse should", and putting myself into that leadership role where I say, you do. We have all heard people talk about horses like there sole purpose for this world is for them to be ridden by humans.
"What's the point of having a horse if you're not riding it. Its being wasted."
"Competition is just a refinement of what its already doing in the paddock."
"Its just being naughty. It should know better."
"Its my horses fault I'm not where I want to be with my riding."
"That horse is crazy/dangerous/only good for dog meat."
But the thing is that being ridden is something we have imposed on the horse. It was not born into this world to understand the pressure we put on them to respond correctly to us poking them in the ribs, pulling on their nose and mouths and wiggling our butts around on their back. There is a very complex training scale that they have to go through to get them from green and unbroken, to the quiet, sound and intelligent performance horses we dream about. There is a fine line of showing good leadership skills so that we can inspire trust and confidence in horses and bullying and dominating them into submission.
There was a good period where I nearly quit riding altogether because I couldn't reconcile my feelings about imposing my will onto another, with what is needed to be a "good rider". But then I realised me quitting riding wouldn't improve the way horses are trained and ridden, only learning how to improve on our current training practises and then teach others, could I possibly affect change in the industry.
So if I am going to make such a big, controversial call like every time you are riding your horse you are stressing it, I better get stuck into explaining myself before the hate mail starts!
Each time we ride our horse is being exposed to the physical stress of exercise, the mental stress of learning, performing and offering the correct response and the emotional stress of "being a good horse" or showing the correct behaviours that get it what it wants, pleases its rider and doesn't result in pain or distress.
So the real question is not whether or not we are stressing our horse but whether or not the stressors we are creating are building our horse up in health mentally, physically and emotionally or whether the stressors we create are contributing to the deterioration of our horses mental, physical and emotional health. This is where it can get a bit tricky. Each horse is an individual and will respond differently to stress than the next. The more stressors they have in their lives the more it will break down the resilience to stress. And how they have been conditioned before they came to you will affect how they respond to stress.
Even when your horse is not reacting physically to stress, as commonly seen in the stressed horse such as flighty, easily taking the bolt, or rearing and bucking, there is still a complex underlying chemical process affecting fluctuations of hormones, muscle tightness, heart rate and the like. So even when you can't see the stress it is still there, happening, building under the surface, waiting for the perfect tripwire to set off the cascade of flight hormones that is the horses instinctive response for self preservation.
Our goal as horse riders is to know where this tipping point is and to try and keep our horse just shy of it because this is where the magic is. Just enough stress to push them to give their 100% performance but not so much that we push them over. And you know what? Sometimes we do push them over. Or in the case of my horse he needs to crack a tanty to apply himself to the work at hand. So it is also our responsibility to be able to cope with our horses behaviour when they do trip over that point.
There is also a difference between acute stress and chronic stress. Chronic stress is that daily ongoing stress that over time wears the body down, reduces immune health and triggers genetic responses towards poor health and nutritional deficiency. Acute stress is short periods of slightly increased stress that trigger the adaptation process, that builds up strength, health and resilience.
So what we want to do as riders and trainers is expose our horse to the level of mental, emotional and physical stress of WHERE THEY ARE AT RIGHT NOW for the period of time that BEST SUITS YOUR HORSE AS AN INDIVIDUAL and then intermittently expose them to an increased amount of stress that triggers an adaptation process to create a higher level of performance. If the level of performance IMPROVES your horse was at the best place it could be to be ready to "Level Up" and work at a higher quality. If their level of performance DETERIORATES you want to take that extra stress off and work at what they can do easily for a while longer before challenging their ability again.
I can also give you a 100% guarantee that you will have to push through some behavioural problems when you are pushing for a higher level of performance. This is the mental resistance to being able to do something they've never been able to do before, crashing through comfort boundaries and learning new skills.
This is where so many riders feel stuck and frustrated!!! They will go through periods of intense growth and soar quickly to new heights and achieve things they've never done before, only to plateau and stay on the same exercises day in and day out for months. But these periods of plateau are INTEGRAL to progress because you are conditioning and building your horses resilience to this new level of stress BEFORE pushing for more. (And also why I strongly push cross training with pole and grid work and hacking out).
Remember from introducing a new exercise it takes:
- 6 - 8 weeks for neural innervation (coordination)
- 3 - 4 months for muscle tone (where the horse can actually perform the task and their muscles start to bulk)
- 6 - 12 months for bone and ligament density (where the movements you have been training become part of the conformation and are now easy to execute, generally where you experience the "Level Up"
All this is as long as your horse is in perfect health. Any other stress factors can impede the healthy adaptation to exercises that will result in improved performance.
Keen to learn more?
I will be releasing my guide on THE exercises to be doing with your horse whether you are trying to transition a green horse to an educated one, trying to repair and rehab musculoskeletal damage, bring your horse back into work or just want a thorough warm up that will ensure your horse is less susceptible to musculoskeletal damage during your ride. Leave your email in the form below to get on the wait list for its release and stay up to date with Equestrian Spirit News.