So much has been written about the “happy horse”, especially lately. I believe this recent trend is in some part a backlash to the controversial low and deep, or rollkur form of training. If not specifically that, then perhaps in response to the form of business riding where the horse is “pressed to the max” to boost the price for sales. Whatever the motive, it is definitely the “trend” at the moment.
I have been reading various approaches to making a horse “happy”. Some of these articles suggest a horse is happy when he can stretch , he is happy with very light contact, lots of walk breaks make him happy, as well as a multitude of other riding concepts and practices. For me, these things, in an of themselves, do not make a horse happy. As the result of reading various opinions, they have inspired me to reflect on my many years of experience with numerous horses, as well as the knowledge I have worked to acquire over the years. I have thought a lot about what it took to bring each of these horses to a point of calmness in their work. Of course, there was a lot of variation in their needs, as horses are individuals and not to approach them as such can never make them “happy”. Finally, I have decided to express my opinion as well.
First, let’s start with my definition of a “happy horse“. For me, this is extremely simple; what makes a horse happy in his work is a clear understanding of what is asked, and a rider who finds the way to make it easy for him to accomplish the task asked of him. What is difficult is adapting the training to the individual needs and attitudes of the horse.
It would be easier to begin my discussion with a typical young and unspoiled horse, beginning his training with only his “personality” to consider. However, most of us are not starting three and four year old horses. Rather we are dealing with a horse with a history, good or not so good. This situation of course complicates somewhat our approach to making our horse “happy” in his work. So, I will tackle this issue using a specific example.
Contact can make a horse either happy or unhappy. So let’s discuss the horse who has been ridden upside down with little contact, or with the “contact, no contact” (taking the rein until the horse puts his head down, and then slacking the rein until he raises it again) style of riding commonly seen at lower levels of dressage. In an effort to “train” this horse, that is to say develop rhythm, balance and straightness, we must of course school the horse with contact. Needless to say, the horse will not at first be happy to accept contact. But we all know in order to teach him to become elastic and flexible, we must have contact. In order to develop his topline, we must have a tensile strength from pole to tail (longitudinal flexion) which cannot be accomplished without contact. Therefore, he must encounter and be developed to UNDERSTAND and ACCEPT contact with the bit and therefore our hand. (I am not intending to conduct a training session, perhaps at another time we can discuss the question of contact.) We have to remember here, we are not “educating” but “re-educating” our horse so we have to expect some resistances.
So how do we bring this horse into a state of “happiness”? First we have to acknowledge that re-schooling takes a lot of patience. In order to work calmly, the horse has to understand the aids and have confidence in the rider. This requires constant repetition of the application of the aids using the BIG LETTERS so he has a clear understanding of your demands. Of course anything new is a bit stressful, for horses and humans, and therefore the horse might not seem happy, but a calm repetition will over time bring the horse to a point where he will perform this demand in a relaxed way.
This does not mean the work is not hard, but unless a horse is lazy, he does not mind to work hard if he understands his work. For me, when he can perform his work in a way that he understands, even if it is physically demanding, he is happy to do it.
Finally, I think we can make the description of a “happy horse” even more simple. A horse is most happy when he feels he is in BALANCE. The work is not easy for the horse when he is out of balance. And it is the rider who must help the horse stay in balance throughout his work. Of course a horse who is not on the aids, does not understand the aids, can never receive any help from the rider (outside of force) to maintain his balance (or re-balance). Simply put, the horse has to have some stress while learning to respond correctly to the rider’s aids, which will not always make him happy, but once he understands the aids and trusts the rider to apply them consistently, he relaxes mentally and assumes the role of “happy horse”. This is the true meaning of harmony. Consistency and trust. Happiness!!