Articles > Motivating Horses

Motivating Horses
By Paul Kathen © 2005

Part 1
Part 2

Part 1

     Your horse is in self-carriage, he is totally focused on you, he willingly responds to the slightest of your aids, his back is up, his tail is swinging in the rhythm of the gait, and his ears are moving forward and backward showing his attention to the road and to you. In your connection through the reins he lets you feel the power of his motor and his willingness to submit to you. Both of you are having the time of your life and the spectators are in total awe. That is the way it should be. Now leave your dream world, mount your horse, and ride. Compare what you feel now to how you felt in your dream. May I assume that it is not the same feeling? The difference between what is (reality) and what should be (goal) causes you stress and this stress motivates you to go to work with your horse in order to do better and move closer to the way it should be. This is the most basic form of motivation. You have a goal (how it should be) and you realize that you have not reached it (how it is) and that nudges you off your seat to work towards achieving it.

     This stress is a very positive force in life because without it not much would ever be accomplished. Unfortunately this stress also has a cousin by the name of frustration, and she usually shows up in the form of obstacles to achieving our goals. It is our way of dealing with these obstacles that can turn stress into a negative force in our lives. Lousy moods, headaches, ulcers and a variety of other diseases are the result of a poor response to obstacles in our way to reaching our goals. I believe that we all have at one time or another felt overwhelmed by a situation that seemed beyond our ability to steer it toward a positive outcome. This sense of helplessness can become so strong that it leaves us in a state of resignation. That is bad and calls for professional help. You may wonder how this may apply to horses. Well, when it comes to stress, frustration, and resignation, horses are all too human.
     About a year ago I read in a horse magazine that about sixty percent of all show horses have ulcers. That made me wonder how our horses are doing, so I asked my students to have their horses scoped. We arranged for a sponsorship to cover the expenses and scheduled two days of scoping for ulcers in our show horses. Out of the forty horses that were volunteered we found only one with an ulcer. The veterinarian was amazed, the sponsoring pharmaceutical company was disappointed, and I was happy. It seemed that our horses were at least content. The reason I brought this story up is that to me twenty percent would have been too high a number and I would have been looking for ways to bring that number down.

     For those of you who have read any of my articles before you may have noticed that in dealing with horses the most important word is, “WHY.” Horses are unable to deliberately deceive you. If you can find the logical answer to the “why” of their behavior, it and your goal will automatically indicate to you the “how” of your behavior toward them. If there had been an inordinate number of horses with ulcers in our barn, I would have looked to their work and their care as the major sources of stress. Since in our case the horses are ridden by their owners and four different trainers, work is not a common denominator with any of them. That then would have pointed toward their care as the problem. We will discuss some of the specifics about management later on.

      Why do we own horses? I just simply have to ask this question. We can play with so many interesting toys. Why horses, I ask. There is a fascination about horses that nothing else can give us. It makes them special. That is why we want to be around horses. They are so generous toward us, yet they are equally demanding of us. Their personalities are so strong that they can totally submit to us without losing any of their pride or their spirit. That is what sets them apart. That is the reason we would rather ride a horse than a motorcycle. Let me describe two incidents which I personally observed that had opposite results.

     This first one I observed at a horse exposition in Houston, Texas. A man was demonstrating for the audience how to bombproof a horse. He wanted this horse to ignore all stimuli and stand perfectly still. By the time I arrived at the scene the horse was already in a sweat. He was tacked up in a western saddle and bridle and this man held him by a long rope that was attached to the bit. Every time the horse just as much as tried to look in the direction of a noise, he was chased backwards across the arena with the demonstrator blowing into the microphone and swinging his arms and the end of the rope at the horse’s head. All this time the demonstrator talked about the need for a very safe horse that can deal with all the sounds and surprises with which today’s world may confront him. I was so tempted to go down there, take the horse away from him, and ask him to talk to the audience about the beauty of motorcycles. They are easy to park, you can turn them off, and you will not have to worry about them moving on their own no matter what happens.

     This man was right about the need for safety around horses. He was wrong in his way to achieve it. What he was doing was to break the spirit of that horse to where it would move into a state of resignation. In order for it to do what he expected from it the horse had to give up its will to live. The horse is an animal of prey. Its ability to survive depends on its awareness of the surroundings. Its most basic instinct demands that it check out strange sounds. Such an instinct is hard to overcome and in the process of killing it many other highly desirable aspects of the horse’s mind will be lost. To me the process alone constitutes an act of cruelty. By gaining the horse’s trust, you can convince it to ignore the surroundings and obey its handler. This, however, takes skill, a great deal of time, and patience.

     Here is story two. Several years ago I was involved in a situation that showed me that a horse, although frightened into a panic, could overcome its need of flight and trust a human to help it. This was a mare that had only recently been brought to me for training. My wife, my friend, Louis, and I had just returned from dinner when we heard a loud commotion in one of the barns. It sounded like a horse was cast and struggling to get up. When we arrived at the stall, we noticed that it was this mare, and she was just frantically running around in her stall and kicking out hard. She was dripping sweat and was wild eyed. The problem was immediately obvious to us. Four or five horseflies had entered her stall and were chasing her. Since she seemed blind from panic I did not want to just let her out for fear she might run into something and hurt herself or have the flies chase her to death. Therefore, I asked Louis to please hold the gate closed after I was in the stall but open it quickly in case I had to escape. He was to not let her out if possible. Talking to her as I entered the stall, I tried to sound confident in spite of my apprehension. After a few more rounds of running and kicking she stopped the running and let me put the halter on her. All the while she was still fighting the flies by kicking at them. She pranced and kicked all the way to the wash rack where we managed to get rid of the flies with water. This horse had been handled right and she had learned to trust humans to help her. We learned to keep her covered with fly spray because even stable flies or mosquitoes made her nervous.

     Some of you may already know where I head with this. I am trying to explain what an awesome responsibility you take on when you decide to own a horse. They are not pets and they are not machines. They are living creatures that totally depend upon you for their care and well-being. We have about eighty horses boarded here and many owners have to make significant sacrifices to pay for the expenses yet none of them seems to mind. Most boarding facilities take good care of the horse’s physical needs, but horses also crave the human touch. That is the responsibility of the owner. Our horses are very fortunate in that the owners make sure that somebody will spend real quality time with their horse if they for some reason cannot be there themselves.

     In case you wonder how all of this relates to motivating for better performance, think back to the last time a friend asked you out for a game of tennis. You went but played lousy. Your heart just was not in it and you would rather have stayed home. There was no real obvious reason for your listlessness but you think it might have been because you had worked very hard lately and had not rested enough. It could have been that you had overdone the junk food and not eaten enough Wheaties. Maybe the upcoming visit of your mother-in-law had you down. There are many possible reasons for your poor performance, both physical and emotional. Horses deal with the same problems.

     Since we domesticated the horse it has become dependent on us. Therefore, we are responsible to see that it is not overworked, is fed properly, and is protected from the many stresses that may befall an animal in captivity. The horse is a living creature and, therefore, it must eat and drink, and since it is an animal of prey, it must make sure not to be eaten. Because it cannot search for food and water itself while in a stall, we must take care of these needs. Of course we all feed our horses well and many of them are overfed. Now place yourself in the shoes of your horse. Your stomach starts growling at 6:00 a.m. but there is no feed. You are a horse now so do not think like a human. Horses are like children; they want instant gratification. Horses do not set priorities in their needs. They do not let the need to lose weight override the calls of the stomach. They feel hungry now, they must eat now and if you do not bring the food, they will try to go get it and promptly start to tear the walls down. Fortunately domesticated horses have only one predator left and that is man. Thieves, abusive owners or caregivers, and some egomaniacs in search of glory on horseback are the only real threats to the survival of a horse outside of nature taking its course.

     By now you probably feel abused. That was not my intent but unless you have really studied this part of horse ownership you are not aware how sensitive a creature the horse really is. They are so big and powerful but outside of their speed they were very helpless against their former predators. Therefore, their motto for survival was, “Run first, check later!” Food, water and their position in the herd are the other major motivators for the horse.

     In the herd there was an order established through fights among the members of the herd for the right to the most succulent grass or the first spot at the water hole. After that order had been established life in the herd was easy. Horses would find their favorite playmate to run and stay fit or to just stand and scratch each other. The dominant stallion would stand guard and the alpha mare would lead.

     Now that you own the horse you are the provider for all the goods and services to keep him healthy and strong. You are also the playmate, protector and alpha mare for him. You can hire out the providing of his physical needs to boarding facilities but the playmate, protector and leader is your responsibility if you want him to fight for you in the show ring.

     Two years ago we rebuilt one barn and added another barn. In the design of the barns I made sure that all the horses could see each other. This way I hoped to create a sense of the herd. To further enhance this sense of herd we turn the same horses out in the same adjacent paddocks at the same time. This way they have the same neighbors and can make friends. Horses are creatures of habit and by creating a routine in their daily lives a great deal of frustration can be avoided. The horses are fed morning, noon and night at the same time. I feel this is important to reduce frustration over their inability to go out and search for food. At the Hanoverian stallion station in Adelheidsdorf, Germany, they have to feed up to a hundred young stallions at a time three times a day. To protect the horses at the end of the line from too much frustration they have computerized the feeding system and now with the push of a button all horses are fed simultaneously with the feed especially formulated for each of them.

     Consistency is the key to a content horse. Feeding time, turnout time, neighbors, and the feed itself must be the same since the stabled horse cannot go out to find the type of grasses that will give him the balance of minerals in the diet he needs. This balance is the secret to good health and the major feed brands conduct research to mix products that will satisfy the needs of our horses for every situation or station in their lives. Foals have different needs than show horses. Seniors need to be fed differently from mares in foal, etc. I am affiliated with Purina Mills and have visited their research facility. The work the researchers do there is very impressive and I cannot see a barn owner matching that effort to select the best mix of feeds for the various horses in her barn.

     The next need for consistency is the handler of the horse in its daily routine. I like to read about famous horses and their idiosyncrasies. Many of their riders will tell how they needed to bring the horse’s groom to the shows because the horse would fret or even go off its feed when the regular groom was not the one taking care of it.

     If you keep your horse at your barn at home, you must make sure that you keep most of these aspects in mind when planning a routine for your horse. You may not be able to do everything as described and that is okay, but I would ask you to have a companion for him. One of my students wanted to buy a horse for himself and his wife to ride and to keep it at their little farm. He asked me to help him find a suitable horse and to act as an advisor in the maintenance of the horse. The only condition I attached to that agreement was that they buy two horses. The second horse did not have to be more than a “lawn ornament” to fill their horse’s need for a herd. Horses are very social creatures and as I said before, any need not filled over a long period of time will cause frustration or worse.

     Consistency is of even greater importance when you handle your horse. Not only must you treat him the same way all the time, but you must also expect him to behave in the same manner at all times. You are the alpha in this herd of two. You set the rules and then both of you must stay within the boundaries of those rules. He is only a horse and, therefore, he will test you just as a child would. Just like a good parent, you will correct him according to the misdeed without emotion but with firmness in the same manner every time. If you feel generous today and let your horse get away with all kinds of misbehavior and tomorrow punish him as he acts in the same way, you will soon have a neurotic horse on your hands.

     There is so much to consider when owning a horse and we have not even saddled up yet. One other trait of horses is their extreme generosity and willingness to forgive. If you feel that you might have fallen short of filling all their needs, just change that part of your horse management. Be consistent about it and your horse will gladly accept your apology. One good way to find out how your horse feels about you is to go out to the paddock with the halter and observe him. If he comes to you, stands still while you put the halter on him, and then follows you to the saddle area with quick fresh steps, you are probably okay. Should he try to search all your pockets for a treat and pull you towards his stall or a grassy place, you are dealing with a brat. That is not good in children and it is not good in horses either.

     Look into his eyes and the question you want to see is, ”I wonder what we get to work on today?” How to get him there is the topic of the next article.

Part 2

    The manager calls it productivity, the horse trainer speaks of performance, and they both mean the same thing. They want to reach a goal and need the cooperation of another person or a horse to achieve it. The quality of this cooperation depends to a great extent on the motivation of these helpers. That is why businesses are highly interested in keeping their workforce happy. It has long been recognized that the best way to motivate an employee to help the manager to reach his goal, is for the business to create a work environment that will also help the employee fulfill his needs.

    We discussed in the last article how the trainer must make sure the horse’s needs for food, water and a social life are well taken care of. Other factors that determine the level of quality in the horse’s performance are the work environment, the horse’s health, the talent of horse and rider and the training the horse has received. Genetic factors also affect the motivation of a horse but it serves no purpose to discuss these in this article since you cannot change them. If you find that your horse is just simply not suited for your purpose, either lower your expectations or allow your horse to go to somebody who is looking for a horse just like him and find one for yourself whose talents are in your area of the sport. I find this the much kinder solution for both you and your horse. Some health problems are also the result of an unfortunate genetic makeup. You have no control over that and, therefore, we will ignore that performance reducer and assume that your horse does not have any such problems.

    This leaves us with the work environment and the quality of training your horse receives. By work environment, I mean the conditions under which the horse has to work. Let us start off with the tack. I have often heard a rider justifying a rough hand to those watching by saying to the horse, “Those reins are mine.” Let us think about that for a minute. Do you agree with that rider? I will admit to you that the reins are a shared property if you will allow that the bit belongs to the horse. After all, it is the horse’s sensitivity to the bit that determines what kind you use. If the horse leans on the reins, it is probably not because it wants your reins but because it is off balance, and you fix that problem through half halts. A rough hand and the demand for the reins are not going to change your horse’s balance. So please make sure that the bridle and the bit fit the horse and are appropriate for your horse and its level of training.

    The saddle unquestionably belongs to the horse. The horse must carry the saddle and if the contour of the panel does not match the contour of the horse’s back, it will create a pressure point somewhere as soon as you put weight on the saddle. If the saddle does not fit the rider, you will hear her complain. It hurts here or there or it puts her too far forward or back, etc. Horses on the other hand are quiet sufferers. They cannot verbalize their pain and so every time you show up with a saddle your horse feels the pain coming and is not looking forward to the workout. Such a horse is unmotivated and the rider is to blame. If you think I am too rough for you, get the “Pepto” out for it is going to become worse. If there is too much tail ringing or antsy behavior of another kind while you are tacking up, your horse is dreading something and he is not motivated for work. One of the dreads might be ill-fitting tack.

    Then there is the job the farrier does for you. Is he competent? Most horses should not go longer than five weeks because after that time the pressure on the navicular area of the hoof begins to increase.

    How about his mouth? You want him to be comfortable there because an irritated mouth makes for an unsteady connection. The horse must trust the bit and stretch into it for a good ride. Without this trust, training is impossible. The importance of a healthy mouth has created a new specialty in the veterinary world, the equine dentist. A check-up every six months and a rasping of the rough edges will help to keep your horse from developing connection problems due to a sore mouth.

    You do most of the training in the arena so the quality of the footing is of great importance. If the surface is too hard, it is damaging to the joints. In case it is too soft, the tendons and ligaments suffer. A slick surface causes the horse to lose confidence about its balance and it will hold back in the gaits. The lungs are affected when the footing is too dry and dusty. Now we move to my pet peeves, ruts and holes. In a busy training facility the arenas take quite a beating in the course of a day. It usually shows up in a dressage ring in the form of ruts and in a jump arena as holes before, after, and in between jumps. If you do not level these holes on a regular basis, the horses have to jump three jumps for each obstacle: first into a hole, then out of the hole over the fence and back into a hole, and then out of that hole onto the way to the next jump.

    Look at a dressage arena after a few days of riding without leveling. The ruts at the ends have taken on the shape of a half-circle. The centerline has three holes in it, two where the circles meet and another at X. The training pyramid tells us that rhythm is the first condition we have to establish in training a horse. Imagine you are riding at a trot on the left hand between P and B. As you come to B your horse steps down into a slight depression, just to rise out of it again at the next stride. A little before M he must step up out of the rut to move into the corner. At C you encounter a slight depression again, into it and immediately out of it, to reach the corner. A bit past H your horse must drop down into the rut again. Except for a depression at E, the rut is level. The next climb out of the rut is about three meters before K. A proves to be problematic. Horses have dug quite a hole here. They circled, halted, entered and left the arena all at the same spot. You have stumbled past A and find the going quite smooth until past F where your horse falls into the rut again. Soon you are past P back on your way to B for the next trip around (no pun intended). Would you like to know what a shoulder-in looks like with one front leg in the rut and one out?

    You think it is about time to start riding, and I agree. Ride at a walk for the first fifteen minutes please. There is a good reason for that. Horses at rest allow the joint cartilage to dry out and shrink, thus the joint is not properly lubricated and the cartilage has lost its cushioning effect. A bad step at such a moment can damage the joint without you ever noticing it. There are no nerve endings in cartilage and so there is no pain and your horse will continue to work sound. The lameness occurs later, sometimes years later, when the body, in order to protect the damaged area, has deposited calcium there and the x-ray shows a bone spur.

    Horses are a roaming species. They walk, they rest, and then they walk again to graze. Next, they walk to the waterhole, they walk while they graze some more and rest again. If you were to time their activities, walking would occupy most of the day. For that reason their joints stay prepared for the sudden runs in case of danger or friendly play. Without a rider the stress on the joints is a great deal less also because maintaining the balance is so much easier. You may have noticed that the guiding principle to keeping your horse content and healthy is to stay as close to mother nature as you possibly can in your care and work with the horse. The fifteen minute joint warm-up walk is, of course, not necessary if your horse came straight out of the paddock. Then again it may be a good way to loosen his back. Depending on his temperament, you will want to ride the relaxed horse on a long rein while taking the nervous horse on a shorter contact, with the goal to relax him to where he too will enjoy a walk on the long rein.

    This is also a good time to bond with your horse, especially if you have the opportunity to go on a trail where the two of you are alone and you can talk to him without receiving funny looks from other riders. Ask all the top riders in the world and they will tell you that you have to have a special bond with your horse if you expect him to work for you on a consistent basis. There will be times when your horse does not feel at the top of his game. It may not be his day, he may be in an environment he does not like, he may be sore from yesterday or he may just simply be worried. It will take a great deal of desire to please, a high degree of self confidence and a strong trust in his rider to ignore his feelings and go out and give his best for you. You should seek opportunities like your time on the trail or other activities to bond with your horse on a regular basis. Your horse will pay you back with loyalty and a greater motivation to cooperate.

    No two horses are alike, no two riders are alike, and you cannot find two situations that are exactly alike. It is, therefore, impossible to describe what to do at all times, but there is one thing you must do always, and that is to think. Your horse is a highly complicated creature with both physical and psychological aspects that you must consider. When you ride your horse, you are training it whether you are a trainer or not. That means that you must either be a competent rider or ride under the supervision of a competent person. The experienced rider has developed correct habits that help her make good decisions when working her equine pupil. Riders that do not have these good habits need help to avoid developing bad habits that will hurt their horse’s progress.

    All habits do make blind, the good ones as well as the bad ones. What do the Germans mean with this saying? They declare that when we act out of habit, we do not question what we are doing. My suggestion is that in riding you should only turn the actual act of communicating to habit while your mind should always be actively thinking about what the best information for the horse is. This requires a great deal of concentration. That is tiring, and that is good. The horse also must concentrate to listen to you and then he must turn the information into action. That is doubly tiring. It is amazing how much more willing we are to give our partner a well deserved break when we are a little winded ourselves.

    I believe that all three-year-old horses, before we start working with them, are motivated. It is through the mistakes made by trainers, grooms, barn personnel, farriers or veterinarians that the horse gradually loses interest in its desire to please. Following this thought to its logical conclusion means that all we need to do is to avoid mistakes and we have a motivated horse. I believe I am right about that. Do you remember way back when we talked about motivation and frustration? We said that the difference between what should be and what is motivates us to move the is into what should be. Any action of ours is motivated that way. When you scratch your nose, you do it because it itches. The itch is the reality (is). Your nose should not itch (should be). You scratch and the itch is gone. You are a happy camper. Now that nose itches again. You scratch again but this time the itch does not stop. That is frustrating but you conclude it must be allergies, you drive to the store, buy a drug, take it and the itch is gone. Happy again.

    Horses behave just like we do. They eat when they feel hungry, they drink when they feel thirsty, they rest when tired and they scratch when they itch. Now we start working with the horse and he no longer knows what to do because he has no clue what the “should be” is. Here is where you come in. You must create in him such an itch that when he scratches it, he will have done what you wanted him to do. All horses are different, so the purpose of the art of riding is to strive to know the horse and to make it obedient. The art of the rider is to make this obedience as easy as possible for the horse. She must make sure that the horse understands what is expected of him (how to scratch the itch). Needless to say, the horse also must be capable of doing the scratching.

    Now to you, the owner, rider, trainer or whatever other responsibility you have in the care of this horse. Develop the habit of asking yourself, “Why,” before you do anything with the horse. I believe any thinking person will consider that a reasonable request. Yet doing that will test your character. It will force you to be patient. It will not allow you to blame the horse when things just do not go right. You will have to teach him instead of forcing him. Try it and your rewards will be great because you will truly begin to understand your horse. This understanding in turn will increase your enjoyment of your horse and your work with him.

    Let us return one more time to the most basic motivators of horses, safety and comfort. Does your horse feel safe in a cave hidden from everything? Is he comfortable there? He will say no to both questions. The place where he wants to be is right in the middle of the herd. There he feels comfortable. He knows exactly what is expected of him. He is accepted for what he is and all he has to do is to keep an eye on the alpha mare and do as she indicates to be safe. You and your horse constitute the herd. You are the alpha mare. All you have to do is treat him like the mare would. She would be firm but fair, consistent in her demands and in her expectations and she would fight for him if he needed protection. That sounds easy but try to be like her at all times and you will soon find out how difficult that is.

    Many of us entered the horse world with a dream in mind. We saw it as the perfect job for us or we wanted a horse because of a picture of the dream horse we had in mind. That is your “should be.” What is standing in the barn is your “is”. If you attempt to turn your horse into that dream horse, you will join the many frustrated horse owners of this planet, for it cannot be done. Instead, get to know your horse, discover his personality and treat him with the respect he deserves. He will repay you through consistent motivated performance.

    I would also like to express my special “Thank You” to April Collins (Gaby’s owner) for her hard work in editing the article. Spelling and punctuation are not my strong suit. April is also very knowledgeable about horses and has on occasion questioned the way I explained a point to further ensure correct understanding.

Thank you April,


Tex-Over Farms
13217 Kidd Road, Conroe, TX 77302
Phone (936) 273-2416
Fax (936) 273-2401