Most people find riding an amazing and therapeutic experience. But what about the horses? Do they enjoy riding as much as we do? Without speaking the same language, it’s hard to tell whether horses like being ridden.
Most horses are okay with being ridden. As far as enjoying being ridden, it’s likely most horses simply tolerate it rather than liking it. However, as you’ll read, the answer isn’t definitive and is different for each horse.
While horses have long been selectively bred for riding, they didn’t evolve to carry humans. Their backs are long and straight because of the heavy digestive system that is suspended underneath. However, many people argue that if horses wouldn’t want us to ride them, they could easily throw us off, which is exactly what some horses do.
The truth is, there is no simple answer to this question. Some horses certainly like being ridden a lot more than others. This depends on many factors, such as the rider’s skill, the horse’s training, and past experiences, the horse’s health, and well-being, and the fit of the tack to name a few.
Every horse is different
One of the main variables affecting a horse’s opinion of riding is the individual itself. Horses that like to move and learn new things will naturally like being ridden more than low-energy, quiet individuals. In this regard, horses are a lot like humans, and some of them just won’t be interested in riding at all.
The only way to find out a horse’s preference is to give them the freedom to choose between work and turnout. Researchers and trainers like Shawna Karrasch set up experiments where they gave horses a choice without fear of negative consequences. What they found was that some horses eagerly chose to work with humans.
However, there will always be horses that run the other way as soon as they see you approach with a halter. The solution for these cases is to try and make riding as enjoyable for them as possible.
It can also happen that a horse and rider just isn’t a good match. Horses have personalities and preferences just like we do, and you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the chemistry between you just isn’t working. While this might be hard to accept, both you and your horse will be happier in the long run if you part ways.
Sometimes, the reason a horse doesn’t like to be ridden is simply that it doesn’t enjoy a certain exercise. Try and give your horse a variety of tasks to see what he’s best at doing.
Pay attention to your horse’s body language, reactions, and energy level to find out what he likes.
Signs a horse likes being ridden
Many horses appreciate the exercise and socializing that comes with riding. Not sure if your horse likes being ridden? Here are a few signs that indicate he does:
1. He is easy to catch and saddle
If you ride your horse most days, he will likely know what’s coming when you go out to catch him. Horses that look forward to riding prick their ears, greet you with a whinny and even come to you on the field. They will also follow you into the barn and stand quietly when you groom and saddle them.
2. He stands still when you mount
Horses that are fiddly and move around as you get on likely don’t enjoy riding as much. If your horse stands still at the mounting block and waits patiently while you climb into the saddle, there’s a good chance he likes being ridden.
3. He pays attention to you
Watch your horse’s eyes and ears from the saddle. Does he turn an ear towards you every time he hears your voice? Is he focused on you or keeps looking outside the arena?
A horse that enjoys riding will pay close attention to you and won’t get easily distracted by things going on in the distance. He will keep his head fairly straight and look at where he’s going instead of looking at other horses and people.
4. He doesn’t try to eat
Every riding school has that one pony that’s notorious for snatching aways any piece of vegetation it can reach. If your horse can resist the urge to bite into the leaves and grass on trail rides, he’s probably enjoying the exercise.
5. He does what you ask
A major sign that your horse likes being ridden is that he follows your instructions promptly. He will respond to your lightest touch and seems to know exactly what you’re thinking. To do this, he needs to be fully focused on you and committed to the ride.
Another thing to look out for is whether your horse works with you or against you. Does he accept the bit and moves away from your legs or is his neck tense against the reins and his body rigid?
6. He is generally relaxed
There’s no way your horse enjoys riding if he’s agitated and tense. A happy horse will have a relaxed posture with ears flicking back and forth and a quiet tail. He will also lower his head on a long rein and breathe out loudly in relaxation.
What does licking and chewing in horses mean?
Many riders mistake the horse’s licking and chewing response for submission and understanding. The interpretation of this behavior has been controversial in the wider equestrian community until a recent paper cleared things up.
Licking and chewing in horses means the animal is relaxing after a stressful event. It marks the transition from a sympathetic (agitated) to a parasympathetic (calm) state and is not a sign of submission.
A 2018 study conducted by equine scientists at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences looked at the behavior of feral horses in their natural environment. Prof. Ruth Newberry and M.Sc. Margrete Lie observed the herd for 80 hours, during which 202 sequences of licking and chewing behavior occurred.
When the researchers examined the behavior in relaxed and tense situations, they discovered an interesting pattern. The majority of behaviors prior to licking and chewing were tense and the majority afterwards were relaxed. This suggests licking and chewing occurs when the horse transitions from a tense to a relaxed state.
So what causes the horse to chew? Apparently, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system following a disturbance causes a dry mouth, and salivation resumes again when the threat has passed (parasympathetic activation). This is why we often hear a big swallow when the horse is licking and chewing.
How to tell if Your Horse Doesn’t Like Being Ridden
Now that we know when our horses like being ridden, let’s discuss the signs that they don’t. These are usually obvious and hard to miss, since horses are really good at letting us know when they really don’t like something.
A horse that would rather avoid riding is hard to catch and difficult to handle in preparation for riding. They will be uncooperative when tacking up, and may even refuse to be saddled or bridled.
Horses that don’t like being ridden but learned to tolerate it will often have their ears back during preparation for riding.
Your horse is likely not happy under the saddle if he shakes and throws his head, rolls his eyes, and flares his nostrils. He may pin his ears back every time you ask something and might even try to unseat you. Horses can be creative in coming up with different ways to throw you off, like bucking, rearing, bolting, or spinning.
Tail swishing is also thought to be a sign of distress in horses. This shouldn’t be confused with the innocent attempt to get a fly off their side. When stressed, horses swish their tails sideways intensely and their muscles will also be tense.
Your horse not cooperating with you is another big red flag. If he refuses to move off when you ask, turns his head but not his body to your rein signal, or works against the bit, there’s a good chance he doesn’t enjoy being ridden. Guiding your horse shouldn’t feel like an upper-body workout.
5 Reasons Your Horse Doesn’t Like Being Ridden
There are many reasons why a horse might not like to be ridden. If your horse starts acting up during your riding sessions, the first thing to do is to determine whether the issue is physical or psychological.
Have your vet, farrier and physiotherapist examine your horse to rule out any health problems.
1. Ill-Fitting Tack
Poorly fitted tack is one of the most common reasons horses don’t like being ridden. Bits and bridles that are not the right size can be uncomfortable for the horse to wear and cause head shaking.
Similarly, an ill-fitting saddle will cause pressure points on the horse’s back and pain during riding. White hairs under the saddle indicate the equipment doesn’t fit.
Ideally, your saddle fitter should examine your horse every six months, as parts of the saddle might need adjusting due to changes in musculature. Ensuring your tack fits and is comfortable for your horse goes a long way towards making riding more enjoyable.
2. Unnecessary training aids
You should only use the minimum number of training aids necessary while riding. The most common training aids are whips, spurs, martingales, side reins, and tie-downs. Generally, all training aids can be avoided with thorough training and skillful riding.
However, you might find that using a training aid helps your horse in its current stage of training. In this case, remember that accessory straps such as martingales should only be used for a short time until your horse overcomes the problem. Many experts have found that the long-term use of these training aids results in the horse working against the equipment.
3. Health issues
There are a variety of health issues that can make riding painful for your horse. The earlier you figure out what the problem is, the sooner your horse will enjoy riding again.
The most common health issues that affect riding are back and leg problems, musculoskeletal pain, arthritis, and conditions of the hoof. It’s not always easy to determine what the problem is, and you should have your horse examined from a variety of angles.
Also, keep in mind that horses instinctively hide their pain for as long as possible. This is an adaptation that helped them survive in the wild for millions of years. Hence it’s good to have yearly health checkups that can detect problems early.
Similar to humans, horses have their own unique personalities and some just weren’t meant for riding. Although most horses can be trained to carry a rider, their attitude and temperament can determine whether they like it or not.
It’s also possible that a horse just isn’t in the mood for riding that day. Horses have bad days just like we do, and it’s a nice gesture to go easy on them during those periods.
5. Past experiences
If a horse was abused by a previous rider, it may have developed a distaste for riding for the rest of its life. Taking away a horse’s confidence is always much easier than rebuilding it. A fearful horse will need lots of patience, love, and dedication to learn to enjoy riding again.
Inexperienced horses may also not like to be ridden in the beginning, as they now have to work harder than before. However, they usually get used to routine riding sessions and many will grow to like the exercise.
6. Rider problem
Perhaps the biggest factor causing horses to not like being ridden are the riders themselves. As riders, we have a responsibility to constantly improve our skills and fitness to help horses carry us.
An oversized or unfit rider can trigger a variety of problems in the horse. Research has shown that horses can safely carry up to 20% of their body weight. A rider that is too large for a horse will inevitably cause back pain and musculoskeletal issues in the horse.
Even if weight is not an issue, an unfit rider is more likely to sit unbalanced on the horse, causing issues such as uneven muscle development. Hence why it’s good to have someone look at our riding on a regular basis and let us know if we’re not sitting straight.
Problems can also come from inexperienced, overly harsh, ignorant, or nervous riders. It’s only natural for horses to be anxious or fearful if the rider is nervous. In their minds, if the rider is stressed, then there must be something to be worried about.
How to make riding more enjoyable for your horse
When it comes to riding, there’s always room to improve. You would be surprised how many things you can do to make riding more enjoyable for your horse.
Consider your horse’s preferences
In general, horses like us more and are more cooperative if we take into account how they’re feeling. Be open to adjusting your training routine based on your horse’s preferences and he will thank you for it. This doesn’t mean letting your horse do what he wants, it’s more of a compromise that makes both parties happy.
This of course involves getting to know your horse and what he likes. In the following weeks, try to pay close attention to what your horse is telling you about the riding you do together.
If your horse enjoys a certain exercise, do more of it! If he likes working in a group, let him! Or if he’s very food-oriented, incorporate grazing breaks in your trail rides as a reward.
Mix things up
Providing variety in training ensures your horse remains engaged and attentive during work. No horse likes monotonous repetitive work, so this will definitely help him look forward to riding more!
If you can, alternate between arena work and trail rides. There’re endless things to do in the arena, from lunging to flatwork, pole work, figures, transitions, and jumping. You can also vary working alone and working in a group.
Develop a good relationship with your horse
Spending quality time with your horse can really strengthen your relationship and make him like you more. He will look forward to spending time with you and going on rides together.
Increase your horse’s comfort
Always work towards minimizing your training aids and switching to gentler tack for your horse. Having comfort will greatly increase the chances of your horse enjoying riding.
Be relaxed and patient
When dealing with horses, things will not always go your way. When this happens, try to keep your cool and be patient and understanding. Your horse will be grateful for it.
Get your horse fit
Horses in good physical condition will carry their riders with ease and will be more likely to enjoy the workout. Make sure your horse has adequate muscle strength and stamina for the level of exercise you’re doing.
Provide friends, forage, freedom
These three things are essential for any horse’s well-being. In the hours you’re not riding, allow your horse plenty of turnout in the company of other horses and provide a forage-based diet. Horses that live a high-quality life and are mentally healthy will enjoy being ridden more.