Horse Behaviour & Psychology

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The morning grass is glittering with light. Moisture drops in crystals from bushes and trembles in the trees. The air is still and cool. After an early lesson, I invite my dressage coach in for coffee and pull my riding boots. He removes his shoes and stands looking out the window. “Are those both stallions?” he asks.

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Satisfying the horse-specific needs of stallions is imperative for their mental and physical health. However, it can be challenging to provide living arrangements where stallions aren’t just surviving — but thriving. Kelly Brook Allen is one stallion owner who is adamant about her horse’s welfare. “He gets to live a normal life,” she says. Allen owns Canoa Farms in Merritt, British Columbia with her husband, Ron Stolp.

overheating horse too hot summer riding heat

A hot humid day. One rider. One horse. Both are exercising at a moderate level. Who is more likely to overheat? It might surprise you to learn that your horse gets hotter much faster than you and is more susceptible to the negative effects of heat stress. Prof. Michael Lindinger, an animal and exercise physiologist at the University of Guelph, explains: “It only takes 17 minutes of moderate intensity exercise in hot, humid weather to raise a horse’s temperature to dangerous levels. That’s three to ten times faster than in humans. Horses feel the heat much worse than we do.”

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One of the biggest sources of tension is anxiety, or more specifically, the horse’s inability to deal with anxiety. Anxiety is a sincere emotion and I know many, many horses that are often overwhelmed by it. Anxiety can stem from a variety of places but where it comes from is less important than helping the horse deal with it.

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My parents didn’t have a lot of money for my riding lessons, and I know they must have scrimped and saved for my one-hour sessions. Those lessons were the highlight of my week and they held great power over me to stay out of trouble — with one strike I could hear the parental words that put fear into every kid: “Behave or you will be grounded…” and they always finished the sentence with “…and that means NO RIDING.” I behaved.

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Several years ago, one of my horses-in-training was Jax, a six-year-old Friesian-Hanoverian cross gelding with a few common issues which caused him to become unreliable to ride. As a result, his owner lost her confidence and thus her enjoyment of riding.

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I recently taught a lesson for new clients who described their horse as being “evergreen,” a term that is fitting for many horses that don’t seem to progress. There are obviously many factors to consider when judging a horse’s progress, or lack thereof, including the amount of time spent working the horse, training methods employed, experience and expectations of the rider, confidence of the rider, and too many others to list.

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Thoroughbred racehorses have been bred with one purpose in mind — racing. It is often thought that their temperament may result in erratic or dangerous behaviour making them unsuited to other disciplines.

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The challenge for us is to correctly diagnose what is actually going on so we can truly help the horse overcome their seemingly problem expression. I believe that too many horses are unfairly labeled as problems when really they are just misunderstood and mishandled.

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Are They Good, Bad, or a Bit of Both? Colt starting competitions are wildly popular with audiences, imbuing a sense of wonder at what trainers can do with previously unhandled three-year-old horses (colts) in just a few hours. They’re judged events, where each trainer is paired with an unbroke horse and has just a few hours to start it under saddle. While the trainers work with their horses, they explain their training methods to the audience. On the third and final day of the competition, the trainers show off their horse’s skills over an obstacle course. The young horses are started by top-notch trainers, the spectators are entertained, and the trainers win prizes and kudos for their skills. So, what’s not to like?

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