When we think of working a horse we automatically think of movement and physical exercise. Many equestrians lament not being able to work their horses in the winter do to weather. While not everyone has an indoor arena to ride in, there are plenty of other ways in which we can work a horse that do not involve heavy physical exertion. If we begin to think about working the horse’s mind instead of just his body it opens the door for a lot more possibilities.
Mental work can take place in a stall, a barn aisle, walking around a property, in an arena, or anywhere else with enough space for the horse to comfortably maneuver. It can be combined with physical exercise, but doesn’t have to be. Mental work can be done standing still or walking slowly if movement needs to be limited.
The idea behind mental work is to engage the horse’s mind to improve his mental health. This work can be used to entertain a bored horse who may be on layup, relax a stressed horse, focus a distracted horse, and build your relationship with your horse. Mental work can keep physical work from being boring and repetitive as well.
There are an infinite number of exercises that can be done to engage the horse’s mind so I will only go over some general exercises to help you get started.
Perhaps my favorite mental exercise is leading. This can be done virtually anywhere and is the perfect warm up before riding. When you lead your horse, pay close attention to where his focus is. When his focus wanders, give him something to do such as a halt, a step back, or a turn. Try to maintain 100% of his focus and have your horse walk with your feet (i.e. he stops when you stop, walks when you walk, and backs when you back). Be prepared to be mentally fatigued yourself. This kind of work takes a lot of focus from us as well!
Close work is another great way to engage the horse and help him relax. You can ask the horse to yield his shoulders and haunches to light pressure. You can also work on backing from chest pressure, halter pressure, or brow pressure. You can ask the horse to lower his head and stay with you. You can add bending and backing to make this exercise more difficult. All this work really helps the horse release braces and mentally let down.
Line work is another good way to engage the horse’s mind. You can help the horse relax on the line and release braces. To make the work more interesting you can send the horse through obstacles and perform patterns. I especially like sending the horse in a figure eight around two cones placed in front of where I stand. This exercise requires clear communication and focus from both horse and handler.
Almost any exercise can be used to mentally stimulate the horse if you frame it correctly. Instead of asking the horse to perform tricks on command, set up a problem and let the horse solve it. As the horse gets better at these exercises, you can make them more complex and offer few hints.
Sending a horse through a gate is an easy to understand example of a task you can turn into a puzzle. Instead of leading the horse through the gate, be patient and let the horse figure out how to walk through the gate ahead of you. Stand at the side of the gate and open your arm to send the horse through. Provide some encouragement with the tail of your rope as necessary to keep your horse motivated to figure out the puzzle. Then, this is the hard part for us, wait. As soon as the horse figures out he should walk forward, release. This could be leaning, taking a step, or extending his nose forward. If the horse tries to move sideways or backwards, keep the pressure on to tell the horse this is the wrong answer. Repeat until the horse is through the gate. This makes the horse think and problem solve to find the solution instead of blindly following you.
I try to incorporate mental work into every session with my horses and find them happier and more excited for work because of it. After all, no one likes running laps or running on a treadmill because someone demanded it! In addition, mental work allows us to work with our horses when exercise isn’t an option, helping them handle the lack of activity better. So next time you are spending time with your horse see if you can incorporate some mental work into your routine. Share your stories, comments, and favorite exercises down below!