How do I know when my horse is tired?
This is a common question that is often answered in some variation of…
“When you feel you don’t have any horse left.”
Well, that’s great, but what if you have a horse that just seems to keep going no matter what???
I hear you. I have this exact issue. Athena has so much heart and so much stamina that it’s hard to tell when she is tired. In the 5 years of working with her, I’ve never had a moment where I didn’t feel like I had any horse left. She just keeps going. That’s saying something, especially for a 3/4 Friesian, living in Hawaii with warm and humid weather to boot!
To add complexity, Athena is a quick leaner and likes to be challenged. But, she also gets bored easily with repetition. So each week it’s a delicate dance to create a training plan that includes enough review and practice of the steps we know so we can continue to perfect them, but also introducing new material to challenge her mentally and physically. It mist include new material but so much that she gets frustrated and gives up mentally because she isn’t physically able to do the new steps that I’m asking. As her rider and owner, it’s up to me to observe her behavior and find the line of just right. Talk about pressure!
So here are some signs to look for to help you notice the other “behaviors” your horse may be giving you that could indicate tiredness, even if he/she isn’t slowing down!
1.) The quality of your training has diminished.
Example: I’ve been working on a more collected canter with Athena. There were days or moments in our ride when her canter was round and slow with a nice rocking horse feel and then times when it was flat, fast and she was leaning on my hands horribly. I started to pay close attention to when the canter was good and when it wasn’t. Turns out the canter was always really nice early on in our rides, and then it would slowly degrade. So I decided to do shorter riders, with a higher expectation for her to be round, slow, balanced and not leaning on my hands. I tuned into how she felt through our ride and if she gave me what I wanted once, I praised and we ended on that note. There were some rides that were only 20 minutes long. It felt like I had just tacked up! Athena felt so proud of herself for knowing exactly when she had executed the canter at the moment when I was asking. We started with just a single 20 meter circle in the frame I was seeking. That was enough for her. Over the course of the next few weeks, we continued to build from that single 20 meter circle to completing two and three 20 meter circles in a row. Next we progressed to half the arena, and now we can do a lap around the entire arena. Athena is physically able to maintain a slower more collected canter with a nice soft contact in my hands. Mentally she is excited again to go to work and is so proud of herself that she is “Doing it, just like I asked!”
2.) The gait gets faster, lacks rhythm with shorter strides and your horse loses roundness
Example: I see this a lot in my trot work with Athena. At the beginning of our rides, she goes right to work; head down, back up and a nice even rhythm. Her trot stride feels smooth and has a heavy solid feel to it. When she is tired, she drops her back and her head comes up. Even if those two things don’t happen, her stride gets short, choppy and she feels really fast. It also takes a lot more effort for me to keep her attention.
3.) Lack of sensitivity If you normally have a very sensitive horse and suddenly they aren’t responding to your aids, it could be an indication that they simply can’t. I find this with Athena. Most of the time, I just think about what I’m going to ask and she does it with the softest of cues. If she stops responding, it’s usually because she is tired.
Example: Athena is acutely “tuned in” to my breathing and my seat. If I exhale, she slows or stops. If I tighten my abs and slow y seat, she slows or stops. When she stops responding or her response starts to become selective, I know she has gone into “auto pilot” or is heading into z’check out” mode because she is tired. It’s a lot of work to slow her speed and stay round and collected so she defaults to ignoring me and remaining fast. Worse yet, if I apply leg to ask her to be more round, she shoots forward and gets faster! If I ask for more bend with my leg, the request being “stepping over” or “stepping under” rather than “move over and bend” she uses my leg cue to avoid moving differently. Instead she will just go faster as if she could talk she would be saying, “Can’t do it Mom, but I’ll go faster so I can give you something… See, I’m trying.
4.) Irritability & tension
Example: Suppleness and collection take work for your horse,especially the heavier breeds like Friesians. Keep in mind that new steps and tasks are also mentally and physically challenging. Your horse needs to develop the muscles and the understanding forwhat you are asking. If you push too hard or ask for too much and they either can’t do it physically or don’t understand, the response from your horse can often be attitude. This may be more of a mare thing, but “attitude” can present itself as tail swishing, bracing against you, being overly argumentative and holding tension in their body. Athena likes to work with me but when it starts to feel like she is working against me, that’s my cue that we are teetering on the brink of a melt down and it’s time to find a good place to end for the day. It’s obvious to say, but we try our best to avoid this final straw. 😃
5.) Sore body
It’s good to note that our horses get sore just like we do. A regular massage and body work routine can be very beneficial in helping elevate or minimize sore muscles for your horse. To help Athena stay in peak form, she gets a massage once a week. I also use the Liquid Titanium Therapeutic sheet by Fenwick. It promotes circulation and increased blood flow with our compression and aids in the healing process for sore and tired muscles. It’s the perfect way to end our training session; Bath, Fenwick cooler and some quality hand grazing time.
These are just a few things I have noticed with my horse when she is tired. Be observant and consider making a change if you notice some of these traits happening in your riding session. This decision can go a long way towards maintaining a good relationship with your horse as well as keep your training program moving forward with consistent progress and success.