Subtle Signs of a Tired horse

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.

Different Expectations for Different Situations

I pulled into the barn ready to for some much needed time with Athena. I love pulling into the barn and looking out to her pasture. She usually perks up, hearing me pull in. But, today she was happily grazing in her pasture. The sun’s rays were still warm, casting an afternoon glow across the barn. I planned on riding in the upper arena, to practice what I’ve been working on in my lessons.But the weather was so calm, so perfect that I decided to venture into the outdoor arena.

The outdoor arena has been spookyville. It seems that every time we’ve been out there lately there has been a scary noise or birds have flown up from the edge, startling Athena every time. To say it’s “rocked her confidence” would be an understatement. Every time we go out there she can hardly focus on me, being so worried out the scary monsters that lurk in the trees and bushes surrounding the arena. We’ve been doing long line and lunge sessions out there and it’s been getting better. So today, with the sun shinning, the air still and the farm workers quiet, I decided to brave a ride in the outdoor arena. 

Our upper arena lessons have been fantastic. Athena has been focused, calm, and ready to learn. She has really been trying for me in our lessons which has been super exciting. We’ve even been doing a lot of canter work and as of Monday, no bucking in the transition. Whohoo!  

The outdoor arena is almost the exact opposite. Our corner’s were non existent as she braced against my inside leg, her head bent to the outside in a complete counter to the circle as she stared out at the boogie monsters she was convinced were hidden in the grass. Her trot was hollow, short and tense. It was nothing like my indoor arena rides.

I had two options; be frustrated that I wasn’t getting the same focus and relaxation in the outdoor arena as I have been during our indoor rides, or revamp my expectations for the ride today and simply go back to the basics. Every time I ride I try to always do whats best for my horse and clearly what she was telling me today was “I’m uncomfortable, I’m nervous, and I need you to be my support.” So that’s just what I did. I focused on corners first. When she would counter bend I would circle her around and around until she gave me even the slightest bit more bend and then we would move on. I focused on the skills she was already comfortable with and already understood how to do. No reason to add new things to the ride. This was a confidence building ride, not a training something new ride today. I didn’t push her forward, if she felt that she needed to go a little slower I let her, as long as she was still going forward to some degree. Adding pressure to an already tense situation just creates more tension. If she wanted to look, I let her for the first few rounds around the arena, again as long as she was still going forward. At first I felt like a yo-yo, fast and then slow and then fast again. It was discouraging to feel like we had completely reverted to what our rides had been months ago. But, I kept consistent and even with my hands and my seat, not pushing, and not holding. By being consistent my hope was that Athena would start to normalize to me, my breath and my rhythm. 

About half way through our ride she started to relax. Our corners started to round out, the contact in my hand began to even out and her trot started to become round and rhythmic again. We had success! 

As riders we need to let go of our desire to  micro manage our horses. It’s hard to do… I know! But, it’s so  important to teach them how to respond when they are nervous and to teach them the the tools to unwind and relax with out constant restrictive control from us. That was what today’s lesson was all about. I didn’t chase Athena with long rein, short rein, circle circle circle. I rode the spooks forward, as if they didn’t exists. I would give subtle reminders with a wiggle of my fingers to drop her head when needed, but didn’t fight with her. It was like a caring hand on the shoulder saying “ we’ve got this. I’m here, you are ok.” Athena responded with lowering her head creating a posture for relaxation and calmness. As we went through our ride she began to seek this position more, and worry less about what was around the arena. It was an exciting lightbulb moment. 

As I walked around the arena, cooling her out, I reflected on our ride. It wasn’t the ride I had planned, and we certainly didn’t “progress” in our flat work training, but we did make progress. It was a confidence building ride. We started tense and spooky and ended calm and relaxed. That’s improvement.  Our ride wasn’t perfect, but today we laid the foundation for further growth. Athena learned how to work through her anxieties and look to me. We struck a balance between allowing Athena to work through her own anxieties, and learning how to look to me for support. I practiced keeping my own emotions in check and staying steady and consistent with my hands, seat and legs and giving Athena something consistent to come back to and seek out in her moments of tension and spookiness. It was a very rewarding ride in a very different, but still successful ride. 

When you go out on your next ride remember to have an open mind and align your expecations with what your horse is telling you for that day. Every day is different, and every ride is different, especially when working with young horses. Sometimes taking a step back to fill in the “gap” in your horses training is more beneficial than plowing forward with your flat work training per the schedule you’ve set in your head. At the end of the day it’s all training, and all the pieces really do fit together to build a well rounded and happy horse who wants to advance through the levels.

Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride and have fun!