My poor bored horse

Boredom with tasks is a topic that I hear discussed from time to time about horses. After spending a good many years observing horses in the herd, I think that the term “bored” when applied to horses is not an accurate description. This can also lead to confusing the human into thinking that the horse needs constant stimulation. I’m putting forward my case here about why horses don’t get bored and what we need to address instead.

To me, boredom is a real thing. I get antsy sitting around doing nothing. That is surely why radio, TV, and now smart phones were invented – to keep us humans stimulated. However, horses need none of these things. Horses are quite happy to stand around doing absolutely nothing for hours moving only when they need to swat off a bothersome fly.

There is no denying that horses do also like to play – this is a form of stimulation. However, there are natural instinctual purposes to play, which is often more among the geldings (and I would by default say stallions although I do not keep stallions here). Play as a form of relieving boredom is unlikely to be a reason for a horse. Testing out their strength and developing fighting skills is a much more likely explanation for play in a species that is wired for survival in the natural world. Irritation, pain and other uncomfortable emotions may also cause interaction between horses. It is fairly common to see one horse become distressed or hurt and then immediately pick on a more vulnerable member of the herd. Not to mention a number of other prey species instincts that would fill up another blog post.

Anxiety is also a fairly common attribute of a prey animal. What is commonly misdiagnosed as boredom, I now conclude is most likely to be anxiety. There are horses that show anxiety with nibbling and playing, fidgeting, shutting down, grinding the jaw, snapping their lips, shaking their heads, and other general avoidance type behaviours. Others may show more fear based responses (horses that are not comfortable being handled by humans would be more fearful rather than avoiding).

The point here is that if there is anxiety in the horse then we should not overstimulate them. Ask for less, and show the horse how to relax. I recently did a case study with one of my very anxious horses. Let’s just say, I’ve never seen a more anxious horse in my life yet. He gets wound up by things that have no effect on the others, like drops of water dripping off his skin. He has been trained to be extremely polite to humans, so when anxious, he mostly internalises this appearing to remain calm, but he has a number of avoidance behaviours that I have now come to recognise.

I was told when I bought this horse that he gets bored easily, and if I am going to lunge him, then to keep him busy thinking by moving around etc. I faithfully continued with the same method of training that he knew in order not to confuse him, but after quite a long time trying to advance his rhythm and balance, I had to conclude that this method is not working for him. He shows no signs of relaxation ever on the lunge. He is very eager to please, but cannot sustain any stretching movements for more than a few seconds, continually looking at me for a signal that he can stop and turn in.

I must add the disclaimer that I do believe there is a physical issue making things more difficult for this horse. However, this means that strengthening and conditioning his body in the right places is even more important, and we need to find a way to achieve that.

So, after spending an exorbitant amount of time getting nowhere, I finally decided to experiment with using less stimulation. I also wanted to phase out allowing him to stop and turn in as a reward since this movement was throwing him off his rhythm and balance in the halt – counter to what we were attempting to achieve (see the next blog post for explanation).

Cairo learning to relax on the lunge.

I will certainly add in more “exercises” for him to do on the lunge as time goes on, but without this fundamental step of achieving rhythm and relaxation, there is no point to providing stimulation as it merely induces anxiety and hinders learning. Saying this, I would not advocate endless repetition as a strategy for horse training. Repetition has the purpose of building understanding. Once the horse has understood, then this teaching can be reinforced intermittently.

As with all things in life, balance in activities is also a key aspect of keeping the mental and physical health of your horse intact. Take time out for other activities and take the pressure off in your interactions from time to time.

“Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer.”

Leonardo da Vinci