Work Ethic – How to Develop & Maintain It in Horses, Part I

Work Ethic – How to Develop & Maintain It in Horses

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work ethic   n.    a belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character.

The important role work ethic plays in our ability to accomplish goals and achieve success in life is hard to downplay.  We may not have the ability to instill these values in our co-workers but fortunately we do directly influence our horse’s level of work ethic. 

By establishing and maintaining a good work ethic in our horses, they are more likely to enjoy their jobs and try their best for us.  In addition, we increase the odds for their long term mental soundness.  These factors are likely to create more satisfaction and enjoyment for ourselves in return.  As performance horse owners, we would be wise to consider this ability as not just as an opportunity, but as a responsibility.

Recently I headed down the driveway for what was my young gelding’s first real ride outside the confines of the arena.  I had properly prepared him for such an outing but I was surprised how briskly he walked out.  Never going faster than I asked, my youngster was alert with ears forward, not showing the slightest amount of fear or uncertainty.  The high level of confidence he carried himself with made him feel as though he was ready to take on the world!  I am not certain that my colt’s behavior was due to his “belief in the moral benefit and importance of work,” but I appreciated his willing attitude none the less. 

The varying personalities of our equine friends might convince us that some horses just have more “try” than others.  However, a horse’s life experiences and how they are raised have a lot to do with how their personality develops.  Establishing strong work ethic takes time and dedication and once they’ve been established, if we’re not careful, they can all too easily be destroyed. 

Many of us understand the importance of maintenance when it comes to our horse’s physical health.  Whether it’s your truck or your horse’s soundness, sometimes we learn the hard way that proper maintenance is usually easier than fixing a problem once it surfaces.  A horse that has been put under too much pressure or has been asked for extensive, repetitive hard work can quickly lose some of their “want to” and willingness to please.  It might be unrealistic to expect our horses to prefer loping in the arena to snoozing in the sweet clover.  However, we can all benefit from taking advantage of opportunities to positively influence our horse’s attitude toward work.

Horsemanship ruts are easy to fall into without even realizing it.  Busy schedules, client’s expectations, and pay-in-advance entry fees can all influence our horse’s programs.  It’s essential to evaluate how these factors could be influencing our horse’s long term mental health. 

Evaluate your horse’s work ethic:  Does your horse have gate issues?  When he sees you coming with a halter, does he turn and walk the other way?  Does your horse get tense or nervous around the barrels?  Does he display body language that suggests he’s not a happy camper?   If so, read on for the first five of ten ways to help you improve morale around the barn.    

    Groundwork establishes respect that transfers over under saddle.
    Groundwork establishes respect that transfers over under saddle.
  1. Stay on Your Feet – Whether your horses are young or aged, ground work is an excellent way to establish good work ethic because it reinforces respect.  Asking your horse to perform maneuvers by moving their feet and changing direction on the ground instills a “Yes Sir, (or Ma’am)” attitude.  Most young horses don’t start their first day of training with a 100% “Yes Sir!” attitude. We can change all that through working with them to gain their trust and respect.  An older horse with a sour attitude can receive great benefits from ground work.  In this situation they are often relieved to develop a deeper understanding of their role in their relationship with you.  
  2. Challenge Yourself – Although you may be content with the current level of your horse’s training, your horse could have much higher aspirations (or at least potential)!  Where does your horse have “holes” in his training?  Maybe he could yield to your leg better or maybe he has a tendency to get heavy on his front end.  It could be that your horse just has an annoying habit that could be overcome with some time & know how.  Think of ways in which your horse can become more soft and responsive.  We all must have a little trainer in us in order for our horses to be safe and enjoyable.  Make it a goal to advance your training skills.  Life is a journey in which we never stop learning, make this possible for your equine friends as well. 
  3. Barrel horse trail ride!
    Barrel horse trail ride!
  4. Mix Things Up – Do you find yourself working on the same drills day after day?  Your horse probably notices the monotony long before you do.  To keep things interesting try researching articles, reading books, talking to friends and asking horsemen you know and respect about their favorite exercises and drills

    Think about what type of exercises your horse needs most to stay competitive and limit time spent on the pattern with an older, experienced horse.  There is a multitude of things we can do to sharpen our horses that don’t involve working around the cloverleaf.  Write down your favorite exercises on an index card and refer to it when you find yourself in a rut, or even better – BEFORE you get find yourself in a horsemanship rut!  Plan what you’d like to accomplish each day before you saddle up. 

    Get creative – use your imagination to think of ways in which you can keep your horse’s outlook fresh.  Set up an obstacle course by the barn complete with jumps, tarps, etc.  Work your way through on the ground and under saddle.  Opt for a bare back fun day once in a while.  Have you always wanted to ride your horse bridleless or teach him to bow?  Research, learn and GO FOR IT!

  5. Don’t Skimp on the Compliments – Do you sometimes forget to tell your significant other how much you appreciate them?  Chances are good that your horse sometimes gets put away without so much as a ‘thanks,’ as well.  Remember how good it feels to receive a juicy compliment?  It might make you smile and even stand a little straighter.  Maybe there was a lot of rewarding during those first few rides and then it dropped off from there. 

    Even if you’re not necessarily teaching your horse something new, be sure your horse gets a healthy dose of appreciation.  We may get in the habit of expecting our horse to respond in a certain way, after all if we’ve done a good job training, they should, right?  Even if we expect a certain response, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate it. 

    Reward your horse when he does what you want, pet him, rub him, talk to him, scratch his favorite itchy spot.  Reserve the lavish pets for when your horse has done what you’ve asked, whether it’s a little thing like loading in the trailer or performing a new maneuver.  That way he’ll begin to understand the link between responding correctly and being rewarded. 

  6. Try a New Discipline – Those team ropers that eye your horse might be on to something.  Get in touch with people you know who participate in a discipline other than barrel racing.  Take some lessons from a local dressage trainer or offer to run the roping chute for the neighbors in return for practice time.  Audit any horsemanship clinics in your area or consider joining the team penning club. 

    In most cases learning another discipline will not take away from your horse’s ability to run barrels but will only add to his desire after having the opportunity to learn and focus on something new and different.  In addition, by adding a new skill to your horse’s resume it will increase his value and help make you a more well-rounded horseman. 

Click here for Work Ethic – How to Develop and Maintain it in Horses – Part II

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