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

Work Ethic – How to Develop & Maintain It in Horses

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Last month we started to discuss the importance of establishing and maintaining strong work ethic in our horses. We went into depth on five ways to make this possible –

1. Stay on Your Feet
2. Challenge Yourself
3. Mix Things Up
4. Don’t Skimp on the Compliments, and
5. Try a New Discipline

This month we’ll continue with five more ways to develop and maintain strong work ethics in our equine friends.

6. Keep Harsh Criticism to a Minimum – Horses don’t try to purposely hit barrels and like humans, they aren’t perfect. So you had a bad run? Does that make it acceptable to be excessively firm on your horse’s face or take him out for a “behind the barn” session? Would you never dream of responding in such a way when your horse doesn’t perform?

The reality is, that it happens and it seriously affects our horse’s work ethic. There’s no quicker way to destroy your horse’s “want to” and even burn them out completely than to respond to what you thought was a poor performance with rough treatment, abuse or repetitive and excessive hard work. In addition, when worked to the point of exhaustion, your horse is more likely to injure himself and much less likely to retain what you’re trying to get through.

Improve yourself first, and your horse is sure to follow.
Improve yourself first, and your horse is sure to follow.

7. Look Within – “Keeping Harsh Criticism to a Minimum” brings us to “Look Within.” Whenever you hit a roadblock and your horse isn’t performing as you would like, it’s time to take a step back and analyze what YOU are doing (or not doing) that could be part of the problem. Sometimes we’re quick to assign blame to our horses, “he just plows over the barrels,” etc.

What this translates to often times is simply ignorance on our part. More than likely a change in our riding, some enlightenment on our training methods, our horses positioning, or a physical problem can be a real eye opener.

Don’t be quick to point fingers, take a good look at yourself first. Be accountable, be responsible – horses are our mirror and their behavior is a direct reflection of their rider/trainer. Speaking of mirror, you might be surprised by how changing your own outlook (“I have to work my horse today.” vs. “I GET to PLAY with my horse today!”) can directly affect your horse’s attitude as well. Think of riding as an incredible opportunity to be grateful for, rather than another task on your to-do list.

And when things don’t seem to be going your way, be thankful for an opportunity to learn from the situation rather than letting frustration get the best of you. Practicing an “attitude of gratitude” can put a whole new perspective on your horse life!

8. Head for the Hills – If you believe in the importance of riding your horse outside of the arena, but don’t do it as much as you should, you’re not alone. Let’s say you’ve established good work ethic in your horse, it’s now your challenge to maintain it. Riding your horse outside the arena, whether just down the gravel road, or in the hills, is a great way to maintain a fresh outlook on his duties. It’s amazing how a simple change of scenery can free up their body and mind.

Make it your goal to implement relaxing rides outside the arena. Keep in mind that you can include bits of concentrated training as you go, while still keeping the ride fun and relaxing to your horse. It might be convenient to ride your horse in the pasture for 15 minutes before or after arena work. Make a commitment to establish a good balance of regular fun outside the arena with your horse. Get some friends together, pack a lunch in a saddle fanny pack and HAVE FUN!

9. Give ‘Em a Break – Allowing your horse a vacation can be beneficial in many ways. Those of us that are forced into a break in the winter months can identify with the excited enthusiasm we share in the spring when heading into a new barrel racing season.

Human athletes don’t often take extended breaks from rigorous training. However, we are able to communicate our aches and pains to health professionals before they become major aches and pains. Our horses aren’t as fortunate and aren’t able to let us know when they need rest. Because your horse isn’t outwardly lame doesn’t mean there aren’t physical issues lingering. They may not be major enough for you to notice, but they are real and time off can be an excellent way to heal the body and rejuvenate the mind.

To receive the most benefit from the down time, have your horse examined by a trusted team before you turn him out – a Veterinarian specializing in equine lameness, and a qualified equine chiropractor and massage therapist. Time off can do wonders for a performance horse, both physically and mentally, but sometimes time alone is not enough.

How often do you enjoy just BEING with your horse?
How often do you enjoy just BEING with your horse?

10. Quality Time – Have you ever had a relationship with someone where you knew everything about each other, you had fun together, and really enjoyed each other’s company? If it came down to it, you’d do anything for that person. Think of how the bond with your horse could be that special.

Get to really know your horse, what’s normal and abnormal. Does he lay down for a nap each afternoon? How much water does he normally drink in a day? Take 20 minutes to sit with your horse in the pasture while he grazes or sit on the fender of the trailer for ten minutes of quiet time after a ride. Bring a book to his stall. This will allow you to anticipate his needs and notice subtle problems before they become major, which is all part of keeping him happy, healthy and competitive.

Sign up for a clinic or order some instructional videos on equine massage techniques. If you’d like to ride but are short on time, catch your horse, groom him and put him away, make your interactions pleasant experiences. Imagine what could be possible when you and your horse anticipate each other’s thoughts and actions before they even occur. When you have that kind of special connection with a horse, it’s not surprising for them to give that extra 10% of effort. When thousandths of seconds determine placings, and extra 10% can go a long way!

I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary to become the president of the three day eventing association and schedule regular spa days for your horse in order for them to maintain a good attitude. Yet after all this you might say, “but I’m so busy!” This is where some creative multi-tasking comes into play.

It is important for each individual to evaluate their own horse’s needs and determine what’s realistic for their schedule. Need to study for a test? Bring your work to the barn. Is it dark before you get off work? How about arranging your work schedule to have two hour lunch breaks twice a week to spend with your horse? You might ride or spend time with your horses just before feeding time, which will save time and cut down on the amount of trips you make to the barn. Hire a responsible, horse crazy teenager to exercise your horse twice a week. This will allow you to spend more quality time with your horse rather than feel constantly rushed.

Regardless if you raise and train horses, own one or twenty or if you compete professionally or as a novice, implementing these ideas into your program will benefit horses you ride now and throughout their lives, even long after you have passed on the reins.

Of course, all this does take a good dose of dedication and commitment. The reward – a horse that is happy, content and genuinely enjoys running barrels, is more than worth it in the end. Establish and maintain good work ethic in your horse, and he too will be ready to take on the world!

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

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