Are you spending too much time with your horse?

Even with the best intentions, you can stress out your horse with too much handling. Instead, focus on quality over quantity when you interact with him.

Like many riders, Marie can’t get to the barn every day, but she makes sure to spend lots of time with her mare, Misty, on weekends. She’s a kind person and a capable rider, but she doesn’t often examine her expectations or how she interacts with her horse. 

She arrives early on Saturday morning eager to enjoy the day. First, there’s the grooming and tacking up. Without giving it much thought, Marie expects Misty to stand for a thorough grooming, then chill out while she answers phone calls and chats with friends on site. Busy talking, Marie may plop the saddle on her horse’s withers and cinch up in two seconds or less. She doesn’t notice that Misty frets about all the people hustling past her hindquarters on their way to the tack room. She expects Misty to stay calm when dogs dance around the grooming area or toddlers squeal as they run up and down the barn aisle. 

After an hour of preparation, it’s time to ride. Misty strives to detect Marie’s cues, an indiscernible orchestra of gentle pressures and tiny weight changes. When Marie wiggles a finger, Misty tries to soften her mouth or reposition her head. When Marie moves one leg back half an inch, Misty lopes. All parts of her body are held in the positions Marie dictates, yet she is expected to move in a fluid manner. Marie—like most of us—insists that her horse remain attentive and obedient under saddle at all times.

Horses cannot meet their basic needs if they are busy with human activities all day.

Sweating after their arena work, the pair cools out on a five-mile walk along a nearby trail. Arriving back, how about a bath? Now entering her fourth or fifth hour of human interaction, Misty stands fast while Marie hoses her down and soaps her up. Nobody else needs the wash rack, so Marie decides to do Misty’s mane, tail and face, too. Rinse well. Lather some antiseptic soap into small wounds. Scold the horse when she wiggles. Yap with the barn buds some more, and take another phone call. Trim that fuzz in her ears; well, gotta let it dry first. Oops, almost forgot the dewormer! 

By now, Misty is tired, hungry, thirsty and needs to pee. She tries in her patient equine way to say, “Isn’t that enough for today?” But Marie is too busy to hear. “Maybe this afternoon we’ll practice trailer loading or participate in a two-hour groundwork class,” she thinks to herself. “Or both! The weather’s gorgeous, good for body clipping….”

We all know Maries, and many of us are just like her. Good people with good intentions who simply want to get chores done, make progress as equestrians and do nice things for our horses. But we can lose sight of the physical and mental toll that these interactions can have on a horse. If we asked that much of our human friends, they’d never put up with it. That so many horses do is a testament to their generosity. By handling our horses for hours on end, we are creating physical and mental stresses that are likely to emerge in conflict or injury. We ignore the clock until finally the horse has little choice but to escalate to bad behavior. 

Human Goal-Driven Brains

What are you planning to do tomorrow? I’ve got to finish the first half of this article and work on Superstride’s right-lead canter, then start on that relentless equestrian laundry. Even the least ambitious people have goals of some sort for a given day. Human brains are made for setting goals and executing them with plans, even if the plan is nothing more than slumping on the couch with a box of cookies. Planning is what humans do, just like fish swim. 

The frontal cortex of the human brain—especially the part just behind our foreheads—is responsible for planning and organizing goal-oriented behavior. It identifies options, prioritizes objectives, forms strategies to achieve those objectives, initiates action, monitors our accomplishments and shifts behavior when circumstances change. The frontal lobes are so good at their job, we often don’t realize it’s underway. About the only way to stop goal-oriented planning in the human brain is to damage the frontal cortex, a solution I really don’t recommend.

Of all mammals, humans have the most highly developed frontal cortex, making up 41 percent of the outer surface of the brain. By contrast, only 18 percent of our cortex is used for vision, and only 19 percent for movement and tactile sensation. So the frontal cortex is our Goliath; it hogs power even when we’d rather see it sit down and shut up. That’s why Marie forgets that she’s expecting too much from her horse all in one day. She’s got goals to meet even though she isn’t fully aware of them. 

Goal-oriented behavior feels good because it’s socially acceptable, merits praise, and leads to success both personally and professionally. But it also feels good because the brain’s most rewarding neurotransmitter—dopamine—is released and received by neurons that are located in the frontal lobes. Dopamine is chemically similar to mood-boosting drugs like opiates and cocaine, having much the same effect on the brain. When we form plans and execute them in service to desired goals, our frontal neurons are floating in dopamine, slurping it up like liquid joy.

Good horsemen often plan daily interactions with their horses. This achieves many goals: It builds a bond, allows both parties to learn subtle cues that improve mutual understanding, provides a frequent check on a horse’s welfare, and forms new skills one step at a time. Almost every horse benefits from an hour or two of daily human contact, assuming they’re spent with a knowledgeable, humane individual. 

But sometimes, our frontal lobes plan too much for our horses to do. And because human schedules often prohibit daily visits, many riders try to make up for time lost during the week with occasional all-day sessions. This weekend warrior routine increases the risk of injury to our horses and ourselves, and it creates frustration in the minds of our animals.

Equine Stimulus-Driven Brains

Horses do not have goal-driven brains with bloated frontal lobes. The equine brain is stimulus driven. In other words, instead of being motivated by internal plans and goals, a horse is motivated by the sights, sounds and smells in his environment. The modern genus of horses (Equus) has survived for five million years largely because of its brain’s emphasis on distant stimuli and rapid escape. Staying alive means sticking with the herd, remaining vigilant for changes in the environment, and hanging out in open areas that allow flight. Misty doesn’t live in the wild anymore, but her brain does.

Several distinctions between equine and human brains are relevant here. First, the horse’s brain is much smaller when body weight is held constant. The average equine brain comprises 0.1 percent of a horse’s weight, whereas the average human brain makes up about 2 percent of an individual’s weight. Size isn’t everything, but a 20-fold difference is likely to be meaningful. 

Second, almost half of a person’s cortical volume is located in the two goal-oriented frontal lobes, while the remaining six lobes limp along underfunded. In contrast, a horse has much less tissue in the frontal region of the brain and has no delineated frontal lobe. The equine cortex is devoted primarily to sensation and movement. Horses don’t need much frontal lobe: Why out think a predator if you can outrun one instead? 

Third, equine brains produce less dopamine. This is good news for the horse because along with dopamine’s many qualities comes a critical weakness. It limits the amount of sensory information entering awareness. Dopamine helps human frontal lobes to ignore external stimuli that distract us from our internal plans—like the pesky clocks that tell us we’ve been fooling with our horses too long. But a horse’s brain is designed to be aware of external stimuli that might signify a lion’s approach. To survive, a horse needs all the sensation he can get.

Although all of us are more or less captive to our brains, horses have less choice in the matter. Our human frontal cortex allows us to imagine various options and select the one that’s best under existing conditions. We have the neurological capacity to think, “Gee, maybe I’ve done enough with this horse today.” We can then ponder the tasks we have left and ask ourselves whether some of them could be postponed or omitted. Our horses cannot do this: Their brains don’t allow them to, and we don’t either.

Click here to read another article by Janet Jones, PhD


Contemporary equestrian culture suggests that if some handling is good, more handling is even better. Training websites offer thousands of activities that a horse and human can share, and online discussion forums push the idea that “there is no such thing as over-handling.” This advice is offered in the contexts of raising foals and working with adult horses.

Regardless of the horse’s age, most trainers and equine researchers disagree. Colorado State animal sciences professor Temple Grandin, PhD, has noted, “A basic principle is that animals with a flighty, excitable temperament must be trained and habituated slowly, in small steps over many days.” Several equine studies conducted by Martine Hausberger, PhD, of the University of Rennes in France, suggest that “‘excessive’ handling may well bring aversive responses.”

For example, Hausberger tested 170 young horses on 21 breeding farms in France. Some farms handled their foals occasionally and only for brief periods between 6 and 18 months of age. As they grew up, these horses approached humans readily, accepted novel situations, and learned quickly without fear. 

Other farms provided far more intensive human interactions. Their horses were handled extensively from birth and encouraged daily to accept halters, walk around the farm on lead ropes, allow their hooves to be cleaned, and stand for grooming. These youngsters learned slowly, showed fear of new stimuli, and remained wary of humans even at age 3. In general, they were significantly more fearful than the horses who interacted with humans only briefly. 

Usually we define “work” as physical labor. But mental work is taxing, too, especially for a horse. We know what we expect, but the horse doesn’t. He has to decipher our cues, interpret our demands, ignore his own needs and acquiesce, and he has to do all that with a brain that was designed to run away. 

Matching Human Goals with Equine Needs 

Over-handling also steals time from a horse’s basic needs. A healthy, well-adjusted horse spends 70 percent of his day munching forage and drinking water. Reduction of that time causes chronic low-level stress and increases the likelihood of stomach ulcers, cribbing and colic. 

Horses sleep off and on through the day and night, sprinkling naps into time spent chewing. They need to lie down and rest their feet awhile, soak up some sun or shade, or stand silently and muse over the moment. They crave casual movement at their own pace. A healthy horse wanders all around his paddock, not only out of curiosity but also because digestion requires easy motion. Under natural conditions, horses graze and saunter for hours on end.

While nibbling, a horse keeps an eye or ear on surrounding events that might become important: “What’s that handsome gelding doing over there in turnout? Hey, there’s a trailer coming down the driveway—who’s in there?” By attending to each small stimulus as it comes, and seeing how their pals react, horses regulate their tranquility. Numerous stimuli arriving simultaneously are overwhelming.

Finally, horses need social interaction with their friends, no humans invited. We egocentric Homo sapiens think we are facilitating social interaction by hanging around the equine group, perhaps even “introducing” one horse to the others. In fact, we are usually interfering with communication and companionship among the horses themselves. I don’t suggest we throw a new horse into an established herd where space is limited, but neither do we need to act as if we’re hosting a child at a cocktail party. 

Horses cannot meet their basic needs if they are busy with human activities all day. When their needs are not met, our animals become tired, uncomfortable and anxious—perfect emotions for creating bad habits. Some horses become distraught. Even the sweetest children’s mount can go from tired to terrifying in a heartbeat, causing damage to themselves, their owners, their barns and bystanders of any kind. The outburst seems unexpected only because we weren’t listening to the horse and managing our expectations ahead of time. When horses finally do lash out, they are blamed for being vicious even though we were the ones who expected human perfection as the hours rolled past. 

Avoiding the Marathon

The stimulus-driven horse simply isn’t made for daylong marathons of goal-driven human expectation. What to do? If possible, interact with your horse for an hour or two, five to six days a week. If that’s not possible, carve out one midweek slot so you can space visits evenly. To reduce daily grooming time, hire competent help for a weekly deep-cleaning. Find a good rider who can exercise your horse once a week. Or alternate rides with a trusted friend whose barn days are different from yours; you can work his horse and yours on one day, and he can do the same on another day. 

Identify tasks that are particularly stressful for your horse. For example, physiological evidence shows that body-clipping pro-duces anxiety even in horses who are too obedient to display it. Your horse might also dislike deworming or bathing. Whatever it is, keep these tasks short. Body-clip gradually over several days; teach trailering a few minutes at a time. 

If you must extend horse-human interaction past three hours, split it up. Put your horse away to eat, drink and rest, then come back five or six hours later and finish the task that couldn’t wait till tomorrow. Be considerate of your horse’s generosity and patience. Save phone calls for later; speak calmly; keep pets and children at bay; watch the clock. Focus on the horse and try to experience the world through his brain. It’s a fascinating view of life if you can learn to enter it.

Horses benefit from regular human interaction that includes grooming, conditioning, training and bonding. Occasionally and with expertise, they need to be pressed just a bit beyond their comfort zone with gradual exposure to frightening stimuli and desensitization. But the horse’s brain cannot sustain the attention required to meet these human goals all at once. Matching human plans to equine thinking improves communication and advances the horse’s physical and psychological health. 

So, by all means, interact with your horse! Then bid him an early farewell and come back tomorrow.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #439.

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