If you’ve ridden in public before on a young, excitable, nervous or anything but roboticly perfect horse, I’m sure you’ve at some point met comments regarding how your horses antics are “disrespectful”, “rude”, “pain related”, “due to lack of training” and so on and so forth. The mindsets regarding any type of playing behaviour or any exhibition of personality beyond what is specifically asked for during training tend to revolve around the ideal that a happy, well trained horse is one who responds to all commands that are asked of it and shows no other signs of life other than what is particularly beneficial to training or what the RIDER is trying to accomplish.
While exploring certain behaviours and ensuring they are not pain related is a must for any responsible horse owner, there is a line that needs to be drawn. There is definitive difference between the pinned eared, tight eyed, tail swishing horse that is bucking and rooting and the bright eyed, excitable horse leaping into the air with a soft expression and its ears forward. Many seem to be simply unable to tell the difference and people often seem to forget that play behaviours are exhibited in horses of all ages at liberty, so why would they not sometimes arise under saddle?
Due to the mindset that any ounce of personality is equivalent to vindictiveness or the horse trying to actively disrespect the rider, horses are often heavily punished for showing excitable, playtime behaviours in work when something particularly interesting happens or when they are just, quite simply, feeling good. This results in horses who do what they’re told and do it well but are caught in the constant state of “shut down” that comes with learned helplessness and unfortunately such blandness is often mistaken for a well trained horse. Well trained doesn’t have to exclude a personality, however.
Obviously, there is a line to be drawn when it comes to behaviour. Even if a horse is having fun, if they’re being dangerous and constantly misbehaving, obviously it needs correction. However, correction doesn’t need to be aggressive correction. It doesn’t need to be the rider getting mad, getting frustrated and taking it out on the horse. It can be correction via more interesting exercises to keep the horse more focused so they are less focused on playing and sailing through the air. With that said, the occasional aspect of playtime during schooling should be expected. You jump a horse for the first time and they strike out at the air. They just did something new, something that may have been a little scary and expressed their thoughts on it, why should they be heavily reprimanded? Your horse comes out on a particularly cool or windy day and is extra frisky, once again, should be expected.
As many people probably already know from my social media, my horse is a massive clown. I watch him playing and doing dumb things out of the window of my house on the daily. He is constantly harassing his field companions and trying to get them to give him the time of day, to go along with his antics. The fact that this sometimes crosses over into his work is unsurprising as most of his time is spent either eating or playing. When he plays or exhibits any evidence of happiness or excitement, especially in situations where he may have been anxious or frustrated prior (namely, jumping… our journey of confidence building has been hard), it actually makes me happy, because it is his release.
Riders should be sympathetic and remember that they are working with the horse, not against it. We all allow ourselves to have a laugh, to experience enjoyment and to take a joke. We owe our horses the same. Personality shouldn’t be something so consistently frowned upon, seen seldom enough that people are shocked to see it or refuse to believe that “misbehaviour” could be due to play behaviour. It is time for a change, a realization that horses are much like other animals when it comes to lighthearted fun. Like our beloved canine companions, horses are silly, inquisitive creatures that sometimes do ridiculous things. Like with our dogs, we owe them a laugh sometimes, instead of responding with anger.