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For Happier, Healthier Horses, Drop those Rotten, Rutted Routines

Published: 11/30/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner
I once worked at a 60-horse lesson barn. Every day I’d drive up in my little blue Hyundai, 9 am sharp.  The horses milled in the stalls, their wistful nickers escalating into anxious whinnies accompanied by pawing and kicking out.  As I prepared grain and hauled it down the aisle way, the noise of 60 hungry horses fighting each other through the stall walls was deafening, and I’d hustle to drop grain in buckets.  After all were fed, there was peace and quiet, for a short time at least, until they’d finished and the pawing and kicking started back up as they prepared to be let out for the day. 

At the time, I didn’t know the difference between a neurotic horse and a mentally balanced horse because neurotic horses was mostly what I saw. I'd grown up riding jumpers who were kept in stalls and I had been around lesson horses ridden on the rail in the same order for every lesson, five days a week. Stable vices were just what horses did. Some additional side effects:

  • Some kicked when you rode too near them.
  • Some had to be brought in if their buddy came in so they didn’t run like a tornado turned loose in the flatlands
  • Some bit when you cinched up. 
It wasn’t until I got around better horsemanship that I saw a different, healthier version of management. Until then, I called out “door!” before entering any arena. I tried not to spook any horses and I walked on tip toes.

But then I saw horses ponying other horses, walking calmly through a herd of cattle near a branding fire, self-loading onto trailers. They could gallop, then stand calmly and sleep.
These were horses with soft expressions in stressful environments, doing their jobs without fear.  These were not the types of horses I’d grown up riding and I was excited by the possibilities.  

Horses are extremely adaptable. There was a time horses were ridden into war, down into coal mines, transported on boats, and ridden down busy cobbled streets.  But nowadays in many boarding barns, you find horses being ridden with ear plugs and drugged for trailer loading. These are horses who fall apart at any type of change.
This is not how it needs to be.  Horses provide us with many opportunities to create well rounded, sane, and productive partners.  

As I’ve advanced with my horsemanship career, I recall those sixty horses threatening to tear down the barn if I fed later than 9:01. That would not happen in my barn, I pledged. My horses would be fed any time between 4 am and 11 am, depending on the day and what I had going on.  I rode them in no set order and gave them a job: I could tune up a 30 day-er while fixing fence or give some fresh colt a little exercise while I rode one of my own horses.  
I used strategies that encouraged getting along and discouraged stress. As a result, I managed horses that could be alone without whinnying and dancing around for their friends. They could be all together without incident. They could go to new places without losing their minds. They weren’t busting down stall walls if I wasn’t on their schedule. They fit into my life and schedule, instead of needing “full service,” ‘round the clock attention. This strategy fostered more balanced and easily adaptable animals.

Humans revolve around routines.  Most of us work day jobs and have to be there at a certain time, have lunch at the same time, and come home for dinner.  We like to watch certain shows, go out for dinner on fish-fry night. 
But our routines can negatively impact our horses. They can create dependency and rob them of their natural ability to adapt. At an average boarding barn, horses are turned out in certain orders, fed in certain orders, turned out in certain pairs. Routines becomes traps, not blessings. Breaking rigid routines can result in chaos. Just try to have that herd-bound horse who always goes out with his buddy each morning stand for his morning farrier appointment.

I urge my fellow horsemen and women to nurture adjustable, well-rounded horses and drop unnecessary routines.
  • Don’t rush up to the barn to feed the minute your horse whinnies.
  • Have that cup of coffee and feed when you can. 
  • Don’t bring your horse in to ride in the same way, bribe him to be still as you tack up. 
  • Ditch that mind-numbing warm-up and go ride in the hills.
  • Zigzag around the weeds.
  • Make shapes in the snow. 
  • Turn to your own creativity for exercises. Engage your own mind to engage your horse’s mind.  
  • Tack up somewhere else today.  
  • Turn your horses out in a different order.  
Change things up and explore what’s possible.  There will be times when rigid routines fail - a power outage, an emergency, a show, a clinic, or an addition to the herd. Set your horse up to succeed and you’ll discover a more enjoyable, sane partner.

View Reader Comments:

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12/1/2016 Dr. Steve Peters
As always, a right-on article. Thanks Amy
12/1/2016 Jill G.
Very enlightening Amy! I never really thought about "the routine" as you explained in this article. But, I'm happy to report I do quite a bit of your routine changing ideas! Keep up the inspiration for us all!
12/3/2016 Sherylle K
Mindful horsemanship. How refreshing. How needed. Thanks Amy.

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"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies