There have been a lot of articles written about job satisfaction, or lack thereof ‒ remember Quiet Quitting and the Great Resignation of 2022? Some people switch jobs like they change underwear, others suffer with a gig because they have to support a family. But loving your job isn’t a guarantee, or perhaps you once loved it,  but grew bored or frustrated over time. If you have such issues working on the same thing day in and day out, the same can be true for your horse or pony.

“I only ask my horse to do what I want one hour a day!” is a lament owners often make after a “bad ride” or in reaction to a horse’s “bad behavior.” It’s an unspoken rule that because owners pay an exorbitant amount of money (after toiling at work) to keep their horse safe and healthy, because the animal spends 23 out of 24 hours comfortably grazing, sleeping, etc., it should be grateful and therefore do whatever is asked of it, without displaying any negative behaviour.

It doesn’t work that way.

Like the human who hates their data entry job after several years, a horse can begin to sour on relentless 20-meter circles or endless sliding stops. They, too, get bored and frustrated. Add in confusing aids from riders, pain issues from ill-fitting tack, bad riding techniques or aging joints, and a horse will let you know it’s not happy with its work.

So, what to do about this? Do you sell your horse because it doesn’t like jumping as much as you do? Or do you take up another discipline to make your horse happy?

We spoke with Dr. Robin Foster, a certified horse behaviour consultant, research professor at the University of Puget Sound and affiliate professor at the University of Washington about the signs riders need to recognize that indicate an unhappy horse ‒ and what to do about it.

Horse Canada: What are signs that a horse either is bored or dislikes his “job”?

Dr. Robin Foster: ‘Bored’ and ‘dislikes’ are emotions that both have a negative valence. Horses express emotions through behaviour, including body language and facial expressions. The art of reading equine body language is imperfect, but by learning what to look for and taking time to observe the horse, a person can become fairly good at reading a horse’s emotional state.

When a horse dislikes its job, something about the activity is physically unpleasant (uncomfortable, painful) or emotionally distressing (confusing, frustrating).

A bored animal tends to be under-stimulated by the activity, which may be very familiar, over-practiced, and simple. In response, the horse’s attention may shift attention elsewhere, often inward, and it will appear ‘dull’ and be less responsive to the person’s cues. A horse may also shift its attention outward, but if the environment also lacks novelty and stimulation, then it offers no relief from the monotony of the job.

When a horse dislikes its job, something about the activity is physically unpleasant (uncomfortable, painful) or emotionally distressing (confusing, frustrating). Initially the horse’s reaction may be limited to the unpleasant part of the activity, such as a saddle that pinches while trotting, or the rider’s simultaneous go (leg pressure) and whoa (pulling back on the reins) cues, which leave the horse confused about what to do. If there is no change, the horse’s ‘dislike’ may generalize to the entire job, or even to the anticipation of it. Body language to look for which indicates a horse may ‘dislike’ his job are avoidance behaviours, such as stopping, and efforts to escape from the activity. A horse’s facial expressions will likely match the behaviour, with muscle tension in the eyes, mouth, and jaw, revealing eye wrinkles and a tight chin. The horse’s head may also be raised above the withers, with a hollow back and twitching tail.

There is a rider assumption that, for example, a horse that is bred for jumping or reining will automatically be good at these disciplines and enjoy it. Why is that an imperfect approach?

The assumption that horses bred for a particular discipline have greater potential for success has some merit, but only a few will actually be good at it and enjoy it.

For more than a thousand years, horses have been selectively bred to perform certain “jobs.” Many traits are heritable, such that the genes and the traits are passed down to future generations. The heritability of physical traits can often be directly observed in body size and conformation, coloration, facial features. Science has also found that equine temperament traits, such as bold or shy, are to some extent inherited and correlated to breed. Due to the long history of selective horse breeding, horses of a given breed are born with a higher (or lower) genetic ‘potential’ for success at a particular job.

These calculations are based on laws of averages, which are not particularly good at predicting how well any individual horse will perform. Moreover, nature (genetics) is only part of the formula to a horse’s success. Nurture, including experience, diet, management, and training, plays an equally important role by helping or hindering a horse to meet its genetic potential. For example, on average, Arabian horses excel at long-distance endurance races compared to other breeds, as evidenced by Tevis Cup winner statistics (95% of winners have been purebred Arabians or Arabian crosses). At an individual level, however, many (perhaps most) Arabian horses are not well-suited for this job.

Why should a rider pay attention to these signs? Is it a welfare issue?

What is motivating and reinforcing for a rider does not always match what is motivating and reinforcing for the horse. The rider is often motivated by the thrill of victory, praise from trainers, financial payoff, and satisfaction of an accomplished goal. None of these are motivating or reinforcing for the horse.

A horse’s needs are more basic and simpler. It is motivated to avoid discomfort, and to earn food, pets, rest breaks, and positive interactions with their rider. When the rider’s interests overshadow those of the horse, then the horse’s welfare may be compromised; for example, if the horse is in pain, frightened, or confused, and while in this state, is forced to complete a training session. An unwanted side effect of forcing a horse to complete an exercise is that it can damage the human-horse relationship.

Horses are very sensitive to a rider’s emotional state. By prioritizing the horse’s success instead of their own, the rider’s is often more relaxed and less frustrated, which sets a positive emotional tone for the session that will have a relaxing effect on the horse.

Riders should be attentive to the horse’s level of arousal. Horses may be under-stimulated by too little challenge, which can impair their performance. A moderate level of challenge will grab attention and enhance the horse’s learning and performance. When a horse experiences high levels of stress, for example, when it is in an unfamiliar situation or performs a difficult routine, its performance may be severely compromised. This well-known relationship between stress and performance is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

A horse’s performance and engagement in training and competition will soar when the rider prioritizes the horse’s experience and applies ethical and effective learning principles to their training program. For example, the horse will make more correct responses when the rider communicates clearly through the proper application of cues. (The proper application of cues has been described at length by Dr. Andrew McLean of Equitation Science International.

Making a correct response is rewarding for the horse. More correct responses means less physical discomfort caused by continued or repeated leg and rein pressure. More correct response also means more praise and positive regard from the rider, and more treats for horses that are trained with positive reinforcement.

Horses are very sensitive to a rider’s emotional state. By prioritizing the horse’s success instead of their own, the rider’s is often more relaxed and less frustrated, which sets a positive emotional tone for the session that will have a relaxing effect on the horse.

Are there ways to improve how a horse feels about its job if you don’t want to sell the horse or switch disciplines?

Whether or not a horse will change the way it feels about its job depends on several factors. If pain is involved, then the horse will not be happy until the pain is managed, and rehabilitation training is set up. If the rider’s expectations exceed the horse’s current abilities, then the horse can learn to like its job only if the rider changes their expectations, works to improve their own riding skills, and adopts a different horse-first approach to training.

A horse is more likely to choose to participate in its job when the training emphasizes reinforcement and does not involve force and coercion.

Positive reinforcement and choice are two principles that are gaining traction in some sectors of the horse training industry. Positive reinforcement is a behavior modification and training method. It promotes training methods that reward correct behaviour with something pleasant and which the horse values, like food and pets. Horses trained with positive reinforcement have shown to be more engaged in the process, and it is also known to strengthen the horse-human relationship.

A horse is more likely to choose to participate in its job when the training emphasizes reinforcement and does not involve force and coercion. In addition, good communication between the rider and horse is essential. A clear dialogue is accomplished only when the rider speaks, listens, and validates. This involves applying riding aids correctly, paying attention to the horse’s body language, and, in response, making adjustments to the training routine. When these conditions are met, both the rider’s and horse’s goals are satisfied, and the human-horse relationship is strengthened.

What are classic signs of equine depression? And is this caused mainly by unhappiness in work, or other factors?

Emotional states in horses have only recently been in the research spotlight. Equine withdrawal became a familiar condition when Dr. Carol Fureix, from the University of Bristol, and colleagues described it in a 2012 paper Towards an ethological animal model of depression? A study on horses. These equine scientists have continued to publish articles on the topic. This depressive-like state in horses includes behavioral, emotional, and cognitive symptoms similar to those observed in human patients diagnosed with clinical depression. Horses remain motionless with ears held back and adopt a distinctive flat-necked posture. They are also disengaged from things going on around them in the environment and slow to react when approached or touched.

A withdrawn state has long been observed in confined horses and other farm animals and viewed as an indicator of poor welfare. Confinement, along with pain and trauma, are proposed causes. Unhappiness in work has never been investigated as a cause of depressive-like symptoms in horses, but a working horse who is confined to the stable and experiences pain or trauma may, like other horses in these conditions, become withdrawn. Not enough is known at this time, however, so any connection between them, while possible, is only speculative.