Play versus Work: A Mindset and a Process for Improving the Relationship with Your Horse

Photo © Heather N. Photography

by Elli Pospischil 

Do you remember when you used to play? 

Wasn’t that a carefree time when you played with dolls, played hide & seek, played board games, played catch, played Simon Says, played charades, played musical chairs, and many other childhood games? Life was fun and free of worry. Life was all a game! 

Before we know it, we turn into adults and start making simple things complicated. 

Over time, our playtime gets replaced by work time. As we mature, we get a job or two and show up for work. Once we begin “adulting,” our playtime can become very limited, at least, if not gone altogether: Eat – sleep – work – repeat. 

Do you remember why you got into horses in the first place? Was it because you had always dreamed of having horses, ever since you watched the “Black Stallion” way back when? Or was it because you thought it would be fun? 

Yes, remember, horsing around is supposed to be fun! Moreover, your horse just wants to have fun too! 

Having fun means you are enjoying yourself, and it offers you the opportunity to express yourself freely. Think back on the last time you felt that way: What were you doing? Who were you with? 

The more you can make your time with your horse fun and creative for both yourself and your horse, the more your horse will offer you. Your relationship with your horse – which is what it is all about – will get better and better the more you work on yourself and play with your horse

Your horse didn’t sign up for a job. He or she is not looking to work. In fact, the three things horses need most are safety, comfort, and play. Yes, horses want to play! The next time you see a herd of horses out in a field, take a moment to observe them. Do they look like they are playing, or do they look like they are working? 

Of course, there are still plenty of horses in today’s world who remain an important asset to their human’s work. Working horses serve on the police force, support cattle and ranch work, work as Equine Assisted Therapy horses, pull carriages, and serve in the military, and those are only a few examples. 

Thankfully, horses are a hobby for many of us, even if it is a quite serious endeavor. Nevertheless, no matter how serious the human is about achieving results with the horse, it’s best to maintain a mindset that for both the horse and human, togetherness should be fun as well. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

Why should I “play” with my horse? 

Physical exercise is very important for a horse to live a long, happy & healthy life, yet offering your horse both positive mental & emotional experiences is just as important. 

By playing with your horse, you can establish who the leader is in your herd of two in a friendly yet firm manner. Of course, it’s safer for all involved if that leader in the herd of two is you – rather than the half-ton bunny rabbit on a string. By exposing your horse to different objects, situations, and environments, you will build his or her emotional fitness, which in turn makes your horse more balanced all around.

As an analogy to apply to developing your horse, think about filling all three cups: the mental, the emotional, and the physical fitness. Or, in other words: How smart can your horse become?
How confident & reliable can your horse become? How supple & powerful can your horse become? 

How do I make our time together fun & creative for my horse? 

Arena “work” – as much as I love it – can get very boring very quickly, especially for horses that don’t want to move much to begin with. An enjoyable way to turn arena work into a creative play session is to incorporate obstacles, whether that is on the ground or riding. You can find ways to use poles, jumps, bridges, pedestals, teeter-totters, and gates. nAdd some toys to your equipment stash, like cones, barrels, tarps, and balls. 

When you don’t have any horse toys available, another approach to providing more creative sessions with your horse include making frequent transitions, changes of direction, and mixing up patterns, both on the ground and riding. Indeed, “consistency is a great teacher, yet variety is the spice of life.” Some horses need more consistency, while others need more variety. What does your horse need? 

Get good at thinking outside of the box. 

With any given obstacle or toy (as long as it is horse-safe), challenge yourself and your horse by asking your horse: Can you do this? Can you do that? 

For example, you might ask, can you step onto, over, through this obstacle? How about with just your head? Then how about with your neck? Then how about your front feet? How about all four feet? Can you navigate the obstacle Forward, Backward, and Sideways? 

You have the opportunity to create more interest for your horse by adding more “can you’s”, “what if’s”, and “how about’s” into your horse sessions. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

How do I make working my horse a game? 

Remembering those games of our childhood and connecting that to our “work” with horses might be a little bit of a mental stretch. Perhaps you are asking, “why would I want to play games with my horse?” After all, horses are way bigger and stronger than us humans, and a playful horse can be intimidating? Does that resonate with you? 

Indeed, the times when horses are the most athletic are when they are playing with each other and when they are scared. By establishing boundaries while playing with your horse, you’ll develop a “good citizen” partner horse. In fact, establishing boundaries can be made into a game: give your horse boundaries and make it his or her responsibility to find harmony within them. Boundaries can be the halter, the lead rope, the bit, the reins, the legs, the seat, rails, and panels. Boundaries can also be mental or emotional, therefore invisible. 

By teaching your horse about these boundaries and holding him or her accountable, you can make it less about him or her and more about the boundary. 

Imagine this: you go to mount your horse and he or she walks off. It’s best to maintain a positive and playful attitude such as, “Oh my! Do you not see that cliff in front of you? You must not step off the cliff!” That imaginary cliff in your mind becomes the boundary. You certainly would not want your horse to fall off that cliff, now would you!? 

To keep your horse from stepping off or falling off that imaginary cliff, you can either back him up or move him back into this “parking spot” from where you can mount safely and comfortably. If you have a crop or a stick with you, you can wave it in front of him or her and let him know that there is, in fact, a boundary. Soon, your horse will make a choice not to stick his nose into that wall of pressure. 

If that boundary is important to you, it will become important to your horse as well, whether it’s visible or invisible. The key is to teach your horse to respect boundaries to where he or she will look for that happy place between the boundaries. The goal would be to have your horse ask, “what do I need to do to keep my human quiet?” Sometimes the correct answer for the horse is, “don’t just do something, just stand there!” While you mount your horse, you want exactly that. 

You can establish a playful attitude with your horse by saying, “I am doing XYZ; how about you?” As an example, in your mind and body, you say, “I am trotting in my body. How about you?” 

Have I perfected the skill of being my horse’s personal entertainer as well as a teacher? 

Perfect? Not yet. Nevertheless, I continue to keep giving it my best? Absolutely, yes! It’s a mindset of continuous improvement. 

My intention is to fill up my horse’s “feel good” relationship account every chance I get. I give my horse a positive mental, emotional and physical experience with me. To this end, on days when there is more work to get done, and less time for play, when it’s a “must-do” situation, I can tap into our relationship savings and get things done with my horse. 

You only live once. That saying is so apropos that it has its own acronym: YOLO. Therefore, make the most out of the limited time that you and your horse have on this planet. 

Go play, have fun and live a happy horse life!


Elli Pospischil of Soulutions by Elli is an independent natural & relationship-based horsemanship instructor based out of Colorado in association with Linda Parelli’s Happy Horse Happy Life. Elli is available to help horse enthusiasts form better relationships with their horses. Reach out to her to get creative support and become better at playing with your horse: www.soulutionsbyelli.com. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram & TikTok @SoulutionsByElli

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