Winning with Horses

Photo by Robb Scharetg

BY Shelley Onderdonk, DVM, and Adam Snow
Reprinted with permission from the author

The Horse as a Competitive Partner 

When it comes to the question of whether horses “enjoy” a sport, it is hard to say. But let’s face it, your horse doesn’t wake up in the morning and think, Oooh, I can’t wait to jump that course perfectly or execute a flying change or win a polo play. He thinks, Where’s my food? But, especially in horses that are bred to perform a certain job, I believe that they are undeniably better off when they are doing what they have been bred to do. Maybe it is just because I like to work, and I am anthropomorphizing. But let’s admit that one of life’s greatest hacks is exercise. For the mammalian brain, outdoor exercise checks all the boxes for building a healthy mind and body—true in the horse as much as in the human (see Gretchen Reynold’s The New York Times article from May 12, 2021, entitled “How Exercise May Help Us Flourish”). The body’s own feel-good hormones (endogenous endocannabinoids and beta-endorphins and enkephalins) increase their circulation and produce a cascade of positive effects, including lowering stress levels. So, you’re not going to convince me that not exercising a horse is doing it any favors. 

But how do we know when to push and when to rest? Which factors come into the decision of whether or not to play/show/compete when the stakes are high? How do we conscientiously compete? I believe we have to understand deep in our hearts that we have prepared everything we are capable of preparing, and then and only then will we feel confident that we are entitled to make demands upon our horses. We must start with a horse suited to the job at hand, trained appropriately (confident that he is only going to be asked to do things he is capable of), and given every chance to be at his physical best. We also must ensure we are primarily using long-term thinking for the horse’s welfare versus short-term gain. 

These ideas sound straightforward, but it is of course very complicated to achieve all of them (which is why we are writing a book about how to do it!). 

Any doubt that surfaces can put a rider off-track. I often hear concerns from clients who witness veterinary procedures on their horses, or reach a deeper level of understanding about a soundness issue of their horses, and from that time forward have difficulty putting their horses back to full work. When questions lurk in the back of your mind about your preparation—“Did I cut short too many trot sets?” or “Did I jump high enough that last lesson?” or “Does the new feed give him enough energy?”—it can have a devastating impact on your confidence. Everything has to feel right before the competition begins.

At the professional, upper levels of any equine sport, I believe we as horsepeople have to acknowledge that everything can’t be pretty all the time. Unless we abolish horse sport altogether, we have to make peace with the fact that finding the perfect line between not pushing hard enough and over-pushing is not always possible without trial and error. No person who has ever been a competitive athlete themselves would disagree. You don’t achieve greatness without the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. Our horses need to train hard also. Doing it well is the key. 

No discussion of winning is complete without considering the horse’s desire to win. Many books are written on sports psychology for the human athlete, but equestrians have to manage the psychology of the horse as well as their own! I find it fascinating to ponder how it varies among horses, and why? Is it different for mares, geldings, or stallions? Is it innate, so we can breed for it, or is it created, and thus we must train for it? 

On gender: racehorse trainers certainly feel young colts are the most highly competitive; most professional polo players vastly prefer mares (about 95 percent of the top horses in polo are mares) for their drive and spirit. And male horses are traditionally castrated to enhance their tractability, which would seem to put geldings at a disadvantage in any equine sport where horses are in direct competition with each other. But when it comes to a horse being in the ring on his own and simply really trying to do his best, perhaps it simply comes down to character—which can be both bred and trained. And once you’ve got it, treasure it and handle it with kid gloves. 

When Should Competition Be Over? 

Regarding retirement, I have heard many stories from clients who tell me about their geriatric horses doing so much better when they continue to “work.” Recently I was texted a photo of a 20-year-old-plus patient, jumping a good-sized fence, perhaps 3’6”, with the caption “Nick couldn’t be happier that he is back doing his favorite thing.” (The owner hadn’t ridden him for a few years while she was busy training some younger horses.) Adam swears that one of our “retired” mares, Rio, grows a few inches and loses several years in attitude when she gets out on the polo field to “stick and ball” every now and then. Data does show that most humans do better with an active or even nonexistent “retirement.” Of course, with horses, it is a little more complicated than with people, to know the right way forward. 

It certainly depends on the situation, but perhaps the core issue is stress level. Would it be stressful for a horse who has competed at a high level for years to get turned out in a big field and not receive much human interaction after a lifetime of stalls and trailers and grooming? Maybe he would find it less stressful to be in light work, getting hacked and sticking to a familiar routine. Another horse, maybe particularly one who has been adjusted to turnout even during his prime, may know perfectly how to relax the minute his unshod feet hit green. 

I received good advice from a child psychiatrist years ago when asking about making a school decision for my child. It was, in a nutshell, “If you listen, they will tell you.” I believe the same is true for horses (although “listening” requires much more expansive perception in a horse than a child!). Older polo ponies will tell you because they don’t want to enter the “throw-in” (when play is started by throwing it down the line-up of players and horses) or they tremble at the trailer. Jumpers will refuse fences or become grumpy in the barn. After appropriate trouble-shooting (ruling out medical and training issues) a solution can usually be found. Giving the horse to a younger rider often does the trick—horses quickly sense the drop in pressure and become the perfect schoolmaster. This is the winning way—listen to your horse, pay attention to his behaviors, and the correct decision will present itself.

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