Listening To Your Horse: A Case for Empathy

Feb 3, 2021 - 2:49 PM

About a month ago, my horse starting acting like one short side of the indoor arena was going to swallow her whole. She’s lived at the same barn for four months now, and I’ve ridden her in this same indoor pretty much daily. In my eyes, nothing had changed at this end of the ring. But in my horse’s eyes, apparently, everything had changed down there, and all of it was terrifying.

I tried everything I could think of to help her get over it: I stopped and let her look during rides; I hand-walked her up to it and had her look at it that way; I gave her a sugar cube when she took a look at it and relaxed; I stopped and give her her head near there so she’d associate it with getting a break. But nothing really seemed to alleviate her anxiety surrounding that short side of the ring.

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“I’ll be honest—my instinct was to get annoyed with her,” said Laura Adriaanse after her mare started spooking at the end of the ring. Photos Courtesy Of Laura Adriaanse

This seemingly causeless spooking went on for weeks. I’ll be honest—my instinct was to get annoyed with her. Why couldn’t she just get over it? It had to be just an evasion to get out of work. I tried getting a little tougher with her to make it clear that she could not, in fact, get out of work by pretending to spook, but that only seemed to heighten her anxiety.

So I took a step back and reconsidered. What else was going on in her life that might be causing this behavior? Well, now that I thought about it, the left lead walk-to-canter transition was becoming stickier, and I really had to finesse it to get her to pick up the correct lead. Oh, and also, the shoulder-in to the right had become a struggle and increasingly hollow and braced. The common denominator in those movements is that they load the right hind leg. At this realization, it suddenly hit me: She probably needed her hock injected. (Her left hock is fused, so it’s a singular hock injection in the right hind when necessary.)

My horse is new to injections—she just got her first round last summer—so I wasn’t sure of the cadence she’d require to keep her comfortable. The next week, I had the vet out, and after some flexion tests, she determined my horse did indeed need her right hock injected. A week later, she’s back in full work, and lo and behold, her fear of the short side of the indoor has dissipated.

The whole experience, while unremarkable by itself, really got me thinking about communication between horse and rider. Horses really don’t have a way to express discomfort to their riders, unless they’re patently, head-bobbing lame, which my horse never was, nor are most horses in her situation. I hate that I rode her through her discomfort, often not as softly as I should have when I’d become frustrated with her. I know hindsight can be 20/20, but going forward, my eyes will be quite a bit more open to ways that my horse might be trying to communicate with me, and prolonged, unprovoked spooking will likely be among them.

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Laura Adriaanse felt more empathy than ever toward her mare Dixie Rose when she realized her spooking issue came from soreness, not malice.

That’s not to say that horses, mine included, don’t employ this kind of fake spooking as a work evasion from time to time; I’m not naïve enough to think that doesn’t happen. I just think there’s a case for listening to your horse and advocating for them in ways that they can’t. When we as riders are around horses as much as we are, it’s easy to lose sight of how much they give us every day when they absolutely don’t have to. They’re massive animals, 10 times the size of their riders, and they could easily give us the horse version of the finger and call it a day at any given moment. But the vast majority of them don’t. They show up, and they try their hardest for us, day in and day out. They often work through undiagnosed discomfort, mild lameness or even pain in an attempt to please us and do what we ask.

We ask our horses to interpret our nonverbal communication and cues every day; I think it’s the least we as riders can do to return the favor.


Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and USDF bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She is the proud owner of Dixie Rose, a Hanoverian mare, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels.

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