Horses are roughly 10 times the size of us as humans. That’s obvious; we all know that. But how often do we really think about the implications of our size difference? In a heartbeat, a horse could overpower and crush a person, probably without much effort. And yet, they don’t. They let us control their entire lives, from stalling them to their turnout to putting metal in their mouths while sitting on their backs and dictating maneuvers for them to perform.
Of course, this take is rudimentary and overly simplified in some senses. But think about it: Why do these horses let us do so much with them? They are just ridiculously kind and gracious animals. They would opt to graze their lives away outdoors when given the choice between that and being ridden. But nevertheless, they show up, and they perform, purely out of their good nature.
To frame my relationship with my horse this way puts things into perspective for me. I am always grateful for my mare Dixie and everything she does for me, but in the past several months, I’ve started thinking about whether she knows how deep my gratitude runs. She’s helping me fulfill my dreams, just because I ask her to. We’re partners, and she gives so much to me and does what I want. A partnership should be reciprocal. So now I ask myself: What does she want, and I am making sure she gets enough of it?
I take care of her physical needs, of course. She eats a balanced diet and has plenty of access to quality hay; she gets as much turnout as the weather permits; she’s kept warm in her wardrobe of at least six blanket options in the winter, cool in the summer under her stall fan, and away from bug nemeses in her head-to-toe entire fly outfit whenever they’re prowling. She gets her teeth floated twice a year and her hooves trimmed and shoes replaced every six weeks. She’s shiny and dappled and healthy as could be.
But what about her emotional needs? I never want Dixie to resent me or feel like I use her as a vehicle to accomplish my goals. I want her to understand, as much as she can as a horse, that I am her partner, her caretaker and her friend, and that she matters to me for who she is.
So I pay attention to what she likes. She loves to be curried; it’s a surefire way to put her to sleep. She loves to be scratched on the right side of her neck under her mane down near her withers. She loves bananas, hand-grazing, having the sides of her face rubbed, and snuggling (on her own terms). Hacking in the front field at the barn is her favorite thing to do under saddle. Easy enough—I can provide all of that for her.
I block in enough time before each ride to curry Dixie for a good 20 minutes. Some days I come and just groom her without any intention of riding. I never show up without at least one banana in hand for her, and I always spend time scratching her favorite spots, especially that spot on the right side of her neck. Any time she lays her head on me, I hold her and pet her until she’s ready to move. When the weather is bad and she has to be inside more often than she’s used to, I take her out to find good grass around the farm and hand graze. I block in at least one day a week to hack in the front field.
I’ll never know for sure if Dixie fully understands my love and appreciation for her. But I know what she looks like when she’s happy: her eyes drooping as I spend time currying her, her excited march as we walk out to the front field, the way she extends her neck and twists her head when I scratch her itchy spot; the fact that she walks up to me in the field when she sees me. In those moments, it’s just the two of us, and I’m perpetrating her happiness. I think that fosters a positive connotation of me in her mind. Who really knows what love or gratitude look like inside the mind of a horse? I’m doing my best to create what I think it must be.
I think it’s really important to never lose sight of the remarkably gracious nature of horses. They give us so much. They are not machines designed to help us reach our goals or dreams. They are their own beings with feelings and needs aside from just the physical. We should never forget that horses don’t owe us anything and are participating in these semi-unnatural mounted activities purely out of the goodness of their hearts. I think the least we can do to pay them back is to figure out what makes them happy and provide them with it whenever possible.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and U.S. Dressage Federation 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 trains with Ana DiGironimo out of DQ Performance Horses in Swedesboro, New Jersey, with her Hanoverian mare, Dixie Rose, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels. She also owns an off-track Thoroughbred gelding named Chai, who lives in retired luxury at the Adriaanse family farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Laura is a marketing and communications professional with aspirations of pursuing full-time equestrian media work. Outside work and the barn, she enjoys writing, livestreaming horse shows and spending time with her three cats.