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How to Recognize an Unhappy Dressage Horse

How to recognize an unhappy dressage horse

It’s well-known that humans experience depression and times when they have “the blues,” but what about your dressage horse?

Well, there is evidence to show that horses can become depressed and unhappy. So, how do you recognize an unhappy dressage horse, and what can you do to put the spring back in his step?

Read this article to find out!

How to recognize an unhappy dressage horse

Unhappiness in the riding horse can express itself in different ways, often before you even get into the saddle.

Here are three ways to identify an unhappy horse.

1 – Posture

According to a scientific study, depressed horses exhibit an unusual “withdrawn” posture. An unhappy horse will stand completely still. He will have his eyes open and his neck stretched out at the same level as his back. The horse’s expression will be dull, his eyes will be unfocused and staring ahead of him, and his head and ears will be immobile, showing no interest in his surroundings.

Interestingly, depressed horses were found to react more violently than their chilled-out counterparts to loud noises and other unexpected events while remaining impassive and disinterested in the daily happenings and routines around the yard.

2 – Behavioral changes

An unhappy horse may become snappy and bad-tempered in the stable when being groomed or handled.

Stable vices such as weaving, windsucking, pawing at the bedding, and box-walking can sometimes begin in a previously calm horse. Some depressed horses may spend hours simply standing immobile in their stable, apparently totally disinterested in their surroundings.

When turned out, an unhappy horse may avoid socializing with his paddock-mates. A depressed horse may even go off his feed and show little interest in grazing.

3 – Problems under saddle

Unhappy horses often become unwilling under saddle, refusing to work forward from the rider’s leg or becoming nappy in the arena.

When the rider tries to insist and uses a stronger aid, the horse may swish his tail, put his ears back, and even stamp or paw at the ground in a show of resistance. In extreme cases, a dressage horse may refuse to enter the arena at a competition, threatening to rear or simply planting themselves.

What makes a dressage horse unhappy?

There are quite a few reasons why your dressage horse might be unhappy:

1 – Pain or discomfort

Pain and discomfort are the most common stressors for horses, no matter what discipline they are used for.

As a knock-on effect of pain, the horse may be confined to his stable on box rest, further exacerbating the stress of the situation, as the horse won’t be able to exercise, graze, or socialize.

Related Read: How to Keep Your Horse Happy When Stabled

2 – Social isolation

Some horses are kept alone or remain stabled while their stablemates are turned out. Social isolation is known to be a major cause of depression, stress, and unhappiness in horses.

3 – Lack of turnout

Wild horses are naturally evolved to roam, often covering many miles every day as they move around in search of fresh grazing.

The domesticated horse retains that instinct to wander. So, if the horse is kept stabled for the majority of the time, he will soon become frustrated and stressed. Stable vices such as box-walking, weaving, and windsucking often result.

4 – Incorrect training

Dressage is a challenging discipline for both horses and riders, and it can be tempting to keep working on an exercise that’s proving especially difficult.

However, overdoing it can leave the horse mentally exhausted and physically tired, leading to stress and resentment of ridden work.

Also, harsh or coercive training methods, including the use of certain training aids such as draw reins, can make a horse tense and upset, leaving him dreading the appearance of his tack.

Related Read: How to Refresh a Horse That has Become Stale in his Training

5 – Boredom

On the same theme, when schooling your horse, mix things up! Riding around the arena in endless 20-meter circles with few changes of direction and precious little else is a sure way to bore your horse.

Horses are intelligent animals, and they need variety in their work regime to keep them fresh.

6 – Transport

Many horses don’t enjoy the experience of being transported in a lorry or trailer. Sometimes, the confined, cramped environment causes stress and feelings of claustrophobia, especially if the space is too hot or cold or the ventilation is poor.

Poor driving is another major cause of travel woes for the horse, and a slippery floor exacerbates that problem.

Related Read: How to Safely Transport Your Horse

7 – Nervousness

If you’re nervous and stressed at competitions, it’s a sure bet that your horse will feel that, too.

Horses quickly pick up on their riders’ emotional state, and if you feel anxious and uptight, then your horse will quickly reflect that.

Related Read: How to Manage Dressage Competition Nerves

How to make your dressage horse happy again!

Now, bearing in mind the above stressors, it’s your job to work out why your horse is unhappy and take steps to fix the problem.

Obviously, your first call of action is to rule out pain and discomfort. Once you are certain there are no physical health problems, here are other ways you can help your horse have a happier life.

1 – Two’s company

If your horse is kept alone, simply providing him with some company may be all it takes to perk him up.

Ideally, bring another horse into your equine’s life, either as a stable companion in an adjacent stall or as a field-mate. If you can’t accommodate another horse, consider a goat, sheep, or donkey.

2 – Remove an aggressor

Sometimes, a horse that’s the victim of bullying by a domineering field companion can become unhappy. If you suspect that’s the case, take whatever steps are necessary to keep the two parties separate.

3 – Increase turnout time

If your horse spends much of his time stabled, make arrangements for him to spend at least part of the day outside in a paddock or field.

Being able to roam free is essential for a happy horse, and a few hours to wander outside is often all it takes to refresh a stale, depressed equine.

4 – Provide forage

Whether your horse lives in or out, he must have access to plenty of forage.

Horses are natural trickle feeders, and their digestive system requires a constant stream of roughage to function properly. If you feed your horse a diet that lacks fiber and roughage, it’s likely that the horse will suffer digestive upsets, and he may develop Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS).

Often, horses that are stressed and unhappy are found to be suffering from EGUS, so always make sure that your horse has access to good quality grass, hay, or haylage throughout the day.

Related Read: About Your Horse’s Digestive System

5 – Does your horse’s tack fit properly?

If your horse’s tack doesn’t fit him properly, he will be in discomfort every time you ride him.

Your horse can’t tell you that his noseband is too tight, his bit is too small, or his saddle is pinching him; it’s up to you to double-check regularly that your horse’s tack fits correctly.

Related Reads:

6 – Revamp your schooling regime

Dressage can very quickly become “stressage” for both horse and rider!

An unhappy dressage horse is never going to fulfill his potential, and a lackluster or tense performance won’t get you good marks; and that will only make both of you miserable.

So, take a look at your schooling and training regime.

  • Are you routinely asking too much of your horse for his stage of training?
  • Are your training methods unduly harsh?
  • Do you sometimes keep working your horse when you really should let him rest?
  • Do you include variety in your horse’s exercise regimen?
  • Is the footing in your arena too deep, too hard, slippery, or uneven?

Any or all of those factors can make a horse resentful and miserable when ridden.

Try adding some variation to the horse’s exercise routine by including:

In conclusion

For a dressage horse to show his best work and make a willing, cooperative partner, he must be happy.

Every horse is different so you may need to experiment with the above to find the perfect balance for your individual horse’s temperament and character.

How do you keep your dressage horse happy? Tell us your experience in the comments box below!

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