Your horse is healthy and sound. You've checked the saddle. The bit and bridle fit and your horse works well in them. You've got everything you need for your horse to be comfortable while you ride.
Now the rest is up to you.
Is your horse really comfortable while you ride? If you listen carefully enough, he will tell you using his own form of communication. How can you tell? Here are six ways to gauge your horse's level of comfort - while you ride.
This is number one. In the old days, my friends and I used to have "snorting" contests - as in, the first one to get the snorting horse was the winner. It was a fun way to really focus on our horses - and get them to work well and powerfully with looseness and comfort.
Check it out yourself. When you ride, pay close attention to when exactly your horse snorts. What is the circumstance? Sometimes, it's because he did something (like canter on) that made him breathe deeper and have opportunity to move. Sometimes, it's after a correction - for example, fixing crookedness in the horse's body with your aids. Horses always feel better when they move straight - and the snorts roll out right after it happens.
In all cases, the snorts come with deeper breaths. There is something nice about breathing - both by you and your horse!
There is a good kind of slobber that indicates a soft jaw, an active back, and this feeling of looseness in the body that indicates comfort and relaxation in the horse's body. It's not about the bit or the nose band - it's about how the horse feels inside.
If your horse never develops a "white lipstick", there's a chance that he is tight-jawed or tense through the body. If he leans on the bit, or is resistant to your rein aids, you might need to look for ways to communicate other than just through the hands.
Use half-halts to keep your horse well balanced. Work towards using your seat more than your hands. Follow the horse's movement with your lower back when he offers impulsion. All of these skills help to develop a soft, well moving back that allows for better movement and ultimately, comfort.
A horse cannot swing if it is uncomfortable in his body (well, it is true that the best conformed horses have an easier time even when they are tense). But for most horses, tightness anywhere in the body will prevent the "bounce" - the movement feels flatter and the stride shorter. I think of it as a "cardboard back" - the rigidity resonates most in the back and I can feel the immobility and increased concussion through my seat.
I often write about an increase in "bounce" in the horse's way of going, but it's really more than that. Swing is a full-body movement, combining suspension, ground cover and looseness in the entire body. The back moves up and down in a clear, well maintained rhythm.
Floppy or "Light" Ears
You can tell a lot from looking at the ears. Perky ears are usually a sign that the horse is looking at something. Although looking around may be fine during most of your riding, the horse is externally focused. Pinned back ears are a clear sign of discomfort. Stiff, unmovable ears indicate tightness somewhere in the body.
The horse that is truly "in the zone" has different ears - they are soft and not directed at one particular focus point. The ears may flicker back and forth as they horse pays attention to you and what is around him, but they remain light and mobile. Even when the horse notices something around him, he only pays slight attention while he passes by the object.
Some horses can develop floppy ears. If you can ride your horse in comfort most of the time, you might be able to find those floppy ears! In general, horses that flop their ears in rhythm to their strides also demonstrate all the other signs discussed in this article. Full body comfort and release shows up in the ears.
They often say that the outside of the horse mirrors how the horse feels on the inside. So if you can encourage him to take a balanced, uphill, engaged outline, you can help him become more confident mentally as well. Conversely, the horse that moves with the hollowed back, moves in a crooked manner and carries his neck in an uncomfortable way will often be as tense and tight mentally.
The horse that moves with a round, swinging outline (that is not maintained through force but rather through tactful, educated aids) is the horse that feels good on the inside.
In general, a happy, comfortable horse is also a confident horse. He is sure of his environment and of his rider. He moves boldly without a second thought. He has this "watch me" attitude that can't be missed.
Confidence can be seen, but it can also be felt. If you are lucky enough to ride a confident horse, you might be bolstered by his attitude. Even as you guide him along the ride, he will help you achieve your highest goals.
It is possible to develop confidence in the horse. Over the years, through repetition and positive riding experiences, your horse may change little by little until one day, you realize that he takes things in stride (pun intended!) and seems to enjoy his accomplishments as much as you do.
Let's face it. Pretty much anyone can tell a happy horse, even under saddle. He is the one that is bounding along, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (yes, that's where the expressions come from), and just overall looks like he loves what he's doing.
And when that happens, you can't help but become infused with that same sense of enthusiasm.
How do you know your horse is comfortable while you ride? Comment below.
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