At East Devon Riding Academy, one of the skills we like to develop in riders is empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of the horse undoubtedly makes you a better horse person but furthermore, it enhances your own life too.

Amazing research carried out with rats showed that they would release other rats from a cage even if there was no reward for doing so. Taking it one step further, when given the choice of two cages, one containing a rat and one chocolate, the rats would open both cages, often sharing the chocolate with the rat they had released. This research clearly demonstrated empathy in action and shows that helping others brings rewards beyond anything tangible.

I’ve often heard riders complain that their horse won’t do something, even though they’ve asked it to several times. At this point I like to go back to square one, checking the understanding and execution of the communication offered by the rider. Often something is missing or physical actions are contradictory and then there’s the regular occurrence of perception not matching reality. The rider thinks they have done something or asked a certain way but the reality is very different. This can be highlighted with a simple exercise- try it. Put your hands out in front of you, side by side level with your shoulders, then close your eyes. Put one arm up to your ear and one arm down to your thigh then bring your hands back together in front of you. When you think your hands are level open your eyes. Are your hands level? If they are, well done, you have better perception than most. With many people one hand will be higher than the other, showing that even though the person thought they were level, the reality is different. So many riders think they’ve got their shoulders in the right place or their leg aid was soft but in many cases this is not an accurate representation of what the horse feels or even thinks. Perceived rein contact has been shown to be inaccurate even by experienced riders- what they would describe as light pressure has been proven to be anything but when it has been measured objectively with strain gauges attached to the reins.

One other exercise to help understand a horses perspective is attempting to swallow in different ways. First, swallow normally. Then try to swallow with your tongue held down to the bottom of your mouth. Feel the difference? Now try to swallow with the tongue held down but with the mouth both open and closed, which is easier? The hardest way to swallow is with both the tongue held down and the mouth shut- it’s possible but it’s not easy as it completely changes the way the mouth needs to function to swallow properly. Now think about the horse wearing a bit in conjunction with a tight noseband or one that is designed to keep the mouth closed. With this tack arrangement the tongue is prevented from coming up to the roof of the mouth normally and the horse is forced to keep its mouth shut. This is why horses can be seen with frothy mouths, it’s not acceptance of the bit, it’s because swallowing is being impaired. I am hoping this exercise has inspired empathy towards all those horses that are expected to perform a job, listen to the rider and even carry out intense exercise whilst having difficulty swallowing! And hopefully for those who can, this empathy can be used to help out a horse or two.

Happy Riding
Natalie x

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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.