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Tracy Courtney

Mental Stimulation

As with all aspects of our lives, it’s important to strive to maintain balance in everything we do with our horses. We try to provide a balanced diet & exercise regime, but don’t often consider the possibilities of creating mental & emotional balances as well. We are always trying to control their motions, without consideration of their emotions. Motion is an expression of feeling in horses, their only way of verbal communication & while we typically take time to observe & find humour in the silly little things they do while playing, we become impatient & frustrated when we decide it’s time for them to do something. In these situations, they are merely expressing an opinion, a feeling, an emotion & asking us for help in building their confidence in the situation or telling us there is a deeper issue. This isn’t defiant or stubborn behaviour & how we choose to respond will dictate their future actions.


Teaching tricks, Variables & working on puzzles & games are a way of showing our horse good habits, acceptable behaviour & the parameters of our new relationship, but they are much more than that. They create a calming & tiring effect that is much more effective than exercise. They are a way to begin to teach the A, B, C’s of our language, to establish an understanding, communication, to build confidence & competence. Creating a basic alphabet of tricks, games & puzzles will lead to single words, then full sentences of good habits & deeper understanding.


Imagine going to a foreign country where we can’t speak the language, & every time we tried to ask for a glass of water, we were beaten & thrown in jail. This would create feelings of confusion & fear, where we would quit trying to ask & divert our focus inward to minimize the anxiety. We would try to avoid contact with our captors all together. Our outlook would change dramatically if we attempted 3 gestures & received a glass of water after the third gesture. This would motivate us to try more gestures & open the door to further communication. This is a great example of why we need to take the time to observe behaviour & allow our horses to express their emotions through different gestures to keep learning fun & progressive, instead of perceiving behaviour as defiant, stubborn or personal attacks.


Where tricks & Variables are used to establish a method of communication & understanding of acceptable & non-acceptable behaviour, games & puzzles have the added benefit of keeping overactive minds busy, while creating relaxation & an emotionally calming effect. Games & puzzles teach our horse how to begin to be proactive instead of reactive, creating reasoning skills, self-control & reasoning out solutions to situations. They are also used as a way of allowing the release of confusing & unhealthy emotions & being able to redirect them in a constructive manner. If we begin to feel frustrated because our horse is needing more variety or challenge during our sessions, adding a puzzle or game or creating Variables will require our horse to utilize more multi-sensory focus & limit the pre-established habits of reverting to fight or flight responses.


Physical exertion can have the effect of stimulating emotional output making one feel energized, increasing focus & concentration, where mental exertion has a calming & tiring effect. This increased stimulation isn’t beneficial when horses are disconnected & unbalanced mentally & emotionally. We’re adding diesel to a runaway engine. If we feel we are becoming frustrated, ignore our horse until we are both in a better frame of emotional balance. When choosing to ignore, always remember to observe passively & be prepared to reward immediately for the right behaviour at the very first opportunity, even if we didn’t ask for anything, to give our horse a direction to open communication & begin to offer more gestures.


People commonly think that the only way to release excess energy in horses is through lunging, round penning, tying for extended periods & riding hard. Variables, puzzles & games are a great way to help tire & relax a horse & limit the need for excessive physical exertion which can be detrimental for growing bodies & minds. Overexertion can damage the skeletal & soft tissue structures in young horses. Physical exercise is still important to the mental, emotional, social & physical growth of horses, but better health & balance can be achieved through adding mental exertion as well.

For those of us who have worked in an office, we can relate to the fact that it’s more exhausting to work hard with our mental body than your physical body. Tricks, variables, puzzles & games are vital to helping our horse develop mental, emotional & physical balance.


We are only limited by our imagination. We can expand the use of tricks, puzzles & games to create potential life-saving opportunities with our horse. Something I often observe while people are working with their horse, is constantly stopping to readjust the lead. I intentionally allow the lead to drag on the ground, so they will step on it & get it wrapped around themselves. Some horses are physically hypersensitive to touch, so rather than having to take extra time to create conditioning sessions, I allow the lead to do the bulk of the job for me, while it has the added benefit of creating a puzzle for the horse to solve. I focus on helping horses begin to think for themselves & problem solve, without dictation & micromanagement. They can’t be too distracted by other things if they’re investing their focus on how to avoid being tangled & replacing the fear association with new confidence.


Another benefit to this exercise is if our horse were to become tangled in a restrictive manner in the future. If we use a barb-wire fence as an example, the average horse would struggle with the potential of causing significant injury that could lead to euthanasia. However, a horse that has learned to relax and give to this type of pressure, would wait patiently for release. I was informed by a boarding facility at one time, that my horse had got his leg wrapped in some ground level barb wire that they were unaware of. The owner explained that my horse was the only one who didn’t show up at feeding time from the 100 acre pasture. When they went to search for him, they found him waiting patiently for someone to come & release him. With amazement, she stated that he couldn’t have been more relaxed & he didn’t have a single scratch on his leg.


Variables & tricks can be used to form games & puzzles by combining & alternating their order. Once a good concept is achieved, we can begin to add more & alternate the order to help build more confidence & problem-solving skills. It’s like an obstacle course for the mind.