Talking Horses

The Power of Play


Like most people when they’re first introduced to horses, my early years were mostly about how much fun it was riding out on the trails, chatting with other riders and seeing some beautiful scenery. Riding school horses and well-broke ranch horses, usually surrounded by their equine buddies, meant there was not a whole lot to worry about so you could relax and enjoy the ride.

Even when I started taking more serious lessons and studying the concepts of natural horsemanship, the focus was primarily on how to get the horse to do the things we wanted to do during our time with them. The one thing you almost never heard was what does the horse think about all this. It seemed this was an activity where the bottom line was about how much fun can a person have with a horse, as if the horse wasn’t really part of the equation.

When I bought my first horse, it was pretty clear I had my hands full with this particular animal. Our first ride after the check had cleared lasted about a mile before he started bucking and spinning. Not being skilled enough at the time to know how to handle this, I managed to get off without injury, but even walking back to the barn from the safety of the ground proved to be challenging.

This horse was already living at our boarding facility and the trainer that brokered the sale assured me this would be a good first horse for me. After this first ride and during the months that followed, I wasn’t so sure. The horse would always pin his ears when I was near him – and actually with any other person as well – and if given the opportunity he would go for a nip of human flesh, or a bit of equine hide if it was horse he didn’t like. If we were out on the trails and he heard or saw another horse, he would go off and try to run to one of his own kind regardless of what I tried to do. He was given a number of nicknames, ranging from Old Bucky to Crabby Face to Sour Puss to some much more profane.

I was tempted to throw in the towel on this horse and riding in general as this all seemed a very different and much more dangerous activity from those relaxed trail rides on calm horses. But I’ve never been a quitter, and an experienced horseman I respected said he thought there was a good horse in there if I could ever find it. I knew a lot of this was me and my relative lack of experience and knowledge, but clearly this horse was not going to cut me any slack or take care of me while I learned.

I was determined to put as much time into this horse and my horsemanship as I could, despite having an executive position and playing on two touring basketball teams at the time. My first step was taking some vacation time and signing up for a 9-day clinic with one of the top horsemen in the country at that time. I figured 8 hours a day for 9 days straight with my horse would get us over a lot of hurdles.

The clinic was mostly a disaster for me as my horse did not play well with others and caused some issues with the other riders. He just didn’t seem to enjoy what we were doing and thought even less of my attempts to teach him boundaries and what I needed from him. However, I did take away enough to plot my course going forward, and for the next eight months I managed to get to the barn at least five days per week to work on the basics, despite my busy schedule. I didn’t see many changes in his attitude but at least I was trying to do things in ways that I believed would make more sense to a horse.

I decided at that point to take a lot more vacation time and sign up for a 30-day clinic, setting aside an entire month to do nothing but be with my horse under the guidance of a master horseman. This started off about as well as my first clinic experience, in other words, not great. The clinician was complimentary of my advanced skill level gained from the countless hours of work and practice I had put in since he first saw me. But he still couldn’t understand why my horse hadn’t come to the party and was still just as cranky and unfriendly as ever.

Then one day, about two weeks into the clinic, the doorway into my horse appeared in an unlikely way. During lunch we would usually leave the horses out in the arena so they could roll, snooze and hang out with a buddy while they decompressed from the morning session. We ate in an adjoining room with a clear view of the arena and the horses so we could easily get out to break up any disagreements between horses. There was a small side pen attached to the arena where we stored all the “toys” we were using in the clinic – balls, cones, barrels, ground poles, tarps, etc.

As we were eating our lunches that day, we watched my horse Cody wander over to the pen and start to work on pulling the gate open. After my “brain surgeon” figured that out, he started pulling out various items and seemed to be playing with them on his own. He’d pick up a cone, swing it around and toss it aside. He’d drag a tarp, roll a barrel or pull a poll with a front hoof. His ears were forward and eyes bright, signs of an engaged horse. I was laughing at all this but the clinician was serious as he watched. He made a simple statement, but one that changed everything for me and this horse, and everything I’ve done with horses ever since.

He said this horse had never experienced the joys and benefits of play, and if I made that part of his training and our relationship, I might finally reach that good horse buried inside the tough nut I’d been working with. This was the first time I’d had a serious discussion about our responsibility for thinking about what the horse sees and feels about what we’re doing. Does he actually enjoy the work we’re doing? Is it fun? Does he look forward to our rides or our practice sessions? Do things make him nervous or afraid, or do they stimulate him and motivate his natural curiosity? What’s in it for him?

This epiphany led me to do some research on my horse’s past life, and what I found out confirmed this new theory. By five years old he’d already had 8 different owners. He’d been started way to early and had been forced into various riding disciplines – reining, halter work, cutting, roping, western pleasure – with all the constant and sometimes harsh training those disciplines require, with no thought given to the fact that he was simply not cut out to be that kind of horse. He looked the part as a big beautiful quarter horse but it wasn’t who he was. He failed miserably in all these efforts. He became more and more sour along the way, even developing some health issues related to the stress of the wrong kind of life, and that’s what I inherited shortly after his fifth birthday.

From that day forward, I promised my horse we would always try to do something that he enjoyed and that play and variety would be an important part of his development. The transformation was extraordinary and almost immediate. I got better at reading what he was saying about what we were doing and I made sure to teach him in the ways that made him feel comfortable and made learning fun. I never again thought of him or any other horse as simply being there for my fun and enjoyment, but that the relationship had to go both ways if it was going to reach the highest possible levels.

So, I would ask all riders to think about this most basic aspect of your relationship with your horse, one that is critical to his mental and physical wellbeing, and by extension yours as well. Is my horse having fun? Does he enjoy what we’re doing and do I offer him enough variety to make his life interesting, and by doing so making him a more willing partner that is easier to teach and is more receptive to learning? Or, do I do the same thing all the time with my horse. Do I ride the same trails with the same friends in the same order? Do I ride the same patterns over and over in the arena or do endless reps of the same exercises because it’s about my learning and muscle memory even though my horse already figured it out? Do I do things other than just riding like liberty work, ground work, work in hand or just going for a hike? Do I offer him opportunities to play or be silly or am I always looking for obedience and the behavior I want?

I suggest to all my students to look for the signs from their horses, sometimes very subtle and sometimes pretty obvious, that indicate boredom or frustration with routine and lack of stimulation. Does your horse walk away from you when you go out to catch him? Do you have to use treats to catch him? Does he turn his head away from you when you approach? Does he slow his walk when you’re heading to the arena or round pen. Do you find yourself having to use more effort or carry a whip to get more forward on the trail or in the arena? Does your horse throw you surprise hops or jigs when doing things you’ve done a hundred times before? These are all signs you and your horse are in a rut and he’s probably bored even though you’re having fun.

How did this change in attitude and new approach of adding fun and play to my horse’s life change my relationship with my first horse, a truly troubled soul? Less than nine months after this lunchtime revelation, we walked out together into the arena at the Santa Rosa Professional Rodeo, with the distractions of a large noisy crowd, a county fair and all the rodeo animals surrounding the arena. I removed his halter and lead, leaving him free to choose what he wanted to do, and we put on a demonstration at liberty, with no contact between the two of us other than voice and body language, that had the sold-out arena standing and cheering as my horse jumped barrels, cantered at my side and negotiated complicated patterns. He never left my side and never let his focus wander as he was doing things that he truly enjoyed and that we had learned together. We danced together that night like never before.

All this from a horse nobody wanted and one that wanted nothing to do with me either. Eight different people had owned him in just five years and they all gave up on him because he couldn’t win the ribbons or buckles. But I learned to look at him as my partner and to give him the kind of variety, fun and stimulation that he wanted and needed. Only then could he give back to me. For the rest of his life, he gave me more than I could have ever asked for.

Humans don’t do well when we’re bored and life is monotonous with few laughs and no fun. When we have nothing to look forward to or are doing something we hate, our own learning and development stop or slows down. Your horse is no different.

Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at or 575-388-1830.