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For the Happy Horse

Updated: Jul 4

How we can help our horses be more happy within themselves and more engaged partners for us!

Is Your Horse Happy?

Horses can’t smile, and they can’t use words. The only way they can communicate is through body language and many people think a horse is happy if his ears are forward and unhappy if his ears are back. Nothing could be more misleading.

For a horse, “happy” basically means content, but for humans, it can cover a whole range of feelings like gladness, cheerfulness, ecstatic. I think that’s where we can get confused because we look for signs of exuberance and cheer rather than what happiness really means for the horse.

Just like people, horses are happy when their primary needs are met which are, in order of priority:

  • Safety

  • Comfort

  • Play

When a horse feels safe from the threat of predators, he values comfort. And when he feels safe and comfortable, he will play dominance games with others… including humans!


Horses feel safe within the herd, there is safety in numbers. This is their primary form of protection and you’ll notice when threatened, horses will run towards others and push into the center of the herd.

Pecking order or herd hierarchy is also initially driven by the need for safety because the dominant horse takes care of the herd. The more your horse trusts and respects you as its leader the safer it feels. The goal is to have your horse bond with you.

Common problems that have their root in safety:

  • Herd bound, separation anxiety, buddy sour

  • Barn sour, gate sour, arena sour

  • Tension, nervousness

  • Spooking

  • Bolting

  • Rearing

  • Kicking (defensively)

  • Fighting against the bit, halter

  • Fear of vet, farrier, etc.

How can you meet your horse’s needs for safety?

Provide a herd environment, or at least a buddy. This is not always possible but know that it is ideal.

Being a good leader, not scared, not aggressive. Calm, focused, skilled. When we display predatory behavior like threatening the horse, being aggressive, punishing, grabbing the reins or lead rope, trapping the horse, it triggers prey animal responses of flight or fight.

  • Avoiding restraint, developing connections instead.

  • Giving and releasing a lot rather than taking, grabbing, and pulling.

  • Allowing drift rather than locking down.

  • Retreat more than approach, especially if the horse is scared, shy, hesitant, wary.

  • Teach the horse to make sense of pressure and to relax in confined situations.

  • Develop its self-confidence, and overall confidence in new environments.


As people, we think about comfort in terms of temperature, a nice cosy bed, soft sofa, comfy shoes whereas horses value comfort in terms of peace and relief from pressure.

  • Things that make horses feel uncomfortable are:

  • Pressure – physical, mental or emotional.

  • Overwork

  • Equipment that is tight, restrictive or pinches

  • An unbalanced or rough rider

Horses are motivated to move away from discomfort and seek comfort and knowing this can greatly enhance your training techniques. For example, most horses are handled or ridden with incessant pressure: holding tight on the halter and lead rope, holding back on the reins, constantly driving with seat, leg or spur.

When a horse cannot find release or relief from the pressure it becomes tense, frustrated, and stressed. It’s important to learn how to use slight pressure to move the horse, and release or soften that pressure when the horse responds. Good timing makes for lighter responses.

Here are some signs that a horse cannot find comfort:

  • Head tossing, head shaking

  • Grinding teeth

  • Rooting on the bit

  • Open mouth

  • Tail swishing

How can you meet a horse’s need for comfort?

  • Apply pressure slowly and release or soften it the moment the horse tries to comply.

  • Frequent rest and comfort breaks, especially if the work is demanding

  • Keeping the bit quiet

  • Keeping your legs quiet

  • Immediate cessation of the aids when the horse responds (go to passive aids)

  • Frequent giving of the rein, one or both, and loosening of the reins.

  • A happy attitude in the rider!

  • Good riding skills – balance and communication

  • More ‘feel’. Not just in how you handle the reins and apply the aids, but as a sensitivity to the partnership. Consider things from the horse’s point of view and acknowledge how important this need is.


When horses feel safe and comfortable, then they play games… dominance games. They pick and peck on each other in friendship and also in dominance to see who is the strongest, fastest, and bravest. The higher a horse’s spirit the more inclined it is to vie for dominance, no matter its horse behavior.

Horses will also play dominance games with people, once they are no longer afraid of them. The approach here is not to fight your horse for the alpha position, but to understand how horses do it with each other. It’s all about yielding… who yields to who is head of the zoo! Every time your horse can move you, versus you move him, he registers it as a step towards his dominance over you. Teaching your horse to yield politely from pressure is one of the most productive and powerful things you can do to improve your relationship and communication.

Also, think about channeling that need for play into learning. When you give a horse plenty to do, thoughts of dominance disappear but when they are bored, watch out!

How to play with your horse:

  • Make your sessions interesting (versus boring, repetitive drills)

  • Have a playful attitude, don’t be too serious

  • Reward good behavior, ignore bad or unwanted behavior. Just stay focused and carry on.

  • Learn to be a good leader – clear, fair, friendly, focused, encouraging, creative.

Remember that a horse may prick his ears to check something out in the distance and make sure there’s no need to panic… and he may lay his ears back because he’s dominating you and quite happy about it! There is much more to knowing whether your horse is happy.

  • Run the check list…

  • Does he feel safe… in general, in the moment?

  • Can he find comfort… get in harmony with you?

  • Is he getting to play and learn… be mentally and physically stimulated?

A horse’s needs are quite simple, we just need to know how to fullfil them and then do it

Apart for the need for safety, people have different needs from horses and there are several models, many stemming from Dr. Abraham Maslow’s work.

I like the six human needs that Tony Robbins shares: Love & Connection, Certainty, Variety, Significance, Growth, Connection; because it quickly identifies where we are coming from in our actions, beliefs and values. Interestingly, it also dictates our attitude towards horses! 

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