How to Get Your R+ Horse to Choose to Exercise

Having a healthy horse means attending to their physical as well as emotional well being. You may provide your horse with plenty of friends and room to move, however, that does not always ensure their physical health. So how do we help our horses to become more physically fit? Historically, horses have moved to avoid predators and walked many miles a day to pursue resources like food, water, and shelter. For the domesticated horse, we provide safe places for them to reside, typically in a field or barn/stable. We have provided our horses with living environments that are protected from predators and their resources are nearby. With all of these creature comforts, many horses choose a predominantly sedentary life that does not lend itself to getting an adequate amount of exercise. I have seen plenty of horses who live in a field who are obese or even appear depressed. Having a lot of room to move is a great start but it is not always enough. At Terra Nova we have incorporated track paddocks. The narrow track design encourages the herd to move more than in an open field. In addition, we have the resources spread about and this also creates movement. This is helpful, but still not enough. Also, there are many people who do not have access to large open living environments, so their horses live in stalls that do not permit the horse to amble about. In either case, we need to provide mental and physical stimulation to create horses who don’t simply exist but can thrive in their human-centric world. There are plenty of things we can do to help our horses be healthy and happy. Environmental enrichment is a huge benefit to any horse and can encourage both mental and even some physical activity. That is a relatively easy solution to keep them entertained and mentally engaged but it does not address true physical fitness. We all know that an exercise routine can be a tough endeavor for us humans and we KNOW the benefits of being in shape. There are plenty of traditional ways to help a horse with their fitness. However, they don’t necessarily enjoy the process. So how do we go about helping our horses to enjoy and chose to participate in the process of getting in shape? It sounds impossible, but I have loads of successful positive reinforcement (R+) training techniques. I share a few of these ideas to address Taylor’s question in my latest Ask Shawna answer. The key is bridging (clicking) and reinforcing (feeding) movement, not stopping or slowing. This increases the frequency of your horse choosing to move more often. The reverse round pen concept is a great way to get started. For more on the reverse round pen, you may visit my podcast, Equine Clicker 101. It walks you through the how and why. REMINDER: Always start with a physical examination to ensure that there is not an underlying physical issue. Resolve the physical issues before moving onto the behavioral aspect.
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