One thing many people wonder about- even experienced riders- is why horses let people ride them. It’s one of the most frequent questions I get asked at breed demonstrations and educational events.
Horses let people ride them because of training that helps them grow used to the experience, breeding that ensures their personality is suitable for riding, and because they trust humans as caretakers rather than predators. In this article, you’ll learn more about these 3 reasons horses allow themselves to be ridden, plus 5 additional reasons why.
5 Reasons Horses Let Humans Ride Them:
Trust: Horses Have Learned to Trust Humans
Horses and humans are capable of building strong bonds together, which leads to a deep level of trust between them. However, despite a thousand years of domestication, horses are not born trusting humans. It is something that must grow over time as the horse learns to not perceive people as a threat.
Trust is easier to build with domesticated horses, since they are around humans their whole lives- often from moments after birth. 1 It is possible to build trust with horses born in the wild as well, but it takes a lot of time and patience. Trust can often be built by feeding the horse, training them, or even relaxing with them in a pasture, to name just a few examples. The more time you spend with them, the more the trust will grow.
Breeding: Horses have Been Bred to Allow Humans to Ride Them
Over the centuries domesticated horses have been bred for certain traits. Some for speed, others for stamina, and others still for their behavior. They are often bred with a specific type of work in mind, such as working cow horses, or racehorses.
People have utilized horses for centuries for work or pleasure, and have continued to breed horses that have highly desired traits. The instinct to want to do work and bond with humans are among the traits that good breeders strive for. If both mom and dad trained easily, did well under saddle, and liked letting people ride them, then chances are good that their offspring will as well.
Over the years, careful breeding selects genes and traits that contribute to modern horses that are easily trained to allow a rider. Additionally, researchers have found that when a foal grows up around a mare that trusts humans, the foal is more trusting and easier to train. 2
Training: Humans have Trained Horses to Tolerate Being Ridden
Horses do not naturally know how to be ridden, or know to allow people on their backs. It is something they must be trained to allow. This training can take a long time to do it correctly. Foals born in captivity are desensitized to humans handling them almost from birth. It is easier to teach them how to have their feet handled and to be led by a halter and lead rope while they are small. At this time, they still have their mother close by for reassurance that these things are safe.
As young horses get older, they begin going through training to be ridden. It starts out with groundwork, such as lunging, getting them used to new objects, and teaching them cues they will need to know under saddle. (See also, things to do with a yearling horse). Then the saddle is added and groundwork continues. Once they are used to all of the equipment while being handled from the ground, the trainer can begin getting them used to a rider.
When horses are trained to accept a rider, it’s gradual:
1️⃣ Saddle breaking starts with lots of groundwork. This involves getting a horse used to the equipment and cues a rider will use.
2️⃣ Then, a rider starts by putting weight in the stirrup and letting the horse adjust to that.
3️⃣ Next, when the horse is ready, the rider places a leg over the saddle and gently rests their weight in the saddle.
4️⃣ When the horse has been trained to allow a rider to sit on its back, the trainer will begin riding them around an enclosed space.
Training a horse to tolerate a rider has the potential to be a long process. The length of training can depend on the trainer, the horse, and what the horse is being trained for. When training is done correctly, the horse will trust their rider.
Emotion: Horses Have Emotional Bonds with Their Human
Domesticated horses rely on people to supply their basic needs and care. This reliance fosters a relationship between the animal and person, just like it does between dogs and people. Hoses generally want to make people happy, since that is where their food comes from.
Horses that are treated well and with kindness will often build bonds with the people caring for them. The bonds built between a horse and a person are tough to break. Often a horse will remember someone they have not seen in years- and this strong bond can last a lifetime.
Enjoyment: Some Horses Genuinely Like Being Ridden
There are some horses out there who would clearly prefer to be left alone in their pasture all day (I have one of them!). However, there are also horses that are genuinely excited to go for a ride!
These horses seem happier when they are carrying a rider around a jump course, trail, track, or farm consistently. Sometimes it is a particular activity that they look forward to. If 5 generations of your pedigree had been bred to hyper-focus on herding cattle, you might wake up in the morning wanting to herd cattle too!
Whether it’s jumping, barrel racing, or a trail ride, many horses enjoy their work. Others may just enjoy getting out of their stall or pasture and seeing the world around them, regardless of the reason. Some horses will actually become agitated and bored if they do not have a job to do. By allowing people to ride them, these working horses relieve their boredom and burn off extra energy.
Unfortunately, we will never know for sure why horses allow people to ride them, or if they like it. Since horses and humans do not speak the same language, we can only read the cues we have. The best we can do is to pay attention to the signals that horses show us, and do what we can to make sure they are happy and well taken care of.
Research sources used for this article:
- King, S, Leigh Wills, Hayley Randle, Early training of foals using the ISES training principles, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 29, 2019, Pages 140-146, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.11.001. [↩]
- S. Henry, D. Hemery, M.-A. Richard, M. Hausberger, Human–mare relationships and behavior of foals toward humans, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 93, Issues 3–4, 2005, Pages 341-362, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2005.01.008. [↩]