“The horse has to work!”

The horse has to work is a sentence I seem to come across frequently, on Facebook just as much as in life. What is the actual meaning behind this sentence?


Let’s have a look in which context(s) riders and trainers use The horse has to work:

  • A rider lunges a young horse with very short side reins, so that the horse’s nose is way behind the vertical. The horse is walking on the forehand and nothing is done to correct its crookedness. When asked for the reasons why the horse has to walk like this, the answer is: “When I lunge her without the side reins, she will not put her head down.” When the rider is reminded of the fact that the horse can learn how to keep a proper posture without side reins, the answer might be: “I tried to explain it to her once, but she didn’t do it, and I have to work her, you know?”
  • Another horse is being lunged on a plain halter and very much struggles with the centrifugal power on the circle. Also this rider might say: “The horse has to work” when someone points out that the horse might injure its joints and tendons due to imbalance. “Yes, I know, but she has to get rid of her energy, she’s very hot, and I have to work her.”
  • A horse is cooped up in the stable for 23 hours a day and is quite challenging when let in the arena. It pulls on the lunge to get free, is hard to direct under the rider, speeds, and bucks. The riding teacher might say to the rider: “Keep trotting, she has to work!”
  • A green horse is started under the saddle without much explanation of what it all means. It rears, bucks, and runs. The rider in the middle of the arena lashes the whip at the horse, the rider on top kicks hard with the heels. When ask about the reasons for the procedure, the answer might be: “The horse is now three years old and has to be worked”.
  • An older horse suffers from arthritis or another degenerative disease, is clearly lame, but the owner insists to ride it anyway. When pointed out that the horse is lame, the owner might say: “Yes, I know, but he has to work.”
  • The same goes for horses with back pain. Instead of finding out the reasons for the pain, like an unfitting saddle, a rough or inefficient riding method, lacking back muscles, joint problems, hoof problems, the horse is lunged over low obstacles with short side reins, because somehow people believe that this will cure back problems in horses. And, of course, having a longer training break is unacceptable, because the horse has to be worked…
  • A horse is fed tons of oats. When suggesting that there might be a connection between the horse’s explosive behaviour and the amount of starch the horse is getting every day, the owner might just say: “Oh, I didn’t work him yesterday, that’s why he’s so energetic today. He has to work every day.”
  • A horse is not balanced well enough to canter around the arena with a rider on top. Instead of working on balance, the horse is cantered round after round because it has to work.
  • A rider does not have a good seat yet and rides the horse in the arena, along the wall, day after day for about an hour. “I know I’m not so good yet, but I love to canter, and he has to move.”


What do we actually say when we insist that The horse has to work?

  • We do not want to take the time it takes to explain something to a horse, as for example, how to achieve proper self-carriage on a circle.
  • We do not want to take the time to get a horse used to new things such as a saddle, bridle, a new training method, new surroundings.
  • We do not want to accept that we might be the cause for our horse’s problems.
  • We do not want to provide adequate living circumstances for our horse.
  • We accept “common knowledge” and practices in horse keeping, such as feeding high amounts of grains, without checking the scientific recommendations and new studies.
  • We want a quick fix instead of searching for actual reasons.
  • We don’t want to take the effort to learn a balanced seat.
  • We don’t let our horse have a say in his training.
  • We see the horse as a servant, a piece of sports equipment, or a means to have a career.
  • We give our desire to sit on a horse priority over the emotions and physical health of another living being.
  • In short, we are being self-centered and are not open to learning anything new.

There is no other reason to a sentence such as The horse has to work other than it is our own idea of what a horse should be doing. It is an excuse to go ahead even when causing pain and suffering and a justification for our own desires. If we don’t use sentences like The horse has to work and instead begin to take our horse’s emotions and needs more seriously, we will be surprised by just how cooperative and thankful our horses turn out to be!


I don’t mean to be judgmental about the way some people work their horses. Everyone’s on their own journey. I just think that, sometimes, we should check what we are saying and if it’s an excuse to just go ahead and ignore the signals of unease we’re getting from our horses. I chose the pronoun we because I’m also not immune to that and I find myself coming up with these funny, unwritten “laws”, too.

If, in 2016, we can all forget a little bit about The horse has to… and manage to listen more, I think we will see a side of our horses which we have not been aware of before 😉


With lots of best wishes for the new year from Warsaw!




11 Comments on ““The horse has to work!”

  1. I wrote a piece using the phrase “der muss da jetzt durch”. It’s just the same with “the horse needs to work”. Makes me sick. And yes, I am being judgmental. :/

  2. In my book, the horse never “has” to work. The horse may “need” to work, but for me that involves searching out what is difficult, painful, boring, or whatever other obstacle is in the way of progress and constructing a program to address those issues. The horse will need to follow the protocol once it is established, but the end goal is always resolution of whatever issue is at hand in order to obtain the horse’s best effort. When the horse feels better, stronger, more confident, then the rider is much more apt to find he/she has a more willing partner. Listen to the horse and the horse will tell you the answer…or at least which way you should be heading in order to find the answer!

  3. This is one of the reasons I’m so happy to be training on my own with my young mare. There are no “rules” per se, instead, we set the pace on our own. Training sessions can consist of 20 minutes easy jogging around with me on the ground in the arena, or more of a full workout, with walk breaks decided whenever I want them. No one is pushing our pace. She evolves at a slow pace, but she IS evolving and getting stronger.
    No one expecting very much of us at all, really. We both love it! No true “has to work” rules to abide by, and so far it feels very freeing 🙂 Wish others could have that, too…

    • Whenever I saw someone working slowly with a horse the overall progress was always very fast! Much faster than pushing it in the beginning and then having to fix problems or encountering big cliffs 😉

  4. “If anyone has to work, it is the rider.” It’s the training axiom that my daughters learned from their instructor/coach when they began to ride. It’s incumbent on the rider to understand every part of their horse inside and outside of the training setting and the show ring. Observe a new behavior, step back and take time to understand. The training not going well, step back and take time to understand. Because whatever adjustment is needed, it is the rider who is adjusting their habits.

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