Equestrians have a tendency to focus on their horse's physicality more so than then their emotional or mental state, myself included. We make sure they are kept clean, well fed, stay fit, are sound (not lame), get the medical attention they need, and the physical rest they need in between workouts... but what about their minds? What about their emotional state?
I read a lot of comments on social media, watch a lot of training videos, read a lot of books, and talk to a lot of equestrians. Over and over again I hear or read things along the lines of "he's really out of shape, this summer we are going to get rid of that hay belly. Boot camp here we come!" or "He's lacking so much topline, what exercises do you recommend to get him into better shape?" or even "We are doing lots of roll backs and hill work, he was so tired today, but we've got to work on muscling up that booty! (insert peach emoji)".
We jog them, swim them, run them, ride them, lunge them, even put them on treadmills to achieve optimal physical fitness. We also talk about and study muscle recovery time, dietary energy requirements, and physical rest for the body so that it can heal; all in efforts to achieve optimal physical performance, but what about their minds? It's fairly clear we are borderline (sometimes obviously) obsessed with our horse's physical appearance, but I rarely ever hear equestrians talk about their horse's mental state. Their minds require exercise, rest, and believe it or not.. proper nutrition in order to maintain optimal performance.
Our horses and us use a tremendous amount of physical energy when riding and training for various disciplines, and our horses in particular have to be physically very fit, so it's easy to think about horse training as just a physical activity. However, equestrians as a whole need to be paying far more attention to our horses' mental energy expenditure and mental health.
Every time we interact with our horses, especially when working with a green or young horse, we are giving them a significant amount of information to learn and accept. It's like they are attending a neuroscience seminar that they have to write a paper on the next day! It's not easy for them! Every day we throw new information at them, expose them to new environments, and expect more from them. They aren't born knowing how to compete grand prix, run a barrel pattern, load into a trailer, or even how to stand quietly for the farrier. Every task we ask them to do is unnatural and challenging for them. Every time we train, handle, or work with a horse they are utilizing brain power.. not just physical power.
If you think of your horse's mind as a glass of water, when we start the training session it's almost empty - as the training progresses we added more water to the glass, but soon the glass gets full and the horse needs time to stop and absorb the training (water) leaving room for more to be added later. However, if we start pouring it in faster than it can be absorbed or not stopping to allow the horse a chance to absorb the information, the glass will spill over. When this happens we are often unaware of it, and just keep pouring, even though the horse is already saturated with information; overwhelming them. The information that spills out is lost and often our horses are left extremely frustrated and confused as a result.
With time a horse can learn to hold more information during each session, but they can only handle what they can handle. If you force them to accept more information than they are ready to you will kill their desire to learn and their willingness to do what you ask. Emotionally they either shut down, become anxious, or may even become angry; making them hard to teach and unpleasant to be around. And of course... these behavioral problems that arise we usually turn around and blame on the horse, even though we caused them from the beginning. It's a cycle that only we, the humans, can remedy!
What's more is that training a horse is like working with young kids. If you've ever worked with young kids you know they have a short attention span. It takes time and careful shaping to develop a child's ability to learn. To teach them how to stay focused and inspire them to want to learn more. It takes patience, dedication, love, and lots and lots and lots of breaks; fun breaks, necessary breaks, mentally restful breaks.
If you take a young child and just throw them into a classroom for multiple hours a day, or even thirty minutes in some cases, you are setting that child up for failure. They will leave that classroom hating learning, hating school. Most of them will shut down and fail to absorb the information you're flooding them with, they won't know what to do with the information and will become overwhelmed. Even the smartest and the brightest will fail to learn in this kind of environment, but if you take the time to patiently introduce them to learning and give them the breaks and encouragement they need then learning will come far easier and they are much more likely to enjoy the process than dread it. When they are young (or even older, but have had no formal education) they can only stay focused for short periods. They quite literally need to learn how to learn, and the only way to do this is to allow them to absorb the information given to them through breaks and rest!
So what does this look like during every day training? Well, there are a few different types of rest that have varying uses. How and when you use them is going to depend greatly on your individual horse and the situation.
"Long Term Rest", which could be as little as a couple of days to up to several months or years of no active learning. This kind of rest can be very beneficial to all types of horses in every areas of life, as it allows the horse to return to a more natural state of being. However, for this kind of rest to be beneficial the horse needs to have constant access to a natural environment with companies, plenty of area to roam and graze, and an enriching daily life. Ideally with this kind of rest you would find a horse turned out on lots of acreage with a small herd, or in a "paddock paradise" setup with a group of horses. Long term rest is very useful for horses that work regularly and work hard, but is really quite enjoyable for all kinds of horses.
"Short Term Rest" to me would be possibly involve a day or even overnight resting.. arguably possibly just a couple of hours even. The horse needs to be returned to a "free state", such as a stall or better yet a pasture or turnout where they are free of all requirements and allowed to graze and rest at leisure. This rest is absolutely vital for both mental and physical health and is usually the most common kind of rest.
"Temporary Rest" or "Disconnection" is a rest form that equestrians rarely, if ever, use and it's a shame. Disconnection involves removing all active mental engagement with handler, but only for a short time, with the intention to continue the training session. For just a few minutes, to up to maybe half an hour or so, there should be no requirements placed on the horse whatsoever. This kind of rest should happen often during training, especially when working with novice or young horses, and can gradually happen further and further apart.. but never too far apart.
Ways to achieve this might look like returning to the stall grooming area temporarily, allowing the horse freedom to move about at will; let them munch on some hay, or get a drink of water, but try and avoid tying them up if possible as this actually requires some mental activity and self control to stand quietly while tied. Another way to achieve this would be to un-tack your horse for a short time and let them wander around the arena or round pen. Lastly, a good way to achieve this without taking up a lot of time un-tacking or walking back and forth is to let the horse graze for a time in between sessions, taking off their bridle (unless they are bitless), loosening their cinch/girth, and taking a step back while they enjoy being just a horse for a short time.
"Partial Rest" is when during a training practice or session you allow for frequent transitions from a challenging or new task to a "known" task and then back again. This way when you ask for new behaviors that require a high amount of mental energy you can offer a decrease in difficulty, allowing for partial rest, by switching over to an easier task before going back to the challenging behavior again. This can help extend the duration of your training session as well as prevent frustration in the horse. I find this kind of "partial rest"is very useful and encouraging to horses, they learn that you won't constantly be demanding new or better but will offer breaks from the challenging to do something easier. However, care needs to be taken to remember that this isn't really truly restful to the brain and your horse still needs real rest from time to time.
"Play Rest" is somewhat like partial rest, where you take breaks from demanding tasks and switch over to something the horse finds as fun! An example of this would be possibly when you've spent a little while asking for focused work in the arena but then decide to leave the arena for a short trail ride (as long as the horse enjoys trail rides and doesn't find them stressful). You could even come back to the arena and do a little more focused work following some play rest! Another idea for play rest would be doing focused in-hand work and then taking off the bridle to do some at-liberty wandering around the arena and free shaping! Again though, remember this isn't "true" rest.
All of these rest types can be used in various ways and need to be catered to the individual horse's needs. Young horses and inexperienced horses will need a different kind of rest schedule than a horse with many more years working under their belts. However, a horse that has been over-worked, trained poorly, or has been mentally exhausted to the point of "shutting down" will need to return to a frequent rest schedule that may even be more often than a young horse needs! Rehabilitating the damaged mind and emotions of a horse is more challenging than educating a young eager mind.
For example, when I first started working with my nearly feral filly we worked in five minute increments once or twice a day, only a couple days a week. As we worked together it became easier for her to stay focused for longer periods and to absorb more information at a time. Since absolutely everything was new to her I couldn't use partial or play rest types, but I could use temporary and short term rest. Within a couple of weeks we were working in about ten minute increments, and then eventually twenty minutes. However, even at the longer times I would still switch up what we were doing and for how long we were doing it and I started being able to incorporate partial and play rest in our routine as well!
With my older horses we usually work for longer periods "total", but still take frequent breaks for information absorption. This could look like a break every five minutes, like when we are introducing a new behavior, or it could be every ten to twenty minutes when working on more familiar behaviors. However I try to never go longer than twenty minutes without pausing for a mental rest, especially when working with horses that have a history of being pushed past their limits.
Horses that have a past full of mental exhaustion and flooding can be challenging, and it's extremely important never to fill up their "cups" even close to full. They require frequent and longer breaks to reassure them that you will never push them past their limit.
Rest is so important for the brain, some of the most effective and forward thinking trainers in the world understand the value of not only clear and concise communication, but also the value of rest. We hear all the time about having good timing in horse training, but it's not just about the timing of cues and aids. It's also about knowing the right time to ask for more and the right time to allow rest. Rest is vital. You have to give the horse the time needed to absorb the information you are providing it, both for your benefit and the horse's. Without rest there can be no learning, and without learning there can be no progress.