Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do horses need jobs too??

How much do you value giving your horse a job?

I feel a sense of disappointment sometimes when I realize how the world has changed. It used to be that we used horses for our livelihoods - every horse had a job. While there are still a large number of individuals who still use horses for a specific job (plowing fields, working cattle, etc), the proportion of horse people who do so seems to be shrinking. I feel a great number of individuals particularly neglect the benefits of cross-training and giving their horse a job to do outside their competitive discipline.

Personally, I believe that horses, just as humans, need a purpose. They need something to do, and endless circles and patterns in an arena can only do so much. At the very least, the healthiest thing we can do for our horses is to keep them well-rounded and mentally stimulated. Barrel horses should also be out on the trails, team penning, reining, even doing some jumping. Dressage horses should be jumping small courses or heck, even working cattle. When horses have a specific job to do, they tend to focus on that rather than spooky objects, the bit in their mouth, or resisting the rider. They have something to look forward to because they feel like they are accomplishing something important. It also gives them incentive, a reason to perform and to do as their rider asks - they see a valid reason for moving off the rider's leg immediately, or going sideways, etc. Later, the rider takes the horse into the arena and the horse can feel like it is practising for the job that required those same maneuvers. Giving a horse a job builds that horse's confidence and gives them pride in themselves.

As we become more urbanized, our horses consequently do as well. They become accustomed to riding in quiet, flat arenas as opposed to working in unpredictable weather on rough ground and out in the middle of nowhere - something I think does not suit the horse very well (this change, that is). Sometimes we can only do so much, but I really push any clients I return horses to, to give their horses jobs to do. For example, I have been encouraging the owners of a big paint I am currently working to take him out to the hills and put him on the trails. There, he is concentrated on his feet and on navigating bush as opposed to the rider on his back. I put 60 days on another client's horse and advised the client to take it easy, but to take the horse into the mountains to climb steep inclines, cross deep rivers - get that horse thinking and working in partnership. My own horses have unfortunately been stuck working in rolling prairie fields and arenas far to long, due to time and accessibility constraints, with only the odd romp in the mountains. I finally am taking three of them up to Tomahawk, Alberta, to ride miles a day, work cattle, fix fences - whatever need be. Link, a Thoroughbred we picked up off the track last fall, has progressed in leaps in bounds each time I take him out to the mountains. It's like each time I take him out, our partnership blossoms into something new and I come back with a new horse. I can't wait to see our progress after living the simple life for a month.

There is just something about keeping and working a horse in as natural an environment as possible and of giving said horse a job to do, that makes them a better balanced individual more willing to work in partnership with you. Many horses never leave the arena or track though, as for whatever reason a lot of professionals find no need for, or even turn their nose up at, versatility. Dressage horses working cattle??! Hell no! Why not though? I could feel the utter surprise run through Link when he encountered uneven footing in the mountains our first time out. He had no idea what the heck was going on after living in small paddocks at home and in stalls on the track, only ever working on flat surfaces. He adapted quickly though and came out of it all the better. I don't care if we do make it to the international levels in jumping one sunny day, that horse is going to still play in the mountains and work cattle whenever we can.

In my opinion, I think versatility keeps our horses fresh and their minds (and bodies!) healthy and healthy. I think we need to strive to give our horses the same purpose we seek ourselves. I believe it can even make the difference between an "untrainable", "dangerous" horse, and one with a successful career, or even a "great" horse and a superstar.

On another, slightly related note, a show trainer for gaited horses mentioned in Horse Illustrated's most recent issue the need for our horses to get out and play every once in awhile, particularly when they're stalled. She went on to specify though that your horse should be booted up and only turned out in a small area. Obviously this is not the first article to exist to say the same (for any horse, not just gaited). I understand the need for bell boots perhaps, but whatever happened to just allowing our horses to be horses? Are we overprotecting them as we seem to be doing with our kids? When will the day come when we only turn our horses out, in a 10x10 padded paddock, covered in bubble wrap? Anyway, don't underestimate the benefit of turning your horse out and allowing him play time.


GoLightly said...

OH, no kidding. Keep them interested, keeps them motivated.
Keep them guessing.

What happened to letting young horses grow up in the field before you train them?

Variety is the spice of life!

great post, and thanks again.

My eyes are SO happy:)

Equus said...

I concur - all our own (family ranch-raised) horses ran with a herd until the age of 4. Made for strong-lasting, fresh-minded horses who were mature enough to handle the work. Any horses we raise in the future will be raised the same.

My pleasure re: the eyes. My intent, I assure you, is not to blind people through my posts ;)