Newtown Bridle Lands Association Trail Notes: Does Your Horse Like His Job?
The other day, I was chatting with my sister-in-law who has owned many dogs over the years. We were talking about how certain dogs really love what they do and show great enthusiasm for it. They can barely contain themselves before running an agility course or doing scent work. Do horses, she asked me, love their jobs? That got me thinking. Do they? Would Little Bear prefer to stand in his pasture munching hay over going for a trail ride? Do they even want to work at all?
That last question was explored in a study conducted in Germany with 18 warmblood horses. In the study, an arena was set up with two entrances. When a horse was directed into the left entrance, he was ridden twice around the arena before the rider dismounted. The right entrance resulted in being ridden once around the arena. This was repeated numerous times until the researchers were certain the horses associated each entrance with how much they would be ridden. The horses were then allowed to freely pick the entrance they preferred. The most popular choice for the horses in the group was to ignore both entrances, exit the arena and return to their stalls. Hmmm, sounds like some horses I know!
The subject is much more nuanced than that simple experiment. We must take into account the personality, intelligence, and breeding of the horse. Riding twice around an arena might be of little interest to a highly bred warmblood and returning to his stall could seem like a preferable alternative. Perhaps the choice should have been riding on the flat versus jumping a short course.
Many generations of breeding certainly influence what a horse likes to do. Mary Brown, an equine energy worker and communicator, volunteers at Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue in East Hampton. She is certain that draft horses really do prefer pulling things over being ridden. By contrast, Paul Bruenn in Newtown owns a retired thoroughbred race horse that just seems to be waiting for Paul to climb on and with a “Let’s go!” she’s off at a full gallop.
Knowing what your horse wants his job or jobs (if he’s a high achiever) to be takes some effort. First of all, he has to like and respect his boss (that’s you!). Local rider DebraLee Hovey has some insight: “I think the job needs to be a good fit for the temperament of the horse. I also know the horse’s love of the job is directly related to its relationship with the rider. You can see this in a horse that has multiple riders. The same horse can perform better when ridden by a human that spends time on the ground with it compared to the one who comes in and views it as a job.”
Supporting that view is Roseanne Eke, who lives in Newtown and has made horses her passion since riding Shetlands bareback as a 6 year old in England. She shared: “At a minimum I believe a dedicated horse person who desires a true steadfast partnership should educate themselves and do their best to think like a horse in order to enjoy their full potential and allow their horse to do the same.” She goes on to say that certain human personalities work well with certain horse personalities and a bad fit will work against a horse excelling.
Roseanne owned an Arab-Saddlebred named Duey for many years. Duey is a good example of a highly intelligent horse with tons of energy. Without a partner like Roseanne, he might have ended up uncontrollable. However, Roseanne understood his busy mind and gave him plenty of stimulating experiences that he enjoyed. But it was when they discovered Eventing, which combines three disciplines in one competition, Duey found his true calling because it challenged not only his athleticism, but also his intellect.
A horse’s idea of his purpose in life can be very different from what we humans might think. For us, a horse’s job is something we most easily equate with our own jobs. By that I mean we view it as something the horse does in a more formal setting for a set period of time: running on a racecourse, jumping obstacles in a stadium, or walking slowly in an arena with a child in need of therapy. Those are all legitimate jobs but a horse has a more expansive idea of what is important to him. For example, being the lead horse in a herd can be a full-time occupation. Both in the wild and in a domestic setting, the lead horse looks for danger, intervenes in squabbles, enforces the pecking order, and introduces new horses.
At my stable, the horses are out in large pastures with plenty of opportunities for herd behavior. I remember Gunnar, a lovely paint, who took his job as leader of the geldings very seriously. He was good at his job and would have gotten a high satisfaction rating if he had had a performance review. Another horse might view her purpose in life as being a friend to another horse. She looks for her buddy in the morning, grazes with her, and stands head to rump to switch flies.
Over at the Draft Rescue, Mary Brown worked with a draft named Marshmallow. After a long career as a working horse, Marshmallow initially enjoyed his retirement job of greeting visitors to the farm. But as time went by, it became obvious that he wanted more to feel important and needed. Sensing this, his handlers at the farm outfitted him with a mailbag and every day he is walked to the mailbox to get the mail. He loves it!
How do we know if a horse is enjoying his job? Most of the horse owners I spoke to said it was obvious, to the owner at least. Mary Brown, the energy worker, says she sees it in their eyes and feels it in their bodies which exhibit a looseness and enthusiasm.
Stacey Moore, a Newtown equestrian, told me that when she rode her horse on the flat, he barely moved and his body language showed his disinterest. But if she aimed him towards a jump, there was almost no holding him back.
Lucy Prybylski, owner of Happy Trails Farm in Danbury, recounted that her mare Maggie’s favorite activity was working cows. Maggie had supreme fun pushing cows around and chasing a critter who always ran from her. Lucy felt that she was just along for the ride because the mare knew exactly what to do! Lucy also has run drill team clinics for many years and has noted that for the most part, the horses are alert and engaged. Perhaps it’s being part of a “working herd” that makes drill team so interesting to them.
Brit Hegland of Middlebury shared that she has a few horses that get excited the moment they get their leg wraps on and just about drag her into the trailer with their ears pricked right up! She also has a few lesson horses that look for the little kids and with ears forward go happily to work.
Animal behaviorists will tell you that there are observable indications of contentment and engagement such as snorting, forward facing or relaxed ear position, and rapid blinking. An unhappy horse might swish his tail, lay back his ears or show the whites of his eyes. An experienced horse person will know pretty intuitively if their horse is enjoying a particular activity.
Most of the equestrians I spoke to told me how much their horses exhibited enthusiasm for their job. One friend, though, was willing to talk about Chatham, a bay quarter horse, that hated his job of taking his human out trail riding. He laid back his ears, turned his head away from the bridle and refused to respond to sweet talk. The interesting thing is that he knew what his job was and he did it very well. He just would have preferred not doing it.
You might think we horse people are a little off the deep end worrying about our horses’ feelings and preferences. Probably we are, but why not take the time to figure out what gives them purpose and enjoyment? It will be stimulating for both of you to try out different disciplines and it will give you a greater return on your equine investment in happiness for both of you.
If you would like to learn more about Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue, visit the website at www.ctdraftrescue.org/.
Tracy Van Buskirk is a 38-year resident of Newtown and president of the Newtown Bridle Lands Association, at www.nblact.org, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed in 1978 to foster an interest in horseback riding as well as preserving, protecting and maintaining riding and hiking trails in the community. Horses have always been a part of her life. She owns a small bay quarter horse named Little Bear.