Thursday, August 20, 2009

Do They Want a Job?

I commonly hear that horses are happiest when they have a job. I have to admit that I have not experienced this for myself with the horses I've been around. Throughout the years I've had many horses and done a lot of showing. My horses seemed happy to go to the shows, but they seemed equally happy to be pasture puffs. Not once have I ever come remotely close to picking up a vibe of "darn, yet another day where I didn't get ridden!" from any of the horses here.

I've also heard variations on this theme like you can't ever really retire a thoroughbred. Well, come visit this farm and I have several examples to disprove this statement. Many of the owners have told me their horses loved to be ridden and lived to go to horse shows, that in fact their horses hated it if left behind when the trailer pulled out. They really worried about how their horses would adjust to retirement. A lot of the horses come here with the owners intending to leave them on stall board permanently because their horses hate turnout, or hate something about turnout (day turnout, night turnout, etc.). It becomes very obvious very quickly that whatever their past feelings were about working, going to shows, being turned out etc., that when they are here all they want is to be in the pasture with their friends.

The horses help me prove this point. Some are flat out suspicious when their owners come to visit and instead of being how they used to be with the excited greetings when seeing their people, they are a lot more subdued. Some have even run away when they saw their owners coming where they used to come on the run. Some still walk over happily for petting and treats but all of them lose interest in the visiting when the treats run out. They would rather be with their friends. The horses all like me but I don't delude myself that is has anything inherent to do with me. I'm the food lately that serves breakfast and dinner regularly and they are thrilled to see me at those times. Outside of mealtimes they aren't interested in me for the most part unless I have treats. Of course I'm their long lost best friend if I have treats.

I was discussing this a few weeks ago with Gwen the farrier, Amy and Jason. Do horses need a job or do they care at all? We came up with several theories. At a lot of boarding barns, especially show barns, turn out is limited. So working is a chance to get out of the stall and break the boredom. Another factor we came up with was size of turnout. Amy has Lexi boarded at a lovely facility with well-maintained turnouts with nice grass. However the largest 'pasture' would be a couple of acres. Here our smallest pasture would be about ten acres with the largest being forty acres, so a lot of room to roam and places to go every day.

Then there is the treat factor. Most of us try to reward our horses after work, and that reward is often in the form of treats. In general most horses are highly food motivated so they know after the work the treats are coming. A key factor that we discussed about life for the horses here is the strong bonding with their herds. The horses are not being taken away from each other for daily riding, nor are they leaving regularly for shows and events. So they get very used to living as a group and become very bonded to each other. The one thought I've always pondered is if horses need a job then why aren't foals and youngsters that are 2 or 3 years old and not being ridden standing around depressed? I mean, they obviously don't have a job.

I am interested in your thoughts. Do you think your horse or horses in general can be happy in retirement? Do horses need a job? Does it depend on the setting and the circumstances? I ask because I supposedly spend my days with several horses who were supposed to hate retirement, yet they love it. But maybe that is due to a complete change in routine and environment . . . ?

A very clean Faune grazing in the sunshine
A very dirty Ogie grazing in the shade
World's cutest fainting goats and world's luckiest stray goats; L-R Mina, Bubba (yet again I feel the need to remind everyone that I did NOT name him), Billy and Jo
Billy with Mina and Jo
Teddy, Slinky and Snappy
O'Reilly, Lightening, Clay and Lucky are lovely lawn ornaments on the mowed field
Not that you can really see Harmony and Cuff Links but it is another fine example of Jason's mowing. Mowing all of these pastures is a long, boring, hot, loud and thankless job, and that is when everything goes well and the equipment runs perfectly. So Jason needs a lot of recognition for another round of bush hogging.
Lily and MyLight
Elfin and Ivan
Ivan, Apollo, Homer and Trigger


Dressager said...

I agree with your "herd" theory. Any animal, human or horse, needs a purpose, and that doesn't necessarily mean a job job. Just something to do. Having a role in the herd is very much a purpose. It is quite natural - mustangs don't jump up and down and say "oh, look those people are coming to round us up and finally give us a job!" Their job is being the alpha or the omega or the lead mare or whatever.

Same with people. Being the mom is a "job", being the kid and obeying your parents (hopefully heehee) is a "job". It gives you something to do. It gives you a purpose.

Now sitting in a stall all day without the stimulation and purpose of being around other horses is different. That's why I pasture-board my mare (besides the fact it's much cheaper) because it's just better for the horse, I think.

Good thoughts.

Gillian F said...

Faune was very clear with me that his job was no longer what he wanted. All I needed to do was listen. I know my horse is safe and happy. He is finally living life as a horse - which is something that I was never able to provide here in Boston. I miss him so much and it's been hard going through all this stuff in my life without him here, but I don't regret my decision a single day.

I am planning a trip for September and I'll be in touch as to when to see if it works for you all.

Thank you for all you do for my horse - and all our horses.

Miss you all!

Helen said...

I agree with you 110%. The less turnout a horse has the more need there is for a "job". I think horses adapt to the show ring/frequent riding out of need to keep themselves stimulated. A herd of horses have plenty going on throughout the day to keep their minds occupied. . .a stalled horse with minimal turnout needs it's people to pick up the slack ;)

Anonymous said...

I think horses need to be horses - and eat grass in a herd. They're usually happy to do a job when we ask, because we ask. A cooped up horse needs stimulation and exercise, and working - jumping or whatever - is a way to do that.

Candy'sGirl said...

My 4yo doesn't seem to give a hoot that he's not been ridden in about 3 months. We moved into a new house with 6 acres and neither of us have been on our boys since. We've just not had time with trying to get everything squared away from the move.

My boy still comes up to me, but he's a nosy type that's always got to be into something. They seem perfectly content to just graze away though.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that show horses come to rely on people, and shows, and work for stimulation rather than on a herd. I think it might also have something to do with the fact that a lot of show horses do not go out in a herd, even during their limited turnout. Instead of bonding with a herd of horses, the horse bonds with its human. At least that's how it seems to me with my horse.

I currently have a horse that has been on stall rest for two months (with at least one more month to go - ugh!). He only leaves his stall for me to hand walk him twice a day. Since the stall rest started, he gets very excited (winnying, pacing, etc.) when I arrive. While it is flattering to think that he "loves" me, I'm pretty sure it's the anticipated hand walk he is carrying on about!

Jen said...

My horses have always been pasture boarded & I've never felt they were bummed about a lack of work when I was too busy to ride! My TB might just be weird, but now that I'm in grad school & only come to visit him for treats & grooming, he's actually happier to see me than when I ride regularly; although he'd never be mistaken for a workaholic anyway! I'm a little irritated that my TB (who I've owned for SEVERAL years now)has never shown the slightest inclination to even approach me when I go to catch him, but my husband's new-ish horse will come trotting up to him whickering & neighing at him! But in the barn my TB is the lovebug to me & the QH, not so much. Horses are funny!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100 percent; however, in my lifetime, I have known of one horse that just HATED being put to pasture. Long story, but my friend's new partner insisted that horses needed to be 'free', etc etc, so they turned the horse out. The horse was just miserable and so the horse went back to the barns and her life as a show hunter, where she excells and seems healthy and happy. That is the only horse that I know of that was not ready to retire. We refer to her as the hot house flower...

stilllearning said...

As already posted, the horse's personality and his environment determine the "job". Living on your farm seems ideal for a gentle job in retirement, with enough room to do their normal horse thing.

I am providing a retirement home for my old tb, on more limited pasture space, and am always trying to find the right job to keep him happiest. For the past 2 years I groom, tack, and ride gently for 10 mins, then hand-graze him; i.e., everything we did when he was working except the work! This summer I've been trying to keep him happy without the rides due to time restraints, with mixed results. My husband just commented this morning that M "needs a job".

I also know that WE are his herd, along with his mini-horse companion.

stillearning said...

p.s. Please keep writing about your rides. I enjoy reading about your work u/s.