Horse Care Horse Training

Horses need a purpose: why you shouldn’t just keep a pasture pet

Horses have been an integral part of human history for thousands of years, serving as reliable work partners and skilled athletes. Being closely linked with humans has affected how modern horses are. While I’m not suggesting we’ve significantly altered their evolutionary make-up, horses have been bred for all kinds of work for centuries now, which is bound to have an effect on your horse.

And while there comes a time in every horse’s life when they’ve earned a leisurely existence as a pasture pet, even then they’ll be happier with some purpose in life. I’m not saying, put an unsuitable horse back to hard work.

I’m talking about providing their lives with structure and meaning.

Regular exercise and activity play a vital role in maintaining your horse’s overall well-being.

One of the primary reasons horses benefit from having a job is the positive impact on their physical health. When horses have a purpose, such as riding, driving, or participating in various equine sports, they engage in consistent physical exertion.

This exercise strengthens their muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and enhances flexibility. Keeping horses active and engaged reduces the risk of obesity and related health issues, such as metabolic disorders.

Horses that graze in pastures without regular exercise are more prone to obesity, leading to conditions like equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis (which is debilitating and painful, not to mention costly to treat and can have long-term detrimental effects).

When you’ve got an unhealthy, unfit or elderly horse that can’t take a full workload, think of alternative things for the horse to do.

Senior horses make good teachers for younger horses and are a great addition to any herd. Horses are always hungry to learn more and have evolved to learn by watching others. In a herd, younger horses learn from older horses by watching what they do and how they react to new things and situations. Older horses will teach younger horses good manners and essential lessons in how to be a horse.

You’ll want to make sure that an older horse doesn’t get bullied or has their feed taken away by younger, faster, stronger horses. This can be especially true if you’re feeding some horses with a yummy supplemental feed (such as a high energy feed to help put weight on an underweight horse). If needed, feed your older horses separately.

I’ve even used an older, retired horse that trailered really well to demonstrate to younger horses how trailering should be done. I tied up the two youngsters so that they had a good view of the trailer, then fetched the old horse and led him into the trailer, where he go to eat treats and got lots of scratches.

I did this for several days in a row, and eventually when I started loading the youngsters, they learned to trailer quickly and well. I’ve also taken out an older horse with a younger horse when going for a hack or a walk, the younger horse learns from the older horse how to react to new things, like traffic signs, cars or cows in a field.

A horse that is too young, too old, or not fit to ride any more can always be trained in skills, tricks and groundwork, taken out for walks or ponied up.

“Ponying a horse” refers to the practice of leading one horse while riding another.

The horse being ridden is called the “riding horse” and the horse being led is known as the “pony horse”. This technique is often used in various equestrian activities, such as trail riding, training young or inexperienced horses, or assisting with supplies on long rides.

The practice has a long history, dating back to when horses were commonly used for transportation, ranch work, and military purposes. Cowboys, ranchers, and travellers used ponying as a practical way to move multiple horses efficiently while conserving their own energy. This method is still used today to move supplies to remote locations for hikers, and if you like going on those kind of hikes that take you far out into the middle of nowhere, you can sometimes come across a horse or mule line carrying supplies to specific way-stations.

Ponying offers several benefits, such as:

  1. Exercising multiple horses simultaneously: one rider can exercise and train both the riding horse and the pony horse at the same time. Ponying can be used to exercise horses too young to be ridden, or to provide light work to retired and injured horses or those recovering from illness or surgery.
  2. Confidence building: young or nervous horses can gain confidence by following a more experienced and calm horse.
  3. Packing and transporting supplies: ponying allows horses to carry additional equipment, supplies, or game during hunting trips or expeditions. You can also have a young horse get used to carrying a saddle this way.
  4. Training and socialisation: the pony horse can learn from the riding horse, improving its behaviour and responsiveness to cues.

Horses who get regular exercise outside of the paddock, tend to have better hoof health. Even in a Paddock Paradise-style set-up horses can end up moving a lot less than you’d hope, so additional exercise is always welcome, when adjusted for the individual horse.

Traversing a variety of terrains stimulates the hooves and helps with cardiovascular health. And a great way to get your horse to walk over different surfaces is to take them out for a ride or walk.

Beyond physical health, having a job provides your horse with essential mental stimulation.

Horses are intelligent and social animals that thrive on level-appropriate challenges and mental engagement. When your horse has a purpose, she’s exposed to novel situations, learns new skills, and faces problem-solving challenges, which keeps her mind active and sharp.

Horses are trained for specific tasks, such as dressage, show jumping, or trail riding, and this process requires patience, consistency, and clear communication between the horse and the handler or rider. This bond and understanding foster a sense of trust and mutual respect, leading to a deeper and more fulfilling relationship between the horse and their human counterpart.

To suddenly rob your horse of a routine she has come to rely on is a big change.

And more important than what your horse’s job is — because in some cases your horse abruptly has to quit their job, e.g. due to an injury — is that your horse has some job. Any job! Because mentally stimulated horses are less likely to develop destructive behaviours.

Boredom and frustration can manifest in various ways, such as cribbing, weaving, or stall walking. Having a job provides an outlet for your horse’s energy and reduces the likelihood of these problems developing.

Horses are social animals that thrive on companionship.

Your horse always has something to learn and something to offer.

While pasture life offers interaction with other horses, having a job often involves regular interaction with humans and other animals, such as other horses and dogs. These social interactions provide emotional enrichment, which is vital for your horse’s mental and emotional well-being.

Horses with jobs are a valued member of a team because they contribute.

Whether they’re working on a farm, participating in therapeutic riding programs, teaching the next generations of horses and riders, helping senior citizens get out for leisurely nature walks, or competing in various disciplines, it provides a sense of belonging and purpose.

This sense of purpose can boost your horse’s confidence and self-esteem, leading to a happier and more contented animal. And the bottom line is that a horse with a job often receives consistent attention and care from the owners and handlers. This regular care prevents health issues from escalating as they’re caught early, fosters a strong human-animal bond, and helps ensure the horse’s emotional needs are met.

Horses that stay “in work” for longer, tend to live longer and be healthier; you just have to scale back the intensity to the appropriate level for your horse.

Providing your horse with a job and purpose is essential for her overall health and well-being. It doesn’t matter how small the job is, even practising basic skills like standing still while being groomed and having their feet picked up, or teaching a new generation of equestrians how to take the basic measurements of a horse, is an important job that provides the community around you and your horse with immense value.

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