Sign-up for our newsletter to receive news, updates and more from Nanette Levin!

horse happiness

Do horses want a job?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of living among horses in the wild, free as they were to do as I pleased. I figured that unfettered lifestyle would make me happy. Of course, I also imagined I could talk to horses like Dr. Doolittle. It was just me and that herd bonding, sharing and taking care of each other with a rapport and blissful existence of unencumbered pleasure.

I learned a lot when day dreams gave way to reality. Observing horses in what I expected to find euphoria in that freedom to roam taught me something else.    

Even a therapy job helping the elderly have a special day is happy work for horses.
The Halcyon Acres herd greets a bus and the people in it from an assisted living center. Redford, the yearling ready to enter the bus, had special permission (an a personality that allowed for this) to run free.

After decades of running a farm with big acreage pastures, I discovered most domesticated horses would prefer to have job than run free. I learned this lesson on 117 acres with more than 30 of those fenced as pasture. Here, I witnessed the behavior of horses ranging from new born foals and formerly active broodmare competitors to client horses bred for racing or intended for a particular amateur career such as competitive trail riding or the shows.

Granted, they’re not always fit to do what we intend for them, but if you can find their passion, they’ll bolster yours. 

Admittedly, I had a pretty good work ethic starting at a young age. I served as a vet assistant when I was six; my duties were scaled back after I passed out during a surgery assistant role. By age ten, I had a paper route with 60 houses. That took some doing as a girl in the 70s, but I wore down the powers that be with my pestering to finally get them to give me a chance. I was a waitress and bank teller during high school as soon as I was legally old enough for salaried work.

It took me another couple of decades to realize the animals we’ve bred to be our companions and servants for millenniums want a fulfilling job too. Not all of them, of course. Just like people, there are the lazy, unmotivated and takers in the bunch. But my earlier belief that a domesticated horse’s dream life was to be free was shattered after I spent time witnessing horses who loved their job put to pasture.

Some horses get too old or too crippled to continue in a job they seemed to be born for. This includes racers, high level eventers & jumpers, rodeo performers and even some amateur mounts. Even with these aged steeds, they tend to relish an opportunity to find a new career that provides purpose. This could include broodmare, child protector, trail trekker, therapy horse and a whole bunch of other possibilities that allow for less strenuous tasks that fit their nature.

Morrie reminded me of how important it can be to find the right job for an animal we care for. He’s a wiry mutt of the canine variety, but, funny enough, he’s found agility to be his game. It seems the higher the jump or the faster the course the more he enjoys it. Of course, we’re still working on that control thing – funny I’ve had a lot of horses with that issue too – but, his joy for the game turns heads everywhere he goes.

Finding that joy activity with horses is key. If your horse truly relishes what you’re asking him to do, he’ll amaze you with his try.

Forevever horse homes – kind or cruel?

Sunday’s Opinion

It’s amazing how quickly people grab popular concepts associated with “saving” a horse and call them golden. Bandwagon convictions get embraced in a one-sided fashion by people who have no first-hand experience with the remedies prescribed. Unfortunately, while most of these ideals start with good intentions, few people bother to explore the downside in the clamor to influence the behavior of others. It’s the horses that often wind up suffering.

The big emotional campaign of late seems to be pushing for forever homes for horses – even better if this means a pastoral setting where they’re virtually untouched by human hands. At the same time, these prognosticators (many have never had the opportunity spend an extended period of time with any horses, let alone one) admonish those who would be so cruel to sell or place a horse with another. Is a forever home really the kindest decision for a horse’s happiness and welfare? Sometimes. Sadly, putting this mandate on horse and human partnerships doesn’t always work as planned.

Do rescues provide the best life for a horse?

Recent headlines concerning an over-zealous OTTB adoption agency have been hard to miss. Horses are starving, dying and left to languish because selected caretakers (apparently many chosen for their day rate rather than the quality of care) haven’t been paid for care costs as promised. The recues will argue the occasional shocking disgrace gets all the coverage, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Horses generally fall in the good news category when reporters seek an angle, so even questionable organizations tend to see a positive spin involving volunteer efforts and the successful placement spotlight. There are a lot of rescues doing good things for the horses and the people they place them with. Others, not so much.

Increasingly, we’re seeing situations where horses are either collected or placed in an unsuitable home with the proclamation these horses are being “saved”. Individuals claim to be rescuing horses, and some even call themselves “rescues”, yet some lack the space, time, financial resources and/or knowledge to properly care for the equine(s). Is it really saving a horse when you collect more than thirty on a small-acreage property, don’t provide shelter and feed them bread (true story)?

For the recues that guarantee a lifetime home on their dime, or require adopters to do the same, is this really the best solution for the horse?

Idyllic permanent pasture time may seem kind to a human but for a young domesticated horse that’s healthy, sound and looking for opportunities to have his brain engaged, this might be a life-sentence to boredom.

People adopting horses rarely know what they’re in for as they get swept in the emotional feel good of “saving” a horse. Many equines aren’t ready or able to do the job they’re intended for or are too much for their “savior” to handle. Often, first-time horse caretakers (most seasoned equestrians recognize the value in paying a purchase price for a suitable mount and pass on the adoption “donation” fees) are ill-equipped to handle the time and financial burden, yet get stubborn about hanging on. Even though horses are known to appreciate consistency, locking in a partnership that doesn’t work for either horse or human probably isn’t the kind of predictable scenario most horses seek. Kindness sometimes means giving the horse a different opportunity to be great. Things change, and sometimes a horse simply wants a different job challenge and living style. Contract terms that stipulate a forever home for any horse can be cruel. We’ve even had horses figured as permanent residents at Halcyon Acres® that have let us know they want a change. Being kind to the horse may mean letting go.

Does wild make a horse happy?

Last year, we heard public outcry about attempts to round up domesticated horses that had been turned loose in Florida. Anyone who’s spent a good deal of time seriously observing horses accustomed to interacting with humans realizes the “horses want to be free” rallying cry doesn’t ring true if you consider the horse in the conversation.  Yet, people reacted to the images of these horses “in the wild” (in Florida – really?) and were aghast that anyone would be so cruel as to try to help them back to a life that included human care, shelter and adequate feed.

Horses with generations of instincts and survival in the wild are wired to be free. Most equines bred by humans want to be fed, sheltered and engaged in a job. Right early handling sets the stage for wonderful and mutually enriching partnerships in the future, but even troubled horses can light up when they find a human who understands. Humans have been domesticating horses for millenniums.  Like it or not, we’ve changed their nature.

Who’s kind and who’s cruel to horses?

You really can’t assess what a horse needs from a distance (or a headline, or a rallying cry). Every horse is different. Sometimes it’s cruel to mandate a care, placement or environment solution without considering what the horse wants. That can only be gathered from direct contact with the particular equine. Often, it’s kind to give an equine a variety of opportunities for work (and horses do change with age – both in their physical abilities and psychological needs) that may mean new homes along the way. Others bond so deeply with a human or horse(s), it’s cruel to sever the partnership(s). One thing’s for sure, though, a contract, policy or mandate that’s inflexible doesn’t ensure a horse a happy life.

Know of any organizations or individuals that include the horse in the conversation as they seek out solutions for the horse’s happiness? Have ideas for encouraging others to consider individualized decisions on horse placement, care and career direction? Please share in the comments below. Let’s call out those who are making a difference with the horse’s viewpoint in mind, one horse at a time.

Horse vets can be incredible – if you know how to select the right one

Top nine qualities to look for in a horse vet

Over the years at Halcyon Acres®, we’ve struggled with finding the right vet for our needs. Part of the challenge is even though we’re a decent-sized equine facility in the Greater Rochester, NY area, our rural community is beyond the reach of most equine vets. Practices have a geographical boundary they will not cross due to emergency concerns. This initially made it difficult for us to get access to the better groups in the area unless we were willing to truck horses for care. The county facility is focused mostly on cows and their huge turn-over problem. Ultimately, we decided (long, jaw-dropping story) we were better off with no vet than this provider.

So, we set out to find independent practitioners willing to make the trip. The first was a qualified and competent reproductive specialist. Unfortunately, she was certifiable. The angst from mere phone calls, let alone the stress the entire horse population at Halcyon Acres® suffered when she entered the barn became too big a cost to justify.

Our next find was a blessing. In fact, we consult Dr. Janet Wilson on matters previously handled without a vet. The horses light up when they see this little gal because she’s so kind, calm, understanding and patient. I do too. She loves working with horses, enjoys getting to know the animals and goes out of her way to make the people clients feel heard, special and included. Continual learning is a huge focus as she’s often out-of-state attending conferences to absorb the latest discoveries (a drawback if an emergency occurs during her absence, but a risk we’re happy to bear for the benefits). Not surprisingly, she’s not taking on any more clients at this time. Through all this, I’ve learned there’s no reason to put up with a bad equine vet because if you do enough digging, you can find a great one. Here’s a short list of considerations:

  1. Is he eager to supply you with names of other providers who may be able to help your horse (chiropractors, farriers, other vets with specialty knowledge, product manufacturers, etc.) or does he seem focused on protecting his turf and critical of others who have a different perspective? Good vets tend to seek out the wisdom of others to help ensure the best possible solutions for your horse challenges.
  2. Is she a horse owner? Many vets will claim career demands preclude them from owning a horse, but the true horse lovers find a way to pursue their passion with one (or more) of their own.
  3. Does he have a good rapport with your horses? Horses shouldn’t quake when a vet walks into the barn. The right vet takes the time to be quiet about preparing a horse for whatever treatment may be necessary, isn’t afraid of horses and has a calm demeanor that helps his patient relax.
  4. Does she explain issues, treatments, concerns and examinations in a way you can easily understand? Vets too impatient with clients to ensure a clear grasp of what they’re doing and how to proceed to help the horse back to health aren’t worth keeping around. Those who are eager to help you learn, conversely, can provide an invaluable education you’ll retain for the rest of your life.
  5. Is it easy for you to call your vet? Is this something you tend to do as a matter of course when a concern arises in the barn? Or, do you spend time deliberating over the cost, angst and reception you’ll get prior to deciding to bite the bullet? If the latter is the case, no matter how much money you think you’re saving for less expensive visits, the price you’re paying for this service is too high. Quality horse vets have a way with people and horses that make them a trusted and caring resource for concerns. If you can’t rely on your vet to be in your corner when crisis comes knocking, why engage him?
  6. Is she continually learning and willing to spend non-billable time researching the answer to an issue that befuddles her? Or is she settled in a practice that gets defensive when you ask questions and justifies everything with the ‘veterinary medicine is not an exact science’ line. Good vets admit it when faced with a new challenge and welcome brainstorming with others who have the mileage to offer relevant ideas. Bad ones throw their cost of education in your face and never admit when they don’t know what they’re dealing with.
  7. Does he reduce your stress or add to it? If having your vet around is an uncomfortable experience for you, imagine what the combined energy from your nerves and his appearance do to your horse. Look for another with the ability to quell the situation vs. escalate it.
  8. Is she interested in getting to know your horse and working around his issues? We have a gelding at Halcyon Acres® that is phobic about needles (justifiably so, given his history). We told Dr. Wilson about this issue with the history of his fear basis. She spent so much time with him before an injection, his concern has virtually disappeared.

And the most important quality to look for in a vet (OK – the goal was to do this in descending order – any tips to make this so with WP formatting would be much appreciated):

Best Vet Quality: Do you and your horse like him? This might seem like a strange benchmark, but if there’s strife in the mix your money’s not well spent. There are a lot of affable vets that know their stuff.  Look around for a vet that’s a pleasure to have in your barn. More than you imagine have deep knowledge, a love of horses and an ability to make their human clients feel special too.

Potter, NY (the town where our facility is located) has a population of 1830 people with an entire county of 25,000 people. If Halcyon Acres® can find a star provider under these circumstances, you can too. Get creative about engaging your network for an exciting discovery. Your quality of life (and that of your horses’) will improve in an instant.