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keeping your horse happy

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.

Sometimes saying goodbye to your horse is the right thing to do

When I was a kid, I had a pony. She was my second. The first was banned from Pony Club games and ultimately riding where he was boarded. We donated him to an elite private school (would have enjoyed seeing the first day they threw one of the little darlings aboard).

Bittersweet was incredible. She took care of me as we spent hours doing dumb things in the woods and streams and sand dunes (our moniker – this was actually a privately owned, heavily posted quarry) and on busy streets. We enjoyed shenanigans on the trails including swimming, jumping, riding (sliding) down the immense sand hills, traversing roads with dangerous traffic, buying ice cream cones with our ponies in tow.

It was a different time. Parents trusted we’d stay safe (OK, maybe they trusted our ponies to be smarter than we were). There weren’t abduction concerns or landowner litigation threats that have most privately owned property posted “no trespassing” today. We asked permission of the farmers to cross, who gladly allowed us to relish long rides through thousands of acres unsupervised.

Sadly, the day came when I outgrew Bittersweet. For years, I kept her (for my younger sister – not interested in riding). My parents had bought a small parcel of land, so there weren’t the concerns and costs associated with boarding two.

Ultimately, I realized it wasn’t fair to Bittersweet or the local kid population to hold onto her as a pet. Accepting she needed a new home was a hard lesson and an even harder decision, but it was the right thing to do.

Many years later while teaching at a riding stable after graduating from college, I learned she was still foxhunting. She had to be pushing 30. It was gratifying to know she was still loving life as part of a human/horse pair.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is let go.

Rehoming a horse

If you’ve outgrown your steed, have less time to spend with him or face other life circumstances changing your ability to lavish attention or provide a good home, consider alternatives. Finding another to cherish your friend with hour each day may be the kindest sacrifice you make.

It’s not always possible to place your horse with someone you know. There are options and concerns when dealing with strangers, but there are ways you can influence a great fit.

When I recently sold my New York farm, I had buyers as far away as Oklahoma and Minnesota. It takes time and an understanding of your horse’s tendencies, but a good assessment process works. Admittedly, I did make one horrible decision with two horses that went to New England. It’s one of those things I regretted terribly, but the horses were gone before I realized the mistake and ultimately had to let it go.

Twelve others found ideal homes with people who fell in love with horses able to be what they envisioned. We stay in touch. Most feel comfortable contacting me if challenges arise or their life circumstances change. In fact, Midge needs a new home, so if you’re looking for a handy, little, smart and gusty mare, contact me.

It’s critical to understand your horse’s nature and talents. This can be tough with young stock (we had a number of babies), but not as hard as you may think. You can tell a lot about what will and won’t work for a horse by watching him. Is he brave in the pasture or heartless? Is she out of a strong alpha mare with demonstrated “convince me” behaviors? Does he learn quickly and enjoy training or seem more timid and concerned? Breeding counts too. Your Welsh pony probably isn’t going to be a good fit as a preliminary eventing prospect.

Finding the right human for your horse

rehoming a horse Once you decide it’s time to say goodbye to your horse, there are some easy ways to spread the word.

Work your network: Horse people know horse people. Talk to your vet, blacksmith, trainer, trail riding companions, fellow competitors, trucker, tack shop owner, hay guy, grain supplier and friends. They may know someone who’s an ideal fit.

Social Media: It’s easier than ever to reach people out of your immediate circle. Be careful here – people don’t always present honestly. A “friend” doesn’t mean someone’s vouching for them.

Advertise: Surprisingly, Horse Clicks was the most effective for our stock. You’re not going to sell a Grand Prix competitor here, but I was surprised at the quality and knowledge of buyers surfing this site. There are many similar (some free, some not) options, but we didn’t get buyers from elsewhere.

Breed Associations: If you’re horse is papered, reaching out to group members who enjoy the breed qualities your horse has is smart. Small breed associations may have more sellers than buyers, but you only need one perfect fit. These organization often have newsletters or correspondences that permit advertising or free member news.

Have smart conversations before you finalize a sale (or gift). Most Halcyon Acres horses were bought sight unseen. New owners felt connected with the horse before the trailer arrived because we spent a lot of time discussing needs and expectations to ensure the right horse went to the right home. It wasn’t just buyers assessing me – I made the decision not to proceed in a number of cases. It’s important that both horse and human are a good fit for anticipated riding demands and living conditions.

As for Bittersweet – she went to a fellow Pony Clubber. She changed member hands many times, but was happiest with a constant rider companion. As a perfect kid-safe horse for riders at any level, her life was better after each hard decision to let her get back to kid caretaker role she wanted.

If the cost of keeping the horse you love is an issue for you, come back to the blog next week for easy ideas on how to reduce expenses.