Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is your horse "happy" to work? is it?

I just want to say right up front, I DON'T HAVE THE ANSWER to this question that I have been pondering since about April 2013. I guess the closest I have come to an answer is: It depends.....

 Let me give you some background:

I was riding in a clinic, the 2nd clinic of my, at that time, short riding life. The trainer was someone I respected, and even admired, and I was excited to be a "real" rider. I was new to riding, and was new to Pippi, but Pippi was not new to being ridden. And being a mare, she held all the cards. As we walked and eventually trotted around the indoor arena, Pippi kept stopping at the gate to the aisle. I urged her on, and after a circle, she stopped at the gate again. Tried walking me out the arena, clearly saying "we are done here." The trainer urged me on saying "Don't let her get away with that. You work 8 hours per day, she can give you 45 minutes."

Now in essence that makes sense right? Pippi is a working animal, I am a working animal, we have jobs to do. In some ways I am her employer. I have work for her to do, and in return I pay her in housing, feed, excellent health care and treat her well. Among other perks such as massage.... I don't ever get massages at my job!! EVER!! You know what, let's not go down this road of how she is treated better than I am..... (I have had one manicure this year! ahem.....)

We all want our horses to be "happy" in their work, right? But are they always going to be "happy?" I mean doesn't work just kind of suck, even on a good day? Wouldn't most horses, on most days, chose a breezy field with fresh green grass over being ridden? Okay, please spare me the "my horse loves to work" comments ok?  Not minding it, and loving it are two very different things! I'm sure you have all heard the comments "I don't even have to tie up my horse to tack him up, he just stands still and loves to work." Seriously? Is he loving it, or has he been trained to do so? That's like saying "my dog loves to "SIT!" when I tell him to." Or "my child just loves to clean her room." All I am saying is that the shear fact that they comply, without a fuss, is not proof of "loving to work." Using that logic I must love doing the dishes, or scrubbing toilets! But I digress (I always wanted to use that line! yay)

We all want our horses to be "happy" in their work right? But are they always going to be "happy?" To progress, get better, learn new skills, get fit, improve communication, well, that stuff is physically and mentally tiring, so how do you do that and make sure your horse is "happy?" Yep, you can change the way you train and not be too repetitive. You can go for a trail ride, you can cross train, etc...... but in the end you are taking up your horses time, expending energies both mental and physical, with pursuits the horse didn't really pick to do.

Let me insert here that I am not talking about a horse that is in pain and is therefore showing signs of being "unhappy" (ie tail swishing, balking, general non compliance, rushing, refusing leads, bucking, etc.) I am talking about a horse that is being ridden and is not enjoying it because they are being encouraged to work harder, and encouraged to learn new skills. There is a balance here that we must all strive for, and I think anyone who has ridden for awhile has failed at this. Failed at reading the signs; pain versus general resentful grumpiness. Is your mare swishing her tail because she is getting physically tired, or is she in pain? To get fit, we must push to the point of tired, and the signs of that sure look a lot like "unhappiness." Is your gelding resentfully throwing in a buck after a lead change, because he is sick of it, or actually sick?

I have been using quotation signs around the word "happy" (see I did it again) to illustrate the uselessness of that word when talking about a horse at work. We have all heard the statement "if you love your job, you will not a work a day in your life." Yeah right!!?!! (sarcasm - gotta love it) My job is quite fulfilling, but sometimes I don't like it at all. It pays my bills, and gives me security but if staying at home with the pay was an option, well, I'd take it! In a heartbeat. So I do the job, and I guess if I was a horse, that would mean I'm "happy" right? Cause I'm doing it with minimal fuss.

Clearly I am talking in circles here> The bottom line is as equestrians we have a responsibility to make sure our equines are as "happy" as they can be in their jobs. We need to be soft and giving riders who perfect our skills to be clear and precise and take care of our horses needs, both mentally and physically. We need to keep our egos in check, and realize that our goals may or may not happen, and we need to be good partners to our horses to ensure everyone has a good time working. But it is work. And work is hard, and can get challenging, especially for someone who sees no real value in it.....

Like I said, I don't have the answers, I just keep pondering and mulling and looking at my mare and trying to find a balance. It's really just a "need" versus "want" issue at its core. I have learned that I shouldn't be surprised that a horse seems "happier" when not being asked to expend much energy or effort. I mean I am happier on vacation too. Doesn't mean work is bad for me though.... I am "happier" eating chocolate than I am walking up the hill for exercise in my neighborhood. Imagine how "Unhappy" I would be if walking that hill wasn't my idea in the first place, and all my friends were at my house watching Netflix and eating junk food. I have also learned not to judge a rider with an "unhappy" horse, any more than a judge a mom with a kid crying when they leave the pool. Maybe that kid just fell and hurt itself, or maybe it just really wants to swim more, or maybe that mom is truly abusive and is pinching that kid under that towel. Or maybe the kid has a fever!

Not sure I expressed any of what I meant to say here. Just know your horse, and know that sometimes they are in pain, and sometimes they are just not "not feeling it today." You will know the difference, or not..... I just think the idea that only horses in pain, or being used/trained/ridden wrong, would be a grouch to ride. That's too simplistic to me, as though horses do not have preferences, and days where they are more willing than other days. I mean...... you have met a mare right?