“All They Want to Do Is Hang Out and Eat Grass”

girlzhayThat’s a couple of happy horses there. You can tell by their ears (and the mouths full of hay). Hanging in their fly masks (which they can see through–the material is like door screening), stuffing their faces. Not a care in the world.

So that’s all a horse wants in life, right?

Well. You’d think.

Thing is, horses are intelligent beings, and while food is a definite priority, it’s not all there is to life. Herd and social interactions are important. Play, especially for the younger ones. Making new horses, for the ones that can do it. Those that can’t, i.e. the geldings, cycle back around to play, and the smarter ones can have a grand time with scientific experimentation. Opening gates, testing fences, chasing balls, untying shoes…

That’s still not anything resembling interaction with a non-food-dispensing human. They’d rather be playing with their buddies, the adage goes. Eating, playing, living a life of leisure. Riding and other forms of work are necessary evils, means of paying for the good times. Like a dull or unpleasant day job.

Sadly, for too many horses this is true. They do what they have to in order to get back to their real life. Which if they’re lucky includes turnout and company, and if not, means days and weeks and months shut in a tiny box with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and chew the walls.

But then there are the ones who, by breeding and upbringing, are meant by nature to work. Racehorses, cow horses, trotters and pullers. Dressage horses and “high school” horses: horses designed to be ridden and trained to a high and exacting level. Generalists, too, who can do whatever they’re asked to do, just make sure they’re fit and they know what’s expected.

Horses like this, if properly raised and managed, not only want more than that pasture; even with buddies, they get bored, even angry, if that’s all they have. Work for them isn’t a bad word. It’s one of the reasons they exist.

Workaholic horses can be a joy for the human who can or will keep them occupied. They come forward willingly, and show every sign of enjoying their job.

When for one reason or another they can’t work…that’s a problem. They may be injured, or ill, or too old to do the job. Or the humans may not have time or money or inclination to keep them busy.

That’s when they let the world know this is Not On. They may crib or windsuck, pace endlessly, get aggressive with their buddies or their handlers, open gates or break down fences or if they’re of suitable athleticism and inclination, quite simply jump out and go exploring.

Horses like to work. It’s interesting, it rewards them with treats and approval, it lets them use those amazing physical capabilities in ways they’re bred and designed for.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, either. A few minutes of attention, a bit of groundwork, a ride on a trail, a hop over a couple of little fences, whatever fits their personal parameters. Just a bit of something to keep them happy and mentally engaged.

This rumination brought to you by several months of forced home renovations and zero energy to do more than feed and clean up after the home herd. The elders are either retired or content to wait. The baby of the group ran out of patience.

So one day last week, when I was going about the evening chores, she whirled and aimed a kick at me. Very nasty, very rude and potentially dangerous.

I asked her if she wanted me to sell her to someone who had more energy and time for her. She answered by touching her nose to the handle of the whip I was holding.

Message received. Really, with so many retirees and a couple headed for their thirties, she and her somewhat older sister are the future here.

So, every day, for ten minutes or however long I can manage, we do something. There’s a pattern in it, and a purpose. The goal: to work on making her a riding horse.

She knows the score. She asks to move ahead, as she always has: she’s been a self-trainer since she was very young. She’s waited so long for me to get to her, and really been very patient. But enough is enough. It’s time, she says, to get to work.

That’s several centuries of close and focused breeding there, and a high intelligence that comes with that breeding. She’s not a pasture pony. She wants more out of life. And it’s my job, as her designated minion, to make sure she gets it.

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“All They Want to Do Is Hang Out and Eat Grass” — 16 Comments

  1. I’m seeing something of the same principle at work with the household daughter, who is so much happier now her job has started and she’s got a purpose for the summer. Idleness in large doses always sounds better than it, in fact, is. Smart Tia to know it.

    • He may ride perfectly well, but getting a canter out of him might be a challenge, since they train them out of it for racing.

      I’ve ridden trotters and pacers off the track. They make great riding horses, if you understand why the canter may take some time.

  2. Duncan’s lack of impatience at “bed rest” is how I’ve known it really wouldn’t be right to ride him. He’s happy not working now, for the first time in his life. That’s been hard to see, but…gotta listen to it just as much as I listened to the demand for action!

    • Capria did the same when she wrenched her back a few hours after giving me the best ride in years. It was the last ride I’d ever have on her. She’s in wonderful condition now, but won’t ever carry weight again.

      The fact she hasn’t fussed at all about my riding other horses tells me she’s done. Makes me sad, but…

      • Auntie Vet thinks riding would do Duncan good, but my gut says no, and no, and no. Not when he flares from an active, hot day of being annoyed at flies. If he was agitating for it, that would be another matter. But as far as I can tell, he feels replete and smug with just a little bit of at liberty groundwork.

        Oh yes. Makes me sad. 🙁

        • Many sympathies. Wish I could send you a Lipizzan. Half of mine are now in their twenties (some well up toward thirty) and all or mostly retired, but the other half are still agitating for work. I have so little energy these days with HouseMageddon that groundwork is just about my speed.