Should you get a Horse?

Last revised April 23, 2017.

Buddies: the fantasy.1

If you don’t yet own a horse, should you get one? Many horse owners would tell you yessireee! But there are some considerations…

Consider a Dog?

Most people have personal problems to some extent. Some are more fearful than others. Some feel ineffectual or weak or disrespected and feel better when they have something that they control. All of us do things that we feel will make our problems more tolerable. And so different problems draw people to different solutions. Many who feel disrespected seem to be drawn to a horse literature about respect. A Google search for horse respect will find about 75 million results. A search for horse affection produces only 2 million.

Many people use their horse to work out personal problems. Before you can develop a good relationship with your horse, be certain your relationship with yourself is healthy, that your agenda with your horse is pure. If you could come home from a bad day at work and yell at your spouse, kick the dog or punish the kids, don’t go visit your horse.

Some riders seem to crave control of their horse. Bits, spurs, a crop, training for the horse and endless lessons for the rider are all intended to achieve total control. But the result is rarely satisfactory. Horses that have been through all of this still get sold because they have misbehaved. Such horse owners may have been inspired by a dog, who would cheerfully sit, stay and roll over on command. But horses do not have a 10,000-year history living with humans. They are no longer wild, but they are not yet domesticated the way dogs are. For those who want the level of control that can be found with dogs, good advice would be to get a dog.

Some riders seem to need their horse to love them. Some horses are affectionate and seem to seek out physical affection. We scratch their chins. They close their eyes. We scratch their chests. They groan in ecstasy. But not all horses are equally affectionate, in part because of their different histories. You should love your horse. But if you demand that your horse love you back, a dog would make a better choice.

Finally we get to the silliest expectation: that our horse will respect us. Look up the word “respect,”and you’ll see that it is a feeling of admiration or deference, a feeling of regard for the qualities of the one respected. I cannot imagine that a horse would ever admire my qualities. He recognizes my car when I arrive at his barn but shows no hint of admiring my driving skill. In fact, while he is often happy to be with me, or to do what I ask, he usually seems to be more happy grazing , snacking on a carrot or charging back out into his pasture. I do not believe that anyone who says that they want respect from their horse is actually asking to be admired. I think they are asking for deference.

If we ask that a horse be deferential, we ask that it keep a distance from us, that it never lean into us or ask us to rub its nose. The deferential horse will maintain a distance from us when we walk with it, so that we don’t have to worry about being stepped on. It will never lead, when we are connected with a lead line, but rather will follow just slightly back. We expect that a deferential horse would never try “horse play” with us, never try cracking a joke at our expense, like a playful nip at our arm. And why do we need a horse to be deferential? Because without deferential behavior, there could be contact, and maybe we could get stepped on, or maybe we might get pushed, or maybe our clothes would get dirty.

Do you need your horse to admire you? A dog would make a better pet. Do you need your horse to be deferential, or fear you more? You may not be ready for a horse or dog.

Do you like to hear people talk about the importance of leadership with horses, that “horses need leadership”? Well they don’t need leadership. In the pasture, you’ll not see leadership. You might spot a horse that is more aggressive than the others, but you won’t find leadership. Do you need a follower? If so, again, consider a dog.

In it for the Long Term?

Horses live a long time, if all goes well.

In a French study of more than 3,000 non-racing horses, 66% died between the ages of two and seven years.2 Another study found that the average age at slaughter was 8.5 years.3 A woman I know has had 4 of her 7 horses slaughtered in the past 6 years. None had a physical problem that interfered with their rideability. These losses were not a result of injury at the track but generally because of unwanted behavior. Such unwanted behavior is usually the result of poor handling or poor training technique. For example, in developing lateral movements, “when training goes wrong, the horse offers changes in speed that are not desired by the rider. These responses are known as resistances, and if repeated often enough, they become learned. They manifest as “laziness”, stalling to a greater or lesser extent, drifting sideways, and adopting a crooked longitudinal axis or developing ‘excitability’.4

So things don’t always go well between horse and owner. Considering that things may or may not go well, can you commit to a horse for what remains of its life (or yours, whichever ends first)?

Not long ago, a couple bought a $20,000 horse for their young daughter. The little girl was afraid of the horse, and so the horse was confined to a stall. When the horse protested, he was moved to the “stallion stall” — a small space with no light and plenty of bars everywhere. He was kept there a year and finally sold for a dollar.

Riders rarely blame themselves when their horse does not do what they want. After mysterious conflicting signals from the rider, the horse may rear, buck or shy, and we assume malicious intent. When we see some stereotypy resulting from extended incarceration, poor diet or other deprivation, we call it a vice. Riders can do no wrong. Horses can.

Can you be relentlessly kind and loving?

In Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador, older horses are used in bullfights. Their vocal cords are mutilated so that they can not scream in fear when the bulls approach them or when they suffer pain. At the start of the bullfight, they are blindfolded, with Vaseline and cotton in the their ears and nostrils to deprive them of their senses. While the bulls are guaranteed to die, the future of the horses is often no brighter. These horses are often gored even though they are protected by what is termed a peto, or a protective cape. These petos often do little more than hide the horse’s wounds. Bullfighting is a tradition, of course, which tells us something about the value of traditions.

Blindfolded horse being gored by bull.5

You may not intend to blindfold your horse and allow bulls to gore it. But you and I are both members of a species that does so. In fact, we may be members of the only species that finds any joy in cruelty. So before accepting your adoption, your horse may ask whether you intend to be kind.

Adaptable Goals

It’s fine to start the day with your horse with plans. But things don’t always go according to plan. Walking on the towpath this morning with me, my mule was happy to go over a very scary long narrow wooden bridge, with water far below on both sides. I was impressed. After a few minutes on the other side, I made a U-turn and asked him to come back across the same bridge. He didn’t want to. I asked politely for several minutes, but his answer didn’t change. So I decided to simply continue on in the direction we’d begun and make our U-turn later. Maybe then we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. It turns out that Bud changed his mind on our walk. He had met some bikers, a runner and some hikers. He had seen some kayaks and herons. He was now ready to head back. He walked across the bridge without objection.

I would have accomplished nothing by trying to force Bud over the bridge on my first try. By revising my own plans, our needs happened to fit together just fine, and we had a lovely morning.

When you can adapt to the whims of your horse, do so. Give yourself credit for being adaptable. And don’t grieve that you didn’t get your way.

A Bigger Goal

How should this all turn out? I hope that you will be able to develop a great relationship with your horse, one that gives both of you joy, which makes you proud of him and want to post today’s stupid picture on Facebook. Aspire to correctly reading the tiny signals he offers, to know whether that fly is bothering him or what he thinks about the tightness of the girth. Aspire to leaving the barn for home with a wonderful feeling, that this powerful, graceful animal enjoyed your time together and looks forward to your return. You will know its true when, on your next visit, he meets you at the gate, or lowers his head so you can put on his bridle.

You are Right

A wise old therapist had a young student in training to be a therapist. A couple came in for therapy, and the student therapist watched the session from behind a one-way mirror. During the session, husband and wife each said some terrible things about each other, and it was clear this marriage wouldn’t be lasting long. When the husband had finished his rant, the therapist said “You are right” to him. When the wife finished her rant, the therapist said “You are right” to her. After the session had ended and the couple left, the flabbergasted student asked the therapist about what he had said. How could they both be right? “You are right,” the therapist said to the student.

What you have heard about horses is dogma. If it works, those who preach it are right. But how can so many preachers, each advocating different approaches, all be right? Good point.

My own position favors science over dogma, pleasure over pain, liberty over coercion. Regularly (but not always) my horse chooses to do what I want. He shows his feelings by following me around in the round pen, his head close to my side. Though my pouch is full of carrots, he never bites or begs. He is safe on the trail with just a halter and a slack rein. When we come to a low branch on the trail, he goes around it even if he could fit under it without me. And I never have to hurt him, even a little, to reach this happy state with him.

They may all be right. But if you can choose a path through the mix of truth and dogma that leaves you so happy with playing with your horse that you sometimes laugh out loud, I think you are on the right track.


1 Image sourceL

2 Ödberg, F. O., & Bouissou, M. F. (1999). The development of equestrianism from the baroque period to the present day and its consequences for the welfare of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 31(S28), 26-30.

3 VonButler, I., and B. Armbruster. “Population-Structure and Reasons for Slaughter in Different Horse Breeds.” Deutsche Tierarztliche Wochenschrift 91, no. 9 (1984): 330-331.

4 McGreevy, P. D., and Andrew McLean. “Behavioural problems with the ridden horse.” The domestic horse, the origins, development and management of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2005): 196-211.

5 Image source: “Ban the Use of Horses in Bullfighting!”


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