by Laura Crum
As most of you know, I’ve been gone for a month, so my horses have had a vacation. Yesterday my son and I took Henry and Sunny up to the roping arena to help gather the cattle and give our two horses an easy day of riding. Both of our boys were good, if a little lazy—seems like they were still in vacation mode.
My other “task” while at the arena was to watch my friend Wally rope on his young horse, Smoky. I’ve written about Smoky before and how hard Wally has tried to bring this horse along to be a confident, able, happy horse. At this point Wally is pretty proud of six year old Smoky, and has just started competing on him at small ropings. And he wanted me to watch him rope on the horse and see how well Smoky was doing.
So I watched. And Smoky did great. Perfectly calm and quiet in the box, ran hard, made the corner well (Smoky is a heel horse), covered the steer excellently. His stops were a little rough, but you know, nobody’s perfect. Most of all, Smoky seemed confident and happy, and this reminded me of a subject which I thought I’d discuss on the blog.
When Wally got Smoky back from the horse trainer this past spring, the rather laconic trainer waxed lyrical on what a nice horse Smoky was and how well he liked him. He’s ready to go, the trainer said. Just teach him his job.
And this statement reminded me of a discussion (via email) that I had several years ago with Janet Huntington of Mugwump Chronicles. We were discussing what caused horses to “burn out” and grow to hate what they did and how this could be avoided. I had a theory, which I proposed to Janet, and she mentioned it briefly in one of her blog posts. Since then I’ve thought a lot about this subject and come to the conclusion that I was partly right and partly wrong in what I said then, and I thought I’d put my ideas out there and hope that you all would comment and add your insights.
So here’s my theory. Horses burn out and get sour when they don’t understand the point of what they are doing. A happy horse needs to throw in with the work he is asked to do, and in order to do this, a horse needs to understand his job.
I still believe the above theory. However, I went on (once upon a time) to expound on the events horses could understand and those they couldn’t. I can attest to the fact that rope horses get the point. They know whether they have caught the steer or not. A good rope horse will often dance anxiously off when the rider misses, rather than the calm, proud way that they walk when the steer is successfully captured. Cutting horses know if they held the cow. Jumping horses know if they jumped the fence. Race horses know if they won the race. Working cowhorses know if they turned the cow. Trail horses know if they got you from A to B and successfully through the obstacles in between. Horses understand these jobs, and (often), since they understand them, are willing to throw in with them, are even willing to work quite hard at them and are still happy with their lot. Of course, any abusive, unkind rider can change this dynamic in a hurry, but given a reasonable owner/rider, often horses are happy to do these jobs.
Then I went on to list the jobs I thought horses didn’t comprehend very well—the events where I frequently saw cross, unhappy, burned out horses. I still think there is some truth in my perception, but since I have been involved with Equestrian Ink I have corresponded with some people whose horses did truly enjoy these disciplines, and this has caused me to rethink my ideas. So, I am going to list off the events I once thought that horses don’t easily comprehend, admitting right off the bat that some of you have horses that do comprehend and enjoy these events. If you would, I’d like you to explain why your horses enjoy these disciplines and how you think your horse views his work.
So, OK, it was my perception that reining horses (and cowhorses in the reining portion of their work), pleasure horses both English and Western (and all walk, trot canter, execute figures type horseshow events—equitation, hunter under saddle…etc), dressage, halter horses, and barrel racing horses had no way to get the point of what was being asked of them and frequently grew very cross and sour from endlessly being asked to do this thing better and better for no reason that they could see.
At the time of the original email discussion, Janet pointed out that some cowhorses seemed to enjoy the dry work portion of the event and took pride in executing the figures. I didn’t argue, since she knew much more about this than I did. Since then I have heard Francesca, who writes for this blog, talk about how Kwintus likes to show off his skill at certain dressage movements and lopinon4 talk about how her horse CJ likes to execute what I think (correct me if I’m wrong) are western pleasure exercises. I have heard barrel racers describe their horse’s skill and pride. And it occurs to me that maybe sometimes horses do grasp these activities better than I thought.
So that’s my topic. Do you agree that a lot of what makes a happy horse is that horse understanding and throwing in with his job? And have you, like me, seen a lot more frustrated horses in some activities than others? What events do you think horses comprehend more easily?
My Sunny horse, for instance, loves trail riding and hates arena work. He is lazy and reluctant in the arena, once he has the edge off. He makes it plain that executing pointless circles and figures totally bores him. On the trail he walks eagerly, ears up, cooperative and steady, eager to see new country. He plainly gets the point of covering country and equally plainly cannot see the point of going round and round in a pen. Since I happen to agree with him, we get along well. The previous owner tried to use him for dressage and (I think) found him quite frustrating in this respect. So, there’s one example. I’m interested to hear what you think.