Most of us have horses for the purpose of riding; be it hacking, jumping, eventing, dressage, racing, playing polo or mounted games. Driving is another area we use them for. It’s a very athletic lifestyle, but unfortunately there are a large number of horses who aren’t able to have athletic careers. Maybe they’ve been neglected so are too weak to take a rider, or their conformation means they are limited, or they’ve picked up an injury during their lives. Or perhaps they just don’t have a particularly trainable brain.
This led me to wondering what non-athletic jobs a horse could have. After all, there must be something!
The first non-athletic reason that springs to mind is of course, companionship. Many older horses, or outgrown ponies are kept on by their owners to provide company for their younger/bigger/faster replacements. These horses often live a very happy, contended lifestyle, living out most of the time but being stabled during the worst of the weather, supplied with hay and rugged when necessary, visited by the dentist, farrier and vet as and when needed. Another aspect of this companionship is when competition horses suffer from separation anxiety and need their companion (often a Shetland) to accompany them to competitions. Obviously this is a far more exciting life than just staying in the field, but often these companions make all the difference to the competition horse’s performance.
There’s been a big move recently, and a lot of research done, into the positive effects of autistic children being around animals. The Riding For the Disabled charity has been around for years and hundreds of people have seen and felt the psychological and physical benefits of being with horses. One recent piece of research found an improvement in the social behaviour of autistic children who rode or handled horses on a weekly basis.
Obviously Riding for the Disabled involves riding, but there’s been a recent move towards Therapy Centres. These are for disabled people, or those suffering from depression, loss, or other psychological problems. Sessions involve grooming, and bonding with a horse or pony, leading them around, or being around the horses in their stable and field. After all, how many of us feel better after a tough day just by going and having a cuddle with your horse?
So a kind, gentle natured horse who cannot be ridden for whatever reason, could have a very fulfilling life at a Therapy Centre, letting troubled people spend time with them and heal. I had a quick look online and there are a few small businesses who have herds of horses and specialise in unridden sessions to help clients overcome their problems and rebuild their confidence.
I then got a bit stumped for other ideas, but I heard of a lady’s horse who had various ailments and after lengthy investigation and treatment needed to be retired, so she gifted him to an equine hospital as a blood donor. When you think about it, it’s logical really, for hospitals to have small herds of horses, usually geldings, on site so that in an emergency they can be caught (one criteria is that the horses are easy to catch) and blood taken from them and given directly to the patient. I guess this would appeal to many owners in that difficult situation of having a healthy, unrideable horse. The donor herds live out except for very bad weather, and are under the close eye of a team of vets, so are going to be well looked after.
That’s a very useful non-athletic job for geldings. But what about mares? Well a lot of people say “oh I can always breed from her”. Well, not really because the UK doesn’t need to increase the equine population and if a mare has an untrainable character then it’s unwise to breed from her anyway. Some injuries/illnesses or conformational faults can be inherited or make carrying a foal hazardous to the mare. For example, if a mare has chronic forelimb lameness (perhaps only two tenths lame so doesn’t prevent her from being retired) then this will be exacerbated when she is carrying a foal and heavier, therefore it’s not very ethical to put her through that. Some maternal mares could be used as “nannies” and could help orphaned foals, or they could help keep herds of weanlings or youngsters in check until they are taken to be backed. After all, recent studies have shown that it is very much the dominant mare which leads a wild herd to water, grazing, shelter.
Horses who can’t be ridden definitely become limited in the purpose that they can be kept for: which can make it difficult for some people to justify keeping them, but if they’re happy living out in a herd, and comfortable in whatever ails them, then there are huge numbers of retirement establishments around the UK, but it’s equally interesting to see what other options are available for them, be it helping improve the quality of life of troubled humans such as therapy horses, or assisting in the care of other equines, such as being a blood donor.