Does a Horse Need a Job?
“Every horse needs a job” is a common phrase and idea in the equestrian world, and while it certainly is an idea that serves humans and equestrian goals, is it true?
Do horses really “need jobs”?
I first off want to say that it is my belief after working with many horses of all different backgrounds as well as extensively observing and working with horses in the wild, that horse do not need “jobs” from humans. No horse is born with the innate need to serve humans or complete certain tasks in order to feel fulfilled. Wild horses don’t have “jobs” - they have roles in their community yes, but this is a far cry from needing to carry a human on their back or training in dressage or cutting cows. Horses do not naturally feel the need for a “job” to some how earn or compensate for their existence. I am not saying they can’t enjoy these activities and that we can’t enjoy them with them, but I am certain it is not a natural requirement of the horse. “Jobs” just aren’t in a horse’s line of thinking.
However, this isn’t to say horses we claim “need a job” aren’t lacking something… many horses in domestic situations do have an unfulfilled need/needs! It’s just not a “job”.
I think many of us believe horses “need jobs” because we observe real behavior in our horses that we are simply misjudging. We see the symptoms of a horse having needs but misdiagnose the root cause/what’s lacking.
People find evidence of this “need” in their horse’s behavior - “my horse beats up other horses if he isn’t exercised”, “my horse becomes aggressive if he isn’t worked”, “my horse reverts to bad habits if he doesn’t have a job”. This “evidence” for horses “needing a job” may be very real - it may even appear to come and go with more “work” - however, I believe we are massively misinterpreting the origins of this behavior. I also believe that interpreting these actions as a horse “needing a job” has become so common place because it serves our human desires very conveniently; it’s easier to justify riding a horse who is showing signs of protest if we believe that horse “needs” to be worked – “needs” us to ride. (Quickly, I want to say that I don’t think individuals purposefully and manipulatively choose to frame the scenario in this way – I know I have believed in such ideas in the past! I think this is simply a useful to the rider and accepted idea in equestrian culture that has been passed down for our convenience. It takes courage to question what is so widely accepted as “truth” and serves us so well - which is why I greatly admire the people willing to ask these questions and examine their own motives. I know from experience how hard it is. I still have beliefs to challenge myself, and I am far from perfect about it.
Anyway, back to horses! Horses don’t “need a job” but they often need something. What is it that they really need?
Horses need enrichment – aka, horses need lives.
I believe that the behaviors people use as proof of horses “needing a job” are actually signs of boredom – often chronic boredom.
Sadly, the way we traditionally care for and house horses just doesn’t fulfill many of their most basic needs. Water, food, herd, safety - these are needs most of us hopefully recognize in the horse (although even these we sometimes have trouble fulfilling with the way our care-system is set up). However, there is one need I think we tend to forget about:
need for stimulation. True stimulation.
This includes exploration, play, enrichment, fun, change - basically what we would consider “having a life”.
I think the confusion comes in because we believe “having a job” is the same thing as “having a life” and that “work” satisfies the need for “play” in a horses life - but it doesn’t. While hard work may calm the symptoms of chronic boredom through exhaustion, work where the horse is being told what to do and how to do it does not fulfill their need for exploration, enrichment, nor true stimulation.
What is true stimulation for a horse? Many of us think that riding is enough - that training is enough. But the truth is, if the horse doesn’t have the freedom and autonomy to make decisions for themselves, it likely isn’t actual fulfilling stimulation. Being told what to do, how to do it, when to move, etc. is not free exploration – it is not play – and it doesn’t meet the requirement for the enrichment I am talking about. Sadly, this means that most “riding” methods just won’t cut it - and while you can ride your horse and have a fun time and that’s great, they need something more.
They need freedom of expression, freedom to explore, freedom to make decisions for themselves. Many of us think training gives the horse choice to make decisions and “use their minds” - but if there is are “right” and a “wrong” answers and we are determining what those are, this doesn’t meet the requirements for play and exploration I am talking about. If there is a productive “goal”, it doesn’t meet the requirements for play.
Horses need time where they aren’t being told what to do - where they are engaging with their environment on their own terms, through their own inherent curiosity. They need time to truly play, not work.
One of the qualities of play is that it doesn’t have “purpose” beyond itself. Play doesn’t reach for a productive goal - it’s purpose is enjoyment – it’s only purpose is the play. Play requires freedom in the individual to make their own decisions and explore their options freely.
Play is not superfluous in horses or in humans – like I said before, it is an inherent need. It is a requirement for a healthy brain.
I believe that when horses become restless, compulsive, aggressive, etc., these are not signs that a horse needs more work - it’s a sign the horse likely needs more play. We can give this to our horses by giving them more free time in places that are new, interesting, and not controlled by humans in the sense that we aren’t dictating how they engage or what an outcome may be. Play often requires more than turnout – think about your own need for play and stimulation! It needs to be exciting! It needs to be fun! The more we can focus our energy on finding ways to spice up our horses’ lives, the happier they will be. The happier we all will be!
Sometimes we have limited room to give our horses a life that is naturally stimulating, so we have to get creative! 😃 How do you like to add spice to your horse’s life? I’m always searching for new ways!