Some years ago, I received the gift of a book by the owner and administrator of a large animal sanctuary. Overall, the book was a touching tribute to the many animals rescued by the author. But one thing struck me: He took special care to note that none of the horses at his sanctuary were ever ridden, and that people adopting burros through his organization had to swear they would never ride nor drive the burros. The author seemed very proud of the freedom enjoyed by the equines in his care. Since reading that book, I’ve periodically contemplated my own horse’s happiness, and wondered if he’d be happier turned out to pasture with a herd, like the horses in the book. Every time I ask myself that question, the answer at which I arrive is, “Absolutely not.”
What Makes Ember Happy
If you’re a long-term reader, you’ll recall that Ember is my rescued OTTB, or “off the track Thoroughbred.” I purchased him about 48 hours before he would have been slaughtered for human consumption. It’s been over three years since then, and after knee surgery, treatment for ulcers, and many other challenges, he’s likely to start showing in Hunter on the Flat classes this Spring, perhaps moving into some jumping over the Summer and Fall.
What makes Ember happy? It’s a long list, but one item not on it: The lack of thoughtful, challenging work. Ember enjoys splashing in mud puddles, rolling in loose soil, running free alone or with a friend, eating peppermints and dinner rolls (but not apples, which he detests), the company of rabbits or ducks, grooming other horses and sometimes an unsuspecting human, drinking from a hose, licking the back of my neck, chewing his brushes, and undoing any Velcro within his reach. But perhaps most of all, he seems to enjoy being asked to do something that is both physically and mentally tasking, but which makes sense to him and feels good to do correctly.
How Do I Know Ember Likes to be Ridden?
After a good workout, one of those great rides where we really made some progress, Ember looks exactly like I feel: Exhausted and euphoric, accomplished and thoughtful. His ears tip forward. He stands balanced and alert. He nudges me playfully, angling for a head rub to scratch the itchy spots under a sweaty bridle. He wriggles his upper lip toward my pockets, knowing a treat will be forthcoming if he makes it clear that he’d like one. His muscles are relaxed, not tense. He enjoys a good roll in the dirt after his tack is removed, and gives a delighted sigh as he shakes off the excess dust. He licks his lips and nuzzles my hair.
During a ride, I can feel Ember thinking about what I’m asking him to do, and making hundreds of minute adjustments to his body. It’s a wordless dialogue– “Is this what you want? Not quite? How’s this? Good? Great!” When I give him a cue, he offers a response. If he realizes that’s not what I wanted, or too much, or too little, he tries again. When he knows he’s getting a task exactly right, his back and neck are loose, and he has a little extra bounce in his step.
I may be prone to anthropomorphic descriptions of my pets, but I don’t think this characterization of the pride Ember takes in a challenging job well-done is hyperbolic. He is an intelligent creature, the product of thousands of years of selective breeding to produce an animal willing to give its best and more to please a human. Physical activity feels good to horses, as does socialization with members of their “herd,” whether human or equine. As an athlete trained for a particular task, Ember, like any athlete, is happy when he’s performing that task well.
Do All Horses Like to be Ridden?
I’ve met a few horses who actively dislike humans in general, or working under saddle in particular. More often than not, this stems from physical pain or past abuse. However, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there are some healthy, otherwise happy horses who simply would rather not be ridden. I’ve never owned such a horse, and have met perhaps two in nearly 13 years as an equestrian.
Not all horses are “thinkers” like Ember. He takes particular pleasure in the contemplation of my cues and awareness of his own body. My first horse, Flame, enjoyed being ridden for a completely different reason: She was so fond of humans, and children in particular, that she would go anywhere and do anything for praise and a pat on the neck. Another horse of my past acquaintance, Pluto, was an obvious ham, who took working under saddle as another opportunity to give a stallion-like display of his physical prowess. Banjo, a rescued gelding owned by my Godmother, enjoyed seeing new sights and being exposed to varied stimuli.
Overall, I think most horses enjoy being ridden. If they don’t, it can likely be blamed on a poor rider or a physical problem. When these things are corrected, most previously unhappy horses grow to enjoy working under saddle.
Horses are domestic, not wild, animals. Thousands of years of their history is intertwined with the advance of human civilization. Humans have always chosen the horses of which they were most fond for breeding, and these tend to be the animals that perform well and bond closely with their riders– neither of which is a trait common to unhappy horses who don’t like to be ridden. Over several millenniums, humans have created a partnership with horses that goes deeper than the closeness of any individual horse to its rider.
To train and ride a horse is an honor and a privilege. The suggestion that this is by definition a form of abuse or enslavement is laughable at best. I respect the decision of the author mentioned in the first paragraph to allow his own horses to live free of training or work, but I won’t be turning my horse out to pasture for life anytime soon: He’d just open the gate and stroll down to the arena looking for attention and work as soon as he got bored!