Giving Our Horses Jobs is Key

Editor’s Note: We welcome past Best Horse Practices Summit attendees and fan, Kerry O’Brien, as a guest columnist.

Kerry lives in Colorado and is a lifelong student of animals, behavior, and brain science. Before that, she had a bodywork and functional movement practice in Los Angeles for over 25 years. She is an “integrator” who believes in having a big toolbox. Friends call her “The Digger.” She’s also an accomplished photographer, storyteller, and Mustang Heritage Foundation Tip trainer. She has two adopted wild horses, both mares. Listen to her thoughts on positive reinforcement in this podcast episode.

Kerry writes:

Recently I saw that Best Horse Practices is offering an elective in cow work this fall. That really lit me up, especially as this year’s offerings are back east, where a lot of people don’t get to work cows. I believe we sorely underestimate both the capacity and need for our animals to think and to be challenged mentally and physically. By physically, I don’t mean intense conditioning, but proprioceptively challenged. A job will do this. Having to open and close gates, pull or push things, navigate unstable environments, go to scary places, anticipate what another animal might do… All these things challenge our horse’s minds and bodies. They build our relationship with our horses and, done well, our trust in each other. They can also show us our training “holes,” that something we never thought about is super scary for our horse, or highlight a physical deficit.

I’ll use my equines as examples. My older mare is my rock. She’s gotten that way from exposure to challenges, both real and created. So trail work, ranch-type work, going lots places, liberty, “tricks,” as well as being a leader for my “special needs” mustang. Together we learned to pony, dally, and hold another horse, open and close multiple gates, move her and my burro into sorting pens. She has, on more than one occasion, brought me home cross country after dark or let me know in no uncertain terms when I’ve made a wrong turn returning to the trail head.

She is also my dressage horse, drives, pulls a harrow, and we are learning Working Equitation. She loves the challenge of working with obstacles as it gives practical application to all that dressage work. Working with the garrocha, for example, creates more bend than I could ever achieve with my legs and she has to canter with a pole along side her face!

My “special needs” girl is athletically gifted, but mentally challenged. Super reactive and easily scared, this mare lacks confidence. Because she is so smart, her busy mind needs to be focused or she goes to a scary place. She has learned to ground drive, play with stuff, do obstacles, be ponied and hauled to fun places. She also likes to herd my goats on her own. My sweet, neglected burro is learning to drive a cart. Why? Because she needs a job!

Recently we went to an Extreme Cowboy Clinic with Trevor Mertes and “Horses That Work.” I brought both horses. And how different they are!

My solid mare is happy to negotiate any “scary” obstacle. Participants asked, “Is there anything she’s afraid of?” Well, yes. The suspension bridge, skinny bridge and teeter totter were really hard for her because she has physical deficits and is sort of a Baby Huey, big and not all that agile. She feels very insecure when her balance and hind end are challenged. Miss Everything-is-So-Scary Special Needs walked over the skinny bridge the first time without hesitation and then the suspension bridge. She is so physically gifted that they were nothing to her. But the pool noodles, fire hoses and water hazard were her challenges.  Trevor’s low-key approach to getting horses through scary stuff helped grow her confidence.

I’m happy to say they both stepped up to the challenge and made big progress. My point: it’s good to stretch your horses, to challenge them mentally and physically. By physically, I don’t mean you have to take up endurance riding or puissance, but find something that helps your horse gain control of their body and you gain control of their feet.

There’s a show on Netflix now called “The Hidden Lives of Pets.” There’s a rabbit that holds the world record for the most slam dunks. His owner speaks about realizing there was a lot going on with his pet bunny!

Our working and companion animals need jobs and challenges. Yes, even rabbits. So many animals live impoverished lives. I’m constantly having this discussion with my tenants; “So what is your puppy going to do while you’re both at work all day?” It’s terribly sad, even cruel, what a low bar we’ve set for our animal companions. The relatively new field of ethology raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about animal welfare. Not going down that rabbit hole here. Just saying, thanks to Best Horse Practices Summit for offering an opportunity for a different, interesting challenge to some horse and rider pairs who are going to learn some unexpected things about themselves and their horses and hopefully have a lot of fun!


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