From time to time I get asked if I think horses can enjoy work. It’s a tough one to answer because so much of the time I believe I see unhappy horses. In fact, it is so common to see horses that one would say are unhappy in their work that it is easy to assume that happiness and working with people would appear to be incompatible.
Even if we see a horse that appears not to be unhappy, can I say it is happy?
But before I get onto the idea that horses can be happy in their work, the question makes an assumption that people have been debating about for a very long time – centuries, in fact. Can a horse ever experience happiness? Does a horse have the capacity to feel happy?
A few years ago I was on my way to visit a neighbour by cutting through our paddocks. My eye caught the curious sight of my neighbour’s racehorse reaching for a lead rope hanging on a wooden rail. I watched as the horse began to fling the rope by tossing his neck in a circle. Very soon the rope started to twirl a circle in the air. This continued for perhaps a minute before the horse dropped the rope on the ground and walked away. The horse spent a couple of minutes picking at grass before returning to once again pick up the rope in its teeth and commence to twirl it in the same perfect circle before dropping it once more. I was so transfixed by this act that I hung around to watch the horse repeat the exercise several times.
This was the first time I can recall watching a horse do something out of the ordinary just for fun. The horse had not been taught this as a trick. There was nobody around to give the horse a reward for its performance. This was a racehorse that had no training out of strict race training, so I knew it had not been taught to pick up a rope. It appeared that the motive for this horse’s behaviour was simply the joy it felt at being able to twirl a rope in a perfect circle. I can’t think of a better explanation for the rope twirling other than it made the horse happy.
In another example of self-inspired fun, my horse Luke was moved into a paddock with about 25 cows and steers. Luke had never been with cows before and had certainly never worked with them – his training was in dressage and jumping. One day I watched from the house as Luke put all the bovines in one corner of the paddock. Then he selected one particular cow, chased it to the bottom end of the paddock and steered in a very precise pattern around a group of trees. He then allowed the cow to return to the mob in the corner and selected another victim to repeat the exact same pattern. This went on for sometime until almost half the herd had taken their turn. I can only assume Luke gave up this game when he became tired or bored. There was nothing in Luke’s training or past to suspect this was a learned behaviour. There was no reward at the end of the game to motivate his behaviour other than the sense of enjoyment he received from the act itself.
When you think about it, the idea that horses can exhibit behaviours just for the fun of it should not surprise us. We don’t question it when a dog plays with a stick or a cat taunts a mouse without eating it. We accept they are showing behaviours that they are neurologically wired to perform and have fun doing them.
Behaviourists with a neuroscience bent may offer different explanations for Luke chasing a cow or my friend’s horse twirling a rope, but it does not seem too implausible that a horse can exhibit a behaviour purely motivated by the experience of having fun.
So if we accept that a horse can do something and feel happiness, is it possible to experience those emotions when we are directing the behaviour? Can a horse have fun when we ride?
People often assume that horses love chasing cows or that showjumpers love to jump or pleasure horses love to head out on the trail. I’m not going to argue for or against these notions because people will argue both sides of the coin when it comes to their own experience with their own horse. What I will offer are some thoughts on the pre-requisite that I believe must be in place if a horse is to find happiness in his work.
I have already suggested that the times I have seen horses really performing for the fun of it are when it came from them. I didn’t tell Luke to chase those cows or how to do it. nor did I instruct the racehorse to twirl a rope. Those behaviours derived from inside those horses. This suggests to me that for a horse to truly enjoy its work , it must feel like it came from inside and not from pure obedience.
If we impose a response or behaviour on a horse, I have serious doubts that a horse could ever feel happy about it. This comes back to the age-old adage that we should help our idea be the horse’s idea. Pointing a horse to a cow to a horse that enjoys moving cows could be fun for the horse, but doing the same thing to a horse that is not interested in cows or wants to be somewhere else (like its home paddock) can never be a joyful experience.
The second consideration I would offer is that there is a difference between a horse not being troubled by a job and finding happiness in that job. Most of us (including myself) strive to help a horse not be bothered when we ask something of it. That means training to high levels of focus, clarity and softness. This takes the trouble out of the work and introduces the okay-ness in our relationship. I think that’s as much as any of us can expect in most of the work we do with a horse and is worthy enough in itself.
But to add happiness to the work is a very different phenomenon that requires finding the jobs that your particular horse enjoys. Not every horse enjoys every job. I would even go so far to say that not every horse can ever be okay being around humans. If we want our horse to be happy, we need to find what job or discipline it feels happiest doing.
When somebody says their horse loves jumping or dressage or cow work the questions that needs to be asked before making such an assumption are (i) is my idea and the horse’s idea to perform a job the same idea or do I impose my will on my horse, and (ii) am I asking my horse to perform a job it is comfortable doing? This is the starting point before we can decide whether or not a horse enjoys its job.
The bottom line is that I believe horses can experience joy or fun or happiness, but whether they can experience it when working with us is entirely dependent of us.
Video: This is the annual horse race in Siena, Italy from 2016. Do you think this is a job many horses can enjoy?