It is widely accepted that horses do well if they have a job. This seems to be especially true with young horses that are still learning their role as a riding or working horse.
But what does it mean for a horse to have a job and how does it benefit a horse? I think these questions are very important to ask and I want to share my thoughts about them.
I believe the purpose of giving a horse a job is to bring clarity and confidence to working with a rider. We all want our horse to take an interest in what is being asked. When we have ridden nineteen circles in a row, it can be hard for a horse to see the reason behind why we need to ride the twentieth circle. If it just seems to be a sheer repetition of what came before, a horse will tend to mentally turn off. But by giving a horse a job, it is easier for a horse to stay tuned into the work.
As I said, having a job is particularly useful for younger horses that are learning to become riding horses. They learn to carry a rider and take instruction that results in a satisfying outcome and confidence that being ridden is not so bad after all. With practice, a young horse learns the purpose behind the job and takes an interest in doing it.
Take for example, moving a cow. A young horse is asked to follow a cow. He doesn’t know why or how, but under the instruction of the rider, the horse learns that when it approaches the cow the cow moves away. Furthermore, the horse picks up that as it puts more pressure on the cow, the cow moves even further and faster. With less pressure from the horse, the cow slows up. It usually doesn’t take too long for a horse to understand that it can control the cow. Suddenly there is a purpose and interest to tracking a cow. This might be followed by learning to open gates so that it can get to the cows or learning to push a cow through a gate or learning to separate a cow from other cows or learning to side-pass/back-up/roll-back etc to be in a better position to moving the cow. All these new ways of being guided by a rider have a purpose – ie to control a cow. It places the use of the reins, rider’s legs and seat into context for a horse that is figuring this stuff out. It creates clarity.
The other benefit to working a horse in a way that maintains its interest is about the relationship between rider and horse. If a horse has to be asked to go to work, it would rather be for an interesting job rather than a mindless job. If a horse finds the work interesting there is considerably more harmony between horse and rider and less dread about being asked to put out an effort.
The bottom line is that when a young horse has a job there is more joy, confidence, and great understanding to the relationship between horse and rider.
So what counts as a job?
Most people think of a horse job as things such as working cows or working other horses or dragging logs etc. But in my opinion, a job is anything a horse knows how to do in response to changing circumstances. For instance, polo is a fast moving game where circumstances are constantly changing. A horse can learn the job of how to best position itself to allow the rider a good swing at the ball. Another case would be a pack horse that has learned the job of ensuring it goes around trees with enough room to avoid rubbing and damaging the packs against the trunks and bushes. Or the horse in a quadrille team that learns to maintain its place in formation during complex maneuvers.
But can riding in an arena be a job? Can jumping a course be a job? Can riding on a trail be a job?
Remember I said that a job is a horse knowing how to respond to changing circumstances. Therefore, in theory, anything can be a job if it teaches a horse to know how to respond to changing circumstances.
Now this is the big, important part of giving a horse a job. This is where people get it wrong. We teach a horse a job, which it learns by repetition. That job then becomes a pattern. Horses love patterns because they are predictable. However, when the job becomes a pattern it closes the lines of communication between horse and rider. We often rely on horses learning the job as a habit to get the job done. But when that happens the job loses most of its benefit.
I witnessed a really good example of this problem several years ago when a rider was competing in a jumping event. The rider fell off his horse on about the fifth fence and the horse continued to go around the course jumping every jump in front of it. It had learned its job was to jump fences and it did so with or without a rider. That horse had been taught to be a robot.
The ultimate goal of everything we do with a horse should be to have a mental connection. A horse can see the purpose behind working in an arena if it is mentally tuned in enough to keep the lines of communication always open. The same is true for trail riding or jumping or barrel racing or mounted archery or vaulting etc.
Working horses with a job is a great way to help horses develop confidence to working with people, maintain an interest and bring an understanding to what the rider is asking. But the benefit is only maintained as long as the conversation between the horse and the rider is open and active. There is little to be gained by teaching a horse to perform a job on autopilot.
Video: I think this is a good example of horses having the job of working as a team in a quadrille.