I think most people assume that if you keep horses at home that you also ride them. You and I know this isn’t necessarily the case. If your horse(s) are retired from riding due to age/injury/illness, you may very well keep horses at home and never sit on their backs. Others keep horses just for the joy of being around them and have never had a desire to ride. Some may also begin home horse-keeping with every intention of riding but then decide not to ride or are prevented from riding along the way. Our lives are filled with up and downs. Not all of the peaks and valleys end up accomodating our riding desires.
If you are a backyard horse-owner who doesn’t ride, remember that you are still providing a home for an animal that not just anyone can accommodate. Consider a few statistics. According to my Google search, of the 325,000 million people living in the US in 2017 only 2 million were horse owners. And according to the American Horse Council 2017 Economic Impact Survey, there were 7.2 million horses in the US that year. That is a lot of horses living in a country where only a small portion of the population has the interest/ability to house and care for them.
In my opinion, every horse that has a stable, loving home has a hedge of protection around them from abuse, neglect and slaughter. I know that some folks feel guilty for having horses and not riding, but assuming you have the aptitude and resources to provide a good home for a horse, it seems to me that you are doing a community service of sorts. Keep in mind too that nobody has proven that horses want to be ridden. Some people even think that most horses shouldn’t be ridden. So there is certainly precedent for keeping horses without riding them.
That being said, I would encourage backyard horse-owners who don’t ride their horses to think about the following three issues. I will preface my comments by saying that I have no expert proof of my assertions. I have instead formed them over my years of horse-ownership including several years spent fostering a series of horses for a local rescue.
1) A horse’s market value, particularly for your average backyard horse, is largely in its ability to be safely ridden by your average rider
If you have questions about your ability/intent to keep your horse “until death do you part”, your unridden horse will eventually enter a market where he or she may have a tough time finding another loving home. That now ten-year- old mare that was born on your farm but never trained under saddle is at risk for a dimmer future than her trained counterparts. There just aren’t that many equestrians who have the interest or skills to take on an untrained horse. Of course, all horses have a meat value, but I am not a proponent of the horse-slaughter industry so that won’t factor into my discussion here.
Even if you personally don’t plan to ride your horse, could you arrange for some initial training so the horse at least has a foundation? If your horse is already trained to be ridden, could you find somebody else who does want to ride her? This might be a good way to keep your horse’s skills in tune AND give a horseless rider the opportunity to enjoy time in the saddle. If you do what you can to keep your horse’s skills marketable, you increase her chances of finding another good home if you are unable to keep her for the rest of her life.
2) Remember that whether you ride or not, your horse still needs basic care
Your horse will still need things like hay, veterinary care, dental care, farrier care, and deworming. The unridden horse can be as expensive as the ridden horse. In my case, my now retired gelding, Bear, has actually cost me more money as a retired horse than as a riding horse. The expenses related to his health changes initially caught me off guard. I will most likely address that topic as a future blog post since I suspect it might be an issue for many of us. Our horses are living longer lives than they did even a quarter century ago. We would do well to be prepared for their senior care.
3) Even if you don’t ride, handling your horse regularly is still important
Spending time with your horse on the ground can go a long way towards keeping your horse in the habit of working calmly and cooperatively with people. This will make him much more pleasant to be around for you. It will also make him easier to rehome if you ever need to go that route.
If your horse is mostly left alone and the only time you handle your horse is for constraining and potentially stressful procedures like vet or farrier care, it doesn’t leave much room for them to have positive associations with people. Tension in the horse-human relationship invariably leads to behavior problems. Do what you can to create a balance in your horse’s activities. For my unridden horses, I try to balance the times where they need to cooperate in very specific ways (like to get their hooves trimmed) with times where they can interact with people in a more relaxed manner.
Not to mention, some horses seem to really enjoy a certain amount of human company and interaction. Some really like to be groomed so they can get all their itchy spots attended to. Some seem curious about doing groundwork with obstacles. Some enjoy playing with toys like the big horse balls. It is fun to discover your horse’s interests and preferences in these areas. And if you keep just one horse at home or your horse spends large amounts of time in a stall, he or she may benefit tremendously from enrichment activities.
Some simple ideas I have incorporated into my “unridden horse-keeping” are taking my horse for a walk in-hand around the property, experimenting with different grooming tools, and trying some massage or Reiki-type/ T-Touch techniques. I also like to spend time just hanging out with my horses in their pasture. I might pick weeds while they graze. I might turn over a large bucket and take a seat while I watch them snooze during a nap on a sunny day.
I also love doing groundwork with obstacles. For activity ideas, I absolutely love the book The Horse Agility Handbook by Vanessa Bee and her Horse Agility DVD. I appreciate that the author’s training style is super positive, super calm and non-confrontational. It struck me that she is the type of teacher I would want if I were a horse. You can buy both the book and DVD via Trafalgar Square Publishing at http://www.horseandriderbooks.com. You can even download a free sample of the book via their website to get an idea of what it offers. Please note that if you purchase the book through the affiliate “horse books and dvd’s link” on this webpage that The Backyard Horse Blog receives compensation.
Until next time, I hope that you are able to get out there and enjoy your horses (or mules or donkeys if that is your preference! Gotta love those long-ears!). Living with such large, powerful creatures certainly has challenges. But striving to have positive relationships with our equines, whether we ride them or not, is well worth the effort.