The Horse in Work 

At   Horse Behavior and Psychology 

"W.H.E.E.P. - A unique environment for the study of  Social Behavior and Psychology in Horses"

Horses have carried out so many types of work that a complete list would probably be difficult to put together. There is no doubt at all that present day civilisation owes a huge debt to horsepower.

Lifeboat Horses

Many people would question whether the end result of the progress humanity has made over the centuries has been a good one, but what use people have made of progress is hardly the fault of the horse, and it does not in the least negate the debt owed by us.

Some of the work that has been asked bears some scrutiny, and it might fairly be considered that a look at the past is needed to help us to set our parameters for the future.

Artists impression of the charge at Waterloo.

I have to admit to mixed feelings when reading about the use of the horse in war, there is an emotional appeal in recognising the bravery and loyalty of the horses that took part in such manoeuvres as the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade, and it is all too easy to allow this to cause us to view the episode as being noble and shrouded in glory. It is certainly fantastic that any animal would charge into the mouth of cannon fire, whilst being raked with withering rifle shot from heights on either side, and that the animal concerned should do this out of obedience to their riders, and for no possible gain of their own. The obvious question is; "should they ever have been asked to do so?" And the obvious answer must be no. Thankfully horses are rarely involved in warfare and the military now, outside of ceremonial duties where they excel as ambassadors for their species. Horses are still used by the police, particularly in riot control, and the ethics of this might well be considered dubious. In the 1960s, during a demonstration in the centre of London, police horses were attacked by rioters who spread marbles on the ground under the horses' hooves, causing them to fall, and one to be destroyed as a result. The public outcry against the perpetrators was stunning, and any good that was done for their cause by the demonstration was more than undone by this act.

So, if there is the potential for horses to be seriously hurt or killed during such work, we should perhaps question whether it is reasonable to ask them to do it.

One of the many disasters during Grand National races.

The problem here is that if we set this type of criteria for judging whether work, or what work, should be asked for, then any activity that can cause serious injury or death would become equally questionable. Unfortunately many of the sporting pastimes would fall into this category. All racing and jumping can result in broken legs and the horse being euthanased, but does that mean it should all be done away with? And if it were, then what would become of the horses for whom one no longer had any use?

Somewhere a line has to be drawn balancing, on the one hand, the rights or well-being of the horse and, on the other, the rights of horse-owners to participate or compete in mounted sport. However, there are no absolutes, no right and wrong; there are only opinions and, as the saying goes, opinions are (to put it politely) like anal orifices - everyone has one!

Perhaps a valid judgement statement on this question might be: The horse should only be asked to perform those actions for which it is physically and psychologically suited and these should be made as safe as possible within the bounds of creating challenging competition. No doubt there are those who would find fault with this too, and the discussion then becomes one of welfare considerations that are dealt with in another article. For now let us accept that horses will continue to work for, and with, us and look at how such work might best be undertaken so that both species can co-operate as fully as possible.

Shetlands in Harness.

It is often claimed that horses were first used to draw small carts or travois- type sleds rather than being ridden. Whether this can be considered an absolute truth or not seems doubtful. The use of horses as draft animals is altogether more complicated, requiring more specialised equipment, harness and so forth, than is their use for riding. Against this has to be weighed the fact that, in pre-history, the horse was a much smaller animal than those we have today. This does not mean that they were not ridden, only that their ability to move freely under the weight of a large rider would have been restricted, and presumably that they were not able to jump. Logically it seems more likely that the first horses were used as beasts of burden, with the development of some kind of pad cinched round the body to which items could be tied - and from there it's not such a leap to think that sooner or later a child might have been put up on top of the load. After that one thing would soon lead to another.  As tack was developed it became possible to use first one, then two horses in tandem to draw a chariot type vehicle at greater speed than that of one single horse and mounted rider. Selective breeding resulted in larger horses being bred and it would seem reasonable to assume that, as man improved his farming techniques, horses could be given supplementary feed in order to grow them to their full genetic potential height.

Next Page