What’s Wrong With Working Horses?

Disclaimer-I am not naming names or locations because I believe the rescue is trying to do better and that the people I interacted with are relatively intelligent enough to have dialogue with. Photos from the NYC Carriage Horse Facebook.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a retired carriage horse at a rescue. He was tall, handsome, at a good weight and…wearing wraps around his back legs.

I figured he may be having some arthritis trouble or other older horse issues (He is in his twenties or so). I inquired about the wraps with one of the reps for the rescue, who informed me of his past and that his previous owner had given them a lot of information about the horse, including not to keep him stalled for very long as he tends to stock up easily. Being that this horse is another ex harness racehorse, I figured the problems came from his racing days and his days working on an Amish farm.

stocked up horse
A stocked up horse. Notice the areas of swelling and the overall puffy appearance.

But the lady went on to say that it was most definitely from the heavy shoes and being overworked as a carriage horse.

Yeah. No. Not buying that.

You see, I know a bit about working horses and how their bodies function. My draft driving instructor in college expressed the importance of keeping working horses working because that is what their bodies are used to. When they stop working the problems start appearing. That’s not to say that the work caused the problem, just that when they stop working their bodies start to give. It’s like if a runner or a weight lifter stopped exercising; their bodies would rebel. One of my old coworkers is a marathon runner, and when she took some time off to heal from a sprain her legs went to shit, so to speak. She had to go to physical therapy to get back in to running, and then her knees started to go. It’s the same thing for animals. If they’ve worked all their lives (Racing, plowing, pulling a carriage, riding, etc.) and then they stop without letting the body ease into retirement they’ll give out. The first pair of draft horses I ever worked with died shortly after they had retired-the arthritis caught up with them fast and they could no longer support their bodies.

Back to this particular horse. This rescue recently moved to a farm with larger pastures. Originally their pastures were too small and lacking in grass for much turnout time and their fencing was constantly under construction. So when this carriage horse first arrived (At the first property) he was put in a stall for nearly twenty hours a day. Exactly the opposite of what his old owner told them. So naturally, his legs started to give. Remember, this horse had a full life of work-racing, Amish buggy horse and carriage horse.

It’s not the work. It’s the stupidity of leaving an animal whose body evolved to roam for miles stuck in a stall for the majority of the day.

Now you may be thinking, “But the carriage horses are in stalls all day too!” Well, yes and no. I can only really speak for the New York City carriage horses as those are the ones I’ve been in contact with, but their horses are stalled on their days off in the city and when their shifts are over. But that’s a minuscule amount of time to be in essentially their own bedroom compared to their activity levels. Carriage horses in NYC work 9 hour shifts strolling casually through Central Park, with very short trots and no uphill/downhill routes to worry over, plus breaks every two hours, not to mention the time just hanging out waiting for customers (See here for more information). So they’re doing a modern version of evolved horse behavior. Horses in show or lesson programs may only go out in pastures for a few hours a day, but then they have work outs to do, lessons to give and the occasional hack to go on to keep their bodies busy. The stall time is as minimized as possible. Unlike this rescue’s old barn.

These are all things I mentioned to the rescue lady. I explained that I knew several folks in the carriage industry and that from my experience, you can’t get better care or better horse people than those who have commercial carriages. That’s because 1) They’re always in the public eye. One misstep and they’re toast 2) This is their livelihood. Healthy horses who can work means more tours, more cash (Spent on the care of the horse of course) and 3) These are experienced and trained people who love and care about their animals just as much as anyone else who gets to have horses in their lives. It’s not about the money for them-you can’t get rich pulling people around for tours and weddings. Hell you can’t get rich in horses unless you race thoroughbreds or are big league horse show people.

I don’t honestly know if she listened to me. I’d like to think she did, but I’ve become so jaded when it comes to common sense issues and animals. People don’t interact with an animal the way they should anymore. Half of Facebook is filled with shit stories from the Dodo about cute animals who wear coats. People see a dog or horse doing jobs they were bred for and scream abuse. People see zoos and aquariums that are registered with the AZA and cry out for the release of the animals. Just the other day I was at the state fair with friends and one of them said she felt badly for the show rabbits in their hutches and wanted to set them free. People perpetually anthropomorphize animals, or assume that if they wouldn’t want to do a task as a person then an animal would surely not want to either. Which is just untrue. Just because I wouldn’t want to spend my day searching for drugs in luggage doesn’t mean the dogs at the airport don’t love it-they get toys and food and love when they find something!

In the end, I hope that I made a difference. I hope I was able to talk to someone and have them actively listen to me and maybe even change their mind. I haven’t spoken to the rescue since. But maybe, just maybe, I made a difference.

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