Should horses be kept as pets? This is a question I’ve pondered for many years. At times, my own horses have been relegated to the role of “pet” – when I no longer had the time or motivation to ride. Truth be told, at the moment they aren’t much more than that – though I have plans for more, they have yet to materialize. Many organizations are now classifying horses as companion animals, though not yet the majority of them. Is there anything wrong with having a horse as a pet? In theory, I would say “no” – living with horses can be very rewarding. But it’s just not the same as picking up a puppy or kitty and welcoming them home.
I’ve read several posts this week, on Facebook and in blogs, on the topic of keeping horses as pets. They’ve run the gamut from “giving you permission” to have a horse and not ride, to declaring that we have no right to ride them. One also proposed a pet horse industry as the answer to the unwanted horse problem. All well intentioned, to be sure – but most offered over-simplified, and even romanticized views of the topic.
I think that it is perfectly fine to own a horse that you don’t ride. Have some land in the back, and hate mowing? A couple of companion horses might fit right in. But horses are large, strong, expensive, social animals. Each of those qualities brings with it a host of needs and potential issues. If you are prepared for them, that’s great. If you are not, then one (or both) of you will be unhappy – and in the end it’s always the horse who suffers. Some cases in point …
Ellie – I once had a training client who rescued a former ranch horse who’d received a serious injury. The mare was finally healed, and the first time horse owner thought she wanted to ride – except that her first lesson, with another instructor, found her on the ground. And thus ended her riding ambitions. But, she loved her “pet” and wasn’t about to sell her. When I started with the mare, she was the barn crank – always looking crabby, and sometimes pinning her ears as people or horses passed her stall. I rode the mare for eighteen months, training her in Dressage and jumping. As I worked with her, there was a shift in her attitude – she was happier, more relaxed, and always happy to see me. But, as time passed, I realized her owner would never take over the reins, and the mare had gone as far in her training as she could. Knowing that she really just wanted a big pet, I suggested that a nice pasture would suit the mare better than a stall. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, this suggestion upset the woman and she refused to consider it. She kept that mare, for the rest of her days, in that stall. When I stopped riding the mare, I watched her devolve back into the barn crank … and never saw her happy again, in spite of all the carrots she was given.
Amani – A couple down the road took in a horse needing a home. The wife used to ride, but hasn’t been on a horse in over a decade. The mare has food and shelter, and the people love her – though they spend little time with her, outside of feeding time. The mare has lived alone for nearly a decade, only recently gaining a goat companion that she has no apparent interest in. She can see my horses at times, and will stand gazing over the fence and even talking to them from across the empty field that separates them. The rest of the time, you can see her in her dry lot, head and hip down, looking depressed. Clearly, in spite of being loved, her needs are not met and her people don’t understand that.
Guy – A mustang I once had in training was raised by newbie horse owners. Among the things that they taught the little foal was to stand on his hind legs, with his front hooves on their shoulders. Anyone see any potential problem there? By the time Guy was living with the owner who sent him to me, he had learned all too well how to push people around – sometimes quite literally. He was such a bad actor that two other trainers were unsuccessful in making him reliably safe. The owner’s husband, a good horseman in his own right, had even gotten so frustrated that he and his friends resorted to the old blindfold and throw tactic – but even that didn’t change this horse. He’d spent too many years being treated like someone’s big puppy … until he was too big to safely be around. (Fear not, I actually got through to him, and he finally turned into a fabulous youth horse.)
The moral being that horses are complicated “pets”. Dogs and cats have evolved as companion animals, content to live in our homes, because that is what we have selected for. Their needs are generally simple, and in line with our lifestyles. Even so, don’t we often see problems? How many Border Collies end up in rescues because their owners cannot accommodate their need for activity and stimulation? How many retrievers or pitt bulls have you seen dragging their owners down the street, because they weren’t taught leash manners when they were smaller? Multiply that by at least 5 times the weight!
Horses are incredible animals to share your life with. They’ve been a steady presence in my life for nearly forty five years, and I would not deny that joy to anyone else. But horses are not dogs or cats, nor have they evolved or been selected to be a cuddly companion.
- Horses need space.
- Horses need friends.
- Horses need access to as constant a supply of forage as possible – but can suffer terrible consequences when it’s too rich.
- Horses are large and can be dangerous, even deadly, without any intent at all – so they need to learn how to behave appropriately.
- Horses have long lives! These days horses are living twice as long as most dogs and cats – which is a nice bonus, but also a much longer commitment.
Finally, there is the point from my last post – if you have a horse, merely as a pet, what happens to that horse if something happens to you? If your horse has never learned a “skill”, then you have to rely on someone else who is willing to take in your large, costly pet. Make sure you have that person lined up and in your will.
I have loved horses my whole life, and hurt when I see a lonely, neglected, bored horse sitting in someone’s backyard. Most people would flinch at a dog left alone outside and largely ignored, but think nothing of it with a horse … because that is how we see horses kept. If you want to take in some unwanted horses as pets, I will be the first to say “Congratulations! Enjoy your new companions!” But before you take that step, please make sure that you understand what it takes to keep a horse, and what they need in order to meet their physical, mental, and social needs. Then make sure your horse won’t end up in the “unwanted” category by providing for their care in your absence.
Be good to your horses … whether you ride them or not!