Working Horses

Straddling the line between positive reinforcement and ranching, I have an interesting view of ranch or working horses. They have a job that is often very hard and not particularly enjoyable. But at the same time, they become very good at it and can do it almost without the person on board helping out. I’veĀ  heard so many stories about the dependable old ranch horse babysitting an overly confident child. When the child starts yanking on and ordering the old horse around too much, he dumps the kid off and goes to finish the job without interference.
I know on my own horses there have been plenty of experiences like that. I was riding my old boy Coyote in a blizzard one time. Wind and snow coming down so hard it was impossible to see anything but occasional vague black spots of cows that we were pushing to shelter. I had my head down at one point, blocking the biting snow from my face for a moment. Coyote stopped, turned on his own, gathered a calf that we were about to walk past and pushed him along in the direction he was supposed to be going. I didn’t know the calf was there. I had offered no aid or direction in what needed done. He could have easily walked right past and gotten the miserable work done quicker and back to the shelter of the barn.
He made that decision on his own to work harder. To do the job right.
Today Rusty really only wanted to go back to his friends and their hay bale. He spent the ride out asking if I was sure I didn’t mean we should go the other direction? Can we go home now? But as soon as we got behind the cow he went right to work. Back and forth he pushed her with enthusiasm, ears back, nipping not quite at her side. No more asking to go home, full attention on the job at hand.
Ranch horses work hard and I’m not going to claim they always want to be out there doing the job. But, is it possible that there is some ownership by them of the job being done and enjoyment in the task itself even if there is hard work involved? Much like the people riding them love the job despite it being hard and dirty and sometimes miserable? An intrinsic reward in the job itself.
Yes, it is good to make our horses as comfortable as possible, to work hard ourselves to insure they are happy and lead a good life. But does that have to mean never being uncomfortable? Never working hard or being pushed beyond their comfort zone? A person without a ‘job’ to do, without a purpose to work towards in life is a person who is discontent and constantly pleasure seeking. We all need purpose. We all need hard work so we can appreciate rest. We all need discomfort so that comfort can be appreciated. Without downs there are no ups either.
Just because a horse has a job and works hard doesn’t mean they are mistreated or unhappy.

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