Working and Service Horses
Today’s article is a nice departure from the usual topics of cats, dogs and even exotic animals, instead focusing on horses. Caring for livestock tends to stretch the boundaries of pet sitting a bit even though it is a service provided by some professional pet sitters. Then again, Kentucky is known for its horses. Although thoroughbred racehorses are magnificent creatures, today’s feature highlights three other types of horses; working horses, therapeutic riding horses and mounted police horses. Horses that plow, provide therapy or protection, live lives considerably different than not only racehorses, but also the typical riding horse.
Working Draft Horses
Jack Malmberg of Lander, Wyoming utilizes Belgian mares as working draft horses to plow, mow and rake tons of grass hay along the Wind River Range during the summer. Modern haying machinery is so large that they are not viable for use in many of the smaller and oddly shaped hay fields located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. This is where ranchers like Malmberg come in with their horses. “I have done just about everything with a team of horses, from logging to haying to parades,” he says. “We put up small plots of hay, which are sold right out of the field. The 60-to70-pound square hay bales are hard to come by, so there’s a strong niche market for them.”
Doing this job well requires years of experience and an understanding of horse health. Malmberg takes great care of his horses, paying particular attention to their nutrition program. According to him, “These horses see very little grain; they are animals bred to live on grass, and that’s what we do with them. In winter they are out on the range with good mountain forage and [they] get water out of the river. I don’t feed any hay until March or April, when it…gets cold and rainy around here. If I can rub my hands over their sides and backs and not feel ribs, then I know they are doing well.”
The Rocky Mountain states prime haying season is from June through early August during which time Malmberg always hays with three teams of two horses seven days a week. The horses are constantly rotated to ensure their health and are always hosed off to cool their muscles and wash off the sweat. The horses have a break following the summer haying season until fall at which time they work jobs like weddings, parades, wagon rides and logging. “In wintertime we plow snow off the roads with the horses pulling an old road grader,” says Malmberg. Otherwise, the horses have most of the winter off with the exception of sleigh rides, wood gathering or cleaning irrigation ditches.
Therapeutic Riding Horses
Redmond, Washington is home to one of the largest nationally accredited full-time therapeutic horsemanship programs in the United States. Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center houses about 25 horses that earn a living as therapy horses. The horses at Little Bit improve the bodies, minds and spirits of children and adults with disabilities through equine-assisted therapy. Equine services director Dana Richardson and colleague Zoe Rivera are tasked with providing the horses care twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week.
“For our herd to be able to perform their jobs, we see the importance of balanced nutrition, correct muscling and fitness levels, as well as mental happiness,” says Richardson. “In a typical day for the horses, we follow PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International guidelines, where each horse can do no more than three lessons per day. It depends on the rider…We have some…independent riders, [that] walk, trot [and] canter. Others need leaders and two side walkers.” Accordingly, the staff adjusts the number of lessons per day based on the horse with each horse averaging between 9 and 12 lessons per week.
Little Bit uses two indoor arenas, one outdoor arena and a track. Each arena utilizes a footing mix made of sand and fiber to help reduce joint and foot concussions for both horses and handlers alike. The staff turns out the horses at least eight hours during the day, rain or shine. The staff keeps the horses stalled at night. The horses receive routine veterinary care including vaccinations and deworming. Every six weeks the horses receive hoof care. Little Bit also employs chiropractic care as a primary treatment to aid in keeping their horses comfortable. “We try to immediately address anything so that minor issues do not become major issues,” says Richardson. “[The horses] need to be happy doing their job.”
Mounted Police Horses
Liz Arbittier, VMA, CVA, is a staff veterinarian in Equine Field Service at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center who has worked with a number of mounted police horses. “These horses are most commonly large draft breeds, so their problems are similar to any draft breeds,” says Arbittier. “These horses are not only on patrol, they also participate in mounted police competitions, which test them in different ways. They even have to perform a dressage test.”
Arbittier points out that excellent shoeing combined with good hoof and leg protection are critical for police horses as they are constantly walking on asphalt. She does however, point out some of the advantages for these kinds of horses. “The nice thing about being on patrol is that they maintain slow speeds throughout the day, and they are primarily walking and standing,” says Arbittier. “This works well for draft horses, who really shouldn’t be asked to do much work at speed. They also train daily in a riding ring with good footing to maintain fitness at all gaits.”
Although the regimen is no different than what she would recommend for any other type of riding horse, Arbittier attributes the success of the police horses she treats to the excellent day-to-day care they receive. “The officers all know their mounts very well and know what their baselines are (e.g., normal temperature, respiratory and heart rate),” she says. We pay a lot of attention to their shoeing, their musculoskeletal system and their tack fit. The horses need to be comfortable with the officers sitting on them for hours at a time, so special care is taken with saddle fit.”
Attention to basic health care needs and a good exercise program foster mental and physical wellness for working and service horses. This in turn helps them perform well on the job.
This article was adapted from a story by Alayne Blickle that was featured in The Horse titled “Horses at Work: Lifestyles of Working and Service Horses.”