The reality has left many horse lovers wondering why they took on the responsibility in the first place, and whether this situation is even in the best interest of the animal—or the rider. But horse ownership is not out of the question, even if you’re a so-called “weekend warrior,” as long as you understand the complications of the arrangement and how you can overcome them.
Generally, most horses do best when they are ridden or even just handled on a daily basis, says Jennifer Williams, Ph.D., president of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society and an equine behavior specialist. That’s because frequent riding not only maintains an equine’s physical fitness, but also re-enforces learned behavior.
“Being ridden requires fitness and strength, so frequent riding keeps your horse in condition,” Williams says. “It’s the rare horse that can hang around all week with no riding and then go back to work; imagine if you didn’t do a task for days or weeks on end and then were asked to perform at the top of your game?”
At the same time, horses – and owners, too – benefit from consistent, frequent handling, Williams says.
“Every time you handle your horse you are training him and he’s learning your behavior and how to respond to you,” Williams advises. “When you don’t handle your horse for days or weeks on end, he’s going to get rusty; he may get a little pushy or resist your requests or he may become sluggish.”
According to Williams, young horses especially require frequent handling in order to become and remain well behaved.
“When they don’t get (that frequent handling) younger horses tend to push their limits harder than an older, better trained horse might,” she says.
Ultimately, Williams believes that both horses and riders both benefit from the understanding and familiarity that only comes from frequent contact.
“When you handle or ride your horse, not only are you getting to know him and understand his behavior and subtle cues, but he is doing the same with you,” Williams says. “When you don’t interact with him frequently, you won’t have the same level of communication and understanding.”
So what can a a time-limited owner do to make the most of the hours she does spend with her horse? Trainer Clarissa Cupolo believes that the answer lies in the owner’s ability to take advantage of available options.
Here are her suggestions:
Work with a Trainer
According to Cupolo, time limitations don’t preclude horse ownership so long as someone who shares the owner’s goals also rides or works with the animal. She believes that both owners and their horses benefit when an experienced trainer handles and rides the horse on a daily basis. Owners can also spend quality time with their horses by taking once-a-week riding lessons.
“Lessons not only help owners polish their skills, but also allow them to work on the way they communicate with their horses,” she explains.
Lease Your Horse
Owners always have the option of leasing their horses to another rider who will work with the horse more than once a week. Still, there are things to consider before making a horse available for lease, Cupolo says.
“Be careful,” she says. “Every time someone else comes in contact with your horse, she changes [the horse].”
Also, be sure both owner and lessee are on the same page when it comes to performance.
“The trick also is finding a person that has goals that are similar to yours,” Cupolo advises. “It you want to trail ride, make sure that the lessee is also a trail rider.” If you’re focused on competitive goals, make sure your lessee is willing and able to help you work with your horse in that direction.
While building a relationship with your horse is paramount, you and your horse also benefit from building friendships with their neighbors and barn mates. Riding on your own can get boring, says Cupolo, so even if you only ride on weekends, its a good idea to find others who have the same goals and who enjoy the same disciplines as you do. Taking a group lesson is another option.
“The point is to use the social aspect of your neighborhood or barn to your and your horse’s enjoyment and advantage,” she says.
Finally, both Cupolo and Williams agree that it is critical for owners to spend as much time with their horses as possible whenever circumstances allow it.
“Of course, we all live in a busy world,” Williams says. “But whether your horse is at home or being boarded, when life lets up and you can spend more time with your horse, remember to take a little time to get to know him again.”