Schoolmasters as School Horses

Schoolmasters as School Horses

The ever-changing rider and routine of the lesson horse job can pose psychological and even physical challenges for any horse, young or old.

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Q. Do retired, well-schooled show horses really make good beginners’ horses, even if they could be considered packers? How many of the school horses out there truly “appreciate” or enjoy their jobs?

Gill, via e-mail

A. Now that’s a tough question, since I have not followed many horses closely from a show career into retirement as school horses. But, in general, it is reasonable to expect that for a well-schooled show horse that has been well-conditioned to reasonably consistent cues from balanced riders in relatively standard exercises and show routines, transitioning to a job as a beginner or any lower-level lesson horse is not exactly an easy retirement.

The ever-changing rider and routine of the lesson horse job can pose unfair psychological, and even physical, challenges for any horse, young or old, previously highly schooled or not. So many of the school horses I see do appear stressed by the inconsistency from rider to rider and the often-contradictory cues of beginner and intermediate riders that result in an understandably confused and conflicted state.

The same is especially true for horses used in certain types of therapy. That’s likely why so many appear to shut down in a state of learned helplessness. The only thing worse than this for me to watch is the trainer who becomes frustrated with the poor horse in these moments of ­confusion.

And then there are the packers ... blessed are those rare individuals that keep on ticking and don’t appear to be stressed. You raise a very good point that, again, is difficult to answer. Even though these horses may not appear to be as bothered as others, you have to wonder.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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