6 Ways to Change a Horse’s Life This Holiday Season
As the year comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on how we can make a difference in a society full of challenges. Many people seek to “decommercialize” the holidays; others feel a strong pull toward benevolence in hopes of making our world a better place, for horses and humans alike. Whatever your calling, you can certainly direct your giving toward improving lives in the equestrian community. We’ve assembled a list of ideas for all budgets—including free gifts and projects—to help you contribute to changing a horse’s life this holiday season … and maybe his owner’s, too.

1. Donate funds to a local rescue charity.

Each rescue case’s story is heart-wrenching, we know. But no matter how benevolent you may be feeling this holiday season, it’s not possible to adopt them all. (No, really, it isn’t. Deep sigh.) And unless you have a lot of land, time, and resources, it might not even be reasonable to adopt one. That doesn’t mean you can’t help, though.

Charities put donations to excellent use, buying high-quality hay and paying for necessary medications, treatment, dewormers, and farrier care for the equids they’ve saved from mistreatment or neglect. That’s especially true this time of year, says Nicolas de Brauwere, MRCVS, senior welfare veterinarian at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, in Hapton, Norfolk, England.

“From now until March is when people have a hard time coping and need rises,” he says, adding that they appreciate any amount of contribution. “Even 10 pounds ($13) is helpful! A horse charity donation makes a great Secret Santa gift.”

2. Donate your nonhorsey skills and time.

Know how to fix a fence? Paint a wall? Organize a storage room? Design a veterinary care area in a stable? Write promotional materials or run a website? Charities need volunteer skills—and not just for dealing directly with the horses.

“Most charities—including Redwings—appreciate help renovating, repainting signs, or just tidying up,” de Brauwere says.

When people volunteer their time to do these nonhorsey tasks, it frees up donation money for caring for the horses directly. You can also donate materials—wood, paint, tools, computer equipment—to help them focus their spending on feeding and caring for the animals. What’s more, this kind of skill-giving isn’t just limited to charities. If you know a horse owner who’s going through a rough time and needs a little help with maintenance, leave a friendly (and nonjudgmental!) message in the mailbox, or stop by and offer your skills in person.

3. Support equitarian projects in developing countries.

Working equids lead challenging lives, especially across South America and Africa, local researchers say. While they’re often very loved and appreciated by their owners, these animals can suffer from lack of owner resources or knowledge about their needs and care. Recent reports about the donkey skin trade in developing countries are revealing serious welfare issues in developing countries for donkeys, in particular.

You can make an enormous difference in the lives of working equids across the planet by contributing to equitarian programs. A beautiful aspect of contributing to equitarian projects is that it’s a cross-species charitable effort.

“Helping improve the lives of working equids means helping improve the lives of the people, too,” says Amy McLean, PhD, equine lecturer at the University of California, Davis, and board member of the Equitarian Initiative, which focuses on Central and South America. “When you make a donation, it changes the life of the equids, and it will ultimately change the life of the people.”

4. Pay it forward in your horse community.

Horses don’t have to be in a rescue charity or targeted by equitarian projects to need help. Owners in your own community might be going through a hard time right now, struggling to manage their family’s needs while still caring for their beloved horses, ponies, donkeys, or mules. They might be dealing with a death in the family, illness, unexpected expenses, employment issues, a divorce, or any number of crises that force them to put their equids second. In addition to kindly offering your services, you can anonymously assist them with horse-related expenses.

“Oftentimes, what might seem like intentional neglect is caused by unforeseen circumstances,” says Karen Waite, MS, PhD, Extension specialist at Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Sciences, in East Lansing. “The people involved are suffering, as well, and the holiday season is a great time to help your neighbor.”

Contact your veterinarian, farrier, dentist, saddle fitter, or other equine health care professional to offer to “pay it forward” for one of their clients in need, at their discretion. Paying it forward could “really take on a momentum of its own” in the horse world, de Brauwere says.

Even just contributing a small sum toward the fees for your veterinarian’s next client, or paying in advance for someone else’s dewormer, could have a positive rolling effect in the industry. Some professionals will even help pass equipment on to clients in need, acting as a diplomatic intermediary and preserving their sense of dignity, says Pennsylvania-based farrier Daisy Bicking.

“I tell them, ‘I was given these by a client of mine who recently lost their horse, and I was asked to pass them on to another deserving horse in their honor,’” she says. “I’ll say I thought of their horse and say his name. The owner usually feels special that I thought of them.”

5. Gift learning theory to horsey loved ones.

Make a difference in the lives of horses you know, ridden by your loved ones, through evidenced-based stocking stuffers. The latest science on training, nutrition, and management is accessible for all owners through a wide variety of reputable resources.

Help horses benefit from cutting-edge research by giving the gift of knowledge to their owners. Subscriptions to magazines offering sound, researcher-reviewed articles such as The Horse allow horsey people to keep up-to-date with a paper version they can keep in the barn, along with extra online content.

You can also sign yourself or others up for online equitation science discussion groups such as Espresso with Equicoach or to e-learning with equitation science practitioners such as Andy Booth, who’s currently offering a free video series as a prelaunch to his Horseman Science e-learning program.

You could even gift a clinic session with equitation scientists and science-based coaches like Jody Hardstone, Lisa Ashton, or Andrew McLean. “And don’t forget podcasts, which make great gifts—and many are free!” adds Waite. You can subscribe for free (or set up a subscription for a loved one) to Ask TheHorse Live by The Horse.com on iTunes.

6. For your own horse: replace neck pats with wither scratches.

It’s commendable to strive to make a difference in the lives of horses in your community and even around the world. But don’t forget your own horse! Yes, he’ll love the carrots and apples and other exciting treats you’ll offer this holiday season. But what he’ll really enjoy is a change of habit that lasts a lifetime.

“A simple but valued gift is replacing neck pats with wither scratches,” says Lisa Ashton, MBA, equitation science consultant in Stafford, U.K. Praising your horse with the equivalent of a “horsey high-five”—slapping him on the neck a few times—might look and feel great to you, “but what’s in it for the horse?” asks Ashton.

“Neck slapping is unwanted pressure that’s aversive, even if we’re doing it out of joy and gratitude in a sportsmanlike way,” she says. “Research shows us that horses love a good wither scratch, which even lowers heart rates. So starting this holiday season, why not give a real reward?”

A validated positive reinforcement tool, wither scratching can also improve your training as well as your relationship with your horse, she adds.