Horses at Work: Lifestyles of Working and Service Horses

Horses that plow, heal, or protect have distinctly different lifestyles than the average riding horse.
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Horses at Work: Lifestyles of Working and Service Horses
For working and service horses, like their counterparts in the show arena, attention to basic health care needs and a good exercise program go a long way in fostering mental and physical wellness, which helps them perform well on the job. | Photo: iStock

Horses that plow, heal, or protect have distinctly different lifestyles than the average riding horse

The bright Wyoming sun gleams off the red bluffs as teamster Jack Malmberg, of Lander, calmly drives two of his blonde Belgian mares. They are pulling a mower through a field they are haying, careful to avoid a boggy area. The bucolic scene is reminiscent of a simpler time, but it is anything but effortless; horses are sweating and straining, and Malmberg is paying close attention to every detail, from each hoof step to how equipment is functioning.

It requires an accomplished and seasoned horseman to evaluate working horses and their environment and a committed management program to ensure all horses are in condition and performing their jobs safely and accurately.

There are many roles that working horses fill in today’s world: police horses, border patrol, military horses, carriage horses, pack mules/horses, dude string horses, and ranch horses, to name a few. What are their daily routines and what kinds of issues do they have or special care do they require? We’ll take a closer look a couple of examples of service horses and the special attention they need.

Working Draft Horses

Last summer, Malmberg put up some 600 tons of grass hay at the foot of the Wind River Range, doing all the mowing and raking with his 12 draft horses. “We put up small plots of hay, which are sold right out of the field,” he says. “The 60- to 70-pound square hay bales are hard to come by, so there’s a strong niche market for them.”

Haying machinery has gotten so big that the small, oddly shaped hay fields—of which there are many at the foot of the Rockies—wouldn’t be useful for haying if it wasn’t for Malmberg, who has been driving teams of horses since he was seven years old on his family’s ranch.

“I have done just about everything with a team of horses,” he says, “from logging to haying to parades.”

To do this job well requires years of experience and a keen eye for horse health. “If I can rub my hands over their sides and backs and not feel ribs then I know they are doing well,” he says of his nutrition program. “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 then get water out of the river. I don’t feed any hay until March or April, when it really gets cold and rainy around here.”

Malmberg doesn’t shoe his horses, and for the most part they only require trimming when they are on soft ground. “When they are living on the range, climbing in and out of river bottoms, their feet are mostly self-trimmed,” he says. “They probably move 15 to 20 miles a day on their own. In the winter, if there’s quite a bit of snow, or if in the summer they are on soft ground, then I trim them every two to three months.”

Indeed, Malmberg keeps a close eye on his charges. “Because we don’t keep them in a confined area we never have a parasite problem,” he explains, referring to the higher parasite burdens common in smaller, manure-laden paddocks. If he notices horses are starting to lose weight for no obvious reason, he says he takes a look inside their mouths to feel for hooks and has his veterinarian out for dental work.

June through early August is prime haying season in the Rocky Mountain states. Malmberg always hays with three teams of two, and every horse works seven days a week. “We put in four to five hours a day per team,” he says, of the horses’ work routine. “Three teams in the morning, and then … different teams in the afternoon. If we see any shoulder irritation (from the harness), then we are sure to give them some extra time off.

“When we unhook them we always hose them off to cool their muscles and get sweat off. They get so they almost demand that they have a bath,” he adds with a chuckle. “We also are constantly switching them around so they are all comfortable working with different partners.”

After the summer haying season the horses have a break, then fall work kicks in with jobs such as weddings, wagon rides, parades, and even logging. “In wintertime we plow snow off the roads with the horses pulling an old road grader,” says Malmberg. “This spring we were using an eight-horse hitch with a 30-foot field harrow to break up manure in fields where cattle had been pastured over the winter.” Horses have a lighter impact than a heavy tractor, which would compact wet spring soils.

Other than sleigh rides and gathering wood or cleaning irrigation ditches, the horses have most of the winter off. “For the most part, my horses live to be 25 before we retire them or put them on light duty,” he adds.

Therapeutic Riding Horses

Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, in Redmond, Washington, is one of the largest nationally accredited full-time therapeutic horsemanship programs in the United States. Little Bit houses approximately 25 horses that make their living as therapy horses. In addition to improving the bodies, minds, and spirits of children and adults with disabilities through equine-assisted therapy, Little Bit strives to provide excellent care for its working equids.

“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 equine services director Dana Richardson. She and colleague Zoe Rivera are in charge of the program’s horses, providing them with 24/7 care.

“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,” says Richardson. The staff adjusts this number based on the horse, so each ends up doing, on average, nine to 12 lessons per week.

“It depends on the rider as to what is done in a lesson,” Richardson says. “We have some riders that are independent riders, they walk, trot, canter. Others need leaders and two side walkers.”

Little Bit uses two indoor arenas, one outdoor arena, and a track. A sand/fiber footing mix in each arena helps reduce concussion on horses’ and handlers’ joints and feet. “We do have the wind screens on the indoor arena, which helps keep it cooler in summer and keeps out wind and rain in winter. It also cuts down on dust.”

The staff keeps horses stalled at night and turned out during the day, rain or shine, for at least eight hours. Paddocks are approximately 30 by 60 feet, with run-in sheds to provide shelter from weather. Mud-proof footing, good drainage, and regular manure management keep these areas dry and clean. “We also have a blanket guideline to determine if (horses) need a waterproof sheet, a waterproof blanket, or nothing,” says Richardson.

The horses receive hoof care every six weeks, some of which have special shoeing needs such as hoof pads, along with deworming, vaccinations, and other preventive veterinary care.

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“We tailor their diets to their individual needs,” says Richardson. “We carry three main types of hay. We try and stay on top of nutrition to be sure they have the protein they need … for muscle and energy needs.”

For those horses needing extra attention for body aches due to carrying a variety of unbalanced riders, Little Bit also uses alternative therapies. Signs of muscle soreness that Richardson looks for include tensing up at the mounting block, distributing weight unevenly, or refusing to stand squarely.

Chiropractic care is one of the main treatments Little Bit employs to help keep its horses comfortable. Veterinarians also perform acupuncture and other complementary therapies as needed. Recently the facility added a TheraPlate to its program, a low platform that a horse stands on that uses vibration to stimulate muscle contraction and increase circulation. “(The horses) need to be happy doing their job,” says Richardson. “We try to immediately address anything so that minor issues do not become major issues.”

These horses are truly working animals. Each one not only participates in regular lessons but also has an individualized schooling plan tailored to its specific needs. An able-bodied rider schools each horse two to four times a week. This might include going on a trail ride, doing arena work, working on the track, or just free-longeing, depending on what the individual horse needs. “Carrot stretches are part of this, too,” Richardson adds.

Mounted Police Horses

Service horses’ needs and potential health risks depend on the specific jobs they perform and the conditions they work in. Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, a staff veterinarian in Equine Field Service at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square, 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,” she says. “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.”

Excellent shoeing and good hoof and leg protection are crucial for these horses, because they are constantly walking on asphalt.

“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.

Arbittier attributes the success of the police horses she treats to the excellent day-to-day care they receive, though she acknowledges their regimen is no different than what she’d recommend for any other type of riding horse.

“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.”

Good horsemanship, daily observation, and attention to health care details are again necessary to keeping these working horses healthy and happy in their jobs.

“I can’t say that any of our police horses have health problems specific to their jobs, as the officers take immaculate care of them,” says Arbittier. “A lot of time is spent preventing issues and trying to identify problems early so that they don’t escalate into big problems.”

Take-Home Message

For working and service horses, like their counterparts in the show arena, attention to basic health care needs and a good exercise program go a long way in fostering mental and physical wellness, which helps them perform well on the job. “These horses, they will work their heart out for you,” says Malmberg of his teamsters.


Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

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