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Modern Day Working Horses & The Jobs They Hold

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The term “working horse” can conjure a variety of different images – a heavy draft horse plowing a field or a high-stepping carriage horse in a bustling city. Or perhaps you might picture a cowboy’s beloved ranch horse, working cattle on the open range. While horses are generally used for recreation in the United States, there are plenty of equines hard at work in jobs around the world. Keep reading to learn all about working horses and what they can do!

What is a working horse? A working horse is any equine that performs a specific task on a routine basis for the economic gain of its owner. This could be plowing fields, driving a carriage, rounding up cattle or giving lessons.

Working Horses in History

Most horse breeds developed out of necessity – people selectively bred animals to suit their specific needs. Large draft horses were needed to work in the fields, small ponies were popular choices for coal mining, and versatile sport horses were developed to work on small farms during the week and hunt foxes on the weekends.

During the industrial revolution and the decades that followed, machines began to take the place of the horse in our daily way of life.

Steam engines replaced horsepower, cars replaced carriages, and eventually, our equine companions became reserved for sport and recreation. 

Before the advent of industrialization and mechanization, here are some of the industries that required horses to properly function:

Travel

horse traveling in the mountains

After humans domesticated our equine partners over 6,000 years ago, we were able to travel much more quickly from place to place. Horses and other draft animals can carry humans and goods much more quickly and efficiently than if we have to do it on our own.

An average horse could easily cover 30-50 miles in a single day – this journey would take a single human considerably longer.  

Distribution of Goods

A strong man may be able to carry 50 pounds with his own two hands, but a strong horse can be loaded with the weight equivalent of 20% of his body weight.

Large horses became a primary mode of transporting goods from city to city quickly and efficiently. Pack horses are still used today in many areas of the world, especially where roads are poorly maintained.   

Transportation

After the invention of the wheel, horses became even more important for transporting goods and people from place to place. A strong horse can pull nearly double his weight. A team of average 1,000-pound horses could transport 4,000 pounds of goods!

As cities developed over time, horses pulled carriages and other vehicles. They pulled taxis, the family wagon, city coaches, and more. Imagine New York City filled not with honking yellow cabs, but sleek black coaches instead!

Pulling Barges

The ancient Romans used mules to pull barges and small boats through an intricate system of canals in Britain. Horse-drawn boats would carry goods and people through the waterways, especially during the industrial revolution.

Old Billy, the oldest horse who ever lived and who died at the ripe old age of 62, pulled a barge up and down an English canal for most of his life.

Railroad

Before we had steam-powered trains, horses and mules pulled early railway cars along a series of parallel tracks. These railroads were mostly used to transport coal back and forth from coal mines.

Whitewood Canyon, Wade and Jones R.R. Camp, Black Hills, South Dakota. photo by John C. Grabill, 1890
Whitewood Canyon, Wade and Jones R.R. Camp, Black Hills, South Dakota. photo by John C. Grabill, 1890

In fact, the old story goes that a horse beat the first steam-powered engine –the “Tom Thumb” locomotive –  in a race in 1830 due to mechanical failure. But, mechanization soon won out, and steam engines replaced horses on the railroad.

Agriculture

Once humans shifted away from living as primarily hunters and gatherers and began farming, draft animals were required to help them. Horses became an important part of farming society, a role that they still play today.

Before the development of the wheel, horses pulled sleds and plows. They cleared trees for farmland and hauled water for irrigation. In granaries and mills, horses would spend hours walking in circles, crushing corn or other grains into flour.

horses plowing a field

Military

From the beginning of their domestication, horses have always been used by the military. Being on horseback is a significant advantage for most troops, and horses were used in military combat as late as World War II.  

  • Ancient Arabian Peninsula: Warring Bedouin tribes would use their swiftest mares to raid neighboring camps, as stallions would give away their positions.  
  • Ancient Egypt. Petroglyphs famously depict horses pulling swift chariots around 1500 BC. These were a particularly effective weapon for archers, and became a symbol of Egyptian military prowess.
  • Middle Ages. Jousting horses provided necessary skills on the battlefield, and were also for sport. Horse breeds at the time were named for their functions – destriers were large valuable warhorses, palfreys were common everyday riding and cavalry horses, coursers were fast and agile, and rounceys were used as military pack animals.
  • Modern Warfare. Horses pulled heavy artillery units like guns, provided speed for a cavalry unit, and allowed officers to quickly move around infantry ranks. Horses served in both World Wars (less so in World War II), although they are mostly used ceremoniously today.
horses used in war

Hunting

Riding horses have always been used for hunting swift game since their early domestication, especially by the wealthy elite. Horses and other animals (such as dogs or hawks) worked together to track and kill prey.

When horses arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, they changed the way of life for the people who lived there. They became skilled equestrians, tracking and hunting buffalo must more effectively once on horseback.

In the 1700s, fox hunting became a popular sport in England. These hunting horses had to be able to jump brush, fences, stone walls, and other obstacles in pursuit of a wily fox. While foxhunting itself has fallen out of favor in modern times, many aspects of popular equestrian sports are based on this tradition.  

foxhounds going out for a hunt with horses and riders

Modern Working Horses

Today, most horses are used for recreation, sport, entertainment, and competition. However, there are still plenty of horses hard at work today in various jobs around the world.

Mounted Police Units

Breed: Any breed with a suitable temperament – often Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, draft crosses

Tack: Light synthetic saddles, specialty rubber horseshoes, riot face shields

Mounted police units provide safety and crowd control in bustling cities or at large events. Mounted police officers can react and respond to situations more quickly than units on foot.

Police horses must be calm and even-tempered, unflappable, and exceptionally well-trained.

police horses at work

While police horses were much more popular in the era before roads were efficient and well-maintained, they can still be found around the world working in a civil and ceremonious capacity.

Forestry Service

Breeds: Missouri Fox Trotter, Mustang, Appaloosa, Quarter Horse, draft horses

Tack: light endurance saddles, western saddles, saddle bags for transporting equipment

The Forest Service cares and maintains national forests by “preserving the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

For over 100 years, horses remain a necessary part of this system, as they can often reach places that motorized vehicles cannot.

Missouri Fox Trotters, in particular, are often favored by members of the Forest Service, as they have a comfortable ambling gait and are comfortable on tricky trails.

Sustainable Agriculture

Breeds: Shire, Clydesdale, other draft breeds

Tack: Pulling harness, blinders, driving bridles and reins

As carbon emissions are rising, concerns about global warming are growing. Many small farmers have turned to traditional farming methods for a more eco-friendly and sustainable way of producing food. Horses are still used to pull plows, haul crops, and clear fields without the use of heavy machinery.

In the days before mechanization, clearing a wooded field for farming was a job best served by a team of large, powerful horses. Even commercial logging operations may still use horses to clear trees from hard-to-reach areas.

Therapeutic Riding Programs

Breeds: Haflinger, Fjord, Miniature Horses, Draft horses

Tack: Standard English or Western tack, adaptive saddles, guiding harness

Horses can provide therapeutic assistance to individuals with a variety of special needs. They can provide physical assistance to those with mobility issues, improving the strength and coordination of their riders.

Horses can also provide emotional support for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

There are many different programs with horses to suit individual needs. However, most therapy horses are calm, good-mannered, and strong enough to support children and adult riders.

Miniature horses also serve as guide animals, therapy ambassadors to hospitals and schools, and as emotional support animals. They are the only other species other than dogs that are recognized by the ADA for their abilities in this capacity.

Cattle Ranch Work

Breeds Used: Quarter Horse, Morgan, Appaloosa, Paint Horse, Thoroughbred, Mustang

Tack: Western tack, saddlebags

horse at work on a cattle ranch

Horses and humans have been working cattle together since we began started raising beef for food. The Ranch Work Championship is a competition that tests a horse’s skills on the ranch by using a timed obstacle course, cattle roping, and cattle penning.

Many other rodeo events reflect the real work that horses are doing every day, especially when it comes to roping and penning.

Horses with a natural cow-sense excel at these events, and a good working ranch horse can anticipate a steer’s moves and respond to its rider’s commands.

Amish Buggy Horses

Breeds: Standardbred, American Saddlebred, Haflinger, Morgan, Draft horses

Tack: Driving harness, pulling harness, blinders

Over 300,000 Amish people live in North America and follow a traditional low-tech way of life. Most of them do not own or operate vehicles, relying instead on enclosed horse-drawn carriages or “buggies”. They also use draft horses for agricultural work, such as farming and logging.

Amish buggy going down the road

Retired racing Standardbreds often have a second career as Amish buggy horses, as they are bred for pulling carts and have a natural work ethic and good attitude. Other breeds bred for driving, such as the Saddlebred and Morgan, are used as well.  

Entertainment & Athletics

Today, most horses at your average barn are working hard as pleasure or performance horses, carrying their riders through winding trails, small competitions, or 4-H programs. At higher levels (where big money is involved) horses are professionally bred and trained for specific entertainment or performance industries.

While these horses aren’t “working” horses in the sense that they provide services to people outside of their sport, they still must be trained for years and work hard for their riders every day. A professional barrel racing horse or track Thoroughbred has a very different life than a pet pasture puff.

Here are a few examples of working horses that provide services to people in a slightly different way:

Racing

Horse racing has always been a popular pastime for cultures around the world:

  • Flat track racing. Bred for speed, Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, and Arabians race around a flat track and compete for big cash prizes.
  • Harness racing. Standardbred horses pull a two-wheeled cart called a sulky around a flat track. They may either perform the race at a trot or a pace, depending on breeding and training.
  • Steeplechase. Popular in England, sport horses race around a flat course punctuated by several obstacles made from tall brush or wide ditches.
  • Ban’ei. In Japan, heavy draft horses pull sleds up and down ramps made of sand.
  • Rodeo and gymkhana events. There are many timed racing events in a typical rodeo or gymkhana including keyhole racing, barrel racing, pole bending, and many more.

Equestrian Sports

Working competition horses perform at high levels for their owners and earn professional wages through competitions. Some professional equestrian sports include barrel racing, reining, eventing, dressage, show jumping, polo, driving, vaulting, or traveling performances such as a circus.

Television and Film Acting

Whenever you see a horse on the small or silver screen, it has been highly trained to perform. Working horse actors must be good-natured, easily trainable, and they must not react to all of the strange sights and sounds on a typical film or tv set. Some horses even have a long career as the star of the show, or a single popular horse may appear in several different movies or tv shows.

Tourism Horses

If you’ve ever been on vacation and stopped for a trail ride (mule ride down the grand canyon, perhaps), you’ve ridden a working horse. Well-trained horses carry thousands of tourists into the wilderness to give them a glimpse of the scenery that they would never be able to see otherwise.

grand canyon mules
Grand Canyon Mules

A tourism trail horse is usually strong, docile, and can willingly follow a lead horse through forests, across streams, or up a mountain trail. Tourism horses also pull carriages in popular cities, or festive sleighs in the wintertime.

Lesson Horses

Many riders have those early lesson horses to thank for teaching them how to ride. Horses of any and all breeds serve in lesson programs, teaching new riders how to sit and use their aids during weekly or daily riding lessons.

Lesson horses may be ridden by hundreds of different children and adults over the years, and so a good temperament is a must.

The best lesson horses are patient, willing, and teach their riders how to successfully work with future equine partners. There’s no better teacher than a good lesson horse with a heart of gold!

Is a working horse right for you?

While most horses today are used recreationally, many are still hard at work in their original roles. While most working horses differ in breed, most of them must be calm, trainable, and unbothered by strange sights and sounds.

If you’re looking for a good equine partner to help you around your farm or assist people in your lesson program, consider a horse’s temperament and willingness to work. Most of all, a working horse must be willing to do his job – and work!

April Lee

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses. I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help! Check out my about page for more detailed information.