Essential Skills for Working with Horses

Stable hand grooms a white horse
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The equine industry continues to have a big impact on the American economy. According to the American Horse Council Foundation's 2017 Economic Impact Study, the industry was worth roughly $122 billion in 2017. The industry also employed roughly 1.74 million people, generating about $79 million in salaries, wages and benefits. Current estimates peg the horse population in the United States at about 7.2 million — with Texas, California and Florida rounding out the top three states with the most number of horses.

There are many options that may be of interest to those interested in careers in the equine industry such as riding instructor, groom, veterinarian, farm manager, trainer and countless others. Those interested in a career with horses may end up pursuing some kind of special training, education or certification to enhance their job prospects in the industry.

But all that aside, there are a number of key skills all horse industry professionals should possess in order to become experts in their fields. Here are nine of the most critical skills and abilities for those hoping to find work in the equine industry:

Basic Horse Handling Skills

This skill is a basic requirement for anyone working with any type of animal. All equine professionals should be comfortable working around horses in a hands-on capacity. Basic skills should include haltering, leading, picking out hooves, bathing, blanketing, wrapping legs and cooling horses out after a workout. 

Basic handling skills are the foundation for all interactions with horses and these skills abilities can only be developed over time. This is why it's beneficial if the worker has gained diverse experience working with horses of different ages and breeds. 

Proper Grooming Techniques

Grooming is a very important part of equine care and maintenance. All equestrians should be familiar with the different grooming equipment used on horses including the curry comb, mane comb, soft bristle brush, firm bristle brush, hoof pick and sweat scraper. It is also beneficial for equestrians to be able to operate body clippers to trim excess hair, especially if they are working in the showing industry where careful grooming is highly valued. 

Proper grooming keeps a horse’s coat healthy and the close observation of the horse during the grooming process can lead to early detection of potential health issues.

In order to properly execute your grooming duties, you must be willing to work outside and in any type of weather. And since it can be a taxing job, it's important that you're physically fit.

Recognizing Health Issues

Horses have a particular knack for injuring themselves on a frequent basis and it is fairly common for equine professionals to see a variety of cuts, abrasions, leg injuries and colic cases. Colic is an event of severe abdominal pain that often requires veterinary treatment. 

Those working with horses should be able to judge the severity of an injury, deciding whether a vet should be called or if the injury can be handled by the farm staff. Staff members should also be able to detect small changes in each horse’s behavior or eating habits that could indicate the start of a problem.

Administering Basic Health Treatments

Individuals working in the horse industry should be able to apply leg wraps, treat small wounds, give oral medications and complete other basic healthcare tasks without assistance. And whenever appropriate, they should be able to recognize when a horse needs more advanced treatment and refer the animal to a trained vet.

Those working specifically in equine health career paths such as equine veterinary technicians should be able to give injections, collect blood and perform more advanced medical treatments.

Recognizing Behavioral Signals

Horses give many signals that can telegraph their impending behavior. Handlers should always pay careful attention to the horse’s ears. The position of the ears can indicate aggression — when flattened or “pinned back” against the head and neck — fixed interest or fear — when pricked sharply forward — and distraction — when swiveling back and forth. Other areas of the body that can hint at behavioral changes include teeth, legs, and the positioning of the head and neck.

Similarly, those working with horses should also be able to detect behavioral issues from a horse's tail, lips, jaw and nostrils. All of these body parts will give out clues as to whether the horse is relaxed and happy, or agitated and unhappy. For example, a loose lower jaw indicates the horse is happy. A tight and drawn lip line may indicate tension in a horse's demeanor.

Conformation and Anatomy

Equine professionals should have a basic knowledge of equine anatomy and what a well-conformed horse looks like. At the most general level, a groom should know the basic points of a horse, focusing especially on the legs and hooves — areas that frequently require wrapping or other special attention.

Basic Riding and Training Techniques

While some equine careers do not require any riding or training ability, it is still important for workers in the equine industry to have a general knowledge and appreciation of riding and training techniques. Those seeking riding-intensive positions — such as dude ranch wrangler — should have exceptionally strong riding skills. Those seeking trainer positions should have knowledge of positive conditioning techniques, equine behavior, and industry performance standards.

Equine Nutrition

Anyone working with horses should have a general understanding of equine nutrition. This may include knowing how much feed is required for each horse, how to mix it and whether a horse may require a special diet because of illness or age. Those working with horses should also be able to recognize when the animals stop eating and refer them to qualified vets for treatment.

Ability to Communicate With Others

All equine workers should have the ability to communicate clearly with others in the equine industry (such as veterinarians, grooms, and trainers) to ensure that the needs of the horses are met in a timely and efficient manner. The coordination of equine care should always be a priority for all industry workers.