You might have noticed this little fact, and perhaps this is why you visit our web site: Horses are magnets for injury/illness. Whether the cause is their complicated physiology, how we manage them, or Murphy’s Law, it seems like our beloved steeds are always getting hurt or developing all manner of bizarre clinical signs.

Sure, this can mean job security for The Horse’s staff, since all we write about/report on is health topics! But even so, it can be disturbing sometimes just how many things can go awry with horses.

Ireland

Shanlara on after a beach gallop in Port Noo, Ireland. The 5-year-old Irish Draught gelding proved sound and sensible.

So, imagine my surprise the other week when I rode a horse that seemed to defy all of these rules: the bionic horse that is managed quite simply, navigates all manner of precarious footing confidently, and passes Scary Monsters By The Road without injury.

Shanlara is one of just over 70 horses at Tilman and Colette Anhold's Horse Holiday Farm that carry riders over the beautiful, rugged, and sometimes desolate terrain of Counties Sligo and Donegal, Ireland. This 5-year-old Irish Draught gelding and I spent eight days together, six of which were unguided (except by the occasional horse-as-a-GPS moment when maps and arrows confounded us).

My friend and fellow journalist, Christa Lesté-Lasserre, heard me marvel repeatedly at how our mounts seemed more durable than American ones. Some of the things Shanlara accomplished soundly and confidently, despite my piloting him:

  • Forty-seven hours traversing roads, paths, driveways, bog lands, and beaches. I know the endurance riders might scoff, but this is the most time I’ve spent in the saddle in years!
  • Jumping a series of cross country fences at the gallop with a rider who hasn’t done this in 10 years (Single jumps? Yes. A whole line of them? It had been awhile!).
  • Mounting and dismounting to wrangle hundreds of gates of all sizes/shapes/states-of-repair. Christa and I had a game of taking turns to do this, but I have a feeling that she took a few for the team. (Thanks Christa!)
  • Driving rain and gale-force winds on the side of a mountain. (Shanlara simply shook the water off his dripping face and asked politely if he could stop and snack on the grass for a while).
  • Hundreds--no, thousands--of inanimate and live “spook hazards.” An occasional sheep or tree stump would give him the heebie jeebies, but those scenarios were rare, and he generally just “got stuck in neutral (no spooking out from under me).”
  • Crossing narrow wood bridges and plastic crate footing that kept us from being sucked Never-Ending-Story-style into deep bog areas.
  • Loading alone and riding in a trailer that was far smaller than the “horse box” he’s accustomed to, and getting calmly “unstuck” when he wanted to turn around in the trailer to unload rather than back out.
  • Staying calm during my ignorant moment of opening a warming carbonated drink on horseback while on a paved road. (Oh, just imagine. )

Over the eight days I spent with this horse, he sustained exactly one injury: an abrasion on his nose from scratching his face on a buddy’s tack. Go figure.

Here’s what I gather. Shanlara and his co-workers aren’t “fussed over,” managed intensively, or coddled. Tilman and his team have trained them for a specific job, and they do it well. The operation practices responsible preventive care techniques (i.e., recommended inoculations), conditions the horses carefully, keeps the barns clean, and keeps on top of hoof care and shoeing. The horses are out more often than they're kept inside. Tilman specifies how he wants riders/guests to manage the horses: For example, leave them alone while they’re eating. Clean their bits and girth covers every day, and clean the saddle pad. Resist the urge to scoop extra grain for them. Communicate any potential problems back to home base.

Ireland

We navigated a variety of terrain types in our ride across County Donegal--here we're crossing bridges through blogs near Glenties.

Some American horse owners would be surprised at how “hands-off” their care regimen might seem compared to what owners do here. But, bottom line, these horses are respected and treated remarkably well, even if they’re not fed carrots or snuggled every single day. And they are some of the soundest, most sensible horses I’ve ever met. It makes me wonder if there's something to this management approach.

This brings me back to Shanlara, who most certainly is not a snuggler. He hated being brushed, in fact, and was a wee bit aloof compared to my usual mounts. (Though, by the end of my stay he had warmed up a bit to me and would sidle up for a taste of my granola!) We each made compromises—he stopped giving me the stink eye when I walked toward him with the brush, and I gave up the need to have an immaculately groomed, snuggle-muffin of a horse.

My sound, workmanlike Irish steed is now my favorite gray … that side of the Atlantic, at least.

Your Turn: What is it that makes some horses seem more “durable” than others?