Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Horse Vacations

April 23, 2010

According to the New York Times (Week in Review section, Sunday April 18), New York City has mandated for its carriage horses—the ones that carry tourists through Central Park and environs—5 weeks of vacation per year.

Most Manhattan carriage horses, I learned, spend vacation “down time” already, shipping out to place like the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The significant change is that now the New York City Council requires such a break for the hundreds of working horses in its jurisdiction. “Grass, grass, grass,” rhapsodizes the Times, “nothing makes a horse happier.”

What stunned me about this little article? It wasn’t the idea of horses going on vacation iself, but rather that I’d never once wondered if other working animals, just like people, might crave a rest, a chance to break up the stress and tedium of labor.

When we humans yearn for weeks off and away, I wonder if it doesn’t have a lot to do with stillness. We may aim for a literal stilling ourselves, as when we fly to white sands and stare at the foaming sea. Alternatively, we may immerse ourselves in a new place (Rome or Buenos Aires, mountainous Nepal or outback New Zealand) in a trip that weds a busy pace with a different goal: the sense of still calm that may flow when we focus acutely on new sights, sounds, and smells.

Do horses have spirits that need recharging? Well, they surely have emotions. Do they long for vacations? We really can’t know. We can observe their behavior when they are sent off to the country, though, and notice when their body language reflects contentment. Or might (a possibility brought up in the article) the switch from routine actually unnerve them? Surely, this will differ horse by horse. But wouldn’t some, at least, welcome a break from the constant Manhattan surround of honking traffic and high-velocity vehicles?

This path inclines us down the well-known slippery slope. What about working dogs, then—therapy dogs and rescue dogs? How about oxen in the fields, who plow and till? What other working animals might crave rest?

It’s evident that some animals who badly need a vacation—and more, permanent rescue—aren’t going to get one: elephants in circuses, apes in roadside zoos, mice and rats in biological laboratories.

But today’s blog isn’t meant to be sad. It alights on the happy thought of animals recharging by literally kicking up their heels. Some animals can do that right alongside us, of course; how many people invite their pets on vacation?

Here’s a fun tidbit, used with permission of my friend Barbara Bresler in Williamsburg, Virginia. Years ago I had the good fortune to teach her daughter Jen Bresler here at William & Mary, and we’ve kept in touch sporadically. When my new book came out, Barbara sent me a vacation video starring none other than Sophie the Dog. Have a look, it’s well worth the two minutes-- and do turn your sound up!


  1. April 23, 2010 11:57 AM EDT
    After reading this, I was reminded of my horse Doc. Doc was one of our top rodeo horses. Doc had a wonderful personality, not to mention a huge heart. Even as he aged, he still had the spunk and playfulness of a colt. After long trips on the road, Doc (as well as the other horses) always received a vacation or as most of us call it in the horse ... See Moreworld he was “turned out.” Turning him out was vital to his long-lasting career as a performance horse. Each time we returned home, I would unload him from the trailer and walk him down to one of the larger pastures. Well actually he would prance his way down there and basically drag me along as he knew what was about to happen. The moment I undid his halter he would spin around and buck and take off at full speed into the field. He did this everything single time I turned him out! It didn’t matter if we returned from a month long trip or just an overnight trip. He was always just so excited to be home and have a break from traveling. This was his time to just be a horse.

    Do horses long for vacations? In my experience, having been involved with all types of horses for almost 30 years, yes they do long for vacations and these vacations are crucial to their emotional, as well as physical well-being.
    - Jennifer Camp
  2. May 20, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

    A wonderful tale about rewarding your companion/performing horses. I can just imagine flaring nostrils and a high-speed gallop.

    Have you seen the video (not available on DVD) - Ballad of the Irish Horse? (a National Geographic video available on their website at
    I think you would love it.
    Best wishes to you - thank you for caring for your horses.

    Nuala Galbari
    (a friend of Barbara's)
    - Nuala C. Galbari

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.