My relationship to horses has changed, and it has not changed.
As the magic of Christmas deserts an adult in a way they can never retrieve, despite all the children and grandchildren they witness in the ecstasy of Christmas morning, I am still in awe of the horse, but the blinders in relation to a horse in a human’s world are well and truly in the bottom of the bin.
I understand why I used to choke up watching the Kentucky Derby when I was a kid. The horses were so beautiful but seemed so desperate, and at some level, I think I had a clue.
Now I know what they do to race horses to make all that grandeur happen. I’ve been at both ends of the industry-from foals to the rejects and retirees.
At some level, I think I got why it wasn’t ok back then, and I certainly do now. Not in my eyes, anyhow.
I stopped training horses about five years ago. I made the decision but still had a few clients and a couple clinics to do before I ended it, and then we moved twenty hours north where I now do something entirely different.
I’ve written of my decision, including an account that sealed the deal involving a Morgan-cross, badly traumatized by his owners, who had unrealistic expectations and no compassion.
In that essay, I alluded to other, innumerable clients who routinely let down their horses.
They included (cherry-picking from the orchard of many here) the owner of a dead-lame, deformed little Quarter Horse mare who would be chronically unsound that came for breaking in. When the owner got the diagnosis from me and the farrier, she said, “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll just breed from her.”
The Arab gelding sent by grandparents of a girl with an intellectual disability who wanted to jump him. He was terrified of walking over a pole on the ground to the point he ran her down, ran anybody down.
The day the man came to pick him up, he just grunted when he saw the horse carefully pick his way over the pole, took the lead rope, put cash in my hand, ran the Arab on the trailer, never saw them again.
The foals bound for group one tracks who had equiloxed hooves and corrective limb surgery to make them sound to race, but still able to pass on conformation nightmares.
The Percheron-cross mare who arrived with a torn up mouth from running away through every bit in her owner’s collection on a cross-country course. In the end, I was able to jump her over cavelettis and softly stop and back her up in a side-pull; a leather halter with reins. The owner was unhappy because I was not yet riding her in a bit.
The Warmblood who came for tying-up training with crooked legs. She had pulled a telephone pole from the ground.
The little Thoroughbred with permanent scars up and down her neck from some backyard country trainer’s thumb spurs to make her run faster. She went frantic when you moved your hands about her head and neck from her back.
The Warmblood-Morgan who had been run frantic for hours in the round pen for before shows and the owner couldn’t fathom why she was a head-case.
The Clydesdale-cross (of too many Clydie-crosses to count) who would put her shoulder into it and take off no matter where you led her.
The only racehorse I agreed to break in that was found with her hind legs straddled over a barbed wire fence, her insides hanging out. She arrived after the healing, but when she felt a rope gripping her around the stifle she would buck and spray urine and want to take you apart.
For years, every horse arrived with a story. Every horse showed up to a clinic with a list of dos and don’ts. Most came with a rugging and feeding schedule that seemed more critical than any learning process for the owner.
After about eight years, six to seven days a week. I was done. Emotionally spent.
My husband is one of three people I know I’d trust with my horses.
I know that in their hands, the core of a horse’s needs; his emotions, his concerns, will be considered without the incursion of human ego.
As a novice owner many years ago, my early relationship with Harry Whitney taught me horses and people have very different agendas.
Years later, I fully understood, though it doesn’t have to be that way, inevitably, it ends up in favor of the human.
I will never forget a woman at a boarding facility where we once worked, whipping and beating her daughter’s beautiful little Arab who had not been ridden for years, because the horse balked that day at taking a bit in her mouth. The horse was tied to a fence and on her haunches, and the beating stopped before we could stop the woman.
There are competition and race horses with their heads tied down or to one side or another for hours until their bars are bleeding to mouth them, and it is universally accepted, universally used as a training method.
I saw a lot of those horses.
I saw far too many children, some as young as seven, wearing rowel spurs to a horse sports day at a local school festival recently.
Tip of the iceberg.
As an optimistic budding trainer, I thought I could make a difference.
In time, I came to understand, that horses will be always be ridden, they will be kept. There will always be shows, trail rides, and competitions and owners’ desires to succeed in those ventures are eternal.
Whether you’re ramping up for B-grade dressage test, hitting the trotting track, or you need a ‘therapy horse’ to stand to be brushed by a child with autism, or a corporate executive on some healing retreat to sit in a pen with such a horse, the horse in about every case is the tool, not a living, needing beast.
I believe the best you can do is hope to inject a glimmer of possibility of what could be, and hope the owner puts their horse’s true needs first. It is rare when it does actually happen and it takes.
I appreciate there are people like Ross or Harry who can work with such care and optimism, despite knowing many horses, in the end, will not benefit because of a human’s ultimate choices. To work in that world, you have to accept that.
I felt I could no longer participate, and I decided to leave the business.
So I did something else.
But I still have horses in my life. Now, they live in my world much like my first two horses in the states, when all I had were a couple sticks to rub together in my understanding of how horses think and feel.
When staying on felt like a win.
Now our interactions see me entering their world, taking note of their priorities, rather then me removing them individually to participate in mine.
I no longer ride, and the most I do with them is pull out mane tangles, give them scratches in their favorite places and trim their feet every two weeks. I like it that way. It feels like a relief.
A local fellow who has discovered cutting horses at a mature age cannot understand how I can have rideable horses and not ride. I get his consternation because it is so common.
I care for Birch, a mare that came to me in 2004 through Project Hope, a Victorian horse rescue group. She was allegedly collected three times on the road by the RSPCA, and the third time, the owner surrendered her. They said she was too aggressive and PH got her.
She is what you’d call my main horse. A stocky Quarter Horse kind of mare, solid as a tank.
She is so extraordinarily strong-minded it took a long time before I could work horses from her without Birch wanting to get in there and murder them.
Birch may be the best horse I will have ever ridden, ever had the honor to know.
Serendipitously, I took ownership of Teddy the same day Birch came to live with us. She’s a Shetland/Australian Pony cross who was bought by some city folks for their daughter. They thought they only had to feed her once a month and before she was a year old, they would tie her up, saddle her with a tiny saddle and drag her around with the kid on board.
That entertainment soon proved too onerous, and they neglected her completely. I used to feed her at the park we worked from and when I heard they were selling her, I bought her for $200 because that’s what the guy paid for her, even when I said he’d be lucky to get $25 at the Pakenham sales.
May is a Welsh A pony, rescued from an abattoir by friends and I offered to take her when one of them was moving north. She was already frightened of humans, and a past placement where she was running through fences meant by the time I got her, she had her lists and stories to tell.
Then there’s Guy. Kind of love at first sight for me. He came to me for training, sent by the fellow who had that Warmblood-Morgan who ran for her life in the round yard. He was giving him away, and we have him today.
Guy came with a fancy name, and was very well-bred from endurance lines.
He arrived gelded after 15 or 16 years as a stallion, and had some breeding and showing in his background.
He was far too smart and sensitive for the older man who hoped Guy would work as a riding replacement for the broken-down, shut-down Quarter Horse who had carried him for years.
Guy’s back legs are badly scarred from some accident I know nothing about.
He has his own set of challenges, but resides happily in acres of pasture with his friends.
We have another four horses; two ex-racehorses named LJ and Riley, an unraced Thoroughbred called Six and Ross’ Chops, the last, will rejoin the group when the weather cools after years in the hands of a lovely family friend.
I tell all these stories because I began saying my relationship had changed with horses.
Nowadays, when Ross is away, they are my family. I don’t count on them to carry me. I look after what they need and enjoy them on a softer level than when I needed Birch to haul a heavy, draggy draft-cross down the road or expected May to accompany a client on one of their first trail rides.
I don’t believe riding is wrong. I don’t think having those expectations of a horse is unethical. Most of what happens with horses causes me to close my eyes or turn away, but that is the reality of the situation, just as war will always be with us, so will humans use and treat horses.
That treatment might be played out through fear, anger, competitiveness, the need to dominate, the dismissal or disbelief of their feelings, the need for their strength and size for work or real survival, the allure of their beauty, the attribution of a human’s needs on a horse, too much anthropomorphism, or the promise of a dream that will never, ever happen.
I am glad there are a few people out there, like Ross and Harry who keep doggedly trying to champion the horse.
But I have found that for me, I accept there is a sacrifice that must be made if you’re in the industry, even at the most compassionate level when you are there for the horse, because humans will be humans, and they will usually, most always let you down for any or many of the reasons above.
It always will be, and I believe that will never change. It has not changed for thousands of years.
And that just wasn’t going to work for me anymore. So essentially, I’ve got a lot of expensive squatters on the place.