I keep wondering how the horse world has changed enough to even have the subject of actually riding our horses come up. The entire bond between human and equine sprung from the relationship between horse and rider after all. If somebody hadn't realized horses were the happening mode of transportation, our equine friends would be grouped with cattle, sheep and hogs. You know, meat.
Somewhere, somehow the horse has been elevated to the status of a spiritual being. A companion animal, a best friend, a confidant.
In the course of this transformation we have changed the role of our horses from a service animal to an animal we bend over backwards to accommodate. We shelter them in barns more secure than our own homes, we blanket them, we feed them expensive mixes of feed and supplements. I know for a fact my horses get better dental care than I do and they definitely get more pairs of shoes every year.
We spend thousands of dollars learning how they think, move and react. We sacrifice our money, time and relationships to secure their well-being.
Is there irony here? Big time in my book. Since a horse allowed to choose it's life will be out in the winds in the open prairie, safe from the confines of a barn or any other cave-like structure. As a matter of fact, if they can make a choice, they'll be running with their buds, giving us a dismissive flick of the ear as they fly by.
A horse's digestive system is designed to continually have high fiber, low-protein grasses travelling through it most of the time, yet we colic the horses we love so much, stuffing them with rich grains and hay, carefully doled out in a few feedings a day. We clip the protective hair from their ears and legs, keep them blanketed and under lights so they can't grow protective hair. We breed them to have big bodies and small feet, or tiny with birdy bones to make them quick and fast.
What has happened here? It seems to me we are still treating our horses as a service animal, it's just that our expectations of service have changed. We still keep our own needs foremost, but we wrap ourselves up in a fog of "Horsenality" which will let us pretend we're looking out for our horse's best interest.
I am not accusing here. I am as guilty as the rest. I love my horses. I have altered their nature to the point where my favorite horse will gladly abandon her herd mates to spend time with me. It makes me feel wonderful.
I first learned to truly study a horse's body language to achieve a better relationship with them through John Lyons. Then I found Ray Hunt. My life with horses changed dramatically. I learned to love them even more through understanding. Training became easier, kinder, faster.
It was just short of miraculous.
When I started training horses who were going to perform in the upper level shows my understanding helped make my job easier. It also ended up making me really question the ethics of what I was doing. I still wrestle with this every day.
Part of my thinking revolves around where the role of horses fits in my life. As a show horse there is no question they continue the role of service animal. The industry molds them and throws them away as needed. The same industry creates the fancy breeding I'm so fond of.
I have accepted this and am trying to decide if I can balance what is expected in order to win in the show pen and my desire to keep my companions happy and sound.
So here comes my next point. I think we got in a heap of trouble when the movie "The Horse Whisperer" came out. Soft lighting and Robert Redford created a tidal wave of people with nothing more than a romantic mental image of horses ready to wade in and learn how to be one with a horse.
Anybody can attend a few clinics, put a round pen up on their five acre ranchette and adopt a mustang or two. This idea of training has been encouraged by countless clinicians who are ready to sell you a few tapes, sign you up for their 20 step program, take your money and declare you a trainer. All without ever getting on the damn thing. If you understand how to turn them in a pen by pointing your finger or get them to follow you around your corral without a halter, well then, you're a horseman.
The horse population peaked in the ten years following the "The Horse Whisperer". Baby boomers started buying, breeding and training their own horses at an unprecedented rate. The big ranches which used to produce the riding horses we knew disappeared as 5, 10, 20 and 40 acre lots took over the ranch properties.
The terms back-yard breeder, rescue and NH'er became part of our horse speak. How are these all connected? I think we have to accept some responsibility here.
I understand most of the big-name clinicians offer programs which will eventually get you on your horse. I also think they have to be very careful not to get somebody killed. Because they are extremely aware that most of their clients are women over 40, with little or no previous experience with horses, with a horse they can't cope with. Usually a youngster, barely started or not started at all. So they get heavily into the ground work. They teach you to go back to the ground work every time something goes wrong. You are encouraged to learn to read every ear-flick, tail swat or wrinkled nostril. You are taught to make sure each step is completely taught and understood on both sides before you dare proceed to the next.
Believe me, this is pretty practical advice if you're an under-trained, naive horse owner who can't ride. Because if you haven't put in your time on the back of a horse, you shouldn't be messing with a young one. But I don't see many well broke twelve-year-old geldings in the round pen.
I guess what I wish is we could be calling the kettle black here. I don't really care if you want to spend all your time with your horse on the ground. If you get satisfaction from carrot sticks and clickers I'm fine with it. Because personal satisfaction is what owning a horse is all about isn't it? I also feel the horse in this situation is every bit as much a service animal as the aging ranch horse who is run through a local production sale.
I think our horses should be rideable in case something happens to us and end up being sold. If they can be ridden they have a much higher chance of survival than a horse who will put his nose on a cone when we click our clicker.
Other than being broke enough to ride down the trail I think we should do what we want. I also think we should start to be honest about our motives. Are we endlessly working on the ground because we're too scared to ride? I'm sorry guys, the only way to conquer our fear is by riding. For hours and hours. If we could be honest about why we do things maybe we would quit saddling ourselves with horses we can't ride. Maybe we would quit pointing fingers at others who do thing differently than ourselves. Maybe we could pool knowledge and get to be where we truly want to be. Riding. Because I don't know about you, but when I finally realized my childhood dreams of owning a horse, the picture in my mind was all about running my horse, my friend, my companion, across a field. With me on his back.