Just for a change … a little rant.
The writing biz has sucked sufficiently lately that I have had to return to giving riding lessons in order to pay my internet bill. That’s not really what the rant’s about. I enjoy coaching for the most part, though it’s making it virtually impossible to keep office hours anymore.
The substance of the rant is that, like parenthood, horse ownership ought to have an entrance exam. With a 75% flunk rate.
People get into horses for all kinds of reasons. I get that. I was a horse-crazy kid once myself. Read all the Black Stallion novels, fantasized about taming a wild Chincoteague pony, imagined I’d be a Triple Crown-winning jockey. Every cliche in the book.
Thing is, though. Because my parents weren’t quite as susceptible to my pre-pubescent persuasive powers as I might have preferred, I did what I could. I read. Voraciously. I absorbed everything I could about the science of riding, the art of horsemanship, the nuts and bolts of stable management and health care. My opportunities to actually ride were fairly limited, but I did everything I could to prepare myself for the day that I could change that. Including buying halters and leadshanks and brushes and bell boots and every little semi-affordable do-dad I could collect for my future Phar Lap. I begged for lessons whenever I could get them, and for years I pedaled my bike over a 3 km route at 6 a.m., delivering the Globe And Mail for tuppence a week, so I could put the money towards summer camp — my only opportunity for concentrated horse exposure every summer.
I get that not everyone makes the perfect choice for their first horse, too. When I fnally became a horse-owner, at age 16, I was not picky. That Pokey had four hooves and a pulse was more than enough for me. Size? Conformation? Age? Training? Soundness? Suitability? Mere quibbles. He was in my price range.
Fortunately, though he was far less broke than the schoolies which pretty much summed up my prior experience, Pokey proved to have a heart of gold, and we managed to progress together in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kinda way. If you asked me today, I’d tell you green horse + green rider = trainwreck … but if you get lucky, sometimes it’s just a single car sliding gently into a ditch (no harm, no foul, call CAA and it’s all better) rather than a scene of mass destruction. I got lucky. Dear little Poke taught me an enormous number of valuable lessons about horsemanship, and prepared me well for the many, many beasties I would ride later. In that regard, he did the opposite of what my parents were hoping he’d do, which was dissuade me.
I fail to fathom what it is that possesses some people to get into horses. It’s like they just wake up one morning and go, “Hey, how about I go play with some plutonium? Cuz that suddenly seems like a great idea.”
Because, you see, they’ve been having fantasies about just how beautiful and majestic and noble and cuddly plutonium is, since they were in utero, and now that they’re grown-ups they can have some plutonium for their very, very own and no-one can tell them not to.
So without consulting anything resembling, say, a nuclear scientist, or even a Wiki entry, off they go, money merrily burning a hole in their pockets, big red sign on their foreheads saying, “I’m a fucking idiot; please take advantage of me and get me killed,” … and believe you me, there are plutonium merchants out there who see these people coming a nuclear mile away and are more than delighted to oblige.
Think I’m exaggerating with the plutonium analogy? I bet the horsepeople reading this don’t. Horses weigh an average of 500 kg. They are a prey species, and they’re stupid. (I say that with love.)
This is not like picking out a gerbil at the pet store, folks. And if you select the wrong one … well, this variety of plutonium has a long, long half-life.
So … common sense might suggest that before you take the plunge on horse ownership, that you might, um, consult an expert. Get some lessons. Figure out what sort of animal might suit your needs, be within your capacity to handle, makes you happy. Get a clue about some basic safety rules when dealing with a half-tonne juggernaut which tends to freak out first and think later (if at all). Apply yourself to learning a bit about what you’re getting into.
Or, you know, you could just go out there and drag home the first homicidal quadruped you stumble across with a price tag on its halter. Cuz how bad could it be, really?
I know a guy for whom owning a horse — multiple horses, now — is all about the bragging rights. He sold a cottage and bought himself a horse farm, because basically, he could get all those acres for that price? Not because he had the first fucking clue what to do with a horse farm. Except, of course, buy some pretty horses to put on it, even though he had no idea what horses required and no intention of ever finding out, and he was only there on the weekends anyway and wanted to entertain his Rosedale buddies when he was. He manufactured for himself the excuse that his kids were interested in riding — which of course, they are totally not.
Now he can go to the office and off-handedly toss off his vast sum of knowledge of gaited breeds and what the farrier is costing him — getting all the details laughably wrong, of course (here’s a hint: there is no such thing as “fourteen five hands high”) — and he’s just smugger than shit about being a Horse Owner.
Then there’s the “rescue” scenario. As in, I am going to rescue an abused, abandoned critter from a lifetime of neglect and restore its broken spirit (you know you’re in trouble the second you hear one of these well-intentioned whackjobs use the word “spirit”) by pouring oceans of unconditional love and treats at it.
So much virtue it makes your teeth hurt, right?
Given the current state of the economy, it’s only getting worse. People are giving horses away right, left, and centre. It pushes all the right buttons. Not only are you getting a bargain, but you’re doing a Good Deed.
I may set a new record here for the number of times I use “OMFG” in a single post.
Here’s the thing. Good intentions are sooooo not enough. If your facilities are unsuitable for the animal, if you don’t have the knowledge to care for the animal (and refuse to leave its care in the hands of paid professionals who do know how), if you’re not going to train the animal to be pleasant to be around, you are doing it no favours. None.
And you’re gonna get yourself hurt.
I say it frequently to my own horses when they’re being asshats, and I preach it to my students all the time: a well-mannered horse is a horse with good odds of having a long and contented life.
It’s simple economics. Horses are expensive to keep. Those who are a joy to be around, generally continue to be fed, handled, and appreciated. Rude, ill-mannered, fearful, aggressive, or just plain ignorant and untrained horses are not so pleasant to be around. And once they hurt someone (because see above: 500 kg, prey, stupid), they have started themselves down the road to the slaughter pipeline. I’m not going to get into a debate in this post as to whether that’s good or bad, btw — that’s a subject for another day. All I’m saying is, some of the horses who end up in the pen at the Ontario Livestock Exchange (our local “kill auction”, aka OLEX), are there for a reason.
And of course that’s also where the well-intentioned whackjobs tend to pick them up … having absolutely no idea that they have bitten off far, far more than they can chew.
It puzzles me that even people who readily agree that well-trained dogs are better than untrained ones … and who find sharing a supermarket aisle with a squalling, tantrum-throwing brat an appalling affront … never seem to make the correlation with the horse who just took a chunk out of an arm and then dragged them out of the washrack and across a gravel parking lot on the end of a nylon leadshank.
At the boarding stable where I kept Pokey, once upon a time, we used to call this No Star No Syndrome … after a fellow boarder who was regularly victimized by her nasty, aggressive mare and whose defense seemed to be tugging feebly at said leadshank and pleading, “No, Star, no!”
I am not saying that horses who’ve been abused, neglected, or otherwise screwed up can’t be rehabbed. Absolutely they can. I do it all the time. So do lots of other people.
Knowledgeable, experienced people.
People who know how to gain a horse’s trust while setting up firm boundaries. People who know how not to get hurt in the process (not that that is ever guaranteed … but at least when you understand how a horse thinks, what its body language means, what sort of discipline/correction makes sense to a horse, and how to establish yourself as the sympathetic but strict Alpha Mare, you have a fighting chance of coming out unscathed).
What never ceases to amaze me is the capacity of people who’ve been involved with horses for three minutes, to judge the actions of those who’ve been working successfully with them for decades.
Newsflash to the newbies: there is absolutely nothing new or revolutionary coming out of the mouths of those bullshit-artist ’round pen guys’ you’ve all adopted as gurus. There’s nothing genius about the idea of training a horse without cruelty. It’s been done for thousands of years, with patience, good judgement, and a thorough understanding of how horses work (and how they don’t work). Horses, being herd animals, understand cooperation, and they like to follow the mare in charge. You start by being that mare.
So when You the Newbie find yourself about to apply a snap judgement based on sweet fuck-all (one of the latest ones I encountered was, “Bits are cruel. I don’t want to use bits on my horses,” and when I asked on what she’d based that opinion, she replied, “Well, they’re metal and I don’t think they like them,” …), take a moment, remind yourself that there’s a lot of crap on the internet … then shut your mouth, open your ears, and try to learn from the Alpha Mare.
Haven’t got one? Get one. You ain’t it.
(I’m also not saying there aren’t bad professionals out there, people with short tempers and harsh methods. There are some, no question. But part of the education process is finding out what is appropriate, and what’s not.)
* assume there’s nothing to it
* think that kisses on the muzzle and handfuls of gummy worms are enough to make your horse’s trust and training issues magically resolve
* try to train a horse without the proper facilities, restraint (a set of cross-ties, people! Is that so much to ask?), and equipment (and yeah, that might include the ultimate torture instrument, a bit!) because you’ve already dismissed all of those things as harsh, inhumane, and/or unnecessary
* refuse to admit when you’re in way over your head
* resign yourself to living with a horse who is incapable of cooperating for the most routine of procedures, such as having hooves trimmed or getting vaccinated
* further burden the health-care system with the gratuitous and inevitable results of your stubbornness.
This is not a cash grab. Truth be told, I don’t really want (all that badly) to work with your ill-mannered, misbegotten critter. I’m getting too old for that shit. Given my druthers, I’d prefer to spend my days working with my own reasonably well-trained, self-confident, trustworthy, though admittedly quirky horses, than with your piece of work. But I do take considerable satisfaction in turning bad horses around and making them good ones, and even more in saving clueless newbies from themselves. (Ideally, of course, by not letting them buy that piece of work in the first place and finding them something actually suited to them.)
The trick is you have to be willing to listen.
(Could shit like the below be part of the problem, btw?)