If you have never experienced what I am talking about, Make it a point in your life and don’t go without
There is no way to place a value on horses we love.
We had a cute, albeit, broken down little pony here on the farm that belonged to one of my boarders. Little Man was very special to its owners and had been in the family for a long time. So when it became so ill that his quality of life was reduced to a breath by breath struggle, the humane decision was made to let him go. The owner and his son were distraught and heartbroken over their loss even though the little pony had been ill for a long time and had been out of service for years. Hours of care and countless vet bills were not the deciding factor. The decision was made because they loved the horse enough to give it some relief, not to lighten their own burden of caring for him.
As it happened, we were having a camp that fateful day. We made it a point to remove the children attending the camp to another part of the farm so they wouldn’t have to witness the euthanization. The camp leader explained to the little girls that they would not be able to ride that morning because the horse was very sick and the vet couldn’t do anything more for him. They needed the privacy of the barn area. It was at this point one of the little girls made this statement: “It doesn’t matter because you couldn’t ride him anymore, so what good was he anyway?”. The first wave of shocked disbelief hit my camp staff like a ton of bricks – and then the anger set in. That little girl got a lesson in life that day from people who truly love and appreciate their horses. Some of us have even lost one. To label our horses as valueless objects better of disposed of when it has outlived its usefulness is beyond our comprehension.
Unfortunately, that child’s opinion is not the exception to the rule. I was discussing this matter with one of my barn buddies who had just lost his own horse after nearly 20 years recently later that evening. He made the simple and profound statement which pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. He said he knows that most people just throw away a horse and get another one once it no longer serves the purpose without even a backward glance, he even knew some who did that. (Usually, it is because of something they did causing an injury.) “But, those aren’t the kind of people I want to be around and have as friends.” Well said, my friend.
By the way, that misguided child’s parent complained to us the following morning that they paid a lot of money so their child could ride horses at the camp and wanted to be sure they would be able to ride that day. We explained that we did not feel it was the proper thing to do to just carry on while this horse was lying on the ground – for the child’s sake as well as the mourning owners and other horses. I can only hope that some of our compassion was learned by the campers that day and maybe a new perspective will be formed of the value of some of us consider a treasure.
I sat and I thought quite a bit about it and eventually concluded “Of Course”-The very same method will surely work if applied to problems regarding my horse.
Years ago, I was working as a waitress at a very nice restaurant on the beach of southwest Florida when the entire room was disrupted by a very unruly five year-old child. In their efforts to quiet the youngster, the parents tried bribing him with everything from ice cream to toys but to no avail. In fact, every time they sweetened the pot and upped the offer the screaming just got worse. The parents finally gave up, left the restaurant without dinner while costing the owners, the chef, the waitress (me), and the other diners. Several customers even walked out it was that bad. I didn’t have children of my own but all I could think of was that the way I was raised that would never have happened. At the first sign of misbehavior, I would have been given a warning and if it continued, quietly but firmly led outside- and it would not have been to get a new toy. When we returned, I would have sat quietly and ate my dinner politely and nothing more would have been said about it. I have never forgotten that episode and since then have observed the parenting changes over the years lend itself more and more to “reasoning” with the child, avoiding the use of power or fear over him. More and more I see the children calling the shots in a family and manipulating parents to get their way. It works for the child but but does not necessarily achieve the best end result. I am not saying you have to make your child go cut a switch and take him behind the woodshed. I am not an advocate of violence on any level, but there is a need to know who is in charge and that there are unpleasant consequences if you make bad choices.
Keeping up with the kid
Now that I am working with my colt, I find myself thinking of that scene in the restaurant when my guy decides to try to take charge or “argues” with me. It is firmly embedded in my mind that just “being nice” and giving in is not the way to go. It only creates a bigger problem. Being too harsh and demanding is not the way to go either -although that is the method most of us use on our horses. That creates resentment and defiance. There is a middle of the road way to be firm and consistent without dominating using pain, fear or intimidation. We love our children/horses but because we do, respect is a must. It is how we obtain it that will dictate our methods. By not drawing attention to the problems and rewarding the good, the message gets across and there is no contest. Refuse to get drawn into those situations where tempers flare and someone has to win and someone has to lose before it is over. That is not good horsemanship or parenting.
A horse gives up his instincts – his freedom and will to become what we want – only trust settles the bill.
I have a group of young girls who come out on Saturday mornings to learn about horses. One 9 year old girl came out for her first visit last week. After doing some chores, we were ready to get the horses. As I picked up a halter and headed for the pasture, she piped up and said: “I wanna drag a horse”. I don’t know why that stunned me for a moment. I knew exactly what she meant. It is a shame that is the connotation she gets about leading a horse. When I think of it, it is obviously the only way she has ever seen it done – Get the halter on and pull, dragging a horse behind like a reluctant puppy. She actually didn’t know that a horse will walk easily and effortlessly beside you on a loose lead when trained to walk properly with a person. How sad that she has only witnessed using force and manhandling to get a horse to move from one spot to another. What was worse was the fact that she thought that was going to be great fun – for her, not the horse. I guess it is a chance for a small child to feel powerful. Little did she realize how much more powerful it is to walk beside a willing partner who will adjust to her every step. It never ceases to amaze me how embedded the notion is among humans that the only way to relate to a horse is to bully them and order them around – make them do things. This is a particularly attractive concept to kids who are usually on the other end of that stick. They finally get a chance to be the boss. My reply to her was: “That was exactly what we were going to learn not to do”. Needless to say, we spent the morning learning the correct way to lead a horse with courtesy and dignity to the horse.
It is not just the kids who need to learn about this. I see it all the time in every aspect of horsemanship. It is time that we set better examples that our younger horse enthusiasts can follow using kinder methods. Showing consideration for another living thing should be at the forefront of everything we do. We need to teach our children to respect the horse the same way we expect the horse to respect us – only without using force and pain to get the point across, obviously. I know that most horse people believe the 11th commandment – The horse shall not win. The big news is that the horse doesn’t even know it is a contest until we teach him that.
And that is the reason nothing is taken for granted. There is a lot on her plate and she needs to be sure. She doesn’t mean to be trying, stubborn or moody. She has to be careful – her reasons are pure.
Guilty loves to take kids on trail rides. First of all, she knows that she is in control of that ride and secondly, there are all kinds of grass, leaves and foliage every step of the way. To her, it is like she is at the drive-thru window at MacDonald’s and there are french fries everywhere just waiting for her to snatch. We have had an unusual amount of rain lately and the trail was muddy. I was walking slightly behind her as she traversed through the woods carrying a six year-old boy while following another horse. When we came up on a patch of fresh young ferns growing just off the path, she knew she could get a mouthful or two in before I could catch up and move her along and her rider was busy “squirrel hunting”, so she stepped off the path to reach them. To her surprise, her left back leg sank in the mud way up over her hock. This immediately put her completely off balance and her only choices were to sit down like a dog, roll over or to start scrambling. I watched as it played out as in slow motion. I saw her go down in the back end. My first thought was to get the little boy off the horse and out of danger, hoping that she didn’t panic and start trying to hop up or lose her uprightedness (is that a word?). At the same time, I was aware that she may break her leg if she went completely over on it.
Guilty looking out for everyone.
Not to worry, Guilty behaved in the most noble manner as she always does when push comes to shove. After all, she is my alpha mare and it is her responsibility to take care of her herd – and that includes any horse or person in her charge. While one leg was buried in the mud past her knee, she folded the other hind leg under her so that her belly was flat on her ground. Then she did the most amazing thing – nothing. Absolutely nothing. She stayed perfectly still until I pulled the child from the saddle and out of danger before she began her labored struggle to get out of the mud. She made it with some effort and her leg had a few gashes in it, but overall, she was fine. Everybody was fine. That is what she does. We walked back to the barn where I hosed her off, doctored her cuts and gave her an entire watermelon for being so calm in a crisis. Okay, I realize that Guilty brought this all on us when she strayed off the path in the first place. She is guilty of that, true to her name. Even so, I was thanking my lucky stars that she took full responsibility for that and strategically got us out of that mess safely. That’s my girl.
Many hours of childhood playtime was spent outside running around – while I pretended to be a horse, rearing and pawing the ground
While most little girls spent the hours pretending to be a mommy or a teacher, I imagined I was a horse. I didn’t play with my collection of glass figurines that stood on my dresser, although they were all named and I envisioned real-life versions of them. I didn’t pretend to be riding a horse or get on my dad’s back and have him gallop around with me. I didn’t spend my time on sawhorses or stick ponies. When I played “horses” I mean I played like I was the horse. Sometimes I would be a wild horse, running like the wind. Spirited, free and unbroken. Funny thing, now that I think about it, is that I was always an untamable stallion – not a mare or a filly- when I was running loose. I would have my head held up high and paw the air in a make-believe rear. I(I guess I would have been what you would call a problem horse these days). Other times, I would play the role of a dutiful horse being ridden. I could actually feel the hands on the reins that guided me and held me back. I would have moments of protest and buck, kicking out my heels and challenging my imaginary rider that was controlling me.
I was a horse as a child
It is a common saying that horses mirror their owners. I guess that tells you quite a bit about me because I don’t see that much has changed in that regard over the decades. The only element that has been added is that I am actually interacting with some of those horses that I used to pretend to be. I have never forgotten that feeling of will, spirit, power and distrust that is inherent to the species. I lived it from a horse’s point of view with the idealistic innocence of a child. I never dwelled on the ugly side of being a horse in the hands of insensitive or cruel humans. I never played the part of a discarded, older, discarded or abused horse. My world was filled with the magic and the majestic side of being an equine, as a child’s should be. I still try to capture that feeling when I am with my horses now. I believe I have developed a “feel” for them born out of those countless hours I spent delving into their world and looking out at us. It has made me more aware of how we share our time and space with these creatures and how we handle them. I am no longer the naive little girl living in a world where bad things never happen, but I continue to keep the mindset of an indomitable spirit that I learned from the horse.
I’m too soft you might say – It’s only a horse. I’m used to hearing it – it’s par for the course.
I was attending a local horse show recently to watch my stepdaughter perform in the English Hunt Seat event. As I stood around the arena I noticed that beginners’ barrel racing was taking place in another part of the park. I wandered over to watch as they had many competitors who were very young – 3, 4, 5 & 6 year olds – taking part in it. They looked so adorable all dressed up in their western outfits complete with chaps and hats. I was thinking to myself how great it was to be so small and be riding a full grown horse at top speed so fearlessly. How incredible those horses were that carried that precious cargo and performed so well when we all knew that those children were really at the horse’s mercy. For the most part, those kids just had to hold on and the horse got them through the pattern beautifully. Amazing animals! As I stood there in awe of their kindness and willingness to do their job, I was sickened by what I saw and heard from the enthusiastic parents who handed their children a crop at the entry gate. Throughout the entire course, as the horse was giving his all and still managing to keep the child safe, they were shouting “Hit him- Hit him, harder”. I know they were caught up in the excitement of the moment, but if you don’t think that it hurts to get hit with a crop, think again-even if it is by a child. Try it on yourself sometime if you doubt it. It struck me how all this forceful training gets started and it all begins at a very young age. When a small child is being instructed to use pain as a means to get something they want, it is no wonder they grow up with the mindset of “making a horse do something” and using increasingly more intimidation as they get older. It was a no-win situation for the horse. He was still being punished with a whip when he was doing his job. When the child gets a reward of a ribbon as a result of that injustice, it only reinforces that behavior.
Attitude starts at a young age
One of my favorite horse trainers wouldn’t allow participants in his clinics to carry a crop when riding with him. He said it was a heck of a way to ride a horse if you have to hit him to get him to do anything for you. The truth is, you don’t have to hit a horse if you learn to give him what he needs and understands as a horse. Realize that he is not a motorcycle or just a tool for you to use without regard for the part he plays and he will be a very willing partner.
Thank goodness making the really tough choices is not done everyday-Ones like having to choose who will go and which ones will stay.
Have you ever watched a group of kids taking riding lessons and overheard someone point out that one of the horses seems to be “a little off”? If you have, then you probably heard the statement that usually follows: “Not a big deal, he’s just a school horse”. JUST A SCHOOL HORSE! Think about that. These are the salt of the earth horses. They continue to push on every day doing a job that is boring, repetitive and seemingly endless with riders who have little or no knowledge of how to ride properly.
Carrying our most trusted cargo – our children.
They are ridden with methods that replace good horsemanship until those skills are learned. Tight reins and/or tie downs hold them in form, crops are used regularly to get them going, they are jerked around by the mouth, and drilled for hours on end with a “show them who is boss” attitude. Most of them are purchased for this purpose when their “real” life has ended and they are no longer suitable for the show ring or other performance events. They are then reduced to being “just a school horse”. If they are in discomfort, they are expected to work nonetheless. If they can’t do that, then they are simply traded for another one that can without a second thought to all the service they provided up to that point. It is a business, after all. There are no special people in their lives who dote on them, their upkeep is kept to a minimum, vet bills are avoided and boredom is a way of life. It is no wonder most of them get the reputation for being ill-willed and resort to some bad habits. Don’t lose sight of the fact that these are the very horses we trust our children and our grandchildren with to raise their confidence and learn from before they move onto a “real” horse. We need to thank these special horses and take extra good care of them. We should make sure they are comfortable, happy, loved and appreciated. After all, they are showing our children the gateway to the wondrous world of horses and all the magical and thrilling things it contains. The next time you hear someone refer to “just a school horse”, set them straight and make an effort to give that horse an extra few minutes of petting, grooming and thanks. A carrot or apple doesn’t hurt either. Most importantly, make every effort to instill a thankful attitude in the child riding that “school horse”. It may make a difference in the rest of their lives and the horses they encounter along the way. In my opinion, there is no such thing as “just a school horse”.
Christmas didn’t hold wishes for baby dolls or Barbies for me –
it was that big deluxe farm set I wanted to see under the tree!
Visions of sugarplums
I always knew I was a country girl at heart, even though I grew up living in town. I loved those weekend visits to the farm – any farm – and jumped at the opportunity to visit whenever it presented itself, even when I was very young.
I loved everything about the country. I could physically run free on what seemed to be endless acres while my imagination happily played out real life-in-the-country scenes. There were barns with hay lofts, corn cribs, rows of corn in the fields, fresh garden foods in the fruit cellars and homemade quilts on the beds. Everything about it appealed to my deepest sense of harmony. Most of all, I loved the animals. It seemed like there was always a batch of new kittens scurrying around, the family dogs ran at your side without leashes or restraints, the chickens roamed free-range and the cows were treated with care and respect. My cousins and I would climb over the wood fences and roll under the electric wires then make wild dashes across the field with our hearts pounding hoping to get to the other side before the bull figured out he could outrun us. Rides on the tractor, the hay wagon or in the back of the pickup were always a highlight but nothing compared to the rides on the old farm horse. Two or three of us would pile on and away we would go until we would slide off in a heap only to get back up and do it again.
One of my uncles lived on a farm but didn’t have horses. He knew that one of my greatest wishes was to ride so he would do the next best thing and lead me around on his dairy cow, Knucklehead. Worked for me. In my mind, I was a cowgirl (literally).
Try as they might, my parents could never quite sissify me and I remain a proverbial tomboy to this very day. Luckily, I now am living the life I always dreamed of. My days are now filled with horses, dogs, cats and chickens.
If you know a little girl who loves that life as I did, who dreams of having a horse of her own, do both of you a favor and indulge her whims. It is not a passing phase, especially if horses are at the center of her fantasy. For those natural-born horse lovers, dolls, tea sets, ballet and ruffles will never hold a candle to pair of boots and anything even remotely related to horse stuff. If Santa is listening, he will skip the dolls section in the toy store and go country.