Friday’s Opinion

Horses’ rights advocates
There’s been a lot of discussion and controversy worldwide about a variety of horse riding and working disciplines with some groups clamoring for laws and practices that change the way horses are “used.” PETA is trying to lead a bandwagon aimed at banning carriage horses. Groups fostering a movement to end the “cruel” practice of riding horses are cropping up in different countries. The racing industry has been under attack from a variety of segments for decades. Some self-described equine mavens are blanketing the media with messages that advocate for a sensory overload approach to the point it renders the horse practically brain dead as a “kinder and gentler” method. Opinions and claims abound about how others should conduct their interactions with horses, but are these people talking to the horses? If they are, do they consider the horse’s opinion?

Domesticated horses are different than the wild, nomadic, free ancestors that offer a romantic notion of happy horses free from human encumbrance. Maybe it’s sad that we’ve made this so, but what’s done is done and it’s been in the making for a lot longer than any of us have been alive. It’s a good thing that the voices for fair treatment of horses are growing more numerous and louder. Some go too far, though, and lose sight of what a horse may need today to be happy.

It’s amazing how the years can change one’s perspective. Decades ago, I was among those slamming the racing industry. Of course, I had no first-hand exposure to the trainers, horses, practices and backside, but carried the message of supposed neglect and abuse to others with conviction. Are there bad practices and bad eggs in this sport? Sure. But the reality is that the accusations heralded by the uneducated masses miss the mark on where these are. Many owners and trainers of racehorses view them as commodities. Surprisingly for most, I imagine, this translates to more fastidious care than is seen at the most affluent show barn (or most other equine discipline facilities). The good Thoroughbred grooms know more about legs and related care than most vets I encounter. What amazed me most, though, was how much care and attention these horses get.

Those bred to race – particularly the good ones – want to. I’ve owned horses that have made more in a few years (not on my watch, unfortunately) than I will see in a decade. Even sore, they’re miserable at the farm and can’t wait to get back into the racetrack to train and run. They want a job to do – and relish the opportunity go play the game to win.

Herd experiment brings horse training insight
This year, we fenced in 26 acres at Halcyon Acres. We didn’t do 24/7 turnout because the run-in sheds simply didn’t provide enough relief from the relentless insect monsters that appeared during the day, but it was enough to foster a herd mentality.

What we witnessed through this natural approach to what should be a horse’s delight was surprising. Those we culled out of the herd to start under saddle or train for new careers were the most eager and quickest to approach the humans in the mix. They wanted a job and relished the work. No treats, clicks or other enticements played a role in this behavior, yet, the chosen transformed into happier horses, excited to greet the challenge of the day (and those who represented this opportunity).

Who wins?
This year at Halcyon Acres, it was Clover, Buster, Play Play, Courtney and the nursing babies who were culled out for lessons. Frankly, this really surprised me. I expected these horses to resent the fact that they were singled out for work. The opposite proved to be the case. The moment she was started under saddle, Clover went from a precocious, independent, aloof and sometimes belligerent filly to be first to run to the gait when she spotted her trainer. Quickly, she came to insist on a stroke between her eyes and immediately stopped her former antics with the vet and blacksmith. She needed a focus and now had a job that gave her a clear mission and some satisfaction that she had formerly garnered from schooling our vendors. Buster is now bored and a little lost since we decided to give him some time to grow up after a couple of months on the trails. He seemed to really enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out new requests and terrain. Play Play, always the pleaser, continues to relish new experiences and often asks to extend the lesson time. Courtney has gone back to his aggressive herd behavior and cribbing since we stopped his conditioning training.

That’s been our experience, and it’s been an eye-opener. So, the next time you see a campaign promoting the flavor of the month for horse advocacy, ask your horse what he thinks about all this. If you really listen, his answer may surprise you.

4 Responses

  1. My Arabian mare, S’Heir, is a silly flighty thing in the field, always trying to get the others to play. But if you go get her and put a saddle on, she arches her neck, stands stock still until you get on, and then works beautifully. She seems to be saying, “Wow! You chose me! I’m a big girl and get to do what the others do now! I’m so proud!”

    My 26 year old pony loves to be in the show ring with a child or adult. He positively struts when he’s under saddle or in harness in the show ring, and even non believers see him “smile” when his name is called over the PA system for a placing.

    Reba, my son-in-law’s ancient 30+ year old reining mare is calm, placid and slow as long as she’s not saddled up. As soon as she’s saddled up, she’s raring to go – and if you lean forward, she’s off like a shot. Sit up straight suddenly, and she’ll still try to slide to a stop. No one has reined with this mare for 15 years now, but if she is praised for trying, she prances back to the barn with her head held high.

    We’ve found that most horses want to have a job. Finding the right job is part of what we try to do when we place rescued horses for adoption.

  2. I heartily agree with your observations of horses with and without “jobs”. Whether it is in response to becoming domesticated to the point that they are ‘adrift’ when it comes to their original wild behaviors and instincts and are looking for a role to play in their domestics lives or not, the fact is, the majority of horses that I have known, or observed, bloom when they have a purpose.

    Watching wild horses interact, they each have a role to play in the herd. As domestic animals raised by or around humans, horses may look at humans as part of the herd and ultimately as the leaders of that herd.

    I am certainly not an expert in equine behavior, but I have spent decades observing, training and retraining horses from variant circumstances, and one thing that strikes me time and time again is how the horse will seek to trust, work and please.

    There are so many things to think about as horse owners or advocates. As specifically relates to this blog post, “is it cruel to put a horse in work”? Absolutely not as long as you enter into the arrangement with empathy and understanding how a horse learns and take that into account as you train the horse to find his/her niche.

    Are there cruel people out there with cruel intentions that own horses. Absolutely. Are there ignorant people that own horses that end up being cruel because they haven’t the knowledge or experience to work appropriately with them? Yes. Are their caring people who make wrong choices for seemingly the right reasons at the time that others could call cruel? Sure. Are there training methods and practices at home and abroad that you disagree with and deem to be unnecessary and cruel? Of course. Does that mean that all work with horses and training should be abhorred by others. Of course NOT.

    There are SO many different training methods, ideas, and forms in the world – across disciplines and across countries. The method of training a working horse in Spain compared to a showjumping horse in Holland, for instance… the cultural differences between East and West… the list goes on and on.

    The question is so vast that you have to compartmentalize your answer as you did in this presentation, because the question alone forms a labyrinth of possible approaches, research and answers.

    Enjoyed your view.

    1. Jutta,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful post.

      So glad to hear that such an accomplished professional sees how much horses embrace the idea of a job (provided it’s the right one with appropriate guidance). Obviously, the idea of “putting horses out the pasture” fostered by some of the advocacy groups hit a nerve.

      By the way, most horsemen I respect do not prescribe to any kind of forumla approaches that encompass all horses. And each seems to agree, it’s a constant learning process. Every horse provides an opportunity to discover something new. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to continue to learn from so many teachers (even the failures).

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