Where is it written that a horse must justify its existence?
This attitude is something that goes deep with people–even people who didn’t grow up riding or ranching. I was reading a comment posted on Grey Horse’s blog last night that flatly stated that her horse Blue was being spoiled and basically needed to be taught a lesson.
I was thinking about the other animals we humans like to keep in close company, like dogs and cats. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard cat owners fondly complain that their beloved feline will watch mice run right by without lifting a paw…that they are neglecting their “job” and there really isn’t a “reason” to have them around.
My heeler hound never learned how to fetch, unless it was in order to play keep away with me. I worked with her a few evenings when she was a young dog trying to teach her how. It was quite obvious that the little turd figured out exactly what I wanted her to do–she just didn’t want to do it.
I remember how astounded I was when I realized she was choosing not to follow through, even though she knew what I wanted. Weren’t dogs supposed to always be motivated by owner approval and treats? I’ve always known Annie cares deeply for me–she’ll still often fall asleep with her head resting on my foot. But she has never cared that much about my approval.
Although her attitude has at times been irritating to me, I’ve never felt ashamed when I’ve told other people what she’s like. It’s amusing that she so often has her own mind and agenda–like our cats.
So why does my independent, crabby, feisty mare make me feel so ashamed? Why do I get tongue-tied when someone says: “But what are you doing with this horse?” Why am I automatically “guilty” of doing something wrong because I haven’t been riding her all over the countryside?
And why is a horse not allowed to have a mind of her own–at least some of the time?
Sometimes I can almost feel my neighbor across the road shaking her head as I stand around in the arena with the mares–just hanging out with them. What does she think she’s doing now?
I can understand the low-grade disgust that people who depend on horses to get a job done must feel for someone like me, but I’m starting to get disgusted with people who think horses exist solely to serve–and if they’re not serving, some basic tenant of the universe is being violated.
I think some of this attitude must stem from the assumption that all horses are spoiled and/or dangerous unless they’re properly trained. I understand that captive horses must obey certain rules for their own safety (and the safety of the humans who have to load/trim/vaccinate/handle/feed them), but other than that, guess what? It’s my money to waste, if I want to waste it. They’re my horses. They’re not shown, and I don’t have to use them to herd cattle or feed myself. They’re gentle with the kids and people who help take care of them. I’m not hurting anything.
It’s just that this flies in the face of this idea that Horses Must Justify Their Existence.
The commenter on GHM’s post stated that she needed to worry about what would happen to her horse Blue (who clearly does not like to be ridden) if she ever had to sell him. The suggestion was to have the horse stand saddled and tied for 6-8 hours per day so he could “figure it out.”
Figure what out, exactly? That people have the power to make you behave, even if you don’t want to? Don’t most horses who have been worked with at all sort of understand that?
This makes me think of Carolyn Resnick’s comment: “Horses are abused because it works so well.”
Over and over again, I read about horse owners marveling about how horses serve as mirrors for human beings. I’ve started to think a lot the past couple of years about some of the inhuman ways we treat our own souls and bodies in the name of “getting ahead” or earning money. We deny our emotions and feelings and ruin our health in order to work impossible hours–and more and more often these days, people are finding themselves in positions where they don’t really have a choice.
Just like our horses.
The other night I was walking in from the pasture with the mares. I don’t bring a lead rope or halter with me–I just go out to them, they walk up to to me, and we walk in together. My “fillies” will be five next year, and they’re starting to act a lot more like adult horses now. Sometimes when I’m in front of the three of them I can feel my adrenaline go up–it’s not too hard to sense Friday boiling behind me when she wants to race ahead. This particular night, she took a couple of running steps and then she stopped herself and fell back in next to me. It was one of the first times I had the sense that she was trying to be protective of me. It wasn’t like she was worried she’d hurt me by blasting me (which sometimes is a concern of mine–it’s hard not to worry when you hear a thousand pounds of horse take off right behind you). It was like she thought I’d be better protected from any danger if she walked next to me.
I used to get this feeling all the time from my old gelding Red, but since he tried to protect everything that walked or crawled on the farm, it was really hard NOT to notice his paternal behavior. I was standing next to him once when a barn kitten decided to climb one of Red’s front legs like he was a tree. He flinched but held himself still until I (mouth dry with fear over what I was sure was an impending disaster) pulled the kitten off his leg.
But I’ve never sensed this sort of protectiveness coming from one of my baby horses until just recently, and they’re far from what most people could consider “babies” any more.
Yet people find nothing wrong with jumping on and riding the hell out of their two-year-olds. And we expect these babies to be generous and kindhearted, to forgive our every yank on their bitted mouths–and to watch out for us while we’re on their backs.
Years ago I tried working with the abused Paso who showed up at our place (he’d been left to forage for himself). This was a horse with white scarring behind his ears and other spots on his body–a horse that no doubt had been thrown and castrated without any anesthetic as well as snubbed to a post and probably whipped. I thought (stupid noob that I am) I knew enough about working with horses to ask him to try to join up with me a month or so after I’d taken him in. He joined up with me all right–he came in nearly on top of me, trembling. I had a sudden disturbingly clear mental image of him striking me because he felt that he had to protect himself. I also understood just as clearly in the same moment that he was shaking with the effort of holding himself back because he was trying to protect me.
I never, ever forgot that. If a horse that’s been abused by human beings will still try that hard to protect one, what does that say about horses in general? What does it say about this crappy attitude that all horses are by default lazy and dangerous?
Maybe there are people who will scoff, reading this, saying I couldn’t have possibly “known” what the Paso was thinking. Maybe he had been punished for striking in the past, and so fear of injury was what was “really” holding him back. But I have no doubts about what happened.
In my last post I wrote about the moment last week Fry turned and put her head in my arm and held really still. I think now that she was trying to tell me that she was capable of doing more and wanted me to know that…it was almost like she was a little indignant about being put away so soon.
No matter how painted-int0-a-corner I feel in my own life, at least I have the luxury of not treating my horses the same way. I can only hope that means something to them.
I know it means something to me.