A Horse Must Be Used

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.

Annie sleeping in a "snow chair" the boys made many moons ago

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.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Horse Must Be Used

  1. Thank you for being willing to speak up for your courageous thoughts on the horse.
    I have no doubt in my heart or mind you speak truth, I am with you and believe what you have said.
    Keep up your good work, ( your horses told me to tell you that) , its very wonderful.
    KK

  2. Very thoughtful post and you’re thoughts echo plenty of mine that I’ve had about India and Asia, but especially India who is still fairly young and green. Her greeness is always lurking in the back of my mind. I don’t want to mess her up, and I don’t want to get hurt by getting in over my training head.

    Here’s where I fall on this question: If your level of enjoyment brings you joy, then that is enough. If you feel joy grooming your horses, watching them, being with them, then that is enough. And riding is fine, too. I ebb and flow with my involvement. Although I can never imagine my life without a horse, there have been years when all I did was groom and feed and stick my nose in manes and inhale deeply.

    I believe that horses and dogs, who are so tuned into their humans, are grateful for the ones who treat them with love and respect. I also know that they return it in kind, but that with a horse, it is often very subtle. Witness Fry. She’s a perfect example.

    Breathe deep in those manes this afternoon. It’s the most wonderful smell in all the world.

    • It is. I have a lock of her mane at home tied with a little bit of string…a part that’s white and black…and just seeing it on my dresser every morning cheers me up.

  3. Unfortunately there are lots of people out there who believe animals’ only purpose is to serve humans and they often treat animals as if they are the enemy. “Show them who’s the boss, put them in their place, don’t let them get away with that” – those are the comments you get when your horse does something outside what is accepted as proper horse behaviour. I think it’s sad and people who think like that are missing out on something special.

    I have animals, horses, dogs, cats, because I like their company. Anything else is extra. I am happy if my cats catch a mouse, but it is not their job, they get fed twice a day and are never hungry. If my horses’ legs don’t heal up, then so be it, I look into their eyes and see their souls shining through, I love them for who they are, not for what they can do for me.

    Great post!

  4. Anonymous

    Great post. I have to say I was sort of surprised by the comment. In this day and age I guess I sort of hoped people would be more enlightened in their perception of how to interact with horses. Hopefully, some day the old ways will become a thing of the past and people will realize how special these animals are.

    I admit that my horses are spoiled and I don’t care. Most of them are rescues of one kind or another and they deserve to be spoiled after what they’ve been through. We do make sure they have manners and are safe to handle and be around. Most of them don’t even need lead ropes but will follow us around (probably because they’re so nosy) but maybe because they like being with us a little too. I don’t plan on ever showing again but just having fun with them.

    I believe your horses are capable of protecting you too. There are a lot of times I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. Sometimes with my best horse Erik (who is gone now) and lots of times with my daughter’s horse Mellon and others she’s trained or owned. We have 7 horses between us and they all have different personalities. They make us happy and keep us amused, even when things don’t go according to plan. It’s always an adventure and never dull around here.

    Again, great post and I agree with everything you’ve said. Love the picture of Annie.

  5. Just figured out I had to fill in the bottom part of this post to have my name come up. So yeah, it’s me GHM (Arlene) who left the anonymous comment above. One day i will get this internet thing right!

  6. Another excellent post!

    I think some of it might be a holdover from the past century where horses were farm equipment, the other part is justifying the expense. I equate this mindset to being like having kids and expecting their lives to follow exactly the path you’ve laid out for them- and then writing them off because they chose to do something different. People like that are sad.

    All animals are individuals, they all have feelings and if you want to get along with them instead of enslave them then you have to respect those feelings. My horses are terribly spoiled- I don’t even tie them up to trim their feet or tack them up. Gasp!

  7. Thanks for all the nice comments, guys–I’ve got a raging head cold and am dreading the week ahead at school. Your words have been balm for a very irritable soul tonight. Arlene, re that Paso…once on a whim I decided to play hide and seek with my horses in the pasture when he was living with us. I had to stop the game because he was obviously so worried that I had “disappeared” on him. We gave him to some folks who had more experience rehabbing abused horses, but I still think about him all the time.

  8. Hi Fetlock,
    There’s an award waiting for you at my blog. Stop by and pick it up when you get the chance.

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