This was the subject of a conversation I had many years ago with a woman in her 30’s. She was very typical of a person that rode in their teens but gave up for all the usual reasons such as university, getting married, having a career and raising a family. Some of us do all that yet still keep horses, those that do not often yearn for their own horse again. Thirty-something always seems the most common age to re-enter the equestrian life. The kids have become more independent, plus the finances are looking healthy, and more importantly, the passion for horses still remains .
If I was to suggest to a non-equine friend of mine to come and hang wall-paper for me I already know she would be horrified and she would insist she knows nothing about house decorating. This is wall- paper people. Yet the same friend and many like her will wake up one day and decide to buy a horse. They imagine long rides across the British country-side, the birds are singing and the sun is setting turning the sky a beautiful orange.
Usually this decision comes from child-hood memories that contain 5 or 6 riding lessons, and now they are in their mid-thirties with disposable income they seize the opportunity to ride a horse again. No consideration is given to the fact that they are now 6 stone heavier and 25 years older. No consideration is given to the fact they really hadn’t mastered rising trot before they quit, and are not equipped with horsemanship skills or knowledge. Further-more the riding school pony she rode was 28 years old and was used to riding in circles every darn day in the same dusty arena.
So what does my friend do? She will go out and buy something ‘beautiful’. It must be chestnut, or all black with a flowing mane. It needs to be 8 years old because for reasons that escape me, that’s the golden age apparently. This horse has done dressage, it’s hunted, it’s done road work, it carried a 12 year old, it’s worth a lot of money…therefore it must be good, it’s the perfect horse.
It’s an exciting time, there’s a new hat to buy, a body protector, jodphurs and an Ariat riding jacket…and the long leather Tattini Breton boots are just to die for? Of course to complete the professional look she needs to carry a whip, she is not sure why, but its long, it’s black and the model in Horse and Hound was holding one, so why not?
Things go well for a while, mainly because she just sits there and goes for gentle walks around the arena. People at the yard tell her it’s a beautiful horse and she feels very professional and blessed. Slowly but surely little things start to happen that she completely ignores because she loved him by then, and anyway these little things are part of his character. He turns his back on her in the stable, he pins his ears when tightening the girth, he refuses to stand close enough to the mounting block or starts to get strong when leading to the paddock. The brand new tin of hoof oil remains untouched as apparently he’s funny about having his feet picked up.
The new friends she has made at the yard will tell her it’s the spring grass, or she needs to change his feed, perhaps get a new saddle, or to get his teeth checked, the list is endless as are the opinions. Unfortunately no-one has the knowledge to know whether this behaviour is physical or psychological. My friend lacks the skills to see if he is being dominant, or it is in-fact a pain issue. She missed seeing the small issues develop, and only noticed them when the problems became detrimental to her own well-being.
It’s never going to occur to my friend, not in a thousand years that while she was walking gently around the arena she never loosened those reigns, she never stopped that pressure on his mouth, it’s never going to occur to her that she inadvertently retrained the horse to ignore that pressure. What did she think would happen when she tried applying the same pressure at trot and canter, any guesses? Her balance was off and she was not aware of her own body language so in this scary moment she unwittingly clamped her legs on, basically signalling to the horse to go faster.
But she does not realise why this situation developed as it’s obvious the horse ignored her brakes because he’s dangerous, he’s strong and wants to bolt. Of course she fell, she hurt herself and needed 6 weeks off work. Her yard buddies blamed the dealer that sold him to her, some said he’s quirky or he has a screw loose. Because she is inundated with all of this fabulous advice she doesn’t actually call a professional to ride the horse, no one calls a trainer to get their expert opinion.
It doesn’t matter now because now he’s got that label. My friend decides to sell the horse, unfortunately all her new friends are keen to let everyone on the horsey grapevine know that ‘that horse put his last owner in hospital’. Not one person will say the owner was completely incompetent and had no business buying a horse, let alone sitting on one. No-one will tell my friend this because us equestrians get called busy-bodies and apparently a know it all, so we keep quiet.
If I were to ask Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson or Pat Parelli if they considered a horse dangerous I would hope and pray they would answer yes. I am aware even the professionals have to be conscious of their own body language around horses 100% of the time, 100% alert when reading signals from the horse and to be 100% precise when communicating with the animal. Consider the concentration, the years of training, the commitment it takes to get to the professional level of horse expert. There is no room for error with these guys, but even then, with all that knowledge they can never rule out the risk of a freak accident. It happens. Consider that risk for a novice then, the risk of injury becomes highly likely.
After 2 years of falls, being trampled, dragged, bitten and owning a now worthless horse I should ask my friend what she would prefer, wallpapering my wall or buying a horse? I’m guessing she will supply the paste and avoid patterns depicting sunsets.
The Horse Industry
My Experience: I consider myself proficient in reading horse body language, although I believe there is always more to learn so do not consider myself an expert in horsemanship, I just strive to understand them better. Having worked in the horse industry and owned horses for nearly 40 years I have seen many changes in respect to training, owning, keeping and handling of horses. I have seen a decline in owners mastering horse skills and horsemanship knowledge. A rapid decline in-fact, 30 years ago it was rare for someone from an average income household to purchase a horse, when I was a child only one other person owned a pony out of the entire school. Now my hair-dresser has a horse, the cashier in Tesco has a horse, actually so does my dentist. This is all well and good, and why not you may ask yourself. It’s not good because horses are now so easily accessible the practice of irresponsible breeding is occurring, there are too many horses that don’t sell. These animals get left neglected in fields across Britain, they die and their bodies get dumped along a road side.
Modern Owners: So many potential owners see a horse as something you sit on, no really, that’s what they think. It’s that easy, you buy a horse, saddle it up and you sit on it. Now consider the accidents that are happening from falls, kicks and when riding on the road. We can blame the horse, we can blame the car driver, heck we can blame that plastic bag that blew under the horse. Everybody else is responsible apart from the rider/owner. No-one thought to train that horse to disregard plastic bags, pheasants, speeding cars, barking dogs, tractors and a hundred other things. Please don’t blame that lady with the umbrella either, you should have been in the school showing your horse an umbrella. People aren’t training their horses because they do not have the time or knowledge and after all, it’s just a horse that you sit on, right? On a positive note occasionally I do see a new owner get professional tuition straight away, and no, I don’t mean off a 25 year old ‘riding instructor’. I mean from a professional horseman that understands horse psychology and is a clinician and trainer and has been in the industry at least 30 years. Anyway, considering all the things horses are likely to spook at I’m incredulous why these people ‘sit on them’ without any preparation (see my umbrella comment). My riding instructor was a complete dragon in my 8 year old mind, and she made me trot for two years before moving onto canter. These days I see people cantering on their 3rd lesson! A review I read recently on a riding yard said ‘Don’t go there my child wasn’t cantering after 2 lessons’. That riding school was avoiding serious injury to your child, my dear.
Grooms: At least 20 years ago being a groom was a skilled job, tasks would involve clipping, bandaging, treating minor injuries, managing ailments and conditions, taking care of tack, training, riding and lunging, grooming to a high standard, plaiting, rasping feet, the list was endless. Now with this growing tide of horse ownership the standard of grooming has fallen into decline as owners themselves are in no need of a good groom because surely all one does is brush off the horse before sitting on it. Groom’s wages fell, and good grooms left the industry. Grooms can now be as young as 15 with about as much knowledge as the owner that has had 4 riding lessons.
Management: Horse knowledge used to be passed down through the generations, it was a subject one would continually study, one would strive to understand these animals better. This rarely happens now, and it can’t happen, as much as some people will not like my views if an owner is working a 40 hour week, when would they have time to increase their horse knowledge and to train their horse? They simply just don’t have the time. Livery yards are becoming bigger, the stables are wall to wall, often 30, 40 + horses under one roof in a converted barn.
Full year turn out is becoming impossible as while yards can build more stables, they do not have enough land to offer much grass so the horses stay in most of the time. Colic and gastric ulcer cases are on the increase, and of course they are. Too much feed, too much hay with lots of standing around, any animal on the planet including us will suffer the consequences of eating and not moving. Every topic I have covered here could be its own subject and a thousand words long, and it will be. I can’t change the horse industry, and it’s not all bad. The horse is an incredibly forgiving and tolerant creature and I wish to write about my own experiences which span 40 years.