Critical Thinking in the Equine Industry

For my initial blog post, I thought it would make sense to explain my story and why I am sharing it today.

If you’re anything like me, you got involved with horses perhaps at a younger age because you were fascinated by their grace, power, and beauty. As children we wondered what the magic must feel like when working with such a spirited animal. Once I entered the equine industry the things I saw and the things I learned were not that same as what I expected. The magic was gone and trainers were teaching little girls how to over power an animal into submission.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re not going to like what I say. I understand that I am reaching readers already in the equine field and you may be hurt or angered by my opinions, but realize that I was once in your shoes. I entered the equine industry at a suburban busy lesson stable in the hunter/jumper world. The basis of that business was for financial income, therefore I witnessed horses go in and out of those doors depending on their cooperation levels and performance. I later entered college and joined the intercollegiate team. We would travel to other schools and would draw horses at random to compete on. These horses handled large amounts of unknown riders in a single weekend, moving in circles like little robotic soldiers. I started eventing and did discover some joy in the horse, but I also witnessed many injuries. I dove into natural horsemanship and found a lot of success and improvement. It incorporated different methods for different types of horses however, in the end I still noticed that the horse did not have the final say. After school, I traveled and worked in different exhibitions and circuses  performing cossack riding, bareback riding, dressage, liberty, etc. and noticed that even at liberty, the human ultimately had pressure influences. A horse could be across a stadium arena and yet they still felt the light pressure of the human influence. They knew to comply before they felt physical pressure. I am no angel. I rode with traditional pressure-release techniques for years and years but what kept me on my toes was the thought of “does my horse even enjoy this?”

Now here I am in my graduate studies, taking a look back in history wondering what the heck we were doing by hopping on a giant animal in the first place. No origin records can be found regarding the first horse and human encounter but there are training books dating back to 350 BC that state that the horse was first ridden for war purposes. The horse was a war vessel far before it was hooked up to a cart or a plow. Knowing what we know about a horse’s natural tendencies, this tells me that the horse most likely does not comply with urge to please us, especially in high stress environments such as a battle field; but that the horse possesses higher levels physical and emotional  sensitivity than humans do. Humans surely dove into any discipline they could with this known advantage.

So what does this mean for the future of the horse? If we can date riding and training back to 350 BC, we can easily say that this relationship will continue existing for quite a while into the future. The best thing we can do is to change the relationship and allow our horses to become our partners, not our soldiers, not our subordinates, and not our workers. Any horse that currently has a working job or a role in competition did not ask to be put into that position. If we can open up the dialog between horse and human we will be surprised that they will want to participate, but only if their emotional and physical sensitivity is taken into consideration.

What exactly does this mean? Well we need to look at the horse without humans in order to understand how they can possibly want to work with humans. Horses are prey, herd, grazing animals whom only need 3 hours of sleep per day. Unlike dogs, the horse does not want to please us, they do not need us. Turn your horse loose and he will find grazing fields, water, liberation and freedom. Stay with the human and they will find confinement, solidarity, and unnatural feeding strategies. Horses are comfortable out in the open, away from entrapment of predators with room to flee as their survival strategy. They are massive mammals with long skinny intestines. Therefore they are meant to be constantly grazing in order to live optimally. They also have social roles for survival dynamics. If the humans wants the horse’s participation why should the human completely alter the horse’s world? Then on top of that, they are told what to do and when to do it, or else they experience physical and emotional pressure until they submit. The simplest thing we can do is imagine being a horse and living like this. I know that personally, I would make a horrible riding horse. My spirit would be too strong to comply with this living arrangement.

But see what I just did there? I took a look into the perspective from the horse. In order to make the first step to redefine the relationship, one must step out of the human shoe and into the horse shoe. This journey, if you decide to take it, will not only teach you how to listen to your horse, but how to listen to others. It will most likely reshape how you see the world. Now I understand that trying to provide a natural and perfect environment can be difficult in such a human run world. There are times I perform and my horse needs to be stalled for much of the day, but if we can start thinking critically about the wants and needs of the animal, we can make the necessary adjustments and therefore watch the changes unfold.

This is just the start of sharing my journey with you. Through my posts I will introduce my 3 personal horses; each of which has an extremely different background, “job”, personality, body type, etc. I speak to each of my horses differently for they are individuals, like snow flakes, like people. They are not here to serve me and they owe me nothing. Yes, I house and feed them, but this is not a concept they can grasp nor did they ask for me. I chose them, as it usually goes in the industry. But since they had no choice in their future, I pledge to make their lives as fulfilling as I can. I will try my hardest to let them live as horses are meant to. I am allowed to say yes or no to them and they are allowed to say yes or no to me. Together we find activities and games we can play; that is when magic is created. No, it is not natural for horses and human to work together, prey animals and predators, but that does not mean it should to cease to exist. Humans just need to ask and listen to what the horse wants, unlock its play drive and its need for adventure. Give the horse a life like never before.

The journey will not be easy, but it will be eye-opening and intriguing. At first the horse will need time to take in the change, heal from emotional wounds, and take advantage of the freedom of “no”. If you stay true and committed, the horse will come back once the horse knows you respect them and are a diamond in the rough (as far as humans go). For me, I have always wanted my horses to be excited to see me and come running when I arrive. How can that possibly happen when all I exhort on them is force and pain? Now, together we are riding bridle-less through the fields, playing in puddles, and moving with spirit. They even have interest in my human desires like trick riding.  We are living the life I always dreamed of. I have nothing but gratitude for when given the choice, they choose to be here too.

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4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking in the Equine Industry

  1. Beautifully written. As I read the first paragraphs, I felt like I was reading about my experiences and early relationship with horses. I remember being the argumentative riding student. If I had the courage I would ask, “Isn’t there another way?” But I was ridiculed or scolded and always told, “No! You need to be the boss! You need to make him do his job…and do it better!” And like you wrote, the magic was gone. I yearned for my horse to want to do it, not because I told him to, but because it gave him pleasure. If there was no pleasure in it for him, how could there be any for me?
    Today, my mom stores a box of ribbons and trophies that I had accumulated years back somewhere in her suburban garage. About once every five years she asks me what she should do with them. She asks if I’d like to keep them to show to my daughter or use them as decorations around the barn I have now. I ask why she still is hanging on to them after the last time I told her to throw them away? For me they represent all the times ‘I was the boss’, all the times I was under pressure and did things that I am not proud of to achieve results, and all the times that I put my ego before the best interests of my horse. For me, they represent how I had lost my way.
    I moved to eastern Europe about ten years ago and started collecting horses that were in bad situations. In my human brain, I was ‘saving’ them. It seemed that it was the least I could do to make up for all the years I had ‘forced’ horses. But now, a decade later, I realize that I didn’t save them…they saved me. Each of those horses taught me an important ‘life’ lesson. I am no longer a student of a trainer, I am a student of the horse. As long as I keep my heart and my mind open, I will continue to learn from them. I may not know where I’m going now, but I know I’m not lost….
    I commend you on your journey. All the best to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kinds words Maggie! It’s so wonderful to find like minded people. I believe that sometimes the hardest part is knowing how we feel about the industry and trying to find a way around it while the horse people around us, friends and whatnot, do not see things in this perspective. I’ve had many opportunities to sell horses, train them, or perform that could generate a good income, but I remain hesitant to fall to those circumstances. The fact that you’re taking in horses and offering them a loving and understanding home is truly inspirational. The best thing we can do is share our stories and educate in hopes that we can reach more people and encourage to see things differently. I always say, just because the majority is doing one thing, doesn’t mean you need to follow. I believe working with the horse and not making the horse work for you is gaining popularity in Europe. American needs more of this perspective. Horses have come a long way since we used them in battle and for transportation, yet there is still a long way to go before we reach equality. It’s so nice to chat with someone who believes in the cause. All the best, and I hope we can stay in touch and collaborate in the future!

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    • Hi Lisa, I believe I briefly mentioned my program in my second post, but I would love to go into it a bit further. I am in a masters program for theatre/performance studies. I know this sounds funny as to why I am here for studying horse training, let me further explain. My bachelors degree is in biology with a focus in animal behavior. My masters is in performance due to my career as a equestrian specialty circus performer. This University has the first collegiate circus and the largest archive of circus collections (from posters, to books, to costumes, etc). By combining my two fields of study I am studying equine science, bringing the research to the table and the public in order to apply it to circus and other equine performance arts. The end goal is to increase awareness and welfare of the working and performing horse which can also be applied to equestrian sports and recreational activities. Thanks for your interests and I hope you also enjoy the posts to come!

      -Veronica

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