Thursday, August 27, 2009

Things Are Changing

Things are changing, both in my life and in the world of horses.

I spent part of yesterday helping my older daughter look for an apartment, and my younger daughter left this morning for her first year of college. Pretty soon, my husband and I will be almost empty nesters. My older daughter will be moving only about 5 miles away, and I expect we'll see her fairly often - especially at mealtimes! My younger daughter is going to college on the East Coast, but we'll still see her at holidays and over the summer, at least for a few years. But it will be very different without the two of them around all the time, living with us in our fairly small house. When I stopped working 9 years ago, one of my primary motivations was to spend full time with my daughters. That phase of my life is now over, and although we'll still be connected, things are different now - they're adults with their own lives. In this next phase, I'll actually get to spend some truly uninterrupted time with my husband - that'll be a pleasant change for sure! There may be some reinvention needed around here, but I'm not sure what direction life will take us in next. It's a subject for serious thought.

And now to the main purpose of my post. As I see it, this is a time of major change in the horse world. More and more people are beginning to realize, in all horse disciplines, that it is possible to effectively train and work with horses without using pain, fear and coercion. But in all disciplines as well, there are people who are in a hurry, or who are so obsessed with winning that they cannot care about the horse, or who just don't know better or were taught badly, and who will therefore commit small and large abuses against the horses in their care. Now abuse can run the gamut from losing one's temper and using an inappropriate amount of force - I'll bet most of us have done that from time to time (and feel bad about it) - to the most outrageous abuses that make me feel ashamed to be a member of the same species as the perpetrators.

I tend to avoid the horse abuse and neglect blogs and sites, even though I believe many of them perform a valuable service. Part of this has to do with my personal history. This is a painful story I've so far told very few people - just my husband and daughters, I think. When I was a child, from the time I was a toddler until I was almost 12, we lived next to a livery stable. This was the sort of place with lots of horses crammed into manure-filled dry lots, where people who didn't know which end of the horse was the front could rent horses by the hour and run them. I learned to ride there - by getting on horses, falling off, getting on again and so on - no lessons or instruction. I spent every moment I could there, winter and summer, riding any horse they would let me ride. When I was younger, my father would rent horses for us to take on a ride. By the time I was 8 or so I went there on my own and started taking groups of riders on rides - I would ride a horse and urge their horses on by snapping a whip. I only rode bareback, and could ride most any horse. I was pretty much allowed to ride all day long for free, and even took horses in local parades for fun. This was a pretty good foundation for my future riding.

But this stable was the site of some of the most horrific horse abuse I've ever seen. The horses were fed and watered - none were hungry. But the owner was a big man with an ugly and violent temper. At the slightest infraction by a horse - most of the horses were tied in groups to mangers or in tie stalls - say a horse bit another horse - he would viciously beat the horse, using a bullwhip, in many cases until the horse was covered from head to toe, including the face and legs, with bleeding welts. He also beat his children and grandchildren. Of course all the horses were terrified of him and would tremble and shake whenever he came near. This whole set of memories are both some of the best (because I got to ride) and the worst of my childhood. Now something I am eternally ashamed of - I never did anything about this or said anything to another person about it. Maybe this was because I didn't know it was wrong - how sad is that? - or because I felt no one would care or even believe me.

So I avoid the horse abuse blogs and sites, because I just feel too bad when I go there - all those feelings of shame and powerlessness are stirred up. Today, Lisa at Laughing Orca Ranch put up a disturbing post about what one of her neighbors is doing to his horses in the name of "training". If you can, give her a visit and comment to give her some moral support. Now is this the worst horse abuse? - probably not, which is a shame in itself, but it's still abuse. The only way that these practices will change is if we collectively and individually hold people accountable and speak out when we believe what someone is doing is causing the horse pain and suffering. I always try to approach this with the assumption that the person just doesn't know better, although sometimes that's pretty hard. If you can do it, speak out - at your breed and discipline associations and in petitions, on the show grounds and in the warm-up areas, and at your own barn. Get others to see what you see and speak out with you. If a fellow boarder is the problem, speak to the barn manager - and to the person themselves if you can. If the problem is a trainer, speak to the owner of the facility or the manager - and if you can to the trainer. If someone says "that's the way we train" or "you don't know anything" - tell them that that's not the way training has to be done and that you don't have to be an expert to know that the horse isn't feeling good about the treatment and is experiencing pain. Say no to a trainer that wants you to do something you believe is wrong - and make sure you observe your children's lessons so you can stand up for them and their horses. Leave a trainer or barn where horses are mistreated. If you're at a show, get others if you can to see what you see and talk to the show stewards. If you can swear out an affidavit (with others if possible) and take pictures, you may be able to get a humane society or even the police involved in cases of serious abuse.

Is this easy or pleasant? No. It's hard to raise these issues with a neighbor, fellow rider or boarder, or a trainer or barn owner, or someone at a horse show. We may be afraid of physical or verbal retaliation, or fear for our horses or fear being "black-balled" in our discipline. Have I got the guts to do it? - I haven't sometimes when I should have because I was afraid something bad would happen to my horses or in order to not burn bridges - but I think in retrospect that's what keeps the bad stuff going. People do things because they think they can get away with them and that no one cares - our silence empowers them. Things are changing, and I think to the extent we can be brave enough to help, the changes will come more quickly. And the horses cannot speak for themselves.

Every one of us in every horse discipline can make a difference - every discipline has its abuses in the name of "training" - bits that should be declared weapons in the hunter/jumper world, heads tied up, or to the saddle or to the side in Western disciplines - as in Lisa's post - soring and chains and shoeing practices in gaited horses, beating team roping horses that take the wrong lead, Rollkur in dressage, "walling" in certain Western disciplines, and excessive force with spurs and hands, which always causes pain and sometimes even physical injury to the horse, in all disciplines. Ask the person "how does the horse feel about this", and "do you know that your horse is experiencing pain and suffering"? And, as important as speaking out against abuses, shine your own light and that of those whose methods you respect - show the horse world that there is a better and more effective way to work with horses - the beauty and success of your horses will speak powerfully for training horses with humility and without coercion, considering the horse.

And now, as an example of the things that are changing, thanks to breathe at Horse Centric for pointing out this interesting and illuminating article on round-penning - the good and the bad of it - which is an interview with Harry Whitney. As she pointed out in her post, and as I've heard from many good horsepeople, round-penning, if and when done, needs to be done with an objective and purpose, and not mindlessly - the same goes for lunging - and there's a big difference between appropriate pressure to help the horse learn and punishment.


  1. Amen!! I'm very glad that these changes are ocurring, just can't happen soon enough. You're right in that each one of us can, and should make a difference, even if only a tiny one. They all add up over time. It does take courage to speak up, and it can be difficult, but the silent suffering of a guilty conscience for remaining silent is far worse to deal with in the long run. Speak up, take pictures, reveal the issue to another person, whatever you can come up with...just do something!!

  2. i'm a newbie.. and i'm not a horse whisperer, but I am a thinker.. :) It's taken me alot of time to summon up enough strength to discipline as necessary/train and I'm finding more and more... not to "babysit the horse".. and boy it's starting to pay off big time in serious bonding with each of them . Each in their own way.. much like kids i guess since i dont have any

    good topic

  3. I wish there could be a competition that showcased the best of the humane techniques and disqualified those who didn't have the chops to do it with softness. And that it would become the premier event that would spin out and eventually swamp the rest.

    We can dream, right?

  4. I can identify fully with the empty nest. My eldest daughter left 6 years ago for university and the youngest starts next week.
    Your comments about the treatment of the horses was very thought-provoking. No doubt most of us have seen things over the years that we should have made comment on at the time.

  5. You'll get used to being just the two of you and trust me it's not bad at all. My three are all out of the house (two are married with children)the grandchildren are great. Should have had them first, so much more fun.

    Unfortunately, over the years I've seen way too much abuse. I can honestly say that when I thought I could make a difference I did speak up and at least try to reason with and turn someone around to my way of thinking. Has it always worked, no, but I never stop trying to help abused horses. People who abuse horses whether it's through ignorance or meanness need to at least have something to think about, so it's always better to give them an opinion other than their own. I'm a firm believer that education can only help the ignorant or abusive individual to think twice before acting.

  6. For me, the worst thing is visiting sites that show horses desparate for new homes because of starvation or abuse. I want to take them all in and just give them lives of leisure in a nice pasture with good food and good shelter.

    Alas, I have neither the space or the money to do it.

    That's why I keep buying lotter tickets.

  7. Again(in my blog), I send along good wishes for the adjustment of "losing a daughter" but gaining a Dawn! Maybe you can get the "long-suffering" husband riding too!!!

    With regard to the horse abuse issue, I do feel that more and more people are easing up on their cruel practices, but there is still a long way to go. My own barn is my santuary for kind horse care. Unfortunately, last year we learned the hard way that when you invite boarders into your barn, you sometimes have to witness ridiculous abuse simply due to a lack of knowledge. We immediately spoke out and attempted to put a stop to the offenses, but were laughed at and ignored. Ultimately, we had to ask the boarders to leave. It was traumatic for us and heart-wrenching because we were so attached to the horses. I really can't express how free I feel now to know that I do not have to watch such senseless behavior on our property again.

  8. oops...sanctuary not santuary!

  9. We live about an hour from the heart of the Walking Horse industry. While I love the breed the lengths they go to to produce the Big Lick is just disgusting IMO. It is a completely artificial, manufactured thing and the horses suffer for it. What amazes me is how vehemently the industry argues for their right to do it. I just don't get it.

  10. I'm afraid I'm useless at change, I like my little world all settled, lol. I must learn to embrace change and it sounds like that's just what you'll be doing Kate...good luck to all three of you as you face changes (actually all four of you isn't it).
    I posted on the Orca Ranch blog but I'm quite dismayed that some (although not condoning this treatment 100%) were quite accepting of it in the sense of training horses....oh dear, we still have so much to do with respect to these attitudes :-(

  11. Kate,
    Excellent post, thanks for sharing your experience. As you know, I'm a complete novice at training (rode as a child in 4H for 8 years & took 30 years off) and now riding as an adult. If I can do it at my age (48) with simple, concise, firm (being I lead they follow) but gentle consistency and get the great results I have, ANYONE should be able to do it. I don't do everything perfectly of course and they have their days of inconsistent behaviors but I do end up on a good note every time with the lesson. Part of that is timing and knowing when to quit. I agree, these harsh training methods are just so NOT necessary. You also know we have seven horses (counting Becca our mini)and each one is unique in conformation & disposition so it cannot be a total fluke that someone like me can accomplish so much with so little experience. It's not luck in the gene pool of the's patience and as much reading the horses' body language and how they interact or respond to situations and people. I'm a firm believer that one has to become a student of your horse! It's like anything else, if you have desire and the tools set in place you can succeed. I'm not tooting my own horn here (I've made my fair share of mistakes) just reiterating (and a testament to) your point that too many horses are misunderstood for lack of knowledge or trainers/people being too set in their ways to hear a better method. I'm always learning, always observing and always aware of being patient and consistent. It has been a long hard road to work with young ones and now see them flourishing under saddle and seemingly enjoying it. Very rewarding to say the least.

    BTW, you'll get used to the empty nest, just find something both of you enjoy doing together. I'm lucky my husband likes riding and is learning it well. It is an adjustment and it takes a while but you'll get there.

  12. I have just check Lisa's post at Laughing Orca Ranch and I was quite disturbed!! Unbelievable!


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