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.