I began taking riding lessons when I was nine. By the time I was 14, I had vaulted, participated in drill team and trail riding, and was jumping 3 foot courses. I was horse crazy, and would quickly finish my "real" homework every day, and beg my sister to create horse homework for me, from the few horse books that we had collected. I relished being tested about information that I really felt passionately about, and that was horses, not math!
I loved horses with my entire being, down to the deepest part of my heart and soul, and this is what led me toward a life with them. I can only imagine that most people begin their relationship with horses out of a love like this, an innocent, awe-struck sort of love. What i find so confusing is, how does this type of a love transition to an alleged love that allows one to engage in so many practices that are so hurtful to the horse? I have thought a lot about this. When I was 14, a girl at school said that if I really loved horses I would not ride them. Something rang true for me in her words, and soon, I was no longer riding. Several years later, I was drawn back to horses. The love was too great, but now, so was the internal conflict. I have wrestled with this conflict for decades. Love, pain, and the concept that we only hurt the ones we love.
My trainers were of no use to ease my distress. Most of them adopting and selling the idea that the human pays the feed bill, and the horse only has to do a few hours of work a day to earn his keep so it’s a sweet deal. I bought right in to it. It made sense, and allowed me to continue to follow my equestrian aspirations. But the seed had been planted when I was 14, and no matter how many times I tried to cut the little sapling down by thinking about what a great deal my horse was getting, a little tree began to grow, one with strong roots, planted firmly in my love for the horse. Over the years that tree began to block my view of the landscape I once knew, where
the use of a crop, a whip, spurs, martingales, draw reins, and the most incredible array of bits was acceptable, respectable, and professional. The guy doing liberty work in the far reaches of the equestrian facility - he was weird. The lady riding without a bit – crazy. The person who refused to carry a crop – some sort of a hippie animal activist. Not real equestrians, just some sort of granola eating fringe.
Why were they viewed this way? How did this happen? How did it happen that those who were training in a loving way, became the outliers, and those who subscribed to force and brutality the mainstream?
In the defense of the average equestrian, we are not taught or encouraged to be empathetic toward the horse. We are taught that the horse is there to comply with our demands. We are not taught how to properly build a relationship of trust and love with the horse. We are not encouraged to build a relationship rooted in love and respect. Doing so takes time, patience and being that the journey is so individual, does not fit into the corporate template of most big training stables. Simultaneously, taking the time to develop this relationship does not fit in with the plans of the average equestrians and their plans for the show ring. If we all brought our horses along the "correct" way, those ridiculous dressage tests for the 5 and 6 year olds would not even exist. The introductory walk/trot classes would be the test for a 5 or 6 year old horse. Each discipline is guilty of demanding too much too soon from the young horse, and each discipline therefore must continue to support all of the hurtful tactics that assist in creating only the appearance a horse that was trained with love.
The system is broken. It reminds me of our political system, illogical, corrupt, sad. We need to start over. We need to remember that most people are drawn to horses because they feel that immense love for them. We need to encourage that love, not try to corrupt it. We need to build a new system, an equestrian system that teaches people how to teach horses with respect, and then allows the horses to be our teachers, as they are the ones with the most to teach. This can’t happen when we are rushing, forcing, and pushing for outcomes, fueled by our egotistical ulterior motives. We need to stop idolizing, rewarding, and accepting riders and riding systems that do not hold the highest respect for the well-being of the horse. We need to allow our true love for the horse to be our compass, and to find our way out of this dark forest of veiled abuse. This transformation starts with each one of us, cutting down the tangled ivy, and overgrown weeds that block our access to that tree that we all have inside, the one that inevitably grew from that little seed of child-like innocent love for a such a noble, awe-inspiring creature. We need to climb these trees, and see clear to a future that prioritizes the horse and its welfare, and a system that inspires and even rewards those that train with love.