I’m a riding instructor. Wait, it’s worse than that. A riding instructor who has read the small print of her liability insurance, as if I didn’t feel responsible enough before. Beyond that, I’m certain that if one of my horses hurt someone, it wouldn’t be his fault and it would break my heart. Maybe literally.
My barn isn’t safe for kids. Wait, it’s worse than that. My barn isn’t safe for adults, whether they are city slickers or old hands. Come to think of it, it’s never been safe for the horses. I don’t mean to sound judgmental but I don’t think your barn is safe either.
A while back, the director of a riding program invited me to give a talk on safety to a group of good men who volunteered to help with handyman work on their farm. The director didn’t feel the men were taking her requests seriously. Among other things, they were bringing the horses in using an ATV and moving them at a breakneck speed. When the director asked them to slow down, they all looked at her like she was a whiny spoil sport.
I gave a strong presentation. I used examples and spoke intelligently from experience. Rules exist for reasons and I actually know those reasons. I made eye contact and sprinkled my talk with humor. They looked at me, the ones who stayed awake, like I was a whiny spoil sport. I get it.
Why is being around horses so complicated and tiresome? It’s the same look I get when I recommend that every rider wear a helmet, every ride. The look I get when I ask if a rider’s horse might have ulcers or if they’ve had a saddle fit recently. They tell me it’s just a horse, after all. I get it.
These things are inconvenient when we have time constraints and it all costs money that would be better spent on a vacation. Then, it’s my fault for being difficult when all they want to do is just ride. Oh, I really do get that.
It’s time for the annual reminder that horses are not dirt bikes. Or more poetically:
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” ―Alice Walker
Horses are creatures of intelligence, great sensitivity, and instinct that has insured their very survival for centuries. Horses have physical requirements as complicated as any other wild animal, but are social and generally kind to humans. It makes horses can make appear more docile than they actually are–kind of like big stuffed toys.
Things come apart when a horse has a normal equine response that frightens or injures us humans. Then horses pay the price for our complacency, when it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, and in that way, insure their safety and security, as well. Yes, I just said if we get hurt, it’s our fault.
I want you safe because I’ve been around long enough to know too many sad stories. I want you around to care for your horse into his old age, and maybe a couple of horses past that. I want you safe because our bodies are frail and standing around with that deer in headlights reality with a frightened thousand-pound horse will always be a losing proposition, even if you have to admit it in hindsight. And most of all, because there will never be a guaranteed kid-safe horse, or flawlessly secure barn, or totally predictable outcome.
And because sadly, we humans need to feel safe and sometimes we over-compensate, using bravado as a kind of false courage. Horses aren’t fooled.
It isn’t that we mean harm; we all love our horses. We like to show off or we fall into habits of taking shortcuts. We get distracted and lose sight of the big picture. Complacency is like gravity; it settles on us and makes us dumb to our surroundings, dulling our senses, and that’s when most injuries happen.
I understand how cool it is to stand next to a draft horse and call him Baby. Sometimes it can seem like throwing a leg around a saddle horn, laying on a horse bareback, or encouraging a horse come close and mug you, makes it look like you’re a horse whisperer in tune with the equine heart. I have to tell you–it’s the exact opposite.
Call me a whiny spoil sport. It’s my professional responsibility to look at a situation, imagine every horrible, crippling possibility for the horse and rider, while holding a light, positive thought for the best. But really, isn’t it just good horsemanship? Too many horses go to rescue or worse because we don’t hold up our end.
So a New Year reminder to stay focused and listen to your horse. If you don’t do groundwork, it’s time to start and if you do, freshen your focus. Know that he wants safe leadership most of all. Begin when you halter him, speak his language. Use your peripheral vision–your horse eyes–and be aware of your surroundings. Encourage good manners and reward him lavishly for every effort. Horsemanship boils down to what we give our horses, even more than what they give us.
Some of us are rule breakers by nature. We don’t like to do was we’re told. I’m at the head of that line myself. And some rules are meant to break. Common sense will tell you that when it comes to white breeches. But too many people are more concerned with the respect a horse shows them, than the respect they show the horse.
Perhaps consider rules as a way of demonstrating love for horses; a constant awareness of their dignity and a method for showing them respect for who they are and how they think.
And then we see them galloping with ears sharp, tails flagged, and hooves churning up the soil: Strength and sensitivity. Intelligence and timeless beauty. Even the most cynical people pause and stand a bit taller, just existing in the same world with horses.
In that light, treating horses like a fuzzy teddy bear seems outlandishly demeaning, doesn’t it?