Is owning a horse like a marriage?
Yes, it needs a formal agreement to assume “ownership.” It needs to be nurtured whether “in sickness or in health,” at least for as long as it is yours. A horse will age, starting out as an immature, uneducated creature who might have the potential to become an athletic star, intellectual wizard or a beauty, as well as having a dynamite personality.
A horse might be your best friend and precious possession. For centuries, horses have served the human race in many ways: in war, as transportation and field labor, in sport and competition, and as an object of beauty.
A horse’s destiny is determined to a great extent by its genes. It may possess a fine or an unknown pedigree; its physical conformation will vary from small to tall, fat to skinny, pretty to common, well-built to less fortunate. Your ambitions, coupled with the horses’ individual characteristics, will determine much of its use and potential. Add to that a good home, excellent nutrition, medical care, love and respect, and a fine education with the best trainers available and an accomplished rider, and the result might be a great horse.
Unlike the heart-wrenching story of “Black Beauty,” many horses change homes without trauma or sadness. With a marriage, one at least hopes that the decisions have been good ones and that such a relationship will last “’til death do us part.” Most horses pass through many owners, although there are some who spend their entire lives with one. These changes are not cruelty to animals but often result in placing the horses in the circumstance most suitable for them to succeed.
We used to raise thoroughbred racehorses, and the first thrill was the expectation of a new foal, perhaps from a recently acquired mare whom we had bred to a promising young stallion, unproved yet as to the potential of his offspring. Then, we experienced the excitement and anticipation of watching this baby grow and develop, both physically and mentally. At 17-or-so months of age, we had carefully fitted the young horse for the yearling sales. It had been taught ground manners, enjoyed being groomed, learned how to be trailered, had its feet trimmed, and perhaps been lunged on the line for special exercise. The yearling accepted a bit in its mouth and could be “shown in hand,” looking its very best. The sale was not a sad goodbye, but a culmination of our effort to produce a beautiful race prospect and to give a young horse the best opportunity to be with a good trainer, to run well, and to thrill us all with a fine race.
Some of our horses ran for several years, doing what thoroughbreds are bred for and love best. When retired from the track, they again went to a new home, often to be broodmares themselves or to learn to be a suitable riding horse. Many of the better show horses are former racehorses. Some meet a less glamorous end, become just pets or live at horse retirement homes.
The choice of a horse can be paralleled to a marriage. You hope to choose wisely, to be forgiving, and to understand yourself and the horse well enough to make a go of it. Riding differs dramatically from sport- car racing, biking, skiing, snowboarding, rowing or even skateboarding in that with these sports, you control and maintain your equipment and self, with the environment being the main variable.
A horse is a living being, like you, with good days and bad, mood changes and physical strengths and weaknesses. Each one is an individual and different and must be treated as such. The environment that a rider creates and what “just happens” is of utmost importance. Equestrians say a horse (like a spouse) can sense what kind of a day you are having before you even saddle up. A tense rider makes for a tense horse. A super relaxed rider, on the other hand, just might get very surprised if something else alarms the horse. Pairing horse and rider often attracts opposites with regard to disposition and temperament.
Horses can also evaluate the expertise of their handler or rider with uncanny wisdom. The lesson horse that refuses to lope is not uncommon. They just know that their rider isn’t prepared yet to handle it. Give them an experienced rider, and that lope is there with ease. A sensitive horse will pick up on his rider’s courage and sense of direction, which will in turn help him, while a timid and indecisive rider often will find the same horse behaving with similar lack of resolve and confidence.
Just like us, with too many bosses, a horse with multiple riders is easily confused. Horses respond to respectful, good leadership, as well as cooperation. Some horses enjoy a good game of “Who is in charge?” I have one who might be compared to the class with a new substitute teacher! He plays the role of the class! Another horse will try to please until she is ready to drop, and it becomes the riders’ responsibility to avoid that happening.
Matchmaking with horses is an endless challenge. As in marriage, a wonderful and well-trained horse may not suit an equally nice person and good rider, or the pairing could be the perfect team. Among my lesson string, various horses are favored by different riders. Such compatibility is a mix of personalities, their level of education in riding or horse training, eye appeal (from the riders’ viewpoint), or goals within the sport of riding. It is not necessarily that the horse or rider is better, but rather that there is an indefinable niche where they simply seem to understand and appreciate each other.
Often times, a horse that is perfect for a beginner will be outgrown as the rider improves and sets new goals. According to the American Horse Council’s 1996 survey, Americans owned about 6.9 million horses, adding $112 billion to our economy each year. And now that figure is even more impressive.
A horse may play different roles for the horse owner. Prior to the enormous recreational riding era of today, a horse was valued primarily for the job it could do: work in the logging industry, be a coach horse, be used in the cavalry, herd cattle, help plow the fields, be impressive at social occasions or sporting events and competitions, or be a good race horse. Athleticism and soundness were more of a priority than a loving disposition.
Today, with countless amateurs choosing horseback riding for recreation, the temperament of a horse has become more of a priority for many horse owners.
A common complaint I hear is, “I don’t think he likes me,” or “He just doesn’t do as I ask.” That’s all about communication. It takes time, patience, giving, work, and learning to create a good relationship. Just like marriage! It boils down to this: People need to listen to their horses. They respond much better than a bicycle!
Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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