In light of recent events I feel compelled to write about “responsible horse ownership”. While this may seem best suited for the new or first-time owner, I have seen hard evidence that many “experienced” horse owners may benefit from the following as well.
A common state amongst professionals serving the equine community is one of bewilderment. Many of us visit farms, barns & private acreages, seeing what I describe as “WWYT syndrome”; or, “What Were You Thinking?” While I love all horses equally, let’s face it, some present far greater potential than others. What that potential is varies greatly between individuals, and just as much to us. We all expect different values from our horses, but some of those expectations are not always realistic. If you bought a horse with poor conformation, or that not suited for the particular job you have in mind, it’s only a matter of time before those physical shortcomings either prevent the horse from doing what you will ask, or they cause the horse debilitating ailment or injury. This is no secret; experts have known for generations that to be successful in any riding endeavour, the horse must be suited for the tasks at hand. You wouldn’t ask a reiner to immediately perform well in dressage
any more than you would cinch a roping saddle onto a jumper & wade into a herd of cattle.
The most common pitfall in choosing a horse is getting caught up in the aesthetic value. S/He may be the most beautiful horse you’ve ever laid eyes on, but is the horse physically & mentally capable of doing what you want? If you can’t answer this question objectively, enlist the help of someone who can. If their response is less than positive, keep looking at horses. Your vet, farrier, chiro or anyone else cannot “fix” a horse with poor conformation or one lacking in aptitude. You need to make an intelligent choice from the start. This may sound harsh, but if more people bought horses with this in mind, there would a lot fewer “unwanted” horses wasting away in fields & pastures. Is the “death penalty” better or worse than “life in the pen”?
Once a horse has been chosen & brought home, the care aspect becomes paramount. There’s a lot more to caring for a horse than tossing some hay over the fence a few times a day & hanging a bucket of fresh water on a post. After the initial “honeymoon period” fades, the reality of horse stewardship becomes painfully evident. Grooming, medical attention, farriery, exercise, & the mundane tasks of husbandry are constant, and must be regularly maintained throughout that horse’s natural lifetime. Dobbin is also a highly specialised social creature in that s/he requires companionship, a hierarchy and both mental & physical exercise to remain healthy. If that level of commitment lies outside of your abilities or inclination, get a goldfish instead.
I am constantly amazed at the percentage of horse owners who are incapable of performing even the most rudimentary tasks. Recording vital signs, or even knowing what the norm is for their own horse; administering de-wormer or performing basic First Aid for minor maladies & injuries; being able to recognise when the horse is “off”, or downright lame – these are just a few examples of the fundaments every horse owner must possess in order to properly care for their equine charges.
While there is a recommended minimum of expertise, there is no upward limit for knowledge. “Horse 101” begins at the first vet or farrier visit, and should continue for the rest of that portion of our lives that we are involved with horses. Ask questions, read books, investigate what make your horse tick. This ongoing erudition should not be unilateral either; horsey needs to learn too! Constantly exposing your horse to new experiences has several positive effects. Just as an athletic horse is more physically capable, a mentally limber horse learns more effectively; this means simply that a horse who is used to learning will do so much better than a horse who is challenged infrequently or not at all. One of the biggest advantages of this cycle is that as your horse learns, so do you. The two of you also grow to trust one another more deeply, and the regular contact affords more insight between you.
Of course none of this can be achieved until we give our horses a chance. I’ve seen so many new owners, and those who bring a horse home, give up only days or weeks later! It takes time for a horse to acclimate, both physically & mentally to a new environment. It can take months for a horse to get used to having a different human calling the shots, during which time that horse will do his/her level best to see if they can reach the top of the hierarchy before you! It’s in every horse’s nature to test, push & subrogate authority; that’s what they do in the wild. So it’s really rather unfair, and unrealistic, not to expect that behaviour when we bring a new horse home. All too often we misread Dobbin’s behaviour as “aggressive” or “undisciplined”, when what s/he’s only asking is “Who’s the boss hoss around here?”. You can’t reasonably chastise a horse for being a horse, so why would we condemn a relationship with a horse just because s/he acts like one? If you’re going to make a commitment to own a horse, make the commitment to do everything in your power to make the relationship work, and be willing to invest the time it takes to make that happen.
Cheap is not always a deal, & expensive doesn’t come with a guarantee. What you pay for a horse has little bearing on his or her actual worth. Remember, buying the horse is the cheap part! Taking care of him/her afterwards is where the big money comes in (or goes out!).
Keeping these few hints in mind may not always make the difference between success & failure, but making intelligent choices backed up with realistic expectations will certainly make the process a lot easier on both you & the horse.