Holiday Horses...The Gifts That Keep On Giving
It happens all the time. The adorable child launches the Intolerable Whining Campaign and some adult somewhere loses his mind and buys the kid a pony. I'm still angry at the friend who gave my then-four-year-old daughter a hamster for her birthday nearly 30 years ago, so I can't even imagine the lengths to which I would go to get even if a ribbon-bedecked horse had showed up in my family room that day.
Yet the insanity goes on, probably more frequently now that Rescue Mania has taken hold of otherwise normal people. No, I'm not anti-animal-rescue in any way. I'm a big fan of traditional rescue and sanctuary programs and a bigger fan of sane decisions about ownership, neutering and/or euthanasia of animals that are beyond help in any way.
What I am is anti-abuse, anti-neglect, and anti-stupidity. No small child "needs" a live pony for the holidays. In fact, unless said child resides in an area where winter is warm and sunny and board on ponies is free or affordable on a 25-cents-a week allowance, this is the worst possible time of year to buy a horse. Oh, it's great financially. People unload horses as fast as they can as winter approaches and hay and bedding prices triple. Winter is when horses get skinny, need clothing (expensive clothing), need more grain, and often require vet care that's difficult at best for experienced owners let alone for newbies with twinkling eyes and empty wallets.
So before I get to the learning to ride part, I just have to say a word about not giving horses as holiday gifts without the express permission, desire, and commitment of the giftee. As my dear friend Anna often says, "A horse ain't a goldfish". It ain't even a hamster (Helen, by the way, died an untimely and totally unnatural death behind the fridge after her escape from over-handling by a toddler and her bloated corpus was discovered by yours truly stuck to the bristles of a broom), which can at least make a sudden disappearance and turn up under an alias at some other kid's house. A horse is a big, big animal requiring much investment in time and cash and carrying a huge learning curve for the novice owner...a curve that in mid-winter often enters a downward spiral ending in someone's demise.
Give a card (or better, a phone call, so there's nothing in writing with which you might later be beaten over the head) with your intentions to buy a horse and see if it flies with parents and child alike. Address it to the sanest adult in the household, not the one dragging a stuffed pony on a plastic lead. And if your offer is rejected, applaud the rationality of the decision and go buy something else.
Should You Learn to Ride?
|Both topics seen here: Gift horse and a uncommitted student|
As owner of a horse farm that abuts several developments and lies across the street from a high school, I am often visited by curious passers-by who are intrigued by the horses. Sometimes the close-up odor of horse is enough to dissuade them from further interest, but if they survive the smell, and they aren’t daunted by the sheer size of the beasts, and if Zip doesn’t remove any of their clothing or body parts, the discussion inevitably turns to riding lessons. “Do you think you can teach me to ride?” is the anthem of the horse-enamored.
I don’t give lessons anymore as a rule, but occasionally, if all the signs are right, I will give a beginner a chance to take that next step and actually sit on a moving animal. For the right person, the sensation of being accepted by an critter as big and potentially dangerous as a horse is an epiphany, and a horseman is born on the spot. That’s a heady experience for all involved, even for Leo, my aging Quarter Horse, who gets to be the starter horse most of the time. He can tell immediately whether the person on his back is going to make it or get voted off my island, and he gets a vote.
But before a rider ever steps foot in the stirrup, there are tell-tale signs that indicate whether or not there is potential there. The questions I’m asked are generally the first indicator. If the person asks “how can you stand the smell?” or “don’t the flies bother you?”, I don’t continue the conversation. Anyone focused on his or her own comfort doesn’t need to be around horses. Riding is a hazardous sport. Insurance companies rank it near the top in the “extreme” category and have long lusted after the ability to refuse to pay for horse-inflicted injuries. Comfort can’t be an issue.
If, on the other hand, the questions tend more toward “what do you do with him?” and “what do you feed him?”, then there’s a glimmer of hope that this a horseman lies dormant under the Ralph Lauren polo shirt and designer "fashion" boots. A horseman needs to understand what a horse is all about. An interest in the insides and outsides of horses indicates that this is a human who is likely to take this business seriously.
Many folks show up here with a bag of something to feed the horses. I’m fine with feeding treats by hand as long as the feeder understands certain rules. This is the next step in the elimination phase of the game. If I say “break the carrot into smaller chunks”, and the visitor ignores me or argues the point, we’re done. If I say “don’t feed this horse because he’s misbehaving when he chews on your hair” and the visitor laughs and announces “it’s just so cute!", we’re done. The ability to follow directions and a willingness to do so unhesitatingly is vital in a beginner horseman. Again, horses can be dangerous to humans if the humans aren’t aware of some basic horse behaviors and aren’t willing to listen to instruction.
The next step is a big one. The “may I brush one of the horses?” request is a positive sign. That the visitor wants closer contact is a plus. That he asked instead of taking it upon himself to act is a bigger plus. Generally, if time permits, I indulge this sort of interest. The horses always enjoy a brushing, and I’m more than happy to let someone else have the pleasure now and then. This also gives me a chance to assess direction-following capacity and how well this human bonds with a horse. Some people just seem to naturally understand what horses like. Others won’t get it if I beat them with a stick. The ones who can’t understand “top to bottom” or “don’t stand under his feet” or “he can’t see you there” get a few cursory strokes before I plead imminent death in the family and send them home.
Finally, I demonstrate a few of the tricks my guys have learned. This often elicits an “Oh! May I try that?” That’s an outstanding indicator of horseman potential in my opinion. If the visitor successfully gets Zip to sidestep or retrieve something or duck his head on command, and I see that glee in both of their faces that says a fine time is being had, then I am delighted when the next question involves the possibility of a lesson or two.
Experienced horsemen encouraging wannabees is what keeps this business alive. Discouraging folks whose motivation is less than stellar goes a long way in the same direction. The young man who wanted to ride a horse to prove he could should never have been allowed anywhere near a barn. He was, he fell, he got stepped on, and he sulked for years afterward. The girl who insisted on coming to the barn to “play with the horses” then cried when a snot-rocket decorated her big hair needed to find another hobby. Manure on a boot shouldn’t bring a budding horseman to tears. The people who are tentative about their commitment to a dangerous sport will be equally tentative in their handling of horses. The ones with a point to make or an axe to grind will be overly forceful and contentious when faced with equine behavior quirks they find challenging. The folks who can’t listen or follow directions are going to get hurt, and often their horses along with them.
Assess yourself and your motives carefully. There are millions of horsemen in the world, and you just might be the next to enter this elite corps. But if you’re not up to the challenge, you can’t fake it. Find another sport or simply enjoy being on the sidelines cheering on your horsey friends. Honesty is a winning attitude every time.