Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Horses Are Like Horses



I
 have the utmost respect for all equestrian athletes.  Courtney King-Dye is certainly one of the best.  Not only has she reached the heights of professional competition, but she has taken her own horror--her mare tripped and sent CKD to the hospital with a severe head trauma that could have cost her life--and turned it into initiatives (National Helmet Awareness Day, and changes in the helmet rules for dressage and eventing among them).  Three weeks in a coma created shock waves in her life that spread to the entire equestrian community.

Despite my respect for her, it is the “training tip from CKD” column in the September issue of Dressage Today that reminded me that I have even more respect for the animals we conscript to play a part in our fantasy and who are primary to our sport.  The title of the piece is "Horses Are Like People:  A day off every now and then can work wonders."

That sounds innocuous enough, and even appears to pay forward some respect to the horses that are our partners--willing or otherwise--in our chosen sports.  As I read, however, I found that more than an enlightened willingness to give horses their due, the article opens the door to more of what many of us hate so much about our own sport.  Horses being treated as if they were nothing more than high-priced machines with the bottom line as the main focus is the most depressing part of the horse world, and it contributes to abuse and in great part to the unwanted horse problem.

CKD begins the tip by suggesting that horses need a break now and then.  This, I think, most of us know.  Though I still see kids riding their horses to exhaustion for points in various club shows, most adults, I believe, have tipped to the fact that a tired horse is prone to missteps and injury.  A tired horse is a cranky horse as well.  A burned-out horse can be a menace to himself and the humans around him.  So giving a horse a change of routine is always a good idea.  My daughter was only ten when she was told by Hector Carmona, Jr., in a lesson that she should never do dressage with her gelding more than three times a week.  Two days of happy jumping and a day of hacking around were part of the prescription, and she took it to heart.  In turn, her horse responded with more enthusiasm for all parts of the training routine.

Daughter Jessica as DQ on the late Rat...
who never went a day without turnout in his sixteen years


But turnout--in a field, not in a 10 x 10 pen attached to a stall--has always been mandatory for my horses and hers.  When I got to the sentence "I'm a big believer in turnout for exercise as well as for chilling out, if the horses like it."  I was a little taken aback.  In 52 years with horses, only once have I seen a horse that got upset at turnout, and she was a backyard mare who'd been thrown into a herd of 56.  She paced the fence line closest to the barn for days before her owner gave up and took her home.  One horse out of hundreds is statistically significant, I'm sure.  And the issue was quite obviously that she'd never developed any equine social skills, so was terrified of her pasture mates and the threat they posed. I believe that in a different setting--mass turnout on 50 acres could have been a goal if smaller spaces with smaller groups had been available--eventually she would have learned the necessary skills.

The rest of CKD's article describes the horse who was "petrified" at turnout and the ones turned out completely booted up in small paddocks for their own safety.  And it finishes with the tale of Rendezvous who, despite being turned out booted in a "paddock the size of a postage stamp", broke her leg.

What is it that causes a horse to go so wild or be so terrified at the idea of being turned out?  Lack of experience.  Horses kept stalled when they're not being actively ridden, or settling for a few minutes of hand-walking or grazing on a lead have no experience being horses.  They've been taken from their natural world because (much to their detriment) they were deemed athletic at birth.  They might have had a brief foray into the real world before being snatched back into the prisoner's life through no wrong-doing or free-willed choice of their own.

To her credit, CKD ends with the fact that she's willing to "risk" turnout for some horses because we're in the sport for the love of the animals.  I do love her final statements:

      "Every time I'd turn Idy out, he'd gallop joyfully around.  He had a blast showing everyone how fast he  could go.  I was always terrified, but I'd prefer him to die like that, joyfully gallivanting, than be safe   yet miserable in a stall."

Horses being horses

Apparently, though it's not mentioned in the article, Idy didn't die from turnout.  That's a good thing.  But the rest of the article gives ample credence to the idea that living in a stall is the safest thing for a horse, and that's where we part ways.  I understand CKD's need to align herself with all facets of the dressage world.  I am not going to try to do that.  No one cares what I think, and my livelihood doesn't rest on my ability to bow to pressure. 

Horses are horses.  They are big animals, designed by nature to walk miles, grazing as they go.  They are amazingly social.  They suffer from emotional problems when they are separated from their kind.  They suffer from physical problems if they are kept from moving about freely.  They develop idiosyncracies due to insensitive handling, and we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy figuring out how to "cure" what we caused in the first place.  And when penned up for long periods, they lose their minds when they achieve momentary freedom.

When horses became a commodity, whether pulling a plow or a carriage or carrying a rider, they stepped into a world of problems.  When for some competition became their sole purpose in human life, they lost the right to be horses, and that, I think, is a crime against nature of the highest kind.  Keep your horse stalled if you feel you must, but don't see that as vindicated because Famous Horsemen have done the same.  Try living in your bathroom, with the door locked and only a window for a view of the world, and you'll have the same experience.  Allow yourself an hour out of every 24 to be free of that room and walk around at the end of a rope held by your spouse (no, you're not allowed to bite him).  Spend that hour running on a treadmill.  If that doesn't convince you that this is no way for a horse to live, then you can feel vindicated.

Finally, here is Courtney King-Dye shortly after her accident speaking about the Riders4Helmets initiative:



1 comment:

Kate said...

Turnout, on a daily basis for as many hours as possible, preferably with some grazing and horse companions, is absolutely essential for horse mental health - and guess, what, your horse becomes easier to handle and ride as a result. Also, I'm a big believer in giving horses regular days off from work - at least one or two days a week - and in introducing variety in the work. Horses aren't pieces of sports equipment . . .