Thursday, October 25, 2012

Oh, That Cute Little Spoiled Horse of Yours!

I know you love your horse.  I love my horses, too.  I'm not sure I love YOUR horse, though -- not your cute little spoiled horse, anyway.  I really dislike spoiled horses, and don't find anything cute about them.

Every so often I acquire a spoiled horse, either temporarily (one that comes in for training, for example) or permanently (one that I buy for myself) or semi-permanently (the occasional horse I either rescue, or I buy and rehab before selling).  Right now there are two spoiled horses here:  unmannerly horses that walk on top of the person beside them; race into and out of stalls without regard to someone standing at the gate; slam gates on people who are cleaning the stall beside them; and otherwise show no respect whatsoever for anyone two-legged.  They both get nasty when fed, and shove back when I'm putting feed in their feeder, and they kick at the stall walls when they aren't fed quickly enough.

They came to me together, and they have the same habits.  When I first rode them, neither one knew how to stand; one backed up and the other walked forward.  When I asked them to stand mid-ride, they fussed and fidgeted and moved around wherever they chose.  They both exhibited a little bit of stubbornness.  One humped his back a bit when I pushed him to do as I asked, and the other flat out refused and backed into thorny bushes.  As soon as I growled at them and told them to do what I said, they were fine and willing.  All these things are symptoms of spoiled horses.

Their previous owner loved them; I know that.  Most owners of spoiled horses do.  But like the overly permissive parent, owners of spoiled horses don't take responsibility for the future of their horses once those horses leave their own hand.  It is not a kindness to allow socially-unacceptable habits to develop in either our horses or our children.  Eventually, the animal (and I include those children in this word) pays the price for the lack of parental guidance.

It frustrates me no end when I have to discipline a horse because no one ever told them they shouldn't run their owner over.  It angers me when I have to be the bad-guy because a previous owner allowed the horse to rub its head on their back, or to dance like a leaf in the wind when I'm mounting.  It makes me feel sorry for the horse when I have to tell it, "No, Trixie, we don't smash our owners' hand against the feeder in the morning, and we don't slam gates on their shoulders when they're in the stall next door."  I don't like having to yell at the horse that thinks it gets to stop and eat whatever grows alongside the path I'm leading it by, and I don't like striking the severely (and dangerously) spoiled horse that strikes at me when I want to clip its muzzle or put fly spray on it.

I don't find it cute when I am at a student's barn and they giggle while the horse knocks them over, or when the horse grabs their pocket with its teeth because there might be a treat inside.  It's not amusing when the owner squeals with delight, "Oh, but look how CUTE he is when he does that -- how could you ever get MAD at him?"  Neither do I enjoy riding with them when the entire ride is a litany of, "Well, Zahar doesn't like water," or "Oh, Zahar will only go in front," or "Zahar has to trot out."  We shouldn't make excuses for our horses; we should make good citizens of them.

I know that spoilers of horses love them, and they believe they are being kind.  But now, more than ever, good and healthy horses are being starved, slaughtered, and abandoned because the economy is forcing a culling of sort.  You might not mind your spoiled horse stepping on you or your horseshoer, but you might not be able to keep that horse forever.  The buyer WILL mind, and will pass that cute little spoiled horse by for one that has proper manners.  Your cute little spoiled horse will be headed for mistreatment or slaughter.  (Just because the slaughterhouses in the United States don't kill horses anymore doesn't mean horses aren't shipped to Mexico, where less-humane methods of killing them are employed.  Don't fool yourself.)  That's how I came into the last two cute spoiled horses that are now here:  they wouldn't sell, and their next stop was going to be the slaughterhouse.  They are lovely animals; affectionate and healthy.  They are too nice to slaughter -- and too nice to spoil.

Horses are not poodles.  A 1,200 pound animal is too big to be a lapdog, and shouldn't be treated like one.  Miniature horses aren't particularly useful within the hierarchy of the performance horse world, but one wonderful thing about them is they make great pets that won't kill you when you spoil them.  If you have full-size horses, please instill in them respect for those around them.  It may save a life one day, and the life it saves may be their own.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Do You NEED So Many Horses?

I have too many horses.  Yes, I admit it.  There are horses in every stall.  It's exactly what I've always wished for:  beautiful, happy, healthy horses filling the barn, and overflowing into the turnout pens.  Most days, one will greet you from the front round pen when you arrive.  I put the round pen on the hill by the driveway on purpose; I love to show them off.  They whinny when you arrive, and they call out again when you leave -- if you're lucky.

But there are too many of them.  I'm not a hoarder; I don't read on-line ads and make calls and just accidentally happen to see horses I can't resist.  I do breed a mare every now and then -- every two years (sometimes three) a foal arrives.  There are three generations on the property now; a 25-year old mare, her son, and his yearling foal, who is destined to be my next number one riding horse.  There are geldings, mares, a stallion.  A buckskin, some bays, a paint, some sorrels, a true black, and a palomino.  I like variety.

I do love walking friends and guests through the barn and introducing them to the herd.  I like pointing out the different personalities and idiosyncrasies and sharing each horse's life story.  I like showing how I train the horses to lower their heads on command, or step back on cue, or how the very special horses rest their heads gently on my shoulder.  I enjoy letting people meet the horses, sometimes the first time they've ever been so close.  This is what I've always wanted to do:  be surrounded by horses and spend hours every day caring for them, training them, riding them, and yes, cleaning up after them.

But what I don't like is a particular question.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets asked this; I'm sure anyone who has horses, in the plural, gets asked the same thing.  I get defensive when I'm asked, and sometimes I'm snappy like a petulant terrier when I answer.  It never bothered me when people would ask, "Why aren't you married yet?"  (I fixed that particular issue over a year ago.  Late bloomer, I guess.)   It never bothered me when they'd ask, "Why don't you have kids?"  But this question -- THE question -- sends me into instant annoyance.

"Why do you NEED so many horses?"

The problem with THE question is that it's so laden with judgment.  It's not a question a horse lover will ask another  horse lover; we just understand.  It's a question the non-horseman asks, and they aren't asking it because they will ever understand.  They're asking it because they want you to know that they don't approve.  The answer is irrelevant.

It's not a question they ask because they're concerned about the condition of the horses.  Anyone can look at these animals and see that they're well fed.  Their hooves are trimmed or shod.  They are wormed regularly.  Each one is turned out over 12 hours a day -- and most of them are turned out at all times.  They have shade.  They have vet checks twice a year, and all of them who are riding age are trained under saddle.  These are not neglected animals.  Each one (other than my husband's horse, and that's because he adamantly refuses to let me do so) is neatly clipped every week.

The stalls are cleaned a few times a day.  Sometimes it's only twice a day, but other times it's a half dozen times.  The horses are fed abundant food, appropriately tailored to their specific needs.  They get exercise.  They have an excellent social life, and they have deep bedding in their stalls.  The youngsters know what youngsters ought to know:  they load, they tie, they pick their feet up politely, they stand to be groomed, and they allow their faces and ears and legs to be clipped.  Fly spray doesn't bother them.  They're good about being wormed, and vaccinated, and trimmed.  The two fillies on site have been ponied.

But there are too many.  A few of them are for sale, but they require either healing or retraining.  I don't want them going to a home where they may be injured or may cause injury.  I don't want them going to Mexico to slaughter.

Some, I'll never sell.  The numbers in my barn are at an all-time high now.  (Since I know you're wondering, suffice it to say there are fewer than a dozen, but more than half a dozen.)  I didn't go looking for them; they just -- well, they just happened.  As I give the tour of the herd, I tell the story of Gus and Shiloh.  They were rescues.  Their owner loved them and provided well for them, but was at wit's end when things crumbled personally.  She couldn't sell them; the market had crashed, and these out-of-shape horses could not compete with the sound, well-conditioned horses flooding the market.  They were too nice to be sent to slaughter.  I stepped in.  One is recovering from lameness so severe she wouldn't even stand the first weekend I brought her home; she just stretched out on her side because her feet hurt so badly.  The other is learning his manners.  He's spoiled, but sweet.  He's getting back in shape and getting lots of miles on the trail.  They're for sale, but until the right home comes along, they have a safe haven here.

There's Holly.  She's the matron, at 25.  She is here for life.  She's always had good care and great owners, and was never treated badly, but she has had eight homes in half as many states.  She's lived in Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, and Arizona.  Even if I didn't love her wholeheartedly, which I do, I would never sell her.  She deserves a forever home -- a stable stable, so to speak.  Recently, after her 25th birthday, I began ranch sorting on her, and she might as well have been a two year old; she loves it, and can't wait to chase the cows.  Holly is a prim and proper mare with a great sense of mischief.

There's Holly's son, Ziggy.  Holly was carrying him when I bought her.  He's the big guy now, the stud horse.  In a fit of madness when I was dealing with a family illness, I sent him to a "trainer" to continue the gentle training under saddle I had started.  The trainer brutalized him.  This kind, gentle, sweet-natured stallion came back a beast.  It has taken two years to get him back to his happy, playful self.  He's mine forever; I won't risk letting someone else torture him out of fear, or machismo, or short-man's syndrome.  He's another keeper.

There are others.  There's my best riding horse, Buck.  He's the horse of my heart; I adore him.  He has the biggest heart of any horse I've ever known, and is as honest as a horse can be.  I trust him completely, and I ride him more than any horse here.  I wouldn't sell him at any price.  When we're young, we horse-crazy girls have a vision of our dream horse.  He's that vision I had:  a big, solid buckskin with kind eyes, so warm and sweet they remind me of melted chocolate.

There's the little bay mare.  Before I got her, she'd been abused.  She's so head shy that even now if you move too quickly, or worm her, or touch her ears, she over-reacts and flies backwards in terror.  She's coming along nicely, and she's got a lightness of expression she never had before.  When she's completely reliable under saddle, and has learned a bit about working cows, she'll be for sale -- but not until the right rider finds her.  She'll stay here until that happens.  It might be next week, or it might be never.  But she's a sweet little girl and doesn't deserve to risk abuse again.

When she was on her way to me, after I'd agreed to buy her from a friend (not the one who'd handled her roughly), I learned she was in foal.  That meant another baby.  That plain-brown-wrapper mare foaled a flashy, black-and-white paint filly.  Meet Bisbee:  sweet, affectionate, but sensitive.  She's quick to move, but takes patience to train.  She's for sale, but you can probably already guess:  not until the right owner comes along.  She's about the prettiest little paint  you ever saw, but she needs just the right hand to train her.  She's not as resilient as some horses, and needs completely gentle handling, or she crumples like a wet tissue.  The right person will make her into a barrel horse, where she can use her speed and agility and endless energy.  Until then?  Yep.  Here she is.

Yes, there are too many.

I quit answering THE question a few months back.  I am blunt about it now; abrupt, even.  I say, "I don't answer that any more.  It's a judgment-filled question."  The neighbor asked it when he ventured over to introduce himself; he doesn't like horses.  Friends with poodles ask it.  Visitors with fifteen cats walking around on their countertops at home ask it.  Horse people?  They just understand.

What I want to say to those who ask is, "Why is it about need?"  The prankster in me is tempted to ask why they needed five children, or a flat-screen TV, or the latest Apple gadget -- after all, their last four iPhones still work fine, and I could have bought a lot of hay with the money they spent.  Do they need a Hummer, or a cabin in the woods?  Do they need a garage filled with vintage Indian motorcycles, or that boat in the driveway?  Here's the thing:  we don't often need what truly makes our heart sing.  Not in the physical sense, anyway.  We can live without the art collection, or the dog at our feet.  We can live without the creative pursuits that awaken us intellectually, or the scented candles that stimulate our senses and evoke a restful place.

No, I don't need this many horses.  I can do without them, and, in all likelihood, they can do without me.  It's not about need, though, is it?  We don't write love songs about the air that we breathe or the water we drink.  Shakespeare's sonnets aren't about the blood that runs through our veins, or the heart that pushes it:  they're about the things that make our blood heat up, and our heart beat faster.  The things that make our life full and rich are the things that we don't need.  The stuff of poetry and art is non-essential to our existence, and oh-so-critical to our fulfillment.

I have a barn full of horses I really don't need.  They're like my dogs:  it's not that I can't live without them; it's that I'd never want to try.

Do I Really NEED This?

(c) 2012 MJ Miller 
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