This is a post that may piss off a few people. While I am certain that there are many working cowboys, folks who were raised on ranches, and even those who just choose to wear Wranglers who are incredibly compassionate, intelligent, and competent in the care and training of their horses, there’s also a saying in my part of the world: He’s not a horseman, he’s a cowboy. It means lack of finesse, use of force, and taking shortcuts. It means an attitude that says the horses are an object put on Earth for our use. Is it a stereotype? Yes. Is it also often true? Yes. Please keep in mind that anyone can be a cowboy, in this sense of the word – you see it in all disciplines. A dressage queen can be a cowboy if she’s ruthless in the use of the double-bridle in order to force her horse into the correct head-set and rushes his training in order to show at the level she desires rather than the level for which he’s physically and mentally ready.
I’ve read a few blogs recently that suggest that the only correct way to teach and/or discipline your horse is through riding, that a good rider is also a good trainer, and that someone who can stay in the saddle is far more worthy of our respect than someone who does excellent groundwork, for example, but is still learning to canter. I have to disagree, and not just mildly. Riding is only one part of horsemanship – an important part, to be sure, but despite outward appearances, just because someone is an excellent rider doesn’t mean that he or she truly “knows the beast.” And unfortunately, because we all tend to gaze, starstruck, at someone with riding skills far above our own, it’s easy to miss this lack of skill in other areas until a situation comes along that is so blatant in the lack of care and understanding of the horse that we can’t pretend otherwise.
I have a friend who can ride a horse like nobody’s business – I mean, there’s almost nothing this person can’t do on horseback, and fearlessly, to boot. He was raised on a ranch in the midwest and has had his butt in a saddle since before he could walk. Every job he’s ever had has been riding horses in one capacity or another, including race riding. He’s got some of the best qualities of a “cowboy” such as fabulous manners and a great heart. He’d do a favor for a stranger. But when it comes to horses, force is what works.
Now, that by itself isn’t enough to get me up in arms. Everyone has their own training techniques and beliefs and it’s pretty much a sliding scale, in the horse world, of how much force is appropriate. If I have to up the level of my “ask” to “tell” by escalating the amount of force I use when I tap my horse with a whip, I will, and I feel fine about it. On the other hand, I will not kick him in the stomach to correct him. To me, that’s a pretty obvious range of force, but I’ve seen greater, and I’m sure you have, too. At any rate, whether or not I agree with such techniques as kicking the horse in the stomach, tying his head to the stirrup and making him run in circles, or tying him up for hours without water (and I don’t), these aren’t the kind of things that make me crazy. Some people have made very good arguments for why and how these techniques work and at a certain level, to each their own. You can’t fight every battle and it’s probably not my place to do so, anyway.
BUT…. when someone ignores all advice, seeks no help, and refuses to do even the basics to care for a horse with an injury out of pride, ignorance, and ego – that is not okay. Not even remotely. And this same friend (who has recently been downgraded to an acquaintance since the treatment of his horse makes me ill) has literally put his $15,000 horse in danger of permanent lameness due to his own lack of care and unwillingness to listen to anyone, including vets, on the seriousness of the issue. Simply because he has spent his entire life with horses and can’t admit that he doesn’t know it all, no matter how talented he is in the saddle. Ego, ego, ego. It may literally cost this horse his life.
And it just goes to show that, while you can be both, there’s a difference between a horseman, and a cowboy.