The barn where I stable my horse is that rarity, a place where riders of different ages and disciplines exist in harmony. While there are only two Western saddles in the tack room (mine being one of them), there are numerous Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, an aged pony, and even a mustang, and no one is anything but kind in their comments and treatment of other people’s horses. There is no snootiness, and no drama. I am very lucky in this regard, and I know it.
One of my fellow boarders, a kind and conscientious college student, is a dressage rider who shows above third level – an assumption on my part based on her use of a double-bridle when she rides. She has a fabulous warmblood and one day while she was grooming him, I asked her about her experience and his. She talked for a bit about her good fortune in being able to own a horse trained to his level, and how good he was in all ways. Then she turned to me and asked, “And what do you do?”
I was momentarily baffled. After all, she had seen my saddles in the tack room, so it wasn’t as if she was asking if I rode, or even what style, since I have both English and Western saddles. The assumption behind her question presented a real conundrum. How to answer such a simple question when the premise wasn’t one I embraced?
“I ride, and we play,” I replied after a moment’s thought. Then it was her turn to look baffled. In the spirit of the goodwill that pervades our barn, she recovered herself, smiled and nodded, and our conversation moved on.
It’s been my experience that people who show and compete have a hard time envisioning any other reason to own a horse, much less what you might actually spend your time doing if not in training. In the comments of a post bashing on Natural Horsemanship on a blog I read daily (and with which I normally agree), I recently read someone’s response to this video: “Why, why, why? What is the point of this? What function does it serve?”
It’s a revealing question, one that suggests that ‘function’ is the preeminent and logical reason to own a horse. However, a pleasure horse – one not owned with the specific intent of generating or contributing to an income – is a luxury item, regardless of the owner’s income level, social standing, or the appraised value of the horse. Luxury items, which by their very definition are owned for the enjoyment and status of the owner, are not possessed for their functional value, so why is it that we continue to think of horses in such a manner?
Obviously, in many circles, the amount of ribbons your horse is awarded is in direct proportion to the amount of status conferred on you, so there’s some logic to the thought that a horse’s ‘function’ is to compete or show (and win) but in reality, if that’s the case, then your horse’s true ‘function’ is to confer status upon you. The competing and showing is a secondary function, a symptom or result of the first.
On the other hand, if you willingly admit that the horse’s primary purpose is for your enjoyment, the video of the man dancing with his horse suddenly makes sense. What is the point of it? What function does it serve? Well… it’s fun, among other things. It’s enjoyable to both parties (or at least it appears so.) Does there need to be another reason?
On the far, far other end of the spectrum from those who see showing as an end unto itself is the philosophy of Nevzorov, the Russian classical dressage trainer who believes all horse sports are cruel and coercive, and thus unethical. I couldn’t agree less. I am in no way opposed to sport with horses (although I might be opposed to certain training methodologies of these sports) and, in fact, hope to show and compete myself one day. (Actually, I hope to compete Mojo, but you know what I mean.) My only question is why we all continue to act like those sports are the ‘point’ of horse ownership.
I have heard more than one rider say that she feels almost embarrassed to admit that she “only” trail rides. Besides the obvious argument that trail riding anything other than a totally experienced “dead broke” horse is a challenging hobby requiring its own set of riding skills, experience, and courage, why should any horse owner feel the need to justify themselves if they can’t whip out an answer like “We jump 3’6,” or “We compete at training level,” or some such thing?
Furthermore, what if the owner were to reply, “We don’t do anything. I just like looking at him in my backyard.” Anyone who doubts the condescension of riders towards non-riders need only read the comments I mentioned above. The irony of these comments is that this particular blog is geared toward the rescue of horses – and it’s often the owners who don’t ride who willingly provide an important segment of the homes available to rescue horses too lame to compete or show. Likewise, the much-maligned middle-aged woman new to owning and riding and faithfully following the NH ‘gurus’ is, by and large, far more concerned with the care and well-being of her horse than many life-long owners who take their own knowledge for granted, and certainly just as likely to provide a good home. Ultimately, isn’t that the most important thing, especially given the staggering number of unwanted horses being sent to slaughter?
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a goal, and nothing wrong with competing. But to make that the only “real” reason to own a horse deprives us all of the freedom to explore the mystery and attraction that drew us to horses before we could ride, or drive, or even tack up a horse. And, the beauty of it is, to do that, you don’t have to do anything – except enjoy the company of the horses you keep.
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