I started riding at 11. I took lessons on horses that were only vaguely sound, with ill-fitting tack, who received a bute a day to keep them teaching two lessons a day, six days a week. I rode in arenas where motor oil was used to keep the footing from being dusty, and at barns where horses were kept in standing stalls all day long.
Going to college in New York I went on a hack around Central Park where we rented livery horses who lived on the second and third stories of an apartment building. And now, as a professional, I’ve had clients bring me horses in trailers with holes in the floor, or who share their fields with barbed wire or rusty cars.
I’ve also seen horses in top performance barns, with phenomenal care, get hurt. Get sick. Die. I know of a horse who got cast in his stall, fractured his leg, sent a piece of bone through the femoral artery and bled to death in the middle of the day. I knew a horse who was put on the lunge line to get some exercise on a brutally cold winter day, too cold to ride, only to buck once hard, land just so, and shatter a pastern.
In 20-plus years with horses, if it’s two things I’ve learned, it’s these: 1) that the one Universal Truth in horses is that there are no Universal Truths; and 2) horses are livestock trying to become deadstock. If they can find a creative way to injure or maim themselves, they will.
I’m being a little glib, of course, because the horrible reality of trying to keep 1,200 pounds of flight response, balanced on four legs thinner than our own, balanced on the middle fingernail, healthy and whole is a task enough. As I write this my own Danny, who has spent the last six months recovering from an injury, and who had just been cleared to trot for one whole day, is in a stall at Piedmont Equine Hospital recovering from colic surgery. At home, he gets 12 hours of turnout a day. He’s seen regularly by top shelf veterinarians, and gets an exceptional diet, one with lots of forage and very little concentrate.
Sometimes, they just get sick. Sometimes, they just get hurt. Sometimes, they just die.
It goes without saying that it is imperative that we do all we can to make our horses’ worlds as safe as possible. Frangible pin technology. Advances in footing. Preventative medicine. We must be diligent, and vigilant, to monitor horse welfare in competition, and always err on the side of doing less with our horses, rather than pressing for more.
Sure, human intervention can make the average horse’s life more difficult than the one he’d find out grazing on the open plains. Mustangs don’t do their suspensories. Feral horses aren’t bothered by kissing spines. But they also die young, of wormy guts, of abscesses that make them easy prey for mountain lions, of starvation during lean times.
The first horses were captured by the first men, and since have evolved to do a job. What is today your riding animal was, just 100 years ago, transport, farm equipment and an army tank, sometimes all in one day. We traded them a life of service for a longer and healthier life, one that is more likely to end, whether after a lifetime of beloved service or to prevent further suffering, at the end of a needle of pink fluid than in the jaws of a predator. Sometimes it means they die in the service of humans. Sometimes it means they die at the hands of humans. And it’s important to remember that those two things are not the same thing.
I’ve never met a professional in the horse industry who didn’t get into this business for love. Sure, I’ve met some for whom that love is long gone, and they’re burned out but trapped, or they’ve gotten caught up in the money or the power, but those are so few and so far between that they’re a rounding error. We face the huge vet bills and the long hours and the dirty fingernails and the broken collarbones that a life in this pursuit incurs all in the name of partnering with, and protecting, these giant, fragile, glorious creatures.
And when one is lost, we all should join together to mourn it, because the next time, it could be one of our own.