I’ve always liked to take some time at year’s end to ponder the preceding 12 months’ events and trends. And as I recall 2003, one trend seems to stand above and dominate everything else’the high cost of horses and everything to do with them.
Yes, you can find a very young or completely green horse for less than $3,500, a horse who may be a true diamond in the rough. But horses with any kind of experience are worth somewhere between a year at college and a home mortgage. This certainly reflects the business strength of our horse world, but it also discourages people who aren’t already a part of it from entering it, especially when the horse’s cost is just the tip of the iceberg.
And I’m anxious about the long-term strength of our domestic equestrian economy when so many trainers and riders are buying horses abroad instead of at home, making us, as Linda Allen wrote earlier this year, Europe’s most valued customer.
Which brings me to my next point. I fear that we’re losing our sense of horsemanship as riders insist on buying horses on which they can compete right away. These riders’from beginner children, to adult amateurs at all levels, and even some pros’have never learned how, or forgotten how, to train horses. All they know is how to compete, which some still do very well.
What happened to training, improving and developing our own horses? The real joy of riding and owning horses is in seeing them become more physically and mentally attuned to our aids, more confident, even physically different than they were; seeing them learn new movements, jump better, learn new skills or even new disciplines. Our horses’ development should be our goal, our reward, as riders, trainers and as horsemen.
Instead, there is enormous pressure today to “get to the ring,” to win ribbons. We’re in danger of forgetting that competition and its awards are supposed to be the confirmation of the training we’ve done at home, not the reason we ride. Trainers, please stand up to this pressure to compete. Instead, train your students to really ride, to train and’most importantly’to care for their horses. I know some trainers who do teach that way, but there are too few of them.
And that brings me to the subject of equine welfare. The U.S. Equestrian Federation is now suspending a score of trainers who, in several different ways, attempted to physically or mentally alter (they hoped to improve) their horses’ performance by feeding or injecting them with an assortment of chemical products. We’re fortunate that today our veterinarians and other practitioners have a tremendous range of therapies, medications and supplements to help keep our horses sound and comfortable as we ask them to gallop, jump or do dressage. But chemistry cannot’and should not’replace good, old-fashioned training, conditioning and husbandry, especially to the horses’ long-term detriment.
Too often today, our lives seem to be a never-ending string of deadlines and demands at work and at home. And as we try to fit riding into that maelstrom, we become ever more enamored with paying someone else to exercise, train or care for our horses, because we cannot. So I hope that, in 2004, we’ll all be able to spend more time with our horses, to get to know them better, to appreciate their strengths, their weaknesses, their foibles, their personalities and, most of all, the trust and generosity they give us when we do things right.