My whole life, I knew I couldn’t have a horse. I never really examined whether I actually wanted one.
Of course, I wanted a horse of my own! What horse-crazy kid doesn’t?
But this summer, shortly after I started horse-shopping for the first time, I started re-examining that stance. The money was one thing, but did I want the responsibility?
In June, I had a fall that rattled me. Soon after, my old trainer had a suggestion: a horse of hers that was nearing retirement age. I could take him for a couple years, and when he was ready to step down, send him back. She needed him for the summer, so I spent the warmer months on a somewhat reduced horse-search effort; I had the possibility of an all-but-free horse come autumn, so only something really spectacular could convince me to change my weekend plans, risk life and limb on an unknown horse, and then possibly write a big check.
When my husband and I decided that we were in a position to swing horse ownership financially, I thought, “Finally, I get to be the person I always wanted to be: a horse owner.”
As I’ve explained before, part of it was logistics. It’s hard to find a horse suitable for a rider of my weight in a lesson barn. And as a busy professional with frequent weekend obligations as well, I’ve got precious little time to work with a trainer’s schedule. Relying on lessons to get riding time is a non-starter.
Leasing has worked for me a couple times, but there are only a couple places around here that do the kind of riding I enjoy, so leasing an on-site horse is the same issue as finding a lesson horse. If somebody with a nice draft cross wants to share board, the net’s a little wider. But it’s still not exactly a good way to free yourself from the demands of somebody else’s schedule.
Looking for a horse that met my “better than practically-free” standard, however, meant that I ended up thinking a lot more critically about what it would mean for me, personally, to own a horse.
Eventually, it dawned on me that I might be too risk-averse for horse ownership. I fretted about pre-purchase exams in particular.
My budget was such that two failed PPEs with radiographs could mean I no longer had a budget at all. I was both absolutely convinced that I needed a PPE with X-rays and completely unwilling to pay for it. What if the horse becomes permanently unusable the month after you bring it home and the problem was right there in plain sight all along, so long as you define “plain sight” as X-ray vision?
What if you spend all that money and still have no horse?
Or what if it’s in an accident on the trailer ride? What if you have a horse for decades that you can’t use and you’re right back to where you started, only worse, because now you’ve got horse bills but no riding time. At what point is it really acceptable to euthanize an animal only because it’s not useful to you?
Maybe we needed to move. Maybe we needed to get horse property, so I could bring retirees home. But how soon did we need to move? Could it wait four or five years? Ten? And I thought I was dead-set against having horses at home owing to my incurable not-a-morning-person status?
Maybe I was making a math error. Maybe the question for any responsible horse boarder isn’t whether you can afford one horse but whether you can afford two?
I went ’round and around. I lost sleep thinking about it.
But I kept looking. And eventually, this is where I landed: Horse ownership is an act of faith. You plan ahead; you make the best choices you can, but it’s always going to be a bit of a gamble. Be sensible; don’t risk more than you can afford to lose, and do your best to be kind to both yourself and the animal.
Since my competitive goals are: only show when it seems like it might be fun, don’t cry, don’t fall off, don’t break your tack and mostly be on the correct lead and diagonal, I couldn’t see blowing thousands on radiographs. Sure, I want to jump. But if my horse can’t anymore, whatever, it’s not gonna ruin my show life. And if a horse needs pain meds to be riding-comfortable, it’s not like I’m going to get kicked out of the national showing organization of my choice because I’m not going to need to join at all. My horse’s health will be between me, the horse, the vet and the barn owner.
As for a horse that’s no longer usable, well, that’s a bridge you cross when you get to it.
I’ve got an idea of what I find morally acceptable and feasible, but that’s no guarantee that money, available retirement homes and the horse’s needs will all match up when the time comes. But that’s animal ownership.
Every animal owner has to make their peace with the idea that they might one day have to decide when the animal’s life will end. That power and responsibility doesn’t always demand to be resolved at a time when we can feel smug about the decision afterward. If I am comfortable with that responsibility for my dog and my cats, I can handle it for my horse, too. I hope.
Karen Hopper Usher is returning to riding after several years away. She’s sharing her perspective and experiences as a plus-sized rider with The Chronicle of the Horse. By day, she is a reporter at a small newspaper in northern Michigan. She is horse-shopping like it’s her second job.