Monday, July 26, 2010

an appeal for humane and connected horsemanship

Seventeen years ago I was given a book by William Sears, M.D., called The Baby Book, in which Dr. Sears talked about his theory of parenting, referred to as attachment parenting.

Dr. Sears' theory of attachment parenting (often called AP), calls for developing a secure bond with our children, the goal being a secure, connected child who grows into an empathic, connected adult.

Attachment Parenting International offers the following guiding principles, which facilitate strong, nurturing connections between children and their parents:
  1. preparing for pregnancy, birth, and parenting
  2. feeding with love and respect
  3. responding with sensitivity
  4. using nurturing touch
  5. ensuring safe sleep, physically and emotionally
  6. providing consistent and loving care
  7. practicing positive discipline
  8. striving for balance in personal and family life

With only a few tweaks of language, all of the above could easily be set forth as guiding principles for living humanely and in connection with horses (and donkeys, and all equines).

Last week it was Pat Parelli and Catwalk.

This week I have read an article about a miniature donkey strapped into a harness against her will and parasailed up and down a beach in the name of "publicity." The donkey was terrified, landed quite roughly, and apparently was in such distress while in the air, left many children crying in upset confusion. And yet, after a public outcry when the owner was finally located and the donkey examined by a veterinarian, there will apparently be no charges of abuse or cruelty because the donkey sustained no physical injuries.

In the smaller circle of equine community, I have read a post on a forum about the need to keep working our horses, despite the heat, because of the need to maintain a training schedule. Heat indexes where I live have ranged from 112-119 degrees for the past week. It's easy enough to see that extreme heat affects horses more quickly and more seriously than it does the average, healthy human. They have hair covering their entire bodies. Their digestive tracts rely on regular intake of forage and water to remain functional. When we ride them, they are not only working, but carrying our weight.

I received an email informing me of things to do to haul horses safely in heat, in advance of Pony Club National Championships coming up next weekend in Virginia. Nationals are held in Kentucky and Virginia on alternate years, always in late July/early August. Why schedule something that involves hauling horses and ponies from all over the US during the hottest time of year?

I read a Facebook entry referring to a pony as a "butthead" because he didn't want to go into the ring for a show class, tried to leave, and bucked. Has the pony been checked for physical pain? Bit fit, saddle fit, muscle soreness, feet checked, chiropractic issues? The pony's behavior is indicative of something being wrong, either physically or emotionally. How else can he express it? My guess is that if he didn't want to go into the ring to jump, and that was paid attention to, he wouldn't have then needed to buck to get his point across. And yet no one listened. He was a "butthead."

Is there no end to the narcissism, self-centeredness, and downright ignorance of human beings? I can't think of any reason save an emergency trip to the vet school that would call for loading any horse or donkey into a trailer at this time of year, in this heat, with the expectation that the horse/donkey stand in a strange stall, hot, stressed, and yet ready and willing to perform strenuous work in a competitive setting.

I can't imagine having hauled any of my horses to any event this week and being remotely capable of disparaging them because they resisted being ridden.

And I could no more strap Rafer Johnson or Redford in a harness and drag them through the air for the sake of making a little money than I could one of my human children.

What in the world are we thinking when we expect animals to serve as vehicles for our bank accounts, our egos, and our apparently desperate need for external validation?

Alice Miller wrote a number of books about parents who expect these things of their children. She describes in great psychological detail what this does to children, and how the effects ripple into adulthood.  It's time someone wrote a similar treatise on people and their horses. There is no ribbon on earth, no amount of money, and no genuine self-gratification worth the cost of treating animals like objects, with no feelings, no rights, and little effort on our parts toward creating, nurturing, and maintaining a deeper relationship.

When we ignore the deeper, unspoken needs of the equines we ride and use for our own purposes, there is a cost. Not dollars and cents, although certainly we may end up with broken down horses and big vet bills at some point down the road. The cost I refer to is a psychic, soul-deep cost that I'm not sure we even know the consequences of incurring. It's a cost to humanity and to growth as human beings.

 I know this sounds serious. I believe it to be true.

I'm not opposed to competitive horse sport, but the reward of competition should be based in the maturing of the rider's increasingly connected relationship with the horse, and in the making of sound, safe decisions based on the needs of the horse, who can't leave a voicemail saying "oh, by the way, I really don't feel like carrying you over jumps in 90+ degree heat - how about we do it another time?"

As much as our children rely on us to intuit and meet their needs when they're too young to do it for themselves, our horses and our donkeys (and our cats and dogs and birds and all the other wonderful animals we surround ourselves with) need us to be their biggest, most thoughtful advocates and partners.

And I can say with certainty borne of experience, when we say NO to "smack him harder," when we say NO to "that noseband needs to be TIGHT," when we say IT'S TOO HOT TO HAUL, WE WON'T BE THERE when we get the email asking about the upcoming horse show, and when we say "I'll do what it takes to find out why you bucked in that last class" - what we get in return is something far more valuable than a training schedule checked off, a thumbs up from an unenlightened trainer, a few new clients for our company, or a fistful of cheap show ribbons.

We get connection. We get devotion. We get to participate in the magical relationship that is the amazing and most genuine gift horses and donkeys offer humans.

And more than that, I think we elevate ourselves as humans. We raise the bar for our own species. Instead of expecting more of them, how about we expect more of ourselves?


Grey Horse Matters said...

These are the absolute truths all we humans should live by. We must advocate for our animals because they cannot do it for themselves. It reminds me of an old saying, 'show me your horse and I will tell you what you are'.(I may not have gotten that completely correct but it's the gist).

Maybe I'm a little naive but I am always appalled at the way some people mistreat animals. They are so uncaring or uneducated they actually feel that animals have no thoughts or feelings.

Thank you for taking the time to point out how our animals depend on us and if we do the right thing by them they will certainly reward us with their love and trust.

Anonymous said...

I came from the traditional hunter/jumper show world - the world of "hit that horse", "make that horse do it", "use your spurs", "punish that horse in the mouth" (uttered by a famous hunter/jumper/equitation clinician at a horse expo I attended - I walked out), etc. etc., and I've seen people, including trainers, viciously beat and spur horses in training and the warm up ring - the horse was just a piece of sports equipment to be used up in the pursuit of winning and to be discarded when broken or no longer up to the demands placed on it. I finally said no - it took me too long to wake up but I finally realized that if it felt wrong, it was wrong, and it was my job to protect my horses from this treatment, or from people with those attitudes.

I then went in search of other ways to work with and interact with horses - I've been on that other road for a while now and every day the merits of listening to the horse and considering how the horse feels about what we are doing become clearer and shine through.

Netherfieldmom said...

Unfortunately this is the M.O. of the majority of the horse industry, no matter what the discipline...I've been driving a long way to go to the only trainer I ever met who I respected and trusted and believed in, for 20 years. She's not close, but she calls the vet when the school horses need him and doesn't lose her temper, with horses or kids. She's not rich, but she's honest and humane and that's who I want my kids around and where I'll spend my money.

forever in blue jeans, Beth said...

Like debriding a horrific burn wound, billie, you’ve rexposed and rubbed many raw nerves here with your most thoughtful post.

My heart gets so very heavy with the weight and sadness of it all, for I know that those acts of cruelty which make the press are sadly only the tip of a very huge, very old iceberg . . . there is much suffering in this world . . . I think the root of the problems is far deeper still . . . I think of what is done to young women, girl-children in some cultures in Africa – the horns of dilemma for some US doctors who get brought these child-women by their own mothers (who had that torture inflicted on them) to have this barbaric “rite-of-passage” cutting done – do in a sanitary, medically less risky way with anesthesia; or refuse, knowing that the child’s mother will turn to the old way of having their girl child mutilated, cut that same physically and physiologically tortuous and abusive way they once were – compassion has an uphill fight against tradition it seems.
I wonder – how, why did this barbaric behavior get started in the first place?! What’s at the root of Native American Indians and their equally bizarre and tortuous “sun ceremony” – human’s capacity for unthinking, or patently pathological, sadistical and premeditated cruelty is legend – “man’s inhumanity to man.” Seems like our hold on civilized, moral behavior is a thin one at best – the struggle of good and evil – and who gets to define which is which – is our human burden to bear each generation.
I think competition is a brain-stem activity - harkening to "survival". But it can also be a drug of sorts, and become unhealthy like an addiction. Then throw in the lure of mob-mentality, and "us/them" "in/out" mentality. And, if animals are subject to "Pavlov's conditioning" then so are we.

Selma Frieberg wrote “Every Child’s Birthright; In Defense of Mothering” – she gave words to what I knew intuitively, but struggled to articulate. Her work affirmed my decision to be an at-home-mom – giving up my beloved horses, living on a very thin economical edge – I was keenly aware of my role in soul-sculpting.

You "woke up" - I "woke up" - I DO see others "awakened" or "waking" - how to raise awareness, how to rouse the still sleeping, how to create new and healthier "traditions" and “competitions” - that's my quest-ion. And I guess the answer is “one star-fish at a time”.

Katarina “Equine Insanity” wrote a post that really spoke to me. She calls it “Thinking Outside the Box “ – I call it “Sam and the Minglers” – I strive to be a compassionate mingler. You can read her post here:

We must keep on keeping on – there is hope - here are some cowboys who have “woke up” –>

Stepping down off the soapbox,
Beth and Cookie,
In Virginia

Valentino said...

"I've been driving a long way to go to the only trainer I ever met who I respected and trusted and believed in..."

I drive 3 1/2 hours to get to my trainer, who is one of the best, most generous horse(wo)men I've ever met. I would go further if I had to.

I thank my lucky stars that I found someone whose philosophy about dressage / horsemanship is compassionate and in line with my own.

In general humans do not live up to the responsibility of the stewardship of our planet and it's living things...

billie said...

Arlene, I love that quote too, and I don't think you're naive. I think we should all be appalled more than we are.

billie said...

Kate, thanks for sharing that - I've been enjoying your Mark Rashid posts as well as the in-depth descriptions of your rides with Dawn and Maisie and what you're trying to accomplish with them. It's impressive.

billie said...

Netherfieldmom, I'm glad to hear you found someone and are supporting her by driving all that way for lessons - thanks for stopping by!

billie said...

Beth, thanks for the heartfelt comment and especially for the reminder of Selma Freiburg. I love her work - did a paper on her in grad school!

billie said...

V, I love reading your accounts of lessons too - it's heartening that some of us are finding good mentors when we all know how easy it is to find the not so good ones...!

jme said...

wow, i was just having a conversation along these lines with my vet today. so many riders care only about their own goals and keeping their horses going at all cost, and i don't ever want to be one of them! i guess being a vet most of your clients expect you to do just that. my vet confessed today that he has recurring nightmares about seeing horses he's nerved being used irresponsibly against his instructions and breaking down right in front of him. but that's what a lot of people do - they ignore the risks, use their horses carelessly until they break, then throw them away. i couldn't live with that either :-(

a lot of our horses have health issues. we could patch them up enough to get them back working at their previous level, but to what end? it seems an alien concept to take the time off to let the horses heal, give them a break from the weather or just let them rest. and forget about modifying goals or retiring them when the time comes...

for me, i wouldn't have horses unless i knew i could treat them fairly and with respect. when we assume control over the life of another being, it's the very least of our responsibility.

billie said...

jme, it feels sometimes to me like many people administer the control they don't have over themselves (or maybe other facets of their lives) over their horses - in a sort of compensatory way that is slightly icky at best and truly sick and twisted at worst.

There's a woman on a forum I read who has taught her horse (supposedly, at least she says she has) to do a deep "down dog" yoga stretch on command. Keil Bay does this every day of his life, and I get so excited when he does it - it just looks so cool - I always exclaim with great delight and say "yoga baaaayyyyy!" and it's almost to the point where he does it when I say that.

The thing is, why the hell do I want to control when my horse stretches his back? Shouldn't that be something he can do when it feels good to him and not when it doesn't?

It's that kind of thing, a sort of benign but insidious need to control, that really freaks me out about people and their horses. I just don't like what it says about the people and their inner workings.

I so respect you for taking on some of the horses that require above and beyond care and maintenance. I have two of them here, out of 6 equines, and it is a sort of daily dance with me trying to keep them happy and healthy w/o stressing myself out about how they might be feeling. Mostly I think they feel pretty good - but I am like a mother hen watching over them and sometimes think back to when it was just the two very easy keepers and my biggest problem was how to keep them from turning into goodyear blimps! (heck, all we had to do was get more equines to eat more of the pasture! duh! :))

jme said...

i so agree about controlling types - so many times i have seen people who were either personally weak or powerless in their own lives become slave drivers in turn to their horses. in an extreme example, there was a girl at the last farm with a tragic personal story who allowed herself to be used by anyone and everyone. but she was like a dominatrix on horseback - it was obscene. she never rode a horse she didn't kick, yank and whip mercilessly, and we'd always have to leave the ring when she came in because our horses were terrified not only by what she'd do to her horses and their reactions, but terrified of her. but the really sad and disturbing part of it was that she only seemed happy when she was abusing the animals. i don't know what that says about people and their inner workings, but it's not comforting. and it doesn't bode well for the animals.

ponymaid said...

Billie, this should be reprinted in every horse, donkey, mule and in fact, in every magazine pertaining to animals, everywhere. Every word is true. Thank you for writing this.


billie said...

jme, dominatrix on horseback says it all... :/

billie said...

Sheaffer, thank you for the kind words. I woke up this morning thinking of that donkey, and this post is what spewed out.

I actually forgot the recent local incident where a horse died at the nearby horse complex (where many large shows are held year-round) after being electricuted in the stall she was in. The poor horse went crazy after being repeatedly shocked and allegedly sustained fatal injuries trying to get out of the stall.

People stood by and watched - afraid to take her out - and her owner walked away because she couldn't stand to watch. (to be fair, it's possible the bystanders were at risk of being shocked too, but somehow it seems they could have gotten the stall door open so the horse could get out?)

Days later the report came back that a number of stalls in that barn as well as at least one other had been wired improperly years ago. Can you imagine how many horses may have been shocked previously and their behavior attributed to something else?

There was another big show there this past weekend, in 100+ degree heat (not counting the heat index), and although the wiring had supposedly been corrected, the stalls are small, dark, with no windows, and known to be hot as hell even at the best of times.

One horse owner was asked if she was worried about stabling her horse there, and her response was something like, "oh, not at all, I'm sure they're taking care of us."

But is she taking care of her horse?

Máire said...

Billie, amen to all that! There is absolutely a psychic cost, of which most are unaware. What is it about us, and about horses, that we take out our need for control on our horses? I think that fear drives much of it, and also that horses bring up something at an instinctual level in us, that can bring out the worst in us.

billie said...

Maire, I think the same thing that makes horses so therapeutic for some of us brings out the fear/worst in others.

I realized very quickly when I started using my horses with a few select therapy clients that the horses, even from a distance, seem to open people up to a lot of unconscious material. I was of course ready for it from the identified client - but surprised that it extended to family members waiting in the car, or simply spending a few moments before and after therapy sessions.

If someone gets into horses and has a lot of unresolved issues, not much insight into their own workings, and anger/control issues, it is likely it will be brought forth. Without someone knowledgeable around to help funnel this appropriately (I'm thinking even a riding instructor could do this, almost w/o realizing exactly what he/she was really doing) it could be very messy and not at all good for the horses involved.

Matthew said...

Thank you for writing this so powerfully.

billie said...

Matthew, as you know, I got pushed right to the edge with this stuff lately! Writing a powerful post is one way to discharge the energy - hopefully it sends it out to the world at large and causes even a few people to consider the horse in a deeper way than they did before.

Jessica Keener said...

Is there no end to the narcissism, self-centeredness, and downright ignorance of human beings?

Answer--sadly, no.

I've missed many of your posts and am catching up. Love what you have to say.

billie said...

Thanks, Jessica. I keep hoping someone will comment and say YES, there is an end to it!

I hope there is, but I guess our lifetimes as humans are probably not long enough to see that kind of shift take place.