Keep Your Horse
I bought my first horse, Beauty, on November 29th, 2018, after more than 8 years of leasing and taking lessons. It felt like I had waited an eternity, and I was so excited to finally be able to afford my own horse to ride! I did everything by the book: I found Beauty through my trainer, I rode her multiple times before the purchase, and I had a reputable vet declare her sound to ride through a pre-purchase exam. The day we signed the paperwork, I promised her that I would take care of her for the rest of her life.
Beauty was diagnosed with a chronic degenerative connective tissue condition after only a matter of months, called DSLD. The vets had missed the telltale signs of her dropped fetlocks and inflamed tendons; I was heartbroken. I never even got to ride Beauty once after I brought her home, because she suffered from severe separation anxiety stemming from her sudden removal from her previous family of 13 years.
I was okay with helping Beauty work through her anxiety. It was overwhelming at first, as she was a completely different horse at the new ranch than she was in her own home, yet I knew that any behavioral issue could be resolved with enough time and patience. But when she was diagnosed with her condition, I knew that it was something I couldn’t fix. Beauty had to be retired immediately, and my hopes and dreams of almost a decade were whisked away.
I couldn’t afford to keep Beauty and purchase another rideable horse, so my barn manager and fellow boarders at the time urged me to list her on Craigslist, and all of the equine sale sites, so that I could unload her quickly and pursue my dream of owning my own trail horse. I quickly dismissed this idea and instead called around to local therapy centers to see if Beauty could be donated as an equine therapy horse. Unfortunately, it turned out that everyone had the same idea; every equine-assisted therapy center was already bursting at the seams with well-mannered, yet unwanted senior horses.
I even had a woman, who wanted a sweet older horse to love on, come out to see Beauty, but it wasn’t a good fit. When she left, I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. I had the realization that I wasn’t going to find a fairytale ending for her, with a picturesque farm and diligent, reliable caretakers. Nobody wanted a permanently lame horse with anxious tendencies. Nobody wanted her but me.
Around this time, Adele made a trip out to California, and I was lucky enough to secure a private lesson with her at my ranch. We clicker-trained and chatted about proper mechanics and useful techniques, and at the end, I asked for her opinion on if I should keep Beauty considering the circumstances. Adele told me that even though Beauty couldn’t be ridden anymore, she had a world of things to teach me about being a good trainer and a good horsewoman. And that, overall, the safest place for her to be, was with me. That sealed the deal, and I decided to keep Beauty for the remainder of her life and indefinitely close the door on my riding goals.
The purpose of telling you this long story isn’t to prove that I am somehow morally superior to someone who would’ve passed Beauty on, or to generate sympathy. In fact, it’s the opposite: I want readers to know that I understand why horse owners make the decisions they do. I understand the temptation of trading in an unsound horse for a horse with no limitations; I understand the financial strain of supporting a horse with ongoing medical and behavioral issues; I understand the emotional burden of caring for a horse in constant decline while simultaneously having to give up all your future aspirations; and I understand them more than most. I used to daydream about the feeling of galloping my horse across an open field with no restrictions and no hesitation, just the connection between myself, my horse, and the wind. I still do. Sometimes I want it so badly that I can feel my heart ache.
However, the reality is that even though no one wants these horses, they exist. They exist whether or not we decide to take on the responsibility to care for them and their lives continue whether or not we’re in them. And the likelihood that we, as lifelong horse owners, will end up with at least one horse in our lifetime that doesn’t quite match our expectations is pretty high. So, the question is, what will you do when you end up with a horse like this? A horse that is physically incapable of doing what you ask; a horse who doesn’t have the talent to bring home the blue ribbons or take you up the levels; a horse who is mentally or emotionally compromised and needs a patient, gentle hand; a horse who is too old or too skinny or too sick or too much or not enough.
I made a promise. A promise that I intended to keep. And the thought of Beauty enduring a life of neglect, or of being misunderstood, or being just plain unhappy makes my heart ache drastically more than having to temporarily put my own desires aside. Because we don’t know what happens to our horses when they leave our hands, not really. We would like to think that all horse owners have the right intentions, priorities, and education, but they don’t. The vast number of horses being run through auctions and confiscated by animal control and hauled across the border to slaughter are proof of that.
At the end of the day, I know that not all horses are destined to stay where they are. Horses will always change hands between owners, breeders, trainers, and rescue organizations. This is a necessary aspect of the horse industry and it’s not inherently bad, far from it. There absolutely are safe ways to rehome horses and you might have to utilize those someday, and that’s perfectly okay. But I think equine welfare would make massive strides if owners could start by simply having this conversation more often. What would it look like if competitive riders formed retirement plans for their performance horses instead of automatically reselling? How can we spread more knowledge to educate owners on the risks and potential emotional fallout of rehoming horses? What can we strive to learn from horses who aren’t useful in the traditional sense, and how can they help us excel in other aspects of our horsemanship? How can we make the general concept of purposefully owning an un-rideable horse more socially acceptable, as well as advocating for the benefits of this type of ownership?
I know that horse owners can make this progress because I know why we are drawn to horses in the first place. They offer us companionship, solace, freedom, and endless opportunities for growth, in exchange for a quick bite and a scratch. They keep our minds and bodies active and our emotions raw; albeit too much at times, leading to sore muscles and sore hearts. Horses manage to give to us even more than the tremendous amount that we take from them. They ask us for nothing, and yet, we owe them everything. I advocate that we keep our horses, and not only because they need us. We need them, too.
“The question isn’t if he’ll meet our expectations. It’s what will we need to do to meet his.”
– Anna Blake
- Natalie H