Friday, January 22, 2010


We horse people are tough, and, we might as well face it, a bit daft. Whether you want to think of our passion for all things horsey as a sport, inter-species communication, or a chance to show up the stable next door with your ribbons, we all suffer gladly for our passion.

First of all, there is the ratio of actually riding/driving our horses vs. caring for the horse so that some day we can actually do something with them. This is especially true of horse owners who live in the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest, Central Plains, and anywhere besides Orlando, Florida. Oh, yes, I know. Every fall, when the temperature starts to drop you probably make a resolution that no matter HOW cold it gets and how much snow you have to confront, you will ride at least five times a week. With me, before access to indoor rings, that lasted maybe until after Christmas, when too many frostbitten toes resulted in hibernation- excepting the hours spent caring for my now indolent and carefree equines.

In the past twenty years, there has been a resurgence of “natural horsemanship”. I say a resurgence because this is what most horse people have been doing since forever, they just did not have a label for it. The main tenet of natural horsemanship seems to be gaining the respect of our equine charges, becoming the “boss” mare or the “boss” stallion, or whatever herd member we are trying to emulate. I think most of our horses get together and decide exactly how much of us they have to put up with so that they do not disturb the natural order the things, which to them is to be waited upon hand and foot until the rare occasion occurs when they actually have to do a little something to earn their keep.

Every day humans spend all kinds of money at health spas and fancy hotels to be waited upon in the manner their horse is accustomed to every single day. Consider the average horse care, especially in the winter time. After napping and generally standing cozily about in his clean bedded stall for the night, blanketed over his winter coat if his owner was feeling cold herself the night before, the horse is awakened by the sound of a thud. His owner has again succumbed to the patch of ice that has stubbornly refused to yield to sand and salt. Nothing can get in the way of horse care, however, and heaven forbid that the REGULAR SCHEDULE that the horse needs for his well-being be modified. The owner drags herself up from her fall and proceeds to start the ministrations her friend requires...

First of all is the “Ritual of the Roughage“, the serving of nutritional and fresh hay. The hay has ended up costing more than the price per unit of caviar this winter because a) the summer was too wet, or b) the summer was too dry. It of course has to be shaken up to get the occasional mote of dust out of it so that the horse is not forced to inhale it. The owner, of course, suffers from hay fever and must take allergens even in the winter so that her adorable equine does not suffer. In England as a working student in a riding school, (that is a whole other tale), the phrase “water, hay, oats”, and that order therein, was forced into our little brain-washed minds. Mr. Horse has, however, long ago established that his anxiety about not eating in the past 2 hours has to be immediately sated by being given his hay first.

Now his heated water bucket must be rinsed out and scrubbed, immediately imbuing his owner, who is not the most coordinated person in the world, with wet jeans, sleeves and face. Fresh water is now transported to the spotless receptacle by means of carrying several buckets from a cleverly contrived trough. The hose has frozen solid long ago. In Upstate New York , it will become useful again about the first of May.

Time for the “oats” part of the morning scenario. We scoff at this simplistic explanation of the “ritual of “hay, water, oats. The grain now given to our equine supervisor has been subjected to more taste, nutrition, and quality checks than the food we give to our children. We have established the ratio of protein acceptable , and then added to the whole concoction with supplements. We have a supplement for his tail, hooves, right ear, intestinal tract, and temperament. It has become so time- consuming and confusing that a marketing genius came up with shipping us all of this in premade packets that only cost us three times more than they would have in bulk. We also may serve our horse a hot breakfast consisting of beet pulp or a bran mash. In England we working students also had to boil linseed oil and add horse nuts, maize, and brewer’s yeast to the mix. Only when your horse is contently consuming his breakfast can we stagger to our kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and instant oatmeal mix. What WE eat is of no consequence compared to our horse‘s diet.

The next obeisance required is the cleaning of our horse’s sleeping quarters. I have , after years of observation, come to the conclusion that any behavioral problems that any horse has stems from this activity. I will reiterate this statement as it has not been exposed in all of the thousands of horse manuals printed…..the key to our relationship with our horses and the “submission…herd boss” thing is tied to the ritual of “The Cleaning of the Poop”.

How can we expect a horse to take our supposed superiority seriously when every day they see us succumb to this ritual? They observe the time and the sacred implements that we cherish to accomplish this task. They observe that we have made a ritual of the possession of his leavings-- wheel barrels, manure forks, manure forks with elevated sides, tractors, shovels, etc., that are dedicated to this purpose.

They watch while we carefully shift out the unwanted material, the clean shavings or straw, so as not to dilute the desired end (yes, a pun here) product. Then we cart it away and store it for later use. Maybe it is spread usefully on a field, maybe someone lucky enough comes to collect it. Either way, it is obviously a prized possession. The horses at the British Horse Society approved riding school were privy to the building of a shrine dedicated to their excrement. It was called the midden. It often became as tall as a second story building. So much straw was used for bedding, and the horses were bedded so deep, that it always managed to smell fairly fragrant-straw, with a slight essence of horse.

The midden was periodically carted away by mushroom growers who greatly prized its contents. (and don’t you think those English horses knew it). In the meantime, the Monument to Manure had to be kept attractive. Every day we had to don our knee high muck boots and “square the midden”. This was accomplished by climbing up the sides and with heavy metal pitch forks evening and straightening the sides until it was square. As a result of this enterprise, every horse that I knew over there had a superiority complex.

So, in conclusion, we horse enthusiasts are justified in feeling that we have long ago passed the test for toughness. The Iron Man Competition contestants have nothing over us. No matter what the weather we make certain that our horses come first. No amount of sleet, rain, or snow can keep us from our appointed rounds. Indeed, this fall I was driving with my assistant to work with several mustangs just shipped in, It was a cold, dreary, muddy, rainy day, and we were working outside in large mud-filled round pens and I could not WAIT to get started. We passed a golf course, and I could not help remarking to my passenger how silly those people were, to be outside playing golf in this weather. One look from her brought me back to the irony of THAT remark. ….but we would not have it any other way.
Mitzi Summers