Hi there, human! Have you been hanging out in the horse world for a while? If so, you’ve probably noticed that horse people are an opinionated bunch.
Name a topic — training methods, nutrition, hoof care, you name it — and you’ll find someone who will go to battle over their beliefs. They like to use words like “always” and “never,” and assure you that their way is the One Right Way.
The problem is, a lot of them are shouting contradictory statements.
“Horses shouldn’t be ridden until they’re at least five or six years old”… but a large part of the sporthorse industry is made up of events for young horses, from two-year-old racehorses to Third Level dressage tests written specifically for six-year-olds.
“Horses should never be ridden after eating”… but working them on an empty stomach can cause stomach ulcers.
“Horses should always go in a simple snaffle”… but if the horse isn’t well-trained and there’s a child in the saddle, the situation becomes anything but simple.
Part of becoming a good horseperson involves learning how to navigate often conflicting advice, and realizing that the “right way” is often in the middle
Here are a few tips to help you gain some HorseSense from a confusing situation — because few things in the horse world are black and white.
(Except one of my former boyfriends, Scout.)
You know those little kids that are always asking, “Why?”
Every time I meet one, I think to myself that they would make a great future equestrian. The question “Why?” is one of the most important and helpful words to use around the barn and the arena.
Is your horse misbehaving? Ask yourself why. Does the new boarder’s horse wear polo wraps every time she works out? Politely ask why. Is your horse’s coat not looking quite as good as it did last summer? Wonder why.
Asking this question helps you learn the reasons for the rules, and reminds you that everything a horse does, he does for a reason. It broadens your horizons and encourages you to think carefully about every choice you make with your horse, from the feed you buy to the tack you use to the way you cool down after a ride.
Important: when you are asking another horseperson for their reason “why,” make sure you phrase your question thoughtfully!
If it sounds like a personal attack, you’re going to get some pinned ears for sure.
Try, “I noticed you use a gag bit on Chase and I’m curious about how that bit works. Would you mind telling me?” Not, “Why are you using such a harsh bit on your poor horse?”
Your horse has surely explained to you that it’s hard to have a good conversation when one party is feeling defensive! Ask from a place of genuine curiosity, and thank them even if you’re dissatisfied with the answer.
And if someone’s answer is always, “I do this because it’s the way it’s always been done,” maybe take their advice with a grain of salt, and search for a better answer on your own.
Weigh the pros and cons
Few equine practices are completely good or completely bad. There are usually pros and cons to every choice, and sometimes being a good horseperson means choosing the lesser evil.
Consider the issue of keeping a horse turned out to pasture:
Numerous studies have shown that, yes, we really ARE happier and healthier when we’re allowed to live outdoors, as nature intended. Stalling a horse for long periods of time is like leaving a dog locked in a crate — it negatively affects his mental health, digestion, muscle tone and hoof quality. It also increases the risk of injury during exercise, and can make the horse more likely to engage in risky behavior when he is turned loose due to pent up energy.
Seems pretty clear that pasture living is the way to go, right? Well, maybe not.
For a laminitic horse, especially one who refuses to wear a grazing muzzle, a lush pasture could be a death sentence. Horses that are prone to sunburn or sensitive to insects may not be happy in a sunny pasture mid-summer. Not everyone has acres of usable space for turnout.
And actually, it is useful to teach a horse to be comfortable staying in a stall, in case you take him to an overnight show or he is laid up due to an injury.
In those situations, the best answer is often compromise.
Maybe the laminitic horse can live in a large dry lot or track, with slow-feeder hay nets and toys or obstacles for enrichment. Maybe the sensitive-skinned horse can be turned out after dark every night and live in a stall during the day. Maybe you can divide and rotate your turnout space, or create a “sacrifice area” for your horses to stay outdoors during the muddy season.
Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of your unique circumstances will help you come up with a fair solution. Just remember that what’s best for the horse may not always be the most convenient for you.
Choose your sources wisely
Who do you get your horsey advice from? Do you listen to @SmartySally129 on an internet forum, or an instructor or barn manager that knows you and your horse?
If you learn a cool and surprising fact from a YouTube video — or even from an amazingly talented school pony with a blog — do you check and see if there’s any evidence to support it?
And speaking of the equine professionals in your life: where do they get their advice? Are they continually seeking out new information? Do they handle and care for their horses in a way that you appreciate and want to imitate?
The internet can be a great source of information, don’t get me wrong.
But if you’re experiencing training or health challenges, you’re much better off working with trusted mentors and professionals who know you and your horse.
Choose these people with care. It’s okay if you disagree on a few minor details here or there, but their big picture and horsey moral compass should align with yours.
Listen to the one who always knows best
The only one who really knows if your horse care and training practices are on the right track is your horse.
Of course, very few horses have the ability to blog like I do, so you’ll need to learn to speak a little Horse in order to get some feedback.
Is your horse happy, healthy and relaxed, all throughout the day? Do you know how to tell if a horse is experiencing low-level stress or pain? Are your decisions made with his best interests at heart, prioritizing his long-term health and happiness over your immediate goals?
If so, congratulations! You’re ahead of the game when it comes to becoming a compassionate horseperson.
You can make a chestnut mare joke here if you like, but it’s MY opinion that the horse world needs more people like you.