I’m no fun anymore. I can’t go to rodeos, a tradition I grew up with. As much as I know Thoroughbreds love to run, I can’t watch a race. They’re just babies.
It’s even harder when it gets personal. Maybe someone you know shares a video. A group of riders cheering on a friend, which would be wonderful except that the rider’s horse is coming apart. He’s frightened, which everyone reads as disobedient. So they are all cheering her on as she kicks and pulls. The horse’s eyes are wide, his nostrils are huge. Of course, his ears are back.
The friends encourage the rider to fight harder, show him who’s boss. But the horse can’t think now. He isn’t sure what she asked in the first place. He holds his breath and hopes it will end soon. Eventually, the rider gets tired and slows down the cues enough that the horse can oblige her. The friends applaud.
The rider pulls her horse to a halt, jerks a rein to pull his head around to her knee, backs him hard with her hand, and gives him a few more kicks for good measure, so he’ll know she’s mad and he’s wrong. It’s what she’s been taught to do; what her friends expect. The horse’s eye goes dead but he’s bracing his ribs against her spur attack.
What has the horse learned? Maybe that when he gets frightened, his owner becomes loud and unbalanced. Maybe that he should shut down when he feels anxiety. One thing is for certain. The horse has lost trust if he had any in the first place.
Sometimes it cuts closer; it’s these same friends who give you training advice because they think you are ruining your horse. Because there are contradicting definitions of leadership, followed by judgment on both sides. Passion and hard feelings.
If we are honest, most of us were taught to ride like this when we started, to a milder or more violent degree. Some of us are changing our ways and looking for better communication and partnership with our horses. Riding is an art that takes a lifetime to learn. If you’re lucky.
The problem is now you’re no fun anymore either. Once you can read your horse’s body language, it’s hard to ignore. Maybe you look at the video and turn the sound off. Instead of listening to the sales pitch for the training method, you listen to the calming signals of the horses in the video.
The most frequent question people ask me is what to do when railbirds offer training advice that’s “old style?” What do you do when you see someone being violent with their horse?
Start here: Don’t attack them. Even with words. No one changes their ways because someone ridicules them in public. Law enforcement will tell you that cruelty to animals is a precursor to violence toward people. Be careful, and it certainly doesn’t help the horse, especially if the abuser takes their anger toward you out on their horse. Then you feel even worse. I know.
The truth is that there is no shortage of ugliness in the horse world these days. It’s so common that it takes no special skill to point it out.
That said, if you see it in competition, file a complaint with the organizers. Call the authorities if you see abuse locally. Then follow through and ask for an update on the outcome, or plan to attend the trial. Form a group of like-minded people and get involved in local politics. I seriously believe that if more of us complained less on social media and more to the powers that be, things would change for horses. In other words, it’s common sense; you have a voice. If you feel overwhelmed at the cruelty, take your power back. Put your love into action and advocate.
Mostly, I think people are asking in a more personal way. How can we deal with our own emotional response to what we see? They say it breaks their heart to think of horses being abused. That they love horses, and it hurts too much. It’s a thing called compassion fatigue.
Take an internal survey. Do you languish in the pain? Do you hurt yourself by ruminating on dark topics? Do you believe negative emotions stronger than positive ones? Because you are literally voting with your heart and mind. By passively lingering in those hurtful thoughts, you unintentionally give them power. How you can tell is it feels like slow-release poison.
The sad truth is our tears don’t help.
Positive thought isn’t just head-in-the-sand foolishness. It’s real science; a natural law. The thing we put our attention on is the thing that grows. There is a real power in affirmation.
When friends suggest to you that you need to show your horse who’s boss, take a breath. Smile and say thank you. If it’s hard, let a sideways glint come to your eye, so they wonder if you’re crazy. Crazy makes people nervous.
“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” – Herm Albright.
Horse abuse is painful but we don’t need to fuel that fire. It’s just the easiest thing to get cynical. I might have been born that way, but the more I travel, the more I meet great horsepeople who care deeply about horse welfare. People whose passion burns hot for learning and growing and doing better. Sometimes people tell me that I’m preaching to the choir like it’s a bad thing. It looks to me like the choir of people who care about horses is growing by the minute and getting more vocal. If you feel outnumbered and begin to lose hope in the horse world, remember that it belongs to us. Riders against bullies, unite!
And on a bad day, instead of feeling sorry for abused rescue horses, be inspired. Let your scars heal. Let your heart be as strong as theirs.