It’s what we do: We keep horses. Sometimes a foal too young to be ridden, so we show patience and keep them. Sometimes it’s adult horses with flawless training and good minds, and while we practice the art of riding, we keep them. Too often we get horses who have been damaged by harsh handling, so we work hard to regain their trust but whether that works or not, we keep them. For all their beauty, horses are also fragile and when they become un-rideable, we do the right thing, we keep them. Even when we sell horses, we end up bringing others home and we keep them. It goes without saying that when our horses grow old, we give them the warmest corner and we keep them. And when the day comes, young or old, that we know their pain is great and will not heal, we call the vet and stand as strong heartbroken witnesses to their lives passing to light, and in our most special place, we keep them.
Who are we? To the chagrin of those around us, we were born loving horses. We’ve arranged our lives into a horse-shaped world. We tend to be introverts drawn to the barn in worn jeans and boots. We’ll get anything our horses need but we don’t use sunscreen as much as we should. We’re hooked without choice and even after our hair’s gone gray, we’re teased about our silly horsey phase. We smile back but it isn’t really a joke. We struggle with the same peer pressure we felt not fitting in during high school. We had the wrong clothes or the wrong hair or the wrong general awkwardness. Meaning everyone was awkward, but some of us were made to feel even worse about it. Now we’re adults and we fit in about as much as we ever did.
Sometimes we are talked down to by vets and farriers. Sometimes we are diminished for our concerns, as if we’re foolish horse-crazy kids, even if we have kept horses for longer than those professionals have been alive. Even if we are professionals ourselves. Even if we have research to back us up because educating ourselves is another one of our annoying traits.
Now think about these general characteristics as if we were a breed of horse. How would we be described? As a spooky Arabian or a strong smart endurance horse? As a hyper-sensitive flighty Thoroughbred or a brilliant agile athlete? Get my drift?
Over 90% of horse-keepers are women. For the handful of men who read this blog, I appreciate you’re faced with the same challenges and I have empathy, but just for today, I want to speak to women. I’ve been asked about my vision of the future and I profoundly believe that the future of horses is up to women, the 90%’ers. We buy horses. We hire trainers, farriers, and vets. We pay membership fees, organize clinics and are the majority of competitors. We’re global; we import tack, clinicians, and more horses. Our money is the foundation of the equine industry. It isn’t even close and that buys us the right to our opinion.
But here is the paradox. In my travels, I meet riders doing brilliant work, but many of the women at clinics share the same story. Most feel isolated, many of us feel judged. Our methods are questioned. Our confidence tested by railbirds. Our minds haunted by old-school voices telling us to doubt ourselves, insisting we’re ruining our horses with kindness. It feels like we’re training on the fringe, hiding out with our horses because we don’t like the violent training methods we commonly see. We’re shy to share successes for fear we’d be bragging, so many times we pretend we know less than we do. We wear humility as a disguise when we are too introverted to speak up for horses. Worst of all, we listen to the nastiest naysayers, all too often living between our ears.
I am not saying pretend to know more than you do. There are enough people doing that now. I do wish we’d all be students of the horse forever. Discerning students who build a deep understanding of the calming signals of horses with a bit of brain science thrown in. Then we just listen, horses will always tell the truth about the humans holding the reins.
On a semi-related topic, interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes still drops off for girls at a certain age. It matters because many good-paying jobs are in those fields and not all little girls marry men with high paying tech jobs. Or even men who pay child support if it comes to that. That interest drop-off was just as true when I was a kid and the reasons haven’t changed: Girls suffer from peer pressure, having few good role models, and getting less parental support. Has much changed as we became adults?
Sometimes I think horse training should be added to the STEM list, not because we ever lost interest. It’s the exact opposite, but how else can we explain numbers that dominate the horse world but still leave us feeling isolated?
While ruminating on this over the summer, I saw a tee-shirt that said these words: ‘They whispered to the woman, “You cannot withstand the storm.” The woman whispered back, “I am the storm.”‘ I laughed when I read it, but it’s another one of those things not actually funny. Would I wear it? Did I have the courage to advertise my confidence? I can list twenty trainers who’re on the cutting edge of animal behavior and new training paradigms, not including me, and we joke about struggling with Impostor Syndrome. Also, not a bit funny.
- Be it resolved: Horses need help in this world of harsh handling, destructive training methods, and rider/owner shaming. With over 90% ownership, who else can change the world for horses but us? No brainer, the future must be women, and for the distance horses have brought us, we rise to return the favor.
- Be it resolved: Positive role models unite! This week, my friend Bex Tasker and I are launching a group called Train & Sustain Collective where like-minded trainers come together to collaborate, consult, and create change in the world by making peace, sticking together, and seeing the core of what is important while not getting stuck on our methodological differences.
- Be it resolved: More positive role models unite! Write your books because our words matter and our voices lift each other up. I’m collaborating on a publishing house to be announced this spring. Get editing. Your turn is here.
- Be it resolved: We choose positive peer pressure. Let’s sing out in blunt, audible voices praising each other’s good efforts. Let it become a habit to make a friendly connection, speaking up even if you’re shy because affirmative training means saying yes to humans, too. Generously compliment every good thing because what we pay attention to grows.
- Be it resolved: As we stand for horses, so we do for ourselves. Be self-kind. Challenging as it might be, please quit selling yourself short. Take credit for your experience and what you know. Negative self-talk doesn’t make you more palatable. Commit to loving yourself as much as you love horses. Think of the change in the world if we even simply started by affirming our own highest and best.
Here’s why you should believe me: I’m a loudmouth party-pooper and you can trust me to avoid empty flattery. I travel far doing this work, which includes listening to honest comments about powerlessness and isolation, ironically stated to a group of like-minded people who live close together. The next group says the same with perfect regularity. I’m convinced there are more of us than we ever imagined but because we’re introverts, we don’t tell each other.
We fear the judgment of railbirds but why jump to the worst conclusion? What if it’s just false bravado covering their fear of change. Have compassion; they might feel a bit threatened or even envious of the relationship you have with your horse.
The changes that horses need will not be made by people like me. It’s all of you who are changing the world, making ripples every day in small barns in remote places. You can hear the rising wave of individuals impacting neighbors by their positive example. A tsunami will grow as we support each other because the Golden rule still shines. What if the friction you feel is change hitting its stride? I’m filled with optimism, inspired by all of you, stronger than you know. Horse-keepers are the storm!
How do we trust ourselves? Horses tell us we’re getting it right and I believe them.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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