Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Our horses

It was September 2007. I was sitting under the big pine trees that towered over the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Not much smaller than the pines were the draft horses that populated the fairgrounds for the weekend of the Draft Horse Classic. I had just returned from Russia and Denmark and had only one more interview to go before the filming for The Path of the Horse was finished.

I looked at the horses tied and stabled amongst the trees and knew that if the message of this documentary was heard, that it might mean the end of these big gentle creatures. How would these and all other horses fit in with our human society if we were to stop valuing horses for their ability to carry and pull our physical loads? Already, the historical uses of horses, first for meat, then for transportation, warfare, and agriculture have been left behind in most of the developed world. For now, horses have been holding onto their place by being re-purposed as recreational vehicles and status symbols for those who can afford their care and training.

The Path of the Horse isn’t my message. It is something larger that has been stirring in the souls of many of us who have been called to be with horses. More and more people are beginning to see the actual costs of having their own horses. For those of us who want the best possible lives for our horses, in addition to regular veterinary and farrier care we can add on the cost of having a large enough pasture to give the horses a sense of well-being, the cost of our commute to that pasture, the cost of our time feeding and caring for the horses, or paying someone else to do these tasks, the cost of not being able to take a trip if we can’t find or afford adequate care, the emotional cost when tough decisions have to be made. Also we need to add in the time and care needed when a horse gets injured, factor in what happens when we lose a job and can no longer afford our mortgage, it’s enough to make me think of the newspaper story about the homeless horse trainer living in the back woods of Sacramento, California with his three horses.

When these costs are totaled up they would probably make even the wealthiest among us pause before agreeing to buy her daughter a pony. The average lifespan of a well cared for horse is 30 years. If I were to breed a horse today, and take full responsibility for bringing this new life into the world, it wouldn’t be until I was 67 years old that I would be free of this commitment. How can I know what my own life will look like for the next 31 years? How can I know that I will even be able to take care of my own needs for the next 5 years? Probably the toughest decision a horse owner has to make is what to do with her horse when her life changes enough that a horse no longer fits in it. When we are kids, our parents usually make those decisions. Many young hearts have been broken when their best friend gets sent away.

Fortunately, I don’t think the future for our horses is as bleak as it might seem from what I’ve written so far. An unexpected solution presented itself as I was talking with photographer Felicia Story-Chapin over lunch a couple of weeks ago. She was saying that if she had the money, she’d fence in the area around her house and have a horse of her own. The world-weary trainer in me looked out at her and readied the list of all the things she probably hadn’t considered that made it a bad idea. Then something else came in. What is the concept “my horse”? Why couldn’t it be “our horses”? And why couldn’t “our horses” be those already living in the pasture?

I could see the difficulty if a person wants his own horse to be able to ride and show. Sometimes people work out partial leases or rent horses as a way to have a horse to ride without the full costs of ownership, but what about people who are more aligned with the message of The Path of the Horse? There are already places around the world that offer workshops based on this message using their own horses, but I’m thinking bigger than this. What could be created by those who want to be part of an ongoing relationship with a horse based on what is best for the horse? What if, just as horses form together in herds, a group of people could form together based around caring for this herd…and each other? In this way, resources could be shared and horses would have the benefit of multiple people who could care for them.

One of the things that I think has shattered the souls of many humans in the culture that I am familiar with is the fact that we are alienated from so many in our own human herds. We have learned that money will buy us autonomy. Instead of coming together around one communal fire, if we can afford it, we choose a single mate and build our own separate versions of security, largely cut off from our neighbors.

Important pieces to have in place would be a strong human leader whom everybody involved respected, a vision that everyone shared, and a willingness on the part of the humans to work out the difficulties that will arise.

Now it is March 2010 and the draft horses will again convene at the fairgrounds next September. Maybe there won't be as many of them, maybe some of the classes will be canceled. Maybe someone who goes to watch will think of a documentary they saw called The Path of the Horse and wonder about the horses flipping their heads and wringing their tails. Maybe in 2011 that person will hear about a place he can go to hang out with a herd of horses and help them scratch their itchy spots and swish away the flies. Maybe in that pasture he will get a chance to reconnect with something he has been searching for.

Obviously this vision is in its infancy and will be developed as more people start thinking about it. I’m interested to hear if anybody has tried this and how it went. What were some of the benefits and what were the challenges?

In closing, I’ve got to mention the comment from Jenny in Finland about the book Kinship with All Life by J. Allen Boone. It is one of my all-time favorites. You gotta love Freddie the fly! Thanks for mentioning it.


  1. Thanks <3 Could you please mention other books that you feel are worth reading? I love Empowered Horses by Imke Spilker. Imke and Klaus F. Hempfling are my guiding lights atm.

    My dream is that some day I'd be able to buy enough land to start a "rest home" for old/abandoned horses, where people could come to spend time with or near the herd, and horses could choose if they wish to spend time with them. I think that if/when horses are feeling good in every way, they are able to be great therapists for people!

    <3 Jenny

  2. Stormy, it is always terrific to get a little sense of how you came to be where you are, and what you feel the future might look like.

    The concept of "our horses"is an excellent one. We are all in this together and each can participate in unique ways that support each other, even as we come to a heightened understanding of how we also need to support the horses and the rest of our ambient world.

    The more naturally a horse is allow to live the less expensive it is to support her. Encouraging a shift in horse-keeping to reflect something more like your "gift pasture" is a good first step.

    Many wonderful sanctuaries are becoming established, and those which have been in existence for many years (like Return to Freedom and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary) are already providing an opportunity for people to share in the lives of these horses. The problem most sanctuaries face is being overwhelmed by too many horses on too little land. We can encourage people who have large tracts of land to participate in setting up horse sanctuaries and getting local equestrian groups involved--maybe equestrian groups will begin to shift their focus away from competition towards companionship and these sanctuaries can become marvelous places of caring and sharing.

    I'm finding it very helpful that bloggers like you and Kris McCormack are beginning to stimulate discussion on some of these tough questions and help us all envision a new future of horse/human relationships. Over at Kris' blog, "Words About Horses" she poses a very interesting question for us to answer: "Why does it seem so radical, so outlandish to simply want to be with horses because we like them and enjoy their company?" I your readers will contemplate this question and maybe leave an answer over at "Words About Horses". It is these types of discussions that stimulate creativity and new ways of being with horses.

    Thank you for presenting a promising idea (Our Horses), Stormy, and thank you for mentioning the Journal of Ravenseyrie in your last blog entry.

    (I love listening to the night sounds on that last entry.)

  3. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your blog entry today (and every day). The idea of a community looking after a herd of horses is very interesting. I run a small horse and donkey rescue and have had many town and city folk express interest in volunteering here. I just do not really have the time or energy to set up a volunteer program. Also, because I'm not a registered charity (and the horses are involved in how I make a living- EFP) I feel guilty about having people come out to help with things like mucking and other less glamourous parts of horse care. I am going to let the ideas in your blog percolate through my consciousness. Maybe a way of involving more people in caring for the herd will come to me. My concern is always wanting the best for the horses. I watch the dynamics in other rescues and the politics and power battles make me want to crawl into my cave. It's particularly a deterrent when the project is located at your home. I definitely prefer to focus my energy on making this a good life for the horses and spending lots of time with them, rather than managing people and dealing with the inevitable politics that arise. This leaves me, however, caring for 13 horses and donkeys by myself while frequently getting offers to help out. If you have any thoughts on this I'd love to hear them.

    It made me a little sad to see the picture with the draft horses in their little stalls looking like circus animals. I have a real soft spot for draft horses. I have a Clydesdale mare, a Percheron filly and recently adopted out a Belgian colt. I wonder about the issues that you raised as well. The colt went to a very good home. The woman is very gentle and patient and just adores her new baby boy. She does drive with her horses and makes part of her living offering sleigh and wagon rides. Given the current state of the horse-human relationship I felt it was actually in his best interest to get driving training as long as he is treated gently and fairly. The reality is there are very few of us who are willing, and able to afford, taking on an 1800 pound horse for his lifetime and simply allow him to be a horse. The issue you raised in your blog is multiplied when you consider the costs with a draft horse. One to two percent of body weight per day ends up being a lot of hay, farriers charge more to trim their feet and vet costs are often more. I had one woman phone and ask about adopting the colt, but she had no experience with horses. She had two kids and just wanted a pasture pet. That is a situation that could spell ultimate disaster for a young horse. Despite her best intentions, having no experience with horses results in a very big horse having no clear guidance on how to behave around humans. Someone eventually gets hurt and the horse gets sent to auction. There is only one type of buyer interested in an untrained 1800 pound horse. At least with the training he is receiving he is much less likely to go for slaughter should he ever end up needing a new home. This dilemma creates great angst for me. I have been running my rescue for over 1 1/2 years and I have adopted out one horse. Concern over the life I am adopting them out to, as well as getting very attached to them, leaves me almost incapable of adopting them out. The donkeys are equally a problem, except they live for 40 years!

  4. When our local rescue barn took in 12 nurse-mare foals two years ago, their paddock became a human R&R oasis. People would come with their lawn chairs and newspapers and bring their coffee, and just sit and enjoy being with the foals, who lapped up attention.

    I myself would spend inordinate (my family will tell you!) amounts of time, just hanging out - brushing them, getting them used to a halter, scratching - doting, basically.

    I could see a rescue barn being a wonderful "mission" to humans - allowing them the chance to rest and be in the moment and enjoy the delightful company of horses.

    At our local rescue barn, the emphasis is ideal for this kind of thing - the horses are there for their own sake, not to be useful. And when a home is found for them, the home must prove that it is going to be beneficial to the horse - not vice versa. The horses seem to understand this - the rescue horses are all sweet, gregarious, kind and cheerful (although many started out very differently). This is the case even though the humans still basically employ a "pressure and release" approach to training. It's the mental attitude behind the approach which seems to make the difference - "I'm teaching you this, not so that you will learn to serve me, but so that we can all get along well and enjoy being together."