I learned to ride in a backyard farm where I was the only student and only boarder. While this didn’t set me up for dazzling performances in the show ring, I learned how to stay on a horse and more importantly – I learned how to care for them. Fox hunting was my trainer’s passion, and after I bought my first suitable hunt horse – Elvis, fox hunting was all I cared about as well.
Each hunt runs slightly differently, but ours was a traditional hunt (versus drag) that usually ran about three hours. We hunted from November to March, and the days were often freezing cold with biting wind that cut across the flat farmland we hunted on. You would often come back from the hunt tired from riding for hours, hungry and cold. Following the hunt was a “breakfast”, which was really a potluck lunch that promised warm food and good times with the fellow members.
It was tempting to tie your horse to the trailer, throw the tack in a pile and run off to get warm and eat delicious food, but my trainer had a mantra she always repeated to me – horse first. There was no need of a rider that came before a horse’s need, the only exception being if you’re about to pass out from heat (sometimes happens in Texas… especially if you’re a blonde Norwegian like me). When our horse’s saddle marks were scrubbed, they were offered water and were munching happily on fresh hay bags we were allowed to feed ourselves.
As I look through all the trainers I have worked with in my equestrian career, horse first has been a common theme. There have been people I haven’t seen eye to eye with on horse care, but I’ve never experienced any blatant neglect or poor choice’s at the horse’s expense. The trainers I’ve given my patronage to are horse lovers before anything else. They got into this business because they liked the same calming equine presence that I do. The best ones have figured out how to win ribbons and keep clients while at the same time keeping a barn full of happy, sound horses.
When I witness something to the contrary, I get a little sick to my stomach.
I’m not talking about the “serviceably sound” school horses or the broodmares with scruffy mares and chipping feet. There is a huge range of care that people find acceptable, and I’m not here to argue subtle nuances of it. It’s the horse that’s tripping in the ring because it’s so drugged it can’t pick up its feet. It’s the people that duct tape young horses together with whatever they can for “one more show” with no regard for longterm soundness. It’s having a two year old horse that’s showed and traveled more of the country than my younger brother has. It’s the horse for sale with “clean x-rays” that you don’t know exactly how they got it sound enough to market again.
That stuff makes me sick.
You can ask what to do about it, but in this industry the answer is to spend your money on the people who keep the horse first. So that’s what I do. I have the patient trainer who assures me “slow and safe” is totally fine, and my horse will be better in the long run with a quiet acclimation to his new home and work expectations. I’ll run him to the wash rack for hosing and a fan before I collapse on the bench in our barn, drenched in sweat and wishing for winter. I keep doing what I’ve been doing for years, horse first the best way I know how.