Horse First

Horse First

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.

25 thoughts on “Horse First

  1. This. Love this so much. My mother always told me, no matter how tired you are, your horse comes first. You choose to ride them, you get to take care of them after. No matter how exhausted you are, you take care of them. There isn’t a day that goes by in the summer that they don’t get a long cool down and a nice cold shower if they’re hot, or a day that goes by in the winter that I don’t make sure they’re warm and safe. I don’t care if you’re hot or cold, or hungry or thirsty, the horse comes first. They didn’t choose to be worked, or owned by us, we chose them, so we owe that to them!

    I went to a few shows this week to take photos, and saw so many horses run their hearts out for their owners, compete well, and a lot of the people dismounted, threw them in the trailer and didn’t bother to check on them at all. They were done with the horse as soon as they were out of the arena. Makes me so sad to see how under appreciated some horses are.

  2. I love this post. Pony Club definitely installed a “horse first” mentality in me (which is probably why I get so cranky about the lesson kids sometimes leaving sweat marks on my horses), and like you, I try to patronize trainers and facilities where the horses are the priority. And I try to impress that mentality on the youngsters I interact with at the barn, too.

  3. In my 4h days I was known to let my horse stand bridle off and a loosened girth so I could change before finishing his untack/bath process but that’s about it.

    The rest of my comfort, food, cold drink (except as neccesary to not pass out), sit and chill came after he was settled.

    After we were both properly cooled there was frequently a walk and hand graze to further relax.

    Some of my best days were with that horse.

  4. I remember passing out as a little kid at horse camp while trying to unsaddle my mount. Heat exhaustion is a bitch. 😉

    Seems like I’m always reminding my family about this when they come to shows (not the husband, but the rest of them). The horse is not a machine to be parked in the garage after working hard. He requires care, and lots of it. No questions. No hesitating.

    1. Yes! I run into the same problem when non-horse people come to watch shows. It’s great you want to talk, but please go away until I’m done taking care of my hot horse. (Or preferably just go away altogether, that would work too! :P)

  5. This is why I can barely squeeze a ride in these days (and two human children at home). If I don’t have time to take care of my horse afterward then I don’t have time to ride or ride him to a sweat (plus add the time to clean myself up).

    As a teenager, I got overheated here in New Jersey plenty of times, especially when I was taking dressage lessons on massive beasts. You simply can’t unsaddle your horse when you are blacking out.

  6. As a long time endurance rider, it never occurred to us to do it any other way. Think about doing a multi-day ride: 50 miles a day for consecutive days. No way is your horse going to be fit enough to go for day number 4 or 5 if he hasn’t been tended to very carefully before, during, and after each day’s miles.

    And even if a rider was about to pass out, she did the basics until a friend could finish the care giving routine. I know because I’ve been the sick rider AND the friend. :0)

  7. Ahhhh yes, the duct taping together baby horses is something I see everywhere sadly. I wish people had more consideration for their own horses, thats for sure.

  8. Horses are always first. I do think the endurance community embraces this more than the show barns I’ve been at. This is not to say there aren’t horrible cases of abuse in endurance especially in the middle east. But at all the rides I’ve been to, riders are hustling around finding food and drink for their horses and sponging their horses only helping themselves after if there’s time.

  9. THIS!!!!

    Some people tend to think my horses are spoiled (and maybe they are?) but I always try to consider the horse first too. I try to always be fair to them

    If I’m riding early in the morning, I will tie them up for grooming and tacking with a hay net in front of them. That way they have something to munch on and they’re not working on an empty tummy with a grouchy attitude. Nobody else will be eating it for them and its waiting when we get back.

    When going to local shows I don’t see the need to be AT the arena 4 or 5 hours before things even get started, just because. I would rather my horse is home and comfortable in their stall than tied to a trailer. We will still get there in plenty of time to get checked in, unload and warm up. I also bring a hay net stuffed full of grass, buckets for water and I even bring water with us. Nice to have if we get stuck on the side of the road for some reason. If the show starts early in the morning and Iits a couple hours drive to get there, I would rather haul in the day before and overnight them there in a stall.

    Barring heat stroke or something major like that yeah, I may grab a cold drink while I’m in the process of taking care of my horse though.

    Another thing that chaps my ass is people riding thin horses. My mare is still underweight from our trip to Houston. I have not worked her for weeks while I try to get weight back on her. I was recently invited on a trail ride. Um, no thanks. She’s not horribly thin, but she’s thin enough. I can wait.

  10. This this this right here. I’ve always been taught you take care of the horse first, then the facility you’re using, then your gear, and only then yourself. And if you can only do one thing, it is ALWAYS taking care of the horse. It’s why I chose the trainer I did when I moved to VA- she has a bunch of fat, happy, healthy older horses in the barn because she puts their well-being above everything else.

  11. YES. Yes x1,000. Nothing irritates me more than people using their horse as a couch, standing at the in-gate for HOURS, or leaving a hot horse tacked up, standing there sweating and blowing, while they go have a snack. Sadly, as a kid I didn’t learn to put my horses first from my instructors, but learned from reading the Saddle Club and other books. These creatures give us so much, it’s the least we can do to make sure all their needs are taken care of first.

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