How I Learned to Think Like a Horse
The legendary California horseman Jimmy Williams once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that’s important.” When I was in my early 20s, I finally had my own horse, had leased several horses, had graduated from US Pony Clubs, and had been a working student at two barns. I knew it all. Then one night, a cowboy* barn manager showed me that all my knowledge was built on the wrong assumption.
My first barn was a dump. When I started boarding, it was in the process of being converted from a cattle barn, complete with a resident bull. On the plus side, the building was sturdy, the ceilings were high, and the stalls were huge. Otherwise, cobwebs bred high in the corners. The stalls were pieced together out of steel pipe and plywood. Horses ate from old, built-in wooden feed boxes that were only cleaned by eager noses. I was happy. The horses were happy. I didn’t know any different.
Then I went off to college. Instead of quitting riding, I took up Pony Club. I learned all the finicky stable routines and arcane British rules so dear to USPC. I was fortunate to spend time as a working student and to buy a fancy Thoroughbred. I saw how major barns ran their days and I watched Olympic contenders prepare for competition.
Then I came home. I had been to the horse-equivalent of the big city and had acquired all manner of bad habits. Only I didn’t yet realize they were bad habits. In the summer, horses stayed in during the day to avoid the heat and went out at night for pasture time. One evening after a show, I wanted my horse to be left in his stall so that I could wrap his legs. If I did not wrap all four legs snugly from pastern to knee, his legs would swell up overnight. This was the proper procedure as I had been taught in those other barns. Nope. My horse was going out with the others. Post-show recuperation was not a sufficient reason to make an exception.
I was furious. I was appalled. My horse had worked hard. Hadn’t he earned a chance to rest? I was sure that the barn manager was preventing me from doing the best for my horse. The next morning, my horse came in with the best legs he had ever had after a show. All four legs were cool and tight without an ounce of swelling. Huh? This went against everything I knew.
The problem was that I was treating my horse as I would like to be treated. When I’m tired, I want to put my feet up and not move for a good long while. Horses, on the other hand, are designed to wander and nap and graze, all night long. Their stomachs work best with constant, small quantities of low-impact food. The motion of walking in search of grass keeps the circulation moving and clears the gunk out of the system. Standing still is unnatural to a horse.
Much of what we do to horses are restrictions they have learned to accept. For example, horses were content at this barn in part because it was surrounded by huge pastures. As predators, we find comfort in cozy, safe lairs. Horses are herbivores. As a prey species, their defense is to run away, fast and far. Open spaces equal long sightlines. An enclosed space means no warning and nowhere to run when the lions arrive. It’s amazing that horses stay in stalls at all.
If you watch and listen, your horses will tell you what is best for them. Once I realized I didn’t know everything, I started listening.
*The cowboy barn manager – I suppose the PC term would be cowgirl, or cowwoman, or perhaps cowperson. That’s another thing I’ve noticed about cowboys. They just get on with it and don’t worry about what to call it.