What We Owe Our Horses

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A friend recently told me the barn owner had informed her that her mare should be ”discarded.” What a sad choice of words referring to a living, breathing animal in your care. Candy wrappers should be ”discarded,” not horses.

Unfortunately, that attitude is all too prevalent, and it’s not limited to any sport, breed or discipline. Most, if not all, of the abuse horses suffer traces back to this mind set. Too many people have horses for the wrong reasons. Ego. Prestige. Status. The horse is being used as means to make them look good, or make money, or get attention. They lump their horse in the same category as their tack, their clothes, their car.

These are the people who blame the horse for a poor performance. They never consider it could be their training or riding, never thinking (or caring) the horse might be ill or in pain. They will do whatever they have to, including illegally, to get the horse to an important competition regardless of the risk to the horse. They will sell to the highest bidder, not the most responsible one. They will send an aged horse through an auction to face a potentially grisly fate rather than giving her the dignity and peace of retirement or a humane end of life in familiar surroundings.

The horse is not a possession. We can’t own a life. The horse’s life belongs to the horse. We don’t take horses into our lives, they let us into theirs. If it wasn’t for the incredibly generous nature of horses, their willingness to accept us for who we are, every horse barn would be empty. You can’t force a 1,000-pound animal to do anything if the basic willingness to cooperate is not there. When we get involved with a horse, we are entering a relationship. It’s not the same thing as sitting behind the steering wheel of a car. The horse has a personality, a spirit and an intense love of life.

Everyone acknowledges the requirement to provide for a horse’s physical needs — a good diet, hoof care, sound preventative veterinary care, medical attention when ill or injured. Despite this, many of what would be considered the best-cared-for horses are suffering abuse. There is more to welfare than meals and a roof.

The element missing in their care, missing in the relationship, is respect. Each one of them is a living, breathing, feeling being in their own right. Individual horses may not be suitable for what we would like them to do, but that doesn’t make that horse worthless or unworthy. Someone else might think the world of the same animal.

Horses should not be worked to the point their lameness is too severe to ignore any more — or worse, until they break down. Putting the horse at increased risk of injury and pain to satisfy a goal the owner or trainer has is wrong. Horses are living, breathing animals. There’s enough in our lives that is considered disposable.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD