It’s not unusual to hear cries of “foul” from people in and out of the horse world, claiming that top equine athletes are abused, forced to work against their will, and are often abandoned if injured.
Not so, I say, as someone whose Bucket List used to include competing at Ledyard in three-day eventing and finishing the Tevis Cup. Yes, there are a few people who don’t behave with compassion or in an ethical way, looking upon each horse as a piece of equipment. But few horsemen and horsewomen “at the top” act that way. After all, when horses are involved, we trust them with our lives in a very real way. If you’re galloping toward a sturdy cross-country fence at a three-day event, you’re literally trusting that horse with your life.
Horses who are competing and being worked regularly tend to get the best feed and veterinary care. Our Olympic horses were screened before each event. Some horses were pulled, usually by their riders, sometimes by veterinarians. Their riders “sucked it up” as they watched years of dreams and hopes, along with plenty of money, go down the drain.
I’ve always found my horses wanting to be worked. After all, they have a choice when they’re out in a large pasture. When I call, they could decide not to come. The odds of me catching them in even a five-acre pasture aren’t good. But my horses come. They enjoy being groomed and clearly even enjoy being ridden on most occasions.
There are certainly things horses prefer not to do. An individual horse may not like to jump. A horse learning collection may have sore muscles at first. I’ve heard a lot of flak about “abused” dressage horses. But, I’ve seen horses who have done musical freestyle rides perk up and start a routine on their own in a field when “their” music is played.
As a young horse-crazy girl, I read every horse book I could find. I remember one about a palomino polo pony. The book stressed how abused polo ponies were. When I was a freshman at Cornell I saw a notice for polo tryouts.
You didn’t need to know how to play but hopefully you knew how to ride. (As an aside, all the women who tried out were good riders, while a few of the guys had literally never gotten on a horse!) I was torn. I was missing my horse and loved the idea of more riding. But what if the horses were abused?
I went to tryouts to find horses that were fit and well-cared for. I quickly came to see how wrong that author was. One “tough guy” coach took a retired polo pony home to live out his days at his home.
One amazing polo pony was “Dilla,” a Standardbred named after the sale barn she was picked up from in Unadilla, N.Y., an auction site that is often a horse’s “last chance.” Dilla was clearly not your average choice for a polo pony, but old Doc Roberts saw something in her. (Stephen “Doc” Roberts, VMD, is a Cornell legacy, having ridden Cornell?s first championship polo team as an undergrad and later coaching the team for 25 years, winning eight more polo championships.)
Dilla was sore at the end of one week, so she was pulled from the string of horses playing in the game that weekend. Partway through the first period (periods in indoor polo, chukkers outdoors), there was an awful racket coming from the barn. Dilla had broken out of her stall and was at the gate to the arena, trying to break in! She had plenty of feed in front of her, could have left and headed for the hay at the end of the aisle, but she chose to try and get into the game she loved.
There are horses who enjoy retirement. Given a pasture with plenty of green grass, shade and fresh water, many older horses are happy just to lounge about with a buddy or two. But even those horses tend to gravitate over when a person appears, especially if it is a person they worked with, so it isn’t just curiosity.
I’m sure there are horses who revel in total freedom, such as the mustangs out West, but most of our “companion horses” seem to enjoy working with their human partners in whatever sport fits them both the best – from top-level dressage to quiet trail rides.