Reinvention: equine style

When motorised transport and machine-based farming became readily available and affordable, it would’ve been easy to consign the working horse to the scrap heap.  But, having served man for thousands of years already, the horse wasn’t prepared to give up, nor was it prepared to be used solely for combat, sport or leisure.  In much the same way that many people no longer seek a “job for life”, preferring to experience two or more careers during their working life, the horse has apparently just accepted the need for reinvention.

Unfortunately, our equine partners are unable to communicate verbally and, as a result, it has taken human beings several decades to learn what they perhaps already knew: there are other ways to make use of horses within society.  As is often the case with our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, it began slowly.

Horses first became physiotherapists, supporting those who struggle to participate in other physical activities.  Step by gentle step, organisations such as the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) worked with horses to provide opportunities for people with disabilities.  The RDA in the UK alone currently organises activities for up to 28,000 people each year, with the results currently visible all the way up to Paralympic and World Equestrian Games (WEG) level.  Expansion within Para-Equestrian sports isn’t over yet: with the assistance of the RDA and British Showjumping, support is rapidly growing in the UK for Para-Equestrian Jumping, whilst in the USA, Para-Reining is making fantastic progress.

Further application of the horse as a healthcare professional has taken longer, but as the benefits become increasingly clear and better understood, usage is spreading rapidly.  Equine Assisted Therapies began in an informal sense when horses and humans were first introduced: many horse lovers will recount how horses have seen them through their darkest hours without passing judgment, but instead by providing a kind eye and a keen ear, unflappable in the presence of a person in distress.  Horses are proving themselves under the scrutiny of scientific research – it now goes beyond calmly propping up a weeping human being, with many health services and clinics putting our beloved equines to work in order to treat people with a variety of issues, from clinical depression, eating disorders and alcoholism to post-traumatic stress, autism and many other psychological and neurological cases.

But the horse isn’t content to plug away in the background.  Long before Simon Cowell offered to sprinkle fairy dust on wide-eyed humans with big dreams, the horse was invited into the limelight.  The list of films, TV shows, adverts and photo shoots that the horse has been called upon for guest star duties is endless, and the number of occasions when horses aren’t just available for set dressing but cast as the protagonist is increasing.  Much as Hollywood has a human “type”, so too does it prefer a particular kind of horse: many equine-related movies are based on racehorses, whether they’re fictional or not, such as National Velvet, Seabiscuit and Secretariat.  Thankfully, more everyday stories sneak in occasionally, like Black Beauty and the phenomenally-popular War Horse.

However, just as with us mere humans, it’s only the small percentage of horses who achieve A-list fame and glory, though that doesn’t stop the rest from performing.  Equestrian activities continue to prove popular at demonstration events, often as a supporting act at horse shows, but also at other outdoor or family-orientated events.  One of the favourites among horse lovers is the infamous Spanish Riding School, regularly selling out arena tours – incredibly, the establishment has been touring destinations in Europe, North America and even Asia since 1925.  Thanks again to Hollywood for a revival in Western movies, plus an added selection of films set in medieval times and the Georgian era, other demonstration, trick and stunt teams have been able to maintain businesses.  When they aren’t supplying horses, stunt doubles and choreography for films, many such teams will undertake demonstration tours and some even give lessons to the general public on how to wield a lance or fall off a horse correctly.  When the media asks, horses give – even when the question is, “can a Shetland pony moonwalk and sport a tail which rivals Beyonce’s magnificent mane?”, the horse’s answer is, “yes I can”.

Of course, horses remain in use for more traditional pursuits around the world: three equestrian disciplines remain part of the Olympic programme, with one also an event at the Paralympics – although equestrian events are often subject to discussion regarding the expense of running them at the Olympics, there is a true possibility that there will one day be an increasing breadth of Para-Equestrian disciplines at the World Equestrian Games, if not at the Paralympics itself; many countries maintain cavalries and mounted police forces, however the latter appears to be decreasing in popularity; despite a difference in public opinion, hunting remains as both an industry and a pastime in various parts of the world; equines are used internationally within the tourism industry, from pursuits such as carriage rides – again subject to much controversy and apparent decline in popularity – to equestrian holidays from safaris and progressive trail rides to centre-based tuition-focused breaks, with all of these catering to riders of a professional standard all the way down to people who just want to sit on a horse when on holiday.

For me, that’s just half of the story.  Because when it comes to horses, there have been two of us in the relationship for over 20 years: them and me.  It began with something which seemed simple – learning to ride.  However, over two decades later, I’m still trying to master that one: a place in the horse world really is a lesson in the existence of lifelong learning and sometimes, the more I do, the less I think I know.  Even as a hobby, horse riding is humbling; as a career option in 2014, it’s downright mind-boggling.

When I was first learning how to fall off ponies – I’ve mastered getting back on, but haven’t yet attempted any of that business with a lance – there weren’t many visible choices within the equestrian industry.  The cream of the crop, and those with the dream combination of guts, financial support, determination and a smattering of luck, are the ones who advance to what non-horse people might recognise from the images generated by International Velvet.  Then there are the people who support them which, only a few short years ago extended simply as far as quite traditional careers in farriery, veterinary science, coaching and horse care.  Of course, if you are a little on the short side, don’t like eating (or enjoy having a restricted diet) and are a fan of breaking bones, becoming a jockey is also an option in this bracket.  I wasn’t sure that working at elite level was for me.

For other options under the banner of literal once in a lifetime opportunities for the supremely talented, there are roles within the media: Mike Tucker has become an institution within equestrianism broadcasting, whilst Lucy Higginson edited equestrian weekly bible Horse and Hound for 12 years.

The other choice I could see as a child were to grow up into the shoes of my own riding instructors, destined for a lifetime of teaching others how to mount up, hold their reins and progress from there.  Broadly speaking, this is the plan I’m sticking to.  But equestrianism has already changed a huge amount during my lifetime, and I know that will continue.

In my day to day life spending time with horses, I interact with all sorts of people: professional trainers, behaviourists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, equine craniosacral therapists (yes, really),nutritionists, dieticians and many others – and, if you can believe it, that’s just the list for the horses themselves.  Some equestrian careers will focus on the horses, others might look after the riders, and some will concentrate on bringing it all together.  There are many different schools of thought, from classical and natural through to behavioural and biological, and each of these has practitioners who have designed their own “method” within which an average person can train, become licensed and practice.  Some won’t go that far, they may choose instead to participate in some of the training and then develop their own way of working, which leads to an even greater number of approaches, systems and ideologies.

A person’s training can be vocational, academic or self-directed: the British Horse Society is still one of the standard-bearers in terms of a variety of qualifications relating to coaching, tourism and grassroots courses; a search of the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) currently reveals over 30 institutions providing in excess of 60 equine-related courses at a cross-section of foundation, undergraduate and post-graduate levels; or, we can follow our hearts and investigate whatever fires our passions, observing those who have gone before us and created careers within the ever-changing world of horses.

The more I learn – whether in the saddle or out of it – the more exciting it gets.  The horse world may not appear to the untrained eye as though it’s changing that much, especially when compared to the modern world in general – I’m, of course, just as reliant on my smartphone as many other people, and endlessly grateful to those who took a computer the size of a small house and made it fit in my pocket, but I’d be even more impressed if someone could figure out a way to stop colic being such a danger to my beloved horses, or solve any of the other myriad of frustrating issues these beasts present us with – but with demand, increased knowledge and understanding and, naturally, financial interest, comes opportunity.

The equestrian world has gone far beyond carts, gold medals and how to sit out a series of bucks, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

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2 thoughts on “Reinvention: equine style

  1. Started posting my two cents but digressed into an anti motor racing comment (? Not sure how) so deleted it. Anyway ordered the book that changed your life and looking forward to reading.
    Dvds for my children have got stuck at RHH. But I think they are enjoying them.

    • Hope you enjoy the book! I haven’t gotten very far with the second one yet – camp tends to sap my energy for reading.

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