The camp I work at is currently home to a herd of 30 geldings, and we generally know very little about their past. They spend most of their time living with a dealer: when they arrive home after camp in early September, they’re unshod and turned out for the winter – they run as an enormous herd with many other horses and aren’t touched, never mind ridden. Winters are snowy where they live, so they’re very tough. When it’s time for camp, they’re brought in, shod and put straight on a trailer. They’re delivered to us, turned out for a day and then thrown back into work, going out for a ride with staff on them to see how they are. I feel it’s quite a brutal existence.
Sometimes we’re told how the dealer acquired a horse – at the beginning of the summer, one of our newbies arrived with the story that he’d been stolen from his previous owners, only to be found a 45 minute drive away… having been ridden that distance by the thief. Sometimes, the horse himself gives us clues – several have old scars or bite marks, at least two are pretty dramatically head shy. But in terms of official papers, we have nothing. I’m not used to determining a horse’s age via his teeth, but I suspect that even if I were, most would be at the point in middle age when it’s impossible to get an accurate figure anyway. Ages are mostly therefore down to best guesses, based partly on how many summers a horse has spent with us.
There’s an exception this year: our first delivery at the beginning of June contained a three-year old. The dealer informed us that he’d been backed but we had no further information. Her parting comment was, “I hope he’s going to grow into his head” – sure enough, when we looked him over a little more thoroughly, we all agreed that he’s at the juvenile stage of looking strangely put together: he’s got a bit of belly fat, but no lateral muscles, meaning his legs look too short and his head looks enormous.
I fell for our toddler quickly, and I wasn’t alone – he’s a Paint, and his personality is as attractive as his colour is quirky. For a young horse, he’s been incredibly lucky: it’s obvious that he’s been well-handled but not spoiled; he’s not been ruined and he’s beautifully confident and naturally curious in the best way. My horsemanship heart raced with excitement, but it also sank at the thought of this youngster having already been backed and sent to us to work as hard as our fully-grown horses do.
He was fitted with English tack, but not ridden or even lunged initially. One of the other instructors, who’s brought her own horse on using natural horsemanship, was given him to play with an found him to be exactly as I’d imagined: confident, quick to learn and eager to please. In other words, a dream. I watched horse and instructor play with a grin on my face on several occasions – he looked very happy and she was enjoying the experience too.
And then the wheels came off: the saddle was put on, I was handed a lunge line and on the end of it was a very different horse. The colleague who had been playing with him wasn’t present, and when I tried to describe the scene to her the following morning – holding back some tears – I couldn’t put my finger on the emotion the horse displayed. It wasn’t pure fear or discomfort per se, but perhaps it was confusion. There was a definite sense of betrayal, a “why are you doing this to me? We were having such a good time, what are we doing this for?”
Having lunged him a little, I looked on as someone else was instructed to ride him, and then I switched off. My confident little horse had disappeared and confusion reigned again – his gait was unbalanced and rushed; he wasn’t happy. I don’t think he was in pain, and it wasn’t laziness – because I truly believe this horse likes to please – but I honestly believe he’s not ready.
It’s a debate I’ve had a lot recently: my boss’s argument is that racehorses hit the track at the age of two – my counter-argument is that many then step off it at three or four ruined; those who are, for whatever reason, drawn towards more classical than natural training techniques or whose employers demand a high turnover for the sake of costs and profit are content to push horses fairly hard in order to get the required result. There are, of course, many other reasons for wanting to work a horse to a deadline. But, in my opinion, there are enough horses in the world that the horse can afford to have his say at least a little. They’re sentient beings, and there will be a horse out there who will work at the desired pace and offer the optimum outcome for a given activity, it’s just a case of finding it.
Although I prefer some of our horses over others, I care for them all, and there are times when I struggle to tolerate the workload even the mature, fit ones are asked to undertake. They give, and give, and give. We take. We put a confident, content three-year old on the treadmill. I hope he comes off with his sense of self intact and his body able to carry him through a long and happy life. And if I had the money in the bank, I’d take him home with me and leave him unsaddled for at least another year.