Tuesday, January 27, 2009

News flash! Animals are not machines

I apologize in advance for a looong rant.

In a recent issue of Chronicle of the Horse, world class event rider/coach Ralph Hill says:
"The majority of people at events I went to watch while coming back from my injury weren’t treating their horses like individuals. They’re treating them like a piece of machinery. That’s what ticks me off more than anything. They just want to go to the social parties and have the horse get them a ribbon."

Are we surprised? Why?

Each new generation of kids is growing up more disconnected from nature and more plugged into technology than the generation before. There's even a new book out on an admittedly a little silly-sounding condition, childhood "nature deficit disorder." Whether this disorder exists or not, most kids don't grow up on farms, don't experience animals in a natural setting, and don't think about them much except in relation to themselves. Technology, on the other hand, is always on, always ready, and only requires moving electrons to function.

Remember when parents were, well, parental?
From my work at a university, I can attest that parental roles are devolving from that of authority figure/mentor/guide to that of a friend -- one that can be humored or ignored. In the horse world, I see parents that not only miss the teachable moments of parenthood, they are scared to death of their kid's disapproval. They go to great lengths to "help" their kids which amounts to handing them everything they need. If we look to parents to revise their kids expectations of their animals, we're likely to be disappointed. In fact, ambitious parents just feed into the take no prisoners approach to competing.

Horse poop! EEEEWWW!
Kids spend hours on their horses practicing for competition, but they're missing a "whole 'nuther side" to their horses' lives. As a 46 year old adult who works eight hours at the barn every Sunday, I have noticed that teens/college age kids can't be persuaded to muck stalls. I've had to bite my tongue when the barn manager explains to me that "Sarah is working today with you today, but she doesn't do stalls. You'll be doing all the stalls while she takes the other [easy, clean, lightweight] work." The Pony Club has a program that works to create horsemen and women, but it seems to be a philosophy that's on the wane.

Since when is water optional?
Years ago in North Carolina, the the barn water pump broke, and horses had only the water in their stalls to last them until the next morning. Most horses had a half bucket. I watched as one young rider after another rode and returned the horse to its stall without even glancing at the water buckets. There was apparently no understanding that exercise would make the horse consume what little water was available. The barn manager was too embarrassed to try to curtail the normal riding activities. Why didn't someone step in and lay down the law? Again, a teachable moment was missed.

Can anything be done?
I think so. Bob tells many stories about his elderly mom, a die-hard animal lover, confronting her Brooklyn neighbors over the treatment of animals. She did not mince words, and she threatened people with her cane (I'll spare you the specific threat). We need to hear more from people like Bob's mom, and Ralph Hill, who speak up about animal welfare. It's hard to do this in the horse world. I'm grateful to Ralph Hill and an article that strengthens my resolve to speak up rather than shut up.


  1. Great points you make! I remember being a little girl who lived in the country and took long pony rides most afternoons. . .
    It was only years later I realized how much I took those long-suffering ponies for granted. . .
    My horse now has much to thank those long ago little horses for, as does the pony my own daughters ride.
    I eventually learned that a horse is not like a bicycle that you kick to make go, pull back to make stop, and whose only job in life is to serve your every whim. . .
    Thank goodness for that!

  2. You and me both! I did have the benefit of trainers who were quick to tell me at volume ten, with expletives, when I'd messed up.

    I was worst when I only got to ride on weekends -- you try to get as much in one ride as you can. Ironically I was riding a horse that was ridden in lessons six days a week, I rode him on his day off, until a kind boarder offered me her horse to ride.

  3. Preach it Stacey!

    Know the best part? You LIVE what you are talking about.

  4. I hear this! I work three days a week at the barn where I board my horse. It's populated primarily with 4-H kids -- but often times, they're not the main problem. The adults are as bad as the kids, or worse! Last weekend the kids were out at a gaming 'playdate' and I was mucking stalls. One of the moms came in to clean out her two horses' stalls. When she left, the barn owner and I discovered that she'd raked all the poop into a pile in the stall BUT HADN'T BOTHERED TO TAKE IT OUT. What the heck? Her horses return to their stalls sweaty, not brushed down, still hot, and then they have to stand in a dirty stall. What an example for a parent to set for her kid. (The kid is just as bad -- of course). It drives me crazy to see that sort of thing in action. They're HORSES! Not ATVs!

    that's the end of my rant. It doesn't help that I just came back from the barn! :)

  5. My husband and I lament about how kids now seem to spend less time with nature and animals. When I was young I was out at dawn in the swamp behind our house. I didn't come home until dark. My mother had to check my pockets for toads and bird feathers.

    I can't fathom a barn girl who doesn't do stalls either. I think you are right about some young riders not being in it for the right reasons. Although, in the defense of the young today, I do remember girls like that when I was a teen (that was only about 10 years ago ;) .

    If we have kids, we'll do our best to raise them well.

  6. Remember when we used to help clean the barn for free lessons? Or do ALL the watering? (Breaking the ice, to boot?)

    We worked a lot for our riding privileges and while I was happy not to have to clean Pepper's stall every day, I would never have gone without checking his water or clearing out a really bad part of his stall. It's part of being a horsewoman and it's sad that these youngsters aren't being taught to care for the animals, you're right!

  7. I am thankful that my grown children do not have a nature deficit disorder. However, you nailed it on the head. It never ceases to amaze what horses do for us.

  8. Isn't it insane these days? My hubby tells me stories of a barn he shoes for, this one girl talks to her mother like TRASH, he said the F-word is in every sentence, and the girl is very condescending to her mother. Not to mention she says every horse she rides is a POS, even though she rides really nice horses.
    I can't fathom a kid who won't clean stalls either. These days parents don't teach their children anything, and you're spot-on in your post. They live in fear of their child's disapproval. It's INSANE.
    I could go on and on and on. It makes me ill.
    My child isn't even 5 yet, and she's got her own rake and child sized wheelbarrow, and let me tell you, she scoops poop too. Around here, if you ride the horse and claim it as yours, you take care of it. All of it.

  9. Everything with kids is screwed up these days. I'm sorry but if my boys do something wrong they are getting in trouble and they know it. Hell my kindergartner's teacher THANKED us for disicplining him at home (time outs and such) and commented that other parents don't do that sort of thing anymore. And I KNOW who she is talking about too. *headdesk*

    My oldest helps out feeding all the animals (horses, dogs and cat), mostly he just dumps in the feed right now (he is only 5) and when it is warmer he helps me brush the horses. I refuse to let him get away with just riding them. He wants a ride, well he is going to help tack up and clean up. Right now he mostly helps me get the tack out as he can't put any of it on my mare yet, but that will come with time.

    Completely off topic here but my verification word is "gunking" *snort* All I could think is de-gunking water buckets.

  10. I had a professor in college that assigned the Nature Deficit Disorder book to read. He is part of a dying breed that teaches their children (and others: he goes to elementary schools and gives wonderful lectures) the wonders of nature. He is basically retired now (still teaches one class) and it is sad to think of all the people that he has influenced, will there be someone to replace him? This is such an important topic for that reason and the fact that kids these days...I will admit though, I think that there will always be those horse crazy kids that will muck stalls, will do all of the hard work for the love of the horse. We have both at our barn- the over indulged princess whose parents bought the expensive horse just because it was expensive (don't get me wrong, I really do like this family, I just feel like they are enabling their child and turning her into a spoiled angsty teenager) and the kid that canters out to the barn (come on, you've all done it before too) I have always been the kind of instructor that lets you know that a horse is not a machine, and typically, if they are misbehaving, it is rider error so you need to fix yourself before you fix the horse. But make sure you fix the horse too.
    Good post

  11. Great post! It really makes me wish I had my house and farm set up better, so I could mentor and even foster kids and teach them what I know, and things that I wish I had learned years ago.

    My verification word is 'rowls' *S*

  12. Hey Stacey, no apologies for a "rant" needed. This was a great post. I appreciate your thoughts on this especially because I have an 8 y.o. daughter. It jsut so happens we're scheduled to go to our first 4H horse project meeting tonight. So it's good for me to remember what it's all about (the HORSE) before we get too deep into the giggles of the club. I'd hate for her to lose the horsemanship she's learned, from tagging along with me as I take care of my horse, to a desire to just hang out with her horsey friends. At least, that is what I believe would happen quite naturally among a group of young girls. Why muck or check the water when your buddies are around to play with? I don't blame the young people. I agree with you that it is up to the parents and adults to keep a level head and remind them of the not-so-fun jobs that still must be done. I think your barn manager should encourage this responsibility among the young people at the barn--why shouldn't teens muck stalls? If my 8 year-old can do it, anyone can.

  13. Janice, I remember we used to astonish Jerry Steinmetz when we showed up at the barn in the most frigid weather -- I remember spilling water on my coat and having it fall away in shards within seconds.

    Entirely too much is made of "being cool" these days, young and old alike. Does anyone remember a short-lived auto commercial, a take off on "i'm too sexy for my shirt"? The driver is a middle aged man, and he's singing "I'm.. too sexy for the drryyy cleeaaanning!!!" It was a hoot. And it makes me think of "Sarah," the girl who is too cool to muck a stall. Cool is vastly overrated.

  14. Being of the college age myself I was shocked to read about people my age NOT cleaning up poop. I thought unless you were super rich, that was just part of the horse owning duties. When I stabled at a barn for a short period the high school kids and college kids seemed to do more stall mucking than the older people. I can't believe people treat their animals this way. It's wrong, and on the competition side of things, wouldn't you expect a happy healthy horse with water and a rider that loves it and cares about it to do better in the long run?

    People are frustrating.


  15. I'm so glad to hear you sing the praises of Pony Club. Having two kids in it and running a barn, I really don't know what I would do with out PC's common sense work ethics and partnership endorsing philosophy. And to think enrollment is down because it is "too strict"...

  16. Great post, Stacey. It brings back memories of mucking out stalls and turning out horses to earn riding lessons. I have seen how children behave now, and I can see where it would apply to animals.


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