Children are one third of our population and all of our future. ~Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981
A friend of mine is a children’s book writer. She is also a horse enthusiast, so naturally she writes about horses. She, like so many of us, believes in kindness to animals and is against inflicting any kind of pain to horses. The first version of her newest manuscript, a lovely picture book for younger children, is a story about a little girl discovering horses at a barn where barefoot horses are ridden in bitless bridles. Sounds absolutely wonderful, doesn’t it?
The publisher, however, had a problem. According to them, horses in books must have bits and shoes, to prevent little readers from feeling guilty and sad for the horses they encounter in real life; all surely using bits and shoes.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around this argument. We want to teach children to be kind and considerate to animals, something children by nature already are. Children want to be on the animal’s side, and would love nothing more than have adult support in this matter. And aren’t books a means of reflecting change in our society? Good books don’t merely repeat what has been said over and over again for decades, but try to follow new trends and bring fresh expert advice to readers.
I can, however, understand the publisher’s concern. Perhaps they are truly afraid of causing a guilt trip to their little readers. Who would want to read a book to their children about caged industrial chicken and their miserable lives? Or the real story about where the majority of our beef comes from. But should we underestimate our children by not telling them the truth? Should this publisher be concerned of making such a radical statement as admitting that the current way of being with horses is abusive?
My friend made a compromise with her publisher. She agreed to omit all verbal mentions of the bitless bridles and barefoot hooves, but asked that the illustrated horses in the book would not have bits or horseshoes. She based her argument on the fact that no children’s book should promote abusive controlling devices and it should always be a reflection of the writer’s own beliefs. The publisher finally agreed to this solution; perhaps a small victory at best, but a step towards the right direction.
As a mother, I know how tricky it can sometimes be to answer your child’s eager questions. You want to communicate your values to your child, but on the same token, you don’t want to distress your child with too much information. Because let’s face it: the world we live in today is not exactly a bed of roses. Animals are not treated fairly. Heck, people are not treated fairly. Children have little control over most aspects of our society, so why burden them with the uncomfortable truth when they can’t do anything about it? At least not yet.
Of course it’s not just what we say to our children or the books we read to them that shape them as individuals. It is who we are that counts the most, that teaches them how to be in this world.
Take an incident I witnessed a few weeks ago while I was visiting another barn nearby:
A woman in her thirties was taking care of her horse, which was standing in crossties. The woman’s approximately three year old son was playing with his cars in the barn aisle in front of the horse. The horse was standing calmly while his owner worked on her after-riding rituals, taking the tack away, brushing the entire horse, greasing the hooves.
She went around the horse, picking up each foot to apply grease to the bottom of the hoof. The hose’s expression was bored, until the owner tried to pick up the left front. Instead of lifting the foot, the horse leaned into his owner, putting weight on the foot she was trying to grease. The owner yanked on the leg and elbowed the horse, but he didn’t budge. Then, without as much as a warning, the woman straightened up, yelled at her horse and hit him hard on the shoulder with the hoof pick.
At this point the horse moved and picked up his foot, but I was no longer looking at the horse or the owner. I was looking at the little boy, who had stopped playing with his cars and was watching his mother intently. What was going through his head? Had he seen his mother hit the horse before? Or had he possibly been subject to his mother’s rage and knew what the horse was going through? His little face was solemn and grave, but there was a hint of wonder flickering behind his big, brown eyes.
Children are very observant; in fact, they are so observant they often notice things we don’t. When my son was just a toddler he used to come with me to the barn quite often. Once, long before I was consciously on any Path, my three year old son watched my student riding in the arena. He stared at the horse for a while, and then asked:”Why is the horse opening his mouth?”
I looked at the horse and low and behold, the mouth was open. Of course, there was a noseband trying to keep the mouth shut, but the horse was doing his best to fight the strap across his nose. Despite the numerous lessons we had done together with this particular rider and her horse, I had never made this observation. And there was my toddler son pointing it out to me in all his innocent curiosity. He was obviously far further on the Path than I was and not because someone had told him about it, but because he simply observed his environment and questioned everything that was happening in it, something I should have been doing, had I not been blinded by everything I had learned about horses in the past thirty years.
Eight years ago when I first became a mother, a lot of people gave me advice, but the single most valuable piece of guidance was given to me by an old friend, a mother of three. My friend said: “When you are in the presence of your child, never ever forget to ask yourself this question: What am I teaching my child at this very moment?”
Children are clean slates. This might sound like a cliché, but only because it is true. Children already know the truth. But then we go ahead and tamper with it. Like the little boy watching his mother hit her horse. What did he learn from that situation? Certainly not patience or kindness or empathy. Will he grow up to be his mother? Or will he somehow deviate from her path and learn to question the way his mother treats animals?
A few years back, before my time with Little Love, I spent a few months riding at a very fancy dressage stable by Lake Geneva. I deliberately sought out the owner to see if she needed anyone to ride her many horses, and she did. I was happy to start riding at her place, as it gave me the opportunity to ride some excellent horses (something important to me at the time) but it didn’t take me very long to realize the culture of violence that was present in everything that was done at this facility.
This was a private barn with a handful of adults, a few teenagers and a dozen horses. There was also an eleven year old girl, who showed up every single day to ride her expensive dressage pony. She obviously loved horses, but she also worshipped the barn owner and her adult daughter; both successful riders with extremely forceful techniques. This admiration from the little girl’s part resulted in some of the most abusive behavior I have ever seen a rider exhibit.
I can tell you, it is a whole different ball game to witness an adult behaving in a cruel way towards animals than witnessing a young child doing the same. Seeing children participate in beating horses, kicking them with spurs, yelling, slapping, whipping, pulling them into excessive rollkur by using drawreins is to say the least, revolting. We expect children to be pure and innocent, but there is nothing innocent about blatant violence.
This eleven year old girl had not only adapted every single move she had witnessed her idols doing, she had perfected them by exaggeration. It was not, of course, her fault she had turned this way. She was only repeating what she had learned. No amount of interference from my part would make her change her ways. In fact, it only got me into to trouble with the barn owner, who openly supported this violence.
It doesn’t take a lot to guide a child the wrong way. Last summer I had the opportunity to give my niece a private riding lesson. She is a nine year old horse enthusiast who had at that point been riding once a week for less than a year at a local riding school in her home country. It was interesting to see how she related to the horses, which was with quite a mechanical manner, as if she was riding a bike. She had learned to use her legs to kick their sides to ask for forward movement, she had learned to use her hands to pull on their mouths to turn them and stop them. Nobody had ever corrected her seat, nor had they told her about the nature of the horse, what a sensitive animal it was.
She told me about the angry ponies back home, how one would bite and the other threaten to kick. I was saddened to hear this and tried to gently explain why a horse would behave in this sort of manner. At first my niece simply watched me interact with the horses in silence, but soon the questions started. Why do you not use the bit? Why do some horse have shoes and some don’t? Is that horse angry or happy?
I have to admit: I felt inadequate in the face of this child. I could offer her the truth I knew, but I could not help her any further. If she wanted to be with horses, she would have to continue riding at her mainstream riding school as there were no other options nearby. How could I possibly tell her about the harmful effects of the bit, when I knew she had no option but ride in a bit? How could I explain that shoeing horses was detrimental to their health when most horses she knew had shoes? How could I enlighten her about the abuse she was learning at her riding school?
If I told her what I knew, would she feel as powerless as I do, in the face of helping horses?
So here we are, back to the question of guilt trips.
I told my niece I didn’t use a bit because I personally believed bits were not necessary and that horses preferred going without. I told her that horseshoeing was an old tradition, but that horses were born without shoes and did much better without them. I did my best to teach her how to sit on the horse correctly and how sensitive they really were, and how willing to communicate if we took a moment to listen to them. We spent some time grooming the ponies and talking about their body language and the personal space they had and how to respect that. All I could hope was that perhaps I planted a small little seed in my niece’s inquisitive and thoughtful little head, a seed that would have the opportunity to grow as she got older. But in hindsight, I can see that just like my friend’s publisher, I chose a careful option, the compromise. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do. Children are so much smarter than what we often give them credit for and can handle surprisingly controversial information. My son is only eight and is fully aware of global warming and what is happening to the planet. So why not tell the ugly truth about horses? Perhaps it is only us adults who know about guilt trips?
The Path is the birthright of all children, you don’t have to convince them to be kind to animals; it comes as second nature to them, at least until they learn something else. When I was a child, I often imagined being a cat or a dog or a horse. I wanted to know what they were feeling, how it was to be in the world as an animal. But I lost that, because I was taught to control animals instead of understanding them. The same thing is happening to so many other children out there, who love horses, but end up treating them inhumanely simply because that is how adults treat them.
In the meanwhile, I want to hold onto my dream that one day there will only be barns like the one in my friend’s children’s book, where horses are treated with respect and without the fear of pain or force. Perhaps my dream will come true, but maybe not in my lifetime.
My son rarely comes to the barn with me anymore, but when he does, I let Little Love loose in the arena with him. She always follows him, where ever he goes, as if they have a silent agreement to walk together. It brings tears to my eyes every time, because this is a horse that follows next to nobody. But she follows him, because he knows more about horses and their ways than I will perhaps ever be able to understand.
A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer. ~Author Unknown