Wednesday, January 5, 2011
To be dragged in the wake of the passive flock and to pass a hundred and one times beneath the shears of the shepherd, or to die alone like a brave eagle on a rocky crag of a great mountain: that is the dilemma. ~Praxedis Guerrero, RegeneraciÓn, 18 February 1911
Last summer I was visiting a local riding school close to my family's summer home in Finland and hit it off with the owner/riding teacher, who readily showed me the horses in her barn. She was a lady looking for solutions for a pony who seemed to be afraid of the bit and she had heard of my affiliation with the bitless bridle. As we were talking and visiting the horses, she motioned me to a stall.
"This is Bira," she said. "She was a harness racing horse, but didn't do too well at that."
I looked into the stall and met eyes with a beautiful, chestnut mare. Her face were kind, but suspicious.
"Actually, she was already scheduled to go to slaughter and was practically on the truck with two other young horses, but then I was able to talk my husband (the harness racer) into breeding her. I just couldn't see her go."
Bira stuck her nose at me and touched my hand. I wondered if she knew how I was feeling when I heard her story. Probably. I stroked her neck.
"Why was she going to slaughter in the first place?"
"Oh, they just didn't have use for her anymore and she isn't much of a mount, although I do now ride her. But I can't have her in the riding lessons. She is quite nervous of people."
The lady was right: Bira was very nervous of people. She did, however, stand politely when you brushed her and tacked her up, but her unease in the situation was obvious. She stood still to let you on her back, but if you even remotely moved out of balance or grabbed onto the reins, she was gone. It didn't take too long for the lady to say the magic words so often spoken to me in situations like this:
"Could you ride her for me?"
In the next two weeks I came back and rode Bira a few times with the bitless bridle, which worked for her far better than any of the bitted bridles she had experienced in her life (dressage snaffles look like child's play compared to harness racing equipment for those who have never seen any...). I spent a significant amount of time focusing on grounding myself through a breathing routine I do and Bira did well, under the circumstances, but I felt a disconnect that made my heart ache. I was certain there was so much more to this little mare; deep down she was another Little Love, waiting to be discovered.
"She is having a baby next year, so she's safe for a while," the owner said wistfully one day. "I'm hoping she could learn to be a riding school horse, then we could keep her. You being able to ride her in the bitless gives me hope." The lady looked at me and it was obvious she loved this horse. I went home with a wish for her and Bira.
I was also shocked. I hadn't realized healthy and vibrant horses like Bira could end up in the slaughter house, but it made sense. Who would buy her? You couldn't sell her as a race horse or a riding horse. How many of these horses were sent yearly to their death just because they weren't "good" enough?
In Australia the Sydney Herald newspaper tried to do the math. In February 2008 they wrote: Of the 17,000 thoroughbreds born last year only about two-thirds will ever make it to the racetrack. Of those, most suffer injuries or do not run fast enough and only about 1 to 3 per cent make it to top events."
In Great Britain 4,000 foals never make it to training. The racing industry is brutal. They produce foal after foal, looking for the perfect runner, but at the same time discard the ones that don't seem to "have it". Being slow can be life-threatening.
I kept Bira in my heart, but it wasn't until I was reading the book Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean that I realized the enormity of the horse slaughter scene. According McGreevy and McLean "among non-racehorses, previous studies indicate that up to 66% of euthanasia in horses between 2 and 7 years of age was not because of health disorders." This is a staggering finding. The racing industry was one thing, but my image of permanently ill and old riding horses going to slaughter was instantly turned upside down. Young and healthy riding horses and ponies were being culled as well. And why? McGreevy and McLean continue, giving you the answer: "The implication is that they were culled for behavioral reasons."
McGreevy and McLean also state that "horses are being confused on a very regular basis by less-than-ideal handling and become unusable, or worse, dangerous as a result."
My friend Sam has a horse called Destiny, or should I say, Destiny has a owner called Sam. Destiny, or D as she is known to her friends, was once one of those horses McGreevy and McLean talk about. She could have easily become another statistic, had her path not crossed with that of Sam's. When they met, she was unrideable, uncooperative and her reputation preceded her. Her corkscrew bucks were impressive and had launched several trainers out of the saddle. She was known to attack people. Her owner could not even lead her out of her stall into the arena without an incident.
It is hard to believe that now, two years later. You can see for yourself, she is the spotted mare in the photographs taken just two weeks ago when she was teaching young Maleah how to be with horses. And what a teacher she is! I would hope for everyone to meet a horse like Destiny at least once in their life; she brings such peace and grounded energy to the world. It is impossible to not feel good in her presence. Maybe that is why people who meet her often describe her as "Mother Earth".
And what made Destiny change her ways? I suppose it was a multitude of things. Sam said the first time he met her, he opted to take a different route than all the other trainers who had tried to "tame" her; he simply did nothing. He recalls taking his lunch to the barn and merely sitting on the fence watching her. It seemed like a good plan, so he showed up again the next day. And then the next. Eventually he became Dee's owner and took her to his place where she now lives and teaches children and other horses about the horse-human connection. She also no longer lives in a stall, is free fed, barefoot and gets to play with other horses, if she so chooses. Choice is a big part of her world; participation in any activity is always her choice. And most of the times she does choose to participate, as she loves hanging out with people, especially kids.
Despite Destiny's reputation Sam says he never really got into a fight with her, except once when he was trying to give her a shot. She bent the needle and attacked him. He said it took her a long time to forgive him for that one, but it took him a lot shorter time to realize what he had done wrong. He never tried to control her again and accepted her as who she was. And because of that, Dee can now respond to Sam's requests instead of reacting to his actions.
So many horses accept human training methods without much resistance; they suffer in silence because they know that fighting back will bring more pain. These are the horses people look for; the "keepers" that seemingly comply to our world. In their quiet, but unrelenting ways, these horses still seek to teach us about (in)humanity. But, if we let it happen, it is the Destinies and Biras of the world that truly have the potential to grab our attention, because they are screaming this message out loud. It is these horses, these freedom fighters, that really have the power to change a man.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, over 100,000 horses went to slaughter in 2008 in the United States. The Daily Mail reports that roughly the same amount of horses are transported into and around the European Union for human consumption in countries such as Switzerland and France. Many of those horses are physically healthy, sound young animals - like Destiny and Bira. People rally against horse slaughter and I can see the point, but why not go to the root of the problem? Why not look at the current training methods used with horses and change the way we train horses? Why not put an effort into reducing the amount of horses going to slaughter?
Luckily the world is changing. People with real understanding for horses and animal behavior are emerging from the crowds. Books like Equitation Science, that explain horse behavior and learning theory, are being published and will hopefully change the way people look at training horses. More and more people are keen to give their horses natural living conditions. Every little step helps, even if it is a small and tentative step.
I think of Little Love and her painful journey to where she is at now. She is a horse with an opinion and she has held onto that opinion through thick and thin. Thanks to her owner's persistence (and some luck), she never became a statistic, but at times it was definitely a possibility. We have all known at least one horse like her; the ones that didn't "fit in", the ones everyone feared and nobody wanted to ride, the ones that didn't meet the potential humans had assigned to them - the 'crazy" ones. Sadly, I admit to knowing so many over the years that I have lost count.
There are no bad horses, there are just horses that have been misused, mistreated and misunderstood by humans. I used to think these horses needed to be fixed, as if they were merely a train that had veered slightly off track. But I can now see it was I who had derailed - big time. I hope others are faster to learn this lesson than I was. I try to forgive myself for my past, because it is more important that I am here now, holding my human heart close to the heart of a freedom fighter. Together we manifest for the ones out there that have not yet found a partner in heart of their own.
Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day. ~Stephen Jay Gould, "Our Allotted Lifetimes," The Panda's Thumb, 1980