I went to pick up a boarder horse Punalu from the vet yesterday. The vet said that Punalu had over 100lbs of sand in her stomach! Punalu is a big horse, but that is almost 10% of her bodyweight in sand! This is incredible, and had to take years to accumulate. What I find more incredible, though, is that she was at my place for a little under two months when this happened, with NO signs of trouble. Granted, she was just being boarded here, and not being ridden daily, but there were zero colic symptoms. She was seen by a vet within an hour of the first foot stomp that indicated she did not want to eat. Punalu was living with what I have to imagine was extreme discomfort for a very long time without any complaints...and at the very least, without missing a meal!
I think that this demonstrates something even bigger about horses that we talk about a lot, but sometimes is really hard, at least for me, to drive home in lessons. Horses are incredibly resilient and obedient. They will try to avoid trouble at all costs, even if this means working or interacting with humans at a huge emotional or physical cost. Punalu's is an obvious situation, in which she was willing to do her job despite 100+lbs of sand sitting in her stomach, possibly for years. Now, Punalu happens to be tough as nails when it comes to personality, but I think this applies to a much bigger range of issues, from soreness because of poor teeth, ill fitting equipment, bad riding, all the way to horses feeling huge amounts of anxiety just from being around a human, much less having a person on top of them, and still performing.
To many, this quality in horses that allows them to sacrifice their own well being to get the job done, in hopes of staying out of trouble, is the reason people choose horses to ride. They take for granted that with a minimal amount of training and understanding, horses can provide them the four legs they need to fulfill whatever the person wants to do. It is seen as permission to use horses however one wants, because, wouldn't the horse complain if it was really that bad?
But to me, this quality feels like the exact opposite. Knowing what I do about a horse's capacity to shut out discomfort, whether physically or emotionally, makes me feel even more responsible for their wellbeing, and drives me to want to be an even better horse person. I am the one who chooses to have horses in my life, not the other way around. I choose where they sleep, what they eat, and who they interact with. I am the rider, literally seeing the horse from above. So, to me it becomes a profound responsibility to do the best I can. At the very least, I want my horses to feel that there is someone listening if they need to complain. That comes with relationship, with trust, and with time. And most of all, it comes by showing a horse, over and over, that their feelings are important. This doesn't mean they do whatever they want. All of you know I have pretty high expectations for behavior! But it means that in showing them what is expected, their feelings are not squashed. It means always doing the best we can to understand what they are experiencing, and never becoming complacent because a horse is "broke." It doesn't mean that we stop doing what we like to do with horses, whether competing, trail riding or working, but it means doing it with as much compassion, clarity, understanding and education as we can, so that hopefully it, at the very least, doesn't make our horse's day worse. Even though we still want our horses to perform, it means prioritizing their best interests, even if that means changing the goals of our performance, whatever that may be.
It means not taking for granted that we are humans, and humans ride horses. I'm thankful every day that a horse would ever let me touch it, much less sit on it and direct its ideas and actions. I think the day we start forgetting that this is an amazing gift, one that we should aspire to deserve, is that day we should stop riding horses.