It seems the ultimate sign of caring, to say that we love our horses. Yet, I watch as people who say they love their horses treat them in ways that do not reflect that sentiment. Even riders who create obvious pain in their horses are defended, by their fans, with the statement that “They love their horses!” – as if that makes the blood in the mouth or on the sides somehow okay. Of course, for those who have either lived through or witnessed abusive human relationships, you will recognize that this is frequently the claim of the abuser toward the abused. And, of course, many people love their possessions – their car, their home, a piece of jewelry – is this the sort of love people have for their horses?
I think about this often, when I hear someone proclaim their love of their horse – what do they really mean by that? Recently, I ran into a quote that inspired me to bring that question into this post.
The quote is from Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me, from the chapter on Spencer Tracy. Obviously she is speaking about love for another human – but for me, there is little difference when I speak of love for my horses (or dogs).
“It seems to me I discovered what ‘I love you’ really means. It means I put you and your interests and your comfort ahead of my own interests and my own comfort because I love you.
What does this mean?
I love you. What does this mean?
We use this expression very carelessly.
LOVE has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only what you are expecting to give – which is everything.
What you will receive in return varies. But it really has no connection with what you give. You give because you love and you cannot help giving. If you are very lucky, you may be loved back. That is delicious but it does not necessarily happen.”
For me, this cuts to the heart of what disturbs me about many people who claim to “love” their horses – it seems to be about what they get from their horses, not what they give to their horses. That would certainly appear to be the case of those riders who cause physical damage to their horse. The damage they do is in the name of competition – and many are very successful – yet it is hard to fathom that true love, of the sort Ms. Hepburn describes, would ever lead to the sort of damaging riding as seen in the photo to the right.
Let me be clear – I am not saying that love is a requisite for having and caring for horses. I would classify empathy as the main emotion required to be an outstanding horseman (and that is also clearly lacking in the photo above). I have known many a fine horseman who was empathetic, but would claim no particular affection for horses (though most would show it when no one seemed to be looking).
What I am saying is that ‘love’ has become a cheap word – as Ms. Hepburn said, we tend to use it very carelessly. It is bad enough if it is applied to a horse as one would apply it to a possession – but it becomes particularly egregious if one uses it as a cover for behavior that is selfish or even abusive.
I once had a client who had rescued a former ranch horse. She frequently proclaimed her love for the mare, though she was terrified of even being physically very close to her. It became clear, early on, that she would never overcome her fear enough to ride the mare. Yet, she refused to take the frequently offered advice to find the mare a nice pasture, with other horses, and let her just “be a horse”. No, “only the best” would do for her mare – but it was the “best” for her, not for the mare. It gave her a nice indoor arena to safely walk the mare in (no worries about scary things, like might occur outside), and it gave her a barn full of people to chat with. So, the mare spent the rest of her life in a stall with a small paddock. Save for the year I had her in training, in which people remarked at her change of attitude, the mare held the reputation for the crankiest horse in the barn. This was not “love” where you put the other’s interest and comfort ahead of your own.
I have known many people who proclaim profound love for horses they then sell. They are not selling them because it is better for the horse – there are certainly times when you cannot offer a horse what they need, or the match is just bad, and then it can be an act of love to find a better situation for both of you. No, the horses I’m referring to are either sold as part of commerce, or because they no longer provide the “adoring” owner with what they need – be that ribbons, or just the “right look”. Worse, there are those who “love” their horses who are now too old for the desired activity, so the owner is seeking a “forever home” for their “much loved” equine. We would grimace in horror at the idea of selling a child, spouse, or anyone else for whom we have affection. Yet, it seems quite normal to “love” a horse, but casually send it off to an unknown fate, and usually for financial gain.
To be clear, I am not denouncing the sale of horses. We all have our horses because someone is (hopefully) responsibly breeding them for the purpose of selling them to us. I am grateful to Noble’s breeder for his creation, and for her willingness to part with him. She neither views her horses as property, nor does she declare her deep and abiding love for each and every one. It would not be emotionally sustainable to be deeply in love with every foal you breed, and watch them all go off to fates you cannot control. In the rare cases where she has developed a compelling bond with one of her foals, she has made the choice to keep them. This pragmatic approach went for my mentors in jumping and Dressage, both of whom were also breeders.
My titular question is not a challenge to your feelings about your horse. If you feel empathy in your interactions with horses, that is sufficient in my book. Instead, it is a challenge to how we use the word “love” with regard to our horses. If you do use that word to characterize your feeling for your horse, have you considered what you mean by it?
Of course some of us do very much love our horses. We have made sacrifices in order to have them in our lives – of more than just money, which holds no emotional value. We make decisions that might not be our preference, but is in the best interest of our horse. We take responsibility for all aspects of their care – even if you board, where someone else feeds and cleans, you likely have spent cold nights waiting for a vet or tending to a sick horse. We have pulled our horses from a show, when continuing would risk their mental or physical health. In short, you have often sacrificed your own needs or comfort for the sake of your horse.
So, my challenge is simply to consider our use of the word “love” with regard to our horses. And certainly, before you defend anyone else by saying “But she loves her horse!”, please take a look at the real nature of that relationship, from the horse’s point of view, and be very sure that you are not simply helping to cover an abusive relationship.
Be good to your horses!