Over this past weekend, I attended a horse show for photography purposes. I used to be an avid rider and did compete, albeit briefly. Several years ago, I had a bad riding accident that ended my riding career. Suffice it to say, I haven’t been to a show in quite a long while, not even the infamous Devon Horse Show, which I used to attend religiously.
I was a little nervous about going to this one, but with my new photography business, I knew I had to conquer my phobia of reemerging myself into the horse world, so I asked a friend if she’d come along for moral support, and we headed off.
As soon as I drove through the gates and parked my car on the lawn, I felt like I’d never left the horse world. Everything made sense, from the clothes to the crowd to the courses. I scoped out the rings, of which there were two, took a few quick pictures to judge my lighting and background and got to work.
A couple of hours in, while photographing a green event for young riders, the world that felt so familiar to me fell out from beneath me in a most unexpected way.
It started with a girl, who couldn’t have been more than ten. She was riding a dappled grey pony and had pink ribbons in her hair, as most of the competitors did. She lined her pony up to a jump on the far side of the ring, and the pony refused. Barely muffled groans came from the stands, and I lowered my camera out of respect for the young rider. We all waited in silence while she turned her pony around and lined it up again. Again, the pony refused.
My gut reaction was frustration. I gritted my teeth and stopped the words from coming out, “Use your freaking crop!” Next to me, the girl’s mother did not stop herself, “Kick him! Show him the stick!” And next to her, her trainer didn’t mince words either, “What do you have it for if you aren’t going to use it?” Following the instruction of her mother and trainer, the girl lined her pony up a third time and walloped it on the hind with the crop. It wasn’t the resounding crack of crop against flesh that resonated across the crisp day that made my heart sink though, it was what followed.
The pony pinned its ears, flicked its tail, tensed its muscles, I could see the weight shifting upward almost. Even from across the ring I could see its jaw tightening around the bit, and its neck arching back. It didn’t rear, but it was thinking about it. Instead, it surged forward and went up and over the jump, but when it came down, it kept barreling forward. The girl’s face filled with terror as she pulled on the reins but the pony kept moving.
Fortunately, she finished without coming out of the saddle, and the pony did settle then slow, but my breath fell out of my chest watching the scene unfold.
It’s been six years since my accident, and I’ve come a long way in terms of training dogs, but my gut reaction toward horses is still the same – kick them, hit them, tug on their mouths to force them into compliance.
The horse world didn’t look the same. For the rest of the morning it was like my observation light went on. I found myself sizing up horses that strained and gnawed at uncomfortable chunks of metal in their mouths, and children who yanked on the reins when the horse moved toward food. I saw swishing tails, pinned ears, tensed muscles and frantic, choppy movements and behaviors. I didn’t see the beauty I had once seen, that I was hoping to reconnect with. My knowledge of clicker trainer and my observation skills had poisoned this place for me.
When I went home, I sat on the couch and explained this all to Joe, who didn’t understand why a “nice day with your friend hanging out with horses” had me in such a sullen and quiet mood. He smiled and nodded, “No matter what, at the end of the day, you’re still a horse person, and horse people beat their horses. Well, maybe beat is a strong word.”
I shook my head, “No, it’s not really.”
The thing that kept plaguing me though, long into the night, was that girl’s reaction when her pony refused. Her gut instinct was not the same as mine and her mother’s and her trainer’s. Her gut instinct was not to use the crop, and I don’t think mine was at that age either, though I can’t be sure. This girl’s gut reaction was to simply turn her pony around and try again. It wasn’t until she was urged (and then later likely castigated for the delay) that she used the crop, and when she did, it was excessive.
I kept thinking about how almost all my trainers over the years had said to me that all little girls love horses, but it’s the ones who don’t outgrow it who are the true horse people. The way they said it was as if it was a calling. If that’s the case, it’s not true, what Joe said, that horse people beat their horses. That little girl was a horse person, and her instinct was not to beat her horse.
We are trained to beat our horses. And the training is aversive in its very nature. I remember many times leaving the barn in a fit of frustrated tears after being pushed and pushed by my trainers, who, in their defense, were simply trying to make me a better rider. But I never really wanted to be an amazing rider. I never even really wanted to show, I just felt like it was something you were supposed to do. Mostly, I wanted to spend time with horses, hang around the barn and go on trail rides.
It’s interesting to me though, when I think about it, that I was conditioned by my elders (who were also conditioned) to use pain as a weapon against the creatures we all love. The conditioning was so successful that even now, six years later, after all the books I’ve read and all the dog training I’ve done and all the knowledge I have about behavior and learning theory, my behavior is still being influenced when it comes to horses. So much for our great human brains and their ability to generalize I suppose.
As I was leaving with my friend, she said to me, “This is going to sound like a really dumb question, but – can horses sit?”
I laughed and shook my head, “They can, but they don’t usually. They’re not big dogs, contrary to what you might want them to be.” But maybe we should start treating them like they are.