by Laura Crum
Lately I’ve been exploring all the gray areas we face as ethical horse owners. I got started on this because I would read a blog that bashed something and I would start to think about it and realize that the subject wasn’t that simple (see my post “What Is Lame?”). And then I would read a post extolling something and think, again, but it isn’t that simple. There’s a dark side, too. For instance, in a recent post Terri described a three day event in which a little girl won her class and how thrilled the girl was and how much support she got and how great it all was. This post made me smile and I felt happy for the little girl. I know from reading Michele’s posts and Terri’s, too, how hard this girl has worked to achieve such a goal. But I have to admit, it crossed my mind—what about the others?
When I was nine years old I was not nearly as advanced a rider as the girl in the story. I did not have a horse of my own, but I took riding lessons at a nearby riding school. I was about nine when I participated in my first horseshow. It was a walk/trot/canter English equitation class—nothing fancy. It was only open to the riding school students. But it was a big riding school and there were at least twenty entries in the class. I was one of the more beginning students.
Now, I know you think you know where this is going. My tears when I didn’t win. As a matter of fact, I placed second in that relatively big class (I’ll never forget). I was thrilled. The truth is, I beat many students who were far more accomplished riders than I was. I was a beginner, some of them were advanced students and jumping three foot fences. I had yet to jump anything higher than a cavaletti. Why did I place against them? I have no idea.
I’ve always been good at test taking, whether on paper on otherwise, so perhaps I performed well. The judge was an outsider and had never seen the riding school students before and had no preconceived notions. It was the first class of the day, so she had no idea how well we rode other than what she was seeing. I had entered very early and managed to request and get as my mount a mare named Melody who was an old, experienced “schoolmaster”, with smooth gaits. Some of the others were riding much more difficult horses. Who knows? The fact is, I placed above many others who really rode better than I did.
There is a photo of me at this show and my grin is a mile wide. But I also remember going back to the barn and seeing the tear stains on the face of another little girl, who had not placed at all. Even at nine years old I was aware how much it galled this girl to have been so thoroughly beaten by a rank beginner when she was undeniably the better rider. And it bothered me, right through my joy. It didn’t seem fair. And even if, by some odd chance, I had appeared the better rider that morning, what was the point of glorifying me at her expense? We had both tried hard and done well.
And today I ask myself what I think about this. Would it not have been better to give us all a ribbon? My son’s school has changed the Science Fair to this system. Everyone who participates gets a ribbon. Competition is eliminated. I sure see a lot of happy faces and no tears.
I know there are two sides to this coin. It’s a gray area, like so much of life. I have many friends who love to compete, and they’re good people who treat their horses and their friends/competitors very well. I, myself, competed for many, many years. I know about the fun in competition. I’ve also written a lot here on the blog about the very real evils. But more than that, I question the underlying nature of competition, just as I’ve illustrated above. Like most everything else in life, it is full of paradox. I’ve come to the conclusion that truth resides in paradox—which doesn’t make it easy to describe or come to terms with. And perhaps that’s the point. Life is not simple.
Anyway, having got that far, I asked myself if there wasn’t something about the horse world I could extol in glowing terms and feel unequivocally happy about. Something simply good. And there is. There’s lots, really. But I’ll just tell one thing for now—keep it simple.
There’s Henry. Henry, my son’s twenty-two year old bombproof, lazy, red gelding. Henry that I spent way too much to buy and then had to dump $10,000 into for colic surgery..and followup. Henry who colicked again back in Jan (there went another $500). We don’t compete on Henry. He’s not worth much of anything on the open market. And you know what? Every time I look at Henry my heart just fills up with gratitude.
I love, love, love this honest, trustworthy little red horse who has done so much for us and brought us so much happiness and kept my son so safe and taken him on so many wonderful adventures. I love riding Henry myself. (He’s a fun horse for an experienced rider—will slide and spin a little…etc). But mostly I just love what he’s given us as a family. I love turning him loose to graze on our property and seeing how happy he is. I love seeing his bright-eyed, white-striped face come marching up to greet us. I love how my son loves his horse. I love watching my little boy lope circles in the arena or march up a hill on the trail. I love seeing how my son is becoming a competent horseman as he learns to make lazy Henry stay in the lope. I am completely happy every time I look at Henry—I don’t begrudge any money or time spent, and even if we lost him tomorrow, I would be glad that we had him while we did.
I didn’t always love Henry, mind you. When I bought him I saw him as the best and most logical choice for my son. And Henry is not a sweet, cuddly, easily lovable horse. He is a reliable, honest trooper, with a heart of gold, but he doesn’t much care for petting—he would far rather you fed him—he’s a real chowhound. Our pony, Toby, was much more “personable”. A year after buying Henry, when I had to spend a fortune (for me) to save his life, well, I won’t say I begrudged it, but I wondered if I would have done it if not for wanting to spare my son the pain of losing his horse. But you know, sometime in the in between, as I took care of Henry and rehabbed him, and rode him and went on rides with my son, something shifted. And when Henry colicked last January and I walked him up the driveway, the realization washed over me like a wave. I love Henry. I’m happy to spend what I have to spend (both time and money) to do the best I can for him. And that’s a joy.
So, there’s my answer. Loving a horse is not a gray area. Loving a horse is all white and shining. You may have to make difficult choices, and these can be hard, but if love underlies them, the bottom line will be good (though sometimes also sad). Its easy to bash what’s “bad” and I find that truth does reside in rather conflicted gray areas, yes. But love is something we can all do for our horses, if we choose, and though it will not make life simple, or truth black and white, or take pain away, it can shine like a beacon, bringing us through the hard times. I love Henry. So, that’s what I’m grateful for today.
So how about you? Any thoughts about competition, for good or ill? And who else finds joy in loving their horse, with all his quirks and drawbacks? What are you grateful for?