Wednesday, April 2, 2014


                                                            by Laura Crum

            Detaching is often recommended—by people of various beliefs. And I can see the point in this. I often try to use this practice when it comes to petty grievances and desires. But detaching from animals—not so much. I can’t interact with an animal to the degree that we feel connected, and then detach from any concern for that animal’s future. And this is why I quit working for professional horse trainers, and quit training horses, and eventually quit buying and selling horses. Because, in the end, I just couldn’t detach.
            I couldn’t keep them all, either. And though I knew I was doing some good by doing my part to help them, it just didn’t work for me. The first horse trainer I worked for, I ended up buying the sweet but expensive colt I was riding for him, because I couldn’t bear to think of that horse being tortured in order to win horseshows. I had to take out a loan to do it—this horse was way beyond my means. (And yes, the trainer was very hard on horses.) This was Gunner, that I still have today (thirty-one years later).
            The second horse trainer that I worked for, it began to sink in to me that I wasn’t built to be a professional horseman. I could ride well enough and I understood horses pretty well, but I couldn’t detach. To this day I still wonder what happened to the young stallion that I rode for this cutting horse trainer. Let me tell you the story.
            About thirty years ago I drove out to the ranch where a certain young cutting horse trainer had taken up residence, to ask him for a job as his assistant. I had been working in this role for a well known reined cowhorse trainer for the past year, and I had heard that this young cutting horse trainer needed a helper. I was interested in learning more about cutting. So there I was.
            I got out of the truck, found the trainer, and stated my case. He smiled, in a relaxed way that was typical of this guy (I found), and handed me the reins of the sorrel colt he had been about to climb on. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you ride this two year old stud colt for me and see what you think. It’s his third ride.”
            I gave the guy a look, and he said with a shrug, “He’s a real nice colt.”
            Yeah, right. Third ride on a two-year-old stud? I gave the horse a look and he looked back at me calmly. A dark sorrel, and a rather plain horse, he had the babyish demeanor of a two-year-old. He was standing quietly—didn’t seem concerned about the saddle. I couldn’t tell much more. Well, OK then.
            I adjusted the stirrups, climbed on, and rode the horse around the arena. He didn’t know much, but he steered and tried to do what I told him. I was able to get him to walk, trot, and even lope. He stopped when I asked for the stop. I was very impressed.
            “Is this really his third ride?” I asked the trainer.
            “Yep,” he said. “And you’re hired.”
            This is how I met Peppy.
            My job in this barn was to warm the horses up before the trainer worked them on cattle (lots and lots of loping circles). I also rode the colts through the hills on days when they were not worked. The trainer believed (quite rightly) that they needed casual trail rides interspersed with training rides. So this was my job. It was a good job.
            Most of the very well bred cutting horses in this barn were a pleasure to ride. But none of them were quite like Peppy.
            I can’t remember Peppy ever doing anything wrong. I’m serious. He was a calm, slightly lazy horse, but he would do whatever you asked him. He did not spook or buck or bull into the bridle--ever. He did not resist direction—he just tried to understand and do what was asked. Despite being a bit lazy, he would “fire” when working a cow. He was really talented. He never showed any trace of studdy behavior (of course I rode him when he was 2-3 years old). Everybody loved him. Me included.
            And this became a real problem. Because it wasn’t an option for me to buy Peppy. He was a really well bred horse (by Little Peppy out of a Doc’s Lynx mare—which was as good as it got for a cutting horse in those days). His wealthy owner did not want to sell the horse. He wanted to win a major three year old cutting futurity with him, and THEN sell him for a huge price to be somebody’s stallion—and the focus of their breeding program. This horse was (literally) worth ten times (at a minimum) what I had paid for Gunner (which was already WAY more than I could really afford). I would never own Peppy.
            But I agonized about it. I knew exactly what it meant for the horse to be owned by a rich man who never laid a hand on him, and to be destined to be bought by a “syndicate.” Peppy would always be an “investment” for rich people. He might be valued for his worth (which would include his sticker price and his potential for siring winning—and pricey—offspring). But it was highly unlikely that he would ever be someone’s much-loved horse. It was unlikely that there would ever be an owner for Peppy who would connect with the horse and ride him and care about him, and be committed to retiring him when he was no longer useful. It was possible—but it wasn’t likely.
            It made me very sad. Because there never was a nicer, kinder, harder-trying young horse than Peppy. I wanted to own him in the worst way. Not so that I could win on him, but so that I could enjoy him and take good care of him.
            Eventually the young cutting horse trainer moved on to a different, far-away ranch, and I had to get a new job. I heard through the grapevine that Peppy was shown in a futurity and he did do well and was bought by a syndicate for a lot of money to be a sire of more cutting horses—or so I was told. I heard he ended up on a Canadian ranch. And I never heard any more about him.
            It troubles me sometimes, to this day. I connected with that horse—I felt the bond that you feel when the horse understands who you are and you understand who he is. I wanted to take responsibility for him—to make sure that his sweet, willing nature was rewarded with a good life. And I literally could not do that. It wasn’t possible. And this is when I began to shy away from the idea of becoming a horse trainer, or even having much to do with professional horse training. I could see that it just wasn’t going to work for me. I was going to fall in love with an endless string of horses that I could not own and/or safeguard their future, and it was going to make me miserable.
            It is and was a problem for me—I can’t detach from wanting to be sure that good horses get a good life. I will admit right now that it really bugs me when I hear someone talk about a great horse that did so much for them…and I’m perfectly aware that they sold that horse and have no idea where he is today or what his end was like. And yes, I’m guilty of this, too. If I had it to do over again I would have bought and taken care of Ramona, the pinto pony who belonged to my childhood neighbor, a sweet mare who took such good care of me when I was young. I remember her so fondly, but my heart just aches when I realize I have no idea about her old age and ending.
            It kills me to see a good horse get sold with no concern for his future, no buy back option, nothing to safeguard him from going to kill in his old age. Needless to say, this is never going to happen to any horse of mine, but I can’t protect the good horses that belong to my friends and acquaintances. I can’t take on any more horses. My space and resources are maxed out. And this is one reason I tend to avoid other horse people.
            So yeah, I can’t detach. I can’t feel the goodness of a horse and not want to help him. And since I can’t help him (yes, you may say that advocating to his owner to keep him/retire him/find him a good home might help him, but I find this to be not true, overall—either you step up and take responsibility for him or you don’t), I avoid the horse biz in general.
            Anybody else feel like this? What is your solution?


Miss Robotica said...

Oh my god, yes. This totally resonates with me. I grew up totally horse obsessed and was lucky enough to go a prep school with an outstanding equestrian program. From the time I was 3 until age 20, I was 100% sure that I was going to be a trainer. A rider. A pro. I studied, I worked, I practiced, I declined to apply to any colleges! And then I met with reality. It was a hard lesson to learn that to be a professional you must have thick skin when it comes to the very animals you love. I never articulated it in this way, but yes, I can't "detach". Hell, sometimes I can't even handle my emotions after just MEETING a horse. One time I went to a high-volume sales barn to apply for a job, and rode a little grade horse who tried very hard in the hectic environment. When I put him away, I patted him and told him he was a good horse and he just gave me the saddest look and put his face in my chest and closed his eyes. I couldn't buy him, so I cried instead and whispered to him that he'd find a home and a person to love him soon. I still think about that moment, 15 years later. I won't even get into the sob story of "my" beloved dressage horse I had to part with because I didn't own him, and whose unknown ending still haunts me to this day. And now I'm middle aged and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up because I can't muster up the same kind of passion for anything that I had for horses. I still ride sometimes but mostly it just makes me sad, just reminds me of a broken dream. Anyways. Sorry for the novel. This just really struck a nerve for me.

Laura Crum said...

Miss Robotica--Yes. I know exactly how you feel. The story of the little grade horse brought tears to my eyes (literally). This is exactly why I don't interact with the professional horse world any more. But I do get great pleasure out of owning/living with my own horses, and keeping them until their end, giving them the best life I can. Is this not an option for you?

Anonymous said...

It's funny, Laura, I've been thinking about a post along these lines for some time. I used to be detached - such a good word! The first much-loved horse that I sold, I cried all day when he left. Somehow, selling him seemed to toughen me up and I passed many more on over the years without a second thought.
And then I started to worry about what had become of them. And then I started to worry about what would become of Aero if I ever sold him and I realised I couldn't do it (and he was worth a lot at one stage). And then I bought Flurry, did the big trek on him and realised that I could never sell him either. I've vowed that I'll look after the two of them until they die, and much to my relief, my other half agrees with me.
I regret some sales in particular (aero's mom springs to mind straight away) but I have a general feeling of guilt about the foals I bred and the horses and ponies that we bought and sold, especially with the way things have been in Ireland in recent years. If I could do it all again, I wouldn't have bred any - but then I wouldn't have Aero! I think if I could do it all over again, I'd try to stay less competitive as a parent and try to focus more on the kids just having fun...
If I ever write this post, it's going to be painful and guilt-wracked. At least you have a clear conscience about your special horses.

Laura Crum said...

Martine--Actually I don't have a clear conscience at all. Like you, I bought and sold quite a few horses--and I wonder now what became of them. I also rode some horses for other people that I really loved (the horses, not the people)--and I don't know what happened to them, either. It bothers me a lot. I guess the one thing I can say that comforts me a little, is that ever since Burt (my first forever horse--he died about five years ago, aged 35) I have kept the horses that I owned that really worked out for me. The ones I sold were the ones that I didn't actually "click" with. But yeah, plenty of sadness here over horses that I wish I had bought...or wished I had kept and taken care of. And this is why I don't like being around the horse world in general. Too many horses that I know to be good ones...I just can't buy and keep them all.

Anonymous said...

I never was detached enough for the horse business. I tried. I've only ever sold two horses, I made good money on both. Couldn't do it anymore. Your story made me cry.

My current horse, a big red horse (duh) has had his share of challenges in life, including being shot by a hunter when he was about 5-6 months old. I got him as a "rescue." He was about to be shipped for meat because his breeders thought he was crazy. I nursed him through it, and all the other traumas a colt has growing up. When he was 3 I tried to find a trainer for him. More than once I was told I needed to sell him, even if it was for meat. I know I'm past my prime, but I ended up having to do most of the work myself, I did manage to hire a teenager for a summer who got on him for me, but I was always there. The one time she did something without permission, he bucked her off.

He's 8 this year. I think we've gotten over the worst of it, knock on wood. I would love to have a shorter, quieter horse, but I couldn't sell him to just anyone. He's actually the kind of horse, physically, I was looking for when I was showing, very athletic, an almost ideal build. He's one of the best moving horses I ever sat on. If I had had him 20 years ago...

Now I really have to go cry over Miss Robotica's post. I don't mean cry, I mean ball my eyes out. I wish we could go on a trail ride together.

P.S. 2 years after I "rescued" him, I bought his mother, who was also scheduled to be sold at auction just a few miles from the Canadian border (where the meat buyers go) I'm still dealing with some of her physical and mental issues. She had been a futurity horse when she was 2, and then a neglected broodmare. If I didn't have her too, I would probably have another horse. Just. Can't. Do. It.

Anonymous said...

I just realized, that's them in my avatar. My colt is on the left, he was 2 when the picture was taken, his mother is on the right. He remembered her, I knew he knew who she was the day we brought her here because of the way he moved his mouth at her, that thing colts do. I could almost imagine him saying "Mama!" She didn't recognize him.

Laura Crum said...

Aww redhorse. You're a trooper. It sounds like you don't have the two easiest project horses in the world, but you're doing your best for them. Their faces are very sweet in your avatar photo. That touched my heart--the grown up colt remembering his mama.

FD said...

I'm kind of lucky in a way, that we didn't have enough money for horses when I was a kid - it was always beg, borrow, and catch rides for me. Usually ponies nobody else wanted to ride. So I never really got attached to any of my kid horses apart from one - and that one taught me not to get attached in future. I turned up to ride; was tossed a different set of tack and asked where Troy was (the pony I'd been working on) and was told it was taking too long to get him reliable; so he'd gone to an auction... a harsh lesson for a 8 year old but it stood me in good stead.
It meant I never broke my heart on the horses I handled in the years after. I did get attached to a few - mostly babies I started who were attached to me, but still... I did my best by them and they don't disturb my sleep at night.
I don't think it's a matter of will power, or virtue or sensibleness, I think it's a question of how we are made; it just takes me longer to get attached than it does for others. I guess when we get our hearts broken, some of us develop callouses and some heal back to factory condition maybe?
The ones I didn't do my best by for whatever reason, or couldn't help, now those I do wonder sometimes about.

I've met people who don't get attached at all - there's a guy I know whose dad was a dealer and he sees horses as a means to an end - he churns out a startling number of young show jumpers a year and has never, as far as I can tell, lost so much as a minutes sleep over their fate.

Anonymous said...

When horses are objects instead of "beings" or even "persons", that is what happens. My parents, who were not horse people, sold my horse when I was 16 and we moved - I still remember her leaving on the trailer. She was a fabulous horse - a cremello QH I called Snow, we cared for each other and I was powerless to do anything about it.

When my daughters were younger, they and I did a lot of showing in the H/J world together. The "done thing" was to have the kids start with a pony or horse, and then keep "trading up" as their riding skills (e.g. showing skills) improved. We only sold one horse - a sweet little TB gelding named Dawson - and I still regret it. We ended up keeping my younger daughter's show pony and retiring him rather than reselling him - he'd been abused before we got him and the trainer who'd abused him wanted to buy him back - keeping the pony was the only way we knew to protect him and also keep him from being handed from child to child.

We've kept every horse since and have 3 retirees and 3 riding horses now. I don't see how it's possible to be in the horse "business" and not end up treating horses as commodities or products rather than beings. I don't buy/sell, train or show, and I guess that's why.

Laura Crum said...

FD--My uncle was a horse trader, and I grew up thinking that the "detached" mentality was a good thing. My uncle frequently told me not to get "attached"to a horse--and for a fact, they came and went around his place. It was only when I got older and spent some time in the horse biz, as I wrote about in the post, that I began to realize that this was NOT how I actually felt about it, and from there it was a journey to sort out what I actually felt and thought, as opposed to what I had been taught to think. To this day, my uncle makes fun of me for the way I keep and retire my good horses for the rest of their lives. He thinks it is pathetically stupid, and many of my horse world friends/acquaintances undoubtedly think so, too. Most of them manage to unload their older/not sound horses in one way or another. So I'm well aware that the majority of the horse world thinks it's a virtue not to see horses as "pets."

That said, I also have re-homed horses and seen that they got good homes--as good or better than what I could have given them (Lester and Smoky, I'm thinking of you). So I don't believe that every horse one sells coms to a bad end.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Yes, I feel very much as you do on this subject. Like you, I no longer buy/sell, train or compete. I just enjoy my horses and take good care of them until their end. And, as I said in the post, I've gotten more and more reluctant to associate in any way with horse people who don't do this.

yatima said...

I've been so lucky - of my heart horses, I got to keep one until he died, and the other three are safely retired with loving owners (that I keep tabs on.) Which is not to say I have a clear conscience: there were other horses I loved that I couldn't save.

Laura - is this your Peppy? Right age, right colour, right breeding. He's not producing any more so maybe you could bring him home now...

FD said...

I don't know that I was entirely clear in my first post - I meant that emotionally, staying detached, was good for me professionally, not so much that it was necessarily a good thing, period. More that a certain degree of detachment is a necessary condition, if you are to be involved with any kind of turnover of horses on a professional level and not get burnt out very quickly. In my experience, it has also helped me set aside my ego when training; these are not 'my' horses and therefore the emotionally driven 'battles' (that largely exist in the owner's head) were easier for me to sidestep. Not always, but I'm only human.

Even where the horse was effectively 'mine' I've tried to keep the possessive mindset out of it because of this. And I certainly am not implying that's it's the only path to that point. Just for me, it made it easier - I know I'm not the only one - I've pro friends who struggle with their personal horses in a way they rarely do with their job horses. (And yes, I am aware that for some people, deep emotional attachment is the impulse/driver that they need to be 'the better person' in their training - it just doesn't work like that for me.) :)

Khalil Gibram's poem, 'On Children,' sums up how I feel about this much better than I do, if that's not a cop out.

I don't see emotional attachment as an on/off proposition, more a spectrum; I have always seen the horses I rode and handled as unique, individual personalities and respected that in my training, and have reaped the benefits of that approach. But just because I cared about their well being, grieved when they were hurt, tried to do my best for them and give them the best future I could, doesn't meed I was attached to them in an emotional sense. I believe that it is actually possible to be ethical in your approach, even if you are not emotional about it. Respected co-workers, not necessarily close friends. But then, I am a detached, slow-warming person by nature.

Now this is a different position to that described in Laura's anecdote about her uncle; I don't believe in his approach; like I said before I think the extent to which we are like this is nature, nurture (circumstances, not necessarily what parents say or do) and to an extent, scar tissue maybe.
With no offence intended, I actually think the behaviour you describe borders on the emotionally abusive. It's one thing to be aware that it makes it easier to run a business if you are not in the position of needing to mourn every animal sold, and it's quite another to make fun of people for being different to you, and still another to imply that they are somehow 'flawed' and 'lacking' for that difference. Ugh. I have encountered the attitude myself, even my more distant style has been denigrated as being too emotional in the past. What I think often lies at the heart of it, is a fear of femininity; where everything emotional is coded as female and therefore worthless. People who buy into that often believe that they genuinely have your best interests at heart when they try to 'toughen you up', 'put some spine into you' and make similar, harmful comments.

I really don't think one can 'harden' oneself deliberately and even if you could I don't think you should try; I don't think acquisition of scar tissue if you are naturally a warmer, more easily attached person leads to good things. It's not, or shouldn't be a value judgement; people are different and that's important, necessary and also unavoidable!

Laura Crum said...

I agree with what you say, FD. I think that people like you, who are ethical and care about horses, but are able to deal with them without getting "emotionally attached" to the degree that I seem to have to do, are the ones who make good professionals--and we need good professional trainers, for sure. I also agree about the emotional abuse. That was/is definitely a factor in the situation I described, and in many other situations in the horse world that I have witnessed. Very good point (as always).

Laura Crum said...

yatima--You know, I think it is him. If I remember right, his mother was Little Lynx. And it looks like him. It makes me happy that he is apparently still alive. The ranch he lives on is not that far from me. It is literally impossible for me to take on another horse, but I will call them and ask how he is doing. Thank you!

Laura Crum said...

I called the ranch where he is or was but got no answer. I sent them an email. Hopefully I will find out about Peppy. The website does not make it clear if he is still alive, and I think that if he is, he would be one year younger than my Gunner, who is 34.

Val said...

I am absolutely not one for the horse business. When I was giving lessons, one of my favorite lesson ponies was sold without warning. I was completely crushed and left feeling sad, angry, and helpless. It was very upsetting to not know where he went, what became of him, and not getting to say good bye. I worked with that horse for years and to have him suddenly gone affected me more than I could have imagined. The manager who sold him was shocked that his sale upset the staff and students and she was vocal about him being "just a horse". It didn't take long to notice that she was flipping horses like pancakes.

Laura Crum said...

Val--And the worst part of your story is that most older riding school horses do not go to "good homes." They are taken to the sale. And we all know how that goes.

This happened to some good riding school horses that I knew--and I never forgot. Like you, I'm not one for the horse business. I don't think horses are like used sporting equipment--when it's worn out, dump it and replace it. I think horses are much like dogs--part of the family, to be kept until they die.

Laura Crum said...

yatima--and anyone else who is interested--I got an email back from the ranch where Peppy lived out his days. He died a few years ago. The woman who wrote to me said that they were very fond of him and mentioned what a kind horse he was. So I think his story has a happy ending, which makes me very happy, too.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

My getting attached to horses was one reason why I never made much money running a riding holiday business. To make money, one had to work horses very hard. At businesses that made the most money horses lasted a year or two. You'd be amazed (or perhaps not) at the way in which many people on holiday are prepared to ignore welfare issues. One lady told me that she went on riding holidays in order to work a horse harder and faster than she was prepared to treat her own horse at home. I gave my horses time to rest, and that made for a poor business model.

The hardest thing was selling most of my horses at the end. I was too ill to ride professionally and there was no way I could keep more than my two favourite horses. Most found homes with people who treated them with a measure of respect. The people who claimed the offer the best home were the ones who neglected the five that they bought, though they were well off with plenty of land and several employees. I wish I could have taken them back, but I was two thousand miles away, and eventually four of the five were stolen presumably for illegal slaughter. That makes me sad to this day.

It would be easy to say that 'connecting' is a luxury. However I've met people who worked their horses for a living and definitely weren't 'detached'. So, unless one lives in a weak economy (which I did when I worked horses), 'detachment' isn't obligatory. It's just a character deficiency amongst unimaginative, ungrounded or plain greedy people. 'Connection' just limits how much money one can make, that's all.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--Those are really good points. I think that it is very difficult to have horses in order to make a living and walk that line between what is good for the business and what is good for a horse. When I worked at a Sierra pack station the owner had strict rules about the horses. No horse could carry anything heavier than a lunch and bottle of water in the saddle bags. You would be amazed (or maybe not) the number of people who wanted to tie their camping gear on the poor rented saddle horse and make him carry both the person and the gear--to get out of renting a pack horse. And they would get quite angry because they weren't allowed to do it.

Unknown said...

Laura, so very glad you were able to learn about Peppy. Thank you for letting us know as well.

Laura Crum said...

For What It's Worth--You're very welcome. I was pretty tickled to find out Peppy had a long life and the people who owned him at his end cared about him. She said it was a sad day when they lost him, but they still owned many of his daughters.

yatima said...

Laura! I am so delighted that it was your Peppy! I'm thrilled that he was loved and cared for and lived a long life. What a shame that you didn't get to see him again, but I hope the knowledge that his was a happy ending gives you some peace.