by Laura Crum
I rode last week with a group of ropers I’ve known most of my life. They practice together once a week these days, and my son and I like to go up and gather the cattle and help move them down the alley…etc. It gives us a chance to exercise our horses and I wanted my son to grow up understanding livestock and livestock people. But…
There’s a reason I don’t rope any more. Roping is great fun, and it is perfectly possible to rope and compete at team roping and put the welfare of your horse above winning. Many people actually do this. And many people say that they do this, but what they really mean is that they don’t compete on their horse when he is dead lame, because, guess what, it wouldn’t work out for them. Horse couldn’t get much done anyway, might ruin his chances of being useful in the future, and other people would point fingers. That, in a nutshell, is what a lot of ropers mean by taking care of their horse.
The truth is that most ropers that I have known treat their horse like sporting equipment. Oh, they wouldn’t say that this is how they felt, some would even say that they “love” their horses. But here’s how they behave: They take excellent care of their using horse in most ways, they may even act affectionate towards him. The only exception is when an important event is coming up and the horse is NQR. Unless they have a backup horse, they will drug their main horse in order to get through the event because “well, that’s what I have him for.” When this horse gets old and/or has a soundness problem that stops his career as a rope horse, they get rid of him. They sell him, or find him a home, or what have you, but they very rarely bother to check on him or have a buy back clause. They want to off load the problem, thank you very much, and find another horse they can rope on. Because the point is roping—the horse is incidental. He’s like a good piece of sporting equipment. You’re going to take care of it cause its valuable to you and you spent a lot of money on it and it makes sense to care for it, but hey, when it’s broken it’s broken and you just have to get rid of it and get a new one. And yes, this is EXACTLY how most ropers that I have known deal with their horses.
I’m not even going to talk about the smaller subset of ropers that are very hard on their horses and pretty much torture them in order to win. Those people exist, but none of my “friends” are in this category. They don’t overuse their horses, or constantly beat them up, or fail to provide adequate care. But they do, in many cases, treat them like sporting equipment. And, in fact, they would defend this approach.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “They’re not pets,” and “I own them to rope on them,” and “You shouldn’t get attached to them,” and “Yeah, he was a good old horse but he couldn’t go any more so I sold him and got one I could win on.” All said without the slightest trace of shame. And my obvious outrage was treated as completely unreasonable. I have totally had it with this shit.
So last week at our little practice arena a father and son that I have known for virtually all my life were there. The father has been roping for well over ten years on a good roan horse that has really done right by him. The horse is in his 20s now and starting to have the sorts of arthritic problems that older horses get. He’s been lame off and on this summer and when he isn’t obviously lame he’s very stiff and rough and the guy complains that he can’t rope on him because the horse is so rough. Some of us have said that the horse has given him a good long run and deserves to be retired from roping and cared for for the rest of his life. The guy ignores us, and drugs the horse up to practice on him, but even so, the horse is rough and the guy can’t get much done.
On top of this the guy, I’ll call him K, who is shopping for a new horse, is trying to sell/place the old rope horse as a “beginner” horse or a trail horse. Never mind the old horse is not a beginner-type horse and his arthritic issues would make it hard for him to be a trail horse in this hilly country. K doesn’t care. He just wants out of the horse, now that the gelding is no longer useful to him as a rope horse. He’s not going to check on the horse to be sure he doesn’t end up at the sale. He doesn’t feel that he owes the horse a thing. He’s happy to discard his horse in the same way you’d discard a once valued but now broken tennis racket. Perfectly standard team roper operating procedure. And it just makes my blood boil.
I want to stop for a minute and say that I’m not picking on team ropers in particular here. I don’t suppose they’re any worse than any other horse discipline. I certainly saw very similar behavior among the cowhorse and cutting horse people that I knew. I’m betting you can see the same thing in any competitive horse discipline. And that, right there, is the problem. Competition. The need to win. Or at the very least, compete. Get to that event, be part of the scene. For most of the ropers I’ve known, it is going roping that’s important, not the horse. An individual horse is just a way to go roping…he isn’t important for himself.
And most of these people feel perfectly justified in getting rid of a horse when he is no longer able to go roping. They may say “find him a good home,” but you know what? That phrase means nothing unless you are prepared to keep track of the horse and take him back if/when that home does not work out. Otherwise you might as well say, “Offload him onto someone else and cross your fingers he doesn’t end up at the sale.” Because that’s what it amounts to. And a great many of these offloaded horses do end up at the sale or starving and neglected in some barbed wire fenced pasture. I have seen it many times.
The thing that really made my blood boil at the practice roping last week was when K decided he’d let his teenage son, S, have a go at roping on the poor old roan horse since he, K, wasn’t able to get much done on him. S ran that horse at several hard running steers and the horse gave all he had. He walked off noticeably lame (despite all the drugs) in the back end after every run. And those so-and-so’s just kept on using him, despite the fact that both my friend and I pointed out the horse was lame.
I don’t blame the fourteen year old S. His father is guiding him. And everyone says what a great kid S is, and how wonderful that he’s doing junior rodeo and competing and learning about sportsmanship…etc. And I say that’s a load of crap. What S is learning is how to be heartless in the interests of winning. He’s learning that his father doesn’t care about the good roan horse and has no plans to retire him to pay the horse back for his years of service. His father just wants to squeeze the last few miles out of the poor animal. S is learning that that is the way you’re “supposed” to behave. That’s the practical, sensible thing. Treat a horse like a piece of sporting equipment. Don’t get attached to him. Don’t treat him like a pet. When he’s no longer useful you get rid of him. The point is going roping and competing and being part of the group and hopefully winning. What happens to this old roan horse who has worked hard for you all of his life is just not important.
Mind you, these people would SAY the welfare of their horses was important to them…but I’ve already made my point about how they actually behave.
Anyway, I got more and more angry watching this go on, and those who know me will know that I did not stand passively by and mutter to myself. When K rode up to me and complained about how he just couldn’t get anything done on the old horse because the horse was so rough, I looked him right in the eye and said, “K that horse is rough because he’s old and he hurts in a lot of places. He’s been a really good horse for you for a lot of years. The only right thing to do now is retire him from roping and let him live out his life in comfort. He’s earned that. And you can afford it. (K has far more money than I do.) Buy another horse to rope on and retire this one the way he deserves to be retired.”
K just shrugged. And kept on running cattle on the horse.
I overheard my friend tell K the exact same thing I had just told him. K kept on roping.
I was having a hard time watching. I told three other friends who are decent horsemen that I thought we should confront K. One said, “It’s his horse.” Another said, “You might as well beat your head against a concrete wall.” Both things were true, but that doesn’t absolve us from trying to do the right thing, boys.
The third one said, “You’re right in what you say, but I don’t want to make unpleasantness.”
To that I said, “I like the horse a hell of a lot better than I like the guy. I think unpleasantness is called for.”
Nobody appeared to approve of this sentiment.
By this time I had well and thoroughly had enough. I had said what I could say, and it was certainly true that throwing a fit wasn’t going to help anything. I unsaddled my horses and left. And right now I am considering whether I ever want to go back. Just as I gave up going roping because I didn’t want to support the abuse I’d seen at ropings with my dollars or my presence, I am questioning whether I want to support the abuse I saw at that practice roping with my presence and the tacit assumption that I am “friends” with these guys. Because I 100% disagree with the way K is behaving and I don’t support or condone anyone who behaves like this. I don’t even want to be around it.
For those who will say that I do some good by being there and speaking my truth, I’m afraid I disagree. Those people don’t care what I think. To them my opinion means nothing, because I don’t go roping any more. I’m just a laid back trail rider whose thoughts on horses are sentimental and not the proper roper’s attitude. They think I don’t get the point—which is, of course, to keep on going roping, whatever it takes. In their mind I treat my horses like pets—which ain’t the way it’s supposed to be done.
So yeah, for the record, I don’t care what you say about pets or not pets or what have you. The truth is that when a horse has given his best for so many years to help you achieve your goal of going roping and being competitive, you OWE that horse. It’s your god damn obligation to retire him and pay him back for all he did for you. If you wouldn’t dump your dog, how much more should you not dump your horse, who did far more for you than your dog ever did—unless you run the Iditarod, or some such thing.
There are many, many ways to retire a horse that are ethical and appropriate. You don’t have to keep him at home eating and doing nothing if that bothers you. Many old horses love being light riding horses (our Henry does). It’s fine to give/loan the horse to someone else as long as you keep track of him and take responsibility for him. You can send him to a legitimate retirement farm. And you can euthanise him. What you can’t do is sell/give him away and “hope” it goes well for him, but make no effort to keep track of him.
And you sure as hell shouldn’t drug him to the max and keep trying to get the last bit of possible hard use out of him, knowing that you’re going to dump him on someone else as soon as you find a replacement for him. If there is any justice in eternity, the people who do this to their horses are going to be reincarnated as horses that are owned by people who will treat them in exactly this way.
If you’ve been in the horse biz for over forty years, which both K and I have been, there is something seriously wrong if you don’t have one or two retirees to care for. Oh I know there are times when your old horses may have passed on and your current horses are still using age. Or you may have had some bad luck and lost horses before they got to retirement age. But every single ethical horse person I know who has been in the business for awhile, has or had a retiree or two. Even if those retirees are babysitting a friend’s young child or some such thing. They are cared for and the owner knows where they are and how they’re doing. If you have owned horses for over twenty years and you’ve managed to get rid of all of your horses before you had to retire them, and you don’t really know what became of them or what sort of a death they had, well all I can say is God have mercy on your soul.
OK—I guess I’ve made my point. Rant over. But I meant every word of it.
PS—I do know many team ropers who love their horses and retire them when they are past going roping. This post is not about team ropers in particular. It just so happens that those are the people I’ve been riding with. I have a feeling (I don’t know this) that you will see the same percentage of people who take care of their older/non-competitive horses versus those who don’t in any competitive horse discipline. But feel free to enlighten me.
Completely agree. It is across all equestrian disciplines and the majority of competitors do treat their horses as "sporting equipment". Winning and competing are ultimately more important than caring properly for an animal that has given them years of service. Sad.
Sale ads for "sadly outgrown" ponies also break my heart. Just lease them, people. It's smarter all across the board. Although most of the readers here would lease, so I'm preaching to the choir.
Heck, life with horses is destined to break your heart. If their infinite capacity for injury doesn't do the job, then seeing the way some other people treat them will.
Life with horses just isn't for the faint-of-heart.
Couldn't agree more. That's why I don't show any more and don't keep my horses at a barn where people show. It's competition that does it, as you point out, and God help the horse if there's money involved, and the more money the worse. There's a lot of this stuff in the hunter/jumper world I used to be in, and a lot of open abuse of horses too.
The saddest thing is that kids (usually) grow up with the ethics and behavior that is modeled for them by adults. Kids start out with an inherent sense of fairness and justice towards the animals, and it's just treated as something they should "grow out" of.
Anytime a horse, or a person for that matter, becomes a means to an end for another person, bad stuff is almost guaranteed to happen.
Kate--That is very well said. "Any time a horse or a person becomes a means to an end for another person, bad stuff is almost guaranteed to happen." So very, very true.
Ronda and Exploring--Though we come from different "horse worlds," so to speak, it sounds like our perceptions are pretty much the same. Thank you for the comments.
Oh and Rhonda, so true that "Life with horses just isn't for the faint-of-heart." Also very well said.
Amen. I have nothing to add... you're summed it up.
I hope that K figures it out and does right by his old horse.
I see it in the AQHA world, too. I think any time you make your living by training/keeping an animal, it is a fine line between "enough" money and "if I reduce the care, I can make a little more" money.
In all fairness, I have seen this kind of behavior in non-showing people. I know a lovely person, really caring toward their pets, who has had a few horses to just toodle around on. Each time the horse began to age to the point of not being rideable, they would find them a new home - with someone they knew well. It always seemed to me that they were trying to avoid the pain of putting the horse down.
That "K" guy is right - horses aren't your pets. They are your partners.
jenj--Based on K's previous history of getting rid of all of his horses once they were past going roping, I don't think it's very likely that he'll retire this one. What I hope for is that by some good chance the horse does get the right home. I used to do this...find homes for older rope horses that were past going roping. I have placed at least twenty horses (that weren't mine) in homes as companions/kid's horses/light riding horses. In every case the horse's owner was not willing to retire the horse or do the work of finding that "good home," but was willing to give the horse away to a home that I would find. Some of these homes worked out better than others (inevitably), but many of these horses did live out their lives in good circumstances, to my certain knowledge. I'm not connected enough in the horse world any more to be much help with this now, but there is hope that another friend (who is very connected) may find a home for the roan horse.
Gayle--I've seen this, too. People don't want the burden/sadness of an old horse who is failing and will inevitably need to be put down. In a way, that's understandable, but I still fell that if a horse has given you many years of good service, you owe it to him to take on that burden.
I have a little rule of thumb. Fine to sell a sound horse in the prime of life that you have owned for a couple of years or so and know is not the right horse for you. Fine to sell a young horse. Fine to place an older horse in an appropriate home if he is sound and has the potential for several more years as a riding horse. NOT fine to take a horse who has given you ten or more years of good service and been a good partner, and who is now older and unsound, and place him in a home with no buy back clause and not check up on him. For that you ought to be punished severely...
All the above posters make very good points. I've also seen the "use them up and dump them" mindset in every discipline I've been involved with, and that has been quite a few disciplines. I've also found there is very little you can say that will change any minds.
I am no longer competing in any discipline but because I live right in the middle of Amish country I still see it. In some ways it's even worse. No horses here are ever retired. The mares are worked and bred until they are too lame or won't settle anymore, and the geldings are used until they are too lame or too slow. Then they are dumped. A lucky few go to a home where people want a good safe beginner driving horse. The rest go to a sale where 99% of them go to the killer buyer.
These are horses and ponies that have served their families for many years. Taken the kids safely to school in traffic. Taken the wife with a buggy full of kids safely to town on highways with high speed traffic. Plowed, planted, mowed hay, pulled balers, pulled combines, working for hours in hot, humid conditions. Every horse and pony on the place has basically worked their ass off for years. For all this service they get the most basic care, work even when lame, and get dumped when they are no longer useful.
Right now we have 6 horses and 4 of them are retired. Our Amish neighbors think that is the most ridiculous thing they have ever heard of. Why would we put money and effort into horses that we can't ride? No matter what I say they don't get it. Instead of a piece of sporting equipment they consider their horses a piece of equipment to farm with or a means of transportation. Some of them do say they "love" their horses but that love doesn't translate into care or consideration.
It's hard to watch horses being used, abused, and dumped whether it in a sport setting or a work setting. I have had many conversations with people, some heated, some not, over their treatment and attitudes toward their horses, and I don't think I have ever changed one damn mind.
Whether this lack of compassion is inherent in their character or their culture, the end result for their horses is the same.
I hope Karma kicks them in the ass big time.
Jan--you and others have really taught me how hard the Amish culture is on horses, and I have come to see that it's almost inevitable when horses are a means of transportation and work. But I still cannot grasp the mind that would dump that horse or pony that took good care of the family for so many years, knowing he will suffer a miserable end. Sorry--but I think your neighbors (those who do this) deserve to rot in hell. Or be reincarnated as a horse that belongs to an Amish farmer...
Also, Jan, don't any of your Amish neighbors have the heart just to shoot an old, unsound horse rather than take him to the sale? Or is the small amount of money that they would get for such a horse that important to them?
Laura, you don't know how many times I have said to an Amish guy, I hope you are reincarnated as an Amish horse. Then I have to explain reincarnation to them, and they just laugh it off, when I am deadly serious.
I'm sure there must be some that shoot an unusable horse rather than send them to a sale, but I personally haven't heard of it. Usually if they are too lame to use, and that is pretty damn lame, they will leave them out in the pasture for a few months, and if they get better they go back to work, and if they don't they go down the road. That couple hundred dollars they get apparently means more to them.
It is all economics to them. Quite a few of the guys around here deal in draft breeds. They sell them privately and also take them to the big draft horse sales. The really nice horses, potential show horses, will bring a lot of money, in the 5 to 6 digit range. Those horses they take care of right. They are kept up and fed well, exercised but not worked to death, lameness issues are dealt with, blankets are put on in the winter, they are in the shade in the summer. Shiny, in good flesh and sound. Those horses because of their potential value are living the good life, while the horses that work so hard, and keep their families safe, look like shit and are head bobbing lame going down the road. So they know how to do it right, but because there is no economic incentive to do it right, they just don't care.
If the animal activists truly wanted to do some good, targeting the Amish communities would be a good place to start. We have no county animal control and when people call the Sheriff's department they will not get involved, so there are actually no consequences for what I consider to be their abuse of their horses.
I have gotten off topic here but I was just trying to show how their no retirement policy goes hand in hand with their overall attitude about horses. It's all based on the $.
I should add some of them are better than others at taking care of their horses, and do seem to actually have some concern for their everyday well being. That doesn't extend past their days of usefulness though. No job, no place at the dinner table.
When my kids were young, we used to go to dude ranches - big, well-run ones with lots of horses that looked to be well-cared for. But some of them were very old, and could only do walk rides. Guess what happens to all those horses who carry happy grown-ups and children? There one year, gone the next, worn out . . . and I'll bet good money that most of them went to the sale. Once I figured that out - I'm a slow learner - I couldn't go to a dude ranch again. (Not saying there aren't small dude ranches that care for their older horses.)
That is why I'm not working as a large animal vet tech anymore. There was only one client who kept her horses and retired them. The rest sold or "gave them a good home", which around here meant took them to the local auction. Even though I really shouldn't I bought one of the client's horses when he took her to auction after she became lame. She had a happy retirement with me for 8 years. I made $20,000 a year and he and his wife both had 6 figure salaries. They just bought another... Amanda
Couldn't agree more. That's why I stopped showing over 25 years ago. Saw too much of that crap. We did donate one old horse to a handicap rider program many years ago. I had volunteered with them for about seven years, and knew the people who ran the organization well. Those horses were very well cared for and never overworked. Most only walked with their riders...it was rare that any of the kids could manage to stay on at a trot even with side-walkers. When they could no longer work, they were turned out to the retirees pasture. It was a great facility. We used one old pony until he was 40! Only put the little ones on him...but he loved getting tacked up and loved on. He died peacefully at age 42. I wish there were more places like that for old horses.
We are keeping all of our guys. We have two retired here now that go out for an occasional walk/jog with my hubby. They have served him well and deserve a nice retirement!
I understand your opinion and agree 100%. Wouldn't you like to just once pull them down off the horse and beat the dog snot out of them?
I disagree that saying something does nothing. If anything, it's good karma, and I'd rather be friends with someone who stands for something, than agrees something should be done, and does nothing.
We are getting ready to put horses on our property; one of which is going to be a dressage horse for me. Regardless, when it's time to retire, those horses will live out their lives with us. I never want to teach my son (who's only two right now) that horses, really, any animal, are disposable, like a piece of clothing. I never want him to disrespect what animals give to us: whether it's companionship, food, etc. They give so much for us: it's only right that we do right by them.
Jan--I agree about dollars driving a lot of abuse. It's a reason many give for not retiring that good old horse. Even when they have plenty of money.
Kate--I don't think there are very many dude ranches/pack stations/horse rental places that retire their old horses. I'd love to hear from any that do.
Amanda--Yes, that is exactly what makes me so angry. I hear you.
lilyrose--That is a very good point. There ARE some good homes for horses that are only suitable for very light work. But in my experience these sorts of situations are pretty rare.
horsegenes--This is why I love you. You are so not PC--just like me. And yes, I would love to do exactly what you suggest.
Michelle--Thanks for your input--I've decided I'll keep riding at that arena, and I won't hesitate to speak up when I see something that I think is abusive.
Laura - you are very brave and strong to keep going back and keep speaking up. I sometimes regret not doing the same, just in case it could have made a difference to some horse or changing someone's mind, but I couldn't take the emotional strain of being at odds with others in a setting where I was trying to enjoy my horses. I think you're also setting a fine example for your son about how not to tolerate things just to get along in the easiest way.
I completely agree Laura. I know life happens, but in nearly all cases there is no excuse not to do right by your animals. I lost my job a few years back. I had three horses, a yearling, a well trained trail horse, and my retired hunter that was going blind in one eye. I could not afford all three, so I chose to sell my healthy well trained horse first-with a buyback contract of course. Blessedly the sale worked out well and I had the funds to keep my yearling and my retiree until I found another job. Several "horse" lovers at my barn told me I was crazy to sell my best horse and advised I should get rid of the other two. I tried to explain that selling my trained healthy horse was the only ethical choice as she had the best chance of finding and STAYING in a good home, but all they could say was "Yeah, but you can't ride a yearling and your other horse is blind." ...people
Ugh. You know what I don't get? Is why these apparently fairly competent riders don't seem to realise that if you're drugging a horse to perform, or otherwise pushing it beyond it's capacity, sooner or later, you ARE going to wreck, quite possibly a catastrophic wreck and one that could have been avoided.
And yet, they don't, and you're right about how common it is - I've seen people as described over all the disciplines that I've tried.
To me it's the difference between being a horseman or just a competitor.
Kate--It does pretty much ruin my usually relaxing time with my horses--you're so right about that.
Anon--Your story made me smile. There are a troop of us trying to do the right thing, anyway.
FD--That is such a good point. I watch this guy trying to rope fast cattle on the old arthritic horse that is drugged to the gills, and I think, "Shit, that horse is going to crash." I have to admit, I think the guy would be getting no more or less than he deserves, but I still don't want to witness such a wreck.
FJ--That's a good way of putting it. When the competition comes before the horse, all I can say is it's not good. And in my eyes such people are not good horsemen.
People suck. Often.
I am very glad life forced me to switch from horses to sport bikes, as motorcycles are essentially replace and run. There is no factor there of healing--unless it is yourself. Bad riding is punished almost immediately by the machine, road, or idiot drivers (or a combo of all three).
I find it very liberating to be able to drop my bike and fix it by simply pulling off parts. I can indulge my need for speed RIGHTNOW, power wheelie like a hooligan, or flog the ever loving snot out of it at the track without worrying about the creature under me.
I miss riding to some extent, but have found comfort in how super bikes immediately respond to microexpression. It is rather funny to note how several bad riding habits were immediately fixed by rolling out the throttle on the highway and later riding through a windstorm.
I simply cannot understand not having a relationship with something you work so closely with. I ride and drive so much better when I anthropomorphize my vehicle. Even though I cannot ride my twerpy Trak right now due to her location and my personal circumstances, I am not willing to let her go on to a possible bad situation. Despite my superchicken's ugly wasp body and lazy fat girl attitude, I would keep her as a coat hanger in my living room if I couldn't ride anymore.
Posts like this remind me WHY I have such difficulty around most horse people. Other creatures do have importance, dontcha know!
M--Now that is a fascinating comment. I don't believe I know another horse person who switched to motorcycles. And the idea that you are more attached to your bike than many people seem to be to their horses is really quite ironic. Thank you so much for the insight. And yeah, people do seem to suck-- quite often anyway.
That IS a fascinating comment about the motorcycles!! They have been compared to horses many times at my house, actually, because my husband used to ride dirt bikes competitively. He loves to tell me that he prefers riding something that doesn't have a mind of its own. :) I can understand that, and I actually tend to anthromorphize my machines (especially my van, Savannah. But to me the horse's mind and my "joining" with them is what makes them special.
I'm afraid I am one that's flat-out afraid to speak up when I see something wrong. I don't know why I'm such a wimp, but there you go. It takes a LOT to drive me to stand up for myself, never mind anything else. I'm better with strangers, though (part of your problem, Laura, you know these people and have for a long time which makes it more awkward). And I'm always good at calling the police or otherwise soliciting help!
I hope the poor horse finds a home with someone you know, STAT. Makes me ill to think about him being whipped around an arena on painful legs...
RiderWriter--I have a naturally feisty personality. I am always willing to stand up for what I think, and my friends and family will tell you that it's not a very endearing trait overall.
A great but sad discussion. I wonder what goes through K's mind when people tell him his horse is too lame to work. Have you ever asked him -- in private without his 'posse' around -- why he is so hard on his horse when it doesn't serve anyone --horse/rider/sport-- well? It would be interesting to hear his answer.
Alison--That is actually a fine idea in some ways, but...I have known K all my life. He is a compulsive liar. He will tell anyone what they want to hear. I have said to him in private that surely he'll retire this good old horse, and he shrugs and says pleasantly, "or find him a good home." And since I know he's never retired one of his former rope horses--he offloaded every one of them when they got old, I know exactly what that means. I have to say that most people who practice this form of behavior are in complete denial about it, and pointing out how unethical, downright cruel, and stupid it is (no matter how kindly, politely and privately) does no good at all.
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