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.