You Can't Save Them All
A Look at My Experience with Difficult Horse Owners
Being the young (and broke) professional I am, I take any new opportunity to work with horses. If the ranch/barn/farm is within a 40 minute drive, I'm in. This attitude has worked well to help fill my wallet (until the next vet bill or feed order or board payment is due anyway), but has put me in some pretty strange situations that have led to the occasional moral crisis. The truth of the matter is that most people don't hire me for my opinion, but simply to do the work they don't feel like putting in themselves. Normally, this situation works out fine for me as most horse owners I've encountered have treated their horses fairly as well as myself. However, there have been two recent situations where I was caught between the owner's expectation and the welfare of the horse. Now, here's the big question: what do you do? Walk away? Hold out and hope to make a difference? I can tell you which one is the easier option, but is it the best?
About a year ago now I was asked to exercise a gaited cart horse. I had ZERO experience with either of those characteristics but I figured, why not?! It was a real learning experience, dealing with everything from constant saddle slippage to hand carriage. The downside was that the horse was occasionally a bit of a frightening ride since the owner insisted that he be ridden on an outdoor track and he had a tendency to bolt. Bad habits aside, it became increasingly clear as the months went by that this horse was unhappy in his new routine. The vet was out multiple times to run blood tests, look for sand in his manure, check for ulcers, everything you could think of. Even with a clean bill of health, the horse became dangerous to ride. The occasional bolting turned into constant galloping with no steering or braking abilities on my part, he began to rear, stop in the middle of the track and refuse to move forward, even spin with no warning. Between the long shanked chain bit in his mouth and intense riding regime, I was already tentative about riding him from the start. As his behavior worsened, I did my best to stick around and try to convince the owner to change up his routine, give him more turnout time, decrease the intensity of his workouts, maybe even give him a long vacation. Despite my efforts, the owner insisted that he knew best and that all the horse needed was more of the same. It wasn't long before the horse became too dangerous to ride and I had to quit. He was moved out a month or two after and I have no idea what happened to him or his owner.
For the many months I rode this horse, I felt as if I was trapped between a rock and a hard place. Sure, the horse wasn't being treated fairly, but it was better for me to be around than someone who treated him with the same drill sergeant attitude. I fought to give him as much freedom and variation as possible while riding, and did my best to influence the owner's actions while I was out of the saddle. It is difficult to sit back and watch a horse struggle, especially when you are one of the people in charge of his care and management. There were many times when I wanted to share my thoughts and opinions, but I knew that would jeopardize my position in the horse's life. Instead, I stood silently, taking every little win I could muster on behalf of the horse and praying that something would change. Once his positive attitude diminished, I reached the point where I felt nothing but fear when on his back. There were no more tiny wins, and I was now partially responsible for the rough treatment endured by this animal. At that point, I knew I was out of my depth and had to get out before I was seriously injured.
Just a few days ago, I drove out to meet a lady who I had very little information about. All I knew was that she had around 10 horses that needed to be worked with, and one that was not even halter broke despite being 4 years old. Immediately upon arriving, I knew that it was going to be a loooonnnnngggggg day. I started out by digging around for tack, piecing together bridles out of bins that had been stacked in a trailer for years or headstalls that had been hung up in the barn, covered in dust and mold. Once that was done, I found a saddle and dusted off the layers of cobwebs. I was supposed to be going on a trail ride with the owner, so I grabbed my saddle out of the car since I definitely didn't trust the old, rotten leather on the saddles she had left lying around. It took about an hour to locate the equipment and piece it together, and tacking up the horses nearly took another hour. In fact, we had to find a hammer to even get the first horse out of her stall, as the chain used to keep the gate closed had rusted shut. After brushing matted hair off of Echo's back, tacking up went fairly well. Next, we had to get out the other horse, Charlene. It took us a while to figure out how the open the gate since it had an unusual lock, and then I had to slide down a 2 foot drop where the ground had eroded just inside of the gate. I was shocked when I was told to just jump back out and that the horse would follow, especially when they had empty stalls present without any cliffs (a bit dramatic but still, wtf?!) preventing the horse from exiting. Tacking up Charlene took quite a while since the girth that accompanied the Australian saddle was too rusted, and none of the other girths fit the thick leather. Eventually the owner gave up and switched to a western saddle that, in place of a latigo, was help together by bailing twine. Bailing twine!!! Despite the fact that I would have never put a single toe in the stirrup of that saddle, we set off to ride after I lunged Echo about 5 times since she was very flighty and clearly anxious about leaving her friends.
Eventually we made it to the top of the driveway where I helped the owner to mount. It became increasingly obvious (although she admitted that she didn't know how to tack up a horse so it wasn't a complete shock) that she barely knew how to ride. I declined to mount Echo since she was still nervous and instead set off on foot behind the owner and Charlene, but it wasn't long before both horses began to spook and things got even MORE interesting. Charlene managed to jump sideways into a mailbox and cut her leg, so we promptly turned back. The owner wasn't able to lead Charlene back home after she was forced to dismount due to the horse's antics, so I took the reins of both horses and brought them back to the barn. I rapidly untacked, put the horses away, and made my escape.
I was made aware very late into the process that these horses had not been ridden in over a year, and had only been out of their stalls twice in over a month for a quick lunge. I felt guilty as I got into my car for not saying anything on behalf of these animals. There were 8 or 9 Arabians and Thoroughbreds on the property doing nothing but sitting around in stalls, waiting for their next meal. They were certainly well fed, but there was the occasional empty water bucket and none of the stalls had been cleaned in a long while. The definition of neglect is certainly not black and white, as the horses were fed and watered, but not much else. Their manes were matted, they had rainrot on their backs, and they just stood in their own manure all day with little to no interaction. The 4 year old had long, chipped feet since the farrier got kicked every time he approached the horse. The fact that these horses were taken out of their pens for the first time in weeks, tacked up, and were expected to go out and behave perfectly on a trail ride after spending well over a year without a human on their backs made me sick. What these horses really need is regular exercise and training, but I am not able to provide that for them as the owner has deemed me "too large" to ride her horses. I am considering going back just to help with the young horse that needs to be halter broke, but I haven't made the call yet. It is always a difficult decision when faced with a situation like this, where horses are in need and there is really not much you can do to help them. Because it is true, you just can't save them all. It will never stop me from trying though!