“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged
by the way its animals are treated.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
If there's one thing I've grappled with throughout my entire riding career it's the question - what responsibility do we owe our horses? It's the reason I never sold my first horse - a thoroughbred with multiple ailments and a penchant for using his athleticism to regularly dump me in the dirt. Though not much of a dressage horse (or a jumper for that matter), he was incredibly sensitive and if not treated with kid gloves he was easily reactive, a fearful victim to overwhelming stimuli. Despite encouragement from a trainer, and many people around me to send him on his way to a new home, I couldn't do it. I knew that hanging onto that gelding meant giving up my shot at being competitive as a junior rider, and likely a shot at learning to ride the upper levels anytime in the near future. But I couldn't bring myself to part with him. To be honest, it was only partially because I was attached to him, and partially because I felt like I owed him a better life than what he encountered before me as a misunderstood summer camp horse, and most certainly a better life than what he would have received after me.
Now 15 years later I can't help but think about what happens to the horses (nearly all lease horses) that rotate through my life and then continue on their trajectory. Because I don't own them on paper, I've felt absolved from my duties when they leave. Unlike when owning a horse, I've been able to pinpoint my contracted responsibility down to some specific end date on the calendar. Until recently, I felt at peace morally about splitting this way. It was always sad when they left, but I had fulfilled my end of the deal. Or so I thought.
Eventually, I began to wonder what difference does it really make what we've put on paper? To the horse - if we own them, lease them, ride them regularly - it means nothing, or rather it's indistinguishable. They still share their lives with us for some period of time, give us their energy and patience, and hopefully their respect and trust. Then all too often we disappear. It's not to say that many of these horses don't go on to loving, happy new homes, and continue to lead lives where they are appreciated and treated with kindness. But anyone who has spent some time in the equestrian world has also witnessed a new situation that has turned sour. A new owner, or a new stable that isn't as advertised, and a horse that once had a protector in this human world, but lost its mouthpiece.
While keeping each horse we come in contact with isn't a realistic endeavor for 99% of us (more likely it's hoarding situation), the question of responsibility digs much deeper than "keeping" versus "not keeping" an animal. With each horse that comes into our care we must never forget to stop asking ourselves - what do we owe this animal? And how can we better them? For each person the answer is different. For some it means being an advocate for a horse, even when it's not one's own. It can mean giving a difficult horse a re-start on their training, and a new future with opportunities. And if selling an equine partner, the responsibility lies in finding a good home, rather than simply the highest bidder. In some circumstances we find that the "good home" we're searching for, really means staying here with us.
Most importantly, I think this discussion of responsibility comes down to our duty as riders to improve the lives of our horses in the same way that they improve ours. That duty can sometimes differ from what's written on paper. According to the law these animals are property, viewed a little too closely to equipment. Yet, we know that these creatures are so much more than that, and enrich our lives in the same way as any other living, breathing, teammate. Horses are our partners, ones that even when life shifts us in different directions, we must never take for granted.