At some distant moment in the past, probably after seeing The Miracle of the White Stallions when I was a kid, I found out that Spanish horses were started at 4 years old. Back then, I thought it was a terrible waste. Then a few years ago, I was at a nutritional seminar where the conversation turned to options to prepare long yearlings to start under saddle. And I thought the same thing–what a terrible waste. Then this week I read an article that said the optimal time to start a horse was 7 years old, the age a horse has fully grown. So it goes, the horse world is not short on opinion.
I don’t want to start a debate about who’s right; what I notice is that horse lovers disagree from the start. We disagree on everything from age to training style to the right tack to use. Then we probably get defensive about it.
We compare the worst Dressage rider to the best Reiner, or the best Eventer with the worst Endurance rider and judge each discipline by worst example. Let’s not even start with breed preferences. Horse owners can’t even agree on what constitutes abuse or neglect.
We run the full range of emotions starting with joy. Beyond that fear, despair and sadness are probably inevitable along the way, and anxiety. Lots of anxiety. Then finally grief. We are long on passion for all kinds of horses. The crazy part is, we are debating with people who are on our side to begin with.
In the end, all of us are united: the most grizzled old rancher and the pinkest horse-crazy girl both get wet eyes and a runny nose remembering that certain horse.
The real problem isn’t with each other. The real problem is that horses don’t live long enough.
A horse’s working life is an arc. There is the incline at the beginning; We are always in a hurry to get to the best start, whatever that is. Everything is training and aspiring. It’s all looking ahead.
On the other end of the arc are the later years when arthritis is normal and the level of work starts to slide. He isn’t as fast or strong, he gets reluctant to do what used to be easy, until the day that he can’t hold us any longer. If you’ve done everything just right, he isn’t any happier that day than you are.
There is a sweet spot between those extremes, when a horse is physically at his peak; he is mentally solid and capable, and his muscles are fully developed. He’s working at his utmost and he’s sound! It’s an affirmation of all that he is…but that prime is finite, sandwiched between the years getting there, and the years reminiscing back.
We have to pick our battles: It’s always a mistake with horses, you might win some fights with humans, but we never win against time. Even if the horse is thirty years old we always want one more season.
The real reason we get cranky is that horses are fragile. Horses seem bold and strong but we know their secret. That their feet are small and their digestive system is a bit unstable. Even if we are lucky and everything goes well, they just don’t live long enough. Horses are heart-breakers. We know that in our hearts and we love them anyway.
This is the time of the year that my friends in the northwest post photos of fields of tulips–so outlandishly beautiful with large petals in bold primary colors. And such frail flowers. I don’t usually buy them cut because their petals bruise easily and their stalks go slack. Cut flowers are all about temporary beauty, part of what we love about flowers is their transitory nature. They just mark a small place in time, an occasion, with beauty. Cut or uncut, eventually flowers wilt. And we shouldn’t let their brevity ruin their loveliness or our appreciation.
Horses have so much more in common with tulips than oak trees, and that has to be part of what we love about them also. Even if it’s the part we hate about loving them.
In our barn, we have two horses that have been retired as long or longer than they were ridden. We have two young horses working their plan for world domination, and a couple in undefined places and not happy about it. And we have one big shiny horse who is absolutely in his prime–confident and proud. It’s just a snapshot. The best reason to have gratitude in this moment is that it can all change in a heartbeat.
It’s tulip season again and that means most of our horses are another year older. Happy Birthday to the whole herd! It’s easy to forget that every moment they are with us is a victory over so many obstacles. This year, lets celebrate the place we are in the journey right now–not the future and not the past–without blame towards ourselves or each other. Let’s celebrate the elusive perfection and beauty of horses, and let’s make peace with the rest.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.