There has been a common theme lately in a lot of the articles that I have been seeing (and then subsequently reading) out there online over the last couple months. The theme has shown up in multiple different ways, has in some form the basic lament of "where have all the horsemen gone?"
I know that many of the legends of our sport, and industry, have been asking this for a long time now. And they have been wondering how, and why, we have lost those people who are true horsemen (or horsepeople). I'm not sure why I am now seeing this more across the general population through posts, comments, queries, but perhaps it stems from that incident with the woman losing her temper in the hunter ring; which has now been widely publicized and criticized by the masses.
Variations of this question "where have the horsemen gone" have also been going through my head ever since I took over a facility and started running my own business teaching lessons, training, and doing equine therapy. I'm pretty sure this theme is something my sisters, who are also my coworkers, and I all lament on a weekly basis when looking at our industry and the people it affects.
And why is that?
Is it because we watch other trainers at events and horse shows yelling at students, or the parents talking over the trainers? Or watch the grooms step in, take the horse while the rider simply shows up to ride and win ribbons? Because we have had parents ask us why their child isn't jumping yet on their 3rd lesson ever? Or because we've all had clients who micromanage their horse and then do the opposite of what our advice is?
I'm not sure. But I do see that there is a shift that has happened from the (sometime brutal) tough love that I grew up with. Learning to ride wasn't EASY. Learning to event was painful (both physically, mentally, and emotionally). I rode awful little ponies that took off with me in the hunt field, refused to jump, and mortified me on a fairly regular basis. And I still loved it. I was a member of our pony club because it was expected of me (and my sisters) to be able to care for our horses and a farm. I failed ratings. I fell off. My horse decided it didn't want to participate some days. I got into trouble because my horse was too fit for your average C3 rating because we were getting ready to go complete our first CCI* ( the “classic’’ format these days, back then it was just standard).
I started down this path at 16 when I was a working student for my trainer. My sister (who was 14) and I would get up, feed our barn, drive 30 minutes, do our trainers barn, exercise her horses, watch her kiddos while she rode, come home, ride our horses, maybe eat some lunch, maybe go teach at Pony Club Camp, get back in the car, go back to our trainer’s and do her evening chores, then come back home finish working our young horses, then do our evening routine. Then we'd fall asleep to be able to go do it again the next day.
All of these experiences helped me become the rider, trainer, eventer, and therapist that I am today.
And it is HARD. You're undervalued. You're underpaid. You're overworked and exhausted. You feel like you're failing because you're always making some person unhappy. I hear all of that from those of us who are still in this industry. There are days I want to quit. I wonder half heartedly, WHY I am doing this. WHAT possessed me to try and make a life out of this.
And that is at the root of "where did all the horsemen go?"
My experiences taught me about how to be a true horseman. I learned horse management and horsemanship until it is something that I live and breathe. And I learned how to try and teach it and pass along all the wisdom of the phenomenal horseman I have been privileged enough to study under.
So why do I stay?
Because I have hope that horsemen are out there. And, I hope that we can teach today's generation of riders how to not just simply ride, but to be horsemen.
I hear the wonderings of where are the kids that WANT it? That will work, and try, and do ANYTHING to be able to not just ride, not just compete, but to simply BE around the horses?
My answer? At my barn.
We don’t just teach how to ride. We teach how to BE with horses. We teach them hard skills. And we let them struggle, and fail. And they have consequences for poor choices. Set by both us and their equine partners.
Most of our students don’t own their own horses. They use ours. Some lease them. And most work off extra rides, extra lessons. We have 10 year olds who can muck and turn in horses better than most adults I know. Because we have taught them early on that horses are more than just learning how to ride.
We've turned our barn into the place where the kids and teens want to hang out after school. They play and work and get into appropriate levels of mischief with each other and their ponies/horses.
They come in the rain, in the snow, when its 100 degrees and when its 10 degrees. Some days I can't get them to LEAVE the barn. They go watch the events with us where they learn how to groom for us, and each other. They learn how to wrap legs, rehabilitate horses, wean foals, nutrition, anatomy, clean tack, clip horses, pull manes.... if you can think of it, we've probably talked about it.
Like any barn, we have those who are not as dedicated as our core group. But all of our lessons get the basics of horsemanship. Our horses are not ready waiting for their riders before lessons. They are not pretty and clean when they get here. We teach them how to do the basics and we talk about horsemanship the entire lesson. Those who don't want to put the effort in, or want to really learn this foundation, don't usually last very long with us.
We have rules at our barn. My teenaged working students started them as a joke since my sisters and I say the same things repetitively. But they are true. And they are what I believe helps turnout real horsemen.
- The horse always comes first
- Have fun
- Don't argue with the person on the ground
- When in doubt ask: WWJD (What would Jimmy (Wofford) Do?)
- Don't Die
- If you're going to be stupid, be smart and stupid.
- When in doubt, add leg
- Wear a helmet
- Always carry a knife
- Never go to war without your ammunition
- Make good choices
Being a good horseman isn’t just about riding well. It's about being able to make good responsible choices for your horse. Even if it means putting your own wants and needs aside.
As a barn family, we've been put through hell and back during 2017. We lost a foal due to congenital birth defects. We almost lost the momma, who is our staple super pony, due to the trauma of the birth (8 hours long) and the resulting infections after that. Our trailer got rear ended at a stoplight with horses on the back (all were fine, but we had a semi totaled trailer for the summer) and fighting with insurance companies about getting costs covered since the guy was under insured.
We have had the slew of normal summer time things happen; project horses slice legs open, sutures, and colic scares.
And then, we had the heart of our farm be killed in a freak lightening strike that hit his run in shed during a normal summer storm. Acacia was our best teacher and trainer. He could run around a Preliminary Cross Country course and then step back and teach someone how to tackle Introductory. He was only 10 and was with us since he was foaled on our old Virginia farm. Not only was he a teacher and trainer for students, but he was also my partner and heart horse. The day he died, all the dreams he and I had together died with him.
Our other new and up and coming event horse broke her sesamoid bone due to an old stress from a race injury that no one knew was there. Stella (A Streetcar Named Desire) now probably won't go back to competing the way we had been hoping for both her and for the teens that love her.
Our kids have had to learn harshly and abruptly this summer that there are more heart breaks than highs with horses. And yet, they all still keep coming. And keep working.
The day Acacia died, I got asked how I could keep going. My answer was that we had camp to run, and that I still had horses that needed to be fed. So that day, and the day after and the day after, I still got up and went to work. Because the horses needed us. And on each day that I showed up, so did the kids. And they stepped up and went to work too.
You wonder where the horsemen have gone. I hear you. I agree with you all completely.
And yet, when I look at these kids I have at our barn, I have hope. I know that they're not all gone yet.