After a seven-mile ride in mud and snow, I bring the horses back to the paddock, toss them hay, and sit on the fence.
Sitting on the fence is not a metaphor, it is what horse owners do as we watch, contemplate, and maybe – though it seems highly indulgent – cherish our time with Equus caballus.
As more of us seek equine-related activities during the pandemic, fence sitting is a thing. Horses, it seems, are reestablishing their place in society. They’re also going through a rebranding: out as beasts of burden, in as Beasts of Being.
Parents have flocked to barns, looking to assuage their children’s anxieties with riding lessons. Friends of mine who manage barns and have horses in training, now have long wait lists. Christy Landwehr, CEO of Certified Horsemanship Association, the largest certifying body in North America, with 3,500 members, told me they’re struggling to keep up with demand.
Meanwhile, some horse owners, facing the choice of feeding their families or their mounts, have had to surrender horses. Rescue organizations are busy, too.
Contrary to what you might think, riding and horse owning is not a country club affair, reserved solely for the rich and privileged. According to demographic research, only a third of the nation’s five million horse owners are well off. A third are solidly middle class. A third are less well off.
Many live in the country.
We have stinky clothes, no vacation days, slim wallets, and weathered crow’s feet on our faces, from smiling and wincing in the weather. More than any outdoor recreationalist, we are out there, in sub-zeros and triple digits, caring for and working with our equine partners.
Anecdotally, I can say that most of us have horses in the blood, passed down generously by parents and grandparents. In this corner of Colorado, families literally came to the area on horses’ backs. Here, many horses need to be handy, able to work cows, move through gates, hold steady during brandings, and perform myriad tasks in shifting conditions (like storms and road traffic).
When we see the droves of newcomers to our vocation, some of us are amused. Some of us worry that newbies will treat horses as big purse dogs, accessories to their world. Horses suffer when they are put in small spaces (stalls), given meals (grain), and are adorned with clothing (blankets). As director of the annual Best Horse Practices Summit, I chat with scores of well-meaning owners who run the risk of loving their new equines to death.
“Let a horse be a horse,” is not just a woke phrase. It’s supported by research and speaks to the horses’ need for freedom, friends, and forage, i.e., being able to live in a large space where they can graze most of the day and be with a herd.
Notwithstanding these educational challenges, newcomers are welcome. They’ve helped us better appreciate what’s been there all along: a horse’s presence.
You can feel heat radiating from its thousand-pound body and smell its pleasant musk. You can watch its ears (which pivot independently) and eyes (the biggest in the mammalian world) as they consider you.
Horse time is immersive. That’s one reason it’s so therapeutically effective.
Another reason is that horse work is a two-way deal in which we learn (often the hard way) about respect, trust, consistency, and boundaries. I say it’s more valuable and harder to maintain than the relationships people have with dogs or cats. I say it’s more profound than any gardening or yoga practice.
It could be that horse-to-human work has perfectly prepared us for times of struggle, like a global pandemic and a chaotic political climate.
My friend, Amy, a horse trainer in North Carolina, said, “I don’t feel like anything has changed. I have the same amount of isolation, of not going to town, of being alone. With the horses, I’m grounded and focused and things are pleasant. All’s well in the horses’ world. I have had a great year. I kinda feel guilty.”
Nancy, an older friend in Utah, got COVID. She said, “I never missed a feeding. Yet some mornings I didn’t know if I’d make it down the hill to the barn. As soon as I heard that soft nicker, though, I’d feel better. I think doing those chores kept me going. There is something healing about being near a warm horse body, watching the glow of a setting sun. I could have called on offers of help, but I wanted to do it as long as I could muster the strength.”
To all those just now discovering horses, I say “Welcome!” While we see livestock, you see listeners. No matter the form or outcome, I root for horses to stick around. We need them now, as we have for millennia.
Maddy Butcher has written for The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and High Country News. She is the author of “Horse Head: Brain Science and Other Insights.” She lives in Dolores.