We all love and understand the beauty of horses, but what about the importance of the aesthetics of the places we ride and keep our horses at? Do you think our surroundings have an effect on our own mental states as well as that of the horses?
My personal experience has included everything from keeping horses in my backyard to boarding at less-than-ideal establishments to one of the most beautiful, peaceful equestrian centers you could ever imagine, and running several training barns. Speaking from such broad experience, I can share with you the insights I’ve gained about the effect of beauty, and ugliness, on both horses and riders.
When I was 13 and still learning about having my own horse, my dad was transferred to another city. The former ranch horse that was now my “beginner mount” had to learn to live in a box stall for the first time in her life while her shed and paddock were being built at our new home. The closest barn was a dark, damp, wood-frame building with muddy paddocks and unscrupulous, horse-dealing managers.
I don’t remember all the things that were said to me there, but I sure remember how I felt, and how spooky my normally-quiet horse was at this place. Not knowing too much made me vulnerable and the “helpful” suggestions were more like insults. All of the people seemed to be “up to something” and none of the horses, in my memory, were very happy. They were dirty, smelly, and the entire place was just unpleasant. I couldn’t wait to bring my horse home and luckily, we didn’t have to stay there for more than a couple of months.
When we were transferred again a couple of years later and I needed to find another boarding barn, I found a home on a ranch for my mare, White Cloud, where she lived out her life in great comfort and truly in her element.
At 17 I had moved to the now-famous show jumping facility, Spruce Meadows, with my appaloosa colt. What a contrast to the stable White Cloud had experienced. I’d had an appaloosa filly at another barn in the new city and was not pleased with the environment there either. The horses were chased by the owner’s dog from the pasture into their stalls each night and my horse had been seriously injured as a result. The staff were unapologetic and I later found out they had not been giving the filly her pain medication for the hock injury she’d sustained. She also became terrified of men in cowboy hats.
I don’t like having to go to a barn with the feeling that I’m likely to find something wrong with my horse, the place is a mess, the staff are angry, or the stress levels are so high that riding isn’t the joyful experience it should be.
Walking into the barns and arenas at Spruce Meadows was like being in a cathedral. It even smelled different than any other barn I’d been in. The horses were bedded knee-deep in straw, and everything was spotless. Soft music played in the indoor arena and the temperature was kept constant, even in Alberta’s cold winter weather.
I’d never been at an equestrian facility where the first words coming to mind were “elegant”, “beautiful”, “peaceful”, “grace”, and “calm”.
We were required to keep our tack clean and hung a specific way and we followed a protocol that wasn’t so much rigid as it was to the benefit of everyone’s peace and wellbeing. The grounds were lined with gorgeous flowers and trees and it was always easy to let out a big breath and sigh of relief every time I drove through the gates. At this place, I found myself wanting to spend time there not just to enjoy my beautiful horse, but to rise to the level of elegance and old-world classiness – not an “elitist” attitude by any means – more like a kind of simplicity that allows you to settle into a calm, clear state of thinking and focus on what you are there for.
When my colt turned two I started him under saddle myself, having observed the German riding master’s guidance of the stunning Hanoverian horses that had been imported and bred on site. Unless there was a show on, the peace and quiet could be counted on consistently and the horses also seemed to thrive both mentally and physically from the reliability of their environment.
I never had to worry about being insulted, anything irresponsible happening to my horse, angry staff, or bad management that affected the entire chain of events down to the boarders and guests. It is no surprise to me that this establishment has won the accolades it has.
Dr. Schoen has been the veterinarian to many major show barns and we have written about the importance of a healthy, holistic environment with the best quality of care and food provided for the horses. With the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, the kind of equestrian environment that supports the wellbeing of both horses and riders begins with caring, compassionate management and permeates the entire chain of day-to-day events at a barn.
While it may sound difficult to get an entire barn of human personalities to become compassionate, we believe that not only is it possible, but a necessary step for the sustainability of our industry and our beloved horses. In today’s fast-paced, expensive, stressed out world, how could we not want to be in a “sanctuary” that supports our joyful interactions with horses, and helps us learn to extend that joy and compassion to all beings?
It is our wish that all horses and horse-people have the opportunity to live in health, happiness, and beauty.