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.
I was really pleased to see this post. In the course of boarding, and eventually deciding to purchase and operate my own facility, I saw the same things you mention.
The psychodynamics of dark horse dungeons and unhappy management / staff are very bad for horses and riders. I know in one place I was constantly stressed by basic things like bad water, uncleaned stalls and lack of turnout, which always placed me in an adversarial relationship with staff and management and which made it so hard to focus on training and riding objectives. My reining horse would scrape the walls with his teeth. Three horses in one year died of colic in this place. Mind you, it was a very ritzy place on 50 acres with a pond and a giant arena, but the stalls and arena were very dark walled and always felt a bit depressing even in daylight (I’m usually riding at night due to my work, so it was even worse) – it didn’t help much that the manager would restrict arena lighting to only half the lights, either (saving money, or so she said).
Another place I stayed in had a highway next door, and while the horses seemed to adapt to the constant sound of vehicles passing, I couldn’t help but wonder if that made them feel oddly deafened – animals who can hear sounds two miles away might be stressed in unexpected ways by having that sense somewhat blocked.
When we purchased our facility and brought the horses home, they had trouble adjusting to the quiet and the length of turnout we could give them, and for a long time would act up as the sun set. We gradually extended their time out, and they eventually became indifferent to day or night and were much less reactive in general.
Even though our stable is light and open, now, with mostly 24×7 turnout, an overnight stay in the stall seems somewhat stressful to them. Our former ranch horse paces his stall when he sees me setting up the paddock after a night in. My reining horse sometimes pins his ears at me when I come in to start the morning after a night in, and presses his face into the corner of the stall where the door is as I go back and forth to the outside, as if he could squeeze through into the aisle. Outside, day and night, not blanketed, even in very cold weather, they are totally relaxed, walking slowly, heads down, loose, “ambling” around the paddock, and since they’ve been out like that, our riding experiences have clarified and improved, and their relaxation has bled into everything they do.
To me, knowing these things is the essence of horsemanship, but the indifference of most riders, trainers, and, worst of all, equine facility managers, is inexcusable. If they love these animals, if they started engaging with horses because of that love, where did it all go awry?
It’s really interesting what you notice about horses and their reaction to their surroundings when you are living with them 24/7. People who rush into the barn, ride their horse, then rush back out never get to see the changes in their horse’s demeanor at various times of the day/night and during various levels of activity at the barn. At the big commercial barns I think the love of the horse tends to remain but the stress of making ends meet and dealing with all the personalities of the people who come with the horses becomes the problem. I still believe it’s possible to have a fully compassionate barn from the top down and that will be the grand “experiment” of The Compassionate Equestrian. Interesting that you’ve mentioned the effect of noise on the horses too. That will be the subject of another blog post.
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I believe it is completely possible to have a compassionate barn, and I run my barn that way. But to do so, you have to love the richness of individuality in horses and owners and riders. You have to empathize with their goals and you have to not worry about connecting with them – a businesslike distance isn’t how you’ll enjoy the work and it isn’t what makes people want to be your customers. But you also can’t be imposing. That’s not an easy tension to manage.
I think many barn owners started because they wanted to live doing what they liked. But it turned out that what they liked wasn’t being an innkeeper, it was being the singer on the stage owned by the hotel.
There’s a 3 to 1 ratio for me (so far) between work to run the place and getting to play with the horses. I have to have decided to accept and love that work, and stick with it, even when it’s filling water buckets at -4 degrees, or picking manure out of the paddock in the moonlight. But I also have to sometimes make myself let go of the work to have fun with the horses – sit and have breakfast with them in the paddock, or go into their stalls and crouch down with them when they’re sleeping on the floor. I’ve also had to find ways to structure the work so I can take away a clean memory of my ride. Drag the arena in the morning so I can just go into the barn and focus on getting ready for the ride. Clean the paddock and put out the hay riight after I bring in the horses, so I can just ride once I start.
And when I have a great session with my horse, I have to relive it in my mind while I sweep the aisle so I don’t forget, and do it again before I fall asleep so it stays real.
great post! so, should we have a chapter title: creating sanctuary?
Thank you! I would actually like to invite readers (both of the blog and the book once it’s released) to send in photos of their “equine sanctuary” and their special places in and out of the barn where they find peace and quiet time to contemplate. A photo is worth a thousand words, after all 🙂
Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog?
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Yes, that would be just fine, and thank you for your interest. I looked through your blog and it is beautiful. The dragon fly is symbolic of my mother, who sadly passed away in 2001. I found myself in Santa Fe much in the same way as you did too. Completely guided…and I paint angels.