For The Long Term

In early January, I had the opportunity to attend the Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. The weather cooperated (it was actually colder in Texas when I flew out than it was in Calgary when I landed) and I thoroughly enjoyed the people while I was there. As with most equine conferences, topics ranged the gamut from horse health to business practices to industry concerns.

My keynote address focused on training practices and the question, “What is acceptable?” I had written about the topic in an Insights & Opinions column back in July 2013, and was asked to expand on the subject in person. As it turns out, answering the question, “What is acceptable?” isn’t easy. What’s acceptable in one discipline isn’t in another, and even among close-knit equine enthusiasts, opinions vary greatly.

As we discussed some of the challenges the horse industry faces today, the topic of longevity came up. First, we talked about the longevity of our horses, and the chasm between Western horses, which are often shown early and retired by the time they are 7, and English horses, which are started later and aren’t expected to advance to the highest levels until they are 10 or older.

Eventually, our look at longevity turned to people. With an industry-wide drop in association membership numbers, how do we keep people involved in the horse industry for the long term? Why do people leave to pursue other interests? And how can we entice them to stay? Of course, the flip side of that discussion was how to get people involved in the horse industry in the first place.

There are so many positive things to talk about when it comes to horses. Society views the horse as a majestic creature, so for many people, the chance to be around horses fulfills a lifelong dream that started in childhood. Horses are a positive influence on kids who might otherwise become involved in unhealthy activities, such as gangs or drugs.

Horses create bonds between people, making us feel as though we’ve met a kindred soul when we meet another horse person. Those bonds can open the lines of communication in a tumultous adult/teenager relationship, and increase the amount of quality time a family spends together. The physical benefits of being outdoors and working with horses are complemented by the emotional benefits of the noble horse.

It seems whenever you start talking about the positive points of the horse industry – the things that make people want to be involved – the negative also come out. And they did. Horses are expensive; most people don’t make their living in the horse industry, so it takes a certain level of disposable income to be involved. Horses require space and land, so access to horses can be difficult for those in uber-urban areas or inner cities.

Perhaps the most important negative factor we talked about, though, was that of perception. If our industry isn’t perceived by the general public in a positive light, then why would they want to get involved in the first place?

At this point, we circled back around to my original topic of acceptable training practices. If we, as horsemen, can’t agree on what is acceptable and what is abusive, then how can we expect the public to believe us when we say we care about the welfare of the horse? And why are we doing the things that might be perceived as being abusive by anyone, public or colleague?

One of the best comments I heard came from a woman who theorized that society’s ever-increasing desire for instant gratification has caused a lot of the problems in the horse industry. If you approach your horse endeavors wanting instant gratification, you are more likely to take the shortcuts that lead down the slippery path of pitting your goals against the welfare of the horse. Many of the training practices that could be considered unacceptable, she believed, came about simply because people were too interested in instant gratification and not interested enough in the long-term effect, not only on the horse, but on the industry itself.

Think about it. As a rider, if your only goal is to win the next class at the next horse show – focusing on just one run – you will make different decisions than if your goal is to secure a year-end award that requires top performances at several shows through multiple runs. Are you chasing the instant gratification of winning today, or do you look at each class as an opportunity to better yourself and your horse as you follow a strategy designed to help you rise through the ranks as time goes on?

If an owner’s business plan revolves only around campaigning futurity horses, the decisions made for each horse will be based on short-term goals (one show season) rather than what’s best for the horse’s entire show career, which could span several years. A trainer’s sole focus might be on winning a 3-year-old futurity, rather than developing aged-event horses that can go on to successfully compete at weekend shows well into their teens.

Some of you may object to that last point, pointing out that it takes two years to get a horse to a futurity, and there isn’t much “instant” about that. But in the grand scheme of things, two years is relatively instant when compared to a horse’s competitive career that could span 15 years or more.

The same could be said of breeders, who make crosses based on the hottest sires and the latest show-ring fads. The instant gratification of high sale prices overshadows what should be the most important long-term goal of all – improving the breed through genetics.

It is all too easy to make decisions based on our need for instant gratification; it is much harder to make the decisions necessary for the long-term health of the horse industry, collectively. It’s a societal concept known as the “common good,” where decisions are made with thought given to benefitting society as a whole, in contrast to private individuals. Philosophers believe a renewed focus on the common good could solve many of the problems in today’s society; I think a healthy dose of common good would also help us address many of the problems we see in the horse industry today.

Deepak Chopra, a leader in the field of mind/body medicine, once said, “When you make a choice, you change the future.” Choose wisely.