I’ve been thinking about horses lately. Actually, I think about horses a lot, often when I should be thinking about something else, like work. Usually my thoughts involve my eccentric gelding, Rex, and other horses that I know. However, some recent coverage of the wild horse roundups in Nevada and California has reminded me of the much bigger picture. Where do horses fit?

It strikes me that horses just might be a perfect symbol of conflict in the 21st century West. Of course, you’re thinking that they were also important western symbols in the 19th and 20th century, so this is no big epiphany, right? And yet their symbolism has changed radically. They’ve always been idealized, but horses used to be necessary to humans. Even well into the late 20th century, everyday ranch work required them, as there was simply no other practical way to deal with cattle and rough terrain. Ranchers still use horses for these purposes of course (to their credit), but for the most part they don’t need to; specialized quads and other ORVs can do much of the same work.

Image of Colorado wild horses courtesy Flickr user iversonic.

With their last traditional purpose diminished, horses are anachronisms. For all their beauty, versatility, and historical significance, they play no role in most people’s lives. Think of the bipartisan group of well-meaning U.S. representatives who signed on to a bill to halt the roundups – how many have likely ever seen one of these animals on the high sage plains near the Oregon border? How many have ever used a hoof pick or bought a bale of hay?

I’m not trying to be smug about my own experience, mind you; unlike ranch folk, I’m a suburban hobbyist-equestrian, a life-long amateur who clings to a childhood fantasy born on the pages of Marguerite Henry’s books. People are often surprised that I keep a horse, and ask:

·        Isn’t that expensive? (Answer: “Cheaper than psychotherapy”)

·        How do you have time? (Answer: “I don’t; I steal some from housecleaning”)

·        Will my daughter ever get over asking for one? (Answer: “No”)

That’s the thing: horses are victims of their own myth. Everybody likes them, but few people know much about them. In addition to the ongoing tragedies of wild-herd overpopulation and abuse, many have been abandoned during this Recession.

So what can we do? BLM pragmatists insist on culling wild horse herds, and, at least environmentally, they have the better argument. But then what happens? Some animals get adopted, but mustang training is no job for novices, so that solution is limited. We can donate money to rescue organizations, which is a great idea if you have any left over from your natural disaster relief fund. We could eat them, like some cultures do, but … ick. We’re stuck with a symbol we don’t want to relinquish.

To my mind, a more sustainable option involves accepting the new role of 21st century horse. Sure, some can live out in the wild lands, but not the vast herds of yore, as a recent HCN article made chillingly clear.

We westerners need to take responsibility for them, wild and domestic, and that means more people must let go of their horse stereotypes and step up to the plate. First of all, small-scale horse ownership is not out of reach for middle class people. As with any pet, you can spend a fortune if you want to, but you don’t have to. You don’t need vast acreage or silver-plated parade saddles or specialized knowledge. Most neighborhoods, even in the city, have reasonably-priced boarding stables, and used gear is all over Craig’s List. Horse care know-how is a must, but good books, videos, and convenient courses are readily available.

Here’s the biggest misconception that needs rethinking: riding. Not all horses need to be ridden. I’ll take some flack for saying that, but consider – the horses who really need help are the healthy but un-ridable ones at shelters, like some of these. Riding is great fun, but it’s a serious skill that takes time and effort to master. If you want to go that route, good for you, but if you don’t, consider bringing a gentle, well-mannered mare or gelding into your life. They’ll need exercise; you can walk them like dogs and get some exercise of your own. You can brush them and hang out with them and play with them and they’ll enrich your life and bring you and your horse-crazy girls joy, plus you will have made a spot at the shelter for another cast-off or mustang. Now there’s some justice for you.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Horses as pets
Max Shelby
Max Shelby
Sep 13, 2010 09:03 PM
Ms. Wheeler makes some very good points int his article, but folks need to remember that a horse is not a dog or a cat and treating them as the "usual domestic" pet does them a disservice.

We're mismatched with them in sheer size and weight and to be a happy horse owner one must take the time to learn horse behavior. The health and care needs of a horse are a regiment and always ongoing, horsecare 101 is an absolute for any prospective owner.

They need a certain amount of space and their diet is very important for their overall well-being. Hand feeding a horse can result in teaching them to nip at fingers and result in serious injury.

It is better to learn before hand from someone who is an experienced horseperson than to learn as you go and not know how to what to look for in changes in your horse's behavior that may signal a life threatening condition.

For instance, one would need to know how to spot signs of common potentially serious conditions such as colic and the ABCs of good hoof care. As the old saying goes; "No hoof no horse."

Far too often we see the romanticized ideal of owning a horse by a novice go wrong for the horse and that's not fair to them. Taking the time to learn how to care for them serves not only the owner in the great rewards of owning such a magnificent animal, but the horse will be the better for it too.
Horse care
Jackie Wheeler
Jackie Wheeler
Sep 15, 2010 03:42 PM
Mr Shelby,

I agree with you completely. As someone who must board her horse, I've come across plenty of fellow boarders who inadvertently neglect or abuse their animals due to ignorance of basic equine husbandry (and, sadly, some others who neglect/abuse even though they know better). That's why I wrote, "Horse care know-how is a must, but good books, videos, and convenient courses are readily available." All these sources will recommend potential owners establish relationships with experienced horsemen and women and, of course, a good horse vet. Everyone's got to start somewhere, though.

My larger point is that too many people don't even consider horse ownership as something they can do. It's wrongly perceived as an activity for the super-rich or highly specialized, which is a shame. Nice horses suffer as a result of these misperceptions.

Jackie Wheeler