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The Know-Nothing Thing About Horses

Trey Ratcliff

​John L. Moore - published on 05/12/14

My response to the author of a recent Huffington Post article who thinks she’s a horse expert after owning one for four years.

I don’t think Margaret Paul, Ph.D., the “relational expert” will want to have a relationship with me.

Her May 8 piece for The Huffington Post, “The Thing About Horses,” blasts “old-fashioned cowboys” who “break” horses and see horses as “dumb animals” and that should be treated like “lawn furniture.”

She goes on to say cowboys don’t understand horses are herd animals that need socialization, and ridicules her neighbors for stalling their horses when they cut hay on the fields where the horses graze. “The hay,” she says, “is more important to them than their horses.”

Well, excuse me, but hay needs to be put up so those horses can have something to eat. As to the herd instinct, there isn’t a cowboy in the world that isn’t aware of it, but that doesn’t mean we cater to it. Horses that insist on being with other horses never bond to humans. Instead, they become “herd bound,” “barn sour,” or “balky.” These are phases many young horses go through, but if you enable this the horses not only become worthless, they can become dangerous.

The term “breaking” is so politically-incorrect in today’s horse world most of us haven’t heard it in 30 years. For Paul to use the term suggests she’s being influenced by modern horse gurus who generalize and stereotype others to elevate their own status.

Modern horsemanship has largely been shaped by Bill and Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman. Three of these fellows — the Dorrances and Hunt — are now deceased, but all would have qualified in many ways as old-fashioned cowboys. True, their methods are gentler and more patient than how many colts were “started” years ago, but times have changed.

It was once common for horses to range freely in the hills until they were four or five years old. At that point, rough-string riders had days to accustom them to the saddle well enough for other cowboys to “finish” them through long days of cattle work. Those cowboys valued toughness, strength, and courage in themselves and the horses they rode. To suggest they didn’t develop relationships with the best of these mounts in ridiculous. One only needs to read Will James to know what he thought of horses like Big Enough, Sand, Smoky, Tom, and Jerry.

Today, cowboys have more time to train slowly using the “natural horsemanship” methods the Dorrances and Hunt popularized. To suggest cowboys ever treated horses like lawn furniture is laughable. For one thing, what did a cowboy ever know about lawn furniture? Cowboys, old-fashioned or not, don’t ride for the money. They ride for the lifestyle and their horses are their partners.

Gleaning from Paul’s article we learn that she is a best-selling author who lives in California, and got her first horse four years ago when she was 70.  She now lives on “a beautiful 35-acre ranch” with her Arabian, Stryder, where she canters across hay fields to her heart’s content. “When you treat horses with love and respect,” she says, “they will be partners with you for life, even risking their life for you.”

That is all well and good, Dr. Paul, and I am happy for you, But, where I live 35 acres would not make a small holding pasture. When I leave the corral on one of my geldings I am venturing into 20,000 acres of badlands and I must be mounted on a horse that’s tough, smart, and respectful. When I toss a loop onto a 1200-pound cow in a pasture ripped with deep ravines, cactus, drop-offs, rocks, crags, buttes, and washouts, any number of things can happen that are not pleasant. On her 35 acres of hayfield, what exactly is the risk to Paul’s life?

Paul writes that it’s almost overwhelming how Stryder has learned to respond to her heart-felt kisses with kisses of his own, as he slurps his big tongue across her cheek.

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