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“Husband Horses” and the Feminization of the Horse Industry

WEB Black Horse in Field 002

Oakley Originals

​John L. Moore - published on 05/15/14

Feelings are just fine when it comes to horses. But what about respect?

Before anyone brands me a misogynist – I am about to take on the topic of women and horses – let me introduce you to my late mother.

Petra Amanda Herem was born on a Montana homestead to Norwegian immigrants in 1910. She didn’t speak English until the first grade where her name was Americanized to Pearl. Her childhood was austere. A good Christmas meant an orange for each of the six children.

As a child she snuck into neighbors’ fields to jump horses bareback over fences. In her teens she eloped with a dashing young rodeo cowboy and had two sons. The marriage quickly dissolved and as a single mom in the Depression she took in laundry to exist. She met my father, a “filly chaser” for the famous CBC horse roundups, they married and settled on my grandparents’ ranch to share work with my father’s five bachelor brothers and their iron-fisted mother.

My father, Johnny Moore, had been known to ride 40 miles to a country dance to drink and fight, but my mother, 5’2” and 105 pounds, quickly tamed him.

In this petite package was enough grit and vitality to give birth to eight children and endure losing one when he was only four. By the time my kid sister and I were in grade school we were riding the trader horses my father dealt in, or the Shetlands and Pony of Americas he raised, while his good Quarter Horses foals were sold to buyers in Canada.

“If you and I had a little place of our own, we would keep the good horses and train them correctly,” my mother often told me. Feisty and opinionated, she never failed to tell me how the female mind worked. Women, she was convinced, were better with animals because they were more intuitive and less forceful. Besides that, the females of any species were more intelligent than the males. Her favorite example was our large cat, Missy, but in stroking Missy one night I discovered Missy was simply a late-developer. Missy was actually a Mister, an embarrassment my mother struggled to deal with, but her resolve never weakened.

She had strong opinions about men. Those who considered themselves ladies’ men didn’t fool her. She liked her men strong and quiet. Gary Cooper. Paul Newman. A coffee cup that read “Men Are No Damn Good” was given to her just barely in jest.

When couples visited she would have preferred sitting with the men discussing pedigrees and horse confirmation, but was relegated to the kitchen and wife talk about children and grandchildren. She loved her kids but wasn’t shy about saying she could have done without all of us. Kids had kept her in the house instead of on a horse.

I mention this because of a phone call I received two years ago from a lady journalist in Boston. “I’m doing an article on the feminization of the horse industry,” she explained. “Do you know what a ‘husband horse’ is?” I confessed I didn’t. “It’s a horse gentle enough for a man to ride,” she said. “In the east it is generally girls and women who ride, not men. So the men need an especially safe horse.”

We have those in the West, I thought, only we call them kids’ horses or possibly, ladies’ horses. Or we used to.

An Illinois horse trainer told me the husband horse term was common east of the Mississippi, and more recently, I’ve seen west coast advertisements for the same. It’s squeezing in on me.

Horse training is more gentle today as methods based on feel rather than force have become the standard. “Feel” is based somewhat on intuition, a concept my mother would have embraced. But, taken to an extreme, modern methods are pushing towards anthropomorphism, the ascribing of human traits to animals. Or, perhaps, beyond human traits to something so altruistic it begs description.

On social media, one midwestern horsewoman tells me that “respect” is “outdated.” To her way of thinking, respect somehow means force. (I don’t know a single relationship that survives without respect, but what do I know? I’ve only been married to one woman for 40 years and did Biblical counseling for 25.)

Another woman says all horses are born good and it’s only the manner in starting them that causes the few to go bad. Horses, it seems, escaped original sin. Odd, I hear a similar argument from many environmentalists. Nature is pure. Only Man is bad.

All this reminds me of my hippy hitchhiking days. Hindus here. Buddhists there. And over there, under the fog of marijuana, incest and patchouli, enlightened New Agers from the planet Kalifornia.

Fortunately, I don’t have to work with them, but two of my closest friends do.

One is a college equine instructor whose classes are mostly women. To their benefit, some are planning futures in equine therapy programs; others may work for breeders; and some are learning for personal benefit; but if it is all so dandy why is he often going nuts? It’s those few, the ones with the precious pets that’ve never learned respect.

My other friend is a clinician. For professional reasons he’s reluctant to talk about the fairer sex and their equines. Because of his west coast location he serves ladies from the suburb and city who are prone to buying young horses, even stallions, and bribing them with affection and feed.  When the bribes fail to produce cooperation — let alone, obedience — they drag the animals to him.

He tries to show them their horses lack respect.

Last summer I purchased a gentle-acting five-year-old gelding from a sweet, 18-year-old girl. The horse had been used on wilderness elk hunts and had never bucked or caused a problem.

My mother liked to say that a horse that wrung his tail hated his job and would eventually go on strike. Though bred for performance, this tail-wringer detested labor. But, I reasoned, he’d prove his worth in my autumn elk hunt.  Within minutes of hitting a wilderness trail the horse stepped on the edge of a branch which snapped up and jabbed him behind my right stirrup. He exploded. I did a complete flip in the air and came down on my back on a mountainside trail, my feet uphill from my head.

The horse didn’t run off. I told myself it was a freak incident. I lunged him and led him and remounted. This time he drove my shoulder into the ground with the force of John Henry’s steel-driving hammer. That night I rode eight miles in the dark on a different horse, leading my proud purchase, and then spent a freezing week on an army cot in a drafty wall tent with a dislocated shoulder, torn labrum, and enough stretched, sprained, and bruised body parts to fill a nursing manual. And did I mention a couple cracked ribs?

Whose fault? Mine. All mine. I was keen on a packed-in elk hunt and ignored the signs of this horse being “pushy.”He wanted to be fed, led, rubbed, and rode quietly down trails with a buddy beside him. When the girl’s family heard I’d been hurt they offered to buy the horse back. I’m sure they’ll get along famously. Seriously. At least, I hope and pray they do.

When I considered buying another gelding I balked knowing the owner was a female, but we met anyway at a little bar and restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Without my asking she quickly informed me her life’s passion was horses but she didn’t treat them like pets. Slaughter plants needed to reopen, she said, and most of the West’s feral horses should go there.

I nearly spilled my coffee. She was so feisty she could’ve been my mother.

So here I am at age 61, busted-up good, but with a year of having to be horseback.

The challenge isn’t simply what type of horse I’m going to ride but what form of man I am willing to be.

Will I be more cautious, humble, and cognizant of my limitations?


But am I willing to be thought of as a rider of “husband horses?”


My mother would roll over in her grave.

John L. Moore, a third-generation Montana rancher recently completed his sixth novel. Looking for Lynne, which addresses issues in this story as well as sage grouse, can be purchased on Amazon.

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