I have been in love with horses since the very first time I saw one. My earliest memory is of a horse. I was about three years old and I was at the beach with my parents (we lived on an island), and I saw something coming up the beach toward us. It was huge and I remember wondering what it was. It was a woman on a horse named Alpo, named because he was rescued off the slaughter truck before he could be rendered into dog food, and he was the first horse I ever saw in person.
Because we lived at the beach in a fishing/surfing/boating community, there weren’t too many horses around. I was able to ride sometimes with our neighbor who owned a Banker Pony, the once feral descendants of Spanish horses either shipwrecked or abandoned by explorers during the colonial period. I never took formal riding lessons and it wasn’t until my adult years, when I was making my own money, that I was able to finally indulge my lifelong passion.
I bought my first horse, a thoroughbred who had failed as a racehorse, when my first child was only three months old. Everyone told me I was crazy, that I wouldn’t have time for a horse and that I would only end up selling him again. Fast forward seven years and I still have that horse, and one more, a little quarter horse that I bought for the kids and then fell madly in love with and decided to keep for myself.
Horses are expensive. I am lucky enough to board at a small, private barn where I do all of my own feeding and turning out. I save thousands of dollars by doing the work myself, but even with my lower board costs, horses are not cheap animals to maintain. Their food is measured by the pound, and they eat several pounds a day. Their feet have to be trimmed every few weeks and inevitably I end up with unexpected vet bills from time to time, mostly for the Thoroughbred who, despite his supermodel good looks, is a total klutz.
I hoped that at least one of my children would inherit the horse gene and be as interested in horses as I am. I pictured tiny riding britches, fat ponies and horse shows in my future. No such luck. My kids are mildly interested in the horses, but they would rather feed them carrots than ride them. They are just as interested in the chickens and the barn cat as they are in the horses.
A lot of moms, all less selfish than myself, would have sold the horses and focused on the kids’ interests, whatever they turn out to be. But I’m not willing to give up just yet. I’m going to keep shelling out the money for my equine darlings because, although the kids don’t know it now, the horses are providing my children with invaluable lessons that don’t require the kids to ever sit astride them.
First, we spend a lot of time taking care of them. We feed our own horses and they have to get fed in the rain, snow, freezing temperatures and hellish heat. We bundle up or strip down, whatever the case may be, and feed the horses twice a day every single day. Every. Single. Day. There’s no “I don’t feel like going to the barn today.” My kids know that animals are a big responsibility; they are not convenient or disposable.
We also spend a lot of time outside. Our barn is on a huge lot with pastures and wooded areas. The kids have secret hideouts back in the woods where they run off to while I’m riding or doing chores. We have a groundhog, deer, squirrels, falcons, owls, lots of colorful songbirds, domestic chickens and every now and then a wild turkey on the property.
My kids witness firsthand how these animals form an ecosystem that centers around the horses. Field mice come for the spilled grain around the barn, owls and falcons eat the mice, deer graze alongside the horses in the pasture at dusk, birds nest in the rafters of the barn, and the groundhog has burrowed a cozy little hole under the tack room floor. This year a huge flock of Canada geese took up residence in one of the pastures when they stopped for a few days before heading further south. The kids see these animals through all the seasons and they learn how wild things survive.
Being outside also means my kids don’t live all their lives in a climate controlled, artificial environment that they manipulate at will. It seems that we in modern times want to be cold when it’s hot and hot when it’s cold; we want to be awake when it’s dark outside and sleep late after the sun comes up. We are able to manipulate our environment so much that many people have completely lost the natural rhythm of the earth. Short of a flash flood or tornado warning, a lot of people don’t spend much time thinking about what Mother Nature is up to.
Not my kids! They’re grounded in nature because we talk about it all the time. Hot weather means extra trips to the barn to fill water troughs because the horses will be extra thirsty in the heat. Cold weather means making sure the horses have hay at all times and the high maintenance thoroughbred is wearing his blanket. Rainy weather means the pastures will be muddy and we’ll get muddy too. We don’t have any control over any of this and that is such an important reminder for kids and adults alike. However much we may want to believe that we are the masters of our own lives, we are not. We are not in control.
Finally, having horses lets my kids experience wonder. There’s just something majestic about horses. Those of us who own them know that most of the time they just eat and poop, nothing particularly majestic about that, but every now and then they remind us why we are so in love with them.
When a new horse is introduced to the herd, or on the first brisk, chilly day of autumn, or sometimes for no reason at all, the horses will transform themselves from lazy, grazing beasts of burden into regal Pegasus-like creatures who run so fast across the pasture that they seem to have sprouted invisible wings. Their necks arch, their tails fly out behind them like banners, and they shake the earth as they come thundering toward us. All the freezing mornings and hours spent mending fences and mucking stalls are all of a sudden worth it. Cows never look like this. Only horses can inspire this kind of awe. My kids don’t have to be “horse people” in the same way as I am to recognize the majesty of horses being horses.
By having horses I am giving my children something truly beautiful, not plastic or artificial, not mass produced in China. I am giving them Nature or God or both and, when they go out into the world on their own, a world increasingly full of inauthentic people and images, they will be grounded in something truly and effortlessly beautiful.