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Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Natural" vs. Natural

In my last post I discussed artifice in the horse show world, and what I thought about it (boo!). As always, these posts are my (often well-informed) opinion. Today, I want to talk about the flip-side of the coin; people who take things way too far due to a misguided understanding of what's natural. The woman in the photo is a prime example of the sort of person who makes me headdesk to the point of distraction. The worst part is, though I'm sure she means well, her lack of knowledge and understanding has the potential to cause real harm to the animals she claims to care about, but she and her ilk aren't interested in that. They have an agenda, they're getting kudos and admiration. People (also misguided and misinformed) look up to them. I'm sure it feels good. And who needs facts, because EMOTIONS.

In many ways I'm pretty stoked about the tendency  toward wanting a more natural way of life. I wish it had come sooner. I am personally not well-suited to this new, technological era. I'm adapting and learning because that's the thing to do, but I'm more of an outdoor kitty for sure. As such, it's endlessly amusing to me to watch folks who have never really had any connection to nature and animals talking about what's "natural" for them. First, I will address our friend in the photo: Her sign talks about terrified horses (she's an anti-carriage industry activist), but she's standing in front of a line of relaxed and sleeping horses. I read some of the comments; some of the people talking about how "sad" the horses looked. Honestly, I laughed so hard I almost wet my pants, as did my fellow experienced, horsey friends.  What these folks want is this: All the horses turned out on farms to run free and wild "like nature intended". Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Until five minutes of research reveals that A) All this vast farmland apparently owned by people who live to take in horses doesn't actually exist anywhere, except in their imagination/favorite childhood horse-stories and B) Domestic, working horses were bred (for centuries) to work (including in cities) with people, and don't appreciate endless days of doing nothing in the prime of their lives. Even I have had a horse that resented the hell out of his winter "vacation", and showed his boredom and displeasure by wrecking whatever he could get his teeth on (and yes, he had plenty to eat!). Once summer came and he was back in work, he was back to his lovable self.

What about what's natural? We aren't talking about wild horses here. In fact, very few truly wild horses even exist. For more info on that subject, check out this page: Do Wild Horses Still Exist? Even the American Mustang is considered feral; they are descendants of domestic horses. So we aren't going to bother discussing what's natural for a wild horse, because that is simply irrelevant here. As I stated before, domestic horses have been bred and selected for centuries (at least) to work with humans, and they are very well-adapted and suited to doing just that. THAT is what is natural for a domestic horse. As a horse-person, it's something I'm well-aware of, along with the bond that forms, the love of routine and attention that horses have and the sense of purpose that so many of them enjoy as well. These activists, by failing to grasp even a basic understanding of the domestic horse and what the real animal (not the fantasy-book version) is all about (and being unwilling to learn) are trying to condemn these horses to a life that is actually unnatural for them. Please understand that the carriage industry is one of the best-regulated industries in the world, that the horses have better working conditions than many people, and that pulling a carriage is very light work relative to being ridden. When these horses are ready to retire, they DO go to farms, and they are ready to do so. If you would like to support the well-being of carriage horses, support one of these farms, like this one: Blue Star Equiculture,  that not only acknowledges the ongoing importance of our working relationship with horses, but takes care of them throughout their old age. That's something positive that you can do, something far more productive than standing next to a sleeping horse with a sign that advertises how little you actually know about the subject.

Speaking of domestic farm animals, what is the deal with the anti-farm nonsense I've been reading about lately? I've seen it everywhere: Don't eat meat! Avoid dairy! OMG! Be a vegan 'cause it's NATURAL! First of all, let's acknowledge that nothing in nature (besides humans) feels guilty about feeding itself. We are NATURAL omnivores. More about that here: Humans are Omnivores. Having said that, vegetarianism and veganism are entirely valid choices, especially in our culture where food-availability (ignoring monetary considerations for the time being) is fairly unlimited. If we weren't omnivores though, entire cultures would never have existed or exist currently. That is a fact. I especially have to shake my head when an anti-farmer has a cat or dog, neither of which is a vegetarian animal. A vegetarian diet for a dog is cruel, for a cat it's actually deadly. Where do you think their food comes from? Just throwing that out there. Let me be clear here: I think factory farming is evil, horrible, cruel and many other not-so-nice adjectives. I think it needs to go away. But I support agriculture and family farms. This is what a farm should look like: Maple Wind Farm. If you would like to advocate to put an end to factory farming, I am right there with you. But farming in general? Not so much. Folks with no connection or understanding like to post misinformed nonsense that make me cringe. Just the other day I saw a video of a cow calling out for her calf that had just been weaned. It was supposed to highlight the cruelty of farming, but again, just another example of the sad disconnect that exists. It's a familiar scene to me, both with cattle and horses. Weaning time is traumatic for a couple of days, without a doubt it is. "But in the wild they wouldn't go through that heartbreak!". In the wild, most domestic farm animals would starve to death or be eaten by predators early in the first winter, but let's play pretend: Female animals in the wild are almost always either pregnant or nursing (often both) for much of their life. The weaning of one offspring is usually necessitated by the birth of another, and is facilitated by the mother, often in a not pleasant way. There is more planning and spacing around pregnancy and birth on the farm, so humans intervene. Humans have been taking care of domestic farm animals for centuries, and there are a lot of things that we have to do for them because centuries of domestication have rendered it necessary. FYI: There is no monetary reason for a farmer to prevent a cow from taking care of and nursing a newborn calf, and no monetary gain to be had by having an immune-compromised calf (who didn't get colostrum) either. Just because it was posted on Facebook and it made you feel emotions, doesn't mean that it's true. More emotions doesn't make it more true, either.

Domestic farm animals are just that: domestic farm animals. As omnivores, some of us (meaning humans in general) hunt, some of us farm. Generally speaking we don't jump on a prey animal's back and rip it's throat out with our teeth, but hey, semantics. Domestic farm animals wouldn't survive as wild animals. There are so many things that domestic animals simply can't do for themselves because centuries of domesticity have rendered it unnecessary. I think specifically of bulldogs who can't give birth naturally, and sheep who are in deep doo doo if nobody is around to sheer them, like this guy: Lost sheep. I'm curious: What do the farm-haters think would happen to all the farm animals if the haters got their way? Do you really think farms would exist just to warehouse uber-expensive, high-maintenance pets? If you live in enough of a fantasy land to believe that is actually true, I invite you to do a little research into those possibilities. Understand also, that a rescue is where an animal goes because it's in trouble. It's not a cool place to exist indefinitely, or an alternative to a home. Sanctuaries are in short supply. So fantasy aside, what do you, based on the facts, think will actually happen to the animals? I won't spoil things by answering that for you.

Okay, I've had my say and I would like to apologize for my snippy tone. I actually really love farm animals (especially cows),  I think family farms are da bomb, and I love 4-H kids, the work ethic, the connection to nature (real nature, not disconnected, fantasy nature) that comes with it. I'm disheartened and frustrated by how few people are left with that kind of connection to agriculture, and how often disconnected people spread their own special brand of misinformed manure (not the good kind that's conducive to growth). All I ask is this: If you want to advocate for something, at least make some rudimentary attempt at understanding the reality of it. Don't just jump on board because it elicits an emotional reaction. Understand that misunderstanding can do so much more harm than good.

I have so much more to discuss on this subject, but I'll end it here for now :-)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Animals and Artifice

Photo: enlightenedequine.com
There's been a lot of talk about abuse in the Tennessee Walking horse show world lately. It seems like it comes and goes, but the problems never, ever seem to be solved. By problems I mean specifically soring, stacked shoes, harsh, long-shanked bits and general rough handling that has plagued this (very sweet) breed for what feels like forever. How does this even happen? How do human beings get to a place where they can look at this and participate in it, and not only feel okay about it but defend it? Can we really become so desensitized to the pain and discomfort of another being that is ceases to move us? Of course we can. We do it to each other every day. Some days, reading my Facebook newsfeed makes me feel like a voyeur, watching people engaging in their own personal schadenfreude; insulting, dismissing and dehumanizing others openly. Finding so much joy in the suffering of others by finding justification for it. It's ugly, but it's real. And it's the justification piece that seems to be the basis of the "bad", with money being the primary motivation. I see it with dogs too. You get people together competing with animals in any capacity, and the insatiable human need for "more" and "better" takes over and thing go pear-shaped. If only our species could be more self-aware.

If you know me, you know that my position tends to be pretty moderate. I'm not so "animal activist" that I waste my energy on ultimately pointless nonsense, or on things the animals themselves could care less about. I'm not so over-the-top "squishy" that it's harmful (like farm-haters, Peta, and the idiots who want to ban the carriage industry in NYC, for example), that I have no actual knowledge and no concept of the consequences of my actions. What I have is experience and empathy. What I have is the basic belief that if you are causing an animal pain, emotional distress and physical dysfunction, something is intrinsically wrong with what you are doing. It's common friggin' sense.

I used to ride saddleseat. You probably knew that, but what you may not have known was that I LOVED it! It used to be kind of THE way to ride, especially if you had a Morgan, and I did. It was pure joy, both for me AND my horse. Full disclosure here: I didn't do a ton of showing and I certainly wasn't anything special on any show circuit (my family wasn't 'horsey' so the opportunities were few) but I jumped on every opportunity I had. Back then, only the park-type Morgans had special shoes, and the height and weight were very limited. Most of us stuck to the pleasure division, and it was a perfect fit. We learned how to ride in the best way to help our horse, and we were taught to have very, very light hands. I always remember Morgans being super versatile, and having just enough spring in their step to be kind of cool. I loved the naturally high head carriage too (it made it feel weird to ride the long, thoroughbred-y types later!). And that was kind of the thing~the natural awesomeness of the horse. And that was the emphasis; Morgans were a 'natural' horse, and (with the exception of park horses) it was almost a sacrilege to interfere with that. They were rugged, cheerful and spirited little horses that lived primarily outdoors, well-suited to the harsh Vermont climate, and they worked hard and carried their people all over the place. I used to trail ride like it was my job, and there was no place my Morgan wouldn't take me.

Fast forward to today. I like to poke around on the internet (read:procrastinate) and think about what my next incarnation as "horse owner" would look like. I looked into Morgans, showing and saddleseat. Holy. Crap. The entire scene is unrecognizable, and it's only been about 30 years. All the show horses are being trained with their heads tied back to their saddles (WTF is THAT?!). I'm no stranger to judiciously-applied side-reins and such, but GEEZ. I even saw a photo of a Morgan out on a dirt road "trail riding" (sorry, no) with it's head tied back to the saddle. The pleasure horses don't look much different to me than the park horses, and both are sporting outrageously long hooves. The hunters look like saddleseat horses (long hooves and all) in hunter tack. If you or anybody you know rides actual hunters, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hard to describe. And the riders are riding (really bad chair-seat) saddleseat in hunter tack, but with really flat hands. I watched a couple of videos of in-hand classes too, to see what they were looking like these days, and it was more of the same; horses with outrageously-high, fixed head carriage, huge muscle development on the underside of their necks (used to be a big no-no) and hollow backs; anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of equine physiology knows that the only way a horse can sustain an unnaturally high head carriage is to drop and hollow their back. It makes the back weak and sore, and it's especially shameful when it's caused by something people are doing. Maybe for the folks who are in it or raised in it it's no biggie. It's something they are used to seeing and I'm sure there are reasons for...all that...that I just don't understand (or want to, really). from the perspective of someone who was away for awhile, it certainly showcases the way things can evolve to an unhealthy extreme.

If you know horses, then you know that one of the most basic necessities of being a horse is mobility. It is what they are physically and psychologically made for. If you take that away by constant stabling and extreme shoeing you are taking away the thing that is of the utmost importance to your horse. To take that away causes an extreme amount of stress (and often ulcers). To a horse, mobility is survival; it's who they are. I don't care how pampered they are in their jail cells, it's still jail. Movement and social contact is what horses want. Being fussed over in a stall where you spend 23 hours of your day doesn't mean sh**. Most people these days are pretty aware of this.

I SO loved the Morgan breed (still do) and after the initial shock wore off, what I felt was crazy-sadness. I wrote to the AMHA and asked if there was a place for folks who used to ride like I did. The (quick and helpful) response assured me that I would fit nicely in the Classic English Pleasure division; that horses in this division were flat-shod, had turn out and went trail riding. I got a little excited, until further exploration turned up videos of  Classic English Pleasure horses in training...with their heads tied back to their saddles. No. Just..no. A WORLD of f***ing NO. The registration numbers are down as are the show numbers, and yet this is the direction that today's stewards of this amazing breed want to go for show horses. To be fair, for folks who aren't interested in the breed shows, the AMHA has a lot to offer, including a program for folks who are entirely non-competitive. They are also really terrific at answering questions, and do so very quickly. That's working. Morgan horses still rock at just about everything, and that's sill working too. But how much better it would be if we were still focusing on what is so great about our horses, instead of trying to shape them into some some sub-par extreme.

Like I said, I loved riding saddleseat. These days, the clothing is SO much more fun and the saddles are SO much better! They are actually grippy and you can move the stirrup bars where you need them! Me and my short legs would have really appreciated that 'back in the day'. It was such a fun and joyful discipline, and I so loved the opportunity to show off my wonderful horse. I bet a lot of folks would enjoy it that way too. Having said that, the number of folks willing to do what they need to do to be successful in the showring in it's current incarnation is (thankfully) dwindling as we learn more about what horses need to be healthy and happy. I would love it if the show horse world would evolve in that direction, and I bet it would draw a whole new crop of enthusiastic showers (and a few of us old ones as well). In my perfect world, horse shows would showcase the wonderful, natural attributes that captured our attention and led us to love our breeds in the first place. Riders would be taught to ride in balance. Shoeing would be something we do to protect the hoof and have nothing whatsoever to do with changing movement (other than corrective). Hoof-length would be determined by natural need and health of the animal. Naturally high head carriage and knee action would be just that, and only ever enhanced by the natural joy and exuberance of the horse itself. Training would build the strength and endurance of the horse, not break it down by forcing it into a specific shape. Standing wraps would no longer be necessary because horses would be allowed to move. No more hollow backs and upside down necks, just well-developed, healthy happy animals moving cheerfully around the ring, representing the REAL best of their breeds, instead of an artificially-enhanced caricature. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty great to me!