Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Passing the Buck?

Have you ever had a job interview where the hiring agent asks you a question meant to get into your mind, and see what kind of person you are? Something like, "What do you consider to be your Achilles's heel?" or "What do you need to work on most about yourself?" or "What is the most frustrating thing about your current job?"  Well, I have a confession to make....there IS something that I don't like and find very frustrating about my current job.  I hate selling horses.  Loathe it.  Despise it.  And I am not good at it, though selling horses is considered to be a huge part of being a horse breeder, trainer and instructor, which I have done as a career for many years.  The truth is, I don't even want to get better at it, even though instinct tells me that I should and that it is necessary.  I grapple with this conflict frequently.

Why don't I like selling horses?  I guess I have seen too much in this industry, and have been let down too many times, often with heartbreak that I carry forever.  While there are many good, caring, and knowledgeable people out there buying horses, those homes are few and far between, and so, so many buyers are anything but.  I know, with the keenest sense of truth, that once you sell a horse, you never, ever have care and control over that animal again, unless by some miracle you are able to acquire them again later.  People lie, cheat, steal, and abuse.  Absolutely anything can and does happen once that horse leaves your barn.

Nowadays, some sellers will try to protect the horses they are selling with contracts stipulating rights of first refusal, or some type of binding no-sale clause, to prevent the horse from being sold beyond the buyer.  But these types of stipulations are limited in scope, and are often dependent on the original seller's ability to retrieve the horse from a bad situation.  Contracts don't matter once a horse is dead and gone. I have personally used these types of clauses, and have still had horses end up in jeopardy, or deceased. We are living in an economy where people can lose their personal wealth, which allows them to have a horse, very quickly, and unfortunately, we are living in a culture that doesn't place emphasis on keeping animals throughout their natural lives.

We'd all like to think that this only happens to young, untrained stock, or old, unusable animals, but even horses that have won accolades in the show ring, won races, and have spent years faithfully and quietly toting kids around can fall through the cracks.  All it takes is for a breadwinner to lose their job for the horse to be pulled out of training, the feed to come less frequently, and for their feet and health care to be ignored. Or maybe the owner has a life change that causes them to neglect the exercise/training needs of their horse, and the animal that had been a potentially successful working horse is deemed nearly useless, or worse, 'dangerous.'  It only takes a few months for a horse to be down-graded.  I have seen the same people that came to me, pledging to love the horse dearly, promising to keep them forever, blame the horse for the predicament, and just throw up their hands before consigning them to a local auction or horse dealer, effectively sealing their fate and placing them in the slaughter pipeline.

I, of course, acknowledge that in order for the horse industry to continue to exist, there has to be breeders and they have to sell horses.  The vast majority of horses that I have produced or have bought and resold have ended up in excellent homes (and I do doggedly pursue them as they move from place to place) and I am lucky in that regard.  But for the few times that one of my horses has met a sad fate, it has hurt me so deeply that it can wake me up in the middle of the night in tears.  I feel personally responsible for each animal I own, and I carry that responsibility even when they are no longer mine. I do whatever I can to keep tabs on them, and let new owners know they can always come back to us.

I recently saw a graphic that claimed that less than 1% of all horses live in a forever home.  How tragic!  For those of us that truly love horses, and make a living off of them, we should be ashamed of this state of affairs.  I can't even tell you how many times I have seen people get rid of an old horse that they rode for years, but began having health problems or lameness issues, and was no longer 'useful.'   They claimed they loved the horse, and 'found a home for it' but the truth is, once that horse is off your property, you have passed the buck.  The person that loved this horse the most, who knew it the best, appreciated the best parts of that horses life - YOU - has passed off the most important part of that horse's life to someone who doesn't have the deep connections with it.  The most important part being the end of life care, allowing a horse a dignified retirement, and being the the person who knows when it is time to put a horse down humanely.

Anyone who knows me knows that my horses live in a forever home.  I have several old and no-longer-productive horses that will live out their years here, with the people that love them most, my husband and I, ready to give them a quiet, dignified end if necessary.  The decision to do this for my old horses has made it so I am not able to breed a ton of horses every year, or buy new, younger horses to show.  I have limited space, and a limited budget, so we can only have so many.  This isn't always an easy decision; in fact, right now, we are trying to figure out what to do with a gelding whom we can't keep sound.  And it may be that putting him down humanely is the right thing to do, rather than sending him to live with someone who may not care about him as much as we do. I would rather live with the sadness of putting him down than live with the guilt of causing him more suffering because I didn't want to deal with it, or wanted to make money off of him..

I can by no means offer solutions that fit every person's situation.  I can only share what is in my heart, and how we choose to care for our horses.  I am not aiming to preach, only to implore that readers ask themselves that if they really love their animals as much as they say they do, why not love them through the tough times too?  It does take sacrifice, it does take commitment, it does require making difficult decisions, but what relationship doesn't?  Making a personal decision to be committed no matter what is the first move toward putting this 'throw away society' label behind us.

There are a couple of new ways to ensure your horses have a forever home.  One is the American Quarter Horse Association's "Full Circle" program, where owners can enroll their horse, and be available should the horse ever become unwanted.  Another is to add your name to the Humane Society's "Responsible Breeders List" which is basically a pledge that you will always take a horse back throughout its life, and that you are committed to producing horses in a responsible manner.  If anyone has any similar solutions or ideas, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.  Thanks!