horse ownership is a benign masochism.

horses are large, dangerous, dirty beasts with a bite force that rivals many large carnivores and a kick that can easily break bones. they are prone to all kinds of bizarre ailments with charmingly medieval names (fistulous withers? girth gall? founder? strangles? rain rot?) and are alarmingly fragile for an animal so large. they are enormous prey animals and behave accordingly, like jurassic mice, convinced that everything is trying to eat them.

some breeds are more temperamentally mild than others, but the fight or flight instinct is hardwired magnificently in the modern horse. there is no event too small to carry the potential to completely freak out a horse and a freaked out horse is a half ton or so of panicky death on four spindly legs. my large pony mare, a fat, lazy, particularly stumpy specimen, once objected to a tractor mowing in her pasture, cleared a five-foot plank fence, and ran for half a mile, leaving the rest of the herd piled up at the fence line.

their social structure is rigid and they are creatures of extreme habit. take one member of the herd away, even to an adjoining pasture, and you are asking for hours of equine screaming. and woe betide the human who is a couple minutes late for feeding time. there are atomic clocks in those animals and they will begin to complain within actual seconds of their acceptable dinner hour. if they’re feeling especially aggrieved, they may break a fence or open a gate and come looking for you. food is serious business.

horses shed heavily twice per year. in late summer, their “fly coat” comes off, which is a gentle event marked by trillions of tiny fine hairs. in spring in our climate, the average horse has a dense, three inch long hair coat that needs to come out. it doesn’t all shed out at once, but begins at the top and sheds downward. this means that getting the winter hair off takes a month, during which the horse looks like it has been attacked by moths. my bay gelding, who is a glorious red-brown, retains winter hair on his belly long after the rest of his fur has shed, a phenomenon i refer to as “orangutan hair”. in addition to hair, there is a whole bunch of dander and dirt: a lovely, curiously sticky, powder-like substance called “scurf”, which we dutifully brush off the horse and directly into our sinus cavities. there is a knowing joke among horse folks that grooming is the careful and time-honored ritual of removing dirt and dead hair from the horse and putting it all on you. this is only funny because it’s almost entirely true. and then, once you’ve groomed your horse with a variety of brushes, combs, and assorted implements, the horse finds a patch of dirt to roll in and kills your satisfied soul.

there’s a whole extra set of frustrations and perils in store if you’re a rider as well as an owner. one of my colleagues is still recovering from a broken femur that she received from a horse that had just returned from a stint with a trainer with the sole aim of making the horse less nervous. the horse startled, bolted, and dumped his rider, resulting in a profound injury. possibly because of something as harmless as a leaf blowing on the wind. i once got up on a new horse that had been in her saddle for five minutes or more. i did everything “right”: tightened the girth slowly in stages, walked the horse around between cinching, had a spotter. unbeknownst to me, the mare had been holding her breath the whole time in order to keep me from pinching her with the girth. by the time i clambered up on to her back, she was all out of brain oxygen, and fainted dead away, smacking me in the face with her head as she went down and breaking my nose.

so horses are huge, dumb, breakable, filthy animals. let’s not even get into the fact that horses are built to eat all day, which results in an amount of manure that is greater than you would expect. or that grass doesn’t grow in the winter, so you have to put up several hundred bales of hay to keep them eating all day. or that they need regular pedicures and dental work that usually requires a damn scary speculum, which necessitates a sedative. no, there are a hundred more complaints i could make about horses, at least, but i won’t.

because i love them. i love their flighty, stubborn, fussy natures. i love them when they’re hitting the end of the lead rope at a run and when they’re using their lips to open up a gate. i love them when i’m currying pounds of winter hair off them or spraying fly repellant on them or dodging their greedy faces, their ears pinned back, in order to put grain in their dishes. horse ownership is a lot like motherhood: it’s thankless, emotionally draining, hard work. you sacrifice a lot, mostly so that you can listen to your dependent bitch at you and watch in dismay as they drain your bank account. and you wouldn’t trade it for anything.


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