Over the years, I have met many people who erroneously believe that purchasing a horse might be a good investment opportunity. Perhaps they get this idea when they see the disparity in prices that very similar horses can sell for, and they think that “flipping” a horse must be an effective way to make money. Obviously, this logic falls apart when we look more closely at the reality—especially the financial reality—of owning a horse, even for a short period of time. Of course, once this and other factors (like the volatility of the horse market and a horse’s uncanny ability to wrack up vet bills) are taken into consideration, one quickly realizes that selling horses is very rarely a money-making scheme, even for people who do it professionally!
When, then, are horses a “good investment”? Parents of horse-crazy kids, pay attention; the investment potential of a horse lies not in immediate financial returns from a quick turn-around sale, but rather in what it can do for your child’s future.
Before I explain how purchasing a horse can have lasting positive impacts on your child’s wellbeing and development as a human, let me explain what I mean by “horse-crazy kid” and include the disclaimer that purchasing a horse will not benefit every child in the same way. The kids for whom I am promoting the acquisition of a horse are the ones who are already head-over-heels (or should I say “boots-over-helmet”) smitten with horses; they are the ones who like participating in even the most mundane of barn chores; they are those who can’t think of anywhere they would rather be than at the barn or on the back of a horse, rain or shine.
I do NOT advocate for the parents of lukewarm horse fans to purchase their child a horse since the one who stands to suffer is very likely the horse, once the novelty of the animal has worn off and bad stewardship ensues. Nor should parents who were themselves horse-crazy kids buy their non-horse-crazy child a horse as a way to live their dream vicariously. If this is you, buy YOURSELF a horse or take lessons; do not assume your child will catch your enthusiasm for the species once they have one to call their own.
But for parents of those children who haven’t stopped begging for a horse since they were old enough to talk, and most importantly, have shown their commitment to this wish by pursuing lessons and opportunities to be around horses and learn all they can, please consider what what your child stands to gain from having a pony as a babysitter.
Admittedly, I have a personal bias for writing this article. I believe having horses in my world from the time I was born has been the single most influential factor in the trajectory of my life. I can attribute many of the qualities I possess as an adult to my early childhood experiences with horses. My work ethic, my patience (which I’m still working on), my presence and confidence, my ability to read body language of both animals and people, my creativity, and my desire to continue learning throughout life have all been greatly—if not exclusively—influenced by horses. Below, I will explain in more detail exactly what qualities horses have helped me to obtain and how they can do so for your child, as well.
Work Ethic and Discipline
A child who has a horse will never learn that laziness is an option, especially if he or she is in charge of that horse’s care. To most horse-crazy kids, barn chores will usually not feel like chores at all; however there will be days that they would rather be doing something other than struggling with a wheelbarrow in the mud or chipping frozen horse turds out of the snow. Your child will also learn very quickly that procrastination of a tedious, not-so-fun chore, such as mucking a stall, will only make it exponentially more difficult when she finally gets around to it. Ultimately, the child will internalize that his horse will have to have food to eat and a clean stall to stand in regardless of whether or not the sun is shining and he feels like going out to the barn.
To enhance this particular benefit of horse ownership, it’s not a bad idea to find ways your child can work off some of the expenses of his animal, whether it’s by getting a part-time job to contribute financially to his hobby, or by working off some of the horse’s board by taking on extra chores for the facility owner. A child who learns to make herself valuable will never be wanting for work as an adult.
A child with a competitive interest will also inevitably learn that the best way to excel in his or her discipline of choice is with practice, dedication and seeking out qualified help when it’s needed. Without some sense of discipline and work ethic, he or she will not win the grand prize or be able to finish the race with a happy and healthy horse. And, speaking of competition…
The lesson in sportsmanship will come when the child has given his or her all and still comes up short when competing against his or her peers. Learning that one is not always the best despite having tried one’s hardest is a tough but important lesson that is often missing from today’s everyone-is-a-winner ambiance. Sometimes, there is just someone better, and all we can do is swallow our pride, congratulate the person, and see what we can learn from her to improve ourselves.
Another hard lesson learned is that, sometimes, who wins and who loses has very little to do with intrinsic talent and just comes down to luck-of-the-draw. A superior rider can often be overlooked and one who just got lucky at the moment the judge was looking his way can win the ribbon, despite being an inferior equestrian (this is more common than you might think). And it’s always important to note that we all have strengths and weaknesses and while one person’s strength might be his ability to show his horse well in the way that the judges are looking for on that particular day, he might not have all of the same strengths that another person who didn’t win a ribbon has. In this situation, the right response is still to swallow one’s pride and congratulate the winner, even if you know that the only reason he or she won was because the judge’s back was turned when a grave error was made.
When your child wins, it isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, either. They may be disappointed in their ride if they feel they should have performed better, and winning the ribbon isn’t always a consolation. Also, it’s important that winners not gloat or brag if they want to keep their friends who may not have won. Being humble and grateful at one’s win is as an important a skill to learn as losing gracefully is. And no matter the outcome of the show or the order of the ribbons, a child with good sportsmanship will always appreciate and praise his or her horse for its hard work in the ring.
Empathy, putting others before self
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Lawrence Kutner, empathy, unlike intellectual capacity or eye color, is a learned skill that humans develop in early childhood. In one article, he suggests a couple of different ways to develop your toddler’s empathetic abilities, and says that by about the age of eight, children should begin to be able to “grapple with more complex moral decisions.”
Having a horse and learning to care for it and humanely handle it are natural empathy-building exercises, as they teach the child to think from the animal’s point of view to provide it the best care. I would also argue that the sort of empathy that proves useful for taking care of horses is more nuanced than that required to interact with other humans since, as a members of the same species with a shared emotional palette, we can easily understand how another human is feeling in a particular situation or about a particular thing. To provide the best care of an animal, however, we must think outside of the “human” box to understand how a member of the other species will feel in a particular circumstance or about a particular thing. For example, a child should be taught to realize that even though he, as a human, would prefer the warmth and privacy of a cozy box stall on a cold night, most horses do not feel this same way and would prefer to be outside in the chilly dark with their pals. This stretching of the empathy muscle can only help children to further develop the skill of putting oneself in another’s shoes.
Children who have horses will also discover the importance of taking care of the needs of others before taking care of themselves. If the child is tired and wants to go home but hasn’t yet fed his horse, he must learn to push his discomfort aside to provide for his animal before tending to his own needs. Likewise, if his horse is lame on the day of the big show or trail ride, the child must learn that putting his horse’s wellbeing above his short-term goals and wishes is the only way to be a responsible horse owner. The development of both of these skills is naturally built into horse ownership, but to attain them fully a child will still need the guidance and example of a good mentor, teacher or parent.
Sacrifice, life, death and loss
In modern Western culture, the topic of death and dying is a taboo one. The act of dying has largely been sterilized and obscured behind hospital doors, meaning that, unlike in other historical time periods, most modern humans will have very little knowledge of and contact with this process until, of course, it is their time to experience it firsthand. Many sociologists believe this censorship and denial of life’s only real inevitability have created a whole culture that maintains an unhealthy relationship with death.
All one must do to see how far removed we are as a society from thoughts of death and dying is to ask your average city dweller from what part of the animal his favorite meat dish has originated. Often, you will get a blank stare of confusion or sometimes a wince of disgust as they inform you that they prefer not to ponder such things. We like to think that our pork chops come from the plastic-wrapped package in the grocery store rather than associate our meal with the end of a living thing’s life, no matter how inherently hypocritical this stance may be (next time you come across a group of PETA protestors railing against the inhumanity of slaughter houses, see how many you can pick out with leather shoes, purses, or belts!).
So, how can we inoculate our children against this growing trend to ignore one of the most basic realities in life? Taking a field trip to a slaughter house seems a bit macabre, and unless the moribund happens to be a close relative, visiting a dying person in hospice for educational purposes is out of the question. The ownership of animals is, in my opinion, a natural way to introduce children to the natural finality of life as we know it since most domestic animals have shorter lifespans than the humans to own them.
Experiencing the death first hand of a beloved animal is of course devastating for anyone, and parents and mentors should take great care when deciding how to expose the involved child to such things according to her age and level of sensitivity. When death comes knocking, it provides an opportunity to have very real discussions with your children and allow them to interact with the process at an appropriate level, thus eliminating some of the mystery and taboo surrounding the subject and making your child more prepared to deal with it in the future.
Sometimes, an animal doesn’t just die on its own the way we hope it will. Instead, we as the animal’s caretaker have to make very difficult decisions on behalf of the creature, and we all hope that when called upon to do so, we will do as well as we can for our beloved pets to protect their wellbeing and comfort to the end. While it might be a bit too much for a child to actually be the one to make a decision regarding euthanasia of a pet, allowing them to witness the decision-making process and making sure they understand the factors that must be considered will create an invaluable lesson about selflessness and sacrifice that is difficult to reproduce in any other context.
Creativity, patience, and thinking outside the box
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” Nowhere is this mantra more true than with horses. I always tell my students that when we are riding or working with horses we don’t make mistakes, rather we get opportunities to try something again and along the way we realize what doesn’t work! The persistence to keep trying and experimenting and modifying our methods is an important quality that working with horses can help children to develop.
Along with this persistence to keep trying for a particular result in the face of repeated setbacks is the ability to monitor and control our emotional responses to perceived failures or unexpected outcomes. Feeling impotent at something that we want to improve and succeed in is, to say the least, a frustrating and disappointing experience for all humans, especially young ones. As any trainer can tell you, however, only by learning to control our frustration and other emotional responses can we effectively work with horses.
I personally can attest to the positive effect horses have had on my ability to be patient and flexible in my approach, not take every mishap personally, and yet stay invested in the desired outcome. Younger me (between about the age of sentience until more or less 18 or 19 years old) was hot-tempered, short-fused, impatient, bullheaded and stubborn, and while I can’t say that I don’t still possess the potential to display these traits, I can say that I have a much better handle on them, both at the barn and in life. Younger me would never have gotten off of a horse until I succeeded in executing a desired movement or exercise that was eluding us, even if I was the weakest link and was asking the horse all wrong or if “success” came at too high a cost. I was lucky to have horses that seemed to be quite tolerant of my flaws and put up with me even when I was at my most intolerable (they could have just killed me and gone on with their day, after all).
Older me (>18 or 19) has learned how to appreciate smaller victories, and has the wisdom to recognize how these mini achievements will, with time and patience, lead to the bigger goal in a better way than forcing it to happen all at once and perhaps incorrectly. I have learned how to walk away when my emotions threaten to get the best of me and could potentially deteriorate an already delicate situation, knowing that I can come back later with a clear head and more balanced perspective.
Horses have taught me that a reasoned approach and control over my emotions is the fastest way to progress, and that any achievement that is forced through haste is probably either going to be short-lived or have consequences down the road. As many a well-known trainer has stated, the slow way is the fastest way with horses, meaning that trying to rush things and cut corners because you’re in a hurry will only result in someone having to put in much more work and time in the future. Horses teach us that it’s actually faster to slow down and do things right the first time around than it is to have to undo mistakes and start over again.
Confidence, leadership and communicating with non-verbal cues
Horses are not very vocal creatures, and anyone working with them must tap into the almost obsolete art of body language. An awareness of body language not only involves being able to read what others may be telling you, but also knowing what you are perhaps inadvertently communicating to those around you. I have had students tell me that learning to work with horses has changed their ability to interact with coworkers and family members, as they have learned how to effectively assert themselves in non-verbal ways, or conversely they know how to relieve pressure in social situations through their body language. Also, the confidence gained from providing leadership to a 1,000 lb. animal translates to other areas of life and leadership, both professionally and personally.
When you are hemming and hawing about buying a horse for your child, it’s so easy to be deterred by the thought of all the expense and hassle of owning such a large, costly and needy animal that we often forget the many benefits horse ownership will confer to your child not just in the short-term but over the course of his or her life. I hope this article will help parents remember that horse ownership is not all cost and no benefit.