What We Talk About When We Talk About The Romneys’ Horse

Posted: August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love mocking rich people.  So why come down on people pointing out how out of touch the Romneys are by mocking their horse ownership?  Not because of the general idea behind the mocking, but because it’s being gone about in entirely the wrong way.

I worked in the equine industry in varying capacities for more than a decade.  It’s a fairly insular community, so I understand why most people don’t know that much about what goes on there, or the work we do.

There are two main points where the discussions about the Romneys’ horses get it wrong.

First, while the equine industry is certainly supported by vast amounts of wealth (just like other industries) the people who carry on the day to day operations of the industry–the workers, who in this case are also riders/athletes–by and large do not have access to this money, and we work long, hard hours for exploitative wages, just like everyone else–and in many cases, it’s worse because so much of the work is done by contractors and/or under the table.  Particularly in the United States, the working class has a long relationship with the horse.  This is not to say that wealthy people do not own and compete horses–they do.  But they do not rely on them for their survival and to characterize that experience as the experience of all–or even a majority–of professional riders erases an entire group of people.

Second, the equestrian sports you see on the Olympics (and several others you don’t, like reining, combined driving, and vaulting) are not only sports, they are art–crafts to be mastered.  The art of educating horses and riders (including yourself) to be top athletes is steeped in theory and practice that takes years to learn and a lifetime to master.

Underpinning both of these is the conceptualization of our relationship with the horse as antiquated and irrelevant, and I’d like to argue against this.  Capitalism has, like it has most things, soured our relationship with one of the world’s most amazing animals, but that doesn’t mean we write off the horse as a part of our society.  It means we must reimagine that relationship.
Workers in the American Equine Industry

At one job I held, I was expected to work seven days a week.  The farm was understaffed, which meant that even if I never stopped working, I would never finish everything that needed to be done.  I wanted to do my job well, but it was impossible, under that workload and pressure to perform.  For months, I worked 12 to 17 hour days, seven days a week, until I was so exhausted and depressed, that late on a freezing cold winter night, in the middle of finishing untacking the last horse I had ridden (in near pitch black darkness) I collapsed onto the ground and hoped to freeze to death.  I nearly died from hypothermia and had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

I have worked competed with severe injuries, from broken ribs, to concussion, to fevers of over 102 F.  I worked more than eight months at a time without ever being paid wages for my work.  Partially, I wanted to do my work because I loved it, but mostly, I was scared of losing work.  Every serious athlete pressures themselves.  Riders work under constant threat from other sources though.  If things don’t go well with a horse you have in training, the owner will take it somewhere else.  If an amateur student feels like they are not advancing quickly enough, they will ride with someone else.  Sometimes, it’s truly not a good match, but often, the horse or rider needs more time.  Capitalism rewards quick results–and that is neither good for horses or riders, and it makes work availability incredibly unstable for trainers.

But that’s not even the worst of it.

The equine industry still relies heavily on an apprenticeship system which means many aspiring professional riders live in poverty for years if they have a good situation.  For many young riders, however, the situation essentially enslaves them.  I know that seems like a strong word, so I’m going to explain why I use it.  Imagine being locked into a working situation for at least six months and up to five years at a time.  During this time, you receive no actual wages (just room and board–often in below par housing).  You work often in excess of 60 hours a week, travel at your employers whim, and have no right to sick leave, vacation, and have no guaranteed days off.  Your “pay” is the instruction you receive, and the practice you get in training horses and managing farms.

This isn’t to say that most of the trainers who run these programs are unusually cruel.  This is simply how it’s done.  And especially for riders from working class backgrounds who usually have less family financial support, its often an experience that lasts for a long time–up to seven or eight years.  That’s eight years of receiving no real pay, having little housing security, and subjecting your body to illness, injury, and hard labor.  If you are going to be a professional rider, you must complete this part of your education.  In addition, because it’s so time demanding, many young riders do not pursue higher education (and many trainers will strongly push you to not go to college).  Some even drop out of high school.  The equine industry consumes every part of your life, so if you decide you want to do something else (or are forced to do something else because of injury), it’s difficult to make a transition.  You have less education and no exposure to any work outside the industry (though some working students are forced to carry a second job–usually at a store selling horse feed or a restaurant that has late night shifts).  All of this is completely normalized.  It wasn’t until a year or so ago, when hanging around my non-horse-industry friends forced me to explain what it was I’d spent nearly half of my life doing, that I realized how viciously exploited I had been.  At the time, I was eager–a talented young rider who loved her work and wanted to compete on the international stage.  The system is set up to recreate itself.  To become a good rider, you need to ride a lot of horses, but people are usually unwilling to pay you to ride their horses until you have proven skill.  This means almost all young riders perform free labor in order to gain the experience and record they need to be “able” to demand pay.

And there are other workers in this industry.  Farriers–the people who trim and shoe horses’ hooves–work in dangerous and brutal conditions that often leave them crippled.  There is no way to make standing beneath a thousand pound animal that has a mind of its own and a strong flight instinct completely safe, but there are safety measures that often not taken because of the cost or time.  Farriers who hot shoe work near incredibly hot forges for hours and hours on the hottest summer days.  While there is often solidarity between riders and farriers, the relationship can become easily strained by the time/performance demands placed on both.  Farriers also use an apprenticeship system, and though it is not usually as exploitative as the one riders face, it still demands up to five years of un- or underpaid work.

Grooms and farmhands are usually the poorest paid.  Like riders, they work long hours and often receive little or no time off.  More than the other groups of workers, grooms and farmhands are disproportionately immigrants, often undocumented.

The equine industry (with the exception of racing) does not generate large profits.  It is mostly, in its current form, centered around the luxury commodification of the horse as a pastime for the wealthy people who own the horses.  This does not change, however, the fact that as riders, trainers, farriers, and grooms our work is skilled labor–often highly skilled labor that deserves fair compensation, especially considering the dangerous and unstable conditions under which we work.

The Art of Horsemanship

What makes riding horses a sport and an art form?  Why is being able to train horses and riders highly skilled labor?  Considering how separated those of us who work in this industry are from the majority of society, it’s a question many don’t know how to answer.

First, a short summary of horse centered sports today.  The Olympic disciplines–dressage, three-day eventing, and show jumping–derive from military training and tradition.  It is, in fact, still common for members of the military to compete in uniform.  Other disciplines have different backgrounds.  (I’m not going to discuss racing, because I’m not as familiar with it–particularly flat racing.)  The so-called “Western” disciplines mainly have their origins in testing the ability of drovers, cowboys, and other livestock handlers.  Gymkhana–a hodge podge of mounted games–has its origins in kids with ponies being very like kids with bikes and skateboards.

My background is in the three Olympic disciplines, and mostly in three day eventing, which is a three part test, a sort of equine triathlon, that developed from the cavalry tests that were designed to test a soldier’s skill in training his horse and the horse’s ability to execute parade and battle movements, cover long distances across the country, and stay in service despite massive exertion.

The first phase, dressage (a French word that means “training”) tests the parade and battle moves.  Every move had its place, from the half-pass and pirouette that allowed the horse to move laterally as well as longitudinally, to the varying levels of collection and extension, which allowed horses to gain speed or stay in place without losing balance.  But more important than the moves themselves was the process of educating the horse to perform them (and I use the word educate very purposefully–the goal of working with a horse is to teach it to think, to understand, and to work in partnership, not to become a mindless drone).  Dressage training, because it builds the correct muscles and teaches the horse to move in balance, decreases the likelihood of injury.  It teaches the horse and the rider to speak the same language.  Again, the goal is communication, not domination.  So even when the battle moves became archaic, the education process did not.  Dressage is the common core.  All horses learn it to some extent.  The CDI**** (Olympic level) competition is the practical elevated to art: complete harmony between horse and rider.

The second phase, the endurance test, called “cross-country” demands speed, accuracy, courage, and endurance.  At speeds of 570 meters per minute (and often much higher), combinations navigate through a course that winds across several miles (usually around four miles, though long formats can span more than 20).  Two meter drops, water obstacles, narrow fences, and more test the pair’s athleticism, stamina, and bravery.  The stadium jumping consists of a far more tame exercise to test the ability of the horse and rider to spring back and be in top form the next day.  Both of the final phases are also different ways of testing the horse’s and rider’s communication skills–how well they have practiced their dressage.  Riders must know exactly where to push for the long spot to a fence, when to close their legs on the horse’s side and wait.  Horses must be keyed into their rider’s communicative signals (we call them “aids”).  Well executed cross-country is smooth, with horse and rider collecting where necessary and speeding up again without losing any time.    That horses are educated rather than trained, that horse and rider form partnerships becomes clear throughout cross country day.  When a stumble or misstep causes a rider to miss the line they planned to take to a fence, when they slip the reins through their fingers just a little too much or lose a stirrup in the midst of a combination, the horses who are on cue take over and navigate their way safely out of the combination.  As one of my coaches told me, “You should teach a horse to jump well in spite of everything you do, not because of everything you do.”

It’s clearly physical exertion on the part of the horses, but what about the riders?  Here’s a little test you can do.  Go to a wall and “sit” against it.  In other words, bend your knees at a ninety degree angle with your back flat against the wall (but not leaning on it).  How long can you do it?  That’s the equivalent to holding a stable position on horseback across country, and to be fit enough to ride around a Olympic level course, you’ll need to be able to do it for about thirty minutes.  Not included is the exertion of applying your aids (legs, hands, voice, seat, etc.) independently at precisely the right moment, making sure the horse knows to balance, when to speed up, slow down and turn (because although you have walked around the course, the horse has never seen it before).  Many professional riders, who are constantly competing strings of horses for clients, will ride several horses in each competition, sometimes as many as ten.  Riding up to fifteen horses a day during schooling periods is taxing enough.  Multiple horses on cross-country day is exhausting.  Peak physical fitness is key–not just for maximum performance, but to avoid accidents that can–and too often do–cost riders their lives.

The great degree of education on the part of both horse and rider that is necessary to compete at the Olympic level is reflected in the ages of the competitors.  It is rare to see an Olympic gymnast in his or her late twenties.  It is equally rare to see a rider younger than 25 competing at the Olympic games.  The average age of Olympic event riders is in their late thirties.  For those in the pure dressage discipline, the average age is even higher.  Horses are usually in their teens, and rarely younger than 10 (compare that to racehorses whose careers are centered around the ages 2-4).  The sheer amount of time required to produce top riders and horses speaks to the skilled labor and educational process that is required at every step.

Horses and Capitalism

Our relationship with the horse is a fascinating one.  Horses were first a food source for humans, who nearly hunted them to extinction on the Eurasian steppe.  It became necessary to ride horses because they are very fast–the only way to keep up with a herd was to be mounted on part of it–but evidence points to the first domestication of horses as a food source.  After it was discovered how suitable the animal was for riding–both in build and temperament–the horse became used as an instrument of warfare and imperial domination.  They also became used as message carriers.  Heavier built horses were bred as battle steeds.  Lighter horses were used for travel.  They were used as farm animals, but oxen and cattle were often preferred because they were easier to feed (horses, because of their evolution resulting in one stomach, an inability to regurgitate food, and high levels of cecal digestion have notoriously–to the point of cliche–temperamental digestive systems) and had more brute strength.

Industrialization, however, added two new facets to our relationship with the horse.  The first was the presence of horse in cities–places of concentrated population.  The second was the increasing separation between working horses and “luxury” horses.  Changing feed patterns and the need to move more heavy equipment meant that larger and heavier horses were bred for industrial work.  As trolleys, cars, and trains were invented, the group of working travel horses dwindled, meaning lighter horses were concentrated in luxury and sport.  In addition, the movement of population to cities in the early 20th century meant that large numbers of people became alienated from working horses (and the luxury horses from which they had already been alienated by their class status).  Horses and workers were still closely connected–just in smaller numbers.

Capitalism acts in destructive ways on this relationship.  Most people who work with horses genuinely love working with the animals.  They are wonderful creatures with individual personalities.  They respond to interaction with humans positively when it is done correctly.  But capitalism often doesn’t let us.

As described in the section above, it takes time to educate a horse well.  This is in constant conflict with the demands capitalism places upon workers.  We are under constant pressure to get the horse to perform, to achieve x, y, or z.  Much like our education system for kids only favors certain types of intelligence because of the focus on test results, the system for producing horses tends to favor certain types of equine intelligence, while horses with different needs or different talents get written off entirely.  Horses are working animals and they enjoy and respond well to it.  Every horse has a job for which it is well suited.  One might be best as a horse used in a program for people with disabilities or special needs.  Another is suitable as an elite competition horse.  One pony I cared for loved nothing more than helping keep newly weaned foals calm as we slowly began the process of separating them from their mothers.  Ideally, the job of equine professionals would be to match each horse with a job they liked.  Usually, how it works is that an owner brings a horse to us and says, “I need this horse to do x.”  We will not get paid (usually) if we say, “Actually, I think this horse is better suited to this job.”  And since surviving relies on getting paid, we have to do our best to get the horse to be what the owner wants.  This leads to bad training techniques, quick fixes that end up becoming problems later, and–worst of all–unhappy horses and alienated riders.

And back to the Romneys…

So none of this is to say don’t pull punches at the Romneys, but I think if we are really to set about the project of tearing one system down and replacing it with another, we have to be absolutely critically engaged with whatever argument we make.  It is not sufficient to lambaste the Romneys for owning a horse.  The horse is not the problem.  Nor is the sport.  The problem is that horses–which humans have been intimately connected to for thousands of years–should not be a luxury that only the rich have access to.  Equine industry workers should not be ruthlessly exploited so the rich may enjoy some sport.  Horses, and the relaxation, companionship, competitive thrill, and therapeutic alternatives they can provide should be a social resource.  The problem is that the Romneys have $80,000 to spend prepping a world class competition horse while you and I (and most likely the riders, grooms, farriers and farmhands associated with the Romneys’ horse) struggle with paying rent and feeding our families.  The problem is that Mitt Romney has made himself obscenely rich by exploiting all kinds of workers.  You wouldn’t ridicule the workers laid off by Bain Capital, and you shouldn’t ridicule the hard work and skilled labor that is done by equine industry workers either.

  1. One of the most interesting and literate pieces on equine life I’ve read. Bravo!

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