hen McLain Ward gave his acceptance speech for the USEF Equestrian of the Year award, he spoke on eloquently a number of topics - from the mentors who have shaped his riding, to his father’s influence and that of his young family, to the longstanding members of his team who have made it all possible.
But for many listening, the most inspiring words Ward said that day were about his lifelong gratitude to his partners, horses themselves:
“Without the horse, none of this would be possible. We owe them our lives. They give us so much and ask only for basic kindness in return. I believe that horses and humans have a connection that draws us to each other. I believe, in their own way, they know we need them, and they are pleased to be our partner, whether it be in work or sport. We need to remember never to take advantage of this privilege of working and living with horses for granted. To never lose our appreciation for what they have given us throughout the history of time, and to be sure that their relevance in our society does not fade away. This is our greatest responsibility as equestrians.”
For most of us who have spent decades and even lifetimes in the company of horses, the sentiment Ward expresses comes as no surprise. For hundreds of thousands of years, horses have been our companions on a hostile and unforgiving planet. First, as a food source, and then, gradually, as our domesticated partners in farming, war, transportation, and eventually, in sport. We needed them, and eventually, we bred and trained them to need us. But as anyone who loves a horse will tell you, ours is a relationship that far transcends the boundaries of necessity. In fact, it has from the very beginning.
Is it coincidence, for example, that the subject of prehistoric cave art and sculptural motifs are so heavily dominated by equines? The ancient peoples of the world, it seems, were so entranced by the distinctive beauty and characteristics of the horse that they chose to immortalize it, above countless other plants and animals, in the artwork they would leave behind for future generations to discover.
Is it any wonder that, so many millennia later, horses are one of only two animal species (dogs being the second) to have the proven ability to read human facial expressions? And, if horses have learned to understand our emotions, to relax at our grins and tense in fear at our furrows of frustration, should we be surprised that, as Ward says, they’ve also learned to ask “only for basic kindness in return?”
Or perhaps horses put such stock in kindness because it is a value they understand so well themselves.
More and more as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to expect less from people. But the unfailing generosity of horses never ceases to amaze me. Watching Aaron Vale’s Finou 4, with only one seeing eye, gallop boldly over a towering, 6-foot-plus puissance wall at the Washington Horse Show. Or the aged school pony who gamely waits for his 30-pound passenger to bounce back into the tack before cantering off to the next cross-rail. My own horse, standing stock-still on a 10-degree, no-turnout-day as I fumbled and then flailed trying to (stupidly) climb onto him bareback when it was too cold to ride. I would have bucked me off, no questions asked.
What is it that keeps them standing still for us, blindly jumping to the other side for us, striving each day to understand and confront whatever it is we ask of them—all for a scratch on the neck, and maybe, if they’re lucky, a carrot or two back in the barn? McLain has it right when he says that working and living with horses is a privilege we should never take for granted. But it’s to our benefit too.
Horses teach us about respect, hard work, dealing with disappointment, and of course, love. The lesson they teach the best, though, is also the one they ask of us in return: to be kind, to be generous, to give unconditionally. And wow, do we have a lot of ground to make up.
When I think about all the horses I’ve known in my life, some have been braver, scopier, or better at their jobs than others. They have come in varying shades of affectionate, patient, playful, stubborn, hot, dull, and wise. But every single one of them has been kind. We may need them, and they us, but maybe it’s what we can learn from horses that’s their greatest gift. Maybe that’s what somehow, we’ve known all along.