Do you remember when Mounties rode horses on patrol and for ceremonial occasions? Do you remember police horses? New York City has them, but other cities have eliminated them over the years. Horses were once used for everything from garbage collection to milk delivery to emergency response. And they were part of the every day life of the average person.
As our society has adopted the use of high speed and high power vehicles, we have lost the humanizing influence of horses. While many tasks are better accomplished with mechanized vehicles (long haul trucking, carrying of very heavy loads, etc) there are other jobs that truly would have best been left in the realm of horses. Some agricultural tasks, lumbering and logging, lawn mowing, garbage collecting, to name a few. And most of all, a new task, one never identified by our grandparents. Horses are fantastic in their interaction with us. So fantastic that they are an invaluable tool in healing the broken and the sick.
When we take our carriage out we always draw a crowd. And a large part of that crowd is children. And most of those have never seen a horse. Oh they've watched movies, seen pictures, but they have never touched a horse.
When you meet a horse for the first time, especially if you are not familiar with them, that horse can be incredibly intimidating. The horse is large, strong smelling, and unpredictable if you don't know what makes him tick. What DOES make him tick? How does he think?
The first thing to understand is the way horses are in the wild. A horse is a prey animal, to be hunted by cougar (puma), some bears, and other large meat eaters. In Africa, their cousin the Zebra is hunted by crocodiles and lions. So the first thing to understand about a horse is that his SAFETY is always his primary concern. No matter what, he will always take a course of action that makes him feel the most safe.
We have been able to domesticate the horse because we have been able to convince them that they are
safe. No amount of coercion or brutality, fences or food could make a 1,400 lb horse hang out with us if they do not feel safe. They throw their lot in with us because they believe they are safer doing so than not doing so. If they stay in our barns and around our hay feeders nobody will eat them. They never need to worry about a crocodile grabbing their feet or a puma jumping on their backs. And they stay with us because they learn to believe that we will never willingly, never knowingly, lead them into harm.
Once we have earned a horse's trust then we earn his respect. Horse trainers around the world and on the internet can explain this in detail, but suffice it to say here that respect is how we managed to work with our horses to build this country, and other countries like it. In exchange for that feeling of safety, for the feeling that we are strong leaders, horses built our roads, fought our wars, and loved our children (my uncle slept between the feet of one of the family percherons). Because they felt safe and that someone was in control they lent their prodigious strength and their beauty.
One more aspect of horse behaviour: There is a saying among horse people: a dog is to toddlers as horses are to teenagers. Horses are wicked smart. Sometimes I think Duke is smarter than I am. They don't allow us to dominate them because they are stupid. They do it because they are smart. My family, right back to Ireland, knew that. My great grandfather knew that (pictured above with his brown mare and his children).
These are things that I knew as a child (although I sometimes gave adults a turn or two with my attitude). My parents certainly knew, even when very young. My uncle knew he was perfectly safe between the percheron's feet, because he knew that the horse knew he was a child and that he was no threat. And it's a horse's nature to protect the rest of the herd. But many of my generation have no idea, and their children still less.
We have started pitching a program in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. We will bring Duke in for an hour and deliver a lesson about all of the things I have discussed here. We will let the kids see him and know that he is a big placid sweetheart. And he is that way because he feels safe with us. And because he has worked with me enough to know that I don't tolerate nonsense. And because he knows I love him far too much to ever let anything bad happen. I would fight lions.
A Horse in the School aims to give children in cities a small piece of the knowledge we all used to have. Because horses were part of our daily life, we knew how they smelled, how they looked, and how they behaved. We want to provide today's children with some of that knowledge, and to know that it's pretty wonderful. And that horses are a viable alternative and all jobs do not have to be accomplished by tools that poison our environment. Some cities in the U.S., France and England have switched back to horses for garbage collection. We have personally seen Duke warm up to those with physical, emotional and mental illness in ways that took my breath away. Military veterans and other patients struggling with PTSD are being enrolled in horse therapy programs that give them some of the tools to cope with their injuries.
I am not advocating a return to treating horses being treated with no value. Like many other parts of our society once treated cruelly or as disposable, we are finally beginning to recognize, and relate to, horses as partners. What I am advocating is to give children the ability not to make that mistake either. Ignorance breeds contempt. So let's wipe ignorance back off the map before it takes hold again. Let's embrace the Dukes of the world, and the Shannons and the Suzys too. And lets make sure the kids know it.