Sad Horse Stories

By Dan Sumerel

All too often we read some ‘sad horse story’ in a magazine like this one about a mistreated horse that had a miserable existence until rescued by someone to a better life. It may be an older horse that had been giving his all, until abandoned by some irresponsible owner. Or even a young horse, which had people with little understanding of horses (and a lot of ‘experts’ can fall into that category) running his life, when it all started going wrong. Or perhaps the horse whose physical problem went on and on without resolution and was ready to be put down because the money involved didn’t add up. These ‘sad horse stories’ are all too common, far more common than most of us realize. For the past six years I have seen and sometimes been involved in situations like these, and believe me, they are out there in droves. Whenever we read a ‘sad horse story’ in a magazine, we cry and feel all warm and fuzzy inside as we read how the current owner has saved the poor animal and how happy they both are now. The happy ending is usually the result of someone who was willing to go an extra mile, to do what’s best for the animal. I rejoice every time I read a story like that myself. Nice, but… I’d like you to take a minute to realize that perhaps we shouldn’t merely be satisfied with the happy ending to the story. We should not be so quick to rejoice at the reversal of some horrific situation. Perhaps we should be doing something to prevent these situations in the first place!

There are many ways that horses are forced to suffer at human hands, but ignorance on the part of the human is the most common factor in them all. And please remember, when a horse is suffering, the fact that the owner didn’t ‘mean to hurt the horse’ doesn’t make the horse hurt any less! Most of the stories mentioned above fit one of two categories: 1) physically abused or neglected animals and 2) animals that developed a behavioral problem and were passed from owner to owner, or trainer to trainer, as their reputation for ‘hard to handle’ spread. Both situations include a great deal of suffering on the part of the horse at the hands of some human, and often the result is an early end to what should have been a long, rich life for the horse. Each scenario requires its own solution and will necessitate people doing something they often resist, taking action. I feel it is time we became more willing to get involved, even if it means possible criticism from those involved.

Anytime a horse is being physically abused or neglected it is the responsibility of every humane person, horse lover or not, to contact the appropriate authorities and make them aware of the situation. Sadly it may also be necessary for individuals to follow up and be sure that the authorities do their job and intervene as needed. This is always a difficult situation and current laws often restrict the action of the authorities in intervening for the welfare of the animal. Many times when I see the ever dramatic ‘before and after’ photos in one of these articles, I ask myself, “How did it ever get that bad without somebody noticing?” True, the last thing I want is the “Animal Police” going into every farm to inspect how each of us treat our horses, but we should be more observant. Some of you might criticize me because my horses do not come in at night, and have ALL their natural hair in place. But I would remind you that for fifty million years, they lived quite well that way, before we ever got involved. The problem here is how do we define abuse? Or neglect?

We have all lost our tempers at some time and probably done something to a horse we shouldn’t. But the test for abuse can be that most of us immediately KNEW we shouldn’t have done it, felt badly and probably even apologized to the horse for our actions! That’s not abuse, it’s a human emotional reaction. Usually based in frustration. Frustration can be best remedied by education. Not what we’d like to see, but not something we should be crucified for either. Most of us would be dead. What I’m talking about here as abuse is when people willingly do things to horses that cause the horse to suffer. And continue doing it. With no regret. Usually for reasons evolving around money and ego. One situation I can relay to you took place a few years back when I was lecturing at a major show. I had been in the barn very late, BioScanning a couple of horses and on my way out noticed two horses with halters on, in their stalls with their noses tied almost straight up! I looked around, but didn’t see anyone nearby. After a few minutes search, I went in and retied the horses in a normal position. I knew what they were doing with this ‘training technique’ and I find it deplorable. As I left the stall, the trainers walked up and aggressively asked ‘What the hell I was doing?’ I politely replied that I was lucky to have happened by, since some idiot had tied their horses’ heads way up, and when I couldn’t find anyone around, I knew you’d want to fix it, so I did. The trainer persisted in his nasty tone, warning me to never touch another show horse of theirs again or they’d call the sheriff on me. I politely responded that I understood, but they should be more careful with who thy DO let handle their horses, as I could have taken Polaroids and presented them to the show steward, the SPCA, and the sheriff. And that would have reflected on them as trainers! Now you and I both know that those folks will most likely just be more careful in how the ‘train’ their horses, but if more people were willing to sacrifice a win, or risk a ‘scene’, and not be afraid to speak up within the system to question the judging, it might start to change. People like that only do what they can get away with.

Make no mistake, I am NOT a member of any animal rights organization. There are numerous groups that insist that those of us who ‘ride’ horses are abusing them and they should all be set free to roam the land as they did before we got here. Times change, we humans are here, and there is not much chance we are going away soon. We are also not likely to give North America back to the Indians either. And we do love our horses! Also, I can tell you many times I have seen a horse doing something with a person on its back, and I know by its enthusiasm and the look in its eyes, it is NOT suffering! In fact the horse is having FUN! What some people do with their horses, is definitively what I call abuse, but most people/horse relationships do not fit into that grouping. The extreme animal rights groups with unrealistic agendas do more to alienate the public than to enlighten them. Compassion cannot be legislated but tolerance to the lack of compassion cannot be allowed by those with a conscience. Actions speak louder than words.

The second category listed above is far more common yet much easier to relieve. Most behavior problems with horses start out as minor situations that, due to poor understanding and ineffective correction techniques, can escalate the very situation meant to be changed. In other words, most horse behavior problems (from horses that are simply hard to lead or trailer load, to horses that resist lifting their feet or standing to be mounted, all the way to the dangerous bucking, striking or bolting type of behaviors) are not based in the horse but rather are based in the misconceptions of the people handling them! In our eagerness to ride, we tend to cut-to-the-chase and take riding lessons. And everywhere you go you can find riding training for any style of riding you may desire. Yet, few people have taken the time to learn to truly understand the very nature of the animal they so love and develop a relationship with that animal before they get on. An animal that has evolved for 50 million years to become the horse we have today. An animal whose nature runs so contrary to the way we humans think and act. Our logic doesn’t work with them! So applying our logic to solve their problems is mostly ineffective. The only reason that many people succeed with horses at all is often because of the incredible ability of the horse to adapt to us. And we are so quick to blame the horse when we can’t solve a problem behavior. A bad reputation is easy to get and hard to beat. Then we always have that easy-out option, sell the horse. The next unaware owner starts off in trouble and doesn’t even know it! We are always willing to blame the horse, make it his fault, and solve our dilemma by replacing the horse. If we would be more willing to accept responsibility for the horse, and hence the way he is, then we could be more willing to try to LEARN what we didn’t know, so we can address the problem and help the horse. Not unlike the way we change marital partners today. I am not saying you shouldn’t sell a horse, I even recommend it to clients often. But I know people that change horses like I change underwear. Think of that instability from the horse's point of view.

So what’s the solution to the scenario above? Understanding. A wise man once said, “If you wish to be understood, first seek to understand.” We don’t do that with horses. We grab the rope and insist they do as we demand. If we study the nature of the horse in order to truly understand him and his way of thinking, we can then become more effective in influencing his behavior. Not by using force or depending on equipment (bits, spurs, lead chains etc.) but by effective communication. But we often try to communicate with the horse without having much understanding of what’s natural to him. Most of the ‘sad horse stories’ we see are based in ignorance, even more than ill will. The first step in changing things is to increase our own awareness of what is OK for the horse. In my book, FINDING THE MAGIC, I use the word normal 161 times. And it is in italics every time it appears in the book. Not that everything we consider normal is bad, that’s not true at all. But if we accept everything that’s normal without a challenge, it’s the horses that will suffer. And nothing will change. And we will continue to read ‘sad horse stories’. Remember, the trainer that tied the horses’ heads up in the stall considers that normal! Do you?

A few years ago I bought the wrong horse. He reared, ran away with me, wouldn’t stand still, and so on. I spent many months trying conventional tactics to control him. I did all the ‘normal’ things, with no success. Then I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a way of handling and training horses that was outside the ‘normal’. It was natural to the horse and oh so foreign to me. But it worked. As I learned, I began to change along with the horse. And my life has not been the same since. That has now become my business. For several years now I have been lecturing across the US and Australia, as well as teaching this approach to hundreds and hundreds of people. Some were beginners, some had horrific problems and some were champions simply looking to improve their horse’s performance to even greater levels. The results have been astounding! Results achieved not from what I did, but what the owners did with what I taught them. If you’d like to learn more you can attend one of my Weekend Workshops, or read my new book, FINDING THE MAGIC. It will make you laugh and make you cry, but it will change forever the way you handle your horse. And that will be fun for you both!

For more information:

Dan Sumerel

Sumerel Training System


24 Mulberry Circle

Lynchburg, VA 24502

About the author:

Dan Sumerel is a lecturer, author and trainer, known across the US and Australia for his ability to help people solve problems with their horses. His lectures are usually packed at horse shows everywhere and his workshops have helped people change the behavior in horses of every breed and discipline around. He has worked with beginners to world champions, addressing both physical and behavioral conditions. Dan's new book, Finding The Magic, was already in its second printing after just 100 days on the market.