Kindness and knowledge equals good horsemanship

At Harrogate, we have always had this mission statement…that the kindest treatment of the horse is gained through knowledge.

It is something we so fervently believe and happily for us, the vast majority of students who come through our doors believe it too.

I remember when I was growing up, I really didn’t have a sense for what cruelty to animals was, particularly as it pertained to horses. I read Black Beauty when I was at a young, impressionable age and I guess I defined cruelty by what I learned in Anna Sewell’s book.

It took me a long time to realize that thankfully for the most part horses, at least in the west, are no longer subjected to that kind of punishment.

And yet over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that horses are still often mistreated but now it is most likely to be by people who love them but just don’t seem to know any better.

We no longer use horses to transport us and our goods, plow our fields, or carry our armaments and soldiers into warzones.

Now, for the most part, we use horses for recreational purposes.

In a way, that makes the mistreatment of our horses almost more morally reprehensible. There is really no excuse.

An educated rider and handler makes the horse’s life better and for the rider, the benefits of understanding the horse can make the sport safer for the rider.

The handling of horses, their care, and how to ride and train them should not be a lost art. If we take on the challenge to ride and care for horses, I think we owe it to the horse to do it as well as possible. By striving for excellence in everything we do, not only do we develop our own character and resilience, I believe we can also make the world a better place for horses in the process. Given all they give to us, I think we owe them that.

(Maggie and Toby a ‘few’ years ago)

Horses for the soul.


I think horses are good for the soul.

I am not sure how that is, or why it feels that way, I just know that, for many of us, it’s true.

Sometimes I wonder if it is because they are ‘in the moment’ all the time, and require us to be present as well.

Perhaps it is simply their persistent honesty in all their interactions with us.

The horse seeks relationships as a herd animal and since we seek that too, finding that connection with something so close to nature seems to have a healing affect as well.

But every now and again over the years we will see something that suggests there is an energy that surrounds horses…an energy that is an almost mythical mix of great power and great gentleness. And this energy can have a remarkable affect.

For example, once we had a little autistic boy come to the farm when we were having an Open House. His mother asked if her son could have a ride and so we set him up with a helmet and proper shoes.

But it was then that the trouble began. Upon seeing the horses, he began to scream, loud, irrational screams. His mother was apologetic but still hoped her son could calm down long enough to sit on a horse.

We removed the more excitable types of horses from the arena and chose Decks for the young boy to ride.

You could see a mild apprehension in Decks as the screaming child drew nearer but there was also a flicker of understanding. It is not something I can really can put my finger on but it was a clear enough signal from Decks that we decided to risk lifting the little boy onto the horse.

Decks stood quietly, saint that he is, as the wailing child sank into the saddle.

And then, all that ear-piercing noise stopped and suddenly there was silence.

With rapt focus, the little boy reached forward and gently touched Deck’s shoulder. Then he began to stroke Decks, gently and silently.

I can’t remember if we led him around or if the act of sitting on the horse was enough for him. All I know is, that for that moment in time, that little boy felt something from Decks that calmed him down, some connection or aura that at least temporarily removed his anguish.

I hope the mother of the boy pursued this therapy for her son because the transformation was miraculous.

It was one of those experiences that even now can make me feel a bit weepy.

Horses can heal. They are good for the soul.

A purpose for everything…

Well October 30 marked a bit of an anniversary and as luck would have it, I got back to Toronto in time to at least acknowledge it.

In 2009, on October 30, Bandit made the decision to live at Harrogate.

          (Bandit, day one.)

I say that Bandit made the decision because I was very clear in my mind that I did not have the time or the need for another dog. My wonderful Kila had passed away in 2000 and since I knew there could never be another dog like her, I just wasn’t interested.

This did not seem to deter Bandit in the least. In that wonderfully stubborn Border Collie way, he had decided he wanted to live on a farm and so he had set out to arrange exactly that.

And exactly as I expected, he was NOTHING like Kila.

While Kila was laid back and effortlessly friendly to everyone, Bandit from the get go was intense, driven, and a little over protective. I could point at horses and Kila would run towards them but on a softly spoken word, she would drop the chase and immediately come back.

You may have noticed that this is not a skill Bandit has acquired.

Although he has, (for the most part) given up sneaking out to the ditch so that he can chase passing cars, his passion for herding up the horses continues even though he is now 12. He has heard the word “NO!” so often that he probably thinks it is a pet name I have for him.

Interestingly, as I was reminded of again this past week, Bandit is the perfect farm dog when I am not at the farm. For whatever reason, in my absence, he doesn’t seem compelled to ‘help’. Turning out the horses and bringing them back in can be a peaceful process when I am not here. Bandit merely lies in the sun, silently supervising.

But when I arrive he goes into overdrive, madly herding up anything that moves. Someone suggested that Bandit feels he has to work for me but the dog also knows I can’t play soccer with him until the horses are attended to. It is entirely possible he might just be trying to speed up the process.

Had we started our journey together a bit earlier, when I had more time to put into our ‘relationship’, things might have gone a little smoother. He is definitely intelligent but I think that is part of what has made him the most challenging dog I have ever known.

I think everything and everyone comes into our lives to teach us something and I am sure that is the case with Bandit. Some days I am not too clear on the lesson but I’m sure there must be one.

One thing I do know is that as he enters his twilight years, struggling a little more with his kidney disease, I am starting to have to consciously fight off feelings of impending sadness. I look at him and I see the intense joy he brings to every opportunity, whether it’s playing with his soccer ball or chasing scents on our walks in the field.

In those moments, I think I know what I am meant to learn.

Does he drive me insane?


But it doesn’t mean I’ll miss him any less when the time comes.