Horses Have Disappeared from American Life—But They Shouldn’t

Maddy Butcher  /  4 Min Read  /  Culture

Maddy Butcher ponies two horses and rides another in southwestern Colorado. Photo: Beau Gaughran

Some 5,500 years ago in Kazakhstan, there was light bulb moment when man looked at Equus caballus and thought, “Hey, I can ride that thing.”

Since then, we’ve fought wars and built worlds on horses’ backs.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century; Americans have 20 million horses. Every family, on average, has more than one. Folks start and end their days on horseback or on a horse-drawn wagon. For the bulk of its early growth, this country was made categorically better because of horses.

Nearly every American town has vestiges of those horse lives. But carriage houses, hitching posts and post roads have become unremarkable remarks in travel guides. Though they are lauded as American icons and preserved in memes and brands, horses have lost their relevance in everyday function. They are expendable. (Just ask the Unwanted Horse Coalition, in Washington D.C., which estimates that 170,000 horses become “unwanted” every year.)

Horses are disappearing from the world as beasts of burden. They’re still here, of course. But fewer and fewer of them have jobs. If you were to follow a logical course, you’d put horses in museums and zoos.

Horses are already there. The American Museum of Natural History produced The Horse exhibit a decade ago. At the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, horses are on display. Okay, they’re mustangs. But we know that mustangs are domestic horses turned loose from their jobs awhile back.

There are about four million horses in the U.S. now. In the last century, we’ve made mammoth advances. We get places faster. We do things more quickly. Yet, we are not necessarily healthier and happier. Research shows what we’ve been shedding is valuable, even essential to our well-being.

Time outside. Time with animals. They are key factors in crafting a vibrant life.

Research shows horses may be the most effective “feel good” animals. Indeed, the number of horse-related therapeutic centers is steadily increasing. This burgeoning community is helping to successfully repurpose horses from beasts of burden to Beasts of Being. 

What we horse owners know as horse time is being rebranded as equine therapy, equine-assisted learning, equine-facilitated therapy, etc. These various entities have discovered what we’ve always known, but perhaps taken for granted: Hanging around horses makes you feel good.

There are two reasons why this is so.

Imagine you’re standing by a horse, with one arm draped over its back. Listen to its breathing. Place your face in its mane and smell that musky, pleasing scent. Feel heat radiating from its thousand-pound body. Put your ear to the belly and listen to its incessant gurgling. Watch the eyes and ears. Those ears swivel independently; one might be on you, while the other might point toward the wind. Those eyes are the biggest in the mammalian world and the horses’ field of vision is expansive, about 300 degrees.

If you let yourself, it’s easy to become immersed in the horse’s presence. And that’s the point. Immersion is therapeutic.

Maddy works with her friend’s filly on public land near her home. Photo: Beau Gaughran

Maddy works with her friend’s filly on public land near her home. Photo: Beau Gaughran

The second explanation is that engaging with horses for any prolonged period of time becomes an earned partnership. With horses, we learn about respect, trust, consistency and boundaries. It’s very much a two-way deal and, therefore, it’s more valuable. It’s a relationship that’s harder to obtain and maintain than one with a dog or a cat.

The qualities of horse time also make it more effective than gardening, listening to music or scores of other activities marketed to address one’s well-being.

The realization and growth of horses as effective therapists is not unlike that moment, eons ago, when Kazakhs considered the domestication of horses for the first time.

Now, in the 21st century, horses are being upcycled. They are transitioning from livestock to listeners. We horsewomen and men widely undersell the psychological benefits of our equine partners. Who has time to natter on about this touchy-feely stuff when there are trails to ride, cows to move, hay to haul? We—the ones steeped in this life, with sore backs, stinky clothes, no vacation days and slim wallets—are the first to roll our eyes when hearing about yet another “incredible, life-changing encounter” at one of those therapy outfits.

If you lived in the Himalayas, would you ooh-and-ahh at the mountains every day?

But just as ranchers and mountain bikers are hitching their wagons for conservation efforts, horse owners need to partner with this new, growing population. Let them relabel horse time as “therapy.” That’s okay, I say.

Horses need these new jobs. If they’re already ending up in zoos and museums and if cowboys and hunters are swapping them for quads, what lies ahead for our beloved equines? What I’m suggesting is that we take a hard look at where we’ve been and we’re going as a society. Let’s make sure horses are in it. As Guan Zhong, a Chinese politician and scholar who lived from 725-645 BC, wrote:

We can use the wisdom of an old horse.
Release the old horses and follow them,
And thereby reach the right road.

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