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What is the purpose of horse sports in the modern era?

by John Royce | In the decade following World War II, American farmers traded their horses for tractors, retiring over 20 million working animals. In the rush to ‘modernize’ we threw overboard things we may yet need … and as we now know, mechanization of the farm didn’t stop with eliminating horses.

Yet a surprising thing happened on the way to horse obsolescence. At the historic moment of crisis in our ancient partnership, new sports with new challenges were discovered that have kept horses in our world.

The Wide, Wide World of Equestrian Sport

A variety of equestrian (horse) sports thrive today, from racing and driving competitions to barrel racing, dressage, eventing, endurance, polo, show jumping and many more. The world horse population is currently estimated at about 59 million … with 9.2 million in the USA alone, according to 2005 studies by the American Horse Council. [1] The same studies indicate that over 70% of American horses are used in sports, recreation and showing, and that some 4.6 million Americans are involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees and volunteers.

We all know buggy whips were a casualty of the massive transition from using horses in farm work and transportation to sports and recreation … but other industries of horsemanship survived the upheaval and new segments have emerged.

What the horse does under compulsion is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.―Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC)

This enormous retooling of horsemanship was made possible by the spread of new equestrian sports and recreation–and horses are generally better off for the change.

Competition rewards the highest forms of horsemanship, which are necessarily based on humane practices. The best performance in equestrian sports is achieved through some level of partnership, for horses perform better as willing participants: abuse works against athletic success. Though no human endeavor is without poor behavior by some, horse sports give advantage to humane treatment that animal-lovers of all kinds can support.

Horse sports are also People sports

In a world of shrinking resources and increasing human population, decisions must be made about which activities can be sustained. At some point the question must be asked and hopefully well-answered: What is the value of horse sports to society?

Horse sports provide a structure for keeping horses healthy and well in today’s economy. From agriculture to breeding farms to tack shops, vet clinics, stables, arenas and pastures, with goods ranging from machinery and feed to saddlery and clothes–equestrian sports and recreation drive a myriad of businesses and professions. Competitive riding supports millions of horses, not only through top competition but by inspiring newcomers to watch and take part. Sports at all levels fuel enthusiasm and focus investment … a very good thing for the animal, for it has been coldly proven that people will not care for horses they have no ‘use’ for.

So when we talk about the value of horse sports to society, we are really talking about the value of keeping horses in society. The economies of scale that make horse-keeping possible for the broader public depend on wide involvement encouraged by sports and related recreation. And now, several decades after the loss of farming horses, we have perspective for a new conversation about the value of horses to humans today and in the future.

Horses in our Midst: the Benefits

Horsemanship includes human passion and much of its value to mankind is ethereal, spiritual, a quality that can never be ‘obsolete.’ However, though experienced enthusiasts may justify horse-keeping solely by the romantic and metaphysical experiences offered by horses–the endless discovery, the calming peace of a gentle ride, a child’s delight, connection with a different kind of being–the uninitiated may not share that knowledge or outlook. Fortunately there is much more that can be said about the value of horses in addition to intangible experience. Today we can look at objective, time-proven reasons that are more evident now than they were a hundred years ago.

History and Tradition

We can start at our own beginning by remembering that watching horses is older than civilization. The fascination the animal held for primitive humanity is revealed in ancient cave paintings. To watch a horse in motion fills a unique place in our hearts: it is one of our most ancient pastimes and one that both excites and satisfies.

Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it.―John Trotwood Moore (1858-1929)

Equestrian sports give us the opportunity to carry on mankind’s foundational tradition of horse-watching–a practice which cannot be replaced, for nothing else is quite the same.

The roots of practical horsemanship intertwine with the very beginnings of human society sometime around 3500 BC–give or take a thousand years or so–arriving with the earliest stirrings of civilization in the same period as the first known settlements in Mesopotamia and the invention of writing. [2] The world we live in was first made with actual horsepower; our basic consciousness was formed to rhythms of the horse. Preserving horsemanship keeps tradition for its most elemental purpose: to keep the forge lit.

Horse sports work toward higher achievement in one of society’s oldest technologies which, like the equally-ancient craft of writing, is yet alive and seeking instances of perfection. Centuries of ritual and custom overlay the teachings of horsemanship: to practice the equestrian arts is a visceral act of remembering and honoring what has gone before, preserving ties to what has proven successful for mankind.

Because horses are themselves living history, they serve as an entry point to the story of civilization. Even the most modern equestrian sports echo the past. Learning about horses is to learn about where we came from. By honoring history, we also learn we are part of a bigger story, one that extends into the future. This perspective can only become more important for mankind.

Nature and Community

In horses we find a direct connection with the natural world: equus is a much older species than mankind, and their basic nature has not been changed through human contact. Though technically meeting a definition of ‘domesticated,’ horses are more usefully thought of as ‘tamed’ because equines retain full instincts and can instantly return to living in the wild. As the thread to their origins remain unbroken, horses connect us authentically to the natural world. Horses reassure mankind we are not alone in the world, and also give a visible reminder we are not as superior in all ways as we may wish to believe. This humbling, tangible reality holds value for mankind who, we must admit, holds limitless capacity to create mental cocoons of self-contained omnipotence. Human society needs an anchor to reality the horse naturally supplies.

Horses connect people with each other though the basic diplomacy of common interests. Virtually all successful cultures have equestrian traditions, for horsemanship was a survival skill as well as a cultural spring. Wherever horsemanship has been celebrated, human culture flourishes. Whether in spectacle, celebration, pageantry or sport, equestrian activities are one of the few universal cultural traditions of all times and places.

Besides providing a common interest between cultures, horses help create community within society too. Wherever the horse has graced human celebration–whether in parades, on fairgrounds or sporting fields–the result has been people from different levels of society coming together with industrious goodwill. Horse sports provide an engine for creating occasions to renew wholesome community, a time-honored experience that may well have importance for our future.

Economics and jobs

The community-creating aspect of horse sport leads to a surprising variety and volume of economic activity. To an amazing degree, horses offer a variety of opportunities for exchange: saddlery and equipment and feed and facility production are just broad categories of the vast number of commercial services fostered by horse activities. Maintenance and management of everything from hayfields to stable care to the competition itself require services that create jobs.

In addition to economic development provided by raw production and management are the many specialized careers involved: veterinarians, farriers (horse-shoers), grooms, farmers, riders, breeders, and trainers are all professions requiring differing skills unique to the horse industry … and which are used heavily in equestrian sport.

Horses have been a sign of status throughout the ages. A noble proxy for wealth, the animal grants unique honor and prestige to its patrons both through its beauty and exploits. By providing a setting in which the intangible value offered by horses can be sponsored for the public, sponsors can also be honored in honest celebration. Equestrian activities provide one of mankind’s most ancient and positive economic transfers of money through patronage and can temper some of the harshest edges of inequality. In a world of growing inequality such “luxury transfer” mechanisms are still important and useful.

Education

Horsemanship was considered a foundation subject of a good education in ancient times, both for its physical teachings and its lessons of character. The horse teaches the habits of sound leadership such as facing fears, taking responsibility and making plans, because the animal relies on humans to be leaders. The teaching of horsemanship is an original form of education; its facilities are even called (and thought of as) schools.

They say Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.
―Ben Jonson (1572-1637) English playright/actor

Horses also provide a much-needed grounding lesson in empathy for the boundless human ego. Humility, patience and discretion are developed in the kind of partnering horsemanship needed for success in competition. As our era becomes ever more alienated from nature and more automated to respond instantly upon demand, the necessary skills of competitive horsemanship can serve as a touchstone to develop and maintain the crucial social skill of empathy.

Horses prosper according to our leadership on every dimension, ranging from giving a good ride over a jump to providing food and veterinary care. Success in horse sports depend upon this comprehensive leadership, making the challenge of horse sports an authentic test of leadership. Modern equestrian sports evolved with the understanding it was a test of military officers. Through horse sports our most ancient and authentic test of leadership survives.

Horse riding and care provide a traditional, time-tested setting for youth development. There is a special passion within many youth for experience with horses, and children and teens of all ages have long been known to benefit from this involvement. As mentioned above, horsemanship was a foundation of classical education because it imparts the ability to lead at a practical level. Since the earliest pharaohs inspired poetry for their skill in chariot archery contests, equestrian sport has been the universal sport of leaders … horse sports that were once restricted to an elite ‘ruling class’ of nobility, today welcome citizens from all walks of life to participate. The noble skills still have value, and horse sports are a classic tool to develop and test them. The life experience and time-honored lessons gained by taking part in equestrian education and sport during youth give a lifetime of benefit.

New roles as healers and guides

Today we are becoming more aware of the need for the kind of sustainable practices that horse care promotes. As a living, grass-eating animal with sensitive digestion, the horse thrives best in a natural, non-toxic environment … as we learn to meet this demand and develop healthier methods, in caring for horses we care for ourselves.

Horses have always surprised us with a renewing spirit of change and advancement. Equestrian sports themselves are an example: new humane equestrian sports emerged just as the horse’s everyday work use in society ended. Throughout history the horse’s role has changed, from food to chariots to cavalry to the plow: many cultures have gone extinct for the mistake of believing horsemanship was static and complete. Change and adaptation in horse husbandry, training or equipment has often assisted with leaps forward in civilized progress–surely the horse has the potential for even more roles. Horse sports promote quality horsemanship and offer a foundation for new developments.

Today we are seeing more evidence of a new role for horses in therapy and rehabilitation of the human mind and body. There are several different areas of treatment, and more information is being discovered as these methods find greater adoption:

  • In equine medical therapy, the horse’s motion simulates walking and offers unique treatments for disabling conditions such as Muscular Dystrophy (MS).
  • There are groundbreaking psychological benefits of handicapped riding to ‘having legs’ while mounted … to being equal to anyone else in the saddle.
  • Equine-assisted emotional healing from trauma and injury is a recent field exploding with exciting new and ongoing discoveries.
  • Prisons and juvenile correction programs have found horses to be an excellent tool of rehabilitation by teaching bonding and responsibility, while offering a relationship based on trust.
  • New research is showing the horse is a unique motivator for abused and under-privileged individuals to find connection and explore new relationships and emotions with another living creature.

Concluding with a final intangible reason to preserve horses in society is the unique capacity of horses to foster recreation of ourselves and connection with the world. Even in our mechanized age, the saddle remains the spiritual throne of mankind. Being around horses and appreciating our ancient partner’s athleticism, beauty, grace, and humility creates a spiritual atmosphere that inspires and refreshes the human spirit. Horses helped civilize mankind and still bring us back to ourselves. With equestrian sport and recreation, we have the tools to keep the ancient partnership that helped create our world not only alive but thriving into the foreseeable future.

Fulfilling the Trust

Horses have always been more than they seem, and never yield their full benefits to the easiest, most obvious opinion. Horsemanship is a social and societal good, and there are a number of reasons to preserve horses in man’s future, from the practical, no-nonsense economic benefits to education, youth development and soulful, spiritually nurturing forms of healing and discovery. The almost miraculous fact of horses flourishing in our technological age gives rare and needed tribute to something good in mankind … fulfilling the trust the horse put in us so long ago.

The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France contains some of the earliest known cave paintings  (c. 30,000 BC), including the "Horse Panel" with four horse heads drawn in different equine attitudes. Wikimedia / Public Domain

The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France contains some of the earliest known cave paintings (c. 30,000 BC), including the “Horse Panel” with four horse heads drawn in different equine attitudes. Wikimedia / Public Domain

 
Greek black-figure vase of a horse race (c. 500 BC) User: Walters Art Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

5th Century BC Greek black-figure vase of a horse race. Walters Art Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 
One of the 'Marly Horses' replicating the famous 'Horse Tamers' 4th century Roman scuptures, themselves a copy of an earlier Greek original. Carrara marble, 1739-1745. Commissioned in 1739 for the park of the castle of Marly. | Miniwark / Wikimedia Commons /  CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the ‘Marly Horses’ inspired by the famous ‘Horse Tamers’ (4th century) Roman sculptures, which were themselves a copy of an earlier Greek original. Miniwark / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

 
A piece of The Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner (c.1882), at Circus Maximus, Rome.  © User: SWANClothing / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-2.0

A section of The Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner (c.1882) at Circus Maximus, Rome. © User: SWANClothing / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-2.0

 
The Huns, led by Attila, invade Italy (c. 443 AD) from "Attila, the Scourge of God" by Ulpiano Checa [Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV by John Lord]  Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Huns, led by Attila, invade Italy (c. 443 AD) from “Attila, the Scourge of God” by Ulpiano Checa [Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV by John Lord] Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 
Byzantine miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes, 12th century, depicting a scene of victorious Byzantine troops ("νίκη Ρωμαίων") pursuing Bulgarians ("τροπή Βουλγάρων"), in the context of the Battle of Pliska, 811. Wikimedia / Public Domain

Byzantine miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes, 12th century, depicting a scene of victorious Byzantine troops (“νίκη Ρωμαίων”) pursuing Bulgarians (“τροπή Βουλγάρων”), in the context of the Battle of Pliska, 811. Wikimedia / Public Domain

 
Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from Ellesmere Manuscript, an early 15th Century published version of the Canterbury Tales.  Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from Ellesmere Manuscript, an early 15th Century published version of the Canterbury Tales. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Whistlejacket is an oil-on-canvas painting from about 1762 by British artist George Stubbs showing the Marquess of Rockingham's racehorse, rearing up against a blank background. The huge canvas, lack of other features, and Stubbs' attention to the minute details of the horse's appearance give the portrait a powerful physical presence.	| Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Whistlejacket is an oil-on-canvas painting from about 1762 by British artist George Stubbs showing the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse. | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 
Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890—1907) Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain {PD-Art|PD-old-100}

Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890—1907) Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain {PD-Art|PD-old-100}

 
A break away! (1891, oil on canvas). It depicts a scene in the late 19th century. A herd of sheep is being moved by drovers through a parched landscape in search of water and green pastures. Smelling water, the thirsty sheep stampede downhill towards a dam, as one drover tries desperately to turn them around and save them from being crushed and drowned. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A break away! (1891, oil on canvas). It depicts a scene in the late 19th century. A herd of sheep is being moved by drovers through a parched landscape in search of water and green pastures. Smelling water, the thirsty sheep stampede downhill towards a dam, as one drover tries desperately to turn them around and save them from being crushed and drowned. | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 
Horse racing in Mauritius - Maiden cup 2006 at Champ de Mars | © User:Wikihamish / Wikimeda / CC BY-SA 3.0

Horse racing in Mauritius – Maiden cup 2006 at Champ de Mars | © User:Wikihamish / Wikimeda / CC BY-SA 3.0

 
Christian Ahlmann riding Codex One GER, highest placed German Team rider. | © Kit Houghton/FEI

Christian Ahlmann riding Codex One for Germany, the highest placed German Team rider. | © Kit Houghton/FEI

 
Therapeutic horseback riding horse show, Císařský ostrov, Prague, Czech Republic | ©user:karakal / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Therapeutic horseback riding horse competition, Císařský ostrov, Prague, Czech Republic | © User:karakal / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

 

image of child

Horse sports help keep horses healthy and happy
for future generations. | (photo credit unknown)

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[1] The American Horse Council is a national non-profit organization working to ensure the horse industry works together in Washington to accomplish our ultimate goal of “Keeping Opportunities Open” for the industry. [back to top]

[2] The writing of language is thought to have begun in ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. Wikipedia, “The History of Writing”   [back to top]