It’s the season of giving. Christmas wish lists have been drafted and edited for weeks, of not months by now. The time of year when anything seems possible, whether you are willing to place your faith in the white-gloved hands of an overweight, bearded, man in a red suit, or not. I’m not going to lie (and risk being put back on the naughty list, we have a love hate relationship), a new horse has been at the top of every wish list I’ve had for a few years now. I don’t even need a holiday or occasion, call it Happy Tuesday if you need a reason, just gimmee.
The reason that wish goes ungranted, at least for me, is financial. I know not only what it costs to buy a horse, but more importantly, what it costs to keep one (and coincidentally, that I don’t have that kind of bankroll these days). Kids on the other hand, may not have that kind of reasoning. I certainly never did. They may have a general understanding of there being an exchange of money for said horse, or dog, or whatever the desired furry, four-legged object of desire may be, but outside of that, it is well over their tiny heads, and it should be, ‘cause they’re kids, and they have the rest of their lives to figure out how much their happiness will depend, at least in part, on money.
If you ever want to hear countless horror stories about people with good intentions, and bad thinking-things-through skills, work in a tack or pet store. You will essentially hear the same story, over and over, with different details, and they all end badly. Child declares they want a horse/dog/cat/whatever, parent, in desire to please child, rushes out to acquire said animal, brings it home, and calamity ensues.
Stage one, the Honeymoon Period-
Child and new animal are in love. Perhaps you lucked out as a parent, and located an animal with a more generous heart than expected, who is tolerant, and simply appreciative of the attention. Child spends every available moment with animal, revels in taking care of it, shows it off to everyone. Animal basks in the glow of being put on a pedestal.
Stage two, Settling-
Child and animal have spent enough time together now to actually know a little about the other. Oddly, every quirk is no longer as adorable as it once was. Habits are developing, some good, some bad. Care is still being taken, though with notably less enthusiasm than before. The conversations flatten to “oh yeah, I got a ______ for Christmas. No, I don’t feel like it, it’s too cold, let’s watch a movie instead” and “(child’s name), your ________ needs to go out, open the door for them (child sighs heavily, annoyed by being distracted from their iPad, grumbles under their breath, and shuffles to the door.”
Stage three, Accusations-
The child, by now, has realized how much work is involved in animal care, and has likely abandoned it, leaving parents to pick up the slack. This is especially tricky in shared custody situations, if the child is only with the animal for a portion of the week, the parent has, in effect, already taken over shared custody of it. Animals don’t take sick days, or holidays off. Whether you’re sick from too much holiday cheer, or out of town, they still eat and poop, every day. Who knew? The animal, now lacking the attention it was once paid, may even develop undesirable habits. It’s labeled a nuisance. It’s no longer wanted. Somehow, this has become the animal’s fault?
Stage four, Separation-
Parents are left with an animal that the child no longer has interest in, which they’ve probably spent a tidy sum of money on, and they themselves have no time or desire in taking on for themselves. In addition to the disappointment of the child having lost interest in what was once highly coveted.
Stage five, Divorce-
The poor animal, now blamed for not having been the perfect gift, is put up for sale, or even being offered for free. Instead of being marketed with all the lovely traits it was acquired for, it’s now advertised as a problem animal. The parents are unhappy because of the money lost, the child has already moved on to their next target, and the circle of life continues.
In the movie, The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford’s character explains to a distraught mother who calls, siting “horse problems” and needs his help, that he doesn’t help people with horse problems, he helps horses with people problems. Therein lies your answer folks. Don’t set your animals up to fail by walking straight into ownership, blind. Do your homework!
When my boyfriend’s daughter came to us saying she wanted a horse, I’m sure she thought, that we would start the search immediately, especially considering I’d had them for so long. History had already trained me, but she had no experience, or a clue as to how much hard work was involved. To date, the most she’d ever done was lift fingers to text, or change a tv channel. The same child later on diagnosed herself as “having asthma” when she tried out for Cross Country, because it was hard to breathe. We explained, “no, it’s because you’ve lived on a couch for 12 years, and skipped several weeks of conditioning, keep working, it gets easier.” Also, we had shared custody, meaning the horse would be mine to care for in her absence, because I knew her mother wouldn’t take her to the barn. I’ve never minded taking care of horses, but they require a level of responsibility that needed to be learned by her, not me. I already know how to muck a stall, and help a Vet administer treatments.
I dug through my contact list, and came up with a friend who instructed, that I knew would teach her everything she really needed to know, like grooming, stall-cleaning, care, and riding, and signed her up for weekly lessons. I had the benefit of 4-H, and project books, so I tracked down books and tools for her to work on at home (I believe one is still in the bottom drawer of a nightstand). The lessons lasted for a few months, until the new interest in Cross Country came up, and she did learn a lot. Mostly though, that horses are a lot of work, and it wasn’t all just go to the barn, ride a pretty pony, have fun, go home.
This is something that’s always been a sore subject for me. People who seem so intelligent, will tell me all about the new pet they just got, when they haven’t done any research or training, then end up asking if I know anyone who would be willing to take it off their hands. The kids’ mom bought the daughter a Pit Bull cross from the shelter, because that’s her love language, gifts. I have no problem with Pit Bulls, I have a problem with people who know nothing about them, and try to keep them, or people who train them to be aggressive. It’s like blaming guns for a shooting, when there was a person pulling the trigger. They didn’t bother with any training for themselves or the dog, and in no time, it was eating all the human food it could reach, destroying things in their home, and being returned to the shelter.
So here’s my holiday wish. For every inexperienced pet owner, who has a child asking for one for Christmas/Hanukkah, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. You aren’t picking out a new frozen dinner to try, that you can just toss and order a pizza if it doesn’t work out, you’re messing with an animal’s heart, as well as the heart of your child. If your child wants a horse or pony, start with lessons, graduate to a lease, and buy eventually, after you’ve seen if they’re truly dedicated and willing to put in the work. Remember, the horse is the cheapest part of the deal! If your child wants a dog or cat, talk to people, find a vet and ask questions, Google things, and most importantly, sign them up immediately for training classes (for your dog, do them have them for cats?). Every indoor dog should have at least a basic understanding of what you want from them, like sitting, getting off things, staying still. Taking obedience classes ensures you’re both speaking the same language, and take the entire family to them! Everyone living in the house, should be on the same page with instructions and communication. A little work in the beginning, will save you a lot of work and heartache in the end.
Horses, and pets in general, are remarkable teachers for children, when the right opportunity is presented. They teach trust, respect, selflessness, and responsibility. Don’t let your first experience with ownership, be the one that ruins all other experiences. If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.