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We have one of those big coffee table art books at home. Its colored pages show vases, statues, and pictures through the ages. If you are at all interested in horses, you immediately see that they have been a favorite subject of artists for thousands of years. This isn’t too surprising since the horse has played such an important part in man’s history. What is striking to me is how the horses looked, were tacked up, and handled through the centuries.

My favorite is a photograph of what many consider the finest equestrian statue ever cast. It is “Colleoni” by the sculptor Verrocchio, and was standing in Venice, Italy before Columbus discovered America. It depicts an imposing military commander on his incredible horse ready to leap into battle. The rider makes the Marlboro man look like a sissy out for a Sunday ride. Someday I’d like to see it for real, but googling the sculptor and the statue will give you some appreciation of how timeless solid conformation is.

One of the points to be made through this study of horses in art is that superior horsemanship didn’t start just a few years ago. We know by the record that horses have been appreciated and used by our ancestors as far back as cave drawings can take us. Breeds have come and gone depending on fashion and use, but the really good blood from thousands of years of selection is seen in our animals of today.

We are at the receiving end of this long tradition of the partnership of mankind and horse. You are the present holder of a body of information that has come the distance. Your horse knowledge has for the most part been passed down orally. You didn’t learn how to muck out a stall from a book. No manual told you how to gently place a bit in a horse’s mouth or how to pick up a foot. Someone showed you and me, and someone showed the one who taught us. Ever once in a while there is a brand new idea. If it’s good, it survives. For example, within the past 20 years round pen training has gone from an oddity to a well established training technique that will probably last. If something new is just flashy, it dies, just like all styles do. Think of all the new horse shoes that hit the market each year, most of which don’t last.

Our horse knowledge has been passed down orally in every language known to man. Some of those languages have died out, but good horsemanship stands the test of time. There are many good books, lots of articles, and a wealth of information on the web. These sources are helpful to both experienced and new horse owners. However, if all the written material were burned tomorrow it wouldn’t matter much. The knowledge would pass down just as it always has. However, there are also some disadvantages to oral tradition. Misinformation is also passed down. Some old wives tales will never die because they seem to make sense.

I used to work on Maine’s Standardbred race tracks. One of the things that always bothered me is that many trainers in this sport like their horses with long toes and low heels. I’m talking about significantly long toes and very dropped heels. When I would ask why they would have their horses trimmed and shod this way, I got one of two responses. “A long toe makes the horse’s stride longer”, or “That’s the way we’ve always done it (tradition).”

The longer stride could be argued, but the opposing argument is that a horse can’t push off properly with low heels. I used to argue that shoeing this way causes misalignment of the pastern bones, and eventual lameness in the upper joints. I would ask the trainers how their legs would feel if they tried to run in long-toed clown shoes with the heels right on the ground. “Don’t know, but this is how my dad always had his horses shod.” I finally learned that arguing with tradition is an uphill fight and most of the time you can’t win.

So, appreciate those who have gone before, both your ancestors and their horses, and be willing to part with tradition when good common sense tells you to.


– David A.Jefferson, D.V.M.


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