My wife and I were on vacation in Florida this winter. We re-connected with a former client who now lives in St Augustine. When I was attending her horse in Maine over 20 years ago, she was a teen ager at a very active stable with an emphasis on kids. She has become successful in business and rides competitively in Florida. During our visit we talked about the people and horses we knew from “the old days.” At one point someone listening in asked how we knew each other, and she said that we go way back. She shared that I used to work on her grandfather’s horses. That was true. Her grandfather Tom loved standardbreds, and raced them at the old Lewiston, Maine fairgrounds. Just to put things in perspective, at that time Tom had retired and I was a very green vet, but her remark did make me feel like an old timer. Our conversation started me thinking about the generations of youngsters I have known that had the good fortune to be brought up around horses or cattle. I am convinced through many examples that this exposure is an incredible education for kids.
A few years ago another lady who was also a youngster in that same stable told me that it was the responsibility of caring for horses that saved her life. I asked her how, and she shared told me that as a teenager she had started hanging around with the wrong crowd from school and finally stopped showing up at the stable. She slid into the drug scene for a time, but it was the emptiness of that life as compared with caring for and riding horses alongside quality friends and mentors that brought her back to horses and responsible living. She has since had a variety of animals, including horses, on her own farm. I know that her own daughter is better for it.
At the age when kids start getting rebellious. there is something grounding about the responsibility of caring for animals. It doesn’t matter who you are mad at or how you feel the world is either mistreating or ignoring you, those animals out in the barn have to be fed, mucked out and taken care of every day. What the weather is that day or how you feel doesn’t matter. There is also the healing aspect. At a time when the family is intolerable, the barn is a great place to go. You pick up a curry comb and brush and start telling your problems to your animals. As a client once told me, “they just listen and listen and never, ever give you any advice.” Teenagers all go through that stage of seeing themselves as the center of the world. When they take on caring for another life, it’s an attitude changer.
All of this hasn’t got a thing to do with my being a large animal vet, but it makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than just making animals well. When the kids are still young enough to think the vet is cool, it’s fun to motion them a little closer, put my stethoscope in their ears and ask, “Would you like to hear your horse’s heart?”
I never tire of is being present at the birth of a horse. Only one thing is better, and that’s observing kids as they watch a horse or cow give birth and then a few minutes later get to see the newborn’s first wobbly steps. It’s a wise parent that pulls them out of bed at 2 AM to share in the wonder.
Whatever you can do to get your kids, grandkids, or neighbors kids caring for another life, do it. It’s a sound investment in all of our futures.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM