I unhitch my Shetland and put her outside in a corral to cool down. As she grazes, I see in her the ancestral Mongolian ponies: compact muscularity, shaggy pelt, round belly, strong jaw, and deep-set eyes—plus her scrappy resiliency.
For six thousand years, horses adapted as a species. Once domesticated, they were essential to winning battles, opening trade routes, cultivating fields, heavy hauling, and transporting people. In 1900, there were more than 130,000 equines working in New York City alone—a far cry from the few carriage animals clopping through Central Park today.
Historically, horses were depicted in art as icons of nobility and military might, but perceptions change. Mythic no more, the Olympics and Triple Crown pursuits may remind the public of equestrian athleticism, but society now views our steeds primarily as playthings.
In Vermont, many kids enjoy summer pony camps and year-round lessons. The Green Mountain Horse Association has a full schedule of dressage, jumping, and driving competitions. There’s renewed interest in farming with horse-drawn equipment, and we see Morgans on leisurely drives with people in Sunday attire, occasional cross-country hunts, and of course, horses now retired grazing peacefully in pastures.
Despite diminished functionality, the equine population persists because of passionate bonds between creature and owner. Shakespeare aptly captures this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.” The sentiment is indeed true for me.
In eight years working with my pony, we forged a symbiotic partnership of trust, persistence, and achievement. Her job is to pull me in a cart, my job is to listen fully to her and provide for her well-being. Whinnies, nickers, neighs, snorts, and stomps let me know I still have much to learn.
I don’t often encounter other Shetland owners, but there’s a community of folks who drive Morgans, mini horses, and large drafts. We share tips at clinics, fairs, and stable visits. Trainers are important, but colleagues are essential for the daily tasks of animal care and maintaining equipment.
Most gratifying is the vivifying relationship with my pony. A successful drive has her legs dancing in a collected trot with mane flying as we cue off each other. Afterward, she stands contentedly as I remove the tack. We both take delight in a job well done.
About the Author
John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, VT. This commentary first aired on Vermont Public Radio.