Efficiency Isn't Everything - By Roberta Smodin

A businessman friend insists that the way I run my horse business is inefficient. He doesn’t deal with living creatures, but with the commerce of the inanimate, and the basis of his success has to do with the realm of efficiency. Getting things done as rapidly as possible, saving time, moving forward in a straight line—all these things make his business work. 

Having visited my farm, he has plans for me that he insists would improve my efficiency, make it possible for me to spend less time working, and increase my profit.

First, procure a specially outfitted golf cart, on which I could load all of my feed, medication, and other supplies, which I would drive around the farm, dropping off the necessary items without having to return to the barn. The feeding and medicating that now take me about two hours twice daily could be done in half the time.

Second, build more fences, creating chutes to and from the paddocks and barns, so that a horse that is difficult to catch or lead could be moved easily, minimizing all of the time I spend catching mares for the vet every morning.

What I argue is, that though this would indeed save time, in any business dealing with the care of live animals, efficiency is not the paramount concern. Thoroughbred horses are perhaps the most sensitive and delicate of creatures dependent upon the husbandry of man. My feeding times, twice daily, are not about efficiency, but about paying attention to each horse.

As I deliver food and medicine to every paddock, I walk slowly, greet the horses by name, and examine them carefully. I watch each one walk, to see if any lameness is present. I note if any mare that is usually hungry is lagging behind, less interested in food—this could signal an impending colic or other illness. I watch every foal for any sign of illness—any unusual sweating, lagging, reluctance to get up, or a mare that doesn’t appear to have been nursed recently by her foal tells me I might need the vet. I scan my fence lines, noting any boards that might be broken, down, or in any way in need of repair, or that may have fallen into the paddock, because they may have protruding nails that could injure a horse badly. My feeding times are not about efficiency; they are about meditative concern for every horse in my care.

In haste, I might miss something of critical importance. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about efficiency. In efficiency, pleasure is lost—think about anything that gives you pleasure…do you want to do it efficiently? Working with Thoroughbreds is not simply a job; it is a lifestyle, and a calling. Those who are in business just to make money may not understand that.

Now about those chutes. I argue that these would block access to the barns for trailers and vans coming to my farm, and that’s true. The drivers have varying skills, and some can back a semi-truck through the eye of a needle; others can’t back a two-horse trailer into Texas. So that is a very real issue.

More than that, though, is the issue of horsemanship. Confidence, trust, patience, and partnership all enter into the Zen exercise of moving horses. If my horses don’t trust me enough to let me catch them and walk them into the barn, then they won’t trust me enough to hold them safely for the vet or the farrier.

We must establish a bond, which is begun, certainly, with feeding them twice a day, on time, no matter what, and continued with their willingness to cooperate with me when I need them to do something. Chutes might simplify my business, and make it more efficient, but the bonds I have with my horses—the partnership I enter into with each of them, the social contract that states that I feed them and care for them and safeguard their health and well being, and they in turn cooperate with me, knowing that I wouldn’t endanger them for anything—are diminished.

Perhaps my business model is inefficient. In fact, I’m sure it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Roberta Smoodin owns Thunder Run Stables near Cynthiana, Ky., and teaches courses in horse, dog, and cat care.

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