My name is Elisabeth Kaasa, and I am one of those girls who still has a childish love for horses, even if I am in my late thirties. This passion for horses, which grew through my childhood years, never really passed, and I am just as passionate now as I was in my teens when I dreamt about winning the Olympics as a showjumper.
«Learning by doing»
My interest in horses started early, and I was 12 years old when I finally got my own horse. My grandfather, who has always had a special bond with animals, bought me a horse and rebuilt the shed we had in our yard into a stable. As we lived in the countryside without any riding schools nearby, my teenage years as a horse owner was a lot about “learning by doing” with an ex-trotting racehorse who still was called “Fålan” (The foal in Norwegian) at the age of 13 years.
“Fålan” was my responsibility, which I embraced fully, and it didn’t matter if I had to get up early every morning to take care of him before school. As you probably can understand, the circumstances didn’t line up for an Olympic medal (in fact we didn’t get any medals at all), but there were many long trail rides both alone and with friends. It was a wonderful period of my life, and an indescribable feeling of freedom to come home from school, saddle up and gallop into the sunset. Yes, it is kind of a cliché, and you probably think that it was completely irresponsible too, and it was in a way, but this was the end of the 80ties, a time when it was common to smoke inside and ride a bike without a helmet. Luckily it all went well.
Full of ambition, and a little inspired by our Norwegian Princess Martha Louise, I went to England when I was 16 years old to spend some months as a working student at a riding school in Cornwall.
Here I would work and train after the British standards, which were quite different from what I was used to from home, but I learnt a lot! There were many training sessions where my self-taught bad habits got picked on and a lot of hard work and strict management.
The best memories I have from this stay, however, are the trail rides in the English countryside, with long gallops over the seemingly endless Moors of Cornwall – always with a little rain in my hair and mud on my face.
What changed everything
I didn’t go any further in making a professional career with horses, but I continued with horses as a hobby back and forth over the years to come – sometimes in combination with travelling abroad. One of these trips abroad went to Rancho Grande in Tenerife, where I worked as a guide on trail-rides for tourists. That trip is actually the foundation for what I want to accomplish with this website. It was an eye-opener in terms of how some tourist-based riding establishments operate, and how involuntarily ignorant tourists contribute to, what I think, is clearly an unethical way to keep horses.
Most of the horses were kept together outside in a paddock, which was great for socializing as a herd, but it got very crowded in such a small place. Most parts of the day they were tied up. They didn’t get any forage but were fed with a beet pulp mix 3 times a day. Some of the horses were kept in stables, and these were kept inside their box all day, on a concrete floor without any bedding. All horses were ridden with strong bits, very often by inexperienced riders who were taught to pull hard to stop.
From the outside, to the inexperienced eye, it may have seemed like these horses were treated well, but they didn’t see what happened behind the scenes. Horses that weren’t “behaving” well were taken out behind the stables and beaten up. Those of us who were working there at the time confronted the managers about it several times, but we were just blown off and told that the horses needed to be set straight, and if we were to train them the kind way they would end up as dangerous horses. “Girls can’t train horses!”
That’s when I decided. I was going into the travel industry, and one day I would be in a position to influence places like this!
Thinking about it now I feel I should have done more, but it seemed like this was the accepted way of keeping horses and that it was a hopeless battle. We did the best we could under the circumstances. If it hadn’t been that the ranch is closed, I’d go back now 20 years later and stand on the barricades.
Career in the travel industry
My career choice was indeed inside the travel industry, and after my education I worked for 12 years as a travel consultant, tailoring itineraries for individual travellers. These were some amazing years where I got to travel to many exciting places such as South Africa, Kenya, Zanzibar, Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles, Thailand, India, USA, Dubai, Oman and Qatar, in search for the best hotel- and travel experiences for our clients.
I have been lucky, and experienced a lot during these trips that I could never have done otherwise; helicopter ride over New York, car stall in the middle of Krüger National park in an open car with a slingshot as the only defence, snorkelling with whale shark in the Maldives, driving across Masai Mara, river cruise in Kerala, hotel visit at Burj Al Arab, staying in some of the worlds’ most luxurious hotels, dinner in an underwater restaurant, and a little stop in the ditch along the Indian countryside – where what seemed to be a whole village came to our rescue and lifted the card back on to the road. I could have written a book!
Returning to horses as an adult
I had my own horse until I got pregnant with my first child in 2006. When my daughter started to ride at a local riding school at 7 years old (yes, I guess she was pushed a little in that direction by her mom), I missed it so much that I started taking lessons too. One thing led to another, and suddenly I had a horse again… I didn’t intend for that to happen, but this wasn’t just any horse! My mother’s heart felt for this horse who was 17 years old and had been a showjumper most of his life. He was afraid to go out on trail-rides on his own, he was backing off of the trails down slopes and into bushes and fences, suddenly throwing himself around, he was afraid of the doors in the inside arena, he was throwing off his riders when jumping etc… He was a great horse on a good day and won many prizes for his riders, but he was so unpredictable that one rider after another quit. My patience and stubbornness really got something to work on! I had no ambitions to win any competitions, so I was able to take my time and slow it all down with him.
Coming back to horses as an adult, in combination with having a horse like this, made me question a lot of things about the equestrian sports. Who asks the horse what it wants? Is it ok to push the horse through session after session in the arena, only to fulfil the rider’s ambitions to win competitions? The use of strong bits, tight nosebands, spurs and whips if it doesn’t submit to the riders demands? Is this the price it must pay for food and shelter?
This is a difficult and controversial subject, but I believe that everyone who is around horses need to ask themselves these questions. Take a few steps back and forget everything they have learnt about control and physical equipment. Is the horse a willing partner? If not, what makes it ok to force it? Is it because the rider is in charge and the horse must submit? That’s just how it is? I don’t claim to be an expert, and I am not a follower of any special training technique that is supposed to fix all problems, but I try my best to be humble, open and use my intuition. I understand that you have to be confident and clear to also make the horse confident around you and to see you as the leader, but why not be a fair and empathetic leader? It is so easy to fall for the temptation to use force, and this is an established pattern which is hard to let go of. I am very curious about what one can achieve with horses by building on trust and mutual respect, and I have just started to scratch the surface. I want to learn more about this!
Where to go from here
As you can read from my story, my life so far has revolved a lot around horses and travelling. My interest in horses and travelling in combination, and the urge to contribute to animal welfare in tourism was put on hold for a while, but not forgotten! Now it is time to gather the loose ends and act on it. I am hoping you will join me on my journey!