Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Accidental Vegetarian

by Tom Gumbrecht

Originally published in Horse DirectoryJanuary 2013

Lola's first non-race competition
THOSE that have known me for any length of time are not generally shocked to learn of a new pursuit, a new cause, or a new way of looking at things that I have adopted.  I tend to observe things quietly for a while, and if my interest survives, seemingly just jump in with both feet.  So it was with horses, about fifteen years ago, and so it is with… I still find it hard to write the word, knowing I’m referring to myself… vegetarianism.  Out of all of my life choices, though, it seems that this one seems to catch people off guard more than most.

That is a fair reaction.  Up until the time that I made the choice to stop eating meat, there were not many clues in my diet, my lifestyle, or my way of being that suggested that was a path I would be likely to pursue.  I was, like most of my peers, a hamburger, steak, chicken, and ribs kind of guy.  If the hamburger came with lettuce and tomato, I would take it off.  The joke at family dinners would be that the only time I would eat something green was if someone brought a key lime pie for dessert.

Jessie. My first canine copilot.
As animals, my own animals, didn’t really begin entering my life until my mid-forties, although I always liked them I never had the close relationship with an animal that would induce reflective thought about their welfare.  That all changed in 1996 with Jessie, a female German Shepherd Dog, and my first pet. Acquired as an eight week old pup, Jessie came into my life to teach me about love, devotion, loyalty, and the beauty of silent communication.  Horses came in 1998 through an electrical job I was contracted to do at a commercial barn through my business, which led to lessons, leases, and ultimately building my own barn and eventually competing.

A few years ago, and within a relatively short time frame, two things happened:  First was the acquisition of an off-track Thoroughbred mare named Lola from a kill-buyer auction.  Lola required quite a bit of time and TLC to get her back sound, and as anyone who has worked with rescues knows, the bond formed can be quite different with these animals.  This was definitely so in the case of Lola and myself, as she acted grateful for every strand of hay, every brush of her mane, every kind word in her ear, and in fact still does.  The fact that this horse may well have ended up on someone’s dinner plate in another country began to crystallize in my mind, slowly.

Kaeli Kramer competes at Good Shepherd
The second event was the tragic death of Kaeli Kramer, a young Long Island equestrian, whom I had never formally met but whose life was on at least a parallel course with ours, intersecting only briefly and seemingly coincidentally, but not, I am convinced, accidentally.  Kaeli was a student at Centenary College, one of the many horsey colleges at which my Samantha interviewed during our summer of college tours.  Kaeli was a competitor at the Good Shepherd Farm Horse Trials, which was also one of my first venues as a competitor.  Although we never spoke, we tipped caps as our paths crossed on our way to the show ring several times.  I was saddened to hear of her death, but the connection was not made until I had the experience to interview those who knew and loved her and record my impressions on these pages.  I was especially moved by the generosity with which Kaeli’s parents, Linda and Peter shared her life, her words and her horses with me, a virtual stranger at that point in time.  And it was in those conversations that I learned about Kaeli’s thoughts on vegetarianism.

Kaeli’s viewpoint was simple, yet profound:  A point came in her life that she realized that she could not feel the way she felt about animals, and eat them.  To me it was a statement that was awe inspiring in its simplicity, and it changed my life.  That was exactly how I felt, but could never find the right words to express.  It was not judgmental of others and their right to their own choices, but instead merely a statement of personal choice.  I had always put vegetarians and vegetarianism on a higher moral plane than I thought myself capable of sharing, so I never tried, even though my core beliefs were pulling me in that direction. I was conflicted, and didn’t even know it.

I was moved enough by my experience to explore further.  In an interview with mutual friend Sheila Rodgers of Good Shepherd Farm, I was introduced to resources that would ultimately clarify my thoughts and allow me to make an attempt at something that seemed at the time to be radical. It was two weeks before Kaeli’s memorial service at Good Shepherd, and I decided to attempt to honor Kaeli’s life by giving up meat for those two weeks.  To my surprise as well as others I was able to do it for two weeks, and I wanted to share my accomplishment and the inspiration for it with Peter and Linda, although I don’t think I actually did.  Then I completed the story about Kaeli and awaited its publication, and wanted to present Kaeli’s parents with copies of it when printed so I felt the need to continue on for those four more weeks.  Then I wanted to continue so far as to have my first meat free Thanksgiving, to which my now-friends Peter and Linda sent a tofu turkey and trimmings. Weeks became months, and months became years and I have now been vegetarian for three and one-half years. 

Lola raised my consciousness..
Has it been difficult? No. Challenging?  Occasionally, but mostly not.  Rewarding?  By all means.  Because in this one area of my life, I am no longer conflicted.  In what I choose to eat, at least, I am living a life true to my beliefs.  And that leaves a better taste in my mouth than the best steak I had ever eaten..

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