Weekly Photo Challenge: Boundaries

ArthurNubeArthur, the goat, is no respecter of boundaries. He’s managed to break free of every goat gulag I constructed, so I bowed to his superior skills and granted him freedom. He never wanders more than a few feet from the horses.

Arthur is, however, very pleased to note that I have placed ‘goat nests’ in the runs. And if that isn’t enough, I change the bedding in them a few times a day. Who would ever want to leave this place?

I’m a bit of a goat myself. People have told me that I have bad boundaries. I don’t follow the rules; I don’t keep a distance properly, or that I share too much. I’ve heard it all before. I have about as much guilt as Arthur.

The world is full of boundaries, but not all of them deserve respect. It’s up to each of us to learn the difference between hurting others and inconveniencing them… and then find a comfortable place to be just exactly who we are.

We are a born individuals and being a bit goat-like isn’t the worst thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)


Anthropomorphic Thoughts About Spaying Mares.

WMThoughtHe said we don’t need to import sport horses; we have great horses right here; we’re under-using great mares. More people should consider spaying mares and competing them. I read this in an article a year ago, written by a respected equestrian, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s pretty undeniable, even with the health risks involved, that the spay and neuter programs for dogs and cats have had a huge impact on the number of unwanted pets.  In horse rescue, we see quite a few hoarding farms with indiscriminate breeding happening, resulting in horses several years old who aren’t even halter broke. It’s indefensible.

For most colts, it isn’t much of a question. A lot of us prefer geldings for riding. Stallion lives aren’t all that easy from a management standpoint and ethical horse people have extremely high standards for keeping a stallion intact. And hopefully by now, we understand that there is an overpopulation problem with horses as well. Beyond that, a gelding can be more level emotionally and a more dependable partner for all kinds of riding.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve also known some spectacular mares who are focused, kind partners. I know riders who will always prefer mares for their strength and intelligence. And many mares go through a summer of heat cycles without their owners even being particularly aware. They share pastures with geldings and are all around great horses. Good for them.

I’ve also known mares that earn the title of alpha through aggression. Mares that become unpredictable, if not un-rideable, during heat cycles. They flatten their ears threatening all comers–and then there’s something about the late fall heat cycle that is particularly strong. I have two mares in my barn right now who have been cranky, spoiling for a fight, and rattling the barn Zen for weeks. Their general attitude is dark and quarrelsome; their nicker sounds like a growl.

Remember the name of Captain Woodrow Call’s horse in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove?  Case in point.

Other mares need turnout alone or are eventually asked to leave barns due to behavior issues, for the safety of others. They get retired early or end up as broodmares. These mares are the ones we make jokes about; the ones immortalized as slogans on t-shirts: “You don’t scare me, I ride a mare.”

Many experienced horse people, vets included, think that we seriously under-diagnose ovarian cysts in mares. The behavior problems mares show are not a natural part of being a mare but rather a request for help. Beyond that, the connection between this “mare discomfort” and ulcers or colic is well-documented.

The ovaries are located just under the fourth or fifth lumbar vertebrae, you know, just barely behind the saddle. Yet we name call stereotypical labels like moody, temperamental, cantankerous. And worst of all–“TYPICAL MARE.” Why aren’t we taking this more seriously?

Generally, we only spay mares who are older and have medical cause, but I’ve met a few people who have spayed younger mares and swear by it. Is this a good option for mares who aren’t going to be bred? Can a mare become a “smart gelding?” Many say yes.

Years ago, one of my mares struggled with her heat cycles more and more as she aged. I used prescription medications, herbal concoctions, and any other option I heard about. My vet had no better advice at the time. She was in her twenties by the time someone suggested ovarian cysts, but that diagnosis came with the information that the surgery was very expensive and by then, my mare wasn’t a good candidate. Now I have a young mare who seems to be on the same painful path.

My recent research showed that some surgery methods are complicated and require the mare to be laid down, frequently resulting in a vet bill over $2000. But I also learned about two different techniques done while the horse is standing. The procedures are only a bit more complicated than gelding, and costs run in the $800. range.

Back in the day, it was my high school photo next to the definition of PMS in the dictionary. My back ached and if I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, I was yelling. Birth control was a godsend; it was like an anti-depressant. The med I took then is also used in horses now.

The problem with anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics or behavior to non-humans) is we dumb it down too much. It isn’t about putting a sailor suit on your dog and setting a place at the table. Being mechanically scientific doesn’t work either. Realistically, the main way us humans have to discern the world around us is through our frame of perception–in other words, anthropomorphism. The trick is to find compassion without an over-abundance of sentimentality. In this case, women innately relate to mare discomfort better. We understand it and should have more compassion for these mares living in purgatory and throwing in the occasional buck. We should speak up for mares.

In the male-dominated vet world, there are always those slightly blue jokes about neutering dogs and gelding colts. I am not immune; I usually bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event.

There is no mare equivalent. I wonder if there were more female vets, would mare reproductive discomfort go un-treated less often? Would ovarian cysts would be more quickly diagnosed, if for no more reason than personal understanding? Then maybe procedures for spaying would evolve to be easier and safer, and soon, more mares would get to live more comfortable lives. Less name calling from us, more peaceful autumn days for them.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Permission to NOT Ride.

WMears, cloudsLast Tuesday I had an 8 a.m. lesson with a boarder and her sweet gelding. He’s had a good summer; they even made it to a couple of schooling shows. This gelding had a checkered past with previous owners and when this pair started with me, he was a wild man. The lunge line doubled as a life line back then. But he’s been a solid citizen for the last couple of years–honest and responsive. My client has done a great job and the judges rewarded their good work together.

The air was fall-crisp as the three of us walked to the arena. He nickered a bit on the way but once inside, the gelding spun, faced the barn, and the real caterwauling began. We thought it would pass and didn’t over-react.  I remember thinking as wide as his mouth was open, the bit could practically fall down his throat. We gave him some time… but he elevated it to haunted-house-worthy screaming–a twitchy-eyed-and-quivering-lip wailing. Who is this guy?

The gelding could have been an anomaly, but he wasn’t. The next day as I drove up to another barn for a lesson, my client and his sensitive, sweet mare were belly-spinning with fear-glazed eyes and a very humped back. Two other horses in my extended herd of clients are lame from “playing too hard”–both cases left over-night manure piles reduced to confetti. At home, my mare and one of my geldings managed to open the two gates between them. By the time I got out there, my mare swaggered toward me, the clear victor, covered with welts and cheese-grater wounds on all sides, while the gelding looked freshly groomed and just out of church.

It was the first week of nights with temperatures in the forties. Winter coats are blooming on every rump and the pasture is dead-brown. There’s been a change in the wind. The mares are all in raging heat cycles and the flies are all in a death-snit. Yes, it’s a huge deal: season change. The barometer rules. Especially if your senses are about 200 times keener than a human’s.

Back in our home arena, my client has the lunge line on her gelding who’s bouncing straight up and down, bucking like rank stock, landing stiff-legged, and not one inch ahead of his last hoof prints. We share dubious glances and expect an alien to spring out of his chest any moment now.

On days like this, a question hangs in the air. “Should I ride?” Are you being a wimp if you don’t? Or a dominating jerk if you do?  Would you cancel a lesson if you had a migraine or a shoulder sprain or another invisible ailment? Would you cancel if he was obviously lame?

What do you do when there is a lesson ticking away and you don’t recognize the horse on the end of the line? What is his problem? Humans ask why; we need to dissect it and find the cause of the demonic possession. I repeat, he is a sweet, kind, and honest horse. Has he swallowed a chain saw? We don’t think he’s hurt or sick… and we can guess all day long. The truth is that it’s probably a perfect storm of a few things. The cause isn’t as important as what we do next.

“You can’t let him win.” We’ve all been told that since our first horse. “You have to climb on and ride him through it. If you let him get away with this it will spoil him forever,” comes some voice from the past. Never mind that he is using everything he has to tell us that he isn’t okay. Never mind that he’s an honest horse who doesn’t evade work normally. Never mind that you planned a lesson.

A reminder: the only way a horse has to communicate with us is by using his body. Your frustration complains that he certainly knows better! We know our gelding does… but today is a unique day and I notice there are days that I can’t find the bottom of a bucket. What if he isn’t being disobedient? Whatever he’s trying to tell us is very real to him–he isn’t faking his anxiety.

Does your ego demand that he behave right now? Is compassion a sign of weakness? What kind of leader are you when he needs you?

After a bit of lunging, our gelding is moving forward halfheartedly, still watching for the apocalypse. Did I mention he’s nineteen this year? In spite of current appearances, their work together is not so fragile. When a horse’s emotions get hot, we have to stay cool.

And there’s a miracle cure. In dressage, we believe that you get a horse’s attention by asking for transitions. So we asked for changes of gait on the line. They weren’t pretty, but he got praised for them anyway. Sure enough, they improved, and he gave us a short blow. Then we began to supple him on the lunge line. Most of us don’t use lunging to its full purpose. In truth, anything we ask for in the saddle is available while lunging. We put his brain to work with a positive conversation and he soon found his way back to his usual self. The other term for this is building trust. He’ll pay us back in the future by showing us grace when we need it.

Your gelding wants you to know that anxiety isn’t soothed by harsh discipline. Your mare wants you to know on your worst PMS day, you aren’t all that compliant either. Take a breath and relax, Human. Ground work is your friend. My advice? If your common sense whispers to stay on the ground, do it with no apology. Ego is never worth an injury, for your horse or yourself.

Besides you’ve got plenty of time. Rome didn’t burn in a day.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Grid

goatee 047

A fence is a grid of separation. It’s used to keep some of us inside and to keep others of us outside. When Arthur the goat first arrived, he was wild and lost in his new home. He wouldn’t eat; everything frightened him. I did my best to help, but he didn’t know what people were. Then Edgar Rice Burro came to the edge of the grid to say hello and Arthur started to eat. That’s when the break-outs began. I meant to keep his little self safe from bigger animals until he could grow up some, but once he found the Grandfather Horse, it was just impossible.

2 of 015Arthur’s living off the grid now. He’s trying to blend in and pass as just another gray horse. It’s what we all do here.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)


Listening with Your Seat.


How’s your derrière? Is posterior a more delicate word than rump? Our culture has a lot of fanny chatter: too flat, too round, somehow sagging. Riders should care less about the superficial “do these white breeches make my butt look big?” and more about how does my backside feel…to the horse, obviously. We aspire to evolve our seat.

The dressage master, Nuno Oliveira had what some thought to be the most profound seat on a horse. He rode hunched over during the last years of his life and yet he became a better rider, his horses were also more relaxed and brilliant.

A profound seat…rather than controlling his horse, it unleashed brilliance. What an inspiration.

Gaining skill as a rider starts with acquiring some level of relaxation in the mind and then allowing that to spread through our body, eventually starting to put positive energy in the seat area to work toward a deeper seat.

A more sensitive seat is the crucial step between being a dominating rider and a perceptive, communicative rider.

We all start riding by wanting to make the horse do something, even if it’s only walking away from the herd. We have a picture in our heads and we go to work–pushing, pulling, kicking. Maybe you think you are a quiet rider, whose hands don’t jerk but instead you just pull, adding a pound of pressure as your horse does, until it’s a full-out tug-o-war. Even if your pressure is passive aggressive, it’s still adversarial. About then emotions get involved and things get worse. We are so focused on having our way that we don’t listen. That’s what domination is.

Listening to a horse, to be literal, does not involve your ears. Yes, they may snort or blow, but the larger area (no pun intended) of communication is always through the part of us most connected to the horse; our seat positions us spine to spine with the horse, nervous system to nervous system. In order to evolve a deeper, more aware seat while in the saddle, a rider must quiet the mental chatter, relax the actual gluteal muscles, and become internally aware of how the horse physically feels between our legs.

Put delicately, riding is the process of getting our brains out of our heads and into our behinds. It means less brain-thinking, even if it’s about hand position and cuing transitions. We are searching for feel, for finesse, and that’s a sensual awareness, not an intellectual opinion.

A mentally dominating rider uses a horse like a dirt bike, revving the engine and slamming the chassis to and fro attempting to meet a requirement. The rider is talking with herself about how to make the horse do something and leaving the most important thing out–the horse.  Whether the rider is angry or just quietly frustrated, it’s still a fight because it starts with two sides, each alone and distanced. It’s like trying to learn the tango by counting the beat and looking down watching your tense, reluctant feet. When the dance happens through mental math, there is no fluidity. No romance.

Dressage riders can appear to have a glazed look sometimes. While a jumper is turning and looking for the next jump, a dressage rider seems almost in a trance of mental stillness, even as the horse performing shoulder-in or flying changes. They glide along effortlessly with no resistance. The secret is that the more intense the work gets, the smaller the cues become, so the horse and rider seem to move as one.

Disclaimer: Moving as one sounds mystical, but it isn’t. It’s a give and take of perception between partners. It isn’t about right or wrong, but rather a physical awareness of a small tension in the neck, or a slight lean of a shoulder. It could be either the horse or the rider, but when noticed so early, the partner’s response can be a small, subtle suggestion–peaceful and rhythmic. In other words, it looks like a dance. Maybe when our lumbering and hyperactive brain gets out of the way, our soul can come forward to elevate the connection. You know this is right because horses don’t inspire our minds, but our hearts. It’s where they live and we have to make our way there to be a partner.

Remember, the only means horses have of communicating with us is through their bodies. We are too quick to judge their actions negatively. We correct them when they tell us how they feel. Their feelings are not any more open to debate then ours are. They are eloquent and honest, but our seats must learn to listen and become more responsive. That desire for an enlightened kind of soulmate connection with a horse is never a mental transaction. It’s beyond pretense and words, deep in our spines, where truth and spirit are all that matters.

A deep seat means that physically we aren’t stiffly perched, but rather relaxed and plugged in, responding fluidly to our horse. Beyond that, deep also means thinking less and feeling more.  It’s being introspective, discerning, esoteric, and if you rest in that silence long enough, even profound.

My first trainer, who absolutely hated dressage, always told me to “take a deep seat and a faraway look.” It’s cowboy talk for the same thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monochromatic.

sibcatnap (800x435)

The best barn cats are monochromatic; they blend in. Unobtrusive lurkers, they’re the color of dirt, hay, and shadow. A bright colored calico is an easy target for a hawk, but a tabby…well, rodents beware.

This pair are siblings; it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. Hank stalks coyotes, intimidates dogs for sport, and is very outspoken, while Squirrel prefers killing moths, napping in boxes, and proofreading. Not so monochromatic after all.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)


Dressage Factions and the Real Reason to Compete.

WMclarabesteyeI’m a traditionalist when it comes to the art of dressage. I love the structure, the fundamentals, the words of the classical masters. Dressage is the peaceful partnering of a horse and rider in a dance. It’s a discipline of intuition, subtle cues, and long term goals; a relationship that’s forged by patience and time. Dressage is freedom of expression within limitation; a waltz, a sonnet, a bird in flight.

The modern world hasn’t improved on dressage. Like every other riding discipline, some of us mistakenly train harder, faster, and younger. Some horses are enslaved by dominance; money is given priority over art and time. So it goes; humans are an imperfect species.

Now there are different versions of dressage; dressage in Eventing, as well as Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and a few lesser knowns. It’s all good as long as it’s held to the same beautiful standards of balance, relaxation, and responsiveness. The more horses being ridden to these ideals the better. I’m still a traditionalist but being inclusive just makes sense for horses.

The bicker-fest I dislike the most is between proponents of competitive dressage vs classical dressage. I also think it’s the silliest. There, I said it.

Competitive dressage is famously the home of Rollcur (hyperflexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force), a practice that’s common in western disciplines like reining as well. There are always bad apples, but when I see rollkur, I think it’s a sure sign that the rider has lost himself. I hate rollkur but to name-call all competitors, as if rollkur was the standard majority opinion; as if most riders showing their horses are wicked–is just not fair or true.

The other extreme is classical dressage, claiming the high moral ground. They pridefully decry every rider infraction, judging others harshly from the rail, while never putting their principles to the test. They see any competition as ugly, while they rise above it all–riding only for themselves. The practice of any art becomes elitist when kept in a hot-house.

Again, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like separation and I believe fighting between factions only makes us weaker. Dressage is a tradition that has survived centuries for a reason. It’s a mistake to judge any discipline by the worst expression of it, whether it’s on a jumbo-tron or in a back pasture.

The most frequent complaint about competitive dressage is that the fundamentals aren’t rewarded. That horses ridden behind the bit, even at the lowest levels, get rewarded by judges while others, riding in a more correct, compassionate way, don’t get rewarded. The problem with this opinion is that, taken at face value, it means the best of us are staying home, giving ground to riders more interested in the color of a ribbon than the welfare of their horse. They will take over our sport if we stay home and whine about it. Hold your ground.

If dressage is the perfect riding discipline, as I believe it is, then trust it. Do the work and trust your horse, in time, will be the best advertisement for kind, perceptive training. Trust dressage to shine through.

Fact: There are plenty of elite dressage competitors who visibly uphold kind training traditions and they deserve your support. Rollkur is not the majority opinion. Fact: The vast majority of members of the United States Dressage Federation are adult amateur riders at training or first level. It’s your organization and if you don’t like the way it’s going, use your voice to make it better. Get a group of like-minds together and stake your claim in some temporary stalls at a show. Don’t let your corner of the horse world be sold out to haters.

Aside from politics, is there a reason to show a horse? Being competitive isn’t a dirty word but how many of us feel uncomfortable about it? It’s a complicated question for women on our culture. Rest the politics and the emotional baggage–just ride your horse. It’s okay to not consider yourself a competitive person. Truth be told, it’s an advantage.

Once we manage to tame our egos, this might be the best reason to show a horse–I’ve held onto the following passage for years. Yes, it’s written about dogs, but the translation to horses is easy. It makes me teary; it defines competition honorably…

What is an Obedience Title, Really?  by Sandy Mowry

A title is not just a brag, not just a stepping stone to a higher title, not just an adjunct to competitive scores, a title is a tribute to the dog that bears it, a way to honor the dog, an ultimate memorial. It will remain in the record and in the memory for about as long as anything in the world can remain. And though the dog herself doesn’t know or care that her achievements have been noted, a title says many things in the world of humans where such things count.

A title says your dog was intelligent, adaptable, and good-natured. It says your dog loved you enough to do the things that pleased you, however crazy they may have seemed. In addition, a title says that you loved your dog, that you loved to spend time with her because she was a good dog, and that you believed in her enough to give her yet another chance when she failed, and in the end your faith was justified.

A title proves that your dog inspired you to that special relationship, enjoyed by so few, that in a world of disposable creatures, this dog with a title was greatly loved and loved greatly in return.

And when that dear, short life is over, the title remains as a memorial of the finest kind, the best you can give to a deserving friend. Volumes of praise in one small set of initials after the name. An obedience, or herding title is nothing less than true love and respect, given and recorded permanently.

Ride your own path; defy classification. There’s a schooling show this weekend–we plan on having fun and loving our horses; it’s a choice.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.