The Thing About Horses and Healing: a Memoir.

VinniePasture1We see them from the road and use phones to take photos. We keep a legal distance but most of us have seen neglected horses and reported them to authorities… or been haunted, wishing we had.

The photos are long distance and slightly out of focus, just like this one. It’s easy to see ribs showing and they might be visually lame to the eye. You know the horse is in trouble.

So what’s with the pudgy bay in a fly mask? Consider it his photo from the Witness Protection Program.

If you don’t recognize him, this is Vinnie, from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, here for evaluation. I like this photo of him, blurriness and all, grazing with a fly mask with one ear torn off. It’s hard to see but there’s a bird perched on those pointy withers of his. Oh, and it’s hard to see his ribs now, too. This is his “after” picture; I first wrote about Vinnie (story here) and readers have asked for an update.

Vinnie’s swell. He is more socially interactive now. It took over a week, but he started lying down in the sun eventually. We weren’t sure he could. He’s up to date with vaccines and he’s received a series of Pentosan injections. He stands quietly while I give them; they’ve been nothing short of a miracle for Vinnie. Now he gallops for fun; he comes at a run when I call him in. His stride is wildly long and joyous.

When he arrived it was just the opposite. And we still doubt he will be ride-able with an old injury that means his hind end looks like an egg beater from time to time. But his heart is big and full, he loves being scratched, and it looks like he is headed to foster later this month and hopefully a forever home soon. Yay, Vinnie.

It’s good news, isn’t it? We love these stories and part of it is selfish. Vinnie heals us all a little bit when we hear about him. It’s the crazy thing about horses…

I’ve had a couple of occasions when it was my job to ask people for money for horse advocacy and rescue. I don’t play fair; I ask the tough question first:

“How many of you have been rescued by a horse?”

Then I watch. Invariably most hands quickly go up, with easy smiles and some laughter. Some of us were rescued from being cosmetic zombies, tech junkies, or victims of fashion. We’re saved from boredom and complacency. We use horses as an excuse to be outside in the sun instead of cleaning the house. Each of us has a way of describing that irresistible smell that’s part sweat, part fly spray, and part dream-come-true.

But as I look around the group, some jaws are set and their eyes seem distant, hidden under furrowed brows. They straighten their shoulders a bit but there is no smile. They raise their hands resolutely and hold them high and still–as if testifying, as if standing to be counted. For them, rescue is a life-and-death personal issue. I recognize these committed hands because I raise mine the exact same way. In that moment we lose our humor because the depth of gratitude we feel toward horses is immense. We literally owe our presence in the world to the memory of some old horse.

About then my voice seizes up. I don’t want this to be about me because there are so many others with the same experience. I’m common in this group. So I continue to ask for money and notice quite a few of us have something in our eye. We act like its dust because we’ve developed some pride, but we’re fooling no one.

And so, when we see a photo of Vinnie like this, we see ourselves, even as we celebrate him. That’s how rescue works–it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter who does it first, horse or human, but it starts in a small, seemingly insignificant way and eventually radiates out in all directions. In the beginning, it’s rough. Horses reflect our fear and hurt, but if we ride it out, smelling mane and trying to forge a language with a horse, until in the end, we reflect their confidence. We become good lead mares in our own lives.

Riding is a school of humility and selflessness, its practice if it is done well, tends to make better Human Beings –Nuno Oliveira

We started young. Lots of us came to positive horsemanship because of rough handling as children. We learned firsthand that violent dominance would never build trust, and lots of us escaped to the barn. Horses were the safe haven we found there. They spoke the language we hoped to hear in our homes.

There’s a barn joke that horses are cheaper than therapy. I have done the research and it isn’t actually true. But the more time we spend with horses, the more we heal. As we move forward with our horses, it gets easier to let go of fear in our human lives and forgive ourselves of our pasts. For some of us, being with a horse is our first taste of honesty. It works like church because even the angriest atheist can see the divinity in a horse. They’re undeniable miracles and some of it rubs off on us. Like salvation.

The thing about horses rescuing us is that it works impersonally, just like gravity, healing each of us whether we think we need it or not. We just say yes and whether we need a healing from helmet hair or total abandonment in the world, horses will carry us through it. When the day comes that we realize the debt we owe to horses, we work to do better for them. We learn to ride more kindly and communicate more clearly. We discover we have compassion to spare, so we give back by helping horses.

For some of us, horses are just a “hobby”, an overwhelming passion that drives our lifestyle, finances, and everyday choices and activities. It’s like having a combination gambling addiction and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, that we proudly brag about, while spending every spare moment, year after year, in the company of horses.

And then for a lot of us, it’s something bigger than that.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Stable Relation: I’ve written a memoir about the farm I grew up on, the farm I have now, and the horse that carried me in between. I didn’t write it because I think I am so very unique or important; indeed my experience is more common than it should be. I wrote it for all of us who share the experience of being healed by the animals in our lives. Stable Relation is available now on Amazon (book link here) and soon everywhere else, in paperback and eBook. With a big gratitude-scratch to my Grandfather Horse, who gave me my voice.

 

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Muse

WMspiritshadow

Sometimes I see a father playing with his child, tossing her in the air and catching her, holding her tight to his chest. Then my heartbeat feels tight in my own chest and I think of Spirit. He did that toss and catch with me. –Anna Blake, Stable Relation

He’s old and sway-back, he casts a long shadow, but he never stands alone. My Grandfather Horse is more than a muse; part of him is in everything I write. Never want to miss a chance to say thank you. Do you owe a debt to a horse?

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Stable Relation: A memoir of the farm I grew up on, the farm I have now, and the horse who carried me in between. Available at book sellers July 13, 2015. To get updates and the inside story, sign up here: Prairie Moon News. Thank you.

(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.)

Buying the Right to Make a Correction.

WMprettyTomShe’s Tomboy. I don’t write about her often enough; she’s a little more serious than my corgi men. She’s a Briard, a French herding breed that has a very protective side. Tomboy appointed herself my personal bodyguard when she was a tiny pup and has done a flawless job of guarding and herding me for twelve summers. Her commitment is fierce.

On that particular day, I was having a party on the farm. There were lots of dogs running and Tomboy broke up a few light dog altercations but mainly she had my back. Relentlessly. Then the guy arrived on a motorcycle.

The guy was dating a friend and we were all welcomed him because of her. I’d met him and his dogs previously. He made sure everyone knew he was a man of great faith. He had two yellow labs and every time he came close, they both hit the ground and rolled belly up. I took their opinion into account as well.

He parked his bike and walked toward me, and quietly, Tomboy moved from behind me to block his path. She just put herself between us; no growl, just a watch. The guy took a step to go around her but she moved to keep her position. Then he told her to lie down, but she stuck to her spot. He said something I didn’t entirely hear, while smiling at me, and it dawned on me that he was going to roll her.

Wikipedia’s explanation: “An alpha roll is a technique used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).”

Rolling a dog is a controversial technique, but in our case, it was black-and-white-wrong. She wasn’t disobedient; she didn’t trust him. She’s always been a good judge of character so I believed her. But he had no right to punish her in the first place, so I got between the guy and Tomboy, because I have her back, too. I asked him to stop. He started to explain to me what he was doing was helping me train my dog. I said, “She’s doing her job.” I thought about his dogs and stood my ground. “Back off.”

Like most of us, my charming hostess thing only goes so far. And this guy was an arrogant jerk, but we commonly see riders like this in the horse world. They confuse leadership with belligerence. And yes, professionals do it as well. The belief is that if we show weakness the war is lost and the animal will be spoiled. Worst of all, it negates the horse’s intelligence. Lots of us were started with this method with horses. I certainly was.

It’s obvious that this guy had no right to correct Tomboy, but when do we have the right? Even with our own horses and dogs, when is the most effective time? And when are we taking their behaviors too personally and missing the message?

First, if you are embarrassed or frustrated or mad, just take a break. Emotions are selfish; it’s not about you. I’m always surprised when people think that their horse has a vendetta against them, when the simple truth is that behavior isn’t personal. Is your horse healthy? Could he have ulcers? Is he hungry? Set him up to succeed by making sure he is ready to learn.

An animal can’t learn if they are afraid–obvious and simple. It’s the reason we harp on about relaxation in dressage. Sure, they can learn fear and distrust; the guy’s labs were proof of that. If we walk into a pen like a Neanderthal with a club, we’ve lost already. We have to define ourselves as a leader, yes, but someone who inspires confidence and safety. In other words, we have to evolve out of the old model if we want a better response.

On any given day, I believe we have to buy the right to correct a horse. How else could it be meaningful? It can be as simple as asking for his eye or acknowledging a calming signal. Especially with our own horses, let them volunteer. Don’t do it for them. Allow them to participate by coming to you or lowering their heads–engage them. If catching is an issue, then that’s the place to start healing old experiences. If your horse acts like you’re a predator, take the cue. It’s the starting place.

Never underestimate the power of touch. Current research says that horses prefer a scratch to a pat as a reward, but I prefer a flat hand laying still. Connection with a horse is as simple as touch and as intimate as breath. It’s enough.

Then ask for his best work by communicating with subtle clarity. Consistently. It sounds idiotically simple but we train response or resistance. Dullness or energy.  If you don’t like what your horse refects back to you, take him at his word, and negotiate with the new information. See yourself as intelligent.

The positive model of training has lots of gray area. If the horse is spooked and distracted, he won’t always hear you whisper. Sometimes you might need to give him a bit of a startle to get his attention. The art is to be able to adjust your cues without emotion. If you have to be loud, do it just once, and then get quiet and find a way to say good boy in the next minute. You want the first thing he hears to be a reward. Be generous, work toward a tendency of patience, and then when you make the inevitable mistakes, he will show you that tolerance as well.

WMTomwatchingFinally, humor me with one more photo of Tomboy. I was having a sick day, lying on the couch dozing, and she was on my chest. This is my favorite photo of Tom. She was keeping an eye on me because I was sick.

Loyalty…Partnership: they’re words we value and always our goal–but we can’t demand them or coax them with cookies. They’re a gift, given in exchange for respect.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: “ROY G. BIV.”

Infinity Pond

“ROY G. BIV.” is a lousy acronym for the colors of the rainbow. Who ever thought this was a clever way to humanize, and by that I mean insult, Mother Nature, should be ashamed.

The sunset over our pond makes mere rainbows look puny. I hope it stays just this strong as a power company begins to run its power-lines across the property just to the west of us. Soon this view will be striped with wires and poles.

We were barely an intersection in the road when I moved here but there’s been so much growth since then. You certainly couldn’t call it improvement; just one more step in a long, destructive history of trying to dominate nature.

Humans are idiots.

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

How to Ride like a Kid.

WMQuietEyeRemember riding when you were a kid? We climbed on top from a gate or a truck bumper. No bridle, no saddle, no worries. Remember the way the sun felt on our shoulders? If it was hot enough, there was a thin layer of sweat between our horse and our cut-offs–intermingled sweat. We didn’t take lessons, we were free. In our mind’s eye, when we look down we see our tan legs against his flank and sometimes our colors ran together. We were chestnut tan from the sun; we were dirty bay at the end of the day. It was fun and wild and we didn’t always make it back for lunch. We were fearless.

May I break in on this idyllic memory for a moment? There are a few reasons it went so well; first off, we didn’t fight. Most of us had no steering and didn’t care; if our horse didn’t go where we wanted, we went where he wanted. The plan was to ride; that was good enough. If we were still on an hour or two later–it was a great ride. If we had to get off and lead our horse that was good, too. It was summer. We had very low expectations and no thought of controlling anything.

As adults, we get to the mounting block carrying a mental load that weighs four times what we do. And those are just the day-to-day stresses: time, money, relationships. We bring a list of things to do, but we don’t exactly remember what’s on the list. Still we hold on. Most of all, we are on a time schedule. Maybe there is a show coming, or we have another appointment, but usually it’s because we are in a hurry all the time and it’s a habit now. All of this, and we aren’t in the saddle yet.

The biggest killer of the long-lost kid-ride? We worry about how we ride, how we look, how our horse looks; even if we don’t compete we judge it all–usually harsher than a trainer or judge would. We have self-doubt. Sometimes it’s just a feeling; a sticky green nonspecific frustration with a red ric-rak fringe of impatience. It doesn’t look good on anyone.

In truth, I don’t know if our childhood rides were actually all that blissful. I doubt it. I do know that we’re more self-conscious now, and it gets in our way. Maybe if we heard our thoughts in someone else’s voice they’d sound silly, but inside our heads, they seem sacred and true, and a bit more so each time we repeat them. Our favorite jab–we wish we rode like we did as kids. Even if we didn’t actually ride as kids, we still have that fantasy.

So, we grew up and got self-conscious–feeling an over-sized awareness that included uncomfortable emotions like embarrassment and nervousness. Self-consciousness comes with judgement. Humility is good, but if our confidence suffers, so does our leadership. Then we sit on our horse’s back talking to ourselves about our horse and his problems. We leave him out of the conversation entirely. Meanwhile our horse is out there in the real world looking for some help.

We can’t become childlike again. Our hormones see to that. And frankly, riding like we did when we were kids was dangerous and if we keep doing that indefinitely, our guardian angels will give up on us.

Maybe the closest we could get to being childlike again is to replace self-conscious thought with self-aware thought. Less judgement and more openness. It means experiencing the world through our senses instead of our intellect. It’s closer to how kids and horses do it.

Here is where your riding instructor sounds like a yoga teacher. The first step is the hardest: to let our brain rest and open our senses to listen and feel. Breathe. Then be aware of your breath. Count an inhale, 1-2-3. Feel your body soften. Exhale, 1-2-3. Feel his strides under you lifting your sit-bones one at a time.
“Is he forward enough? Why is he fighting my contact?”
Yes, that’s the voice of the self-conscious judging part of your brain. This is important: be kind to it. If you judge yourself for having a thought; if you feel like you need a whip and spurs to push those thoughts out of your mind, then start over. Be gentle with yourself, excuse those thoughts with a breeze of a breath. When they come back again in a few seconds–no problem. Breathe them away again and replace those thoughts with the feel of his barrel relaxing. 1-2-3, soften your jaw. Feel your horse follow suit.
(Yes, I am aware that this is my two millionth post on breathing, cleverly disguised. But I mean it, there is nothing more important.)
Every time you breeze-away a thought, know that you’re being lifted and held in a sacred place. Be grateful and feel your heart melt. You can keep your adult insecurities; be critical and doubting out of the saddle if you need to, but for these few mounted moments, let go. Let your ribs expand, soften your belly, be aware but thought-less.
It’s about then, in a connected moment, that you feel his stiff shoulder. All horses have one, but this time you feel it small and without judgement. You let your leg warm that shoulder while you count your breath, 1-2-3, and give him time. He isn’t pretending and this is an opportunity for hear him with physical kindness. The same kindness that you’ve shown yourself.
And with a breath, you excuse this good thought as well. 1-2-3, and in this discipline of breath and mind, there is freedom from reaction and judgement.
There you are, riding like a kid. Easy as 1-2-3.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Off-Season

WMNamasteMuckMud splashing almost always off-season here in Colorado, but this year the pond flooded so many times in May that I lost count. In the last few years we’ve had so much unusual weather that unusual weather isn’t unusual anymore. Sigh.

When climate change gets reported, they mention polar bears losing habitat, but it won’t stop there. I worry for horses, too. Seems like a lot of horses are struggling with sore feet right now and adapting to change is a slow process.

I think it’s scary-silly that politicians think they can vote on climate change in Washington, D.C. Scientists don’t think so, and neither do I–but then I work outside every day.

If politicians are going to think that a vote is all it takes to control the planet, I say we lobby for just a little less gravity. If that doesn’t work, we could vote in different politicians–ones who spend time outside every now and then.

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.

Calming Signals and Equine Gastric Ulcers.

WMcalmingsignalThese are two of my favorite topics and I write about them often, but this post is about how calming signals and gastric ulcers can relate to each other.

First, are you informed about gastric ulcers? Its knowledge that every horse owner should have–no different from hoof care or dental floats. (Click here for my articles about ulcers.) Horses have a rather delicate digestive system and when a certain series of events happens (it’s different for each horse) gastric ulcers can form. Causes include trailering, unnatural feeding and management, training stress, or even a change in the herd.  Worst of all, 50% of the diagnosed ulcers were found on horses who showed no symptoms. There’s a proven link between ulcers and colic, and sadly, the conditions have too many things in common–like extreme pain. It’s no surprise that ulcers are usually first recognized as a negative change in behavior.

First we must resolve the ulcers. Get veterinary help and adjust to more natural ways of keeping horses: less stall time and more social time, free feeding to mimic grazing, and digestive supplements and ulcer remedies when needed.

Then evaluate the training side. If our handling of horses can cause ulcers, then is it possible that positive training could help alleviate them as well? When your horse struggles, does your presence support him or do you reprimand him for telling you he has a loss of confidence?

No one proudly admits that they train with violence and intimidation; we all use the same positive words, but our actions don’t necessarily match. Too many horses who are fearful and stressed terribly, are then forced to submit to training aids that cause panic, while their owners refer to them as hot. Or lazy or crazy or just bad.

This week a new client complained that after years of working with trainers, no one had ever taught her methods to actually communicate with her horses. How is that even possible?

Some of us treat our horses as if we’re drill sergeants at a military school, barking out orders and demanding immediate obedience. Others behave like indulgent parents of a toddler crying in the candy aisle of the grocery store–whining, cajoling, and nagging endlessly. Both approaches are alike: they both attempt to dominate the horse into submission with no real understanding of the horse. Both ends of the continuum need to find a listening middle ground. (Yes, I think both methods, in the extreme, are equally cruel. Killing a horse with kindness is just as crazy-making to a horse as badly used whips and spurs.)

Can we just be real? Horses are honest for the most part and giving the best answer they know. Can we lay down our egos long enough to connect with our horses; instead of barking out a lecture, can we just have a conversation? Can we give them a chance to volunteer? Maybe we would get more respect if we offered some trust first.

Mutual peace and partnership depends on our understanding of horse’s calming signals. Calming signals are the way horses (and dogs, the term coined by Turid Rugaas, refers to both species) communicate. Most of us know what ears pinned flat means, but just like us, horses have plenty of feelings before they reach anger.

The horse in the photo is looking away. She isn’t bored or distracted; she’s telling me that she needs a moment. That I’m being a bit loud in my body language and I don’t need to push since she isn’t resisting. She’s giving me a cue to go slower; be more polite. Is civil herd behavior too much to ask?

When your horse turns his head away, do you pull it back? That can be the same as answering his request for peace by starting a fight. Remind yourself, for the millionth time, that horses have much keener senses than we do, that they react 7 times faster than we do. What we mistake for dullness is actually them asking us to use our indoor voice and if we want better relationship with our horses, we need to pick up our game.

We must improve our listening skills because our horse’s well-being and health are at stake. We may not be able to end the natural causes for ulcers, but we can mitigate them. We can train relaxation and confidence–and be rewarded with a smooth canter depart as a by-product. Too many of us train for result and not relationship.

Whether his physical discomfort is from extreme weather changes or moving to a new barn or trailering to a show, it’s your job to help him. And as the supposedly evolved species, it’s up to us to be worthy–not the other way around. Leadership and confidence requires us offering to listen and then negotiating the best answer for everyone. If you want to be a dictator you’ll limit yourself to fighting and never get to dance; you’ll never get his best ride.

If you do aspire to better communication, it can be a slow process to wait and allow horses to volunteer, especially if it hasn’t been encouraged in the past.

Want to know a secret shortcut; a way to listen to calming signals even if you aren’t sure what your horse’s resistance is saying? The secret is that you don’t have to know each intellectual detail; you don’t have to define each signal in human terms to acknowledge it. Just slow down, judge less, and keep an open mind. Then take the advice of Maestro Nuno Oliviera, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.”

And when your horse finally offers you his full heart, when you are finally gifted with his honest trust and confidence at last, know that he benefits physically, mentally, and emotionally, even more than you. The other word for that is leadership.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.