Weekly Photo Challenge: Container

WMTomSwampThing

It’s the best container for a hairy black dog in July. This is Tomboy (aka Swamp Thing.) She likes the pond better, but we negotiated this solution because it turns out there’s a reason they don’t make bath salts scented with Pond Scum.

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.

Donkeys for Peace: Edgar Rice Burro, my Hero.

WMbhimedgarIt was the gelding’s day for the south pasture, the best turnout spot. They are athletic boys who like to start with a few wind sprints. Then somebody pretends to be afraid of something invisible and they bolt off bucking and farting and air kicking . It’s all good clean fun.

Edgar Rice Burro was waiting at the gate to join them with Bhim, a 34” mini horse here for training from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. Edgar helps me with the rescue horses who visit. He’s good at sharing and has a soft heart for strangers. He is slow to react to insults and conservative about name calling. Always ready to forgive and looking for a friend, Edgar doesn’t hold with bigotry. He is kind to mares and geldings alike, with no breed preference. Being Edgar isn’t a bad thing.

Edgar knew Bhim was special from the beginning but it took a long time to make friends. The little horse had a chip on his shoulder and like to throw his insignificant weight around. He wasn’t good at socializing. He wanted to join in but his fear got in the way. Edgar and I chipped away and eventually we wore Bhim down. We were relentless.

I finally opened the gate after the geldings were done playing, and Edgar and Bhim trotted out and immediately threw their heads down and started grazing. Neither of them had any plans to lift their heads for the next four hours. It was no big deal, they had all shared pens. Sure, this was the pasture but we’re all friends here.

I looked out a second later and everyone was running. I smiled at the sight: Beautiful horses, different strides, and little Bhim proudly out front. Everyone seemed good, but then something changed. Someone pushed ahead, someone pinned his ears. I’m not sure who started it but all of a sudden the herd turned mean. Bhim was running tense and panicked. The big geldings were racing after him, necks long and teeth bared. It didn’t stop, they were running Bhim off his feet. I grabbed a rope to swing, like that would make a difference in this free for all.

By the time I got through the gate, Edgar had joined in. He was running hard, right behind Bhim. Shame on him. I expected so much better from an animal of his intellect and compassion.

The galloping herd fought for position, Bhim was barely in front. His tail was tucked tight. Would they run him over? Grab him by the neck and shake him? Could Bhim survive a stampede?

Then I saw Edgar. He had his nose to the inside and was gently suggesting that Bhim move to the outside. Bhim didn’t take the cue right off, he was breathing hard and a smaller circle was his first choice. In the meantime, Edgar’s hind swung from side to side. The three huge geldings were bumping into him but he didn’t give way. Edgar was blocking like a linebacker. No one was getting past him.

Finally Bhim could slow, first down to a trot and then a walk, while Edgar kept the big boys behind him. Bhim looked exhausted, he blew and shook his head. Easy to act like a big stud now. He fooled no one but Edgar didn’t mind. This little horse had every right to celebrate. Edgar doesn’t hold with belittling others just to make yourself bigger.

Don’t feel too bad for Bhim. Not a mark on him and now he and Edgar get turnout with the mares. Bhim has always fancied himself to have a way with the mares. Whereas Edgar actually does.

These are challenging days. World politics are pretty adversarial. It’s been a hard summer on my extended herd, too. Some of us are facing physical challenges. Some of us are being bullied. Some of us are just worn out by bad luck and feeling chased by circumstances beyond our control. It’s a good time to have a saintly burro on your side. Or maybe get your Ass in the way and slow things down to a more civilized pace.

Donkeys are misunderstood. When people behave badly, we call them Asses. The truth is, more of us should defend our friends, stop bullying and set a good example by holding to kindness when the crowd goes stupid. More of us should stubbornly hold on to our best self. Like a real Ass.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Bhim is available for adoption through Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue at http://www.rrhr.org. He is young, sweet and loving work. Not a kid’s pony, but brave and willing. Bhim is progressing at ground driving and is finally easy to catch. This boy is ready for his forever home.

WPC: Relic

WMcropSharedView

Relics: Senior horses are the very best. The Grandfather Horse and I have been together for so long that the line between us blurred to gray and we can’t remember which century we met. We’re rickety relics of a story the two of us made up before we were born.

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.

Listen First, Train Later.

Photo by Patrick McMahan

Photo by Patrick McMahan

The first time I met him, he was two months old standing in a stall with his mom. He was bright and intuitive, an Andalusian/Appendix cross and soon, my 50th birthday present to me.

We did it all right. I worked with him lightly over the next months and we got to know each other. The breeder did a slow-motion weaning process that was less stressful. We took our time and prepared ahead. I was actually aware that over 60% of foals develop ulcers when they are weaned.

When the day actually came for the colt to travel to my barn, I hauled a peaceful gelding up to keep him company in the trailer. We arrived early in the day, did a quiet job of loading the colt and took an uneventful hour drive back to my home barn.

The colt made friends with a donkey first, but everyone liked him and there was no drama. We spent the first afternoon exploring, friends dropped by, and he got hay snacks through the day. Everything was perfect.

That night I called the breeder to let her know we had arrived safely and settled in. I praised the colt for being brave and managing the day so well. I told her I was surprised to see him be so food aggressive at dinner time and she said that was odd, he hadn’t been that way in the past. We both did a phone shrug and I thanked her again.

The next morning I set about training some table manners. I asked him to step back and he pinned his ears, and we worked from there. He was a very smart horse who learned quickly. In no time at all, he was much less intimidating around hay and I was feeling great about my training skills. That was just the first time I didn’t listen to this colt.

This is going to sound very obvious, but still, here goes:

Horses don’t speak English. They speak Horse. As the theoretically more advanced species, it’s up to us to learn their language. The primary way they have to communicate with us is through their behavior. If we judge every behavior as bad or a training issue, we aren’t listening as well as we could. My new colt told me in the clearest way that he could that food hurt his stomach, that he was in pain, but regrettably, I trained that symptom away.

And just as obvious, training away a symptom is not the same thing as healing it. It doesn’t address the actual problem so it will pop up again as another behavior and the miscommunication plants a seed of mutual confusion or maybe even distrust. Everyone tells me that their biggest goal is to have a better relationship with their horse. The best body position in the world will never take the place of a good ear.

Just to be clear, it is never okay with me for a horse to have bad ground manners and be dangerous, even if they are in pain. Part of the art of training is finding a balance of respect and honesty. If that’s working, a horse shouldn’t have to fight to be heard. If we listen to his small voice, or even just acknowledge it, he begins to trust us. And conversely, if we discipline a horse every time he tries to tell us something, he will shut down or go nuts. Just like we do in real life.

Think of being with horses as a game of Charades. Their team is up and instead of categories like movies or book titles, they act out a behavior for us to guess the meaning. It might be a limp or excessive spookiness, or head tossing. We check for physical causes, then emotional ones. If we are brutally self-honest, we check to see if our horse is mirroring our own fears or anxiety. It’s confusing and our perception might be challenged. That’s why training is an art, remember?

“The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.” -Elie Wiesel

Once you have listened to the message, then by all means, train away. Positive training is a calming gift. It is a way for a horse to find peace, a way he can know where he belongs in a chaotic world.

Too many times, we identify our horses as having bad human habits: “He is just being lazy.” “He’s crazy, he’s seen that a million times.” “He’s a nervous Nelly, he just wants to run all the time.”

Our first imperative in working with horses is always their well-being. Horses live in the moment and their reality is physically sensed through their bodies. Good riders calm their own brain chatter and get present in the moment. We will get better results if we listen with an open mind and not just treat our horses like badly behaved boyfriends.

The gift that comes with bad behavior is a chance for positive leadership. It’s a chance to reward his vulnerability and honesty with compassion rather than punishment. Lots of us didn’t grow up in homes that ran by these rules, and the help we give our horses heals a bit of us as well.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

A Muck Meditation on Barn Swallows.

WMswallowdaddyI feel sorry for people who don’t muck. How do they organize their thoughts? Or come up with creative training options? Or share peace of heart with the herd?

This time of the year the barn swallows are very busy. They might be my favorite bird. There is some serious competition over on the pond; I have to love the hawks as they hang motionless in the air, watching my farm and giving a plaintive call to the prairie. The pond is totally alive with chatter. There’s always a quackle of ducks with tails up in the air. Herons stalk the edge, stiff with tradition. They keep wary distance and are timeless when airborne, looking just like pterodactyls.

Each spring Canada geese march around my pond, stretching their necks tall, checking the neighborhood to see if we are a worthy nest area. We had never passed the test, but this year a mated pair hatched four eggs. The goslings all survived and are teen-aged now. Their markings make them look over-dressed but then Canada Geese have always been more formal.

I like barn swallows because they have one wing in both worlds: they are wild birds who chose to live with domestic animals. Like mice and rabbits, they appreciate sharing the barn with horses and goats. But it isn’t just affection with us, it’s an exchange of goods and services. They barter the rent on a rafter with active insect control.

Barn swallows are a little fancier than they need to be. Their body angles look like live sumi brush paintings. They disdain everyday brown feathers for a sophisticated color choice: a shiny midnight blue back and wings, and an dapper apricot-colored vest. Long fringe tail feathers on the males seem impractical for daily barn chores, but they are fanatic workers and committed parents.

I get a lot of close-up time with the barn swallows while mucking. The first nest was in the big barn was over the hay with a clear shot at the door, safe and practical. Then the next year they built a nest in the smaller barn but they didn’t even put eggs in that one. Finally two years ago they worked to build a perfect nest of mud and horse tail hair, cemented to an eave above the Grandfather Horse’s run. They rest on the pipe panels and seem to prefer his company. Who can blame them?

WMswallownestOnce the hatch-lings are all un-shelled, their bright yellow rubbery-rimmed beaks are wider than their heads. They are that ready to eat and the parents frantically rush to feed them. Swallows are insectivores who fly as much as 600 miles a day feeding their young. Soon the parents both looked worse for the wear; skinny and a bit flapped out.

The babies peer over the side of the nest with their noggins all in a row. As the fledgelings near leaving the nest, the parent’s swooping attacks become frequent and furious toward anyone coming near the barn. It might work against them: As the parents are frantically trying to keep the babies safe, it’s that same frantic activity that alerts us that the babies will be out soon.

The parents are hyper-protective, dive bombing all intruders who might pose a threat. A high percentage of these babies survive, the diligent parenting works. Flying like tiny fighter jets, they make strafing runs over my barn cats.

Since mouse season is in full swing, the cats are coming and going from the barn like factory workers with their wiggling time cards clenched in their teeth, on the way to the picnic table under the tree which everyone agrees is the best place for tormenting mice. The cats pretend to ignore the birds who have no more meat on them than a moth.

Soon the day comes that the babies glide out of the nest and follow the parents to the round pen. It’s a perfect flight training field. The adults stand guard while the young fliers flap and glide from one side to the other, getting steadier each hour. The family is all there until the exhausted fledglings return to the nest.

WMswallowyoung

In a day or two the raids stop and I know the babies are steady on the wing. Now the nest is empty but the sky is full. The young ones have a look of their feathers being too big for them but at least they are finally growing into their beaks. Edgar Rice Burro and I take a break from mucking to watch them soaring over the pond, sweeping up insects. Do birds feel joy?

They are all air and feathers; gravity has no pull. They soar above and glide below the other birds, and we all watch. Ducks have thick wet webbed feet and the heron’s bony knees that stick out, no matter how tightly they fold them. The Grandfather Horse sleeps in the sun and I linger over my muck. Only sparrows fly like jet propelled kites, with a high-speed flip-change of direction on a whim, coasting the pond surface for tasty bugs. They even eat with just a bit more flair that need be.

Compared to grander birds, swallows are probably no big deal. But I marvel, I envy, I lose time watching the miracle again each year. Why is such a small life yet protected so ferociously? What is the hold these little blue kites have on me?

Free as a bird is the old saying. The horses and I never take it for granted. Liberty.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

WPC: Contrasts

WMLight

Contrasts show the far extremes. They show the difference; an attempt to understand right from wrong through black and white sides. It’s the first step of understanding the nuance and opportunity of gray, the first opportunity for finesse. In the middle ground of gray, change is possible; adding a shade of this and a tone of that, until the result is a full rainbow of a horse.

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.

Contact: Holding hands with horses.

WMrainbowContactWhat is the world’s speed record for learning to ride on happy contact? 18 years? Maybe 23? It’s a joke about contact and see what I mean? It isn’t funny. Nothing about contact is funny; it’s really difficult. It’s the sort of frustration that makes a rider want to take up insanely precise and complicated needle point just for a breath of fresh air. Or any of the other suggestions your horse gives you because he can’t stand how hard you are trying to learn kindness with your hands

Good contact flows so seamlessly that the horse feels as if he is on a long rein. What can possibly go wrong?

Trainers all seem to train it differently. Words like vibrate and jiggle are common. I lose rhythm just saying them, much less trying to figure out what they mean on a rein.

Some trainers just go for the quick and dirty answer: Pull and kick even harder. It’s a choice; either see the horse get his face jerked erratically or watch your client get so frustrated that they can’t remember their name.

Contact is the biggest challenge that most of my clients struggle with. Every trainer is different, every rider is different, and then each horse is a unique sentient being. In the end, their opinion of your contact is the only one that counts.

The problem with focusing on hand contact is that the most important area of contact is always our seat. We ride with our whole body and there is a bizarre mutually exclusive rule that comes into play while learning something new. Do you know it? If you are riding rhythmically along and you have to engage your brain on a task with your hands, your seat stops as soon as your brain starts. Your horse, however, never forgets your seat, even when you do. And so he obediently slows to a halt and reminds you one more time, we ride with our seats…

It’s easy to tell if your contact isn’t working. Your hands inhibit your horse, more than him striding from behind pushes him on. When you think of it that way, it’s a loss of balance between the hind and the poll. No pulling a horse back to the bit, you have to let him go forward to the bit. It’s just one more of the counter intuitive things about riding and the list is long! Does your brain hurt yet?

Once you understand the semi-technical things, like closed fingers and thumbs up and how to adjust reins, then you have to empty your over-thinking mind and just ride it. Nothing kills rhythm like thinking about the next time to clap along with the beat of the music. It’s time to stop counting and start dancing.

It isn’t hard to pull up a mental image of a horse gliding forward at liberty with a gently arched neck, an unrestricted poll, and fluid movement. In order to get that beauty under saddle, a rider has to flow with his horse seamlessly. She can not pull against him and disturb the rhythm, she must find a way to release with his movement. Connecting in that rhythm is when riding looks easy. Which is a totally different thing than simple.

Remember, most of all, in dressage we never bump a bit against the horse’s mouth. Never become complacent. Even a gentle bit is metal on bone (read here.) Period. We want the horse to embrace that connection with us, so the bit is never, not-ever-even-once, used for punishment. Other riding disciplines do, but we don’t. It is one of the things that sets us apart and we need to take some pride in that. No matter how frustrated it makes us.

There are no shortage of techniques but in the end, it’s about feel. Oh, great. More abstractions when all a rider wants is a direct action that works every time.

When your brain is thick, dragged down with words and theories and severe effort, his steps drag. The forced techniques run together so much that your hands rebel from their own wrists and all you can do is pull. His trot feels like dragging a box of rocks and a canter would be impossible to launch as a school bus from a slingshot… then just ride. Move forward, drop the reins, and feel him striding under you. Forward -with freedom and elasticity- just like the dressage test reads. Let him carry you, just ride. When you pick up the reins again, breath in art and exhale freedom.

There is an art to holding hands, too. Have you held hands with someone who has more tension in their arm than rhythm, someone who carries your hand just a bit high, or pushes the swing past a natural place or goes from fluid to abrupt in a disturbing stride? It’s the tense pull of your mother’s hand when you were little and in trouble. The teenage angst-filled hand of your first date. Or it’s the hand that moves and flows so fluidly that the two of you move unified in a rhythm that balances tides and moon phases. A rhythm as slow and still as a primeval swamp and as weightless as a glide to the moon.

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. It happens when minds and hearts are swept away an effortless beat of rhythm. Contact is the place between individuals where respect and love embrace.

Good contact is moving forward through space without gravity or dependence on anything more concrete than the flow of movement that is oneness.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.