Golden Days and Hindsight Guilt.


These late October days are golden–sweet and rich, and as temporary as a long, crisp leaf. The sun is slow to rise and dawdles while setting over Pikes Peak. The clouds hold onto its colorful tail, long after the sun is gone. The horses and I want to languish on the tight wire between Indian Summer and what comes next for as long as we can.

We know this is the lull before the storm.

My Grandfather Horse got through last winter stronger than I thought he would but it wasn’t pretty. The cold makes him stiff and he doesn’t want to move. If he doesn’t move, his arthritis gets worse and hurts more, so he moves less. It’s a vicious cycle.

He didn’t complain, he’s a stoic guy, but I never got over the feeling of a vice-grip crushing my chest. Relief came with Spring, but as soon as he started shedding his winter coat, his weight dropped as well. I didn’t worry at first, he was eating well. The weight loss was gradual, until it wasn’t.

One day he was nearly skeletal. Like a neglected, abandoned horse. How did this happen on my watch! I confess–it hurt me to just look at him. I had a huge fit of Hindsight Guilt. Do you get it?

Hindsight Guilt is when you think you are doing your best but you get a diagnosis, or learn something new, or come up with a better technique, for the care or riding or understanding of your horse, and then impale yourself on a pike for the suffering you have caused by your own stupid ignorance. Even if the thing you learn is new technology, even if you are doing better than any human possibly could, Hindsight Guilt hits and in that moment, you call yourself the ultimate curse: Abuser.

Of course, I had him checked out. His list of chronic ailments is long. The diagnosis? He’s old. Gradual degeneration is expected. My vet said I was doing everything right.

But still, he was eating and losing weight. His chronic diarrhea lessened to intermittent diarrhea, a huge improvement. I’m not one for any sort of fecal-phobia. I read manure like tarot cards. It’s my go-to standard health predictor. I poked my way through and it seemed, somehow, that the hay was not breaking down as well as the other horse’s manure. It was a tiny, almost invisible difference. Too much information? Not if it’s your horse.

So I tweaked his feed again. It’s constant with an old horse. I resist the sticky senior feeds with molasses so thick that the grain freezes solid. Grain isn’t that good for most horses in the first place. Having said that, I was feeding some healthy senior feed without molasses, alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, and free choice hay. Along with any thing else I could think of. He continued to lose weight. I continued to tweak.

My Hindsight Guilt would like to have a word: “She’s an idiot. She thought because he was eating hay that he was getting some nutrient value. He wasn’t. I repeat–she’s an idiot.”

I saw weight gain finally, by feeding more senior pellets than I thought any horse should eat, and very little else. It’s science. Pellets have tiny particles that are easier for an old horse to utilize. He gets one flake of hay to play with but he doesn’t eat it.

And he’s pudgy. I can’t feel his ribs, and even old and sway backed with more arthritis than bone, he has gotten bright-eyed. It’s been years, but he is mischievous again. He gives the farrier lip and we both grin like school girls. Sometimes the Grandfather Horse even trots. We all stop and applaud him.

This fall, the equine dentist told me the Grandfather Horse had lost teeth. I reminded him my horse had one tooth pulled three years back. “Nope, more than that one,” the dentist said. “Not many teeth left on that side at all.” It was hindsight news to me.

Wouldn’t I have seen the teeth on the ground? If they were hidden in his manure, I would’ve found them with my CSI manure skills. I scrutinize this horse, how did they get by me? More Hindsight Guilt but it like usual, the self-name-calling doesn’t help.

This is the strongest my Grandfather Horse has been in the fall for years. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still dead lame. But he has gotten a second wind. He has his sense of humor back. I am beyond grateful, but not at all happy because of another attack of Hindsight Guilt. It’s chronic with me and this horse. I’ve had it since I started riding him decades ago.

For now, we have Indian Summer. It isn’t just the time of year–it’s his time of life. These are his golden days, precious for their fragility. Precious because we do know the future.

His eye sight has degenerated. He’s frightened of his own shadow. Deeply, profoundly, with sincere honesty, he is afraid. I can respect that. It’s a good opportunity to go slower and reward more. He taught me that.

The challenge with the elders is to separate the old age issues that you can’t help–from the ones you can. And then when you do help something–survive the Hindsight Guilt about not doing better, faster, more perfectly.

Because these Grandfather Horses deserve more than our best, every single day. They taught us, they lifted us up, and they gave us to ourselves in a way no one else could have. We owe them.

If I live another hundred years, I will always have Hindsight Guilt that I could not do for him even a fraction of what he did for me. And it’s just where he wants me.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Refraction.


Refraction happens when a light bounces from one thing to another like a pinball. Instead of twanging noise, the light gets softer than sun, it’s bounced and sprinkled and spread thin so that when we see it through the filter of our own eyes, there’s a sweetness between the glare and the shadow.

When light gets refracted through a horse to his rider, the pair is lifted and joined. It’s forthright, yet secret. Literal, yet sheer magic.

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.

Horse Rescue: The Psychological Aspect of Physical Abuse.

The girls (640x546)I boarded the first horse I owned as an adult. It gave me something I hadn’t had in the past: a barn family. It was a private facility with around 15 boarders, and maybe 50 horses in various pens, pastures, and runs. We rode together in lessons, took picnic trail rides to celebrate birthdays, and when it was foaling season, we stood at the rail for hours, marveling at the miracle foals frolicking. The barn felt more like home than where I lived.

I arrived one morning to find that a mare had died unexpectedly in her run. The horse’s owner crumpled in sadness as the barn manager prepared to remove the mare’s body from the run. The first step was to get her neighbor-horses to turn out, and each of these well-trained riding horses were tense, flying like kites on their lead lines.

I gave the owner my condolences, we shared a tear for her good horse, and then I pulled my gelding out for a ride. But he was spooky, disoriented, so mentally scattered that he was almost dangerous. Just like all the horses. His stall was about 10 stalls away where the mare died, but the horses in the other barn on the facility all knew about the death, too. I was embarrassed in my grief, that I hadn’t immediately seen that all the horses mourned a death in their family, as well. I gave my gelding the day off, just grooming and grazing and showing respect for his loss.

A month or so later, the news ran a report of an extreme neglect case. The majority of the herd was dead in their pen, but the few horses that were still on their feet were rescued. The photos were gut wrenching: not just starved, but living among the bodies of their family.  It would have been a superficial figure of speech to say, “I can’t imagine the state of those survivors!” Because we all could imagine it and it haunted us. My barn family chipped in and sent several tons of hay to the rescue that took in these neglected horses. It didn’t take a vet degree to recognize stress.

Fast-forward 30 years, to the recent news report about the Black Forest Horses. It’s a neglect/abuse case here in Colorado involving 10 horses and 4 llamas in various conditions of poor health, locked in a barn with 14-17 decomposed bodies. Let me say it another way: More horses dead than alive, with the survivors standing among the remains every day, month after month.

I’m concerned about these horses, but even more than that, I’m concerned about the criteria used by the sheriff’s department, and the veterinarians they hire, to assess horses in alleged cases of abuse. Horses are evaluated using the Henneke Body Scoring System (read here) which is a standardized (and still somewhat subjective) way of quantifying the physical condition of the horse. Extenuating conditions may be taken into consideration, such as the condition of the facility. In the Black Forest case manure was 5 or 6 feet deep in places.

Nowhere in this assessment is there any mention of the horse’s psychological condition. I’m not being ironic, but that’s crazy! It’s like ignoring everyone in a mental health facility that is a healthy weight. Is the emotional state of a horse hard to assess? Good trainers and riders do it every day, the signs are easy to see.

In this case authorities decided that since not all of the horses were horribly thin and none were in immediate danger of death, the horses could remain with their neglectful owner. The local horse community cried out in disbelief from Friday to Monday, until the sheriff eventually called in a vet to evaluate the situation and the horses moved to rescue that day.

These horses deserve our compassion, and the system of assessing cruel treatment for horses deserves our outrage. Scream, rant about it to other horse people, but then let’s find a way to change these methods to include the emotional condition of the horses as an important part of the physical condition.

Refer to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness signed in 2012 by a prestigious group of international scientists. There are some very big words explaining that with the advent of better technology, scientific evidence is increasingly showing that animals are sentient. Scientists have proven that most animals have conscious states similar to humans.

Yes, it’s scientists affirming what horse people have known forever; that horses are capable of feeling emotions. This declaration matters because now we have scientific data proving that just like humans, emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse. It’s evidence in the effort to change animal abuse laws.

If we really want to help horses, the method of evaluating horses must change to include a larger, more holistic approach than counting ribs. Horses are social creatures; their family bonds are tight. Just like us, their well-being involves more than external appearances.

In the last few weeks, I’ve taken an informal survey among horse people, asking about the emotional response they have noticed in their herds after losing a member. Everyone had a story but the one that sticks out the most to me was told by a rider who takes loving care of her horses. When one of her horses died of old age, she had him buried out in her pasture. The next morning her younger horse was out by the new grave where he had pawed the dirt for some time, trying to get to his herd mate. His behavior communicates volumes about his loss.

It’s up to us to help law enforcement and the courts update their methods of evaluating abuse. I understand the legal challenge of assessing horse condition in cruelty cases. And I believe in a situation where live horses co-habit with corpses, body scoring becomes almost irrelevant.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dreamy


Being Dreamy is the quality of being slightly unstuck somewhere between the harsh light of day and soft pure uncolored sleep. It’s a place of refuge where doubters are silent and limitations are vague. Just the way I like ‘em.
 “She came out of her reverie with a deep sigh and looked at him with a dreamy gaze of a soul that had been wandering afar, star-led.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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.

Pioneer Spirit: A Message from Leafa.

Leafa PercyLeafa Numbers was my paternal grandmother. We had a chat this week. She was born in 1888 in a sod shanty in Kansas.

A graduate student doing research about the pioneers who settled North Dakota interviewed some nursing home residents in 1976. I got a tape of my grandmother’s interview back then and my cassette player promptly ate it. Technology returned her to me this week, in the form of a cd. I would have recognized her voice anywhere.

My great-grandfather Elias Numbers was just a bit too young to fight in the Civil War, like his older brother did. After he married and started a family, they moved from Kansas to Iowa in a covered wagon, then on to Illinois where he lost his wife and two of his daughters to Typhoid Fever. Then on to Missouri. Leafa hired out to work for other families and never finished school.

The interviewer asked if she knew how poor they were. She answered, “We knew work and hard times. He [her father] had nothing to give but he was good to us.”

Then at 17, she and her sister caught a ride in a wagon headed to North Dakota. They heard land was cheap and they could make their fortunes there. They both hired out to work on a cook cart. “I was always a big girl and I wore a long skirt so I could earn women’s wages.” That was $4 a day for the two of them and when she said big girl, her voice lifted. She was bragging.

She met a Canadian, Percy Blake. He was a farmer and a horseman and 18 years old. He had a Flying Dutchman Plow and a team of good horses. They married the next year, 1906.

Leafa and Percy moved a few times but finally settled on a farm and raised a big garden, chickens, pigs, cattle, and 5 kids. Percy contracted to build local roads, driving a 5-abreast team with a grating plow to earn extra money. “He was a hustler and I was a good manager. I delivered more colts and calves than any woman in North Dakota,” she said.

“The 30’s pert’near broke us.” A reminder; this was a few miles from Canada. The winters were brutal before the Great Depression knocked everyone down. She took pride, “But I always set a good table.” Farm talk for no one went hungry.

“We had good horses.” She said it a few times during the interview. It was what put them ahead. A couple of times a year, they sold a horse for $100. “That was a lot of money in those days,” she said. And Percy sold one horse for $3000. but before she could explain, the interviewer changed topics, leaving me wildly curious. Percy had a reputation as a horse trader, but who did he sell to for that much? What horse?

The interviewer asked if it was hard being a pioneer mother. “Well, there was a saying; North Dakota was hell on women and horses.” She had a self-deprecating laugh and as easy as common sense, she said, “It was a tough life if you was useless.” This might be my new mantra.

Percy had passed several years earlier and when the interviewer asked Leafa about re-marrying, “Oh, I should say not… My gosh, you get tired of waitin’ on men.”

“I’m satisfied.” She said that more than a few times during the interview, too. She was satisfied with her life, boasted that none of her family ever got in trouble with the law, and was proud that she and her husband had built something. She mastered the art of wanting what she had.

When Leafa called Percy a good hustler, I’m not sure of her meaning but my grandfather became a local horse-trading legend, wealthy by farm standards. He retired to smoke stinky cigars and shoot ducks out the window of his big black Cadillac. Satisfied.

I didn’t see my grandparents often but our family visited just before Grandpa Blake died. They were living in town then, in the nicest house I’d ever been in. Grandma kept store-bought canned apricot juice in the fridge and she poured some into a small painted glass for me. It was sweet and thick; I held it in my mouth so make it last longer.

Why does any of this matter?

Hearing Leafa’s voice, at this age, it’s easy to see how much alike we are. I’m grateful to live by and for good horses, too. It’s important to remember that most of us are just a step or two from being pioneers of this young country. Your family isn’t much different: We come from strong stock not afraid of hard work. It can seem like the best horse traditions are European; they have centuries more experience than us but we share a heritage the old world doesn’t. Don’t sell yourself short.

The last time I saw my grandmother was just after this interview. I was 22 and she was 89. I meant to flatter her by asking about the covered wagon trip from Missouri north. For a moment, she got distracted by a memory too juicy to share with the interviewer. She smiled like a girlfriend and her eyes lit up. She said the James boys used to drop by the boarding house where she worked to get dinner and flirt with the womenfolk in the kitchen. My head spun, that was the way our family referred to people; the Blake boys… the Johnson boys…

“Grandma, Frank and Jesse?” I asked, in the most incredulous voice ever.

“Yes, deary, but that’s a different story. Now, that wagon trip…”

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs


Sign Translation: Storm coming!

(Sorry for the blurry -Edgar Rice Burro moves quicker than you think.)

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.

A PSA: Vulnerability is our greatest strength.

WM Clara eye.heartSocial media is a miracle. I meet new friends and stay connected with old ones. I can keep my finger on the pulse of inspiration in our world. There are pictures of puppies and foals and yes, those people who knit for their chickens. So much community to love.

But this week Facebook has sucked the life out of me. Maybe your page looks like mine lately: Emaciated cats with snotty eyes. Old horses at kill lots. Mustangs being chased to death by helicopters. A photo of the second corgi recently, shot to death by some jerk who thinks his right to bear arms includes shooting a neighbor’s dog in their own yard. And then we are still reeling from the Black Forest Horse Abuse case, the number is up to 17 dead and decomposed on the ground.

There was a golden moment that a lot of us stood up, joined voices, and the equine survivors got help. We felt powerful -we were heard and things happened. Then before I caught my breath, it seemed that another 200 desperate stories screamed for my attention. Sometimes I had to discipline myself to not look at the photos. The hard part of being a 60-year-old horse-crazy girl is staying positive.

There is a name for this feeling of tired overwhelm: Compassion Fatigue. It is commonly thought of in terms of human care givers and health care workers, but this week I read a great blog (link here) about the same stress in the animal welfare community. High time.

Compassion Fatigue symptoms include depression that sometimes leads to suicide. Is that serious enough? The world lost a wonderful veterinarian and animal advocate this week. Dr. Sonja Yin is mourned by everyone who believes in force-free training. And October is National Depression Awareness Month.

Disclaimer: I have it easy. I don’t work full-time in the front lines of rescue. I’m not a vet or a vet tech. I’m lucky; I get inspired by my clients trying to help their horses and I have a good friend who listens when I need to rant. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burro routinely lays his head on my chest to check my blood pressure. I repeat, I have it easy.

Maybe this Facebook Flu I feel sometimes is a lesser relative of Compassion Fatigue, it’s more like Compassion Whininess. Do you get it, too? It’s a slap on the wrist for being aware of the plight of PMU foals or the media stereotyping of some dog breeds, like aversion therapy for caring.

Maybe we should develop a kind of soft spot for depression, too. Chronic or situational, depression needs our attention and concern as well, if we are going to keep giving our attention to animal welfare issues. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of the animals that need us.

And who better than us not-quite Compassion Fatigue-ers to encourage and support the animal welfare workers? We understand a small corner of it. It is always in our periphery.

Have you thanked your veterinarian lately? I have had too many midnight, ground blizzard emergency calls to even pretend there is any romance in that occupation. Sometimes the front desk calls to tell me my vet will be late because of an emergency call. I behave especially graciously, however inconvenienced I am. I know others are dealing with bigger challenges than getting spring shots. Being patient is like investing in future karma.

The only animal welfare work more stressful that the veterinarian’s might be rescue work. They get lots of late night calls threatening to ‘put down’ an animal if it isn’t immediately picked up. It’s almost like a ransom call with a death threat. Then there is the daily work to mend broken animals while wading through the sludge of humankind, and the cherry on top is having to keep an eye on the budget and often ask the public for money. This is, of course, the same public whose Facebook page looks as grizzly as mine.

This is what is easy to forget… this is the most important thing: We all need to stay vulnerable. We need to keep prying our bruised hearts open. We can’t turn into those people who page by pleas for help to get the posts on horoscopes and celebrity gossip. Our vulnerability is our greatest strength. It is the part of us that makes us good riders and kind friends and strong advocates for animals who can not speak for themselves. We have to protect the compassionate part of us.

So when I was feeling a bit heart-sore last week, I took my own advice. I went for a massage. It was wonderful; she worked the starving horses out of my tight shoulders, she loosened my calf and thigh muscles that have held my stand against animal suffering. I felt nurtured and restored.

Leaving, I stopped at the end of the driveway and saw three horses galloping down the road towards a busy street. In a blink, a woman in flip-flops with a grain bag and a handful of halters leaped into my truck and we were off in pursuit. Predictably, I reminded the woman to breathe.

By the time we caught them, with the help of other random horsepeople, I was late to my next lesson. No worries though, my clients hope for the same help when they need it. We are good people who care about animals.

With a special wish for peace and healing for all the committed animal welfare workers around the world: Ask for help when you need it, take good care of your soft heart, and know we have your back. Most of all, thank you.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.