Weekly Photo Challenge: (Un)Broken

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The Long Goodbye: Meet Vinnie

Vinnie 025It makes perfect sense to tell the story of an off-the-track Thoroughbred in the midst of the Triple Crown frenzy–with two weeks until the final race. Some of us love racing and some can’t stand to watch, but we all agree on one truth: Thoroughbred horses are beautiful, athletic, and bursting with heart.

Is there a foal born that doesn’t arrive with a human’s dream attached? They’re all legs and big ears, galloping to keep up with Mom’s slow trot, while Fogelberg’s Run for the Roses swells to a crescendo. The foal stops and the camera zooms in close to his big, soft eye. His intelligence is undeniable.

Trigger Warning: Real Life.

On the day that Vinnie was born, someone looked at him with awe. We don’t know who, or where. We can’t trace him that far back–the tattoo inside his lip isn’t readable. But he said goodbye to his family and landed at Thistledown Racino, a Thoroughbred race track and casino in North Randall, Ohio, on the outskirts of Cleveland. Do you know the place? The track has declined in recent years because it doesn’t have slot machines like the neighboring tracks.

When Vinnie was no longer wanted at the track, his owners listed him with CANTER (stands for The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) in Ohio. He was not a rescue, but listed for sale. Another horse from the same owner was purchased by a Colorado trainer, with one catch. It was a two-for-one deal; if the trainer wanted the chestnut she liked, then the bay, Vinnie, had to go along in the deal. No charge.

I doubt it was a sad farewell or a warm welcome to Colorado. Clearly Vinnie was no prize. At some point around this time, someone mentioned a diagnosis of Shivers, a degenerative neurological disease with no cure. We don’t know who diagnosed it or much else about him in these early years.

The Colorado trainer soon donated him on to a rather elite private riding program. He’s been there the last eight years–jumping mostly. It’s a challenge working in a program where riders change almost daily. It’s safe to say his riders weren’t necessarily the best but he took care of them for the next few years. We hear all the girls loved him.

But then Vinnie started to unravel. We were told differing stories about this part, too. He just “decided” to not get in the trailer one day. He flipped over in trailers. He needed to be tranquilized for the farrier. He only hated the nail hammering part of farrier work. He had horrible separation anxiety. He didn’t like being tied. The list goes on, but he got booted out of the riding program and spent all winter in pasture with no supplemental feed. Then the order came down; Vinnie was no longer paying his way and he needed to move on. Right away. One more time.

You know the next part: somebody called somebody and word got to a person with a soft spot for off the track Thoroughbreds. She, along with a second kind heart, decided to sponsor Vinnie, with help from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, and I agreed he could come to my farm.

I went to see him with one of his sponsors-to-be. We had low expectations, and if he was worse than we expected, we knew we’d want him more. So there wasn’t much doubt. He was alone in an arena with a horse trailer. He was skinny and so filled with anxiety that he seemed distracted and antsy–kind of slow motion frantic. He was moving badly behind, so skinny that his withers had a pointy peak, but his eye was soft. He had some idea he might be applying for a job and first impressions probably mattered but he was a mess with his stomach sucked up and a dusty dullness to his coat.

We walked to the trailer and his hay was inside, just beyond his reach. He paced back and forth–tense with hunger. His backbone was visible and he had a way of tucking his butt under himself to compensate for whatever was hurting him. At the same time, he was very kind, happy to breathe with me, and match my strides walking until he found a stray bit of manure. He stopped to eat it and now that I looked, there wasn’t another visible scrap of manure in the arena. I wondered… but they said he cleaned up his hay three times a day. Maybe Vinnie was lying but I doubt it. Either way, withholding feed is a ridiculous training technique.

He’s a tall lanky gelding, more insecure than shy. He doesn’t ask for much, he’s calm–with a Cary Grant kind of charm. Vinnie kept his head low, level with mine, more accepting than desperate. I let him know he’d be at my barn tomorrow.

Vinnie 064The riding program was afraid we’d get hurt hauling him, so they insisted on delivering him. His new friends spent twenty-four hours hoping Vinnie would survive the trip. The next afternoon when the trailer pulled in, I had a spot ready for him with fresh water and too much hay. I watched him–while he watched me–as the trailer pulled around. When the door opened, he paused there like a returning war hero. He slowly stepped off the trailer with dignity and calm. The cowboy who hauled him said he walked right in the trailer, no fuss.

Don’t go all bliss-ninny on me. I know you want to read a happy rescue story here–only half as much as I want to write one. But that isn’t true yet. He’s here for two months for evaluation. This is not his happy ending, just a stopover. But Vinnie thinks today is good. He likes the company and they put the hay crazy-close. You can eat all day long.

Vinnie has an odd stride and some nervous affectations. He’s getting ulcer treatment, but we wondered about the Shivers, along with tucked hip, so his sponsors called in a favor with a vet/chiropractor/acupuncturist. Vinnie had needles in his back in a blink. The good news was that she didn’t diagnose Shivers. On the down side, she thinks he may have sustained a serious SI injury or perhaps a broken pelvis at some time in the past.

When? Did it happen at the track; is that why he was shuffled off for free? Had he been carrying kids over jumps this way? Just then a friend at my barn said Vinnie looked very familiar. She texted me the next day to say he’d been offered to the equine therapy center where she works–three years earlier. She’d turned him down because he was lame and skinny.

We don’t know the end of this story. He has a couple of sponsored months here, so he can be evaluated. He’ll be getting plenty to eat, more vet visits, and some supplements and medications to help his back loosen. I’ll work with him on confidence and trailer loading. We don’t know if he will able to be ridden lightly or not but we want to give him some time with that part of the evaluation. They told us he was 12, but his papers say he’s 14. Vinnie is at midlife.

Ultimately horses, sometimes even rescue horses, get judged by whether or not they can put in more work. They’re valued for what they have to contribute to humans; they have to pay their way.

But the really sad part is that even now Vinnie will try again. No matter how many times he’s been dismissed, no matter how many goodbyes have come before; he will keep his big Thoroughbred heart open to humans. This horse humbles me. He doesn’t have the good sense to quit us and he will try again. Like his brothers at the track, he will try until his heart bursts.

So, if goodbye is not in your vocabulary and if you think his huge heart will fit inside your barn, then kindly consider adopting this good horse from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. Because a forever home means more to some of us than others.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Enveloped

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The prairie sky leans in closer at night, weaving a soft cocoon around our farm. We are enveloped with a dark stillness as sweet as blueberries and chocolate.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“Enveloped.”

How a Runaway Happens.

guthriegallop (640x530)You know that feeling when a wreck is going to happen but you just can’t look away? It’s a magnetic, anxious feeling, followed by half-hearted guilt; time slows and it would feel better if you could laugh. It’s hoping for the best, but knowing, just knowing…

I was at the rodeo in Cheyenne. You can tell it was decades ago because I can’t sit through them anymore, even if I do want to hear the concert afterward. But there I was in the crowded grandstand and the entry parade had begun: colorful riding clubs and rodeo queens and chuckwagons, one after another, passed in front of us.

The parade continued with a line, stirrup to stirrup, of maybe ten rodeo pick-up men. They wore shiny metallic chaps and bright Wrangler shirts, looking cool and trotting proud. Just behind them was another rodeo queen and her two attendants. This queen’s horse was clearly tense. They sported tiaras on white hats and ribbon sashes that advertised their county fair, waving with cowgirl glamor, beaming huge smiles. The queen’s horse jigged; he wasn’t really trotting or cantering; it was something in between–with a little too much altitude. But the girl-queen was born for this moment. Her smile is bright and her eyes are on the crowd. By now her horse was pounding with anxiety, while the attendants had picked up their reins and rated their horses back a bit. Everyone saw it coming–with dread. I was holding my breath. So was the horse.

The queen waved on. Her attention was on the crowd; she took her job very seriously. Her horse was dancing fast, as if his hooves were burning. He could barely touch the ground, his shoulders were high and he was almost sitting behind. Time stopped, I couldn’t blink. But then the horse got a toe-hold on the earth, all the energy that had been a boiling prance connected together, and his hind end launched them forward like a jet. It was so abrupt that I thought he might run right out from under her. The queen’s head snapped back, but at the last possible second, her waving hand grabbed the saddle horn and they were off.

The queen’s horse slammed into the backside of that line of pick-up men and they scattered like bowling pins. By the time they figured out what hit them, the queen’s horse had passed the chuckwagon and the chain reaction moving forward totally unraveled the parade. It spooked the crowd to silence. A handful of pick-up men gallantly gave chase, but the queen was already out of sight. The crowd was quiet as the announcer filled time, until he could report that everyone was safe.

I felt bad for the horse. He hung on as long as he could but he needed some help. I’m not blaming the queen; he might not have been her horse and it was a pretty strange trail ride they were on. But I always remember this when someone tells me their horse took off bucking for no good reason. That their horse came apart and went nuts when other horses didn’t. Or to a smaller degree, when a horse uses evasive behavior in the arena.

A runaway always starts just one step at a time. It’s a small tension that grows. There was warning but if you miss the first few cues from your horse, it will accelerate and when he’s in full flight–full resistance–it’s too late for a small cue to help him.

Or maybe the first moment the horse tenses, you take that cue from him and tighten your legs and pull on the reins. It’s a natural reaction for us, but it affirms that he was right to be frightened. The result is the same as cuing him to run away or panic.

Some trainers hold the opinion that the answer to any problem is to just ride the horse through it. Let the horse figure it out. That might work for a certain horses in limited situations, but it isn’t dependable. In the worst case, a horse might totally come apart and bolt. And a bad experience can change a horse, making the path back to confidence long and slow.

The bottom line is that a wreck is a perfect time to improve your relationship with your horse. If he’s in trouble, he has lost confidence. He can feel abandoned when you are right there in the saddle. He wants the safety of his herd, in this case his rider. You can push him harder and louder, or tell him he’s done it before and being afraid now is stupid. Or you can take him at his word and slow down. If he doesn’t have confidence, you can’t bully him into courage, any more than a trainer who yells angry corrections during a lesson can expect a soft, sensitive rider at the end. Horses don’t learn when they’re afraid and neither do we.

The biggest gift we can give a horse is the confidence to trust himself.

Step one is stop focusing on everything but your horse. Plug in and listen; ride every stride. If the first thing you notice is that he is totally unresponsive, consider it your reminder to pay attention and feel his tension sooner next time; put him first, so he can have the confidence to do his job.

There will never be a totally bomb-proof horse. There are no guarantees; riding horses is dangerous. But poise and courage can be trained. If you show your horse the respect of listening; if you ride with kindness and keep the conversation going with small challenges and praise, over time the trust grows strong. It’s no coincidence; when your horse is brave and confident, he becomes the horse that will save your life.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature.

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Gravity–it’s a dependable force of nature. Look how well it works.

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Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“Forces of Nature.”

To Rest in Peace.

WMGrandfatherThey aren’t getting any younger. Most of us spend a certain amount of time between riding and mucking, just watching our animals get older. If you are like me, you have a few elders of different species right now who are on borrowed time. Every time the Grandfather Horse lies down I squint to see if he’s still breathing.

We wish for some sense of order, hoping that they will pass chronologically, oldest to youngest. That plan never works. Still, as we watch them age, we always imagine ourselves saying goodbye, one at a time, for years to come.

What narrow vision. The truth is it’s possible they’ll outlive us. What if you die first?

The world lost a good horsewoman recently. She and I hadn’t met, but we shared the same friends. Her passing was unexpected and she left a horse behind. She is mourned dearly.

I didn’t know her except for one small detail: She was 61 years old. My age.

This is how animals get in trouble. They are beloved by their owner, but that person dies. Family members mean well, but maybe they live far away or are unfamiliar with horses. Sometimes these good horses languish in neglect, with no one wanting to make a hard decision. Maybe in the end they get thin, finally go to auction, and in the worst case, get aboard a truck heading south, more frightened than they have ever been. Can you imagine anything worse?

Do you have a plan written down for your horse?

Our horsewoman-friend was forward-thinking with the best interests of her mare’s safety at heart. Her papers were in order, with directives and money from the estate to support her horse. She was blessed with good friends who stepped up to help immediately.

Current statistics say that about 55% of American adults do not have a will or other estate plan in place. Probate can take a long time: even a simple estate takes six months, with many taking over two years. During that period, no money can be disbursed for the care of animals.

Past that, not all of us come from close-knit families with similar lifestyles, or if we live in a different area, it’s our friends we will need to rely on. Have you talked with them about your animals in the case of your death? If you have a plan written, is it time to update it and check-up with your caretakers?

When I was younger I didn’t take this topic very seriously. I had a vague plan that my horses be given to a committed 4-H girl. I passively felt good about it, but the truth is that I didn’t even write it down. Thinking about that now, it’s laughable.

We all want our animals safe when we are gone and it takes more than good intention. But it’s emotional and we often aren’t all that good at asking for help in the first place. It’s the part of our estate that is most challenging. Animals are family members but without the same legal considerations. The more animals we have, the more complicated it gets.

If asked to take a pet in the past, I would have waved an arm and nodded–I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. The thought of losing a friend is never easy; it takes courage to even have the conversation. At this age, it’s a much more serious question and I’m much more cautious about volunteering. We all should be–it’s a huge responsibility.

Perhaps your horse could be donated to a rescue. Is it an idea, or have your actually gotten their permission? Choosing a specific rescue has risk involved: suppose that rescue no longer exists or there has been a change in management and it no longer has that credible reputation. Or suppose that rescue was exceedingly full when the time came. Do you have a back-up plan?

Some areas have Perpetual Care Programs (here) where agreements are made and paid for in advance, for the long term well-being of your dogs, cats, and horses in future foster care or permanent homes. It would give such a sense of peace to be able to keep companion animals in our last years and know at the same time that they will be safe when we’re gone.

What about euthanasia? It might seem simple on one hand, but if the animals are young or in good health, the courts will rule the decision invalid. Still in the case of an elderly horse, or one with chronic health concerns that require a high level of care, the euthanasia option should be considered. Too many times at the end of a horse’s life they are devalued and fall into neglect as the cost of care continues to increase. Perhaps allowing them to rest in peace is the best option.

What about forming an intentional community of animal lovers who work together sharing care for each other’s animals? Is now time to look into nursing homes that allow pets?

And have you noticed that I have more questions than answers? Have you come up with a plan that you would like to share? The more comfortable we can get talking about this difficult topic, the more we can help each other and our animals when the sad time comes.

This is a great resource on Will Planning and Pet Trusts (here). It has information on all aspects and options available to animal owners who want to be responsible for their fur family in the event of their death. It’s a place to start and then thoughtfully consider all the options.

For those of us who share our lives with loyal dogs, kind-hearted horses, and cats who may pretend indifference at times–we put their safety first. They are part of our legacy. After that we can rest in peace.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Intricate

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This beautiful world is an intricate balance of fine detail and huge brush strokes, of yearning and satisfaction, of unthinkable beauty and profound loss. Seeing tiny weeds of perfection up close gives me faith that the big picture, the one larger than I can see or understand, must certainly be made with the same perfect intricacy.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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

“Intricate.”