Anthropomorphism. It’s a Not Bad Thing.

WM bhim anthroThis week I saw a comment on a great story about a mustang that credited the horse and rider’s success, but called the writing sentimental. I had to laugh; if she thought that story was sentimental, she’d hate my writing.  Then I got a bit defensive. Her use of the word sentimental felt like a rub–kind of like calling a capable woman a girl. It’s dismissive of something that I feel strongly about. And it’s wrong.

There’s a less diminutive word for sentimental. It’s that word so hard to remember or pronounce–anthropomorphism, meaning attributing human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities. In other words, calling yourself a Horse Mom or a Dog Dad.

The Wikipedia page gives a great short history. Modern psychologists generally characterize anthropomorphism as a cognitive bias, or a thought process people use to make generalizations about other humans or animals. It’s a knowledge acquired when we’re young, from our first fairy tales with a Big Bad Wolf, to every Looney Tunes rabbit, duck, or (Porky) pig. After that, every moment of Walt Disney, along with Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Animal Farm, and Kipling’s Jungle Book. It’s embedded in our minds since birth, if not sooner. It’s always been natural to use animals as parables for human life. Does that make it wrong?

“Anthropomorphism is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” –Wiki

There is a negative connotation and a positive connotation; the problem with demeaning anthropomorphic perceptions is that it’s also the only way humans have to perceive things. Our only option is to look though the lenses of our human experience. When you think of it that way, anthropomorphism is hard to deny. Can we perceive the world as if we were a fish? Or as if we were God? Being human is the only experience we know; it’s honest.

And we’re in excellent company. Again, from Wikipedia:

The study of great apes in their own environment and in captivity has changed attitudes to anthropomorphism. In the 1960s the three so-called “Leakey’s Angels”, Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, Dian Fossey studying gorillas and Biruté Galdikas studying orangutans, were all accused of “that worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism”. The charge was brought about by their descriptions of the great apes in the field; it is now more widely accepted that empathy has an important part to play in research.

De Waal, whose research centers on primate social behavior, has written: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

Nah, nah, nah-nah-nah. Because balanced perception involves intellect, but also intuition. The combination of heart and mind is always where truth lives. What’s un-natural is treating feelings and instincts as cold, dead facts.

And yes, it’s also noted that anthropomorphism can function as a strategy to cope with loneliness when other human connections are not available. Well, I do acknowledge guilt here. But being lonely isn’t a crime, and the reason so many of us do it, is that it works. As stated in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness animals do have emotions “not unlike humans.” It’s an affirmation; brain science has proved what most animal people have known forever, but it’s still important information for folks who use horses like dirt bikes.

Disclaimer:  Yes, some people go over the edge; there are saccharine, dewy-eyed, gushy people who cling desperately to an animal as dysfunctionally as a miser clings to his pennies.  But again, rather than dismiss the sentiment, in a way it’s a backhanded acknowledgment that it works as a coping mechanism. Still there is a difference between dressing up all the cats in doll clothes and making them sit at the dinner table and recognizing there is a sentient mind inside that Momma cat as she cares for her kittens.

Because we are all created of the same stardust, we have similarities with animals and we can form relationships and communicate with them. Some species more than others, but at this point no one denies the intelligence of birds, dolphins, and the domestic animals who joined us in our homes centuries ago.

It isn’t just that animals have human characteristics and behaviors that we recognize; humans have animal characteristics and behaviors that animals recognize, as well. Anthropomorphic behaviors work both directions. Doesn’t it seem like labradors are especially sentimental about humans? Especially really short humans, still too young to be cynical?

In my world, the term natural horsemanship has fallen on hard times. I always defined the term as communicating in horse language, learned by watching and listening. Then a bunch of men with sticks hit too many horses in the face and shook too many white bags. Maybe it was me that got desensitized, but I lost faith in that term as I’ve seen cold-hearted domination lower the level of communication with horses, in the same way it does between humans. Intimidation will never encourage the best answer.

But in spite of our shortcomings, I have not lost faith that communication between species is possible to do in an affirmative way. Call me an anthropomorphoristic idiot if you can pronounce it, but I will always believe that horses invite us. Is it possible that horses anthropomorphize, too, and see humans in their own reflection? Is it possible that I could become a Boss Mare in the best sense of their definition? It’s a lofty goal.

My horses and I speak different languages but we have found a common ground. I can’t say that my horses love me; I can’t claim that human thing that isn’t equine. But we do share a deep respect for each other, and a volunteered willingness to be together that can feel just like affection. Still, the hearts and flowers are my issue–chronically human as I am. I continue to aspire to that peaceful thing I witness when the herd stands together in the sun.

Go ahead, be dismissive of our so-called sentimentality, and then explain to me why some rider’s horse’s tuck their tails and pin their ears, while other horses dance with a pride and confidence that can lift human hearts. Explain why some humans, broken and belittled by their own species, find undeniable comfort and healing in the company of animals.

And when it comes to working with horses, I am more and more certain that whatever it is we think we’re training is not a fraction as important as the attitude we maintain in our minds, as well as our hearts.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

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Victory: Every day that I get to stand right here.

(Passion is the easy part. Living with it is the challenge.)


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.)




The Grandfather Horse: When Animals Have Pets…

WMSpiritArthurI have a bone to pick with my Grandfather Horse. He stole my goat.

It’s hard to complain. Spirit’s been my soulmate for the last 29 years and I’m prone to writing sticky, sentimental posts about him. Sure, back in the day we got a little contrary with each other from time to time. And yes, he always did prefer people who didn’t know how to ride. Can’t fault him for that.

My Grandfather Horse’s habit of keeping pets wasn’t obvious at first. During the first years I boarded him there was no real opportunity for exotic pets, so he settled for what he could find; cats mostly. I thought it was normal.

At our last boarding barn, he befriended a tiny black kitten, way too young to be on his own. Spirit threw him some grain, and when the kitten was still there the next day, getting kitten chow seemed smart, along with a little bowl for under the hay feeder. The kitten swung on Spirit’s tail and climbed all over his back. He batted at my curry and left fierce claw marks on Spirit’s saddle. Horses are social animals and I didn’t think much about it until the kitten stepped off a gate and onto my other horse’s back. Dodger came apart like the fourth of July. The kitten didn’t have any luck riding other horses in the barn either.  I started to get suspicious of my Grandfather Horse.

The first year here on the farm a llama cria was born. Spirit let me know that the mom was in labor and then we both sat back to wait. Well, I sat back, while he put his head through the fence panel and stared. Two hours later, little baby Belle Starr finally wobbled away from her mom and over to touch noses with Spirit, still waiting patiently. I managed to keep them apart for almost two weeks. Perhaps you’ve met Belle? She’s the llama who comes up to strange horses–at a dead run–for a nose rub. The Grandfather Horse taught her that.

The next year, a friend and I rescued a small herd of neglected donkeys. When they arrived here, the last one out of the trailer was especially fearful, teetering on hooves that looked like elf shoes. Still, he marched right up to Spirit, whose nose was though the fence panel again, and it was all over but the tattoos. We re-homed the others, and it took me weeks to settle this little donkey, but if I looked out the window in the middle of the night the two of them would be doing the tango in the moonlight and biting each other’s elbows. I never had a chance. Years later when Edgar Rice Burro arrived, it was a forgone conclusion.

You would have thought that a pair of elderly, free-range ducks would be beneath the Grandfather Horse… but they waddled back from the pond in the afternoon just in time for Spirit to toss some grain down to them. He was just showing off by that point.

It’s no surprise that the horses all love him best. The mares are all besotted and the geldings act like he’s Steve McQueen-cool. Even now, when half the herd doesn’t know who Steve McQueen was. Sure, he does me a favor every day; he runs the young Mare-Who-Would-Be-Alpha off her hay. It probably isn’t in deference to me; he does it for sport more likely. If he’s particularly stiff–he does it with his eyeballs. Then he gets his faux-humble look as Edgar Rice Burro dips his longears with respect. Egads.

But I had plans for Arthur, the goat. It would be different this time. Really.

Arthur used to live in the next county, in a pasture with his herd. He got to that awkward age for young male goats… and totally lucked out. He won a one-way trip in the cab of my truck. As one-way goat trips go, Arthur was wildly lucky, not that he was grateful. Goats aren’t burdened with the social constrictions of gravity or good manners. He left proof of that in my truck, but you know, a good ranch truck doesn’t worry about polite society either.

Arthur got a comfy pen in my other barn, far from Spirit but next to Edgar Rice Burro and a very amiable chestnut gelding. He was terrified, having never been around people, but I have a way with goats, and a can of grain, so I set about winning him over. By the time he was tentatively taking one tiny bit of grain from my hand, he was able to break out of his pen five or six times a day. Each time Arthur got loose he bolted through the other horse runs and screeched to a stop under Spirit’s belly. Resistance was futile. I gave up bringing him back; he’s been in that shady spot ever since. Now Arthur comes to gobble a handful of grain from me, but then he’s gone, recklessly bounding back through the fence in an important hurry. He has priorities.

My Grandfather Horse had a mild colic this week, as the first snow storm of the season threatened. Arthur and I stayed close. Mild is a word we can only associate with colic in hindsight. All colic is serious in the beginning and my old horse is frail. He’s okay now and it’s still good to be king. He’s the one who taught me the most important thing I know about training horses–it’s all about negotiation. I used to be a bit of a goat myself, in my youth. I pretend to know better now.

Look at the photo again; is this some sort of massage? Arthur must weigh at least sixty pounds by now and he has pointy hooves. He tries to stay on when Spirit stands up, like that kitten did, but Arthur’s off in a twitch.

No one can stay mad at the Grandfather Horse for long… or maybe I’m jealous of Arthur. That used to be my spot.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Ornate

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An autumn shrubbery, ornate as a paisley tapestry, is gone on the wind,

Rustling ahead of a polar flip toward winter’s invariant prairie.

Hurry Spring. Just as quick.


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.)


Are You an Advocate for Horses?

Ruby Ranch's Keira and my friend, Amelia, budding advocate..

Ruby Ranch’s Keira, working with my friend, Amelia.

Neglected horses are everywhere in the news lately. By the time you make sense of the images, it’s too late to look away. You might be keeping an sad eye on some thin horses in your local area. Maybe you remember Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue’s Vinnie, who was here for evaluation and training for a few months, and Keira after him.

I took a vacation this summer, the first one in a decade. I sat in a court room with no windows for a week, with concerned citizens and fellow board members of Horse Advocates of Colorado, listening to testimony in an animal cruelty case. In a different neglect trial, I was a witness. I’ve always known the rescue side, but this year I came to understand some of the challenges for law enforcement and I’ve been both inspired and demoralized by our American court system.

This year I’ve been name-called and lost dear friends. I’ve seen the stress of fighting the good fight take its toll on good-hearted people, and I have seen callous people, with no concern for life, behave despicably with no acknowledgement or apology. It isn’t like I was remotely new to equine neglect and abuse; we win some and lose some, but this year has been an special education.

The first question people ask is how can someone let this happen to their horses? Simple, it usually all begins with a change in the usual routine. Colorado has had its fair share of floods and fires recently. Sometimes a horse owner has a health challenge or loses their job or has a death in the family. Sadly, at any given time, we are all vulnerable. There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.

The real question is what happens next? Some of us will move quickly to sell or re-home our horses, hoping to keep them safe. Or mitigate the costs by finding someone to part-lease him. But sometimes the issues keep coming and time gets away as we struggle to keep up. By then our horses are thin and perhaps failing. Now what? We’re too embarrassed to call the vet, if we even have the money. And afraid that someone will report us to the sheriff the rest of the time. As a last resort, would you take him to an auction? Let him die in the pasture and hope no one sees? How desperate will it get?

And yes, a percentage of humans just don’t care. They see animals as personal property–theirs to do use and dispose of as they like. For sake of pride, they spend thousands on attorneys and court fees, rather than do the right thing for animals in the first place.

But, you say, someone would be crazy to leave them to starve. Well, yes. Exactly. Mental illness usually plays a common part in animal neglect and abuse. Some humans are sick enough to choose blood and money; to be malicious without remorse.

The thing all these scenarios have in common is that no one asked for help. Humans don’t like being seen as weak or failing. Most horse people pride themselves on being independent and resourceful. And then, if asking for help wasn’t hard enough, it can be hard to accept the help offered. Humans are complicated.

Once we ask, things can start to move. Family and neighbors step up. There are community resources like hay banks that offer help. Even deputies will lend a hand. I have such respect for people who humble themselves in deference to their animal’s welfare. It shows character.

The second most common opinion heard from the public, usually extremely hostile, is that the court’s punishment is too light. People often suggest starving and torturing the animal abusers. Trust me, I understand the sentiment. It’s easy to have a hard-line of disdain for anyone with a thin horse, because it gives us a way to distance ourselves from our own vulnerability. After all, I have two hard keepers in my own barn. But threatening violence makes us guilty of the thing we are fighting against. Could we rant in the closet and then elevate the public conversation to a more helpful level?

There’s gray area; the difference between the crazy abusers and the disadvantaged owners is important to understand. Some deserve our compassion and help. And some deserve all the punishment that the law will allow. If you think the sentencing is too lenient, then it’s obvious–stop complaining and get involved.

Here’s one new light: The FBI Makes Horse Abuse a Felony in January, 2016. Not just a felony, but a Class-A Felony. That puts horse abuse on par with assault, homicide and arson. It’s been a long time coming, this acknowledgment that animal abuse is closely tied with violence against women, children, elders, and indeed, our whole society. Take heart–change happens.

Warning: The following opinion is just mine. It gets me in trouble but it’s a free country.

The other common statement that I hear is that someone just can’t be involved in helping because they love horses too much to look at the pictures; that hearing about it would just hurt them too much. Like somehow their love is just too pure to hear this kind of ugliness. Could you possibly think that those of us sitting in court are there because we love horses less than you do?

Do horses a favor; instead of loving them too much, love them just enough. Enough to offer help to a neighbor in need or enough to make the call to the authorities if necessary. Enough to be part of the solution. If you can’t take time off from work, then write letters to the media. Donate money, but if you don’t have a dime to spare, sign petitions, join groups, be informed. Love horses enough to bear witness. Love them enough to make positive change.

My friends and I formed Horse Advocates of Colorado, over a thousand members strong (join here), to give a voice to horses in our county.  It’s our first anniversary. We’re celebrating by going to an invitational horse welfare meeting at the sheriff’s office this morning. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t make a difference for horses.

And to everyone who has lifted their voice above the din of ranting and criticism–you are a hero to horses and to me. Thank you.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treat

WM DodgerHildaHappy Halloween: May the ghost herd be remembered.

Indulge me. It’s a throw-back image from years ago, but I’m missing this horse today. Sorry to say, I don’t know who took the photo.

This is Dodger. I don’t have many photos of him now. Halloween was always our favorite holiday–but make no mistake; this horse was a treat every single day he was here. I had this permanent lips-stuck-on-my-gums smile that was all his.

A horse this great…even missing him is a treat. I hope he haunts me forever.

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.)


When Your Horse Falls In a Hole.

WMreinaidHorses fall into holes all the time. Metaphoric holes; the really tricky kind that jump up and surprise you when you least expect it.

Holes might be things like confusing cues; you want to canter but instead find yourself in a road gait. (I hardly ever make gaited horse jokes.) Or maybe it’s a tarp that he’s seen a million times that’s in a whole new strip of sunlight–otherwise known as a leak in the space-time continuum. Or maybe some idiot brought a baby goat to the barn. It can be anything.

Sometimes your trainer is even the cause. If a lesson is going really well and a challenge is in order, I might announce loudly that I’m going to ask for something “really hard”, or I’ll literally say I’m about to throw the horse and rider in a hole. Lots of times announcing it out loud is enough. If a little more of a push is needed, I usually ask them for a transition requiring just a bit more finesse than usual, and since they are looking for the worst after my warning, they fall into a hole of over-thinking or over-hurrying or any other ordinary mental flop sweat.

This is a good thing because if you are going to fall into a hole, doing it when the trainer is actually there is a smart thing. Your trainer can teach you something really valuable; how to help your horse climb out.

Rule number one when your horse falls into a hole, is to go right in with him. Meaning we’ve all seen riders punish their horses for making the wrong choice. They assume the worst first, rather than giving their horse the benefit of the doubt, they demand obedience. Then the horse gets upset, his mind shuts down as anxiety mode kicks in, and nothing good can happen now. So saying something like You’ve seen that before, Stupid or You should know how to do this by now, Dummy cannot possibly help. Standing at the edge of the hole and name-calling isn’t a cue he can respond to and the rider has created a break in partnership.

You were part of how he got into this mess, so embrace the bad. Stay present and connected. When your horse falls in a hole, go in there with him and help him out.

The first thing to do when you get into the hole is take about three deep breaths to slow things down. Give him a scratch; you aren’t so much rewarding him as reminding him that you are partners and you haven’t abandoned him. It’s what a good leader does to provide encouragement.

Now is a good time to lower your standards, so you can say thank you more often. So go back to something simple that you know he can succeed at, and as soon as he even thinks about doing it, reward him big.  Be generous, so he will learn to be kind. When you are partners again and the trust bump has been smoothed, return to the original task and cut it into three or four tiny bites. Ask for one piece at a time with slow breaths and generous rewards. Take all day. Then string a couple of the bites together, and eventually when he willingly does the whole task, pat your own self for remembering that going slow works every single time.

And that trust is a living thing; it grows and breaks down and is brand new every ride. Take nothing for granted. Trust is a gift that’s volunteered. It’s sacred and rare and you can’t buy it with money, but it will grow and thrive when given a committed diet of respect.

And eventually, my warning that there’s a hole up ahead is a cue to smile because there’s an opportunity to show off just a bit; a time to become more consciously aware of working together and truly enjoying a challenge.

“To practice equestrian art is to establish a conversation on a higher level with the horse, a dialogue of courtesy and finesse.” –Nuno Oliveira always says it best.

(I might add, “Especially if you are in a hole.”)

Of course, there are holes that riders fall into as well. It happens when we carry our day-trash into the saddle, or when a judge is watching, or maybe when we have a gut-busting desire to relive the past…canter depart.

That’s when, if you have been kind and fair, your horse gives you the benefit of the doubt and returns some of your generosity. Because he has had good manners modeled for him, he’ll come into the hole and carry you out. He’ll make you look better than you deserve, and in that moment you’ll be humbled by his heart.

To earn a horse’s trust, you have to offer it first. Another word for that is optimism.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm

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