The Best Reasons to Stop Riding


wm-lilith-pastureI think I’ve heard all the clichés about change that I can stand. At a certain age, we don’t need to be reminded how hard change is. But fall is all about change, I notice. Most of us get poked by the passing of time, in one way or another, right about this time of the year. Falling leaves and all that…

Like usual, there are extremes: Every now and then, I read an article declaring that riding horses is cruel. Any horse. That it’s just too demeaning for horses; that ethics require that all horses be freed from their slavery to humans. I might be imagining the righteous tone. Return them all to the wild, I guess.

On the other hand, I hear from riders in their nineties, riding horses in their thirties, with an arthritic shell of bravado. Good for you, really. So pleased that your horse has avoided injuries that long, and the same for you. What luck.

Then there are the rest of us, pushing the muck cart and casually wondering which hip will be replaced first. We have horses that had long careers or got hurt in turnout or weren’t born with perfect conformation. Or maybe we just aren’t lucky. Is it time for someone to be turned out to pasture?

Has it crossed your mind that your horse is slowing down? Maybe more than once? Is it really hard to push him to the canter and then he breaks right away? Or maybe he’s reluctant about being caught. After a sluggish warm-up, he seems depressed and you kick him a little more all the time. Or maybe he drops his head lower and lower. That’s if he’s stoic, of course. Not every horse has that patience.

So you check with the vet, try some stronger supplements, and that buys you another year. Then you start negotiating. No more steep trails, or maybe you get new arena footing. But now you’re asking yourself again if it’s time.

I’m sorry it hurts, but listen to him. Good horses don’t randomly start lying. And if your horse really is asking for the break, I know it breaks you even more, but let him rest. In this light, a career-ending injury has the clarity that slow-motion decline lacks. Maybe he’ll feel better in the spring and maybe not, but for now, let him be and tell him he’s a good boy. A horse’s riding life isn’t a race where the last one standing wins. Don’t make him feel he’s failed you.

Love him enough.

Maybe it’s you that is having a hard time; your past injuries are catching up and it’s hard to get comfortable in the saddle. Maybe you are a certain age and your courage hormones have abandoned you. They do that, you know.

Or time makes you rush too much. You have a list of all your lists and so many people depending on you. You burst into the barn and ride fast, but you’re still late. Your horse behaves like the victim of a drive-by assault. It’s an honest response and you’ll deal with it when you have more time.

Or maybe your fear has just grown an inch at a time until it became disabling. It isn’t that you aren’t as brave as you once were; it’s an actual full-blown anxiety attack that you’re trying to fight but it never goes away. It’s a fear that paralyzes your lungs and you can’t control your limbs. It isn’t the usual common sense alert that something might happen. It’s an air raid siren that never goes silent. Never. You know your horse feels it, too. Would it be different on another horse?

So, you get the help of a kind trainer and you do your very best. Still, you dread the worst, every stride, and fear never lets you breathe. It happens every time, but you don’t admit the truth. Months pass, you know you’re safe, but there’s no logic or relief when it comes to fear. It’s possessed you.

You feel obligated. You feel like a loser. You’re too old or too busy or too frightened. You’d hate to think what people might say. You’d be letting your horse down. But in the quiet, when you listen to your heart, you know.

Love yourself enough.

We all have dry spells and going into winter is a great time to take a break. Nothing bad will happen. He won’t miss your holiday stress. He won’t forget his training and neither will you. I promise. Come spring, you’ll be back in the saddle and the view will be different. That’s the way change works; you can depend on it.

If you know it’s bigger than a season, take a breath and try to tell the truth. You might have to say it a few times to get through it. Integrity matters because secrets, or the illusion of them, are poison. Besides, he knows.

What if it isn’t wrong?

I have a barn half-full of retired horses; some have been retired longer than they were ridden. They let me know every day that they are no less for it. We should have that confidence.

Humans seem to put so much self-judgment on whether they ride or not. I see it every day, as an instructor. Riding is wonderful; I’m glad I’m still in the saddle. But the longer I’m around horses, the more I believe that they don’t care if we ride or not. Relationship, as it relates to herd dynamics, is what matters to horses, and that isn’t defined by our altitude. Maybe it’s time to re-invent ourselves and up the conversation. Wouldn’t it be ironic if no longer riding meant that our horsemanship improved?

The scary question: If it’s the end of the world, what will you do instead of riding? Love them, just like you always have. That never changes.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Local


As vast as mountains
silhouetted and layered
across the horizon.

As close as
whispers of breath
holding the herd as one.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
(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.)


Riding the Inside of Your Horse

wm-spirit-eyeWhen I was just a dressage-princess-wannabe, before I became a full-blown Dressage Queen, I thought dressage riders all wore a kind of glazed-over look on their faces. Sure, some had furrowed brows and some looked distantly amused, but for the most part, they looked dull. They’re stuck in the arena, after all.

Other riding disciplines seemed more exciting. Eventers and jumpers cranked their heads toward the next jump. Western disciplines moved like they were looking for livestock. Endurance riders checked their watches and heart rates, on the move to the next stop. Jockeys perch like birds and looked under their arms, behind themselves, trying to stay ahead.

But dressage riders look like over-dressed Buddhas. No jumps, no cows. Dressage arenas have letters around the edge but it isn’t like they spell anything. At the upper levels, there are some pretty fancy tricks, but the majority of horses and riders never get that far. What’s the big deal?

You could name-call dressage riders the librarians of the horse world. We all look alike in our helmets. We wear dowdy, neutral clothes. We try to not intentionally scream and flap in the saddle. But librarians? Is it an insult?

Have you known any librarians? It’s a bad stereotype; like most things, the view from the inside is different. Book lovers know that the entire universe is at their finger tips. They are thinkers who value learning the hows and whys of a thing, as well as loving the telling of a good story, for the emotional terrain it covers. When I was younger, I took a crash-and-burn approach to life. I just didn’t know any better. Books led the way to awareness and choice. In other words, freedom.

By the time I found dressage, I’d already competed horses a few years. I had a gelding that people called “push-button”. It was how they excused our hard work. Dressage seemed foreboding; an institution of history and intelligence. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to belong there. But I pushed inside anyway. There was something about the way their horses danced. They had what I wanted, even if I didn’t have the words for it. In other words, a library.

Dressage might be the most misunderstood, but strangely alluring, riding discipline of all. But when I ask my riding clients what their goals are, the answer is always the same. They say they want a better relationship with their horse. Well, don’t let the shadbelly fool you. If your horse is relaxed and dancing under saddle, it’s all about the relationship.

Now back to those glazed eyes; dressage is an internal art. It isn’t intellectually elite, but it does involve mental focus. Because we don’t ride the outside of our horses; we ride the inside of them. How is that even possible? We learn to ride from within ourselves. Am I making it worse?

Think about it; if the rider is sitting still in the saddle, not kicking or pulling or even moving, and the horse is gliding through the gaits with balance and ease, how else can it we communicate but internally? It isn’t like a horse can respond to the words single tempi changes like a dog does to the word sit. And the very best part of how we ride looks as dull as a stack of books. From the start, we teach our horses to walk on a long rein, relaxed and forward. We have a cue for calm.

We rely on being physically aware of their bodies and communicating in small, nearly invisible ways. To ride inside of a horse is to feel more. It isn’t just intellectual and physical; it’s connecting with our senses, spine to spine with a horse, and experiencing being there–listening. We gain that awareness of them by quieting ourselves. Library talk, not a barroom brawl.

We use saddles that can feel more of what a horse has to say, we ride on light contact, using our reins to hear our horses more clearly. We ride in an arena that expands to the size of our knowledge, imagination, and creativity. We know that horses are sentient beings with feelings and opinions. We choose to meet them as equals, and have a dialog, calmly building trust and understanding. It’s a slow process to a relaxed hand-gallop, as free as the wind.

Sure, there are monsters intimidating horses and calling it dressage. All riding disciplines have pretenders. They take the short cut; watching violent video clips that say domination is the answer. They go to war against their horses, with ignorant fear that celebrates destruction and feeds our most base instincts. In other words, they aren’t your usual library patron.

Dressage riders are works in progress. We believe that we will be learning forever. It’s like a lifetime library card; as long as we are breathing, we’ll be striving to know more, communicate better, and most of all, be worthy of our horse’s intellect and greater trust.

It might be science fiction; a line of understanding humans could cross, to find that horses and other animals were ahead of us all along. That they’ve been nurturing us, instead of the other way around. It would be a place beyond our egos. In other words, a place of imagination–a library.

The next time you look at an empty arena, see it the way we do. It is a sacred space as infinite as a horse’s heart, with all the stories ever told about honor and courage. There are obstacles everywhere, but just like life, they’re invisible. And in a place that looks like a flat desert, there are mountains to climb. It might look like a boring textbook to the outside world, but it’s the science of movement and the inspiration for a masterpiece. It’s a library of secrets and possibility. Maybe it takes some maturity to appreciate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go there as kids.

They say it’s the foundation of all riding disciplines. The word dressage literally means training. I think it’s a magnet for true riders. In its best sense, dressage is training from the inside out–of the rider mostly.

And I wonder how many closet dressage queens are out there.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: H2O


A thread flows
affirming life
with a humble reminder
that we’re made of light and mud.

It’s the spirit given
our daily chores that
lifts us to the sacred path
of dreams and magic
and a wholeness greater than we know.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
(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 Serenity Prayer For Both of You


The seasons are changing and the air feels cooler. That’s what you notice, but your horse seems just a bit more interested in his surroundings than usual. You feel his tension, so you push ahead. Maybe if you put him to work right away, he’ll pay more attention.

You ask him to do the first thing that occurs to you; you turn him toward the rail. He’s sticky. So the reins get shorter as you insist. He steps slower, and your inside leg goes to work pushing. Then pushing harder. He’s stuck, so you pull the reins over his withers, hard to the outside. Then his shoulder falls to the outside as he tries to find relief from that impossible pull on the inside rein. Now the two of you look like you are trying out for roller derby, but not on the same team.

It’s a war of wills; more passive-aggressive than an out-and-out fight, but adversarial just the same. The resistance is undeniable and you just got on. It’s natural; how you were taught to ride. Meanwhile, the ride feels like one long correction to your horse and he can either get stoic and shut down, or get so compressed that he needs to explode. Bottom line: His anxiety is even higher than when you got on.

Think of it as a runaway of a grudge match. Probably better than whips-and-spurs violence, but is it any kinder? And where to from here?

Well, first, your horse is right. That doesn’t mean that you are wrong, it just means that his vote counts. He’s on the defensive because everything he does is wrong. The conversation between the two of you escalated. Somewhere in those first steps, you felt a need to control him and he resisted. Because that’s the answer every horse gives when you pull on the reins.

Reins give us an illusion of control. And by illusion, I mean it isn’t real.

But the heart of the problem is that rather than being in the moment moving forward, your action was a reaction to what just happened. It’s like a downward spiral and the tone of the partnership changes completely. We stop being leaders and become passive-aggressive bullies, but we only notice that in hindsight. And was either of you even breathing?

Another way of saying it is that the correction was bigger than the mistake. Think about it; it’s like we’re the judge who decides to make an example of a kid by giving him twenty years for shoplifting a sandwich, rather than finding out why he was hungry.

Gaining good judgment about over-correcting is crucial for a rider to improve because constant over-correcting makes a horse dull. It kills his try. Eventually, he’s broken. It’s the flip side of adage Less is More. As a dressage instructor, I really have to quit quoting Ray Hunt so often… but he says it best:

“You need to do less sooner; you’re always doing too much, late.”

I smile every time I read this nearly unintelligible quote. You have to have had the experience of being tied up in a knot with a horse for it to even make sense. Here’s the good news; if the quote does make sense, you’re half-way there.

REWIND: It’s that same ride. The air feels cooler and your horse seems just a bit more interested in his surroundings than usual. You feel his tension, so you let him look around, as he walks on a long rein. His tension cues you to take deep breaths and blow them out. You’re going to put him to work, but you’ll show him the respect of allowing him to get comfortable first. Take that first walk he offers you, and exhale a thank you. Feel your sit bones unite with his movement. A few strides later, your waist feels looser. That’s how you can tell his stride is lengthening.

If you want to move to the rail, that’s great. Let your legs follow his barrel as it moves back and forth, and slowly begin to pulse with your inside leg, asking him to step to the outside. The rein is still long. Give him all day to figure out his answer. It’s an attitude of a leg yield, but in a way, you are massaging his ribs, so the outside bend is a stretch. It might take the length of the arena to get to the rail, but your horse is more relaxed when you get there. There has been no fight. You’ve used time as an aid to release his distraction and anxiety. You and your horse are together in the present moment, partners at the beginning of a great ride.

Making corrections that are bigger than the original mistake can be habit-forming. You aren’t a malicious rider; you love your horse. It might be nothing more than letting your mind default position that you can let go of now. Being slower to react is an art outside the barn, too.

Do you ever have that moment when things are beginning to spin out of control, and almost as a joke, through gritted teeth, the Serenity Prayer comes to mind? But the words work, even said sarcastically, because the anxiety has to take a breath. Next time you’re having a mental runaway in the saddle, try this:

Horse, grant me the serenity to breathe, the patience to give a small, quiet cue, and the wisdom to listen for the answer with gratitude.

Then in that stillness, perhaps you’ll hear a message back:

Rider, grant me the time to understand what you ask, the confidence to try without fear, and the grateful release of giving you my trust.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Nostalgia


In a dark rosy blur of nostalgia,

free of time and fear,
images rise to tell the story
of who we became,

just a half-step from infinity.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
(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 Truth Behind Bit Drama

WMClaraTackDo you know how your bit works? No, I mean really. Not some cowboy-on-YouTube’s fantasy about horses needing to learn to carry cold metal on bone. Not some idiot in an English saddle that rides with a twisted-wire in his horse’s mouth.

I’m still stewing about this: A new rider explained that his horse had been professionally trained and successfully shown before he bought him. His horse was finished and as such, wore a finished horse bit. (It was a spade bit. It was capable of doing equine brain surgery the slow, excruciating way.)

This was the second time he had instructed me about how this soul-killing bit works. Maybe he thinks that I’m just not bright enough to understand. Or if he repeats his misguided explanation a few more times, I’ll palm my forehead and giggle like a school girl. Instead I hold eye contact and tell him it’s an illegal bit and I don’t allow it on my farm. The look on his face tells me that he has no more respect for my profession than he does for his horse.

Yes, I require my clients to use legal bits. It gets worse, I mean legal dressage bits (page 12). I took a look at the Western Dressage (WDAA) Equipment Guide (page 4) and sure enough, there are some pretty severe bits that are legal. Now I wish the group would take dressage out of their name. And shame on the USEF.

Then it dawns on me: There’s a stinky part of me that envies trainers who promote these bits. It’s easier to put a severe bit in a horse’s mouth so the new owner can force a “frame” and everyone can pretend the horse is finished. Anything is easier than teaching a rider the feel of good contact on a gentle bit. Anything is easier than learning to ride force-free to fluid, soft contact.

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. –Me.

For all of my professional years training, I can’t say I’ve ever met a finished horse. I have met horses so shut down from bit pain that they have dead eyes and no will to go forward. Does that term actually refer to a horse who’s finished with people?

But let’s go with the fantasy of buying a finished horse in the way that he meant it. Does having the purchase price make you a finished rider?

Here’s where someone says that a bit is only as kind or cruel as the hands on the reins. Sure, I’ve seen horses totally brutalized by a snaffle bit in the hands of a monster. At the same time, having slack reins on a shank or spade bit doesn’t impress me; an extreme bit causes a threat and pain, even with no reins attached. A harsh bit that hearkens to a cultural tradition still isn’t good horsemanship if the horse suffers. There is no beauty in domination. Control is a cheap substitute for partnership.

What if the goal was to ride in such a way that the horse moves with the same liberty he does while not under saddle?

I was talking with a client about their bit. The horse was tense in her jaw and had a nervous habit of kind of chattering the bit in her mouth. We were talking about other options for the mare, and after I described how a comfort snaffle worked versus a mullen mouth, my client asked which I liked best. I said my preference didn’t matter in the least.

So instead of yammering on and on about bits, take the conversation to the barn and ask your horse. Saddle up like usual, put your helmet on like usual, but skip the bridle. Use a neck ring or clip reins on a web halter. Go to a safe arena and begin your ride, as usual. Be ready to learn something.

If you horse moves more freely; if his neck is longer and he blows, that’s a message you need to hear. Has your bit been working like a passive parking brake? Does the mere existence of a gentle bit in his mouth back him off? That’s pretty common.   As you feel his stride lengthen, his back lifting, and a lightness to his hooves, be happy. It means you can do better for him.

Warning: humans who feel out of control have a tendency to get testy. Do you notice that you want to grab something for a quick submissive result? Does it occur to you that without a bit, you feel unarmed and have no means to punish your horse? So then, are you using your bit like a weapon? Have you just proven to yourself that you ride more with your hands than your legs? That isn’t a bit problem at all, is it?

 It’s time to challenge ourselves to pursue the art of riding, instead of asking our horses to tolerate our bad horsemanship.

Just in case you could possibly think that there has never been a day in my life that I dropped to my knees and begged for a stronger bit, you’re wrong. Or that there were times that I hoped that the issue was a broken, abscessed tooth and not my hands? Back then, his head flipping around made me look bad and I lusted after a cruel bit. But I never worked with a trainer that allowed stronger bits, even back when I was still riding in a saddle with a horn. Instead of a stronger bit, I was told it was my hands that needed finishing, along with the mentality behind them. I’m still grateful for that clarity and I pass it on.

If you listen to your horse, he’d say there’s a problem behind the bit problem and underneath the hand problem. He’d say that a cruel bit is the sign of a fearful rider and the real problem is trust.

Kinda changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro