Weekly Photo Challenge: Frame

WM Sibling frame

Wear black and drink the gallery wine.
Formulate an intellectual opinion.
Consider your emotions.
Show so much tooth your lips stick to your gums.
Know your work-in-progress is a masterpiece.
Be open-minded about the frame.

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 Fine Art of Cantankery.

lillith I’ve had a hard time acting my age. That’s not it, exactly. It’s more like I’m straddling the Grand Canyon between my usual teen angst and dealing with the fact I’m supposed to be wearing support hose. It all started with my birthday. Two years ago.

Then recently a donkey came to the rescue that I work with. She was nothing special, really. Her “selling point” was her age, I guess. We joked about needing to carbon date her. We’re guessing upper thirties. At least.

Rule #1: Donkeys hate change.

She came into rescue and landed in a kind geriatric pen with a few other special needs cases. Nobody too active and there was a buffet; piles of hay, lots of fresh water, and feed pans brimming with senior feed. In short, paradise. But she was having none of it. She had more opinion than strength.

There’s an argument that she’d had a long life. On top of that, we’d just gotten a herd of starved yearlings in that needed foster homes, but we give everyone a chance. I offered to foster her at my barn. It’s slower and quieter here, and she was pretty wobbly. For me, there’s no rhyme or reason for when one animal stands out in this world of need, but it might have had something to do with those stupid support hose.

WM Lillith scratchShe had a crusty coat of felted dead hair; a few years’ worth that she hadn’t managed to shed out. And it looked like there might be damage to her hind end, she didn’t walk well. Coming to my farm was not a miracle cure. She still didn’t eat or drink anything. Donkeys are tough, but what if it was too late and her organs were shutting down?

She played with alfalfa but ignored hay. A few times a day, I tried some new mush concoction. Donkeys are notoriously nervous of water containers. If she was drinking, I couldn’t tell, so I tried changing those as well. On the third day, I used an old blue bucket and finally, she drank.

Rule #2: Donkeys please themselves.

In the meantime, I sat on a bucket in her pen, just sharing space. I already knew she wasn’t wild about being caught or led. She came with a warning that she didn’t like her ears being touched. Or apparently anything else for that matter.

Then one day I was on the bucket, cutting up an over-ripe pear to put on her mush, which was already the equine equivalent of a fine french meal. This pear was sticky-sweet and soft, and she walked right up to me. Her sense of smell was perfect. It took a long while, I sat very still, but she took a bite of the pear from my hand. Her face went soft and I could hear it sloshing around in her mouth. I dropped the rest of the pear onto her mush and left the pen. Of course, standing up meant that she backed off from her bowl, but I wanted to be mysterious and exciting.

People get too hung up on rescue animal’s histories. We love a tragic tale so we can feel sympathy and “tsk-tsk” and shake our do-gooder heads. If there’s one thing I know about rescue, it’s that the past doesn’t matter nearly like the present does. Says the woman who wears her teen angst around her ankles like stretched out cotton underwear.

Rule #3: Donkeys can be, well, cantankerous.

She tolerates grooming but just to mid-flank. I still haven’t picked up a foot. Flies were eating her raw and I wanted to get some of that hot pink Swat ointment on her wounds. She gives a decent NO! cue, but I was marginally successful and she was steaming mad about it. Then I gingerly tried fly spray. She darted but then paused. I sprayed again. There were enough flies still there, that I could see them drop off her leg and hit the ground. It’s possible she saw them, too. Now when I walk to her with the fly spray, she stands and waits, as if I’m serving boat drinks at the beach. Clearly no signs of dementia. I started to think she might pull through; I started to think her name might be Lillith.

lillith biteJust on the off-chance that you’re cooing and thinking she is just the sweetest thing… she isn’t. She bites. And kicks. The dead hair is gone, but a hand anywhere near her poll and she tosses her head abruptly. She’s a donkey of strong convictions.

But don’t feel sorry for the goat. On a day that I could catch her, I doddered her out to the greenest grass for a different kind of dental exam. She dropped her head and slowly rubbed her nose back and forth, crushing it and sniffing deeply. She didn’t even try to take a bite. Her lips can scoop up mush, but her front teeth are useless. Know those billboards that show drug addicts with horrible teeth? That’s her. She has greenish-black nubbins of teeth. Meth teeth, so no worries about eating any goats.

Cantankerous defined: 1. bad-tempered, argumentative, uncooperative, quarrelsome; irascible, disagreeable. 2. Difficult to handle.

She was in a separate pen where she could eat in peace, along with Arthur, the goat, who was in detention with a broken leg. They formed a bond of co-dependent aggravation. Eventually Lillith stopped standing outside during thunder storms and went into the shed. Once she crossed that line, she used the shed for shade, too. One day she went to the gate to my family pen and turned her head to stare at me. I pride myself on being bilingual, so I opened the gate for her.

That pen had the Grandfather Horse, Edgar Rice Burro, and the rest of my herd. Five minutes of careful consideration later, she moved through the gate. The mares push her off sometimes, but she kicks back at them. She can get her hind a few inches off the ground these days. Lillith takes long naps in the sun and tries to get someone to do some mutual grooming. The Grandfather Horse, who’s always loved the stiffest curry, finds her an unsatisfactory partner. It’s mutual gumming, to tell the truth.

WM Lillith angelRule #4: Donkeys don’t like change, unless they do.

It’s been four months since Lillith came. She’s sleek, she has lousy ground manners, and she’s in fine voice. Her bray sounds like a combination of a train whistle and a bunch of sixth-grade boys making fart noises. And she isn’t afraid to use it.

Right now we’re debating the last feed of the day. She holds, loudly, that I should feed at sundown. With the season change, I tell her the sun sets earlier; I tell her it was always about the time on the clock. Then she makes it pretty clear what she thinks about clocks.

Measuring time is a peculiarity to our species–clocks and calendars rule humans. I miss my friends who’ve timed-out and retired to warm climates, while I throw hay and think about reinventing myself one more time. I’m stubborn about what I want and I’m at an awkward age.

On the high side, I’ve finally found my spirit animal.

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


Weekly Photo Challenge: Rare

WM Goat lunch
Such hopeful ease,

confidence in the face
of contrary possibility,

is rare for man.


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.


Judging Dressage

WM NubebridleDressage isn’t perfect, but what part is baby and what part is bath water?

Watching the Dressage competition at the Olympics was inspirational. And horrific. There were impeccable riders with fluid bodies and invisible cues. And riders who were brutal, with hard hands and cruel methods. There were horses who were light and brilliant; who moved with such freedom and elegance that it took my breath away. There were horses whose bodies were so filled with tension and resistance, that I choked just watching.

In other words, pretty much the way I feel when I see high-dollar horses compete. There have always been two ways to train and ride, and one look at the horse’s eye tells the truth.

Social media predictably exploded: Some defend abuse and some deny it. Some just like to pour gasoline on the fire. Rumor, guilt by association, and out-and-out lying stand beside positive training. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be critical and ranting has a real value. If enough of us do it, horses will benefit. Still, tearing the entire sport down from the cheap seats is too easy.

But let’s be clear. The problem is not dressage. Or eventing or racing or reining. The problem is that we lose sight of the thing every horse-crazy girl knows. You always have to put your horse first. Obviously the biggest challenge going up the levels in dressage is to lift our own humanity, along with our horse’s movements, to a more balanced and beautiful place.

A few weeks back, I got a call from my local dressage chapter looking for volunteers and I was ready to scribe the next Friday morning. A scribe sits next to the judge and writes down the comments and scores for each movement in the test. It’s like taking dictation but there isn’t much room to write and tests move right along. I’ve scribed for international judges and learner judges and always come away with something valuable to take back to my clients.

Each rider comes in for a brief warm-up, greets the judge, and when the bell rings, enters the arena. Some of the rides are smooth and sweet. Some come apart and we’ve all been there. Some of the riders are cool and relaxed with lots of experience. Some are new and giddy to be out with their horses. There were pre-teens and women of a certain age and everyone in between. Some horses are fancy with lively dramatic gaits and some are steady and kind partners of no particular bloodline.

There were no cruel bits or bloody spurs. I saw no horses behind the bit and each rider did their best to keep quiet hands and soft legs. Everyone wore helmets. The horses were well-groomed and well-loved and the riders polished their boots. Because pride of appearance is the first way we show respect to the discipline we love.

We shared pizza for lunch and people congratulated each other. This judge was somewhat quirky, which I don’t have to tell you is totally normal for the horse world. But her comments were consistent, she didn’t give away any free marks, and if some riders were unhappy but they were good sports about it. In the afternoon the judge showed me photos of her own horses. I think she was missing them.

Toward the end of the day, during the obligatory afternoon thunderstorm, a rider finished her test with the usual salute and released her reins. Her smile was as bright as the tall stockings on her horse. It was her second test that day and an improvement over the first. She blurted out, with so much wild enthusiasm that it bordered on shrill, “Thank you! Thank you for coming!” We almost flinched at the howl of good will!

Driving home I thought, “This is my dressage.”

Dressage isn’t owned by millionaires or elite breeders or any particular country. The vast majority of dressage riders in this country ride below second level, on horses they’ll keep forever. They own this sport as much as anyone else.

Some years I have clients who compete and I’m on the other side of the judge’s table. Sometimes the horses I work with never compete but practice dressage, working to gain strength and suppleness and balance. Riders might ride in a different saddle or not always wear tall boots, but they all agree that riding a twenty meter circle is a lot harder than it looks.

Dressage literally means training; that’s our commitment. We try to improve, not to please a judge but to help our horses

I don’t mean to sound biblical, but doesn’t most disagreement boil down to good and evil? Isn’t the challenge always how to live up to our best potential? I don’t deny the dark side of dressage. I hate hyperflexion and cruelty; horses never stand a chance against human ego and greed. At the same time, watching a young girl and her horse quietly navigate a dressage test is a fine and beautiful thing.

Dressage will change for the good of horses. We’ll demand it. Change comes slowly, but I hold hope because of this girl and her good horse. Amateur riders with a horse and a dream are the reason I refuse to hand my beautiful sport over to the haters.

Back at the Olympics, the woman who won the individual gold medal in dressage wore a helmet. She and her horse didn’t have an easy start in the beginning; she needed courage and wits to match his fire and sensitivity. They forged a partnership out of chaos. Sound familiar? For their final test she was nervous, aware of the distance they’d come and her desire to do well. But once they started moving, she said, it was as if her horse held her hand.

A gold medal rider in two Olympics is talking like a horse-crazy girl. That’s my dressage, too.

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


Weekly Photo Challenge: Fun

WM Muck TeamThe secret
he bleated
was repeated
with a neigh
and a bray:
for today!
*apologies to anyone looking for literary excellence,
  today it’s about silliness. And poop.
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 Trailer of One’s Own

WM trailer Nova

A horsewoman told me that, at sixty-three, she was the proud owner of her very first horse trailer. I let out a congratulatory yell and I’ve been smiling all day. Trailers add a layer of independence to the freedom we feel with horses.

Do you remember your first horse trailer? Mine was a navy blue two-horse straight load. It was the late ’80s and no one I knew wanted to show their horse but me. I’d been preparing for years, buying spare buckets and hay nets and trailer gadgets. Finally, I talked a friend into buying one together. It weighed a bit more than my truck–without horses in it. The inside had rust that you couldn’t really see because it had been spray painted silver. There was a tiny dressing room up front with saddle racks at an impossible angle and I could not believe my wild luck.

Then came the day I grew up. I loaded my horse and my gear and headed off alone with Jerry Lee Lewis roaring from my tape deck. Driving with all the tense earnestness of a high school student with a learner’s permit, I made my way carefully to the fairgrounds in the next county. It might as well have been another country; I knew no one but it was my first Appaloosa show and I was sure it would be perfect.

There was also a goat show at the fairgrounds that weekend. Have you ever heard a few hundred goats bleating? No? Neither had my young horse. He visibly quivered–out and out vibrated–as I tacked him up. It was contagious. I’m always saying goats are the remedy for Type-A personalities, and this is where I learned it. Lucky we were a day early.

I wanted to quit and go home, but I’m no quitter. Quite a dilemma. So we worked a while and the best I could say was that I managed to stay on. Before dark I was laying on a camp cot in my trailer and wishing it was over. By morning my horse was a little better; no one can hold that level of adrenaline forever. I hosed off my head and felt awkward in my show clothes.

Naturally I’d entered every class I could because I didn’t know any better. It was probably more about persistence then riding well, but by the trail class Sunday afternoon, we counter-cantered, just on the other side of the fence from the goat pens. Intentionally counter-cantered. No blue ribbons, but I did win the reserve high-point award, I think just by sheer numbers. My prize was a purple plastic spray bottle–like the $1.29 ones at the drugstore. I was insufferable. After thousands of dollars in board, training, this trailer, and a truck to pull it, I won a prize!

 In my years since that first haul, I’ve honed my skills. There have been sunny days at horse shows and trail rides with friends, but much more important trips, too. I’ve pulled horses from auctions in the nick of time and picked up rescues from people heartbroken to surrender them. I’ve hauled foals to vet schools for surgery and made midnight emergency colic runs with sick horses.  A trailer buys safety for your own horse, but also the ability to help others. We’ve had some fires in recent years and I’ve gotten choked up seeing lines of trailers ready to help evacuate. It makes me proud.

The new trailer owner’s husband asked that the trailer be her responsibility. That’s good news. Husbands and wives tend to agree about trailering about as much as they do driving, I suspect.  Beyond that, no one prioritizes horses like an owner does and the ability to not be dependent on others is priceless. With no objection, she soon hired a trainer to help sort out the details. She had to overcome some nervousness of her own, so she’s feeling pretty proud of herself now, I’ll bet. Enjoy the new layer of confidence, my friend, it’s never too late to hit the road, singing along with Born to be Wild.

I know owning a hauling rig is expensive, in ways you can’t imagine in the beginning. But at the same time, it isn’t really a luxury, either. I prefer a simple, affordable stock trailer. At the risk of sounding dramatic, lives do actually depend on it.

If it’s fear holding you back from hauling, maybe now is a good time to step up to the challenge. Yes, it’s traditionally been men’s territory, but it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve been stretched out of shape for your horse. Take a ride in back and figure out how slowly you should corner the thing. Spend some time pulling it empty at first. Head to a parking lot and take your time. Make a mess of backing until it gets easier because having people direct you is just crazy-making. Now head for a gas station and work on steering through narrow places. Notice that slight swagger as you walk back to check the latches? Take a breath; the whole thing is so much easier than learning to ride.

WM trailer goatIf a trailer isn’t possible, do you have an emergency plan for your horse? Does that trailer owner know she’s your emergency plan? Now might be a good time to consider asking that person for hauling lessons. Offer to be a back-up driver and learn to hook up. Trailer knowledge shouldn’t be limited to owners; in the worst case scenario, you could save the day.

Owning a horse requires an unusual and ever-growing skill set. Hang around a barn long enough and there is nothing you won’t be asked to do. It takes a fair range of courage out of the saddle, too, because horses depend on us in this messy world. We’re lucky we’re such hard-headed, relentlessly persevering folks.

And oh, one last thing. Practice your steering wheel wave. It’s like our secret handshake. Traditionalists like a subtle one finger lift, an acknowledgment of solidarity. It’s understated but the meaning is clear: I’ve got your back. You can count on me… and so can your horse.

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

Weekly Photo Challenge: Morning

 WM corgi morning
The sun rises pale and sweet on the prairie
take your coffee to the barn
baby pink clouds diffuse a cool golden light
sideways shadows trespass across fence lines.

You miss it if you don’t hurry.

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.