Horses and Tulips.

WMClaraTulipAt some distant moment in the past, probably after seeing The Miracle of the White Stallions when I was a kid, I found out that Spanish horses were started at 4 years old. Back then, I thought it was a terrible waste. Then a few years ago, I was at a nutritional seminar where the conversation turned to options to prepare long yearlings to start under saddle. And I thought the same thing–what a terrible waste. Then this week I read an article that said the optimal time to start a horse was 7 years old, the age a horse has fully grown. So it goes, the horse world is not short on opinion.

I don’t want to start a debate about who’s right, what I notice is that horse lovers disagree from the start. We disagree on everything from age to training style to the right tack to use. Then we probably get defensive about it.

We compare the worst Dressage rider to the best Reiner, or the best Eventer with the worst Endurance rider and judge each discipline by worst example. Let’s not even start with breed preferences. Horse owners can’t even agree on what constitutes abuse or neglect.

We run the full range of emotions starting with joy. Beyond that fear, despair and sadness are probably inevitable along the way, and anxiety. Lots of anxiety. Then finally grief. We are long on passion for all kinds of horses. The crazy part is, we are debating with people who are on our side to begin with.

In the end, all of us are united: the most grizzled old rancher and the pinkest horse-crazy girl both get wet eyes and a runny nose remembering that certain horse.

The real problem isn’t with each other. The real problem is that horses don’t live long enough.

A horse’s working life is an arc. There is the incline at the beginning; We are always in a hurry to get to the best start, whatever that is. Everything is training and aspiring. It’s all looking ahead.

On the other end of the arc are the later years when arthritis is normal and the level of work starts to slide. He isn’t as fast or strong, he gets reluctant to do what used to be easy, until the day that he can’t hold us any longer. If you’ve done everything just right, he isn’t any happier that day than you are.

There is a sweet spot between those extremes, when a horse is physically at his peak; he is mentally solid and capable, and his muscles are fully developed. He’s working at his utmost and he’s sound! It’s an affirmation of all that he is… but that prime is finite, sandwiched between the years getting there, and the years reminiscing back.

We have to pick our battles: It’s always a mistake with horses, you might win some fights with humans, but we never win against time. Even if the horse is thirty years old we always want one more season.

The real reason we get cranky is that horses are fragile. Horses seem bold and strong but we know their secret. That their feet are small and their digestive system is a bit unstable. Even if we are lucky and everything goes well, they just don’t live long enough. Horses are heart-breakers. We know that in our hearts and we love them anyway.

This is the time of the year that my friends in the northwest post photos of fields of tulips–so outlandishly beautiful with large petals in bold primary colors. And such frail flowers. I don’t usually buy them cut because their petals bruise easily and their stalks go slack. Cut flowers are all about temporary beauty, part of what we love about flowers is their transitory nature. They just mark a small place in time, an occasion, with beauty. Cut or uncut, eventually flowers wilt. And we shouldn’t let their brevity ruin their loveliness or our appreciation.

Horses have so much more in common with tulips than oak trees, and that has to be part of what we love about them also. Even if it’s the part we hate about loving them.

In our barn, we have two horses that have been retired as long or longer than they were ridden. We have two young horses working their plan for world domination, and a couple in undefined places and not happy about it. And we have one big shiny horse who is absolutely in his prime–confident and proud. It’s just a snapshot. The best reason to have gratitude in this moment is that it can all change in a heartbeat.

It’s tulip season again and that means most of our horses are another year older. Happy Birthday to the whole herd! It’s easy to forget that every moment they are with us is a victory over so many obstacles. This year, lets celebrate the place we are in the journey right now–not the future and not the past–without blame towards ourselves or each other. Let’s celebrate the illusive perfection and beauty of horses, and let’s make peace with the rest.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

37 thoughts on “Horses and Tulips.

  1. “It’s easy to forget that every moment with us is a victory over so many obstacles”. Hudson was considered elderly when I got him (vet said he was 18, later info put him solidly at 20)
    Fit, strong, eager, happy and full of energy. I knew our riding time would be relatively short. I knew all sorts of things. In my head.
    He still believes he’s “The Man” and is capable of feats of high athletiscicm. (Of course, I believe the female equivalent about myself.) I have to rein us both in, so we don’t get hurt. He’s going to be 26 in May. His disappointment is palpable, when he’s not picked to go on then trailer, when he isn’t picked to ride first. (He gets a long walk warm up on the pony line.)
    He’s been the “best-match for me” horse I’ve ever had, or ridden. I’d do it all over again, and buy him at 20 years old. Right doesn’t mean “long enough”. And yes, I’m terrified of the broken heart that will come sooner rather than later. Great great post.

  2. Sandra Murray

    You choose tulips, and I always think of lilacs. Tulips probably work better for this imagery due to their fragility, but both of these jubilation of spring flowers charm and delight us for such a brief time. As flowers go, they bring a bittersweet joy — and so do horses.

    You wrote: “Horses are heart-breakers. We know that in our hearts and we love them anyway.” So much on this earth we love only to have our hearts broken. Horses simply reach a deeper, more profound place in our hearts, so the pain stabs harder. Their amalgam of power and fragility gets us every time.

    I think that God smiles on all of us who risk such pain for the depth of bonding, of communication that we share with our horses. All of the technical riding, training stuff falls away. The heart of our relationship with our horses bears any pain — and loves again.

      1. and ps. One of my horses has been retired for almost 13 years. We have had time to miss our rides and from this vantage point, we see the peak in hindsight. Not to say, we don’t love this time as well.

  3. Karen Hall

    Thank you for this. My boy turned 17 this week and my girl will be 4 on Sunday. Such a lovely reminder to count our blessings through all stages of this amazing journey. The post reminds me of a favorite quote:

    “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own,
    live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.
    Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.
    We cherish memory as the only certain immortality,
    never fully understanding the necessary plan.”
    – Irving Townsend.

  4. Just what I needed to hear today. My “young” horse is 11 (ore maybe 12) and he’s lame. Again. Or maybe still. For lots of reasons I haven’t ridden him now In three years. Will I get on him again? I don’t know.

    My other horse is 15 and, while physically sound, is not mentally sound enough to ride. In fact, he hasn’t really been ridden regularly in over three years and I’ve had him for ten.

    My daughter’s “old” horse is 23 and lives with a friend of ours. His teeth are now old and his diet changed because of his teeth. He is still rideable and ready to go.

    It can all change in a heartbeat. Enjoy the day. There may be no more tomorrows. 🙂

  5. Maggie Frazier

    I sit here with tears running down my face – my “old” horse has been gone (physically) for twelve years – 12-5-02. He was my buddy & I loved him – still do. Wish there had been another – but finances & age (mine) sort of kept that from happening. Loved ALL the above comments – you make me feel as if I belong!!! This blog is just one of the very best!

      1. Maggie Frazier

        Thanks, Anna – Just goes to prove that horse people (most-if not all) seem to be the most welcoming of any new (or older) person? Always felt at home when I was around the barn!
        It was always the BEST place! You all prove that point.

  6. Beth Weaver

    Ok. Yes. Live in the moment. But part of the moment is remembering. And I remember him before he was lame and carried me safely for hours on the trails. He was like a freight train. A halflinger/draft cross who made my butt look small. I miss him. I miss the confidence he gave me. Even when we got into the bees and they were stinging him all over he never bucked. He’s been lame for a year, and actually, this spring looks like he’s better. I rode him the other day, but I got off because even though on the ground he’s not lame, I could feel just a little gimp. I so hope he recovers. And in the meantime, I’m riding the young one, who is just sooo smooth, and really a sweet girl, and if I were a better rider, she would be even more awesome than she is. But I know I have made mistakes along the way, and she doesn’t trust me as much as I want her to. Can you ever ride a horse away from it’s herd and not have it breathe faster? and feel excited? She’s responsive and obedient, but I know she can’t wait to go back.
    Maybe someday I will be a good trainer. But right now, I just know that I am not as good as it as I need to be. Timing, consistency, body language, rewards. So much to learn. I’m not going to live long enough to get it all. And you’re right about disagreeing. I saw a fellow with a Phd in animal behavior at Harrisburg Horse Expo who was an expert in clicker training and he said that the leadership thing is not true. I would have loved to have listened to his theories for hours. You should have seen him clicker training the horse he had. Amazing. It has to do with their memories. And they learn so fast. 3 clicks and that horse had the behavior. And then he would reteach a cue and in 3 more clicks it would have that one. So cool. I watch those people there, and think, if they can do that, I must be able to just get my horse to trail ride and not kill me. I know it can be done. If I am just smart enough to figure out how. It’s a journey and I love it. I am an addict, no question about it.

    1. Starting over with a new horse is flat-out hard. Going from a gelding to a young mare, that is the top of the list–and it sounds like everything is going well. This is what ‘well’ looks like in this particular moment. What a wonderful comment and my best thoughts to your gelding. He is a Prince.

  7. So lovely Anna thank you. Comet is 17 in June and Gracie is 6 in May. Comet’s arthritis does not seem to keep him from challenging Gracie when we for a ride. Both are alternately ridden with the other in pony at least 4 times a week out from my place with weekly rides in an arena on both. Comet is stout, sturdy, unflappable and quite clear who he is and what I am to him. Gracie is fragile, beautiful, delicate and starting to gain a sense of her Self separate from me, her Mom. I can not even fathom what will happen to my psyche and heart when Comet passes because our collaboration over the past 11 years has included me leaving off my Handicap plates on my truck, losing 30lbs and winning all but two classes in 4 disciplines. I pay close attention to each day we are blessed to be together.

  8. I will argue that the curve for humans is no different. We seem to start life at a dead run; ready, willing and in such a hurry to progress from one milestone to the next. We push harder and harder toward that elusive brass ring, always rushing to get to the next best place or stage of life. But before we even realize it our game starts to change. We often don’t even know when we started to make promises our body can’t keep, but it happens. It’s inevitable. And it happens much sooner than we’d like to think. Perhaps we start by losing a bit of our former confidence or maybe our health takes a subtle turn for the worse. Oftentimes it’s not the big stuff that beats us down, but the aching fingers that struggle to do and undo all the straps and claps or maybe it’s the hips that ache after 30 minutes in the saddle or the knees or back that can’t take all the jarring. And if we’re caring for our own horses every day it’s even worse; the barrage of chores that push and pull on us until we can’t see how we can possibly unload that trailer with 400 bales of hay. We groan at the idea of changing a dozen or so blankets for the third time in 24 hours. For some strange reason I can recognize and honor the cycle of life as my horses pass through them. Me? Not so much. And therein lies the rub. I’d love to be 40 and be riding my current horse. Unfortunately, my best years are probably well behind me, while hers are still somewhere ahead. It’s pretty sobering to think the chances are far greater that time will run out on me before it expires for her, but there you have it.

  9. Catherine

    Oh my…I love your writing, always so insightful and your timing is impeccable. I had to let my heart horse go 2 months ago. I was there the moment he was conceived, born and took almost every step. At the rip age of 11 we finally clicked – I got over my fear of doing something wrong to such a lovely horse and he finally let me in, acknowledged that I was “getting it”. We had a great year, competed, made memories. Then he got sick – EHV neuro – no one knows where he contracted it. He survived but the toll it took made it apparent he would never be ridden – I didn’t care, he was still with me. You know what? I learned more in the past 8 years of caring for Ricochet than I did in the previous years of horse care. I became a true advocate for his needs, learning to provide for him in ways that vets could not believe. Through all of the ups and downs I always know he would let me know and when he did, it was sad but not as traumatic as I thought it would be. A very wise friend advised me that maybe that was Ric’s job after all, not to be a riding partner but my teacher. She feels he is up there commiserating with the other teachers waiting to go on to another student, talking about us, “it took 8 years…”.
    Thanks for letting me have another moment to brag about my boy, now I have to go find the tissues….

    1. Teachers. Period. In the saddle or out. The horse of my dreams, the one I haven’t started to write about yet, retired at 7. The volumes he has taught me, continues to teach me, well, you know. Bless Ricochet. Bless true partnerships that travel uncharted roads.

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