On Women, Bravery, and Being Old Gray Mares

Lords,Sunrise

Do you have a mentor? Someone you respect who’s just a few strides ahead of you, and when they go through the door, they give it a shove so there’s a gap left for you? Or are you on your own personal road less traveled? Are you just where you thought you’d be at this age, or has life taken a few unplanned turns? It isn’t good or bad, so much as bewildering. Because as you look ahead, you can’t really see anyone loitering around, dispensing wisdom and encouragement. It might even look like the road never traveled at all.

This topic was a request, (yes, I take requests,) for something on strong women. The suggested title, One Tough Mother, has a double meaning: The literal one is somebody who loves hard and does the work required to bring others up in this world. And one is slang that’s used to describe challenging work or even life itself. I can’t tell if it’s an insult or a back-handed compliment.

Courage and strength, or the lack of it, has come up in a few conversations lately, usually related to a huge change in life or the process of recovering from an illness or injury. For my part, I’m still limping about in a post-surgery boot, teetering on that thin line between acting optimistic, but still being time-frustrated and feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I was all ears.

They all had different details, but in each story things hadn’t been quite right and looking back there were signs. Eventually things came apart, the truth was uncovered, and lives got threatened because it takes something that big to get our attention. The stories are painful and awkward but there was some dark humor, too; one friend who survived serious surgery lamented that the drug that would lessen the chance of recurrence, also seemed to have the side effect of making her husband seem really annoying. Should they have a warning label for that?

And most of us judge ourselves harshly on a good day, but we add a special dollop of sad guilt when we aren’t at our best. Even as we recite all the proper, mundane platitudes and hunker down to wait for the worst. It’s all we can do and it never feels like enough.

And as I listen to my friends, I am always aware of how much courage is revealed in conversations about weakness. It isn’t false modesty, it’s because ideals like bravery get lost in the fog of proceeding. We’re too busy doing what it will take for the next step–how to survive, what to adapt, how to resolve it. We’re like work horses; we keep our heads low, lean into the harness and pull. When that doesn’t work, we may shed some tears or rant some creative profanities or give in for that day. But then we slide back into the harness and pull some more. Progress is slow and the finish line isn’t always visible.

That might be because the view is behind us. Bravery and perseverance is best seen in hindsight. If you ask most of us, we say we’ve never done anything special. We just took things one day at a time, even when we hated it. We just did the thing that needed doing that day, even if it wasn’t pretty. When we hear a story of someone else overcoming an obstacle, we see their courage and cheer them on, but are blind to our own. We’re even strong in our humility. (Okay, not every minute, but still…)

If I could change one thing about women of a certain age, I wish we’d stop apologizing for our age.

I wish we’d brag more about our scars and our scares–and take credit for surviving. How did we ever get so impressed with youth? In our capitalistic culture, we’ve stopped being a demographic; retailers ignore us because we don’t buy cheap, shiny things, instead preferring a sunset with the company of an old dog. We’re comfortable in boots that are as well broken in as we are. Do you realize the power we hold?

We are like elder horses. They’re prey and they know it, but they still maintain a place of strength, while being sensitive and vulnerable. Sure, elder horses get more respect from their herd than we do, but then we could do a better job of claiming our victories with their confidence and grace.

I’m 61–it’s an awkward age. Life is changing and I don’t know what’s coming. I’d love to have a mentor up ahead, but I might do better to look behind me and then shake a fist and howl at the path. Because maybe the reason we can’t see a mentor up ahead is that we have become that sage entity. It might have happened when we were busy not taking any credit for all that we’ve become since we were silly girls.

There is an old song that has run on a loop forever; it’s the first horse song I learned as a kid. “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, Many long years ago.” I thought it was a sad song with a chirpy beat but I finally looked it up (here). One version says it’s about Lady Suffolk, the first horse recorded as trotting a mile in less than two and a half minutes, back in 1843. Here’s the catch–she was more than ten years old.

Nope. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be. She’s better–faster and stronger where it matters. Let’s sprint the rest of the way. Even with a limp, it’s beautiful to see our kind of innate courage and strength of experience; the kind that has moved mountains in the past and isn’t afraid to do it again.

I don’t generally take much pride in being a human, but this week I’ve had pause to stand taller and be grateful. I just love us. We should take a moment to thank our-ripe-selves for becoming who we are. And if I see you on the street and call you an old gray mare, it’s because it’s the kindest compliment I know.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

PS. Is anyone going to the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, WI, in April?

91 thoughts on “On Women, Bravery, and Being Old Gray Mares

  1. Anne Sieling

    Good grief! You’re only 61? From out here at almost 80 you’re just a spring chicken. Not to worry – there are lots of us out here. We are liberated by age to be ourselves and damn the torpedos. Yes, we do look back in sadness sometimes, but in the present we are grateful for each day. The future will come and we accept what it brings with some degree of equanimity. Some things are inevitable. But you’ve got a way to go, so lide into that harness and enjoy the pull as long as you canπŸ˜ŠπŸ‘πŸŽ

      1. I’m the same one who told you not to worry about the foot-the two knees two feet screwed together. So, glad to be out here, riding three times a week and praying I can get my leg over one more time as I dismount. I envy you your ranch and your herd, including the goat. I know it’s work, but how lucky you are to live where you live and have what you have:}

      2. I am so lucky and so grateful. My foot will be fine and I don’t worry about it healing well. I love the lifestyle, but the commitment to finance it requires a bit more creativity every year.

      3. Fern Hilsinger

        Anna, There are many of us out here. Our views change as we age and we often fail to notice until the change makes our feelings more labile. Approaching 66, I have noticed my own views changing – some good some not so good. But, I’m proud and happy to have made it his far, still healthy, able to work and navigate all issues on my own, and still care for the best rescue companions this time around. Bravo to us all.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        And waving from back here – will be 78 in February! Keep on truckin – Anna – you are just getting to the good part! And, Ann – I so envy your riding 3 times a week – I’d settle for just being around horses now! Love your writing – you say what we are all thinking and feeling!!!

  2. thank you from one old ish grey mare to another… Not sure why but that piece brought tears to my eyes …. probably the part about taking on the mantle of elder rather than bemoaning my age internally around the younger mares.!

  3. 72 here. Just started riding with a trainer this summer, who works on strength and flexibility exercises on us older riders. Horses are grateful! and go better than ever. All I can say to all of us is “just keep moving!” Keep feeding, keep lifting that hale, toting that bag and get some cardio in there as well and yoga in there as well. I was getting pretty stuck in my body through the years of hip replacement, rehab and feeling sorry for myself (I confess!) Now I’m all about walking down the driveway to feed the pasture horses a.m. and p.m. no matter the weather (1/2 miles round trip) and walking to the mailbox and walking to the barn, etc. I feel good!!!

    1. Good for you, Barb. It does take a while to get back from surgery and a barn work-out is the best. I work on flexibility with my clients of any age- horses always wish we had more. Thanks.

  4. I love the comments almost as much as the essay! There’s a reason it is called “traveling uncharted terrain”–so few have been this far before that we don’t know much about it as a developmental stage. We are truly rewriting what it means to live into the 80s and 90s.

    There is a group of women who were former members of the Hardin-Simmons University Cowgirls, formed in 1925 in Texas, who still perform the Cowgirl Stomp to the tune of “The old gray mare” as they did when the group was formed and performed until 1974. They are all in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and at least one is 90.

    1. That’s what I mean by being at an awkward age– some of my friends are retiring, but it won’t be an option for me… And interesting time indeed, but if there is a Cowgirl Stomp, we will all be just fine. Thanks!

  5. Cindy Gambrell

    I turned 61 this month. The younger crowd that I work with (I’m an RN) are obsessed with going to the gym. I informed them that if they lived with me they wouldn’t have to worry about going to the gym! Horses are very good for the body, as well as the soul!

    1. Sharon Bowen

      63, nearly 64 here. Ridden since I was 7 with a brief hiatus for college until I could afford it on my own. More busted ribs than I can count. Helmet and chest protection ALWAYS. On my 3rd horse, 2nd youngster finished by me. What I’ve always said is that I am going over 100 and that they are going to have to pull me out of the saddle to put me in that box. I will ride until if ever I can’t and at that point I will drive or start ground working minis. We don’t bounce any more and we take longer to heal. But heal we do and go right back for a hair of the horse so to speak. Having a horse and caring for it is great exercise. We have great upper body work with grooming. Deep knee bends/squats to do legs and hoofs. Weight lifting with water buckets and saddles. The riding? That’s the cool down after all the work! And my horses have always been cheaper and more effective than a shrink. Awkward age? Nonsense! A little slower, a little less bouncy, but still in that saddle and loving it!

  6. Sue Anderson

    I just had this discussion with a good friend! We both ride and are in our 60’s. We decided that becoming an “elder” can come as quite a surprise and we feel a bit lost being in the western world where elders are not as treasured as they are in other cultures. When my Mom was in her 80’s the two of us drove up to the Hopi Mesa for the day. Everyone there called my Mom “Grandmother” with the greatest respect. The waitress in the cafe, the clerk in the museum, a man who stood behind us in line at the store. It made my Mom’s day and we were both very humbled. A book with food for thought…”Women Who Run With The Wolves”….the chapter “Battle Scars” is good.

    1. That’s how my old gelding got his Grandfather Horse moniker, and it is said with such respect… we should all hear it just that way. Thanks for commenting.

  7. I find mentors in odd places, with women who don’t think the’re the stuff of role models or mentors. I have one currently who I am astounded by. She’s independent. She’s graceful, kind, smart, and resourceful.

    She doesn’t think she’s mentor material, but I really admire her. I hope I’m half the lady she is.

  8. rooksroost

    Seems I’m a bit younger than a lot of the other women commenting on here but at 48 with a lot of rough roads and tough climbs in the past few years I feel about 100. What made me read this article was the mention of ‘old grey mare’, partly because I’ve owned several and partly because this is what my boyfriend calls me, meant in the nicest possible way of course. I have been wishing I had a mentor for some time but finally realised that this is uncharted territory, there is no guide for this stage of my life. It might be scary to be travelling blind but i keep myself going with the knowledge that I have a 100% success rate so far of surviving all that life has thrown at me. I guess I must be ‘one tough mother’ after all. I will continue onward and upward even if sometimes it’s on my hands and knees and will endeavour to give myself the credit I’m due for getting to were I am. x

    1. Good call. It isn’t about pulling rank with years; for each of us we have never been this old before! and Feeling about 100 counts! Good for you, 100% success is wonderful. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Love this, Anne! I was just talking to Kay LaBella (my illustrator for Bright Star of Palmer Lake) the other day about the number of women running businesses in the Tri-Lakes area. After teaching for 35 years, becoming a writer/published author, I never dreamed of being a business woman running my own indie publishing company. At 62, I have only just begun. Us Boomer Women have pathways to numerous journeys-we don’t settle on one and call it quits.

  10. Barb Smith

    I just turned 67, and after Thanksgiving dinner when I was in the barn throwing hay to my horses, I said a prayer of gratitude. I am still doing exactly what I love to do on a daily basis. I am blessed to have two senior horses who take good care of me on our rides. Most of my closest friends are also “seniors” and we are all feel that every day we spend with our horses is a Good Day. Yes, there are some aches and pains that come with age, but the joy these animals give me keeps me coming back for more. I think my horses are my mentors. They have taught me humility and patience, and have given me complete happiness. Life is Good because I get to share it with my horses.

  11. I’m typing through tears because I so needed someone – anyone – to say this today. Having a nasty, constantly challenging almost 14-year-old makes me feel like total failure. If I were a better mother, he would be a better son, a better person, right? Most 54-year-old women are spoiling grandkids and sending them back to their parents to fix; personally I would rather be out training horses and dogs, who are much more trainable, much easier to have a relationship with.

    1. Not to be a total downer: I am SO THANKFUL for my mom. I come from a long line of strong women whom I admire and who taught me well. My mom ALWAYS supports me (although it is not always helpful that she blames much of my son’s attitude on my husband; ha).

      1. My training mentor was famous for saying, in the middle of total train wrecks, “This too shall pass…” It was a very long time before it amused me. 14 can’t last forever, and thank you, seriously, for sharing.

      2. Maggie Frazier

        I have to add – 14 does NOT last forever – it just seems like it! Maybe it will help to know that once they do actually become an adult they turn out really well. My son was one of those. He has been a wonderful help and blessing since he “grew up”! It DOES happen. If you can just live through it! (my mother used to say the same thing). Luckily, my daughter was MY support. Just hang in there & stay on Anna’s blog – you will get the support here.

  12. Marcia Triggs

    I very recently found your blog and just need to say I absolutely love your writing. At times, it stops me in my tracks and I linger over your words, letting your message seep in. Some bittersweet, some moving to tear- filled eyes, at others funny. Always insightful. Just had to tell you. I’m 61 too. Sincerely, Marcia Triggs

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  13. Thanks so much for this post. I would love to put it on facebook. I am almost 73 and still ride my Foxtrotter on trail rides in the woods. No more long hilly ,rocky rides,but that is ok. We have done that for years and do not have to impress anyone but me. I am on the oldest rider on the place and have the oldest horse!!!!/ The gals say I give them hop for getting older .They are in their teens to 50’s.I just love my boy,we have bonded in the 12 years together,he is 25.looks and acts much younger.Thanks again.Warmly, Rose Ann Dean

  14. Blossom Savage

    I so enjoy your musings n wise pearls. I feel like I’m sitting in front of the warm fire chatting after a good ride. I’m grateful for you.

  15. β€œAn aged man [insert woman]is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress…”
    – W.B. Yeats

  16. Hi, Anna. Just came upon your blog via Margaretha. Very good post. I’m 61, still competing in showjumping internationally (I am restraining myself to the smaller classes), although I suffer from Lyme disease and chronic fatigue. My only regret is that by the time my current home-breds reach Grand Prix level, it probably won’t be me riding them! I agree that horses are the cheapest (and nicest!) form of therapy to be had. You are never too old to do things with them ( even if you end up just watching them!)

    1. Good for you! And yes, I know plenty of women who have been “demoted” to being caretakers, and share every ounce of your joy. It’s amazing the quality they add to life. Period. Thanks for your comment!

  17. Frances

    Oh Gosh, I read this and was like a ‘nodding donkey’ saying yes, yes and yes!! Love your blogs (and your book) I haven’t met you (yet) but then again I feel like I know you already…..

  18. andrea pratt

    The comments are almost as good as the blog post! And at 55 I love feeling like a relative baby. Just wanted to say that I have a dear friend the same age who is not going to survive her greatest life challenge and, as a result, has recently had to give away her three horses. It was a terrible ordeal for her as it signified the loss of hope. As someone who will (hopefully) survive my own greatest life challenge, I have recently re-entered the equine world and it has become the single greatest therapy for living through the death of my beloved son and will, I hope, help with the future loss of my best friend. I feel like I need to carry on her legacy after I have spent my entire adult life suppressing my passion for horses. It will be a pleasure.

  19. Lisa Sheiman

    I just turned 66 and got my first horse three years ago! I volunteer at the farm where she lives and am there every day of the week by 6 AM, and often put in well more than 30 or 40 hours a week between chores and horse training. My role model is the female half of the couple who own the farm: she is 76 and still riding after open heart valve replacement surgery this summer. She once said that the thing that made her feel old for the first time was when she could no longer ride bareback, standing on her horse’s back, at a walk, trot and canter. Knowing Ruth, it probably wasn’t all that long ago. She was the one who gifted me with my mare, and that mare is my inspiration for doing everything that I can to stay fit and healthy. I waited a long, long time for a horse and now I want a long, long time to enjoy her. I am ten years out of treatment for colon cancer. Every day is a gift.

  20. Judy

    I look forward to every blog. Another grey mare here, 66, but pressing on Ridden since 4 and can not imagine a life without my horses ( and dogs) Thank you for writing exactly what many of us are thinking, feeling, needing to hear by others Keep writing

    1. Yay. Look for me in the HorseNAround booth…(when I know the number, I’ll post it. I’ve never been to this one, and I’m looking forward to it.

  21. vicki

    So many awesome comments here Anna!! What a great blog I have just found!! Thank you for encouraging me! I am 48, and I want to get out and ride again. I just do not seem to find the time right now… you have encouraged me that I will still be able to.. maybe not right now but soon. And my daughter and I love Midwest horse fair!! Absolutely we will be there!!

    1. Maybe consider volunteering at a rescue… they have horse hair and spit there…and even an hour is a gift to the horses… and look me up at the Horse Fair, in the Horse N Around magazine booth. Thanks.

  22. Diane Calamia

    Anna, I’ve been enjoying your blogs for awhile now, I love how you bring women from across the country together in our love for our horses/farm life. I’m 59 and have never considered that Id stop riding…why would I ( I say with a smile). I’ve been going to the Midwest Horse Fair for years, if you haven gone before, you’ll enjoy every minute.

    1. Nice to meet you, Diane. And I’m with you, I love this group. Every post the comments are my favorite part–I just love us. Look for me at the Horse Fair, and I’ll email you when I know where I’ll be. I’m wondering if we might all meet at some point. I’ll keep you posted, and thank you for reading!

      1. Diane Calamia

        Looking forward to seeing you at the Midwest Horse Fair….have a happy and safe holiday.

  23. sharon

    From one of your mentorees who isn’t that far behind in age… I’m learning to embrace each gray hair and just look forward. Thank you for your guidance and wise words… yes my friend look back at all of us behind you giving that moral support and good will.

  24. Suzanne

    Another perfect post – I will read and reread many times. Came at the perfect time for me – 67 here – just started catching myself thinking time is short….feeling a stress to do more faster. Not a good outcome for a type A person πŸ™‚ – especially since I just started learning how to “quiet” my riding!!! These blogs are so spot on – all the time! Thanks very much!

  25. Fern Hilsinger

    I have always revered the grey mares regardless of how many legs they have. Old is just a place on the calendar. Wise maturity is earned by getting it that spot on the calendar. I am proud to have survived and grown over the years and still be able to continue and teach. I am a proud and vibrant grey mare. Bravo t all my cohorts.

      1. Fern Hilsinger

        Even as a child, I spent more time with the grey mares and felt happier with them. While my equines are now gone, and while they weren’t mares, they were the best part of my day, every day, and they lived to be 34 and 26. Now my loves are canine rescues and 1 cockatiel – all are mature and proudly healthy. Of course, let’s not leave out they’re opinionated. So still I am surrounded by the best – a 131/2 y/o fox red yellow lab, a 10 y/o boston, a 16 y/o sassy pom, and a 33 y/o no nonsense cockatiel.

        It just doesn’t get better than this!

  26. Fern Hilsinger

    When anyone asks for credentials, tell them I have 67years worth. Which ones would you like to hear about first? You don’t need to prove any more than that.

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