What I Didn’t Know Then

Baby SpiritIt seems that most things I learn about horses, I learn in hindsight. It’s not a bad thing. Horses learn that way, too.

When I was younger I had a great grasp of the little picture. And by that I mean the same way Wile E. Coyote had a fist around the Roadrunner’s long skinny throat…tight enough for a reality blackout–his own. I’m not saying I was no fun, but I also believed that patience was an excuse for procrastination. Type A people seemed lazy to me. Clearly it was going to take a horse to get my attention. In a moment of divine intervention, an Appaloosa crossed my path–a weanling naturally. It was the perfect situation. If you’re not averse changing everything.

I have a shoe-box theory of life. The short version is that the universe has perfect order and reason and love. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way because I live in a shoe-box and I can’t see over the top. If I was taller, I’d understand, but as it is, I can just do the best I can. Oh, and my shoe-box has a barn in it.

The biggest thing that escaped my limited view, is that there’s always a continuum of change: there’s the horse you started with, the horse you have now, and the horse he eventually became. Change is a constant but what they don’t tell you, is that the largest changes won’t involve your horse at all.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ― Cynthia Occelli

When is the best time to start a young horse? The disagreement starts early; studies say that growth plates don’t convert to bone for several years. Now some conservatives say wait to start a horse until they’re as old as six. It could feel like a waste for an impatient human but horses don’t believe in wasted time. Or time at all. On the other hand, the racing industry runs two-year-olds hard. And to spread the blame evenly, a few years ago at a nutrition seminar, most of the questions asked were about how to get Quarter horses ready to go as long yearlings. Horses live short lives and so we hurry.

In the beginning my young gelding had many huge issues, and by that I mean, I had many huge shortcomings that I was very committed to. I’m not proud to say he paid for some of that–not that I blamed him. I blamed everything else instead. That’s how he knew I was a keeper.

So I waited forever and started him at three. In hindsight, I wish I’d given him another year. It’s what I’ve done with every horse since him. With a little more mental maturity some of the issues can be avoided entirely.

Years flew by and we hardly noticed. Then his tendon injury gave me time to question my chosen discipline; lots of reining horses retired early. It was the first time I heard the clock ticking, so I took the leap to dressage. In those days, competition dressage horses were elders, by comparison. That has changed some in the last twenty years, to the shame of contemporary dressage. Practiced properly, dressage can make a horse stronger and buy you more time. That was my new goal.

At the same time, I was learning the art of consistency; to quietly ask for his best every day. It wasn’t hard for him. By then we were partners and our bickering was replaced by high-level negotiations. But it required more diplomacy and mental focus than I possessed. And physical control was a huge issue; my body, not his.

Is there anything more beautiful than a horse in his prime with a rider who has figured out how to get out of his way? It feels like a shaft of golden light follows the two of you every stride. The line between horse and rider gets blurred and if you find a breath of focus so light and open, there are moments when it’s impossible to tell where the horse stops and the human starts. Oneness is a shabby, flat word for moments like those.

There’s this sweet spot that we call a horse’s prime. It’s when they are at the height of their physical strength and mental ability; the intersection of fully developed muscles and confident minds, and if a rider happens upon this precious moment with an open heart, magic happens, but it’s elation combined with dread. It’s why we see professional riders always looking for new horses, even as they ride world-class horses. The work doesn’t necessarily destroy them but everyone knows the clock is ticking; that sweet spot is temporary. It isn’t’ going to last longer than any other flower of a moment.

Blink and it’s over. Most horses start a slow decline but my gelding had an injury as definite as the flip of a light switch. I’ve been lucky, my Grandfather Horse survived, and now we’ve had as many retired years as we had riding years. It’s given me extra time for hindsight learning and the horses who have come after have all benefited. We owe him a debt, but it’s still bittersweet.

Even now we want them to live longer.

WMspirithuggoatIt’s unkind to force the work past that sweet spot and unkind to force the work before its time. The sad truth about my Grandfather Horse, now thirty, is that his physical prime was truly the shortest time of his life. There was no need to hurry to get there.

In early years, blame was an issue…for me–horses aren’t nearly as attracted to it as humans. With my usual shoe-box hindsight, I had to acknowledge that our years of connection didn’t start when we got it right. My loud thoughts had made a racket inside his head from the beginning. We shared a shoe-box; of course my horse felt those dark feelings. Better to give up blame entirely. With all that extra room, forgiveness could stretch out and brighten the place up.

If I had it to do over again, on day one I’d start by forgiving him for having a shorter life. Those were the good old days already.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

30 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Know Then

  1. Beautifully written Anna! The question of when to start horses is a discussion I’d rather avoid, when talking to other horse people. There’s usually a lot of guilt connected with it. I’m in the process of bringing home two, 5 year old, rescue horses, next week. They have lived their whole life on a pasture, without training. I am thrilled to getting to know them. I already know that one of them is most likely going to be very easy to start under saddle, while the other one….I have no idea what’s going to happen with her (my favorite..of course.) That’s horses, bringing magic to our lives. Some for a moment, and some for many years. I love reading your posts!

  2. billiehinton

    I think the riding time after the sweet spot can be as beautiful as the sweet spot if we shift what we expect in terms of “performance.” Keil Bay turned 27 this month and we have regular rides that are quite glorious whether we are walking and doing gentle stretches and bends or he feels good and offers bigger gaits. I am obsessive about not pushing him and he loves nothing more than to have a long grooming session, a ride that suits where his body is that day, and his post-ride peppermints when I dismount. You can see the satisfaction in his swinging stride back to the barn – I open the gate out of the arena and he walks on to the tack room door and waits for me to untack him, then gets his post-ride meal. This routine started when he was younger and in that sweet spot and it is clear to me he enjoys it still. He’s incredibly sound for his age – I’m sure it’s partly genetics but I’m also sure it has something to do with the fact that I and the two women who lived with him before me were careful and focused on riding for fitness and soundness. He’s teaching me how to keep a horse happy and sound for a whole lifetime and I’m going to aim to be a superstar student in this journey! 🙂

  3. melinda oduggan

    This is lovely, I think.  Starting horses too early has always been a pet-peeve of mine, akin to child abuse.

    From: AnnaBlakeBlog: Relaxed & Forward To: cossackgirlathilltopfarm@yahoo.com Sent: Friday, May 6, 2016 9:29 AM Subject: [New post] What I Didn’t Know Then #yiv9761691186 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv9761691186 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv9761691186 a.yiv9761691186primaryactionlink:link, #yiv9761691186 a.yiv9761691186primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv9761691186 a.yiv9761691186primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv9761691186 a.yiv9761691186primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv9761691186 WordPress.com | Anna Blake posted: “It seems that most things I learn about horses, I learn in hindsight. It’s not a bad thing. Horses learn that way, too.When I was younger I had a great grasp of the little picture. And by that I mean the same way Wile E. Coyote had a fist around the Roa” | |

  4. lisaobg

    Anna, This touched me completely. I had to help my Grandfather horse go to Heaven the last day of August 2015. What would have been his 31st birthday just occurred on April 22, 2016, without him here on earth with me. I’m about to turn 50 on June 22, 2016. Your blog today affected both the horse woman and the aging woman, in me. I miss the simple joy that my horse gave me every single day. I miss the simplicity and quiet times. I miss his smell and how I knew just where he wanted to be scratched and curried. I miss how he always stood by me and I could see the world through his wise and patient eyes. He always forgave me and taught me more than I can ever fully repay. I miss his low nicker every single time he saw me, and how he would sometimes walk and almost always trot or canter to me when he realized I was there. He did this from anywhere in his enormous pasture or even when he was standing in his stall in front of the fan to try to escape the North Carolina summer heat. I miss his chin on my shoulder and feeling his warm peppermint breath on my ear and cheek. I most miss who I became when I was with him. A young, hope filled girl who wanted to live forever in his huge heart. Thank you for expressing some of what I feel and am feeling as I approach a new decade and mourn my best friend. Sincerely, Lisa O’Brien-George 

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

    1. Oh Lisa. You are so eloquent. I miss him too. My sad condolences, even as I know you are rich in your memory of him. Thank you for sharing that with us.

    2. sherryw2015

      I know exactly how you feel. My grandfather horse left this realm in Dec. of 2009 just short of his 28th birthday and I miss him to this day. I had him since the day he was born and only twice in his life was he ridden by anyone else and those were short jaunts. He thought I could save him from anything and would literally try to hide behind me when he was nervous. He loved to give my arms a serious wash. I miss the total knowing of each other, no surprises and the daily woes just fell away. Mostly, because he was out of my father’s mare, technically my dad’s horse, (my dad gave him to me on the day he was born) losing him was like losing the last physical connection to my dad. (Dad died in 2004.) My consolation is that, if heaven is everything you love then the two of them are up there together.

  5. Of course, I love this. It’s right in sync with the hindsight I’m sorting through with my old dog. I don’t know why I smartened up and “retired” him before he got past his prime. After all, I’m not exactly known for making brilliant decisions. I pushed him WAY too hard as a youngster; my list of wants and have-tos was far too long for his fragile psyche. And when he failed to live up to my expectations I was SO disappointed in him. I didn’t realize his failure to excel was just a metaphor for my own shortcomings. Now? I welcome a slower pace and I apply it liberally. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.” (Vernon Law)

  6. Marcella Reekie

    I have one of those. I did that. He and I are
    paying for my decisions. You always manage to make me cry with your truths that are also mine.

  7. Hindsight has been my best – and cruelest – teacher. Hudson will be 27 in a few weeks. I’m trying to balance my need to encase him in bubble wrap with his need to WORK. Everyone has an opinion, and I need to remember his is the most important. He’s recovered from his encounter with gravity. Two bad knees, a bad hip, and absolute refusal to limp. The hope in his eyes when he sees a bridle, or hears a rope whistle in the air… I choose to listen to his emotional need, and give him light work ponying safe horses. He’s The Boss. Time is ticking along, and I try not to listen to dread. He isn’t. He’s hopeful, joyful, bossy, and impatient with me trying to protect him. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Jane. My boy was the same, the day I became a quitter (at his last injury) he hated me. It hurt. I trust you’ll delay that day for Hudson as long as it’s fair. You don’t want to see his retirement face!! I always love your perceptive comments.

  8. Kim

    I am new to your blog Anna, your wisdom and writing flair are something I look forward to. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I love to read and share them .

  9. Barbara A. Zelnick

    Dear Anna,

    I really enjoy receiving your posts.

    When I was young I loved riding and being with horses so much. Now that I’m old, your writing brings back those tender and joyful years of connecting with such magnificent hearts and souls.

    Bless you for sharing your practice with me.

    Kindest regards,

    Barbara

    >

  10. Maggie Frazier

    Lovely – lovely! So many of your posts bring tears to my eyes – thinking back about my boy – how, when he didn’t feel good, he would walk right into me and push his head against me. He did that the night before he was put down. I do hope your Grandfather horse had many more years ahead. Really disagree with starting colts so early. I remember the hunter/jumper trainer at the barn where I boarded – didn’t start any of hers till they were four, and very light riding on the flat for quite some time. Makes me cringe when I see these 2 year old babies on the track.

  11. Maggie Frazier

    Sorry – HAS many more years ahead! ( my brain knows what I’m thinking, but apparently theres a disconnect from that to my fingers)!

  12. sherryw2015

    This was timely, having just watched the Kentucky Derby (through my fingers hoping not to see anyone go down), I have to agree about starting the youngsters too early. If only we’d learn that we’d have the grace of their company longer if we just started them later.

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