There’s No Romance in Rescue

It’s my bi-annual report on the animals fostered here at Infinity Farm. I try to balance on a tightrope when I write about rescue. I want to encourage people to adopt and at the same time, not get too romantic about it. I know with bloody certainty than I can’t save them all. I just think that the value of animals in our world is worth our inconvenience.

My little farm has always had an open-door policy when it comes to rescues. In the last ten years, 32 horses, mules and donkeys have temporarily fostered with us for evaluation or training. Most of them found their way to new homes and happy endings. Some found their way to peace.

We have two fosters now. Seamus, or Moose as he prefers, is a Welsh Corgi who’s been here six months. Sometimes when owners give up their dogs, they give a list of faults that serve as a justification for giving them up. In his case, the faults were worse than described. I’ve never met a dog who’s such an expert on punishment.

I’d love to say Seamus is happy again, frapping in the yard and cooing in my ear. It would be a lie. It’s true he rarely bites anymore but he is not a light-hearted little guy. He believes in evil; a trait you don’t often see in his breed. He tries to hide his fear with bravado but it makes him more bi-polar than cute. When he does play, he plays with a vengeance –the dark kind. It’s been hard on our other dogs and now the house has a maze of gates between rooms so that our dogs can be separated. It’s inconvenient.

On a good day, he sleeps on my chest, nearly crushes my lungs, and dreams.

Once Seamus had decompressed a couple of months, I took him to my vet. All of Seamus’ work came apart fast. The good news is that the vet didn’t get bitten. The good news is that she gave us tranquilizers and told us to come back in a week, under medication. The next visit, with a carefully negotiated muzzle, gave us hard medical answers. He has a bad hip and two bad elbows.

There is a term in rescue: Foster fail. It’s a joke that comes with a wink and a nod. It means a foster home has fallen in love. Seamus is the other kind –a literal failure at fostering. He has no place to go from here. He can’t be adopted out safely. Euthanizing is probably smart but he’s still a few months short of his second birthday. For now, he’ll stay. Maybe in a couple of years, he’ll age out of his aggression but by then his structural disadvantages will catch up with him. Bittersweet future.

Backyard puppy mills, like his, deserve a special place in hell. And maybe it’s me that likes the name Moose better. Say Seamus out loud and add an “on” in the middle. It wears me down.

It’s the one-year and one-month anniversary of Lilith’s arrival here. She’s somewhere over a hundred years old but we haven’t carbon dated her. She has “expired teeth” that, if she’d let you lift her lip up, you don’t want to see. She came to rescue from an old ranch where she’d been fighting coyotes for at least a couple of decades. Cantankerous is the charming word for her foul temper.

That extra one-month on her anniversary is because that first month we thought she had come here to die. But that didn’t work out.

Now I worry that she’s gained so much weight that her frail little legs can’t carry it. She has a freight train of a bray that gets a little stronger every day. Her shyness is gone; now when I take strangers into her pen, she strides up for a scratch but the second your hand comes close, she flings her head wildly to the side, ears akimbo, and demands you be cautious with your affection. She’s prickly.

Last fall my Grandfather Horse was failing. He was thirty, with a stack of terminal conditions, and the light gone from his eyes. She rallied and it didn’t feel fair. Because she was older. Because I just wanted him.

Now on her anniversary, she is pretending to graze. She nibbles dandelions, chews with fierce concentration, and then spits them out. There are no coyotes in her pen but she stays in shape goat wrestling. It’s a slow-motion event that involves more ear flinging.

Just yesterday, I was using a hair brush to thin out the steel wool covering her back. She’s itchy so she’ll stand for a minute. Then her butt teeters toward me, as her back feet bounce off the ground as a warning, followed by a kick with her knife-like hooves. Then both of us tiptoe quickly in opposite directions. She doesn’t love me. I respect that.

Lilith is a failed foster, too.  She’s alive but she has no place to go. She needs a few bowls of mush a day and between that, and the biting and kicking, she’s pretty inconvenient.

Maybe that word is the problem.

One hundred dollars; no questions asked. Colorado Horse Rescue Network is having an Open Door Event next month with our buyout program; we pay you for your unwanted horses. Then we do the very best we can for them. We’re pairing it with a free castration clinic. Spread the word!

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Heritage (with Doghair)

 …

The dog watches me sit at the edge of bed
pulling a frayed t-shirt over my head,
shoulders rounded with work not finished.
Pushing back, swinging my feet under covers
and easing down to the pillow. Wet whiskers
at bedtime; her gray nose nudges the quilt.

Yes, I say. She lumbers up and drops flush
to my side. That sweet weight of her head as
she rumbles a satisfied moan. It takes longer
for my shoulders to surrender the day but then,
between the prairie grass and the howlin’ moon,
my ribs go soft. Good girl.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Heritage

Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

Photo by Sheri Kerley

I’ll start with the bad news. For those of us who grew up cantering in the living room and then one day heard the term “natural horsemanship” and thought it meant we could be a horse in a real herd, I have some lousy-bad news:

There will never be a day when a horse looks at a human and thinks they see a horse. Give it up. It was just a sales pitch for something else entirely. You don’t get to be a horse. Sorry.

The good news is that if we become a slightly more well-mannered version of ourselves and listen in their language, horses will return an in-the-moment relationship so intense, intelligent, and profound, that for the first time in your life, you won’t mind not being a horse.

I’ve written about calming signals since 2014. Calming signals are subtle body messages that horses use to let us know they feel anxiety or conflict; that they are no threat and we don’t need to act aggressively. The signal demonstrates desired behavior from us at the same time. He might look away, stretching his head down as a way of asking us to relax and go slow.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. We tend to be too loud and bossy.

First, think of the barn as a foreign country. Then decide what kind of tourist you want to be. You can play the part of a privileged elitist throwing alms to the poor or a peace-maker negotiating with heads of state.  It’s up to you but you don’t own this place. You are a visitor. Remember your manners.

First, clean yourself up. Take this part very seriously. No, they don’t care what you wear but clean your mind up. Excuse your emotions, you won’t need them. Same with expectations and plans; horses don’t think about the future. You’re the only part of the interchange you can control, so take your time. Square your shoulders and balance your thoughts. Every time you want to talk, breathe instead. Get comfortable with silence. Learn to love the peace in waiting because it’s real.

If quieting your mind is hard for you, consider a yoga or meditation practice. Do it for your horse. If your emotions rule your life, you’re in overwhelm and horses don’t like that. Sure, you can use your horse as a therapist but why would you want to put those feelings of pain and insecurity on him? (Says the woman who literally went for couple’s therapy to talk about her horse.)

Warm up your senses. Tune your eyes to small things. Listen to your surroundings and slow down your perception of time so that you can be fully present. Each of their senses is more acute than ours so we need to start by being sure we are using the marginal senses that we do have to their full potential.

Think more awareness and less intellect. If you wonder if a response is a coincidence or that you might have imagined it, then believe it was real. With your limited senses, it’s probably true.

At the same time, be strict not to draw human conclusions. A horse might be giving you welcoming signals but doesn’t mean that he’s a sweetheart or a caregiver or a Zen master. Just let him be a horse.

You’ll need to learn their language. You probably know the swear words: pinned ears, bared teeth, the threat to kick. We can avoid those by listening sooner, to the smaller messages. Calming signals include looking away, narrowing eyes, stretching his neck to rub his nose on his leg or graze when he isn’t hungry.  Signals are as varied as there are unique individuals and there will never be a precise translation.

How to answer back is simple. You let your body demonstrate calm. You breathe. You balance and wait. You put your emotions on him but in a good way. You let him feel safe.

Give him a release by stepping out of his space. Let him know that you heard him, that you understand that he’s feeling anxiety and you respect that. Step back. Look for a release in his jaw and mouth, for soft eyes and a relaxed poll.

Nothing good is learned through fear, so let the anxiety pass before doing more. Let him assimilate what happened. Let it rest awhile. Ask again, but discipline yourself to ask smaller this time.

If he swings his head back toward you, he’s volunteering. It’s what you want; give him the reward that he wants. You resist the desire to hug him and babytalk. Instead, give him his space and exhale. You’re training him to trust himself. He’s been heard. Let him rest in that confidence.

Someone asked me this week, after a particularly communicative session with her horse, “Does it feel as good to them as it does to us?” In my experience, some horses are slow to start. It’s as if they haven’t been listened to for so long that they’ve given up. Others yell hysterically for the same reason. Hold steady to the calm and peacefully persist.

Once it all shakes out and they trust that line of communication, they become chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary. Horses constantly interrupt me in lessons to say the exact thing I’m trying to articulate. I’m humbled by their brevity.

Do I think it feels as good to them as it does to us? No. I think it feels even better. Equality is the ultimate freedom.

Donkey calming signals are like horse’s, but longears are smarter and hence, more subtle. Are you good enough for donkeys? There’s one calming signal that donkeys are particularly famous for using. We call it being stubborn, but I think they see it as not giving in to loud-mouth idiots who don’t take time to listen. It certainly doesn’t take a donkey more time to answer. They just resent being hurried.

What would happen if humans adopted that particular donkey calming signal? What if we got stubborn about going slow? Stubborn about listening and not fighting? Stubborn about whispering because we’re predators and lucky that horses even consider partnering with us in the first place.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Reflecting

It’s the job of a hero
to stand invincible
dwarfing the sky
and giving us pause,
reflecting the sum of
our inadequacies and hopes
too precious to name.

Could I be that strong,
that resilient, with decades
behind me and a dwindling future?
She holds her ground, with
steady eyes and no apology.

Our nature demands that
we measure ourselves with
cold calculation and doubt,
though the hero makes no claims
against us. Instead, she holds
a space beside her. Step up,
lay down the rest.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Reflecting

Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.

This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.” 

Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.

Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)

She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)

Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…

Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.

I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?

Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.

Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes.  Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.

But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart.  The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.

I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.

Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?

This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.

Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.

If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus.  I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.

I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.

What should the rider have done in this situation?  Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you.  Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Danger

The danger of horses is not 
their strength and power, 
thrusting forward with a brilliant 
heart, ribboned with intelligence- 
clean and authentic and never 
quite under our control. 

It isn't our earthbound worries 
or the fear of injury. The danger 
of horses is that we will fall short 
of their vulnerability; fall short  
of their wild beauty. The danger is 
that we may never feel that free.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon  
(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Danger

Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

We’re breaking in a new farrier here at Infinity Farm. The new guy is soft-spoken, uses a nice pink hoof-stand, and has an easy laugh that the mares like. We’re like any other herd. We’ve got some quirks. Not all of us got a great introduction to humans.

The farrier and I trim our way through the pens. The geldings are dependable and the mares tolerant. Lilith, the carbon-dated donkey, turns to face us, lifts her nose level with her ears, and brays like a fog horn. Her feet are fine this visit and we’re all relieved.

Bhim’s next. He came here from a rescue for training a few years back and I’m still working on it. I consider him a bit complicated. He considers me expendable. The farrier waits while I move forward with Bhim’s halter. We do a slow-motion dance; two steps this way, a dramatic pause and our shoulders turn. I know we must agree on this part. He continues to think I might go nuts. I continue to out-wait his low opinion of humans. A few more steps of the dance, slow and deliberate, and the halter is on. We walk back to the farrier who says, “Will you teach all my mini clients to do that?”

Funny you should mention that –there’s little I like to train more. I love a nuanced greeting, a dance of equals, each of us offering something positive. Haltering Bhim is a process. But that’s true for all horses.

Sometimes we chase them till they’re out of breath, the predator way. Sometimes we coyote-coax them with treats. Sometimes, (my least favorite), we march right up, pull the halter on snug, and pull them away from breakfast.

In each of these examples, the horses were giving calming signals. In each example, the horses were speaking more eloquently than their human.

A Calming Signal is the subtle language of horses. It’s a peaceful message to let us know they feel us there, disturbing the Zen, and they are no threat to us. We usually answer by letting them know we are an unpredictable war-like species.

Our haltering method is usually a complacent habit, even with hard to catch horses, and not something we think about much. At the same time, that initial moment of greeting creates a first impression that a horse remembers.

Let me put it another way: How do you like your significant other to greet you? By threatening or bribing or just grabbing you by the hair and pulling you along? It’s no surprise when a horse isn’t responsive in the saddle if we’ve already let them know that we’re lousy communicators on the ground.

How a horse greets us is his honest expression and if we mistake that for disobedience or stupidity or laziness, we are the ones with the problem.

Reset: Complacency is your enemy. It makes you dull-headed and lead-footed… not traits horses appreciate, but more than that, you’re missing the fun.

Before entering the pen or stall, remind yourself of the wild luck and hard work that put you in front of this gate. Take a breath and soften your gaze. Check yourself for anxiety or expectations. Use your peripheral vision and listen to your surroundings. When you’re presentable, enter the pen and stop.

Don’t “hide” your halter behind your back, horses see that as the first sign something weird is going on. If your horse moves away, you’ve got some work to do. If your horse runs up to mug you for treats, same thing.

It’s that stoic horse who stands where he is with his eyes half-closed that is the most interesting to me. Does he pretend you aren’t there? Or is he preparing for a loud advance?

Take just a step or two toward him and say whatever you want because words don’t matter. Ask for his eye. Think of it as a greeting more eloquent that words. Ask with your eye and breathe. If he moves away, know that you were too loud. Or it might be that your history is too loud. If he doesn’t acknowledge it at all, know he heard you and then ask even smaller.

If you want to know how you could possibly ask smaller than your eye looking at his eye, then you’re on the right path.

Reset your previous reset: We are predators by nature. In comparison to horses, we are loud and obnoxious by accident of birth. Even when we think we’re quiet, we roar. Take another breath and empty your mind of the loud jangle of expectations. Quiet the tick-tick-tick of your mental stopwatch. Let your shoulders drop the weight of needing to get it right all the time. Pooch out your belly and trust the ground to hold you.

Then ask for his eye in a lackadaisical way, because you are pretending to be free of expectation. If your horse flicks an ear or blinks an eye, that’s your reward. You receive this gift without judgment about its size or expense because you are an adult who’s above that kind of spoiled-child behavior. Exhale and let him know that you heard him. Say thank you with a pause of time.

About now, your horse looks right at you. Take another breath and maybe a small step sideways. The dance starts with a subtle invitation. Perhaps he moves a hind leg to re-position himself and so perhaps you take a step back this time. Across the distance of the pen, he looks at you with new eyes, slightly shifting his weight, and  pondering the possibility…

The halter was a prop. Something real just happened; he volunteered to meet you in the middle. The world has shifted. Say Good Boy and let him watch you leave the pen.

Then feel your reward. It’s so light, you could be imagining it. If you tried to clutch at it, it would skitter away like seeds from the head of a dandelion. So, you let it be. The best things grow, not with force, but with freedom. It’s an invitation to dance beyond ropes and words, and maybe even gravity.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Wanderlust

WM Edgar eye close

It’s the irresistible call
to scout hidden ravines and
gaze along the elevated vistas
from the edge of an eyelash.

A wish to explore generations
of memories, honor and courage
beyond self, cautiously stored in
the language of ancient travelers.

Ask permission at the gate,
take the solitary unmarked path
meandering the full distance
between his head and his heart.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon  
(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Wanderlust

Concept Clinics: A different approach

Mainstay

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the process of learning. It could have something to do with the number of times trainers told me to do things that didn’t make sense to me. Sometimes threads would come together and I’d have a flash. Some things took years to dawn on me. Now that I’m the trainer, I try to do better connecting the dots.

Then I read about linear thinking (a sequential progression to a logical end)  versus non-linear or spherical thinking (connected thought in multiple areas, rather than one, based on the concept that there is more than one way to apply logic.) Non-linear is more creative and dimensional. It gives a rider more ways to understand–like having several doors into a barn instead of just one.

It’s a smarter way to train horses. As a professional, I depend on a toolbox brimming with techniques because horses are each sentient unique creatures and one size does not fit all. I notice the same thing is true of humans.

And ok, it happens to be the way my mind works, too. So I’ve applied that idea, and a few others I know about how people learn, and designed three clinics that explain what I’m thinking.

Concept Clinics give riders an opportunity to explore a related group of ideas with exercises designed to clarify and deepen the awareness and practice of fundamental principles of communication and training.

Calming Signals If you are standing next to your horse and he looks away, do you think he’s distracted or even disrespectful? When your horse yawns, is he sleepy or bored? If he moves slowly, is he lazy?   Calming Signals is a concept clinic on the ground. We’ll learn to read and respond to calming signals with special attention to comprehension (active listening, intention, and focus). It’s a different approach to haltering, leading exercises, and your body language. I’ll say breathe a few thousand times. We’ll spend the rest of the day doing in-hand horse agility, where the conversation is the most fun.

Dressage Rhymes with Massage. If your horse is young, sound, and has had all the advantages, it takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm his joints. And that same twenty minutes for you. Warm up is by far the most important part of the ride for strength and positive attitude. This is a relaxed and forward Concept Clinic, using warm-up methods designed to help a horse be physically and mentally responsive. We’ll start with exercises to systematically warm-up and connect your horse. Clinic includes how to ride circles, riding balanced transitions and a different approach to asking for bend, as well as the use of a neck-ring, long rein, and correct contact. This clinic makes young horses steadier, midlife horses stronger, and elder horses more supple.

Rhythm and Dance Clinic. Rhythm is the foundation of the Dressage training pyramid. Rhythmic movement promotes relaxation (walking, grazing, trotting) and bad reactions always include a loss of rhythm (spooking, bucking, bolting.) We’ll use ground pole exercises to balance transitions, with special focus on the use of seat and legs to encourage rhythm and alter stride within gaits, using half-halts and lengthenings. This clinic includes Riding to Music and finishes with a quadrille or group ride.

I’ll continue my traditional clinics, but I’m also offering Concept clinics. (More information) If you’re interested in hosting one, I’m happy to travel, and I also keep a list of barns looking to partner with other barns on clinics.

Right now, I’d appreciate your feedback on the idea. What would you think about this sort of event? Is there a topic that would really benefit from this approach? How do you think and learn?

Thank you, I appreciate your thoughts.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Equine Retirement Planning.

First, I watched Brentina’s retirement ceremony. Then Secretariat’s last race and Valegro’s final Olympia freestyle. Who doesn’t need to watch Aldrich’s one-tempi victory lap one more time? This part is embarrassing. I searched for a ridiculously sappy scene from that old movie, The Electric Horseman, where Redford sets the stallion free. It’s a kind of retirement, too, and the camera slo-mos his gallop toward a herd of mustangs. He’s got a gallon of baby oil slathered on him (the stallion of course, who cares about Redford) and his muscles ripple and flex as his stride lengthens. Slow motion photography was made for this and they milk it, changing camera angles in a way that doesn’t make sense but shows more skin. You know in the real world, he’ll be muddy, scraped up, and half-lame in a day, if a varmint hole doesn’t kill him sooner, but the music swells…

And then I made myself stop. It’s just that retirement conversations come up a lot these last months and it’s never too soon to start planning.

The thing I like about retirement ceremonies is that the horses are sound and fit and bright, mugging for the crowd, who love them like their own. We celebrate them at the top of their game and wave from our chairs. Real life is more complicated.

How did retirement get such a bad name in our own barns? There’s someone who’ll comment that she’s riding her 35-year-old horse, and another who bites her lip because her horse retired at 19. Can we set our emotions aside for a moment and talk reality? I know it’s impossible.

Comparing horses never works. A lanky long-backed Thoroughbred ages differently than a compact round Arabian because of accident of birth. A performance horse might have more miles on him than a backyard grade horse, but he also might have gotten a higher standard of care. Add in the wild cards: injuries, being a kid horse, your location. And no one denies that horses live longer these days. Long enough to suffer chronic issues even longer.

Comparing people is even harder. Some aren’t the best riders. Some say they “only” trail ride but that means packing in for a week in mountain terrain, while other’s trail ride in their two-acre pasture. Some compete their horses, trying to improve their riding skills to progress farther in their discipline, while making their horses stronger and steadier. Some happily stay at entry levels of jumping or pleasure riding or dressage forever.

One thing riders have in common is that we like to think our horses love being ridden. I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I doubt it. Not every rider, not forever. Some of us understand and work hard to ride better for the horse. Then some of our horses are stoic and it’s easier think it’s all good than listen to their quiet signals about things we don’t want to hear.

At some point, we need to stop valuing what they do for us and shift to being grateful for what they’ve done

I don’t know what’s right for your horse. I do know that considering his retirement is good planning. If you have a young horse, know that you have time. Go slow and build a solid foundation for your horse’s future. Train with compassion.

If you have a midlife horse, recognize that these are precious days. His prime is finite and the view from the top is beautiful. Work him with kindness, to keep him strong and supple. Be aware in the moment. Be gobsmacked.

And if you have an elder, listen to him closely. Remind him of his golden days and respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as years pass. Then try to be as generous as he has been.

I want to share two elder stories because my clients inspire me.

There is a gooney-sweet chestnut gelding grazing in a pasture today. I met him and his rider a few years ago. He was as undone a horse as I’ve seen, not quite sound and not quite young. His owner was an accomplished rider but we spent months on a lunge line, letting him find the ground. Convincing him that nothing bad was going to happen until finally his poll relaxed, finally he exhaled. There was a glorious summer when he competed at intro dressage. His tests were not brilliant. Instead he was steady and relaxed, making round circles and gliding across the diagonals. I was in awe that he was capable of a free walk.

These last months have been up and down. No expense was spared, but his back has still dropped some. We worked to make him stronger, but gravity might be winning. With sadness and no fanfare, he went home. We miss him here but he’s been reunited with an old one-eyed mare and the grass is green. Writing about him is my version of a retirement celebration. I imagine thousands cheering him from the stands.

My other story is about a lesson I gave recently to a rider with fine gaited mare of a certain age. It’s taken some time to get started; she’s had the full run of vet help for her stiff body and an ulcer supplement is working. The lesson started at the walk, but the mare stopped from time to time. We didn’t rush her. The rider was generous with wither scratches while I talked about rhythm to relax her topline and leg cues to supple her barrel. Her walk became more fluid. We did a couple of exercises that released her shoulders a fraction and finally, an exercise to ask her stiff hind legs to step under a tiny bit. She tried a tiny bit. She was thoughtful, feeling her old body soften, you know, a tiny bit.

A spectator might not have noticed her effort and left in ten minutes. We noticed. In the end, the rider found a rhythm that helped the mare feel a little better in her body–a mounted massage of sorts. We never did more than a walk. The lesson ended early and the mare licked and chewed. Her eyes were soft, and I might have kissed her nose. Dressage is a gift for older horses if you do it right.

Thinking of retirement takes some getting used to; we’d be smart to start when they’re young. I think the thing we are mad at, the thing we want to control, is time. We are never satisfied in the moment because a good horse will always make us greedy for more. Living in that slo-mo shot of our horses getting old, in front of our own eyes, strangles our hearts even worse than a sappy scene in an old movie.

Sometimes we forget that horses belong to the stars and moon; they were never ours in the first place.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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