The Middle Path: Discipline

“I’ve noticed that you sometimes seem to take reader requests for your blog, and I was wondering if you might sometime be able to talk about the specifics of correction. I find myself struggling sometimes to know exactly what to do, not wanting to be too harsh but at the same time not wanting to be a namby-pamby nag.”

It’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Dominating a horse into terrified submission is always a bad idea. I’m not sure that nagging them into a stupor is any kinder. Finding the middle path with a horse, between these extremes, is the sweet spot where communication flows without stress and confusion. Name that place confidence.

First, I am always going to wonder why we feel such a need to punish or correct horses. The obvious answer is that they aren’t doing what we want. Most of us feel some sort of nebulous voice warning us about respect or the danger of wild animals or the opinion that the natural world must bow to us because humans are superior. The voice has a slightly parental ring to it.

Most people tell me that they feel uncomfortable punishing animals, in spite of that traditional back chatter. It makes for an over-busy brain. Once and for all, pick a side. Dump the concept that correction or discipline as a necessary part of training. Tell those Neanderthal voices to shut up and correct the internal anxiety in your own mind. In that moment of peace, recognize that discipline is your friend.

Think about the idea of correction. The behavior that just happened is already in the past, but we are choosing to drag it back into the present, so we can discipline our horse about something he thinks is finished. Sure, he does learn from being corrected but not what you want. Punishment damages the trust our horses have in us. Really think about that. Then, correct yourself; let go of your grudge and get back in the present moment. Reward your own discipline.

If something went wrong, on the ground or in the saddle, correct your judgment and take a breath. Hear the amen choir coming from your horse, who is now starting to love this new definition of discipline.

Did your horse swing his head too close or push into you? You’re in his space. Discipline yourself to step back and let his anxiety cool. Watch for calming signals. If he licks or yawns or shakes his neck into a stretch, good job. You have listened to him. Real love means giving him autonomy.

Did your horse nip at your hand? He’s in pain; don’t you dare correct that. Behavior is the only way horses have of telling us how they feel. Listen to where it hurts. If he doesn’t stand still while saddling, think about ulcer issues. Correct your quickness. Slow down and pay attention any misbehavior, translated as discomfort. Listen to his body, regardless of your time constraints. Now that’s real discipline; put your horse’s needs above your ego. Good girl!

Let’s say the thought that you might be a namby-pamby nag crosses your mind. Take the idea seriously. Have a no tolerance policy for muffling your own voice. Correct your mind-jumble. Pause, inhale and say exactly what you mean in a clear cue. Focus and don’t apologize or let yourself be distracted.

Stay on task, don’t repeat yourself. Watch his eye; his face. Is he thinking about it? Of course, especially if he’s giving calming signals. Reward him right then. Reward him for thinking; build his try. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Let him figure it out. Discipline yourself to give him time to do it himself.

Training isn’t a right or wrong game. It’s that kids game of Hot and Cold. Ignore his cold responses and let him know when he’s getting warmer. Be generous in praise of all things heading the right direction. It’s called progressive approximation and it’s how all of us learn. Discipline yourself to be ridiculously cheerful and positive. Now you’re mentally looking forward and your horse can’t tell the difference between discipline and partnership. Yay! Winning!

Search your memory. Was there a time that being called out and humiliated taught you anything positive? Did someone feeling sorry for you make you stronger? Have you ever felt betrayed by someone who under-estimated you? Then correct yourself when you say words like “rescue” and “problem with my horse.”

If you don’t like the plight of the horse, get off FB and into community government. Donate the money spent on manicure and hair dye, and get ready for world transformation. Create actual change but understand whining about it in front of a horse does more damage to how he relates to you, than it does good in the world.

Correct your definition of training problem; stop seeing horses as hapless children or dysfunctional victims. They are not stuffed toys who magically heal us. We must do our own work before we can help them. Discipline yourself to see horses in their full glory. Strong and intelligent. As perfectly capable of trust and partnership as humans are. Aspire to keep that promise.

Continue to cue cleanly, clearly, and consistently. The other word for that is honesty. It’s a profound relief to just say what you mean. No longer biting your tongue, soon confidence seeps in because honesty just feels good. Nice correction, give yourself a pat. Most women have known enough confident asshats that confidence has gotten a bad name.

Redefine confidence is a sense of positive well-being based in honesty. Set about demonstrating that for your horse. Know that training a horse to have confidence,  to feel peace and acceptance, is the resolution for every problem he will ever encounter. Leadership is giving a feeling of safety. Correct your stiff contradictions and anxiety about not being good enough. Recognize you’re passing it on to your horse, causing the behaviors you want to correct in him. Discipline yourself to accept your shortcomings and promise to do better. Love yourself as much as you love horses.

Your horse doesn’t care if you’re always right; he just wants to trust himself through your partnership. Your confidence is his confidence. Train that.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Photo Challenge & Poem: Weathered

It’s winter on this tumbleweed prairie. 
The sun comes up late and flat yellow,
without warmth. This dusting of snow 
will stay on the ground and my hands 
will stay stiff in my gloves. I hear 
him before he comes into sight. This

bay horse trots as effortlessly as
he breathes, a proud cadence, each
pair of feet, front and back, landing
with sharp unison. A crisp clop,
one-two rhythm, perpetual as a
metronome ticking a blunt backbeat, 

hooves to ground, steam to whiskers. 
Holding me frozen in his sway. This 
bay horse moves with the icy glide 
and flow of a skater covering the 
crystal earth with slick purity, 
never dreaming of another season.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Weathered

Your Horse Loves Arena Riding

Does your horse have a Night of the Living Dead lurch to the arena? Do you clock in like it’s a factory job? Is there a rut on the rail, and is it you?

Worst of all, is the arena a cell without windows where he gets corrected and controlled? Is it the kind of place where being gate sour, just wanting out, is common sense?

People tell me that their horse doesn’t like the arena and it’s obvious why. If your riding involves arena time, the first priority is to make it a place your horse wants to be. What if, instead of a horse being barn sour, he was arena sour. What if he pulled toward the arena because that’s where all the good things happen?

I learned a new word this week. It’s the German term funktionslust. Try to pronounce it; it’s juicy. It refers to the pleasure taken in doing what one does best. It’s birds flying, dogs playing ball. It speaks of a horse taking thunderous flight, feeling the glory in his physical body. Shouldn’t funktionslust be the sign on the arena gate?

For horses, living in the moment means what their body feels. Our words will never matter as much as his physical state. He doesn’t care what you think about horse slaughter or nutritional supplements or Nuno Oliveira. Right now, is his neck short, is his back is tense, is his movement is restricted?

A riding arena should be a blank slate, not intrinsically good or bad. Not the scene of a competition or a cool beach at sunset. We can create the arena as a playground, a dance studio, or a torture chamber. We can spend time trying to heal our horse’s attitudes about the arena by hacking on long trails, or we can make the arena a place they don’t need therapy to recover from in the first place.

Start here: all great rides begin with a curry. I don’t care if you ever use a brush for grooming, but the curry is a thing of magic. As you move over every inch of his body with energy and focus, feel your own body. It’s your primary tool for communication. Let the circling of the curry on his rump, soften your shoulders. Roll your neck as you curry his poll. Shifting weight from one leg to another, relax your own hips. Stretch your back as you bend to pick his hooves. Curry your horse until you lick and chew.

At the same time, make a plan for your ride. Vow to be happy in the saddle, lightly eloquent with your cues. Think about your own energy and don’t expect more from your horse than you are willing to put out. Have a plan because horses read that focus as confidence. Then be aware that you’ll stick to the plan 11-13% percent of the time. Laugh about it, out loud so he can hear you.

Head to the arena with a long step. Communicate through your body, let your feet be forward but don’t you dare pull on the lead. It’s the cue to him that you’ll be pulling on the reins later.

He doesn’t have to go to work right away. If you are taking the halter off and bridling there, spend too much time in between. Let him look. If you have friends riding when you get there, say hello to them but then ignore them and focus on your horse.

Are you a perfectionist? Call a moratorium on any of your behaviors that might fit in well in a 1950s Catholic girls’ school. Are you the silent, brooding type? Lift your energy. Smile. Show some teeth. Be interesting.

Start slow. Take a stroll with your horse on the ground. No hands, pay attention to your feet. Breathe. Walk big arcs. If you lunge before you ride, let him play in the beginning. If he lets out a buck, cheer for it. Let him shake it all out before you begin to ask for transitions.

When you get to the mounting block, have a scratch fest. Mount up and breathe. This is the dance. Breathe some more. If you are a longtime novice rider, you’ve been taught to sit still and be quiet in the saddle. If you’re timid, you might be unnaturally quiet. If you don’t have a plan, your horse is bored already. So right now, lift your own energy. Feel the funktionslust in your own body. Riders ride! It’s you, doing what you love. Cheer up, for crying out loud.

Walk on.  Crank up the music. Focus, go to work with energy. You’ll need discipline to keep your own energy high, to allow the freedom of movement your horse needs to find his balance and feel strong.

Do not punish your horse in the arena. Punishment destroys trust and if it happens every time he goes to the arena, it’s like returning to the scene of the crime. If your horse already has a history of being punished in the arena, it’ll be obvious. Let him know he has all the time he needs.

Go to work with purpose, forward and relaxed. Let him feel his body strong. Sometimes do it his way. Find a fair challenge because it keeps the conversation interesting. Know that he’s giving you what you asked for and adjust yourself accordingly.

Sometimes take an arena trail ride. Drop the reins and don’t care where you go. Sometimes when you are on the trail, do a spiraling exercise or practice light transitions. In the end, riding is just riding. Never location. It’s about a conversation between friends.

Finish the ride a long rein. Energy high, striding out. Halt and take a load off. Your horse, of course. No lingering, being the cool kid on a horse. Don’t make him hold you when he can’t mitigate the weight by moving.

Step a few feet away and give him a full release. Wait for him to take it. Wait for the yawn, the neck shake. No need to rush, let the arena be a sanctuary; the place you congratulate each other on your obvious brilliance. Let your voice be low and soft, with a hint of a nicker.

…Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you wou

Photo Challenge: Growth (of a Kind)

Euthanasia is never easy, but it can be less punishing.
The secret is to focus on love instead of loss.

Donkey Wings

It's a cold north wind that blows through
my ribs today. Like a stand of quaking 
aspen, my bones are held together by
proximity and not connection. My heart 
hurts and I am joyous. She was special.

A rescue came here to die, early last year.
Instead she grew fat, made friends, taught
us the fine art of braying. She was tiny; a
a small standard, in donkey terms. A mighty 
presence, defined by hooves and quirkiness.

Decades of holding her ground brought her 
to this fair state, vision and hearing nearly
gone. The pain hidden for so long, undeniable. 
It must stop. She needs a predator to come 
for her. Perhaps some fearful moments but

then free. It would be a good trade. Her
longears droop awkwardly, her eyes are
deep-still. Independent, she keeps a bit 
off from the herd. Like I do, together but 
apart. I hoped her ancient heart would let

her go but still she stands, shifting hurt
from one leg to another. Fetlocks quiver, 
can't hold weight long. She lost her taste
for canned pears two days ago. Nature is
dependable, if not kind. The pain of saying

good-bye is equally balanced with fear of our 
own passing. Pause. Sharing life with animals 
means keeping death close; welcoming mortality 
inside. She deserves calm breath, not selfish 
tears. Dear Old Girl, I'll be your predator. 

I'll come for you in the full warmth of the
sun, without regret. The vet bends quietly to
feel that ankle and gets a kick for asking. One 
last profanity. My teeth catch the air with the 
the precious joy of knowing her. Cantankerous,

I'll keep that part for me. With one hand on her
halter and one hand scratching her forehead, the
way she likes. Keep focus; her impossibly soft
whiskers. She leans back so slowly, the weight 
growing just a pound at a time. It's a moment

to cherish. She's not trying to escape, she's 
trusting my strength to lighten the weight on 
her old legs. In her way, she's letting me hold
her. Then it's time, we breathe together, and 
both of us, just a pound at a time, release all.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Middle Path: The Curse of a Self-Aware Mind

We think too much. We’re mostly introverts with an inclination toward perfection, and we think too much. Oh, and we like to ride horses.

Example: You’re riding a young horse who is a little quick. You’re with your trainer at your first dressage show. You enter the arena, salute the judge, and begin the test. It’s great, the new jacket fits well. You begin the trot work. You know people are watching you but you don’t smile. These are full-seat white britches, you’ve managed to keep them relatively clean, but they don’t give much in the saddle. Not that you’ve had them in the saddle before. Actually, they kind of suspend you above the sadd…. oops. “Are we going really fast? I think we’re going really fast.”

At this point, you look for your trainer on the sideline and she has a furrowed brow. “Okay, he’s quick. Let me see. I could half-halt. I don’t need a one rein stop, do I? No, not that. I don’t want to pull the reins in front of the judge. Oh. I think I might be pulling the reins already. Crap. I think he’s pulling back on them, too. Oh, my. Is that slapping sound my backside hitting the saddle? Half-halt, do you think?”

You survive, it’s ugly but you’re feeling good about staying on when you leave the arena. Your trainer asks you, through a very tense jaw, “Your horse was running away with you. Couldn’t you tell your horse was running away?” “Um. Of course,” you answer, “I just couldn’t decide what to do.” And you give your trainer the second deer-in-headlights look of the day.

Meanwhile, your young horse, who lives in the moment, is thinking about noises he hears over by the Porta-Potty.

First, a simple explanation of the difference between us and non-human animals, like horses. Scientists agree that horses have consciousness, defined as being aware of their own body and the surrounding environment. They think. Humans have self-awareness, generally defined as consciousness, as well as the awareness of our existence. We think, and then we think about our thoughts. 

This is why humans are considered more evolved but sometimes I wonder. Our senses are not as acute as horses; they hear and smell and see more. Meaning horses live in the moment. We use our brains to override our senses, so we can doubt that horses sense what they sense and then think about our feelings about that.

Humans have an added dimension; we can read the philosophy of classical horsemanship. Shop online for tack. Get sold methods of training, explained in deceptive terms, that may be popular but don’t actually work on horses. Spend hours on DreamHorse. Be groupies for previously mentioned training methods, proselytizing to others about the need to punish horses. Think about obscure breeds we’d like to own. Consider different bits to gain more control of our horses. Have a big heart for horse rescue. Plan a trip to Spain.

If humans were on an inter-species dating site, they would not link us up with horses. We’re a bad match, but we aren’t quitters. 

It’s important to understand these fundamental differences. If humans want relationships with horses, we must approach it in a non-human way. We need to study technique, but when we’re riding, lay down our over-analyzing minds.

Less thought, more feel. In the example at the beginning, the rider stopped breathing, her legs grabbed on, the cue to go faster. Her body got tense, and her horse got scared. Her response was to think more thoughts. She was so busy having a conversation with herself that she abandoned her horse. It isn’t a mistake, it’s our instinct.

To be partners, we have to quiet our natural instinct, just like horses have to quiet some of theirs. It’s why riding well is an art.

Where to begin? Horses live by physical awareness, so first, let your intellectual mind rest. Just feel. Take a deep breath. Did it catch in your throat? Did your shoulders poke up around your ears? Take another breath. Feel it expand your belly. Count to three on the inhale. Hold a count and exhale in three. Continue. Breathe into your knees and let them loosen. Tell your critical voice to breathe with you, but hold her tongue. Do this all day long. Feels good, doesn’t it?

When you are breathing deep and soft to your belly, go to the barn and look at your horse’s flank. That’s how he breathes when he’s relaxed, too. About now your brain kicks in with some bright shiny mental distraction. Smile, because it relaxes part of your head. Breathe and smile, stay with your horse. Create a bubble for the two of you to breathe in together.

Try this experiment: Communicate by using the body parts that both you and your horse share. So, no voice and no hands. Become aware of your feet. Become aware of… (I know you’re judging yourself. Just stop.) …your senses. Breathe deep and slow. Notice your hands and keep them to yourself again. Give him space to feel confident in; stand square and tall and away. Let him tell you something you don’t know. Without interrupting him to make him hurry. Without interrupting yourself with chatter. Takes self-discipline, doesn’t it?

In the saddle, warm up on a long rein. Feel your sit bones and note the length of his stride. Now listen to a song or count your breath. In about five minutes, feel the difference in your back and in his stride. Limit yourself to feeling. Don’t fix it, just feel it. Go through each of your body parts and introduce yourself. Is your neck tight? Give it a roll and breathe. Notice your horse’s poll release but don’t talk about it. Feel your elbows and wrists.

Experience your horse, body to body.  There is no cleaner or more immediate way to communicate with a horse. Practice acceptance in that exact moment; that’s where connection starts.

After you put your horse up, find a horse-friend. Talk to for hours about your ride. Tell her you fell in love all over again.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

 

 

Photo Challenge & Poem: Sanity & Sanitary

Fingers in the worn glove curve to meet
the shape of the wooden handle in my palm.
Muck boots shuffle, pulling the cart while
a group of resting horses follow me with
soft eyes. Not an intruder or visitor, as
ordinary as a barn cat. I work the gate,

announcing myself, "Housekeeping." Come
to clean, check legs, make things right.
Cool my thoughts. A gelding may wander
over to share a breath but more likely,
to contribute to the wealth of spent-hay
piled on the ground. I rake the droppings,

leaving tine marks in the soil, topping it
with bits of my own emotion. My fork slides
under the pile, lobs it the distance. The
horses continue napping, nibbling hay
remnants, swishing flies. More tine marks
collecting manure, doubt, and fresh grudges

ready to become fertilizer. Another fork
load tossed in an arc through the air, so
grains of dirt can separate, before it 
lands, mostly in the cart. No urgency, just
a rhythm to slow my own beating. Compost
the hurt evenly. Using the fork to arrange

thoughts between parallel tine marks,
fresh inspiration rises from night soil.
Tugging the load out the gate, looking
back with gratitude for the meditation of
tine trails and hoofprints and imperfect
lines in the sand of a dry-lot Zen garden.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

EOY P&L: Life, Death, and Tears

EOY P&L… my last post of the year always has some math involved. I don’t have the math skills to quantify the number of ways I hate math. I panic and tip 50%. I’m self-employed, I do my taxes armed with wine and Netflix. As much as it takes.

The hardest year-end reckoning happens here on the farm when I look around and do the math. How many did we gain this year? Who did we lose? On New Year’s I’ll want to remember each, mine and my clients. As if I could forget.

Can we pause here? Is anyone getting weepy? Anyone choking up? I truly hope not. Can I tell you the hardest part of this wonderful blog of mine? Really, it’s ungrateful for me to complain.

There is one thing that has been a challenge for me. It’s the number of times people tell me they are in tears. Sure, sometimes I write about death because where animals are concerned, I like it natural. There is nothing more natural than death. My friend says that all dog stories end the same way, and she’s right. Horse stories, too. And we cry tears. Fair. Even expected.

It’s all the other tears that upset me. Sadness about things that I had no idea would make people cry. Sometimes I go re-read what I just wrote because clearly, I’m pushing buttons, unintentionally hurting readers. It’s never my goal to make people cry, it wears on me.

Maybe I have bad boundaries. Maybe I should come with a trigger warning. Maybe I’m just a walking plague of tears and desolation. (Please don’t cry, I’m making a joke. And being paranoid.)

Maybe we are all just too full of un-cried tears. Or maybe we take things too personally. What if we all drown in justified tears? There’s a term for it: Compassion Fatigue. It’s an emotional and physical burden created by the trauma of helping others in distress. It’s a huge issue for caregivers like vets, rescue groups, and some trainers, but what about you? Have you become a victim of your emotions?

The antidote for compassion fatigue is self-care. Most of us aren’t great at this. Maybe it’s time to call your emotions back home. To become, not less caring, but more protective of your heart. To love yourself at least as much as you love horses. (Yikes, that’s a high bar.)

It’s the reason I’m so concerned about all the tears; I deal with my feelings by writing. Some of my most positive posts about training come from abuse that I see. It feels good to make that turnaround.

I also know that I have to pick my fights. The older I get, the more losses I gather, the more I try to make peace with death. Because someone is always dying. Since death is inevitable, I want to normalize it; talk about it like the weather. Yes, there’s a lump in my throat, but scary things shrink in broad daylight.

Of course, I do that with writing, too. I spent Christmas writing a poem/eulogy but didn’t post it. One person’s life celebration is another’s pain and tears. I’m trying to find that balance.

Back to our EOY P&L (end of year profit and loss.) This year we lost our oldest herd member and our very youngest. Chronology has failed one more time. Sure, it’s silly to think I’ll lose them in an order that I can predict. I’m only human.

When I lose an animal, I send off a donation in their memory. Amounts vary, it’s the action of generosity that matters. It’s a way that I give power to my tears because if tears don’t motivate us, they depress us. So hey, Colorado Horse Rescue Network, lunch is on me.

We’ve added two souls on the farm, as well. That’s a photo of Jack at the top of the page, demonstrating his favorite mental health technique. He’s a foster dog, staying for a while as his owner deals with some health issues. Meanwhile, teaching me what some people like about sleeping with hot water bottles. Really, this under-covers thing, who knew?

Norman has joined our barn family, a young Percheron/TB. He’s a handsome, serious young horse and we’re encouraging his sense of humor. I look forward to learning from him (and writing about it.) We’ve all fallen in love. Despite him being mortal.

It’s almost New Year’s; toast the lives we have had the wild luck to know and love. It’s also the day that horses all get a year older on paper. That must mean gray mares like me add one on, too.  It’s just common sense that it also means one year closer to dead. Cover yourself with animal hair. Sing off key! Dance with your demons! Celebrate life! (I say, in a dark-hearted and cheerful way.)

I hope that after expressing sadness about a loss, it also spurs us to action. I hope that we weep and howl against injustice and cruelty. That we share stories and laugh till we cry. That we cuddle our own heart like a lost puppy.

I hope that tears make us stronger.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Weekly Photo & Poem: Favorite

 
A donkey. Her years on flat open prairie, 
the hard-scrap jumble of danger and chance, 
left only the essentials: ancestral wisdom
and longear sensibility and eyes that watch 
with great vigilance from deep under her brow. 
She keeps an entrancing distance. Magnetic 
in her independence.

A woman. The caretaker on a small farm with
a strong back for throwing hay, filling troughs,
mucking and repairing. Bringing a warm alfalfa
mush to her stall but not willing to make it
a bribe. Neither of us mere beasts of burden, we
have each been both predator and prey. We know
the value of self-reliance.

The earth’s sustenance has always been our
natural due. She acquiesces no allegiance, 
acknowledges no dependence on me. She can
make the choice to come closer, without debt, 
and the mid-day sun will warm our bones, a 
blessing on the wind-tossed prairie we 
share. Now guarded equals.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Favorites

Talking Animals at Midnight

Just in from the night feed. It’s longjohn weather, my head bandaged with layers of hats and a muffler, thick boots, a winter barn coat that makes me look like one of those inflatable lawn ornaments folks have in town. It’s ten degrees on a particularly black night when the stars are the starkest white. There’s a silent dusting of snow.

The night is so quiet that animals aren’t hunkered down in their stalls. Instead, they are standing in friendly groups, playing nose games. When they hear the backyard gate, there is a round of nickers, each voice recognizable. Edgar Rice Burro takes a few wheezing gasps warming up for his full-out bray.

Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. I love this night for its supernatural quality. You can half-see every horse you ever loved in the periphery, never really gone at all. Throw some extra hay for the long darkness tonight. Extra hay for the horses who have walked on, for those yet to arrive, and for those who have none. Throw extra hay as an affirmation that it’ll all be okay.

European countries have traditional stories about animals magically talking at midnight. Some say it starts with the Feast of Santa Lucia, others say Solstice or others, Christmas Eve. It’s oxen and donkeys mainly. One fable says oxen knelt and welcomed the baby Jesus verbally. Like many folktales, some have pagan roots as well. In those stories, animals talk at midnight, but not always kindly. Some animals take revenge and owners get their due for poor care or over-work. Which does sound like something to celebrate.

Annual PSA: For all the talk about the “War on Christmas,” kindly remember that some of us feel that Christmas declares war on us every year. It would be Christian to remember that not all of us are Christians. Not everyone has a family. Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us feel excluded or judged unfairly or are just licking our wounds from a hard-fought year. Not everyone can keep up. Santa brings some kids computers or real ponies, while some kids get socks. Even Santa isn’t fair. (Every year, I meet more people who choose to not celebrate the holiday. It gives me hope.)

So, I drag my feet, considering the variations on this folktale, as I finish in the barn, nod to the ghosts, and start back to the house. On a sacred night like this, I hear voices. Oh, that’s a lie. I always hear voices. Animals are chatterboxes if you listen to their body-voice and even the most stoic horse over-talks when he thinks he’s being heard.

What do animals say? No shortage of opinions there. I must hear my father’s voice loudest, also a ghost now, but still insisting that dumb animals, beasts of burden, can’t think or feel. A traditional majority agrees with him. Science says differently and more of us are curious. That’s a partial win.

The other extreme? A touchy subject. I’ll call them Romanticizers. They love horses so much that they have a barn full of skinny rescues with long hooves. Some rally behind the term NO KILL and sometimes that means suffering. Some believe horses are divine spiritual teachers. They put human words into equine mouths to support their goals or politics, and then feel superiorly-humble about it. It’s okay. Horses don’t seem to take that seriously.

I have my own opinions, not any more popular. I don’t think horses consider us the center of their lives, no matter how much we wish they did. They have full sentient lives, more connected with the herd than the humans who visit a few hours a day. Some of us are pretty interesting to them, but we are other.

I’m interested in those of us in the middle of these two thought extremes, trying to listen and be perceptive, while not over-humanizing horses. It’s challenging because we only have our human experience to compare with theirs. Kind of a dilemma, if you follow. It means pushing our love and passion aside, using our human language to describe them, while respecting their equine nature and instinct primarily.

All that said… on this magic night, what might horses say?

Some say humans are a warlike species, angry and cruel, to be avoided and never trusted. Other equines wonder if humans might be a sentient species. Some think we seem to read their minds from time to time. Other times humans are flighty and spook easily. They wonder if humans are capable of communication, so they come close and try to listen. Beyond the din of our words, they notice that many humans give conflicting messages. Many are timid or ill-tempered.

So, they give us calming signals to let us know that they are no threat. That we don’t have to be so loud in our love or hate; that we don’t have to try so hard. They share breath with us, suggesting peace as an alternative to our incomprehensible mental chatter. Some horses think humans might even have souls.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

 

Photo Challenge and Poem: Ascend

Riding looks as easy as sliding
a boot into a stirrup and throwing
a leg over the horse's back. As
simple as kick 'em and they go.
The horse is a creature of habit
and tolerance. It's ride enough. 

But if the human rattle and bang
of expectation will go quiet, there
is a flash, in the space of time
between a foot letting lose of the
earth and a seat settling in the 
saddle, joining spines with a horse. 
 
In that vulnerable second, you might
glimpse an ageless intellect; have
an intuition that the inside of a 
horse has a terrain of its own.
Pause there at the edge. Understand 
sovereignty. A horse is beyond our 

control in this physical world but
there is a quiet place where entrance
is gained by invitation. No need to 
call out, he knows you're there. Clean
yourself up, tidy those emotions. When 
you're ready, he'll bring you inside. 

….
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.)