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.
Euthanasia is never easy, but it can be less punishing.
The secret is to focus on love instead of loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was 78 degrees yesterday. It’s late October so the sun is lower in the sky. There was a slight breeze that would have been perfect for riding but I was testing the tank heaters. Then the winds came howling, tearing the last leaves free. The sky turned a sweet apricot color, tinted by a grass fire to the north. Temperatures tonight will drop to 18 degrees with blowing snow. Like they say, ’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.
It’s a dry cold here on the high desert prairie but everyone has shelter. Winter coats have grown in dappled and thick. I throw more hay on nights like this to keep their internal heaters working but I don’t blanket the horses in my barn as a rule.
Except for this ancient one. Lilith. She came to rescue a couple of years back, not eating or drinking, and so thin that we worried she was dying. But she’s a longear. She outsmarted us.
Last year I bought her a blanket for the wet spring snows that left her shivering. She has expired teeth, so feeding more hay doesn’t work. The mush she gets several times a day usually freezes before she finishes it.
To be clear, there is no reason for elders to grow thin in the winter.
This year, she’s even more wobbly when she gets stiff, so the blanket came out early. Still, I’m not foolish enough to try blanketing her on my own. I know what you’re thinking. She’s barely bigger than a goat. Perhaps after you trim that goat’s hooves you’ll have a better idea about how this all works. So, because I wasn’t born yesterday either, I held off blanketing until help arrived. By midmorning, the temps had dropped ten degrees and the wind was getting stronger. And yes, Lilith may be nearly blind now but not so much as to not see what our plan was.
I stood still while my barn manager did a stilted two-step with Lilith. We go slow, we breathe. We both preach this stuff every day. Then Lilith drags my barn manager, in limping slow-motion, the length of the run as I slowly introduce the blanket. To be clear, the two of us humans outweigh Lilith but she has a kind of lateral gravity to her lean. She’s unstoppable. I’m hoping we’ll grind to a halt by the end of the run.
Meanwhile, I’ve managed to get one of the front buckles done on the blanket. That’s the easy part. Hooking the belly straps are harder and I’m not wearing a helmet. I try to strike that balance of quickness without jerking, coordination without dawdling. I almost manage it, the blanket is on, and we let her go.
Lilith dodders away indignantly. We can tell because she kicks at each of us as she goes. Sure, we smile but both of us has had hoof contact from this old donkey. More than once.
A few feet away she turns and glares us. She wears her blanket like a house dress. Like a bright turquoise muu-muu, huge on top with her tiny ankles dangling out below. Just when I am trying to remember which of my mother’s sisters she reminds me of, Lilith marches quickly toward me, flopping her ears back to the angle of a jet wing.
She’s demanding a forehead rub with the obligatory cleaning of her eye snot. I oblige, being careful to not touch her ears. She’s made it clear that they were twitched sometime in the last forty years and I had better pay attention. I just do as I’m told. No hearts and flowers.
She abruptly turns and leaves again with a smaller kick this time. Only marginally dangerous. Another pause with a withering stare before she marches herself over to my barn manager and demands the same homage. Again, given as required and without hesitation.
There is never a shred of doubt what Lilith means. Even if some of her feelings contradict each other, she has an undeniable clarity. Our other longear, Edgar Rice Burro, is just as plain. One more time, I recite my fervent wish that people would express themselves as honestly. We bite our tongues until we explode. Donkeys have it right. Bluntness is a virtue.
Spring and fall are rough seasons for elders. Extreme weather changes create problems for equine digestive systems that were poorly designed in the first place. Dare I call it by its name? This is colic weather. Beware.
This year I read a scientific article that debunked all the anecdotal things we think we know about colic. Anecdotal evidence is frowned on in the science world, even if they haven’t figured out a cure.
Colic is still the number one killer of horses. Treatment hasn’t changed much in the last decades. Drugs are better but the condition is still extremely dangerous. The article said colic wasn’t tied to heat cycles or getting new hay or changes in barometric pressure (coming storms). Maybe I’m turning into Lilith but I’m cranky and skeptical. I’ve been schooled by seasons in the barn. If weather change is only superstition and not fact-based, why is the vet always out on a series of colic calls on nights like this?
Do you dread these dark blustering months as much as I do? It’s become a habit to make sure horses are doing more than just sniffing their hay, while at the same time casually counting manure piles in their runs.
Because the equine truth lies somewhere between old wives’ tales and hard science.
So, I stay up late for one more feeding. I’ve got my heavy barn coat and muck boots, and a head light strapped on my wool hat. Leaning into the wind, I drag one more feeding of hay to all the shelters. The old chestnut gelding is struggling with his arthritic knee but the new horse has settled in well. The rest of the herd looks okay for the night.
The Haloween wind howls at my back as I return to the house. There isn’t much good to say about the haunted dark and cold months. My Grandfather Horse won’t have to fight the north wind this winter. In a bittersweet way, I’ll be glad of that small blessing.
The sun leaves just the sky behind, a watery arch over the prairie, and my feet cling to the ground unwilling to let loose of this day for it's beauty and possibility and loss. There is always loss. In the moment of light remaining just a pause to ask my jaw to soften; to be glad of the sadness that marks this day worthy of memory, giving dimension to silhouettes and music to the moments that grow special in hindsight. Moments that lift my stride again, fixed to a simple wealth of earth and sky.
How many times did I ask
on a breath and a thought
that you consider the moment?
Consider joining me in an adventure
or a moment of solitude,
or a wisp of air.
Your thoughtful response; a
soft eye, maybe an interested ear.
And in another breath, the arc of your
glorious neck’s embrace; an indelible
instant, season, lifetime.
It was enough.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
It was a perfect day. There were just enough clouds to soften the heat. The front gate didn’t open once all day long. No emergency vet calls. Best of all, I had some fence to repair. Perfect.
There was still dew on the grass when I loaded up my yellow wagon with the t-post driver, post hole digger, and a bucket of hand tools, headed for the north pen. Like usual, I had to go back for the wire cutters. A few days before, I’d come home to find one of the geldings over the fence in my neighbor’s pasture. He was banged up and limping, posts bent with chunks of hair, and part of the fence pushed over.
I’d been thinking about a reader request: “Did you ever write a blog on the gossip/nit picking that goes on at boarding stables and from barn to barn especially in small communities? It never seems to end…”
I started cutting down the old field fence, laying it down, folding the end piece over, and walking on the edges to flatten it, and then repeating the process. Taking out perimeter fence is always unsettling. I depend on that line of demarcation as much to keep others out as to keep mine in.
I know what she means about the gossip. Horse people are a passionate and opinionated crowd. We all have that neighbor whose horses are just too thin. That barn that sold to new owners. Who’s laid up, who’s got a new horse, who’s struggling to get by? Those jumpers or reiners or dressage queens or trail riders who make us squint and whisper. The truth is almost all of us have been on both sides; gossip blows in the wind. It’s how we know to send a sympathy card and find the best trailer repair. It’s how we let people know we’re smarter than them.
By now Edgar Rice Burro is snoring. The gelding herd is scattered flat in the morning sun. I sink down on a tire feeder and take a long drink, surveying the work I’ve done, feeling strong.
Most of my days are over-scheduled with training and lessons and writing. Crossing out days for fence repair is almost like a vacation. The work is simple and I can keep an eye on the pond while wondering what it is about us humans tearing each other down.
There are always litters of ducklings on the pond but this is the first time there are Canada geese hatchlings –four little ones and two relentlessly protective parents. They move in a tiny gaggle searching for bugs in the prairie grass and then waddling back to the pond. The parents constantly scan the horizon, so aware of the treasure they protect. What is it about us humans?
Time for new t-posts now. I eyeball the line, lean one way and then the other, and judge it straight enough. It’s never perfect, string guide or not. I’m just straight enough.
Some clients of mine have a new fence, professionally built with huge gate posts, tight corners, and as pretty a line of wire as I’ve ever seen. I’ve had offers of help, too, but I like to hoard this time for me and my land. The birds are so loud that I can barely hear the fence post driver.
Another hour passes and I stop for lunch and a small nap. I’ve read that countries who practice siesta have better health. Some folks prefer a blanket but I use a Corgi for that. I nap for my health. Really.
Back out after the sun has peaked. Nickers follow me, I throw more hay, and then grab my fork. Mucking is a time-honored ritual for true horse lovers. No complaints while pulling the cart from pen to pen, celebrating healthy manure. Never trust a horseperson who doesn’t muck.
Finally, I make my way to the west pen where the ancient donkey leans into her scratching post, slowly rocking with her neck stretched low and her eyes closed. I almost feel like I should look away; her sublime bliss is too naked. But I keep my wits about me. She’ll still kick if I startle her and bray with impatience if I’m late with her mush. This little donkey isn’t burdened with the need to be a people pleaser. I’m learning it from her.
I scrub some water tanks and try to fill them without flooding the runs. My mare lets me know it’s time to come in from turnout; she wants me to bring her in first. That way she can nip at the geldings as they pass her run. I check my watch; I’ve lost hours tinkering through chores and the afternoon is gone. She’s right.
There’s something about early summer. The light lingers in pastel color. Hours later, as I carry the last bucket of mush out to the ancient donkey, the grass is cool again and the prairie moon illuminates all the best and worst of the world.
I have no idea what to do about all the negative chatter. It wears me down, too. We’re an imperfect species and sometimes we need to build better boundaries to keep our hearts safe. Give ourselves time to rest and time to nurture our hope for the future. And the strength to find a truthful, yet kind, voice to lift the quality of gossip.
Some women have salon days but some of us practice self-care by spending the day being part Canada Goose, part Corgi, and part wise old Longear. Miracle cure.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
After the bay gelding’s leg has been
doctored, I walk the fence line looking
at bent posts and hair caught up on wire.
Clues don’t change the task ahead. Unload
the rolls of fencing and tools to start tomorrow
early. The horses will need to be stalled until
the work repairing the fence is done. New
tires for the truck will have to wait. Then the
day sneaks west and darkness gathers all
the colors back home, restored. Debt paid.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm