Part Two: Norman, Is That You? (The Reactive Horse)


Last week, I wrote about horses who are The Strong Silent Type. This horse is the opposite.

Describing him sounds like reading the judge’s comments on a marginal dressage test: Tense in the back. Tight in the poll. Hollow. Too quick. It doesn’t stop there. He has twitchy eyes, a furrowed brow, and he clenches his jaw. Sometimes his head is so high you almost unable to see around it and the muscle under his neck is stronger than the one on top. His flank feels rock hard and his breath is as shallow as yours.

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” -Norman Bates, Psycho

And it isn’t just physical. It’s the way his mind works, as well. He reacts; when a different horse might reason it out, he jumps to conclusions, usually the worst. Everything seems like it’s on the big screen; he’s dramatic and impulsive.  Sometimes he gets sullen, almost pouting, and a minute later, he’s hysterical, jigging as if his hooves were on hot coals.

People cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!” -Norman Bates, Psycho

He’s just really sensitive, they say. Really? I consider most horses on a continuum; one end being stoic and the other end being reactive or demonstrative. It isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

My horse acts this way because he’s hot-blooded, they say. Sure, some breeds are more energetic and athletic than others, but to my eye, many of these reactive horses look frightened or in pain. Can the rider truly tell the difference between personality and behavior? Are they certain he is sound?

Does your horse make strange faces? Maybe he twists his neck and chews his tongue. He paws with impatience and pins his ears when it’s suppertime. Or he grinds his teeth, or flips his head, or you can routinely see white around his eyes.

Could your horse have ulcers? They are ridiculously common and practically all the behaviors I’ve listed so far could be symptoms. Think about it; no one denies the connection between ulcers and colic, still horse’s number one killer. On the high side, we didn’t always know as much as we do now; it’s actually a great time to have ulcers. There’s so much help available. (Just to clarify, stoic horses have as many ulcers as reactive horses do, but worse, they just keep it to themselves.)

What if these behaviors that we correct or punish are actually calls for help?

She’s just mare-y, they say. No, mares aren’t just naturally cranky. Their hormones make them more like stallions than geldings… and ovarian cysts are one of the most under-diagnosed conditions. On top of that, the discomfort of that situation could cause a secondary condition of ulcers. So, lighten up on name-calling mares already.

He’s an alpha horse, they say. But just like humans, leadership isn’t the same as dominance. The herd hierarchy has much more nuance than that. In my experience, alphas like a break from trying to control the universe and enjoy the peace that comes from positive training.

He’s never quite mean, they say. It’s almost like he tries too hard. Exactly! Reactive horses are responsive, intuitive, and connected. They have contagious enthusiasm, backed by intellect. They are radiant and intense and luminous. And yes, they have hearts that burst with try. Don’t believe me? Watch a thoroughbred run in slow motion.

More often, it’s us that fails them. We think it takes courage to ride a reactive horse, but what if compassion is really what’s needed?

Disclaimer: Horses are fully dimensional sentient creatures. The continuum between stoic and reactive is meant to help understand that horses are not brain-dead plow-horses or ditzy hotheads. They are individuals with complicated combinations of temperament, training, and past experience.

Anxiety is a different thing entirely, not necessary, or permanent. There are positive solutions that will build partnership, and from that place of security, allow the horse to give you his most brilliant work. Essential point: A good rider listens to every horse with wide-open ears, accepts who the horse is, and then begins the conversation right there.

How to best partner with a reactive horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. And you might want to sharpen your own attention a bit. Now, if you want to dominate something, control your own self; make your seat soft. Breathe slowly, deep into your lungs. Require your cues to him to be invisibly small. Most of all, don’t pull on his face. Why make him feel claustrophobic when the responsibility for elastic, soft contact belongs with the rider?

Horses and humans both tend to speed up when they get nervous or think they’re losing control. Resist the urge. Go slow. Runaways happen one step at a time and if it seems like the energy builds stride by stride, perhaps he’s never been taught the joy of a downward transition. (Stoic horses excel at this.) Reward him for doing less.

Walk a lot, then ask for a trot, but in just a few strides, before he accelerates, exhale back to the walk. Repeat, and for now, always bring him back before the anxiety grows. (Neanderthal training methods would say that you’re teaching your horse to quit by cuing a short trot, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Running a horse until he’s tired and submits doesn’t train him; it institutionalizes anxiety.) Downward transitions allow his trot will be more relaxed because he knows how it ends. Teach half-halts and halts from your leg. Leave his face alone.

School lots of downward transitions, with immense praise. Breathe. Let it be a slow dance.

Reward the least thing, so he understands that less is more. Let your mind be slow; he’ll take the cue from you. Give him the confidence to let go of his fear and know he doesn’t need to try so hard. Then, when his poll is its softest, shut-up, jump down, and step a few feet away from him. Watch him bask in the glow of being anxiety-free. See him stand quiet and still, let his eyes go soft, and droop that bottom lip.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

The ultimate goal is riding well enough to help each horse find the center of this stoic/reactive continuum. So, with trust and contentment, the horse is free to feel the dynamic strength and power of his own body. Relaxed and forward. 

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

The Trailer Isn’t the Problem.

WM Trailer GraceThe owner said his horse had trailer issues. He’d watched a video and used a whip and rope, with bad results. Then he hired a local trainer but after two hours of fighting with his hysterical horse, she gave up and left. Now the horse was even worse, the owner said, and dangerous.

The trailer isn’t the problem. It’s always my first thought. Continue reading “The Trailer Isn’t the Problem.”

A Better Name for Chronic Lameness

namaste, 036 (606x640)It was the first day that the notion of chronic lameness got personal. My Grandfather Horse was young but he’d severely damaged a tendon in his front leg. My vet explained to me that he would most likely need two years of stall rest. Two years. We recovered–not perfectly but good enough for another twelve years of happy riding before the injury recurred. This time it didn’t heal well, and during stall rest detention, arthritis overtook his back. Chronic. Retired.

Horse owners aren’t surprised. For all their thundering gallops and powerful beauty, it ends up that horses are quite frail. Lots of us have horses standing in our pastures to prove it. Chronic lameness is like a kind of purgatory; it doesn’t go away and it isn’t quite fatal.

Then about five years ago, I developed chronic lameness myself. In my case, it came on slowly. I got some orthotics, compartmentalized the pain, and my compassion for my herd members with chronic lameness evolved. You could call it a weird reverse anthropomorphism: I didn’t see them in my image–so much as myself in theirs. I tried to mimic their stoic calm but as my foot degenerated, just gritting my teeth got more difficult. Purgatory.

Then I got lucky; I gave in to the pain. I had surgery that repaired my foot: some cutting and sawing, five screws, a lever to replace a joint, and a fencing staple to hold my big toe together. Was it the podiatrist’s version of a barn repair using twine and duct tape perhaps? That was four months ago. My foot has less pain and I’m grateful. But I lost strength, my foot is still much larger than the other, and just like too many horse injuries, although it’s better than it was, it isn’t perfect. But this is real life, after all, and I’m aware that others have it much worse. So by comparison, I call it luck.

Around this time, a rescue horse arrived at my barn; a mid-life mare with kind eyes in need of help. The details of her situation weren’t unusual. She was neglected; the owner was not remotely repentant. He wound up with a tax write-off for donating her to rescue but more to the point, she was safe. I thought she was just laying over at my barn for a night, waiting for a ride. But over the course of the next week, there were two non-conflicting vet reports and negotiations between two rescues; people had opinions, misunderstandings, and the best intentions. In the end, we all got pushed toward the answer no one wanted. Somehow, in our crazy world, this passed as luck for this mare, too. Rescue isn’t for sissies, but that isn’t what this story is about. That isn’t the important part.

To say that all of my best teachers have been horses is a draft-horse-sized understatement. 

I bedded her down in a pen with the good company of a kind donkey and a respectful mini horse. She was grateful, but even that was too much. The donkey was excused from the pen and she ate well and drank more water than she’d seen in months. The mare was still very reluctant to move, either in her pen or during the vet checks, but at the same time, no real limp. One of her shoulders had an old injury, severe enough to get retirement in a pasture, like we do. Then over time spent shifting her weight to the opposite side to help her damaged shoulder, the good leg failed. Her knee, opposite the bad shoulder, blew up large and somewhere in the process, her hocks were damaged as well. And that’s why she had no real limp. By definition, a limp requires one good leg and she didn’t have that. Watching her over the next days, I came to understand the strength of will she exerted just to stay on her feet.

But the weather was kind and I kept her hay close. Concerned for her pain, the vet prescribed Bute, twice a day. The mare resisted the syringe but I was patient. Over the next few days, it had no discernible effect on her pain. I curried her each day, trying to soften her tight neck muscles. She clearly wasn’t comfortable with the attention, so I went even slower and thought of her life out on the prairie. Horses run for joy, I think, but more important, it’s their defense and escape. There must have been coyotes stalking her. She had to know that she was almost helpless. Did she bluff her way past them, like some smart cats will, to face down a dog rather than start a chase?

When you work with rescue horses, it’s smart to have some discipline. So I cared for her but I kept a rein on my emotions. At one point I lamented to a woman with one of the rescues that she was about the kindest mare I’d met. “Never met one in this situation that wasn’t” was her response. So I fed and curried, and above all, respected her for a few days. Her body didn’t change but her eyes got softer.

On the last day, I offered reiki to her, and anything else I could think of. I tried to explain. She came close to eating an entire bale of sweet alfalfa. The vet arrived in the afternoon and the final decision was made. When the time came, I asked the extra people to leave and then fed my horses to distract them. We walked her out of their view, but not far enough to stress her needlessly. I kept my breathing long and deep as I held the lead for the vet, who was kind and compassionate in her task. The mare died as she lived; she held her ground fiercely, until she was free.

I’m not sharing this story because she was an exceptional mare–she wasn’t. This is just what ordinary horses do. But in the instant she passed, my complacent understanding of what chronic lameness meant to a horse deepened from my tiny human experience of it. Her legacy of stoic courage taught me a better name for this painful mess: Chronic Toughness.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Are You an Advocate for Horses?

Ruby Ranch's Keira and my friend, Amelia, budding advocate..
Ruby Ranch’s Keira, working with my friend, Amelia.

Neglected horses are everywhere in the news lately. By the time you make sense of the images, it’s too late to look away. You might be keeping an sad eye on some thin horses in your local area. Maybe you remember Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue’s Vinnie, who was here for evaluation and training for a few months, and Keira after him.

I took a vacation this summer, the first one in a decade. I sat in a court room with no windows for a week, with concerned citizens and fellow board members of Horse Advocates of Colorado, listening to testimony in an animal cruelty case. In a different neglect trial, I was a witness. I’ve always known the rescue side, but this year I came to understand some of the challenges for law enforcement and I’ve been both inspired and demoralized by our American court system.

This year I’ve been name-called and lost dear friends. I’ve seen the stress of fighting the good fight take its toll on good-hearted people, and I have seen callous people, with no concern for life, behave despicably with no acknowledgement or apology. It isn’t like I was remotely new to equine neglect and abuse; we win some and lose some, but this year has been an special education.

The first question people ask is how can someone let this happen to their horses? Simple, it usually all begins with a change in the usual routine. Colorado has had its fair share of floods and fires recently. Sometimes a horse owner has a health challenge or loses their job or has a death in the family. Sadly, at any given time, we are all vulnerable. There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.

The real question is what happens next? Some of us will move quickly to sell or re-home our horses, hoping to keep them safe. Or mitigate the costs by finding someone to part-lease him. But sometimes the issues keep coming and time gets away as we struggle to keep up. By then our horses are thin and perhaps failing. Now what? We’re too embarrassed to call the vet, if we even have the money. And afraid that someone will report us to the sheriff the rest of the time. As a last resort, would you take him to an auction? Let him die in the pasture and hope no one sees? How desperate will it get?

And yes, a percentage of humans just don’t care. They see animals as personal property–theirs to do use and dispose of as they like. For sake of pride, they spend thousands on attorneys and court fees, rather than do the right thing for animals in the first place.

But, you say, someone would be crazy to leave them to starve. Well, yes. Exactly. Mental illness usually plays a common part in animal neglect and abuse. Some humans are sick enough to choose blood and money; to be malicious without remorse.

The thing all these scenarios have in common is that no one asked for help. Humans don’t like being seen as weak or failing. Most horse people pride themselves on being independent and resourceful. And then, if asking for help wasn’t hard enough, it can be hard to accept the help offered. Humans are complicated.

Once we ask, things can start to move. Family and neighbors step up. There are community resources like hay banks that offer help. Even deputies will lend a hand. I have such respect for people who humble themselves in deference to their animal’s welfare. It shows character.

The second most common opinion heard from the public, usually extremely hostile, is that the court’s punishment is too light. People often suggest starving and torturing the animal abusers. Trust me, I understand the sentiment. It’s easy to have a hard-line of disdain for anyone with a thin horse, because it gives us a way to distance ourselves from our own vulnerability. After all, I have two hard keepers in my own barn. But threatening violence makes us guilty of the thing we are fighting against. Could we rant in the closet and then elevate the public conversation to a more helpful level?

There’s gray area; the difference between the crazy abusers and the disadvantaged owners is important to understand. Some deserve our compassion and help. And some deserve all the punishment that the law will allow. If you think the sentencing is too lenient, then it’s obvious–stop complaining and get involved.

Here’s one new light: The FBI Makes Horse Abuse a Felony in January, 2016. Not just a felony, but a Class-A Felony. That puts horse abuse on par with assault, homicide and arson. It’s been a long time coming, this acknowledgment that animal abuse is closely tied with violence against women, children, elders, and indeed, our whole society. Take heart–change happens.

Warning: The following opinion is just mine. It gets me in trouble but it’s a free country.

The other common statement that I hear is that someone just can’t be involved in helping because they love horses too much to look at the pictures; that hearing about it would just hurt them too much. Like somehow their love is just too pure to hear this kind of ugliness. Could you possibly think that those of us sitting in court are there because we love horses less than you do?

Do horses a favor; instead of loving them too much, love them just enough. Enough to offer help to a neighbor in need or enough to make the call to the authorities if necessary. Enough to be part of the solution. If you can’t take time off from work, then write letters to the media. Donate money, but if you don’t have a dime to spare, sign petitions, join groups, be informed. Love horses enough to bear witness. Love them enough to make positive change.

My friends and I formed Horse Advocates of Colorado, over a thousand members strong (join here), to give a voice to horses in our county.  It’s our first anniversary. We’re celebrating by going to an invitational horse welfare meeting at the sheriff’s office this morning. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t make a difference for horses.

And to everyone who has lifted their voice above the din of ranting and criticism–you are a hero to horses and to me. Thank you.