Where the Trail Leads…

 

I know people who read cookbooks like they’re high-drama best sellers. I know people who fantasize wild lives of pirate adventure reading travel bloggers. It’s all good, just not for me. I like being in the barn.

Want to know a secret? I never had a dream to be a professional trainer. I wanted to be left in peace to abscess about my own horses. No, I don’t mean obsess. I only cared about my own self-absorbed riding. I wanted to be a forever student. But one lucky day, I got distracted by a herd of wayward weanlings. From there, it was like running downhill. It made all kinds of sense. If I trained, I could always be a student, but I’d have more horses. Yours.

All of this is to say I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport waiting for my flight to Auckland. I’ll be giving clinics and traveling in NZ and AU for the next six weeks. What an adventure! Not that Preacher Man, the corgi, didn’t try to trap me in the bathroom this morning.

So, this is the warning: I’ll be posting as usual but I’m so bad at math, there’s no telling when the usual Friday morning post will show up. You might have to start the coffee without me. Poems will still arrive somewhere near the vicinity of Monday. I’ll be posting more about the trip as I go, along with photos. If I’m not mistaken, I think the word for that is travel blogger.  I won’t post everything to Facebook. I could end up taking pictures of food. Oh, jeez. Did I just say that?

Meanwhile, I’m simply amazed at the New Zealand clinic organizers: Bex and Karin and Lisa and Jane and Tracey and Kim– miracle workers (and Corey, catching me at the airport.) In Australia, Megan and Tony and Jane and Kris– you’re wonderful. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to come meet you and your (my) horses.

I will confess, typing away in an airport bar, I am simply gobsmacked. Life is a wild ride; the abrasion of sadness and loss trotting along right next to bright and shiny possibility. No idea where we’ll end up but the horses brought us this far. No reason to pick up the reins now.

Thanks, Everyone. Thanks for reading along and sharing the trail.

….
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 he

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: Transformation

The old gelding's eye sockets are hollow  
or maybe he's pulled his gaze inward. Once 
a trumpet blast of a colt, now he rocks back
on a hip, withers peaked high. His rebar

spine exposed to the crest of his tail. He
favors that thicker knee. Is he happy? 
If it matters to a stoic horse, he doesn't 
show it. Ears pinned, he defends his hay in 
 
a solitary pen. Mid-morning he drags hooves
to open ground, neck stretched long, seeking 
the warmest soil. One hind hoof steps under,
the other teeters, joining to keep balance. 

The gelding turns a step as his steely back 
arches, his haunches vibrating. He crouches 
but takes one more turning step. The arthritic 
knee can't bear the weight, so the other takes 

the extra burden. Every worn-out part of his 
body compensates for something else worn-out. 
For a quivering paused moment he tenses to
hold himself. He means to lower his body but 

muscles have wasted away. His crouch goes 
deeper and still he holds. Craving the ground 
but resisting the fall, until he can't. Dropping
hard, he releases a moan from some place gone 

dark. Some place that remembers a lusty gallop.
A tick of relief in the friction of a roll but it's 
not safe on the ground. Anxious prey, he labors
back up on brittle legs. If this old gelding roamed 

free, a predator would have claimed him long 
ago. Instead he lives in limbo, never running 
but still breathing. Lives in limbo, under the
appraising eye of a predator ...who loves him.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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. 
(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. And then I write a poem. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Transformation

Thanksgiving from a Cowboy Girl

You could tell it was the 1980’s because I’d done something with my hair that made me look like a Portuguese Water Dog. A permanent wave to posterity.

I was in a laundromat washing horse blankets. I wasn’t trying to save the mess at home. I didn’t have a washer. So, two horses in a boarding barn but no washing machine. That sounds about right.

The place was empty except for a little boy who stared at me while his mom folded clothes from a dryer.  He’d peer over at me and then pretend he wasn’t looking when I made eye contact. Just as I was picking up to go, he asked his mom, “Is she a cowboy girl?”

I tried to look cool, buckles dangling from an armload of blankets, as I wedged the door open with my foot. Backing my way out, I gave him a crooked salute and a toothy smile. It was a great guess; I didn’t dress like Dale Evans. Besides, I’d take any acknowledgment I could get.

Back then, I didn’t fit in and I was too mad to even try. I felt like a fringe dweller in my own species. Back then, I got defensive when people suggested that horses were a phase I was going through. Ends up that they were right that I was in a phase; just not the one they thought.

Do you know Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary? I was in Georgia last week and I wrangled an invitation. It wasn’t hard; Melanie Sue Bowles and I have been online friends but after meeting her, I think we’re twin daughters from different mares. She and her husband Jim have run the sanctuary for decades. There’s a large mixed herd of horses, a handful of longears, a quirky pack of dogs, and Mimi and Nina, a charming pair of pigs. Sanctuaries aren’t like other horse facilities.

In this age of superlatives, overstatement is the rule, so I’ll just draw a sketch. It’s a large piece of property with stands of trees and rolling meadows. The horses are shiny and well fed. Their health is maintained but there are no adoptions; this is a herd for life. They are not “owned” by human expectation but instead live as naturally as a domesticated herd can. It isn’t entirely flattering to see how well they do without our overt influence.

There was palpable peace among these horses, many abused and neglected previously. Driving through the pastures, many of the horses don’t bother to look up. It dawns on me that this is what it really means to be accepted by the herd.

(I could write a few books about this amazing the place but Mel already has… available on Amazon and the Proud Spirit site. Consider supporting them with a holiday donation while you’re at it.)

Home finally from my last clinic trip of the year, I got up early, anxious to be with my own herd. I was privileged to muck, build fence, and bake pies, all in the same day. I have a washer now but not much else has changed. More horses but that sounds about right, too.

But a Thanksgiving sunset like this one stops time. It gives you pause to do the math. I’ve traveled to seventeen barns this year, teaching what I know, but more than that, being given the opportunity to work with an incredible extended herd of horses. At 63, I’m on a huge learning curve. How can that even be possible?

I’ve been blessed (a ridiculous understatement) to meet an exceptional group of women. Founders and volunteers at therapeutic riding programs who have a deep understanding of how hard their horses work. Veterinarians and bodyworkers and trainers who do rehab and retraining, patiently bringing horses back from the worst experiences with humans. And everyday horse lovers who really, no really, just want the best for their horses. Each person, a horsewoman in the finest sense of the word. You all make me proud, standing on my little farm and remembering my crazy luck this year.

I guess in hindsight, it was a phase I was in, one that started out feeling like the fringe. The thing I never expected was that loving animals would circle back and reintroduce me to a better version of my own species. And there’s nothing unique about me.

There’s a whole world of us. We’re grown-up horse crazy girls; we’ve gained some power and vision. Our voices carry on the wind to the far side of the planet. We understand the meaning of collaboration. We learned it from mares, but one day at a time, we’re changing the world. Take a breath and snug your hats, my friends. We’ve only started.

My gratitude is like a prairie sunset. Beyond words, but the photo above sums it up.

Then last night at our annual used pie exchange, people were telling great stories about being told they smelled like horses but being more proud than embarrassed. After breaking my nose a couple of times, I wouldn’t know if I carried that odor with me. Then the Dude Rancher noted that if someone had smoked one cigarette, I’d sure notice that. Too right.

It all came together under the stars during the late-night feed. These days I hang out in more airports than laundromats. I’m usually working with a horse and rider until the last minute. Then we trot to the car and head straight to the airport with no time to spare. I change into Crocs, put my boots into my checked bag, and head to my gate.

This last flight home, I was seated beside an older gentleman. He was reading a Jack Reacher book. I tried to make polite small talk as I passed to the window seat. He seemed a bit put off by me but I hide in books sometimes, too. I took the hint and spent the flight scribbling out a poem and working on a halter design.

Thinking back now, I wonder if my Cowboy Girl perfume offended him. Nothing’s changed; I’m still so grateful for horses in my life that I’ll take it as a compliment.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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: Scale

The thing you call cute, in a high-pitched
squeal, hears no compliment. Is it your goal
to demean me? Because you see me as less
does not make me your servant. Your cooing

says more about your standing in this herd
than it does mine. This thing you call stubborn
is the obvious reply given to one with such 
arrogance. Such rude heckling and pink-faced

ranting does not rate an honest answer. You may
judge me but height is only a temporary advantage, 
easy to overcome. Your predator privilege lands 
hollow in the herd where we value each other's

strength. How to understand you, Human, with 
your needy treat outstretched. Stand tall, you who
cannot find equity in your own herd, trust your
worth. You can earn respect here without bribery.
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.)

Scale

Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

Last week I answered a reader question about Making War on Horses and it got a predictably positive reception. It’s preaching to the choir for my readers. This week’s question is the flip-side of that last one, and a bit more challenging.

By reader request:

“I still have questions about how to express love to a horse where it feels good to both you and the horse. I know now for them it is a lot about being calm and not having busy energy in their presence, and sometimes not much touching, while for most humans it’s about petting, sweet talking and getting close. Geez…..seems pretty polar opposite.”

Sigh; a question that I want to answer with a question: Why is it such a big deal to us? Why must we express our love to horses in such noisy needy ways? Tell the truth. Doesn’t it seem a bit desperate sometimes?

We approach loving horses a little like a bowling ball approaches a triangle of pins.

It’s like we’re awkward insecure teenagers who want to show the world we can get a date. We coo baby-talk, manipulate them with treats, and find that itchy spot so we can make them make faces. Perish the thought that a horse might not want our white-hot affection; if he even feigns interest, we pounce. We cannot keep our hands (emotions) to ourselves.

I’ve said it before; the thing I hate about horses, other than their tiny feet and frail digestive systems, is that their best reward is a release –our least favorite thing. It’s the polar opposite mentioned in the question. I hate that moving out of their space is a reward so much that I ask horses to prove it a few dozen times a day. They happily oblige.

Look at it this way. If you were angry or frustrated with your horse, it would make good sense to take those big ugly feelings and back away. There’s no room for anger in training. Is it possible that when our feelings of love and equine addiction become overwhelming, we should do the same?

I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes I’ll be working with someone’s horse in a lesson or clinic, and he will do something that’s just spectacular. I’ll be gobsmacked; his behavior just pours gasoline on my burning heart. The reason to step back, exhale, and murmur “good” in a moment like this is that my emotional love-fit is as selfish as a temper tantrum would be. It’s all about me and I’m the one always lipping off about being an advocate for horses.

Or more importantly, I want to give my horse time to process what has just gone so well, so I step back or get very still, and let it be about him. I give him time. I shut up.

And I remember an old self-help book by Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages. Back in the day, I hated his excruciating explanation of why, if you really wanted your lover to give you flowers but instead they changed the oil in your truck, it was the same thing. In other words, an act of service is a gift of love, even if it doesn’t smell that way. It followed, if you wanted someone to feel your love, you should express it unselfishly, in a way they understood. It’s an evolved concept if you lean toward immaturity and really want the damn roses.

I’m a horse trainer but the truth is that I’m a couples therapist. I know a pretty fair amount about riding and training, but more often, I translate language between humans and horses, trying to iron out misunderstandings.

Horses do not thrive on drama. Love and anxiety are contradictions to a horse. I wish humans didn’t equate the two either. Emotional runaways, whether it’s anger or affection or even extreme confusion, aren’t positive input.

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I love a horse hug as much as anyone but more than that, I care that he feels confident and peaceful. Safety means more a horse than our undying chatter about love.

If it’s one of those days when a sideways look might reduce you to tears, consider loving your horse enough to stay away. Just because we feel better around a horse doesn’t mean it’s our right to dump our hard feelings on them.

The most common miscommunication I see between horses and riders is our apparent unwillingness to recognize anxiety. Years ago, looking at a horse for a client, the mare’s face showed every painful ulcer symptom I know and the sellers stood around laughing about how she liked to make “cute faces.” Worse yet, we commonly mistake signs of anxiety for affection and end up encouraging their anxiety.

How to tell if your love language is good for your horse? Quiet your mind. No, really. Then be honest and look deeper than what you want to see. Are his eyes soft? His face smooth? Does he show peace? It’s a lot less romantic than your horse mugging you but love shouldn’t look like insecurity.

How to let your horse know you love him? Develop a quiet mind. Give him a release but then pause. Wait for him to answer. It might be closing his eyes or licking. The huge calming signal response is a stretch and a blow. If you love him, give him time and space. Show him that respect.

Want to know my worst fear about my blog? Because I don’t believe in domination training, I fear that my message will be misconstrued to mean don’t ride, don’t ask for improvement, and just generally, let your horse walk all over you and call it love. Humans are such extremists; swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the far other is equal dysfunction.

I want clients to Ride the Middle. To have polite and complicated conversations about willing responses, balanced transitions, and eventually the weirdness of half-pass. Conversations that involve getting one good step, laughing, and taking a break. Conversations without blame, where we ask for the best of each other. The very best.

It isn’t just that we train performance horses, but we train in such a way that horses volunteer, feeling strong and confident. That’s love in action.

….

Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Photo Challenge: Structure

 

This horse covers the ground more quietly 
on four hooves than my old feet can manage,
dynamic strides so I stretch to keep up.
Awareness pulses in his ears and nostrils.
That's character carved in his jaw and if 
 
the sun is setting just right, you can look
into his eye and see the universe lie flat 
and small at the left edge of his heart. I'm 
only a bit embarrassed to admit that I time 
my breath so I can take in his spent exhale. 
 
I'm six times his age. It seems the sharper 
his profile, the more mine loses definition. 
My cheeks are abraded flat with fruitless
emotion and the prairie wind has turned 
my ears to gristle like the old donkey's. 

The corners of my mouth have stretched from
screaming at the moon and my eyelids have 
gradually swollen to protect my eyes from 
sights that hurt them. Six times his age, 
using his breath, trailing safe in his stride.
 ….
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.)

Structure

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

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

Thin Horses, Body Scoring, and Inconvenience.

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Start here: There is no rule that says when a horse’s age goes up, his weight needs to come down. Age is no excuse for thin horses.

It’s my Grandfather Horse on the right in the photo. You can tell he’s three-times the age of the other horse because he’s sway-backed. He was thirty when he passed, with a list of maladies a mile long: nearly toothless, blown tendons, arthritis, heart murmur, cancer, and near the end, some sort of stroke… but his weight was just dandy. #ageisnoexcuse.

I have a filthy habit. I attend horse abuse cases in court. On sunny days, when I could be giving lessons or working with my horses, I sit in rooms with no windows to listen to lies. This week, two of us from Colorado Horse Rescue Network drove to the next county to sit in court. If I was guaranteed convictions with real penalties, I’d call it a guilty pleasure

The hard part of this dark hobby is listening to the evidence. Testimony on behalf of the horses includes the state of the facility; the quantity of manure, along with usual empty water tanks, and lack of feed. There are usually statements about the condition of the horse’s feet and their teeth, but their weight is the most visible symptom. We use a BCS (body condition score) rating system to describe the physical state of the horse on a scale from one to nine.

The most common excuse that lousy horse owners use to justify neglecting their horses is claiming that older horses are just naturally skinny. And yes, there are a million other flimsy excuses for how horses get to this sad state, but it’s ridiculous how often you hear the “old horse” excuse. Ridiculous how many elders that end up at auctions look like the walking dead. Ridiculous how little it takes for these same elders (without health issues) to regain a healthy weight.

Disclaimer: Sometimes good horse-people get into trouble. There could be a death in the family or a job loss. Law enforcement doesn’t want to seize horses; it’s actually a complicated process. They would rather help the owner find a solution. By the time charges get filed, it generally means that the owner has refused a few ideas.

How to tell the difference between an owner who’s trying and actual neglect? My personal rule is that if the water tanks are empty, it’s a bad sign. Water is free, after all. Even if it is inconvenient to walk out to the pen.

Horses who lose weight with feed available probably have a dental problem. Equine teeth “erupt” through horse’s lives; they continue to grow. Daily grazing wears the teeth down but as time passes, sometimes the teeth don’t wear evenly, leaving sharp hooks and edges that result in painful ulcers inside the mouth and less effective mastication (chewing) means less of the nutrition in the hay is available to the horse and he loses weight… not because of his age.

Good horse-people get dental care for their horses; “floating” is the process of filing the teeth level to improve the tooth surface for effective chewing.

Confession: Growing up, I don’t remember seeing floats done. We were poor farmers and my father dispatched “useless” animals that were thin or old. Times change and when we know better, we can do better. Ignorance is no excuse. Checking teeth is part of a routine vet check. Unless, of course, a horse doesn’t get consistent veterinary care, either.

Sometimes in a pen of horses, a few will be an okay weight but others will be too thin. They are being under-fed. The more assertive horses are eating the hay while the more submissive ones are starving. It’s still neglect; don’t wait until they are all emaciated.

So, there you are in court, listening to a cloud of evidence: some combination of no hay, or no vet care, or just lies and excuses. The defendant always has friends in the court, ready to testify on behalf of the abuser. I always wonder if they are such good friends, why didn’t they step in and offer help before things got so bad?

Last year in court, at the end of a full week of expert testimony about the horrific neglect that had resulted in the death of over half of her herd, I listened to a life-long horse-owner explain to the jury, in a perfectly reasonable way, that her horses weren’t show horses and they just didn’t need that level of care. I looked to the jury and no one’s chin was on their chest. It sounded almost rational. Almost believable.

Don’t be fooled. Neglect is failing to provide adequate care to any animal you possess and it’s against the law.

Now for the rant: I know caring for animals is inconvenient. It’s just true–endless time and endless money. And as time passes, you might have to soak mush or buy bags of senior feed. But still, the crime isn’t getting old– it’s lacking the compassion to inconvenience yourself.

I want to ask a favor. Remembering every chubby old sway-backed horse you’ve known, please consider posting a photo of them on your Facebook page and copy/paste the hashtag #AgeIsNoExcuse to the Colorado Horse Rescue Network page. Then “like” the other photos there. Help us debunk the “skinny old horse” myth.

If you feel you owe a debt to horses in your life, please participate in our legal system. Bear witness in court; let them know the community cares about animal welfare. Too many times people put their personal convenience above the needs of others, when it’s our character at stake.

And if you see a thin horse, kindly ask the owner about floating. Make it easy; say that you didn’t always know about it, either. Give them the chance to do the right thing.

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Here’s our foster, Lilith. She arrived in May, extremely elderly, rail thin, and with, in the equine dentist’s words, “expired teeth.” This fall, I cut back on her feed, worried that too much weight would make her move a little stiffer than she does already…

#AgeIsNoExcuse

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