Photo Challenge & Poem: Serene

The cowboys I knew didn't dress like 
the movies. No neckerchiefs or fancy 
Mexican spurs. They wore easy smiles 
under the brim of a dusty hat. Rough 
hands with thick knuckles, able to 

soothe a horse or build fence or squat 
to look a girl in the eye and listen. 
The first to offer help, the last to 
doff their hat at the dinner table and 
thank the cook. Full-grown men, heroes 

who live by the Boy Scout code with 
humility. Much easier to be like these 
men-with-hats who chase horses with 
flags, jerking halters in predatory 
attack. When the horse finally shuts 

down, drenched in fear, the men-with-hats 
claim a thing they call respect. An hour 
later a small group of men-with-hats, each 
carrying sticks with flags, wait to load a 
horse too wild to lead. The trainer backs 

the trailer to an alley chute. It takes a 
couple of tries and the men-with-hats make 
small mean jokes, no one offering to guide 
her in. The trainer steps from her truck, 
head down, an apology for what she knows 

they've been saying. The men-with-hats send 
the horse, an unhandled mare carrying a foal  
due soon, into the trailer. The trainer pulls 
her rig forward, lets her dogs out to pee, 
returning with some business in a plastic bag. 

She heads back to her farm taking a thing 
I call respect with her, while the men-with-hats 
slouch in a golf cart and fluff up their pride 
with impatience to close the gate behind her.

 

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. 
(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.)

Serene

Making War on Horses: Is it Leadership?

By reader request:

“Horses need a dominant leader; you have to make him respect you.” “You can’t let him get away with that.” “Kick him; make him do it right now or you’ll ruin him forever.” “He’s making a fool out of you –show him who’s boss.” “You can’t let him win!” Oh yes, and this one: “I break young horses.”

A few weeks ago, a client said something that stopped me in my tracks. We’d been working on re-habbing her new gelding who had nothing short of PTSD. Over the weeks, he was slowly beginning to trust again. She reflected, “He had a trainer like I had a father.”

In a blink, I was fifteen, standing under a tree with my father, who was spitting mad at me. My filly was nervous about pavement and he thought I’d been too slow coaxing her to step on it. Now it was his turn and he was going to teach her to tie. He snubbed her to the tree, spooked her to sit back, and then hit her on the back of her skull with a two by four. I can still see her quivering, trying to stay on her feet.

These were common training practices in our area, for horses and kids. He just followed tradition. My grandfather was a horse trader and a hard taskmaster. My father grew up working horses and farming with teams of mules who (he said) wouldn’t work if you didn’t beat them. And me, his daughter-when-he-wanted-a-son, might have been the first one in the family to love horses. Imagine his disappointment.

Truth: Not only do you not have to win every fight; it isn’t even a war.

An over-simplified history of humans and horses: Once upon a time there was a culture who saw the world in terms of art and music. Xenophon, a 430 B.C. Greek soldier/philosopher said, “For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” At the same time, the other dominant culture was warlike. The Romans drugged their horses and rode them into battle.

Nothing has changed. 

We’ve always had these two approaches to training horses, raising kids, and generally doing business. It can feel oppositional; men against women, old against young, science-based against self-taught, and since being called a “tree hugger,” it even feels political.

The most common thing I hear from riders about positive training isn’t that it works, although it does. Most riders say they were taught harsh habits but it never felt right. That being aggressive with horses was never comfortable but it was required by others. I can understand that. Standing against my father was tough.

Years ago, I read a scientific paper that described the physical reasons for why a horse can’t learn when he’s afraid. I held it as sacred proof and quoted it to prove my point about training with kindness.

But that was before a few years of working with various rescue horses, and horses who had been flunked out by other trainers, and the saddest, brilliant young horses who got pushed too fast. Horses who have struggled with violent leadership will be the first to tell you that they learn plenty when they’re afraid. But none of it good.

It makes sense; lots of us have tolerated harsh criticism from family for decades. Some of us rebel and never show the “respect” demanded of us. Some of us just shut down, our dreams broken and our self-worth destroyed. Just like horses.

Compassionate training can get some catcalls. I’ve certainly been criticized for training like a girl. There is that sour feeling that hangs in the air implying that we are cowards. That we just don’t have the guts to break a horse. We’re too weak to win the fight with a horse and too scared to even take the bait to fight the human taunting you. That this touchy-feely training is trash that goes against herd dominance theory.

The worst? I saw a video of a rider on her young horse. She was trying mounted shooting and her horse was confused and extremely frightened. Her “friends” cheered her on, urging her to fight him through it. The rider kept kicking, jerking the reins, and shooting her gun. The more confused her horse was, the more they yelled to encourage her to keep after him. It felt like a death-fight at a Roman Colosseum.

Readers also ask me how to deal with rail-birds who tell them they aren’t tough enough on their horses. It’s a good question. How do you defend compassion in the face of criticism? Why is there so much peer pressure to dominate horses? Do the intimidation tactics that they use on their horses work on you, too?

I notice it’s as hard to stand up to bullying as it ever was.

Start here: The FBI raised animal cruelty up to a Class A felony, with murder and arson. Pause. Think about that. It isn’t that the FBI thinks kittens and foals are cute. Statistics show a majority of violent crime begins with animal abuse.

After my father passed, my mother confided that she was always afraid that he might seriously hurt one of us kids. It almost felt good to have our family tradition acknowledged.

This might not be what you expected to hear about the “you can’t let him win” philosophy. It’s a topic that I take very seriously. I’ve certainly seen humans declare war, claim dominance using weapons –sticks, whips, and spurs. Only to run horses in circles until they shut down or cripple themselves. And if cruelty was limited to barns, as much as I love horses, I’d be happy with that. But it’s a topic that reflects more about who we are than we like to admit.

Humans are born predators. We make war but we are also capable of great acts of heart. How we deal with horses, dogs, and even children give us a chance to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Are horses who we really hate? Why is it so important for us to label each other victors or victims? Is it possible for our intellect and heart to rise above our predator instinct?

I’m not saying that how we train horses will bring about world peace. It’s just one place to start.

 ….
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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Sleeping With The Wrong Dog

Warning: This is not an upbeat rescue story.
It’s a sad story with a sad ending. 
Proceed with caution. Or don’t proceed at all.

I have a habit of writing about the rescue horses and donkeys and dogs that have come through Infinity Farm to be evaluated, fostered, and trained over the years. In a seemingly contrary way, I hope to encourage people to bring rescues into their homes but at the same time debunk romantic notions about rescue. It can be a pretty complicated topic.

Mostly, I think an abused pony or a rescue dog deserve to have their story told as much as equine Olympians and beloved family pets from reputable breeders. I write about rescues because I believe their lives matter.

People remind me that “you can’t save ’em all” but I’ve known that in a profoundly literal way since I shoplifted a dying cat back in my teens. I’ve second-guessed myself about writing the final chapter in Seamus’ short life dozens of times. Maybe I shouldn’t continue now.

The first time I wrote about Seamus was when he came to Infinity Farm to be fostered/evaluated at 13 mos. old. He was on Prozac and in a shock collar. By the second post, he’d become a different kind of “foster fail.” Usually, foster fail is a clever way of saying that a foster human fell in love and adopted their foster animal. In Seamus’ case, it meant he would never be adoptable. He had no other place to go. Readers were kind; glad that he landed with me. And again, I thought perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned him publicly.

“Her life was ok. Sometimes she wished she were sleeping with the right man instead of with her dog, but she never felt she was sleeping with the wrong dog.” – Change of Life by Judith Collas

I’ve had this quote tacked up on my wall for as long as I’ve been sleeping with dogs. It just makes me smile. And I’m grateful for a few generations of dog-piles that helped me find some rest during the rough times in my life. Recently the quote took a different twist.

I’ve always appreciated challenging dogs. Seamus fit the bill. He had good moments but more commonly, he had a snarling sideways glare. He’d bite at unpredictable times, both dogs and people, and seemed to have no knowledge of his name. Sometimes he could be coaxed with treats and sometimes he attacked us. His extreme destructive behaviors had gotten him crated full-time previously; now he needed to be out to decompress but I wondered how much of the house would survive.

After a few weeks, I thought Seamus was almost leveling out. Not quite improving; there were still dogfights and tense separations and extreme anxiety, but less of a scorched earth policy from him. We’d managed a vet visit by giving him a tranquilizer first. It didn’t work well, but with a muzzle, we were able to sedate him for blood tests and x-rays.

Not surprisingly, his little body was a painful, complicated mess of health questions, lousy joints, and fear… along with the affliction of bad training. Who knows what else?

Then a turning point: Construction workers came to repair hail damage on the farm. I took the time off work, staying with the dogs every minute. A four-day ceiling repair took two weeks. The house was cut in half for asbestos abatement. The tools were loud but the workers were louder and Seamus just came apart. His eyes changed and his anxiety exploded like a virus.

Seamus had loved the boarder who always took the time to talk to him. He’d roll over, asking her to scratch his belly through the fence and it was a happy habit. Until he bit her mid-scratch.

The next week, another boarder was talking with me in the house. Her toddler was standing by her chair when Seamus broke down a gate. A strong gate. The boarder picked up her toddler immediately; she knew Seamus’ history and didn’t hesitate. She was miraculously calm, the right answer as Seamus leaped up, nipping at her little girl. I knew I couldn’t correct him without making it worse, so I used treats to try to call him off. It took cheerful coaxing but finally, he turned to me and the aggression stopped long enough to get the little girl out of the house.

We all felt like we were living in a war zone. Maybe Seamus most of all.

At night, I’d lay down and he’d leap the edge of the bed, dropping his belly crosswise on mine, and falling immediately asleep. I matched his breath. His weight on my heart was undeniable, as I considered the unthinkable for the millionth time.

My vet wasn’t surprised when I called. She’d broached the subject of euthanizing Seamus the previous month when I brought another Corgi, Preacher Man, in with a facial abscess from a dogfight. It’s times like this that having an honest vet means the most. We had a complicated conversation about how to euthanize an aggressive dog in the most kind and compassionate way.

On the morning of his final appointment, I gave him a special breakfast. Special because it was his favorite raw meat with a nice fried duck egg on top. Special because it contained an overdose of meds to quiet him. They had the opposite effect.

We did our best for Seamus his last day. Sometimes your best looks ugly-bad. Seamus was one month short of his second birthday.

When things come apart like this, there’s some unbalanced equation of physical issues and bad history. Pain and anxiety. I believe that animals can have similar mental health issues as humans. Some find a way through it and some just can’t. Again, like humans.

I tried to make sense of backyard puppy mills and shock collars and professionals who give bad advice, as I felt despicable for appreciating the peace. Trust me, I know you can’t save ’em all but that’s no reason to quit trying.

There’s been a horrible quiet in the weeks since Seamus has been gone. It’s as if the house got stuck in an exhale. The daily “accidents” inside stopped in a while. The Dude Rancher’s dog, Finny eventually trusted the backyard again. My elderly dog came out of her Thundershirt and Preacher Man is trying to be less defensive.  I realized that the reverse of that old quote mattered to me just as much. I hoped the dogs always felt they were sleeping with the right human.

And this boy, Seamus. Some of his trouble he was born with, and some of it was done to him. In the end, it doesn’t matter how it started. I think he tried his best to fight it but that got turned around, too.

If Seamus finds redemption, I doubt it will be waiting at a mythical rainbow bridge. He might prefer a place that doesn’t allow humans.

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

Walking the washout, high desert ground
between pond silt and prairie pasture,
I know to look for crushed cans, bits 
of barbed wire, and runaway fence staples.
Only to find you crouched, invisible and silent, 

refusing to see me even as I bend close. Not 
a blink of acknowledgment, you are so wildly
strong. So committed to life as to play dead.
Brave hatchling, as you grow you will find
your voice, singing out your name, race walking

in a stilted gait, an undeniable citizen of this pond. 
Too often humans lose our voices as we age, thinking 
we won't be missed in the din and flap of this chaotic 
world, forgetting the indisputable power of a single call, 
clear and true, to lift the quality of the very air.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(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.)

Delta

Caring for the Lead Mare

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
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Mounting Block Conversations

This is Andante. He likes to have a conversation at the mounting block. He wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, he was afraid of most everything. It was fair; he didn’t have a great start in life but that isn’t the important part. Back then, the mounting block wasn’t his favorite thing. Now it is.

He likes to spend a few minutes tapping it with his hoof; it makes that hollow plastic sound. He side-passes over it when asked –because he’s tall and it works. It’s a kind of groundwork that he and his rider enjoy; just a connecting time. He initiates it now and we all congratulate him. After a few minutes, he’s asked to stand still and he does.

Lately, he’s added this twist; he’s taken to doing stretches himself, at first only with his left leg, and then on request, both legs. His rider started the tapping game years ago to make the mounting block less scary and it turned into a game. It takes extra minutes in the beginning of the ride.

Before I get accused of coddling horses or training like a girl, again, I should add that Andante does challenging work, training up the dressage levels, working on light contact, pushing like a freight train, and dancing like a ballerina. I have great respect for this horse and the training he and his rider have done.

You could say these antics mean that his lesson starts late. We think he’s started teaching early. This ex-nervous horse reminds us it’s supposed to be fun because hard work and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Because riding is an art. He reminds us to stay in the present moment. The other words for that are horse time.

Our horses don’t much care about our dirty laundry or dinner plans or our riding ambitions. But we’re busy people. We want to ride. We want our hour, so we grab them out of their turnout, do a perfunctory grooming job, and pull to the arena. Then it’s hurry-time for training work crashing into horse time. Does this “Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am” approach work well for anything of value?

(I’m going to assume that we all use mounting blocks because it’s good for horses. Look at a photo of a horse’s skeleton and it’s easy to understand why equine chiropractors say that the wither area is easy to mangle with ground mounting.)

Does your horse show any calming signals at the mounting block? Does he look away or stretch his head down. Is he fussy? Do you move the mounting block to him …more than once? Is it a place where he gets corrected three or four times before you’re even in the saddle? Is that really how you want to start? Gosh, and your ride didn’t go well?

Maybe it’s time to see your mounting block in a new light. I like to use them as a training aid. For people, mainly. 

If you’re looking for a partner, whether for dressage competition or for trail riding, it starts here. Would you like a total do-over at the mounting block?

Start here: With a halter and lead rope, walk to the mounting block. The lead must stay slack. Step to the top and stand there. Breathe. Clear your mind. Lay down your thoughts and lists and expectations. Stand still and breathe some more. Let go of your excuses and apologies. Be still mentally and watch your horse take a new interest in you. Then step back to the ground and give yourself a treat. Nice job of changing yourself. Yes, it’s just a start but this is how training works.

Go to the arena and this time, un-click the lead. Let your horse run and play. Cheer him on. Cue canters and trots by doing them yourself. Laugh. Remember why you love horses. Then take him back to the barn and curry him till he shines. Now you have his attention.

Go to the arena and stand on the mounting block and do some light lunging. You’ll notice you can’t move your feet much while standing there. Good, it will require smaller cues. Ask for different gaits and reverses. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and back to the barn. Confuse him with short work sessions.

Eventually, ask for walk/halt transitions. Take your time, let him think. Trust his answer and find an even better, smaller cue. Let time pass in quiet conversation. If he’s doing halts, in a small circle, both directions around the block, you’re almost there.

The lead is still loose and his head has forgotten how much it hated being pulled on. It’s a miracle. At some point of his choosing, he’ll step almost to the perfect spot to mount and halt. Almost but not quite. Here is a chance to be generous. Training amounts to successive approximation. Call it good, reward him, and go back to the barn. Yay for you. You didn’t nag on toward your idea of perfection while teaching him he’s never good enough. Instead, he remembers standing there in the right place with you being happy about it. Win.

The next time, he comes to the spot sooner and you spend a ridiculous amount of time standing on the block, scratching and rubbing his back and neck. Continue until he forgets he had anxiety at the mounting block. Until he wonders if you’ve taken a mail order course in faith healing. Until he thinks good things happen at the mounting block and he pulls toward the arena.

Reward your horse’s stillness with your own. Then congratulate your horse on teaching you patience.

In the perfect world, this work starts with yearlings, long before saddles and training. In the perfect world, the mounting block is an island of peace and safety in a chaotic world. Let it be a sacred place.

Cultivate the idea that the more you and your horse are together mentally on the ground, the better you will be in the saddle. That positive training starts with your mental state. Make your mind a place your horse wants to spend time. When he’s comfortable with that, he’ll invite you into his.

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

 

Photo Challenge: Dense

Stupid. Dense. Stubborn. Lazy.

Until we stop seeing others
in our own worst self-image,
these words will describe us.

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

Dense

Circling Back: How We Became One.

We were hooked and it was written all over us. The first weird looks passed between our parents. We were too young to know anyone else. It didn’t matter if there were horses close by; some of us were in the country but just as many of us were in city apartments. We squealed at horsies! from car windows or stared at pictures in books we were too little to read. We cantered in the house when horses only lived inside our TV.

Eventually we turned into old women with squint-wrinkles around our eyes and some sort of chronic lameness. Through decades of life, we might have changed homes and changed jobs and changed spouses… but feelings about horses never changed. Some would say that we’re past our riding prime, but I’m confident that the residue of those crazy young rides has made us better with horses now. Probably better with our own species as well.

Horses are like a beautiful water-color rinse washed over top of the ink drawing of our lives. It’s the water we swim in while living on dry land. It’s the herd we belong to before and through and beyond our other connections. It isn’t just that we were born this horse-crazy way. Much to the chagrin of those around us, we stay that way. I think we take it with us when we walk on from this world.

What is this hook that horses have in us? It’s the question I’ve asked for as long as I’ve known horses. Unless I was busy actually grooming or riding or training at the moment. Then it was only in the back of my mind.

Of course we love animals but horses are different. We play favorites. It isn’t the same the mess of complex and contradictory feelings we have for people. Horses feel more honest and true.

When philosophers consider the nature of God and the metaphysics of the universe, surely they must consider the central position that horses hold. If they don’t, we know they’ve fallen short of the thing artists have known since the time of cave paintings; it was always about humans and horses.

Is love even the right word? It feels a bit shallow. We began this journey before there was choice or reason; before we knew the word for how we would feel. We rode when there were no horses. It was a prehistoric promise, sealed with horse dander and spit. Or things that would evolve into that eventually.

Maybe back then some DNA got mixed up in the primordial mush and we’re actually a slightly different species. That would explain a lot over the centuries –and eventually at our kitchen tables.

But somewhere in the middle of our lives, life happened. Plans went sideways. Some of us gave up horses for a while and some of us gave up everything but horses. Some of us finally got our first pony fifty years later. All of us stayed true to that prehistoric promise with horses; we always circle back.

Now that I’m older, there are some rides I make myself refuse. There are days that it breaks my heart to cautious, but I have a herd that depends on me. It’s lead mare logic; I wasn’t born knowing it. I do all the barn work my body allows and then remember the kindness that all past-prime horses deserve. I try to practice that same kindness on myself but never quite feel deserving.

Perhaps younger riders look at me like I’m a crazy old nag. I smile and wave, stubborn as a pony, working to show them the patience that my first horse had for me, back when I fell short of my horse’s withers and wisdom.

We’re the sort who never quite settle the struggle to find our balance, drunk with horses and gasping with rude want. We’ve been loud, crying or pouting if we can’t ride. There is nothing polite about passion. Other times, while making the tough choices, we felt as old as sticks and dirt with the bitter maturity of our decisions. Still horses never change for us.

We have a secret that others don’t know. While other women dream of romance book lovers or foreign shores, we dream of a horse who comes to us with an invitation. Personally, I think it’s a white horse –like my Grandfather Horse. He was perfectly ordinary. We all had one just like him. The one that we knew before we were born. The one who never leaves us.

He comes for me, behind my eyelids now,
but he comes. I’m selfish, I fear, to call him
but I hold no respect for rainbow bridges
or fairy tales. With closed eyes, I climb up the
mounting block. That left hip pinches; it’s how
I know this is only partly a dream. With one last

grounded breath, my leg slides over and I ease
onto his back. My shoulders go broad and my spine
straightens as it all comes flooding back. My breath is
deep. I was born to sit here. I feel his ribs expand
as he breathes with me and some jagged pieces begin
to mend. One more breath and my busy mind settles

deep into my heart with a sigh. He’s taught me that
oneness means the parts of the rider become united.
Horses are that way already. It doesn’t matter where
we go now, sauntering through the water-color wash.
The ride stays real long after the one who shared it
has walked on. Good horses always circle back.

 

 

[Dedicated to the friend-readers who are “between” horses and longing, on the seventh anniversary of this Relaxed and Forward blog. Thank you; I’m so grateful to all who share their long ride here.]

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

Do You Communicate Like a Coyote?

Some of us baby-talk and cuddle our horses like they’re twelve-hundred-pound teddy bears. Some of us enter the pen with enough flags and whips that we look like a lion-tamer at a circus. It’s possible we’re on a behavior continuum not so different from horses.

My last two blogs have been about working with stoic horses and reactive horses, as opposite ends of a continuum, with the goal of inspiring honest, calm communication somewhere in the middle.

Human behavior runs similarly from one extreme–very shut down–to the other extreme–overly reactionary. In other words, some of us are passive aggressive and some of us just plain aggressive. Too harsh? That’s what the horses thought about the words stoic and reactive, too.

Then one last assumption: If you were the sort of screeching, hard-handed, bone-crushing, slimy-reptile Neanderthal who was brutal with horses, my bliss-ninny positive training blog would have bored you to death years ago.

That just leaves us passive aggressives left. And it didn’t start out being our fault. Most of us are women; we were raised to be polite and quiet. We were rewarded for being good girls.

I, myself, am a recovering good girl, so if I want some wine, for instance, I take a breath and say, “Please bring some red wine home. Thanks, Sweetie.”

A passive aggressive good girl might say,”Excuse me, Sweetie, if you have time and it’s no trouble, perhaps you could detour on your way home, only if you want to, for some wine, if it isn’t out of your way, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s no trouble for me to go later, Honey, even though my foot is swollen and I’m a bit congested, I can limp out later after dinner, I was just thinking you might be able to get a nice Merlot, but it’s fine, just fine, either way.”

Just. Say. It. Already.

And to be clear, it’s okay to be passive aggressive out in the world. I’m just saying horses hate it.

Horses are prey animals, and coyotes (or people acting like coyotes) are their sworn enemies. Coyotes stalk them, passively aggressive, skulking around in the shadows, lurking and feinting. Circling their prey, just out of reach but relentless. They might tip-toe with a halter partly hidden behind their back, or nag-nag-nag with their feet in the saddle, or be twitchy with their hand, or maybe just lurk on the stiff-side rein. They might give a cue, contradict that first cue, then give a different cue, and still not pause for an answer, busily talking to themselves, up there behind their horse’s back.

Or worse yet, we might have so much compassion for our horses that we listen and listen, and never really say anything to them at all. We crane and squint and worry, wondering how they are responding, and is this what that blog meant? In the meantime, a horse picks up on the doubt and confusion and they can do nothing but lose confidence. We chatter down to them, over them, beyond them, until nothing we say has meaning. In other words, if we often stop and start, walk on eggshells to keep them calm, or over think everything in the saddle, we’re stalking them.

Do you find this prattle confusing? Imagine you’re a horse.

Bottom line: We lose our natural rhythm when we try too hard. We’d hate to consider ourselves abusive so we whisper, and even if we know horses are confused, we tend to commiserate with them about it and not clarify. They see a dog answer a sit command and get a cookie, and wonder why they have it so hard. It’s enough to make a stoic horse to shut down further or a reactive horse start to scream.

Truth: A horse will never confuse you for a horse. You will always be either a coyote or a human. Sorry for the bad news, but now let’s set about being a better human; honest communication is appreciated because it’s understandable. Think short sentences, with a thank you at the end.

Horses are looking a quietly confident leader who respects their intelligence. Let your body be still. Listen without expectation of good, bad, or otherwise. Breathe. Plan ahead. Ask for a transition with awareness in your body. Then breathe again. Wait for his answer. Reward him.

If he’s wrong, reward him for trying. Then “re-phrase” the question more simply. Go slow so that he can reason the answer. Slow yourself down so that you are clear. Be patient because there is nothing more important than a foundation of understanding. Speed is easy but real trust takes time.

Let him accept you for who you truly are, and if that’s a bit of a mess, don’t give him a whiny apology. Instead, smile, relax, and try to do better. Trust that he can tell your intention is good. Horses absolutely know honesty when they see it.

Horses not looking for groupies and they don’t want to be put up on a spiritual pedestal. They don’t need adoring humans to give them purpose. They want a whole lot more from us than treats.

Scientists tell us that horses have feelings similar to humans, but that is not the same thing as feeling what we do in the same situation and we’d be arrogant to think so.

Try to find the middle of our human continuum. Horses are drawn to calm leadership. They like a herd that feels safe; they appreciate emotional clarity. Leave your puny insecurities and your frail feelings in the house. No baby talk, no coyote stalking, no apologies. Square your shoulders and speak your truth clearly. They expect us to be nothing less than their equal.

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Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Climate Change: Not Just Bad for Polar Bears.

wm-golden-spirit

Farm kids, like me, learn early that a healthy anxiety about the weather is the subtext of every task–from lambing season, to planting corn, to rushing to get the bales out of the hay-field, as thunder booms close by. It’s consulting the dog-eared copy of the Farmer’s Almanac. It’s the habit of listening to the weather report more closely than the news, while pulling on boots first thing in the morning.

Townies chat about the weather as the tiniest of small talk; weather can be an inconvenience. Farmers stake their crops, and the family’s security, gambling on the weather, year after year.

Not much has changed. Now I’m older than my folks were when they gave up their farm. I still depend on working outside but we have smartphones with a few weather apps. I usually check a couple of different sources and then average the results; weather is still a guess.

Last week in Illinois there were rain storms, ice, and fifty degree days. It’s the kind of weather that’s average for November but not now; not in the middle of January.

Here on my small Colorado farm, we’ve had the same temperature swings; the pond ice is unsteady and the pasture is bone dry. There have been some sub-zero wind-chill nights followed by fifty degree days. It’s the transitional weather we watch for in spring and fall. Horse people don’t want to say it out-loud, but it’s colic weather.

Sure, every farm could destroy more pasture and hay fields to build a huge indoor arenas and pretend to ignore the weather. Is this how we want to use our precious land? Besides, this whining about weather is all anecdotal, and scientists don’t pay farmers much mind. Except now.

“A NASA press release pointed out “Earth’s 2016 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” Sixteen of the warmest 17 warmest years on record have been observed since 2001.”

Through December, the mares in my barn were cycling still. They used to take the winter off from snake fights and screaming at geldings but it’s dragged on long enough that we had the vet check for ovarian cysts. My final questioning act for them was to ask my Facebook friends across the country about their mares. The response was overwhelming and the consensus surprised me: Mares were still cycling everywhere, and raw with the long-term hormonal emotions. Anecdotal for sure, and a cynic might call it coincidental. When will we trust what we see? When will we speak up?

This week I read more on climate change. Arctic melting is changing coastlines around the world. Weather scientists are behaving more like mares in estrus. The undeniable change is still being denied… not by farmers but by politicians.

Do these guys ever come out of their offices long enough to look up? I’d invite the idiots along with me for a week of outdoor work if any of them were strong enough to keep up.

We’ve all seen heart-wrenching video of polar bears starving on ice floats, but let’s get personal. Is there a horse owner who isn’t wildly aware of how fragile horses are? Does anyone think that horses won’t be one of the first domestic animals to suffer, and die, for our selfish, arrogant ways? I mean even more than happens now… Will we be this greedy and self-serving until we kill everything dear to us?

And then, when I think post-apocalyptic, I think how few pets exist in science fiction. Okay, Star Trek had tribbles. And there was Mel Gibson sharing a can of Dinky-Do dog food with that genius cattle dog in the movie, Road Warrior.  Remember? It was a quiet moment between rapes and car wrecks in the end-of-the-world fight for gasoline. It would be like humans to eat dog food and wear kinky outfits instead of grow crops or raise animals. It’s a fact that there is no romance in farming.

Like I said, I researched climate change and horses. I wanted to share just one article; a brief scientific paper from Australia, a bit removed from our soil. Please take a moment to read The Impact of Climate Change on Horses, and Horse Industries. The bibliography makes the piece look longer than it is. There are certainly some details that I hadn’t thought out before, even though they make perfect sense. Mostly I’m struck by the very fine line between science and science fiction. Like usual, the fiction part is more true than we want to think. There are words all too familiar to horse owners in the article. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the path ahead–like a trashy B-movie.

 This is the way the world ends                                                                     Not with a bang but a whimper.  –T S Eliot

I’m not sure how politicians decided that climate change could even be voted on in the first place. And it’s too late to blame others. This global issue is so much bigger than our horses; other losses will be larger and more pivotal to the planet’s destruction. There is no more time to debate and whine. It’s time to make our voices heard. Time for each of us who make our lives, and our living, out in the environment, to speak up. There are more farmers than politicians and business people. And between rants, we can do every small thing we can do to turn this planet around. It’s up to us; we’re the ones who know first-hand what we stand to lose.

Here on the prairie, I’m pulled to look to the west at dusk. The outrageous beauty stills my rat-on-a-wheel mind. Awe is the only word; the preciousness of each sunset burns my heart. Maybe I’m selfishly aware of the number of sunsets left in my puny little life. Or maybe it’s knowing that my silence contributes to the death of the infinite number of lives that we will surely take down with us.

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