Email Subject Line: “Do I Want a Horse?”

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February 2nd, 10 pm, 12 degrees. There was dense fog all day. We didn’t see the sun and the temperature stayed in the teens. My barn is full now, with three fosters visiting, on top of the usual herd of boarded horses and my family horses.

It’s time for the night feeding; double socks in my muck boots, sweats over my pajama bottoms, coat zipped to the very top, and two layers of hats and gloves. The dogs come with me as I carry two buckets of warm mush. One is for the elderly toothless donkey who can’t stay warm by chewing hay all night like the others. There’s some of her supper frozen in her feed-pan; she’s a slow eater. The other bucket is for two of the fosters who could use just a bit extra on such a bitter night. Everyone else gets extra hay, a flake of alfalfa, and a visual once-over.

I’ve fallen hard enough on icy ground that I’ve had to catch my breath and then crawl to a safe place to stand again; I swear, icy nights are more dangerous than horses. So, it’s small steps, testing my boot cleats as I go around the barn to throw hay in the back pen. I want to put eyes on everyone, but now my headlamp is flickering. A bit of whacking and head-shaking works and when I’m finally satisfied everyone is okay, I head back to the house and un-peel. My boots and coat are off when I remember the water. There’s one tank that I should have topped off. The layers come back on and I waddle out the back door again, with fewer dogs this time.

My barn hydrant has been frozen all week, so I’ve rolled out hose from the far side of the house. I can’t stand the thought of hose-wrangling on this night, when the frost is as thick as snow, so I walk a pair of five-gallon buckets instead.

Here’s why you should particularly not feel sorry for me. Right about now, I set the buckets down, pull my phone out, and take my gloves off. It’s so beautiful that, even in the dark, I take a few shots. It all looks night-vision green in my view finder and my eyes are too cold to focus. Then as I deliver the water, Edgar Rice Burro exhales a staccato series of heavy breaths, his precursor to braying, and I give him an extra scratch before going in for the night.

Thursday is blog night, these last seven years, so the dogs and I go to my studio to start writing. If there’s anything less romantic than below-freezing trips to the barn, it’s pounding out a blog past bed-time. Feel no sympathy for me; I’m hooked.

I’ve been thinking about an email I received from a stranger. The subject line asked, “Do I Want a Horse?” What a silly question, of course, you do.

The email was from a woman of a certain age, who has taken riding lessons every week for a couple of years but dreams of having horses at her home. Her husband and family think she shouldn’t; she thinks I might be impartial since I don’t know her. Really? I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. Even now, I’m haunted every day by the desire to have a horse.

It was a serious question and I gave her a serious answer. Keeping a horse at home is ugly work, not just for the weather. It’s constant fence repair and mucking and less time to ride than you imagine. I reeled off the numbers; cost of care, feed, vets, farriers, and all the rest. But the money is the easiest part.

Horses are somehow both accident prone and dangerous. They get hurt or sick and it isn’t always obvious until it’s bad. It takes years to gain the required knowledge and methods to keep them well. Then, she’ll need two; it’s cruel to own one horse. And she’ll need a truck and trailer and a safe place to ride. Or if she hauls to ride or have lessons, the horse left home might have anxiety, so maybe three horses are a better number. It gets complicated fast.

The heartfelt wish to have a horse is the selfish and easy part. I tell her it isn’t so simple to just get rid of them if it doesn’t work out. I give her the commitment talk. And of course, she must include them in her will to avoid them landing in rescue or on a truck to Mexico, if they outlive her. Then I urge her to make a list of what she’d be willing to give up if push comes to shove.

Sometimes parents ask me about a horse for their kid (and none of us are much more mature than that) and I always say no, don’t do it. Instead, lease a horse at a barn. When we get it wrong, it’s the horse that suffers.

But if the kid (you) can’t eat, or sleep, and begs relentlessly for at least a year, then consider getting a horse. But only do this thing if you think you’ll die without one. Know that you will see ugly things that will haunt you forever and you’ll be terrified a good part of the time. It’s a lot to go through for the view of a horse outside your window. Then, take the leap, if you must.

I never candy-coat horse ownership, but what I don’t say (and what I really believe) is that there’s too much cheap talk about loving horses. I never think it’s about owning one. I think we need to own all of them–each one of us literally owning each one of them.

I wish it was all more absolute. Not just the conditional love of a personal horse, or loving a breed of horses, but accepting the old crippled ones, the babies that need care and training, and the ones destroyed by abuse and neglect. It’s about track horses and plow horses and horses past any kind of work. It’s volunteering at a local rescue or therapeutic program when you’re done at home. It’s taking in an elder in the name of a heart-horse you’ve lost. And when your barn is full, then get out the checkbook and spend whatever’s left there to support local riding programs and rescues. Show up and witness abuse cases in court; call your elected officials on horses’ behalf. Then hope to encourage others by your example.

Do I think you should you get a horse? No. You should get all of them.

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

Photo Challenge: Repurpose

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All of us here…
we used to be someone else.

We each had a plan;
it was meant to go another way
but there was always a stumble.
We lost balance and compromised,

recycled into this different plan
that fits like skin and teeth.

….
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. All photos were taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Repurpose

Energetic Tidiness in the Saddle.

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Some of us climb into the saddle and have all kinds of crazy dangerous things happen–right out of the blue. We didn’t do anything at all, and for no good reason, the horse came apart.

Some of us are almost okay in the saddle, carefully moving along until it happens; the horse jerks, we lose balance, and jerk back. It happens so quickly that we scare each other half to death.

Some of us think of our horses as therapists. When we’re cross or out of sorts, all we have to do is go to the barn, climb into the saddle, and in no time at all, we’re feeling better.

Finally, some of us, the very luckiest ones, have horses especially interested in teaching their riders some energetic tidiness.

Right about here, I’m going to stick up for horses. They don’t come apart “for no good reason”; they don’t have some sort of vendetta to hurt people. Short of a bee sting, or some other sharp pain, they give us a series of warnings that things aren’t right. About the time we notice them, we flinch and get defensive. It’s just common sense that losing confidence makes us insecure. So we ride with timidity or bravado and not all horses, especially those with confidence problems of their own, tolerate it well.

It’s an unpopular thought but just because some horses seem good at dissolving our negativity, is it fair to expect it of them? How does the therapist part of his job affect the other work he does?

In these examples, the rider’s mental awareness limits the horse’s behavior options. We all acknowledge that the most challenging horses are the ones who teach us the most, but can we articulate how they do it?

As a riding instructor, I think about it a lot: What does it take for a rider to improve? Sure, there’s always technique involved. Balance and communication in the saddle is crucial. On the mental side, it’s all about energetic balance. If a horse is nervous, do we get scared or become Zen masters. If the horse is dull, can we lift our energy a bit to aid them? The bottom line is we must admit the impact our mental state has on our horse at any time.

We all know that horses sense our fear but it’s more than that. They sense confusion, distraction, and all sorts of lesser emotions. They can even mistake anticipation for anxiety–just like us. That last situation happens while riding with other people and at shows.

If our thoughts and emotions are running like a rat-on-a-wheel we aren’t much of a leader. Again, just common sense. The difference between riders who continue to have the same tense ride year after year and those riders able to progress with their horses boils down to mind control.

No, there is no way you can exert mental control over your horse. No way to control the environment, either. The only thing that will ever be within our control are our own thoughts and emotions.

The first thing to know is that a good rider doesn’t just ignore her fears and concerns. Denial is how most of us got in the nervous hole with our horses in the first place.

It’s a positive action to choose your state of mind; to discipline your thoughts to stillness. Think of it like picking up your bedroom. Put your fear and drama away in your underwear drawer with your flimsy doubt. Close it. Check the floor for stray socks, expectations, over-wrought dreams, and thoughts about aging; those all belong in the hamper. You can do the laundry later. Might be time to get rid of that Megadeath poster…

Now straighten your shoulders as if they’re sheets on your bed. Smooth yourself out. Then open the closet and take out a clean outfit of calm-listening. Accessorize with sparkling intention. Settle your intelligence and awareness inside a helmet and breathe. This is energetic tidiness. You’re ready to ride.

It’s hard in the beginning. Giving our horses on our best parts takes focus. Use kindness to spur yourself to understanding. When a bit of doubt crops up, kick it under the bed, and take another breath. Let your horse see your peace. Even if it’s fragile right now, hold it to the light and let him reflect it back to you. It’s no different from learning to keep your heels down. Repetition builds habit.

Being committed to listening in your inner stillness is wildly attractive to a horse. Horses recognize it because it’s how they are, too. There is strength in vulnerability.

When I look back to my own furious efforts to improve, I’m sure I drove my horses nuts. I wonder at their tolerance. Trying too hard, even to improve, looks exactly like anxiety and pressure. Luckily, horses read the quality of our intentions as clearly as our fear. It’s here that positive change begins.

Soon enough the rider begins to find a tidy and still place inside her horse, too. It’s the place we always dreamed of, that we obliterated searching for, and now we find it, in plain sight. It was that rat-on-a-wheel self-criticism that made it harder than need be.

Eventually a day comes when your energy becomes an aid to your horse. You can share your energy if his is lagging. You can comfort his pain with breath instead of worrying him with baby-talk. You can lift him with compassionate strength in a way that you didn’t always know you could.

I’m not saying that horses or people will ever be perfect. Every relationship is a negotiation: some days they carry us and some days we carry them. If your overall tendency is fine with you, then be grateful. If you think there’s room for improvement, then commit to change your mind about horses.

Know that riding starts deep inside of you. It’s always you; the leader is the one who goes first and shows the way.

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

Photo Challenge: Grace-ful

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It’s an intimate moment,
a recognition of soul,
held and acknowledged,
then returned in kind.

Softly now, abide.

….
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. All photos were taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Graceful

Climate Change: Not Just Bad for Polar Bears.

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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.

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

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It’s the pastel light,
the thin clear air,
and a shared breath
so deep and sweet:

Even as I travel away
I return to you each night.

….
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. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Ambience

Release: The Unflattering Truth

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A few weeks ago, I was standing, talking with a client at the end of her lesson. She was at her horse’s shoulder, close enough that her sleeve touched him, and he had his head curved toward her. He wasn’t mugging her; just standing. My client said, “I suppose you don’t think I should let him be this close, do you?”

It’s a well-known fact that all riding instructors live for the sole reason of ruining any good moment a rider might be having. And it’s a common event that we talk about horses when they are standing right there, so the answer was clear. “Let’s ask your horse.”

I was about six feet away and I asked my client to step back as well, out of his space, and let the lead rope rest on the ground. That last detail is important. If we hold the rope, even loosely, the rope moves as our bodies do, but if it’s resting on the ground, it’s a clear, undeniable message. It’s the difference between waiting on hold and hanging up the phone.

My client and I continued talking about the lesson and a minute–just a minute–later, he dropped his head low. He exhaled a long slow breath and loosened his jaw. His body got softer and quieter. His eyes closed part way. Neither of us had seen stress in him before but he was clearly and obviously more relaxed. This good gelding is a stoic sort of horse; sometimes you learn more in hindsight than in the moment.

For today, I’ll define release as ending the conversation (whatever training or work you were doing) and letting the horse be. The physical part of that is easy. In my example, my client had dismounted, taken off his bridle, and put his halter on, all the while standing within a few inches of him.

The mental release is a good deal more complicated for us humans because it involves ego and desire and horse-crazy girl fantasies. In other words, it involves putting the horse first. We all like to say we put our horses first.

And we want to give a reward. There’s no doubt that a horse responds to a kind word, a warm touch, or even a physical treat. Humans like that interchange, too. We revel in that moment of connection and gratitude. I don’t want to negate that in any way, but this sweet gelding told the truth. He was still, at the very least, wary of us. And if taking a step farther away would release that feeling, why wouldn’t we do it?

The easy answer is that it isn’t flattering to us humans. I remember the first time I heard that the best reward for a horse was release. No, it couldn’t be true. I confess joy in mugging a horse, but even more than that I just hated the thought that my horse didn’t appreciate my cloying affection. Like a first boyfriend, I wanted my horse to hang on my every word and want to cuddle and coo. And for the horse, just like a first boyfriend, he’d rather have the relationship than talk about it. Ouch. Just ouch.

In order to progress in an equine partnership, it’s important to learn to truly release a horse, both on the ground and in the saddle. If it’s possible to cue a horse to have anxiety, (who hasn’t done that?) then it must also be possible to cue a horse to relax.

A horse who mugs a human isn’t being affectionate. When he searches your pockets for treats isn’t cute; it’s a moment of anxiety.  It’s the insecure kind of behavior a weanling might do in a herd, but not a confident adult.

Gaining the confidence to hold his own self up may not not be easy at first. If his lacks confidence, you might have to shake your lead a bit, almost like asking him to back, before letting the rope hit the ground. But if you ask him to step back, then you do the same. It might take more then one try and he’ll need time to understand. Help him find that distance easier. Say good boy. Rest. Then watch his honest release response.

The ability to cleanly release him from your mental expectations, no matter if you are fearful or bold, might be the highest sort of leadership, but we have to get our emotions out of the way to do it. Engendering an experience of safety and consistency is the basis of a bond with a horse. It’s the comradery of standing together, confident, with no need to prove anything on either side. The other word for that is respect.

Back in my martial arts days, we were taught that a human had a personal space that was about three feet in all directions and it was considered an aggression to enter that space uninvited. I was an introvert and sometimes confused with social parameters. I appreciated that this three-foot rule gave me a kind of line of demarcation; I could choose to hug someone, or if I felt uncomfortable, I could step back, and use any number of the same calming signals I saw horses exhibit. Acknowledging that we are similar animals to horses, it was easier to understand the confidence he could feel from an honest release.

Yes, the exact word is confidence. Isn’t that the elusive goal?

So try this experiment: Give your horse a complete and honest release. Start by standing a few feet farther away than you want to. Still your body, drop your weight, soften your shoulders, and cock a hip. The soundtrack for this is Sting’s Set Them Free.

This last part takes discipline. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Finally and most importantly, let go– free as a bird—release any expectation and judgment of him that you’re holding in your mind. When you have done it for him, then do it for yourself as well. Be the kind of leader he needs.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Be partners in peace.

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