Riding the Middle: My Horse is Lazy.

My horse is lazy. He won’t go forward. He doesn’t listen to my legs no matter what. Do I need spurs?

Warning: Predictable answer ahead.

(First and always, is your horse sound? Ulcers maybe? Don’t assume he’s okay, check.)

When I hear this human question, I wonder what the horse would ask in the same situation. Is the word lazy even in their vocabulary? I mention this because understanding how horses think is much more important than getting our way.

If I had to guess, I’d think the horse was shut down. Here’s my equine CSI logic: The horse is a stoic horse. I know this because a more reactive horse would have bucked his rider off by now. Excessive kicking doesn’t go over well with a horse who gets aggravated easily.

Stoic horses are every bit as intelligent and sensitive as a reactive horse. They’re just quiet, keeping their own best council. Think introvert, in human terms. Stoic horses are conflict avoidant, retreating inside and trying to be invisible. Like me around enthusiastic football fans.

Humans tend to think horses can’t hear them, even knowing that each one of his senses is more acute than ours. So, we cue again, louder this time. Or we just nag on with our legs banging their sides each stride. But the more you cue a stoic horse, the more he crouches inside of himself. *Light bulb moment in understanding horses: Less is more.*

If your horse has a problem, look for a resolution in yourself.

I don’t mean some esoteric theory about soulmates or an obscure psychological reasoning from possible experiences in his past or even a dispassionate reciting of training aids as described on any of two million articles online. Those are intellectual activities.

Your horse lives in the moment and to help him, you must escape your over-thinking intellectual mind and join him in the NOW. Tune in to your senses. What do you literally feel?

If you are timid in the saddle or if you’re not warmed up yet, your thighs might be tight. That means that you are suspended above the saddle. Breathe, imagine an egg under your knee, and let your sit-bones settle. A deep seat makes for a connected ride. Not to mention, mounted thigh-master exercises are frowned on by horses.

While you’re at it, if his poll is tight, do a slow side-to-side neck roll. If he is clamped on the bit, relax your jaw. Once your body is looser see how your horse has changed. Then walk a while longer and let what you thought was relaxed… relax some more.

Next, feel your energy level. The rule of thumb is that if your brain is working, your body has gone still, most notably your seat. And that is, after all, the cue to halt. A busy brain can shut a horse down. Too much mental chatter scrutinizing what’s happening is not the same thing as feeling it.

See how easy it was to distract you from your energy? I just chattered about brains and your brain couldn’t resist hearing its own name. This what your brain does when you ride. Intellect isn’t energy. It distracts you from feeling. Intellect is the enemy of art.  Brains think the only worthwhile activity is thinking. Refuse to engage.

Energy is something separate from intellect. It’s tuning into your body and listening. It’s cultivating an awareness of your muscles and joints, and even your arthritis and old injuries, and then empowering yourself to go beyond. Riding well requires not just an awareness of your body position but also the ability to communicate eloquence in its movement. It’s the same thing that makes you gasp when you see a horse gallop in slow motion.

Think of your energy level as a dial that you can adjust. If your horse doesn’t have much energy, turns yours up. Do more than breathe, actually smell the air. If you’re on the ground, pick up your step, get happy. If you’re mounted, fill your lungs and feel your shoulders go broad. Let the sun warm your chest.

Now feel where your body resists the movement of your horse. The worst-case example of this would be a rider who braces their legs stiff at the trot, riding like a bundle of two-by-four lumber. No, you don’t ride that way, but can you feel small places where you could be resisting your horse’s forward motion?

Does your lower back release to the movement of your horse’s back? If not, you’re giving a constant cue to slow down. If your thighs are tense that counts as a half halt. Are your hands giving or do they drag like a parking brake? And most common, if your intellect kicks in when you notice that your horse isn’t doing what you want, does your seat stop following your horse entirely?

Yes, it’s natural for us but also not fair to complain that your horse is lazy if you’re unable to maintain your energy consistently… your horse would like you to know.

Step one is to notice when it happens. You can’t change things that you aren’t aware of. To begin, go inside your body and feel the ride. In dressage, we ride the inside of the horse and we do that from deep inside of ourselves. We work to train ourselves not lose our rhythm to external distractions, even those we make up in our own mind. Rhythm is the foundation of all good with horses.

The challenge of improving your riding, if you are a long-term novice who wants to progress, is that there are usually fairly small things working against you that you might not be aware of. This is where having a coach is really helpful but you will need to develop an awareness of your own energy and internal movements.

The horse world is a place of extremes. Extreme training, extreme abuse, and extreme love, swinging like a pendulum. Learning isn’t a linear path but more of a spherical realization.

Finding balance for you and your horse in the middle of this chaos is an extraordinary feat. Riding the Middle is the path from over-cued but under-inspired to relaxed and forward brilliance.

Kick less, dance more.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
Check out our clinic schedule. 2018 is filling quickly; if you would like to host a clinic or attend one, please contact me here.

 

 

Photo (Poem) Challenge: 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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon

Photo Challenge: Pedestrian

Young mare, on the full-moon night you were born, we
recognized one another. It was an awkward kinship of
un-belonging, both of us being more like the other
than either of us were like our mothers. No baby talk 
or embraces, we each stood squarely as equals, never
 
anyone's little girl. You were a coppery redhead, eyes ringed 
with white, a reverse racoon, and your body followed suit 
before the season changed. I took to silver before my time
too. It isn't flattering in my human world but it's not our
way to contritely bow our heads or apologize for our nature.

Last night, not thinking, I brought the geldings in before 
you. With a sharp angle to your brow, you blurted out a snort
as vehement as a sonic boom. The arc of your neck outraged, 
your furious hooves took flight, barely able to reach the ground,
galloping one churning circle after another. Yes, you're right. 

So, I waited at the gate. The geldings don't respect you yet, 
but I do. I'll hold this space for you, as mares have done for
me. Today, my sister, I'll be humbled by your metallic strength 
and raw pride. We stride this earth together, but mares take the
light and prance; not placated, not born to be mere pedestrians.
 

 ….
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
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.)

Pedestrian

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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon

 

Photo Challenge: Windows

Has it been a year? Scanning the pasture 
from the kitchen sink, I don't see your 
swayed back. A sideways pause at my desk 
staring out the north window to check
 
the runs; there's an old donkey in yours. 
Walking my tea to the back porch at dusk, 
the colors aren't flickering in your tail. 
The sun isn't setting softly on your ears.
 
You're still not here. It's a time-worn habit so
I keep checking. But for a sense that you might 
be standing just back of me, your whiskers not
quite tickling my shoulder. I still don't miss you.

 ….
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.)

Windows

Escape the Death Spiral: Asking For a Step.

Let me begin by defining a death spiral. It’s asking a horse to do something he just avoided, by circling around and asking again. It could be as simple as trying to move your horse a letter on an arena rail. Or repeat an attempted transition to another gait. Or do an obstacle from the ground. Or ask a horse to step into a trailer.

He avoided it, so you circle, pushing him right back. But then you give the outside rein (or lead rope) a hard pull for good measure. It’s asking a little louder and a little faster the second time, hoping that you can push him through, but he braces his ribs in response to your sharp heel, planted and pressing, not all that far from his kidneys. His hind end skitters to the side.

Now your brain is running like a rat on a wheel, it’s personal, so you circle him one more time pulling your inside rein to the exact degree that he is pulling to the outside, with your seat planted and both legs kicking up a frenzy, along with a tap of the whip. And did I mention you are pulling on the reins during your kicking fit? You’re just trying to get him straight, but he has so much tension and resistance from your conflicting cues that now that he can’t take a step.

Wait, I forgot the most important part. What makes it a death spiral isn’t the circle or his refusal. It’s you. It’s your nagging request that gets louder and bigger and faster and never stops. It’s the overlapping use of flailing cues that become a rant that accelerates and obliterates your connection with your horse, as if the goal or obstacle is a matter of life or death.

The worst part: You might not have noticed that you cued this pig-fight but you are the one having a runaway. Not your horse. Stop. Consider yourself in detention. Let your horse breathe.

“If the inside of a person is bothered, it’s for sure that the outside of a horse is going to show it.” -Tom Dorrance

First, you didn’t create the circling back idea and you don’t get all the blame. It’s somehow become common knowledge in riding. Forget it. It’s a lousy tactic unless it’s your goal to fry your horse’s brain.

One calm circle-back might do the trick, but just one. More than that and the circle-back, intended as a way of correcting an evasion, becomes a way for the horse to evade the war of cues, now bigger than the original task ever was. It trains some horses to frantically circle when they get confused. It becomes a hysterical calming signal intended for you; he’s forgotten the obstacle and is evading your over-cueing now. You’ve changed the subject from the original question to letting him know that you’re a scary, warlike leader.

Some horses won’t go forward at all, preferring to stand and brace for the punishment to come. It can feel like disobedience, but a horse shutting down is a calming signal. It’s your horse saying, “I’m no threat to you; you don’t have to yell.”

Meanwhile, you’re still in detention. Take stock in this hindsight moment. Can you tell when your ego kicked in? Can you tell when you went from creating safety and security for your horse to starting a war that you had to win? It’s a good question. The line between these extremes is small, especially once you’ve stopped breathing.

The other side of that line is anxiety. Humans and horses both respond to anxiety the exact same way. We speed up. Then that speed makes us speed up some more.

Most of the time we throw our horses at something scary, pummel them with cues, and yell, “Brace yourself, Baby!” To be abundantly clear, that’s why you’re in detention.

Back to the beginning. Horses need a moment to think. It doesn’t mean they’re refusing. Have a little faith. Ask politely.

You may only ask for one thing at a time. Then you wait for an answer. Count to ten, more than once if you need to. It will feel way too slow but that’s because you’re used to cueing runaways. After he answers, reward him. If the answer was not the one you wanted, then re-phrase the question. Not louder. Not quicker. Ask for something simple that you can both agree on. Cut the task into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Ask for one step. Reward him, pause, and ask for another. Go slow and don’t interrupt the conversation. Mounted or on the ground, do you and your horse have this skill? Walk, halt, walk? You won’t need your hands for this. He should listen to your seat if you’re riding and your feet if you’re on the ground. This is fundamental; you should be asking for halts and walk-offs in your warm-up.

Taking one step at a time toward an obstacle, pausing, and rewarding each try, will get the job done in a fraction of the time that jerking and kicking your horse in circles takes. The result will be fewer ulcers and greater partnership.

In dressage, we are constantly returning to the fundamentals and refining them. They are the foundation of good riding and when trained with patience and reward, horses count on the connection and comfort found in these simple conversations. Isn’t this the place to learn the finesse to ask more complicated questions? Isn’t that the confidence you want to take forward to bigger challenges?

It always seems like we ask for too much or too little. We’re too loud and our horse is reactive. We are too confusing and our horse is shut down. It can feel frustrating when you are trying to do right, but sorry, what you think doesn’t matter. It’s just you talking to yourself.

Talk to your horse instead. Use your body to give clear cues. Practice them in calm situations. Celebrate fundamental connection but more than that, commit yourself to being a leader who never gives up that profound connection with her horse in favor of a silly external distraction. Like a letter on an arena rail or a horse trailer.

Lead with peaceful persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.

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

Photo Challenge: Layered

It began with a word so small and unspoken 
that it waited in a bitter slick at the back 
of your tongue, held in check, afraid to trespass 
the air. The rest of the words trickled down the 
back of your throat, left dangling with other threads

of hard yearning and cold disappointment, caught 
suspended between fear and lust for a scream. Soon 
even a whisper is too much. So little air can pass 
that a sigh turns to a gasp, a strangle self-inflicted 
but denied until it bloats the body, stifling light 

and intention. So bound by muzzles of our own making, 
blue tints to our lips and the water in our eyes floods
over the parched skin covering dehydrated bones. We are 
not dead, just feigning life. Suffering will never nourish 
your blood. A feast of tears and angst is a hollow meal.
 
Let your ragged gasp bray out, hack and spit those
stale words to the earth to be cleaned. Suffering is
not a sacrament to be lifted up for worship. Avert your
eyes instead to the blunt beauty of clouds galloping 
shadows over the mesa, warming crevices with new growth.

 

….

 

 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Blog FB Email Author FB Tweet Amazon

Check out our clinic schedule.

(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.)

Layered

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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon

Photo Challenge: Visiting Friends

We shared stories as we drove up the canyon road 
that angled between rocks, colored grape and copper 
and sienna; geometric rocks stacked like massive 
bricks as perpendicular to the earth as castle
walls. Tucked between gnarled trees were ageless

log cabins without porches or windows, creosote  
black and hunkered low on southern exposures,  
open to long meadows edged with pine and aspen 
that quake and sway in the late morning sun. We 
first saw the herd under the shade of a lone fir 

on an open grassy stretch. They'd been watching us 
long before we saw them, a platoon of longear 
sentinels judging our intent. One tall and elegant 
with an aristocratic nose. A stoic gray who asked 
for less than he wanted. A jenny as wide as she was  

tall and just the color of milk in tea. Two rough and 
tumble brothers with a schoolboy sense of humor. Our 
friend's laughter came up on the breeze and we all  
stood shoulder to belly and head to heart, passing  
hours grazing, scratching donkey ears, and admiring 

wise mule eyes. At the water tank, Fiona sipped with 
slow caution and then left the tip of her pink tongue  
dangling just past her whisker lips; she let me and  
it felt cool and delicate to my touch. And intimate  
beyond reason. Driving back, the road was unfamiliar. 

Aspen leaves turned to gold before our eyes as the sky
faded to a pale shade of winter tourquoise. We nibbled 
on cookies made of seeds and apples and grains, and
the particles wedged between our teeth became the 
bittersweet flavor of reluctance and September grass.

 

 ….
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.)