The Thing About Horses and Healing: a Memoir.

VinniePasture1We see them from the road and use phones to take photos. We keep a legal distance but most of us have seen neglected horses and reported them to authorities… or been haunted, wishing we had.

The photos are long distance and slightly out of focus, just like this one. It’s easy to see ribs showing and they might be visually lame to the eye. You know the horse is in trouble.

So what’s with the pudgy bay in a fly mask? Consider it his photo from the Witness Protection Program.

If you don’t recognize him, this is Vinnie, from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, here for evaluation. I like this photo of him, blurriness and all, grazing with a fly mask with one ear torn off. It’s hard to see but there’s a bird perched on those pointy withers of his. Oh, and it’s hard to see his ribs now, too. This is his “after” picture; I first wrote about Vinnie (story here) and readers have asked for an update.

Vinnie’s swell. He is more socially interactive now. It took over a week, but he started lying down in the sun eventually. We weren’t sure he could. He’s up to date with vaccines and he’s received a series of Pentosan injections. He stands quietly while I give them; they’ve been nothing short of a miracle for Vinnie. Now he gallops for fun; he comes at a run when I call him in. His stride is wildly long and joyous.

When he arrived it was just the opposite. And we still doubt he will be ride-able with an old injury that means his hind end looks like an egg beater from time to time. But his heart is big and full, he loves being scratched, and it looks like he is headed to foster later this month and hopefully a forever home soon. Yay, Vinnie.

It’s good news, isn’t it? We love these stories and part of it is selfish. Vinnie heals us all a little bit when we hear about him. It’s the crazy thing about horses…

I’ve had a couple of occasions when it was my job to ask people for money for horse advocacy and rescue. I don’t play fair; I ask the tough question first:

“How many of you have been rescued by a horse?”

Then I watch. Invariably most hands quickly go up, with easy smiles and some laughter. Some of us were rescued from being cosmetic zombies, tech junkies, or victims of fashion. We’re saved from boredom and complacency. We use horses as an excuse to be outside in the sun instead of cleaning the house. Each of us has a way of describing that irresistible smell that’s part sweat, part fly spray, and part dream-come-true.

But as I look around the group, some jaws are set and their eyes seem distant, hidden under furrowed brows. They straighten their shoulders a bit but there is no smile. They raise their hands resolutely and hold them high and still–as if testifying, as if standing to be counted. For them, rescue is a life-and-death personal issue. I recognize these committed hands because I raise mine the exact same way. In that moment we lose our humor because the depth of gratitude we feel toward horses is immense. We literally owe our presence in the world to the memory of some old horse.

About then my voice seizes up. I don’t want this to be about me because there are so many others with the same experience. I’m common in this group. So I continue to ask for money and notice quite a few of us have something in our eye. We act like its dust because we’ve developed some pride, but we’re fooling no one.

And so, when we see a photo of Vinnie like this, we see ourselves, even as we celebrate him. That’s how rescue works–it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter who does it first, horse or human, but it starts in a small, seemingly insignificant way and eventually radiates out in all directions. In the beginning, it’s rough. Horses reflect our fear and hurt, but if we ride it out, smelling mane and trying to forge a language with a horse, until in the end, we reflect their confidence. We become good lead mares in our own lives.

Riding is a school of humility and selflessness, its practice if it is done well, tends to make better Human Beings –Nuno Oliveira

We started young. Lots of us came to positive horsemanship because of rough handling as children. We learned firsthand that violent dominance would never build trust, and lots of us escaped to the barn. Horses were the safe haven we found there. They spoke the language we hoped to hear in our homes.

There’s a barn joke that horses are cheaper than therapy. I have done the research and it isn’t actually true. But the more time we spend with horses, the more we heal. As we move forward with our horses, it gets easier to let go of fear in our human lives and forgive ourselves of our pasts. For some of us, being with a horse is our first taste of honesty. It works like church because even the angriest atheist can see the divinity in a horse. They’re undeniable miracles and some of it rubs off on us. Like salvation.

The thing about horses rescuing us is that it works impersonally, just like gravity, healing each of us whether we think we need it or not. We just say yes and whether we need a healing from helmet hair or total abandonment in the world, horses will carry us through it. When the day comes that we realize the debt we owe to horses, we work to do better for them. We learn to ride more kindly and communicate more clearly. We discover we have compassion to spare, so we give back by helping horses.

For some of us, horses are just a “hobby”, an overwhelming passion that drives our lifestyle, finances, and everyday choices and activities. It’s like having a combination gambling addiction and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, that we proudly brag about, while spending every spare moment, year after year, in the company of horses.

And then for a lot of us, it’s something bigger than that.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Stable Relation: I’ve written a memoir about the farm I grew up on, the farm I have now, and the horse that carried me in between. I didn’t write it because I think I am so very unique or important; indeed my experience is more common than it should be. I wrote it for all of us who share the experience of being healed by the animals in our lives. Stable Relation is available now on Amazon (book link here) and soon everywhere else, in paperback and eBook. With a big gratitude-scratch to my Grandfather Horse, who gave me my voice.

 

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: (Un)Broken

WMVinnieUnbroken

A Call to Arms. (or how to get on the wrong side of a horseperson.)

WMLightYou’ve had this happen. Someone finds out you have a horse and they ask, “Do you know my sister’s friend, Diane. She has a horse.” Like there are eleven of us in the state.

People who own horses are a wide and diverse group. We divide ourselves by breed and riding discipline. Some of us crave the comradery of competition and some of us “only trail ride.” And we have strong opinions about it, not that it matters.

Some of us are big talkers and small doers. Some of us just work with rescues. We started with horses when we were so young that we can’t remember a time we weren’t horse-crazy girls. Some of us set ourselves free at 45 or 50 with a mid-life first horse.

Some of us have good hands and some of us just think we do. Some of us know everything and some of us hope to be taking lessons forever. Some of us fight with horses because we think it’s the only way. Some of us give up riding because our horses are so unresponsive to us.

I know it’s crazy but in the world of people who own horses, not everyone cares about horses all that much. You can tell by their words and actions. There are numbers of professional trainers don’t even particularly like horses, much less respect them.

And some of us don’t tell the truth as a matter of habit.

Do you know the difference between people who own horses and a horseperson? The thing to notice immediately about that moniker is the word horse comes first, and not by random coincidence.

Horsepeople are a sub-species of horses, not humans. At some point, they changed teams and being human became less important. It’s a disease, a mental affliction that infects the entire body, from our fixated brains to our manure-coated boots. The pre-teen years are the worst, we can’t sleep and spend a lot of time cantering and trotting around the house.

A few horse-crazy girls grow into horsepeople and become insufferable. Like micro-managing drug addicts, we obsess about hoof angle or saddle fit. We go on about bits and supplements and what our horses do in turnout. My Dude Rancher, who tires of horse conversation after an hour or so, will tell you we are only fit company for other horsepeople. He’s right.

Some of our rides are euphoric, but many are just fundamental communication. Trying to understand and asking the same in return. We have big dreams and low expectations, happy for every good stride. Nothing is more important than the health and soundness of our equine partner.

We treat our elders with respect. The old campaigners that taught us how to ride, the kind boss mare that gave birth to champions, the sweet gelding who takes care of kids: It isn’t that we treat them like family members. They are family members.

We adjust our lives to suit our horses and make each of our life decisions with them a priority. People who are blessed with horses and money make it look easy. It’s a bit trickier without a trust fund, but we find a way. We change careers, we give up vacations. We do without less important things and don’t whine about it. After all, they are less important things.

Because we are just like our horses, we tend to be a physically tough bunch, not afraid of work or dirt or poop. But on the inside, we belong to the herd. We’re mush, sweetness, and a weathered hand on a patch of hair. We protect our horse-crazy hearts by being tough, and the mushier we are on the inside, the more defensive of the horse on the outside.

We always save our best for horses.

At the end of the day, hands crack, feet ache, and there is that honest exhaustion that comes from work well done. We slump on the sofa with a couple of dogs and cats and that old movie comes on the TV. We’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s one from the genre labeled Horse-Crazy Girl Movies, like Black Beauty or The Man from Snowy River or Seabiscuit. We hunker down and when the scenes come where the horses gallop in slow motion, for the hundredth time, we tear up. We will never stop any of it. Horses are in our blood. We put them in front of our own needs.

How to get on the bad side of a horsewoman? Easy question, be cruel to any animal, but especially a horse. Acting from a place of personal convenience over animal welfare will not to be tolerated, any more than parents who put their desires above their children’s needs.

But even horsepeople know we can’t save them all. Of course we still try. We must try.

A week ago, a good dog lead the way to the discovery of 14 horses dead on the ground and another 10 living among the remains close by in Black Forest. The woman who followed her dog into the barn called the sheriff and the press. Smart.

I am not going to rehash the gory details one more time. You don’t have to be a horseperson to recognize this level of brutal neglect. There was so much wrong, fundamentally wrong, before lye was dumped on carcasses and covered by tarps. It started so much smaller than that.

And sadly, too many horsepeople who live in this county have struggled with the sheriff’s office in an effort to get our weak animal welfare laws enforced. Horse rescues don’t fare much better than individuals.

Here is the good news: this is one time when complaining helps. Horsepeople stood up for what was left of this herd, all over the world. We loudly signed petitions; thousands of us called and emailed county officials. I am so proud. Press from the sheriff’s department defensively defend their actions but at the same time it’s obvious that given the chance, this incident would have been swept under the rug like so many others.

We didn’t let them. We came out of our home barns and spoke up in such huge numbers that things changed. The surviving horses got help. It was a small victory in the big picture but with our foot in the door, it is also no time to back off. Horsepeople need to push ahead with stronger animal welfare laws and enforcement. We can’t stop here.

My point is not rant about who loves horses the most. We are a pretty judgmental group and I don’t want to pour gasoline on that fire. What I am hoping is that in the shadow of this horrific incident more people who own horses will cross the line and become horsepeople. In your heart, you know where you stand. Are you holding back? Is there more you can give?

If you are a horseperson, now is the time to put the muck fork down and speak up.

Maybe the biggest fact a horseperson accepts is that no matter how great the commitment we have, no matter how much time and money and sweat we happily offer our own horses and horses out in the world, we will always be asked to give more. And then, one more time, we will have to dig deep from the infinite well of passion and purpose horses have given us, and find a way to do even more -graciously and generously. We learned that from horses, too.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

No Small Feat. (Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue.)

WMArchie boysMeet Archie.

He got introduced by that name, but I prefer being a bit more formal with him, as a sign of respect. Archibald feels more suitable.

Here he is passing time with a couple of boys in my herd, but I distracted him with a compliment and he’s on his way over for a scratch.

This is no small feat. I have a ton of respect for this horse. It’s horses like Archie that embody the finest traits we love about equines.

I’m fostering him here for Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. Archibald had the kind of start that isn’t unusual for a rescue horse. Neglect. There are a long list of ugly details about his herd, he was living in a junkyard with little hay and no water. The owners lived 30 miles away. Imagine the worst, and whatever your mind is picturing, it isn’t bad enough. Archie is one year old.

Humans have to show some tiny bit of respect to horses that weigh five times what they do, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else. But not so much with this breed. Shorter horses feel the brunt of manhandling more. Remember Brezzy?

This small herd had no human interaction, and what they did have, was brutal. Some idiots think it’s easier to intimidate than to train. Rope him, slam him against a fence panel, and if that doesn’t work, his feet don’t get trimmed. His feet didn’t but its hard to tell if he was especially difficult, being a young stud and all. The rest of the herd had long hooves, too.

You had me at no water.

Of course, there was no way to halter him at first. To say he was shy is an understatement, his fear was so violent that opening a stall gate would cue him to throw his body into a fence to get away. His behavior was more like a mustang’s than a domestic breed. Pat and the others at Ruby Ranch spent hours working on their knees (so they would not be taller) to win his trust. Hours into weeks, using time to halter without violence. Eventually, with patience and good horsemanship, trust returned. Kudos to Ruby Ranch for a job well done!

This is what I respect the most, this is what makes my heart swell with awe. Archibald has such resilience, such a strong sense of self that he sees past his victim’s memories. He knows a better future is possible. No small feat again.

WMArchiemuckSo, he follows me while I muck and he comes when I call. His heart is open and welcoming. Are you that forgiving? Who knows why horses, especially rescues, are willing to reach out and volunteer with humans, but they do. Is there a more glorious creature than a horse?

Think of Archie as a breed, just like Percherons and Arabians, requiring no more or less.Talented but short. I refuse to use their common name, there is really nothing mini about him at all. (Okay, maybe his bill for hay.)

Make no mistake, Archie isn’t a toy for a child, just ask my herd who he re-arranges at will. He is bold and smart. Archibald is curious, and courageous, and ready to partner in work with a good human. Archie is available for adoption.

What is a non-rideable horse good for? Everything. They excel at  therapy and service work, they are brave agility horses. Archibald can pull a cart, once he has matured. Trail drive anyone? Ever driven an obstacle course? It’s wild fun. And naturally, he can do dressage. There are driven dressage tests and more than that, he could be trained up the levels. You know, in-hand work is the classical approach to training.  Are your horsemanship skills up to training a horse of this stature? This is a great way to gain those skills, if you see him in the full light of his potential.

Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue are my heroes. I am wildly in love with the whole herd there, humans and horses alike. It’s a privilege to work with them. Sometimes when ponies come in to Ruby Ranch, I get to foster them here. That way I can train them, kind of on the sly. A foster is caring (and paying) for the horse, but it’s a tax-deductible donation to Ruby Ranch at year-end. Everyone gains, especially the horse. If adopting a horse isn’t right for you, could you find room to foster?

Right now, Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, along with a couple of other local rescue groups, are helping a group of this breed of very talented but short horses. They are traveling down from North Dakota and looking for forever homes, and careers, here in Colorado. Check out the RRHR website for more information.

Bold, smart, and very trainable, there is really nothing small about Archibald and his breed at all. It’s just our attitude, our understanding that’s under-sized. Maybe you have room in your barn for a horse of this stature? The gift of a good life is No Small Feat.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.