A Retirement Resistant Spirit.

An article of mine was published in a national dressage magazine in 2006. Spirit had been retired two years and he was still pouting (read) and holding a grudge about it.

Once publish the date was set, the magazine asked for a photo. No kidding? Who doesn’t dream of one of their horses on the cover of a magazine?

OK, maybe it was only a small photo at the end of a short article, but did I mention it was a National Dressage Magazine?

I had a herd, but it was a easy choice: this photo of Spirit, retired at 17. It was a small way to acknowledge him that would make a difference to no one but me. My old salon boy got a bath, a new hairdo, and one last vanity photo.  I am sure I was more proud Spirit’s picture being in that magazine than my article.

“Years are only garments, and you either wear them with style all your life, or else you go dowdy to the grave.”  -Dorothy Parker.

Long in the tooth is a phrase we’ve used for centuries to describe age in horses. That is what Spirit is, and to be honest, I’m long in the tooth myself. Watching Spirit these last years has taught me to hate retirement just as much as he does.

One of my clients brought a horse out of retirement last year. Coro was 22 yrs. old then, with some health questions- but they decided on dressage and gave me a call. Truly, as much fun as Coro is having in lessons, it might have been his idea. He’s plainly grateful. He loves the work and has a wild sense of humor. It’s contagious, I chuckle through the lesson, and his rider…maybe a bemused tolerance.

A year later, Coro has grown so much stronger, his breathing has improved and he’s gained muscle. He feels good, sometimes too good. Coro takes pride in showing off to his barn-mates. His rider has lots of experience, confidence, and focus. And, she is working to keep up with him! Lara and Coro have a second chance that no one takes for granted- because it’s never too late for a shoulder-in.

Retirement Resistance is common sense. Horses enjoy healthy work; strength and suppleness can keep a them sound, body and mind, for precious extra years. Plus, there are good, affordable, and nearly miraculous supplements for added help. If you believe standing out in a pasture forever looks like fun, ask someone who is unemployed how much they enjoy all the spare time.

Spirit says (he is even more blunt than me), “Work = Pride. There is plenty of time to quit living once we’re dead. If you are bored with your horse, you have your own dull self to blame. Don’t retire one day early, because retirement isn’t really like a vacation at all.”

A retirement from injury is bad luck- Spirit and I sympathize. Beyond that, the only limitation a mid-life horse has is their rider. It’s the perfect time to take up something new, and put off the inevitable for a few more years. It’s a great time to adopt a mid-life rescue horse (from Ruby Ranch) and begin a whole new life together.

As for Spirit, he still teaches the master class in visualization (read). When he retired 8 years ago, I had  two other geldings. I notice there are 3 mares in my barn now. Spirit out-visualized me again. Getting scratched by soft-eyed mares was certainly never my plan. It’s pretty impressive to get a gelding-lover like me on board- three separate times!

But still, when I take a horse to the arena to ride, Spirit stops and watches me. He paws less than before. We spent years inside of each others mind- it’s a bittersweet habit now.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(April is Spirit Month at the blog, 25 years deserves more than one post. This is #3 of 4.)

Braids and Breeches: The Perfect Ride.

There were lots of great rides in Spirit’s 25 years, but this was the most perfect ride…

Spirit was something in the day- he and I agreed. He was fun to show, always a crisp and spontaneous ride. His confidence improved year by year, and still, every day was a brand new day.

That day, our first ride was a 4th level musical freestyle. We were at a beautiful facility in the pine-covered foothills of Colorado.

Our warm-up was going well when two women waved us over to the rail. They asked if my horse was a Lipizzaner. Spirit was still running that scam. “No, he is an Appaloosa.”  They fought me about it, insisting he was a half-Lipizzaner. “Nope, he is out of Nifty Sally- nothing but Appaloosa.”

You have to love a riding discipline that makes a no-name horse so dynamic and strong.

Disclaimer: My Dad passed away previously, and very recently my Mother had followed.  I was reeling from a sad divorce and still unpacked in my new home.  My boarding barn had sold and we were all scattering at the end of the month.  And my 19-year-old dog had just been euthanized. It was the beginning of a mid-life crisis of gargantuan proportions. A lesser woman would have stayed in bed.

We halted outside the arena and I signaled for my music. As it started, I remembered the last time I had heard it was when the vet came to my house to help my dog. I wanted brave music for his passing. Guess I didn’t think that through…

Take a breath and enter at the canter. X/halt/salute, time stills and… goosebumps.  Spirit felt wonderful. We were bold, the first movement was tempi changes. Spirit was forward and relaxed, the half-pass was smooth as skating on ice. My smile was so big that my lips stuck on the gums above my teeth. I felt beautiful.

Spirit just got better, and time slowed enough for us to share that awareness. We finished with an extended canter down the center-line, snout to nose with the judge and halt/salute.  As I dropped my reins, the tears started, quiet at first. Then the barking cry, you know the one. It involves gasping for air and choking on snot. Not the most elite exit, so it goes.

Spirit wasn’t a perfect horse, and a thinking rider is always a work in progress. But anything is possible- and that day, we had that ride.  I was walking very tall on the way back to the trailer. I wanted to scream I told you so!  Our first year together, I had a few unplanned dismounts from Spirit, with a couple of injuries. People didn’t hesitate to tell me to sell Spirit. Right to my face. More than once.

Now, for the perfect part: I haltered him and pulled his saddle.  As I walked around behind him- I caught a toe, I think.  But I didn’t fall really; it was more like I catapulted myself into the dirt. Launched into the earth, I hit with such velocity that people passing stopped to see if I was okay. When we stumble at 4th level, we have more forward and more collection, especially on the landing.

I couldn’t breathe, there was blood on my white breeches, I was looking up through Spirit’s tail. Did I buck myself off my feet? When I could focus, I rolled my head to look up at Spirit. He looked back at me with curious ears. He didn’t stop chewing.

Spirit was always happy to help humility find a balance with confidence.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way-“ Charles Dickens.

We’re only human. It was a perfect day in a shared life. We didn’t know it was our last competitive ride. No one can tell the future.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(April is Spirit Month at the blog, 25 years deserves more than one post. This is #2 of 4.)

Spotless- My introduction to Dressage.

Please excuse the photo quality- it's from the 80's. I have no excuse at all for my hair.

It was the late 1980’s, and a bunch of us from the barn went to see the Lipizzaners when they came to town. It was a chance to dress up, eat an overpriced meal together, and see some fancy European horses. We complimented one another’s personal hygiene and off we went.

We were western riders mostly, but I’m sure at some point all of us had seen the Miracle of the White Stallions. The miracle in the movie title refers to the rescue of the Lipizzaners during WWII, but to my eyes- the miracle was that horses could dance. Do you remember first time you saw dressage?

Yes, I knew these horses weren’t the real Lipizzaners, and yes, an exhibition ride is not real dressage. In hindsight, I’m sure I could find fault. I don’t care.  Instead I sat mesmerized- riding my front row seat and taking shallow breaths. What did that feel like?  I dreamed of those dancing white horses all night long.

The next day, I bolted out to the barn. Spirit was a young horse then- a leopard appaloosa, with loud spots on his rump that looked like water running over rocks. I would like to say he was terribly athletic, but no, the truth is neither of us were anything special.  He was a bit contrary, just like me, and we were just starting to find our fit.

My head was filled with white stallions as I groomed him. I have one of those extremely visual brains so it replayed the Lipizzaner performance effortlessly.  Spirit probably saw them them as clearly as me.

I’m sure I sat a bit differently in the saddle, I’m sure my energy was high. As we began to work, Spirit’s steps evolved to something else. They were big, soft steps, and when I laughed, they got even bigger. His trot threw me up in the air and caught me, slow and exaggerated. His canter was uphill and the speed of a walk. We had a half-pass without knowing its name. And pirouettes- really? Was I dreaming?

A friend came into the arena and let out a loud cat call. If I was imagining it, so was she!

The movements faded in a few days. Dressage takes a core of training and strength that is much more literal than my imagination. I was left with a memory of being lifted and carried by Spirit in a some magical way. We had a new goal, and no idea where to start.

Note to self: Be careful what you wish for… Spirit seemed to keep a memory of those rides somewhere inside, too.  Maybe my mental images were a bit grandiose, but he went along. And in two months, Spirit lost every spot he had. My loud appaloosa was abruptly solid white.  Maybe Spirit liked the way he felt as a Lipizzaner. Maybe it was a coincidence.

It’s okay if you’re cynical. And it’s okay if you giggle like a horse-crazy girl. Horses have a way of fulfilling our dreams- just the way we dream them. Spirit taught me the power of positive thought and visualization. Is there a bigger gift than possibility?

Spirit will have his 25th birthday this month. He came to me at a very challenging time and reminded me who I was. So many years have passed and now I’m the one who reminds him. We share a life.

Recently I was asked to write a current trainer’s bio. I should name drop the famous trainers who have guided me, but even now, I’m dreaming of white horses. When it comes to giving credit, Spirit is at the top of the list. He is the list.

The Grandfather horse knows that, too.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(April is Spirit Month at the blog, 25 years deserves more than one post.)