Does Covid-19 impact my herd? The email asked, “I wonder if you’ve noticed the quieter world in your horses? Seismologists have been saying for a couple weeks the earth is vibrating less as human activity has been reduced. Air pollution is down in major cities, the water is clear in the Venice canals and there are fewer cars blowing past the barn at 20 mph above the speed limit. I have a feeling the horses are aware of this and may be expressing it in ways too subtle for me to notice.”
The writer is kindly showing me respect because I specialize in reading small nuances of communication in horses. I’m considering adding it to my job description: Equine Seismologist. I’m good at reading calming signals, but do you want to know my trick? As a professional doing public demonstrations with animals that I don’t know, I greet the humans and a hush falls. People go still. I breathe. Horses think I’m a genius and are so relieved for the moment of quiet from the rattle and hum of humans, that they get positively chatty. Horses also notice I stand about six feet away from them. It’s my superpower. I practice physical distancing myself from horses in front of groups of people who pay good money to watch me physical distancing from horses. Edgar Rice Burro takes credit for teaching me that. Horses actually taught me but Edgar isn’t shy about taking credit. He says that four million years ago when horses and donkeys were evolving, donkeys got the brains. Horses got the heart.
Our farm lockdown started when I got sick after a flight two months ago. It was early spring, or as we on the high Colorado prairie like to call it, still winter. There are no subtleties to ground blizzards blowing so hard that there’s more snow on the inside of the run-in shelters than out. Llamas get buried in snowdrifts and the mini horse takes cover between two big horses. Think bomb cyclone marching band. The next day the temps might rise sixty degrees and the herd collapses on the bare ground between the drifts. Everybody down flat, like unfolded laundry everywhere you look. Storms are exhausting, Edgar will tell you. Then he notices, inches below the ground, grasses began to tiny-quiver. The horses catch on a few days later, Edgar says it’s that brain thing. Once the grass even pretends to grow, horses go nuts. Edgar says spring is always bigger news than a pandemic. He doesn’t wish anyone sickness, but come on. Spring grass.
I’d seen the videos of goats taking over a Welsh town, but Arthur, our goat, has a bad leg and doesn’t like to travel. Arthur used to have a problem with personal space. He would say it was my problem but placing blame is futile. Arthur is a tall Nubian goat and leading him on a rope usually ended with him eating spring grass next to my body. I gave up the rope, but it was never about freedom with Arthur. Now he walks beside me like a golden retriever in obedience class. It’s alarming. Spring will always be the head-butting season but this year, he just bucks and air-kicks with wild abandon, on the spot, so close that his pointy hooves impale my boney feet, and I am left trying to explain physical distancing to a goat.
Edgar says the goat is hopeless, as Arthur chews on his tail. Goats are like gravity. You have to bear them.
Whereas Edgar does have thoughts about physical distancing. Only one really, and edited for political correctness and profanity, Edgar says, high time, humans! Physical distancing is simply good manners. Horses are more subtle. They look away or shut down and pout about it. Calming signals to tell us we are being loud. Edgar thinks subtlety is lost on humans and horses agree. But if humans can learn physical distancing for a pandemic, maybe it could trickle down to the barn? The vet came this week with her assistant and they were more space-conscious than usual. Edgar will tell you that was the problem all along.
If Edgar could hack into my bank account, he’d start an online business selling Quaaludes as “Magic Horse Training Pills for Humans.” Edgar suggests it to me all the time. “Anna, wouldn’t it be easier to drug them than try to get them to behave?” Of course, he’s right again.
How is my herd experiencing this lockdown that the environment is loving so much? It reminds them of when I had my foot surgery and was especially lame. It’s nice when things go slow. Edgar doesn’t want anyone to lose their job. Well, that’s not true. He’d be happy if I lost mine and was home more. My herd does not suffer from hero worship; they think being the janitor is my real job. Edgar is right again. It isn’t like I’m that guy to brings the hay. That guy is a genius.
How am I doing, not that you asked? I’m canceling clinics, a dozen so far. I’ve been “promoted” to a desk job, giving riding lessons and clinics online. But physical distancing is not the same as emotional distancing and we must stay safe. So, I evolve and it’s online lessons and courses. I’m surprised to say it’s working better than I could ever imagine. Horses don’t mind the distance; they acknowledge me on the cell phone. And with cheap earbuds, I can get right inside the human’s head. Scary thought, isn’t it?
Will technology be the new normal? All I know is that it will take more than a pandemic to get us to quit horses. Or donkeys.
I go out for the night walkthrough a bit early in these warmer months. The sun sets a rainbow over the pond and I stand where Edgar likes, physically distanced from his head, but socially intimate. I’m back by his rump so I can rub that hairless triangle of skin under the very top of his tail; rubbing so light and slow that his ears droop. He had to teach me that, too. I tell him I’m worried about the future. Edgar looks at me like I’m an old hen pecking at her own feathers, but he does like people who are just a little depressed. Edgar says, in his usual exhale sort of way, Right here, Little-Ears. He uses my pet name and gives me the cue to breathe. And then again, deeper. He really is the brains on the place.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.