Calming Signals: How the Farm Says Thank You.




It’s Thanksgiving time and I should write something special, but I feel kind of ordinary. All I can think about is how dry it is. Last week a fire started on a neighbor’s property. They got it under control quickly, but I stood with my mouth open watching. I was frozen, knowing we were most likely safe but still filled with dread. The drought is extreme, and we have almost no ground cover left. I suppose that’s some sort of backward good luck.

Fire is bad enough, but in Colorado, it often comes with severe wind warnings. Soon the threat will be snow with severe wind warnings. It was time to finish winterizing in the barn. Every year it changes because the herd is a year older. This year the big gelding needs more room for overnight walking. The herd of geriatric llamas, who have always cushed in the open, creating snowdrifts around themselves, have hijacked a stall and run. They did it mid-summer and I won’t argue. And then there’s me. I’ve undervalued my needs in the herd but each year I get older, lugging buckets and bales, I have to get smarter about how I do things. As I look for the best solution for each herd member’s needs, I add in my own. Nature has taught me to value efficiency in the winter. Looking at my two small barns, I decide to flip the barn occupants one for the other. A big decision in our tiny lives.

I started, as all good change happens, but adding a new gate. They are the ultimate luxury in a ground blizzard. I bring the new one in to replace the gate that Edgar Rice Burro can open too easily, and he follows me, I swear, looking at the latch on the new gate while I’m still dragging it. I switch it under the watching eyes of this good donkey, a mini horse, a mare, and a goat who will soon be living somewhere else. They follow my work with quiet eyes, I forget the wrench I need and they wander with me to get it. Watching this mare, her stifle problem is finally visible. I think of the years vets told me she was fine, but I decided to believe her instead. It was a turning point for both of us.

I tug the old gate over to replace a damaged gate in the other barn, congratulating myself for the sleight of hand. It’s the trickle-down we all use; when barn boots wear out and the good boots get demoted, nothing wasted. Being frugal is a matter of pride that the daughters of depression-era parents learn young. The broken gate goes to the metal recycle pile. I’ll use more gas than I get paid, but metal doesn’t go to a landfill. I’m a steward of this farm and this planet. It all matters. Then I switch water tanks so there’ll be a short tub in the place the short horse will spend his nights, and might as well give all the tubs a good scrub while I’m at it. Hours pass doing un-remarkable things.

I get a length of fencing out of the storage area. It’s two feet wide, having been cut in half for another repair a few years ago, but it’s just what I need now to line the inside of that run. The llamas are all past their expiration date and thinner than I’d like, so they get pretty tasty supplements. Arthur, the goat, crawls under the fence panel, butts them away, and steals their grain. The leg that was badly broken when he was a kid has fused and he’s aged into a peg-leg pirate of a goat. Better for all that the llamas have a goat-free zone. I use zip ties to attach fencing, a step up from tying it with twine. Zip ties prove I’m capable of evolving, too.

By now it’s dusk, I’ve tinkered the day away, and it’s time for alfalfa mush and fresh hay bags. Moving horses from turn-out to night-shelter becomes an event, the geldings cantering their new digs, sniffing the difference in the air. Our nervous bay horse is moving with more confidence, but the bite marks on the gray gelding mean something is changing, and with his history of gastric issues, I will keep my eye on him. For now, it’s a celebration.

In the other barn, just a few strides east, the thirty-six-inch mini is standing his ground in front of the mare, who lifts her tail, just because she must. The llamas hum as they eat, the goat butts at the fence separating him from his mislocated dinner. Edgar begins a series of heaving breaths, the precursor to his dinner-bell bray. In a minute, all are settled to hay. A random snort, cocked hips, this daily meal so commonplace and routine that it would be easy to take for granted, but the sky is a peachy-pink color that makes my breath catch in my throat.

There is no romance to caring for horses and each year the expenses increase. Hay prices go up, gates wear out, and fifty-pound feed bags get heavier. Include the emotional cost of watching loved ones grow older. It’s a sober moment tallying all that has been paid for this simple routine day. Have you ever wanted something so badly that the very word comes out of your mouth a full octave lower? And decades later, is it still so dear that you don’t dare utter the sacred word?

It’s after four-thirty when I get back to the house. The sun is low, and temps have dropped below freezing, but the old dog greets me at the gate. Finny is the quintessential elder- bad vision, bad hearing, bad back end. His moldy gray body bounces an inch into the air and comes down stiff-legged. He does this exactly once and then leads me to the house, stopping every step or two, disoriented. Recently, he lost his will to eat, a sure sign that the end is near, but I tried a simple thing; I warmed his dinner. It’s a small favor that’s made a difference for now.

Some would say that animals aren’t grateful for our toil, only beasts of the land. Some think we are on the edge of returning to the language we lost with civilization, as our brains took over our senses. Read their body-voice or calming signals, we understand every movement is a message relating their pain or need or anxiety. But calming signals reveal animals to be more eloquent than our language allows if we listen to their stillness without guise or expectation. There is nothing ordinary in quiet moments, each holding our own autonomy, while our shadows mingle on the ground.

Silent breath, soft eyes, lateral ears denote infinite meaning in the absence of stress. Thanksgiving blossoms in silence. Gratitude is demonstrated by peace.


Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

Want more? Visit to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase books, schedule a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere. Courses and virtual clinics are taught at The Barn School, where I host our infamous Happy Hour. Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

55 thoughts on “Calming Signals: How the Farm Says Thank You.”

  1. Less numbers of “others” living here, less outdoor living arrangements to handle, but believe me, I get you. Getting older – whether you have 2 legs or 4 is not for wimps. It takes strength & determination which obviously you have. The worry about being unable to care for everybody – human or not – becomes more prevalent every day.
    Sorry – didnt mean to get quite that depressing. Actually went back & deleted a couple sentences because it was really going down the tubes!
    Hang in there – I would love to say better days are coming & I sure hope they are.

    • Maggie, I’ll be honest. This year more than most, I worry for my animals and my choices have been much more conservative. Other clinicians are out teaching and I know I’m all they have, so I take better care all the time. Not for wimps, indeed. Thanks Maggie. I love having you with us.

      • I hear you. I’m here on my own now, lost my hubs almost 3 years now. I’m hyper aware that if I’m out of the picture the animal residents will pay. The feed bags are heavier and the lists – especially winterizing chores – get longer but the stamina isn’t there any more. I’ve finally learned that maybe I can’t do the whole job at once but I can do some of it now and maybe finish it tomorrow. It’s a hard truth to swallow.

  2. There’s so much about this I love. “And then there’s me.” Depression-era parents. Zip ties! (Poor Edgar) An old dog. And peace. Thankful for you, Anna!

  3. Wonderful-thanks for the calming read! Loved the picture-I think it must be Edgar standing on the rake? His sharp eyes reminds me so much of our mini who doesn’t miss anything & must explore everything. Our ponies spent Thanksgiving chasing each other around one of the pastures, being very silly. The mini, who must wear a muzzle whenever he is out on pasture, pokes the Fox Trotter with his muzzle & then the Fox Trotter chases the mini which is what they both wanted anyway, & off they go, snorting & blowing, bucking & kicking.

  4. Absolutely the same as me! I hate throwing stuff away that might likely have another possibility of usefulness! Re-use, recycle stuff and do special things for the older less firm to make life a little easier.

    • Much to my eldest step daughter’s dismay, (she’s a real minimalist), I don’t throw much away either. I keep telling her there’s always something needs patching or fixing around here and I might need it. I think perhaps she’s envisioning the clean out when I’m not longer around!

  5. Warming about the zip ties, they aren’t as weather proof as hay ties. The freezing makes them brittle. I used them to zip tie field fence to gates. Probably lasted 2-3 years then had to be replaced.

  6. Calm is a good thing, I appreciate it much more at this time in life than I did in my youth. I felt it when I got out of the car at the barn yesterday. Not only did Bella greet me at the gate, but her two pasture mates demanded their due in scratches as well, it fed my soul. My experience with zip ties has been the same as Victoria’s when I have used them to hold fence patches. Even though we don’t get a lot of below freezing weather here, the sun still makes them brittle after a short time.

  7. It all sounds so familiar. As I get older along with my small herd of 8, I know it’s important to stay strong and healthy because of their dependence on me. Cold windy winters and hot humid summers can be challenging in Kansas as well. Finding ways to work smarter whle adapting to the horses increasing needs tests my capabilities with every changing season. I guess that’s what keeps us going forward and loving every minute of it. (Or at least not wantig it to be any other way.)

  8. Oh Anna! You paint such a clear picture that I worry about your dryness and then I worry about getting enough of the right feed for these wonderful beings in your life. And then I can feel the distress for your herd as they assimilate the change. Is there any reason we continue to call them “calming signals” , and not “communication signals”?

    • We feed hay year round here on the high prairie. I use the term on purpose for the definition, as it was coined by Turid Rugaas. No, not all signals are what we’d call positive, and others have changed the term but I think it suits flight animals. Thanks Anne.

  9. Giving thanks today as I count the ways our barn has gotten closer to a more perfect union: Bo has quit his intolerable ways toward Gully; they now play together and share their hay. In the four years since he has been here, Loopy’s anxiety level has decreased such that he hardly cribs anymore. And Dover’s lead-from-behind persona sets the example for them all as they live their lives together on our tiny farm.

    Postscript: We don’t have formal gate latches. We use bungie cords. This is not on purpose. It just happened!

    Thanks, Anna, for everything!

  10. That shot of the hoof on the rake…put the voice of a friend’s kid into my head who, when he wanted attention from his dad—busy with something else—would ask, “Doing, doing, doing are you?”

    This morning I interrupted Dodger’s amble toward the stall door with, “Wait,” so I could quick-like scoop up the pile directly in his path. He did, with soft eyes and body and watched me doing. I thanked him, and we shared a few moments before the next pile.

    It’s those moments that get me through winter.

  11. I loved this. Unfortunately I’m not well enough to run the barn anymore so others have taken over where I left off. I try not to miss it too much. Or to look daggers when something’s done a little different to how I would do it. But I have my old retired Quarter horse. I think of creative ways to take care of his needs without hurting myself. He follows me around, always watching, with amused approval. I spend a lot of time just leaning on him – physically and metaphorically. He grazes, I go with him, leaning, head resting on his back. He tells me it’s ok, I can lean as much as I like. We both have soft eyes, quiet minds and enjoy the peace and lack of responsibility. I am learning just to be and to be ok with that. That it’s enough – more than enough. He’s helping me. ?

  12. “There is nothing ordinary in quiet moments, each holding our own autonomy, while our shadows mingle on the ground.” Yes, dear Anna, it is all extraordinary when we pay close enough attention. Thank you for the extraordinary gift of your words. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your farm.

  13. Thank you for this Anna and for your many other sentiments. I can relate to the peachy pink frozen sky. It takes my breath away every time. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  14. The more trips around the sun we make, the more “cleverage” we need – for farm chores, and in general.

    I treasure my tiny tractor, converted from a riding mower minus the mowing deck, and a sturdy wheeled dumping cart that can follow behind. And mostly the saved up parts and pieces piled around the farmette come in very handy – eventually.

    Occasionally there is assistance from the residents. While mucking – if I notice Val amble by and nudge my shoulder in time, I can position the wheelbarrow just so and voila – one less pile to fork up. He is never short on reminders to pay attention, that one.

    And here in the land of sand and sun, there are garden fences and chicken coops built with the heavy duty black UV resistant zip ties that last for years.

    Thanks for being a touchstone Anna, especially in this “unprecedented’ year of 2020. ❤️

  15. Reading this post has been meditation… soothing, like chanting a mantra. Kept reading it over and over until I caught myself and stopped to wonder why… the key to it I think is ‘steward’, protecting the herd and the earth… Those hooves and ? are counting on my hands… endowed with opposable thumbs…to muck and lug and I cannot afford to fall ill so I doggedly stick to masks, distancing, scrubbed hands and disinfecting everything I touch for the safety of others… despite feeling quite singular for doing so. Sometimes the nonchalance scares me… and 2020 has been quite a revelation in nonchalance.
    Take care all ye sisters of the Hoof… ( well there seems to be more gals than guys here…)


Leave a Comment