For the Fragility of a Horse…

“When we see horses galloping with ears sharp, tails flagged, and hooves churning up the soil, they are the epitome of strength and sensitivity, intelligence and timeless beauty. Even the most cynical people pause and stand a bit taller, just existing in the same world with horses.”

Like we any of us need to see galloping horses. They can take our breath away just by chewing hay with half-closed eyes. It doesn’t take much when you’re as besotted as we are. Life pushes and pulls in different directions, tugging away time and resources and common sense, and yet we persist. Having horses isn’t easy, but we aren’t the sort to give our hearts lightly.

I’m convinced that part of the magic is a horse’s sheer size. A thousand pounds, give or take a few hundred, makes an impression. What other animals are that massive and somewhat domesticated? We let the earth go and they carry us, held by nothing more than energy and motion. Do you ever think about how amazing that is? Humans have been riding for a few centuries but every time a leg moves across a horse’s spine, it’s a journey to an altered reality. Sitting astride a horse, feeling each step ripple through your body as you allow the release, surrendering control to the rhythm and sway of a horse’s gait.

We had a plan with our horses. Some of us had a dream of flying over jumps or dancing light steps to silent, shared music. Some wanted to travel through time wandering down a nature trail -as if that didn’t require just as much skill. It was ambition, but the very best kind. We wanted to build a relationship that went beyond superficial, more than looking out the window or sharing breath over a fence. We wanted a literal stinky, hairy, sweaty connection, and we were willing to risk what we had for the chance.

Horses don’t have plans. Horses don’t dream or make promises. It was never their goal to be our horse. They live in the moment, and while our thoughts might gallop away like a horse on the track, horses don’t share that mental luxury.

That’s okay, as much as we love horses, overthinking every detail, wallowing with indecision, and cogitating between options, we avoid thinking about the thing we wish we didn’t know, just how fragile horses are.

“How many horses do you have to own before you have one to ride?”

We might flash a wry smile, but we all know it’s no joke. Having a horse isn’t the guarantee of a ride. Not all horses are born sound in body and mind. It isn’t just the elders who have retired, some are younger with injuries or disabilities. Sometimes vet care can put the horse right eventually, and some infirmities are never able to be found by vets. You know in your heart the horse is plainly not okay. You know what “normal” looks like and your horse isn’t. And not in a clever way, but in a sad, cannot-do-this sort of way.

There is much we don’t know about horses. It’s a challenge to diagnose horses with conditions like cancer, pinched nerves, mental disorders, or structural defects, to name a few. Veterinary medicine improves all the time, but horses still can’t talk.

Then there is what we do know about horses. They are prone to lameness in an infinite number of places. They have small hooves for such a large body. Their digestive system is easily upset, resulting in ulcers or colic. It seems metabolic disorders are more and more common. Horses are stoic by nature, knowing that showing weakness would alter their position in the herd as well as being a message to predators, so they hide their pain and limitations from us as well. Finally, even if the riding dream unfolds well, we face the negotiation of age. If we wait to start them until they are fully grown and listen to them as their joints wear with age, their riding years will be fewer than their living years. We aren’t wealthy, yet we’ve spared no expense in the search to heal our horses, hiring specialists in various practices, often finding the injury caused by others before us. We’d pay anything to slow the pace of time.

“Why don’t you ride them?”

It’s the question we hate the most, not because the answer is elusive, but because repeating the reason again opens the wound in us, the pain we share with that horse. The person who asks this question doesn’t know horses. They don’t know that the potential seen in young horses is a gamble against so many ordinary experiences and random luck. That just because a horse grazes in a pasture, there is no promise more than watching.

Perhaps our initial dream is a dark cloud now, as we use kind training methods to administer daily meds or do quiet groundwork, or weirdest to the unknowing eye, take that horse for walks. You may not be galloping together, but he waits for the hay you’ve soaked for him, he offers his eye for the drops required daily or lifts his hoof, as you hurry to pick it out, knowing the shift in weight hurts him. We are humbled to find trust in the most vulnerable times. It’s far beyond a superficial bond, but not what we’d hoped for, except perhaps for the joyful success we feel at the sound of hay being chewed and a half-closed eye.

Here’s to all the horses who might have wanted to join us in our dreams but just couldn’t, and the people who keep them close as kin.

Here’s to the lives we share with horses who are unsound in some diagnosed way, or in some way beyond diagnosing. It isn’t the journey we would have chosen, but it’s where we are. Here’s to a relationship of intimacy beyond riding to a fragile negotiation of well-being. Here’s to the commitment of sharing our lives, no matter what comes. Of giving up even our dreams, to live in the moment with a creature so magical that we will never let go. It was always about them. With that awareness, the horse’s fragility becomes our strength.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

67 thoughts on “For the Fragility of a Horse…”

  1. The past week in my herd could be a poster child for this essay. Figuring out how to get one horse with an abscess to accept bute powder in her food feels like a big victory despite the fact that the same hoof shows a bone rotation that will have to be addressed. And then the elder horse that’s keeping her company starts colicking just as the other one finally eats her bute-food. Meanwhile, two other horses await the results of bloodwork that will likely show them to be insulin resistant, leading to many other complex problems for me to solve. And I don’t regret a minute of it – except the minutes that any of my horses spend suffering. Caring for these amazing creatures has become my life’s purpose, and I have become a better person as a result.

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  2. “Here’s to all the horses who might have wanted to join us in our dreams but just couldn’t,”

    Just, this.

    I keep thanking you for making my eyes leak again

    thats probably as weird as all the other things we do

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    • Exactly what I was thinking! I’m one of the weird ones who take their horse for handwalks. I love it! He is my pride and joy! I love my family, but would always rather be at the barn or in the forest with him. I DID have some hopes for him when he first came in my life, but he has sent me on a learning journey that I never could have expected at the time, and would not give up now. Thanks again Anna for coming up with the words to express the thoughts we didn’t even realize we were having. 🙂

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      • Henny,
        I am with you on this one. Hand-walking is so gentle, cheering, relaxing, and horses and humans enjoy this ‘herd activity’.
        We just returned from doing the same, today. Then showers for the horses, and some baked apple. They both fell asleep, dozing contentedly in their (open) stalls, staying with us, enjoying the conversation over coffee and chocolate biscuits (humans only). Sleepy eyes, lips hanging down, relaxed sighs, and all of us relaxing in the barn under cool fans.

        You can’t beat a day like this and I give thanks for the day and our horses.

        Blessings to you,

        Nuala Galbari

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  3. Feel like you read my mind Anna. 😀

    Just came in from giving Val a cool rinse in the wash rack to start the day – it’s roasting here. Followed by an emergency stall fan replacement – sweating buckets, covered with that weird sticky barn dust, balancing on a rickety ladder to get the angle right. How many rides do we have ahead? No guarantee – but there is much solace to be found in the day-to-day routine and companionship…

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  4. “Dancing light steps to silent shared music…” oh yes that is it exactly. The dream of my heart fulfilled or just waiting in the wings, does not matter one whit to my soul, for it is real .
    You, Anna, have written this for those of us you know and those waiting to find you, and they will. Might this essay be the inspiration for a book?

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  5. Three horses in my fields, one who is at the very end of his riding years but perks up and is game for us to put a child on his back for a pony ride. Two others who had the misfortune to be born at the same time I developed my own health issues so in their middle years have never had anyone on their backs. I could never find anyone else I trusted to train them. They have basic groundwork manners, the gelding follows me as faithfully as my Golden Retrievers, in fact serves as the support to my non-cane hand and walks so very carefully and slowly to help me as I toddle around the paddock.

    I haven’t tried to throw a leg over our old guy in about 6 years, solely because if I don’t prove I can’t any longer, in my head I can.

    I get the “Why don’t you ride?” or even more offensive, “Why don’t you sell them?” every so often.

    My response is usually something along the line of “I am a horsewoman.” Said with a wistful smile.

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  6. So true and so beautiful. I had years of good rides (by my and Keil Bay’s estimation) with him and the kind of ride you speak of, where you throw your leg over the saddle and enter another reality. That kind of riding, which doesn’t have to be Olympic level or even win a blue ribbon in the local schooling show, or even be in any kind of competition at all, is what I think makes the magic that lasts long after the saddle is dusty and even the halter barely gets used. Every time I interact with him, all that came before we stopped riding is still there, and just standing with him while he eats his feed tub or looking into his eye is a sum of what we’ve done together. I am also aware that I wouldn’t have had to ride him to get this. It’s being with the horse the way you teach that does it, whether astride or beside. His vet comes each month, both she and her assistant adore him, and he likes them a lot. Every visit there’s a moment when I say something to him or just reach out my hand to him and he puts his muzzle to it and looks at me, and she stops and says “I just love how you two communicate with one another.” I know how lucky I am to have that kind of vet who sees and appreciates the simple but potent moments. But even luckier to have this horse who has given me so many moments of joy. He’s the king! And yet there is that thing – that we have the ability to choose how we perceive and interact and behave – that makes it true that it isn’t as much about the horse, but about us and what we bring to the moment, that creates the magic. Side note: I’m sick today with a yucky cold/flu thing that isn’t Covid but kind of knocking us flat here – so forgive the possibly fevered rambling!

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      • Reading back, I think I would change out the word “creates” in the next to last line of my comment to “allows.” 🙂

        They have the magic. We have to allow it to bloom between us and them.

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  7. Tears! This one really got to me today – the last 4 lines say it all. Blessed to have these magical creatures in our lives. Thank you for these wonderful words Anna.

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  8. Dang it! Strong enough now that this brings a damp sting to my eyes. Horse Cupid’s arrow hit its mark. I know you know.

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  9. My long retired 28 year OTTB had some weird seizure on Sunday and blood work showed nothing extremely wrong, except his kidney is old and slow! Then my 17 year old lovely Percheron draft colic’d on Monday which left us struggling hard for 3 days. Too think I almost lost 2 in 24 hours! They were grazing togeather last night and looked like a picture of grace and beauty, but then came in the barn for soaked hay and blowing fans to keep them cool so they dont over heat, and wet down grain with alittle bran mash. No Regrets, and I would do it again in a blink of my eye.

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  10. Even though I’ve been retired now for over four years, I still cheer on Fridays, because it’s Anna Blake Day! Your essays have a way of mixing glad-and-sad/sad-and-glad, always getting to the heart of us.

    And all y’all up there in the comments section are truly inspirational. In one way or another, I share each of your sentiments.

    But Shelley’s comment really got me. This, in particular: “I haven’t tried to throw a leg over our old guy in about 6 years, solely because if I don’t prove I can’t any longer, in my head I can.” Besides, I’m very okay with the memory of that last ride and that he is still here with me beautiful and strong as ever.

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  11. I have your books. I love all the ways that you see horses and those of us who live with and love them. But THIS one, about their fragility, I just had to communicate with you. On this article you just opened the door to my heart, walked in, sat down and had a cup of tea. OMG, we truly are sisters. Thank you for your words and feelings.

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  12. Once again a timely piece Anna. Thank you! I find solace in the fact that my place will eventually be a haven filled with retired horses and a gnarly old horsewoman who finds joy in watching them breathe and eat. … One day.
    For now, I am still dreaming of all the fun I might have with the younger generation while those who have already arrived in retirement can rest assured that I will provide them with ample entertainment.
    It is definitely another exercise in patience when a horse has a career-ending injury or disease at 9 years of age and looks like a Rockstar until it moves. It takes time to get over that for sure accepting that the only way to admire your friend will be from the ground. Her moves may have been elegant and legendary and she was a “Queen on the scene” but now she is the matriarch over the slowly growing herd of pensioners. Not such a bad job actually.

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  13. Thank you, Anna. You are the Dalai Lama of Horses.

    Riding is just about off the plan now. Now, there’s really no plan, except to go out, and if the weather is fine,
    halter and the four of us go out together, with our bottled water strapped across our shoulders, fly swatters,
    sun hats, phone, and four sensibilities, four hearts, enjoying hand-walking, with stops for a little grazing.
    Ears forward, relaxed bodies, exhales, and other horses all around in views. A treat for their senses and ours.
    No expectations, just friendship and love.
    Nuala

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  14. such a good post. I have a senior horse with arthritis and her son–who theoretically is prime age for riding but has foundered. So, two non rideable dependents! Someone recently said–those are your pets, right? and that sums it up. Not going to ride them but have too much fun just having them. Never letting go.

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  15. Grateful to you Anna, and the people who read your work, for creating a place/space for me to feel “in like company.” It means everything.

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  16. Felt profoundly, loved deeply, spoken eloquently. And horses everywhere quietly, but resoundingly cheer. Brilliant, Anna. I see you’ve met my broken mustang. He sends his love. From across the pen. <3

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  17. Thank you for this Anna. In so many ways, you have helped me feel less alone in this crazy world. There are times, when I have overworked or otherwise gotten stressed, that my mind goes to a not so good place. Then floods in disappointment, self pity, anger. My history with horses, since I was very little, has been a struggle/challenge/source of personal pain within the family for various reasons. But I still loved them and fought for my little self. In the end, my horses are my joy and love, and being around them, getting to know them, learning how to work with them in a better way and seeing the small progress as mind blowing, loving them and caring deeply for their well being, learning what their well being consists of, and so forth, are in the end, what I truly do want. I LOVE to ride. The feeling of sitting on horse whether bareback, English talk, western tack, is in my subconscious as something that transcends mortal life. The clip clop of hooves, the swaying of the back, the nodding of the neck, the smell, the sideways ears, the pricked ears, all of it. But, it has not been in the cards to ride for the past 15 years. And that’s life. I am blessed to have horses in my life, at my home. And I know that. Some days, I am sad. We have to be OK with that. We are allowed to have feelings. But we also have the ability to, other days, feel happy and find what’s good. It’s all part of being alive.

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    • What a heartfelt comment, Kim. Thank you. When I look back to the time that I had two spectacular riding horses, I’m not sure I realized how fortunate I was… and maybe I pay for that now. If so, I’m happy to do it. It’s all part of being alive, just as you say.

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  18. Saying thank you just doesn’t seem quite enough for such a thoughtful and heartfelt essay, Anna. I really do think both of my horses would have liked to join me in my dreams, if they could have, mentally and physically.

    But we have gone on to create and are living other very fine dreams together, here at my place. Every day of peaceful grazing and conversation with them is sooo precious.

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  19. I have two retired horses, one retired prematurely due to lameness issues. This made me bawl like a baby. In a good way.

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  20. Thank-you Anna. The journey with horses is always a privilege, wherever it takes us. Perhaps especially when it takes us to places we have not anticipated and yet when we’re true to that journey we find ourselves growing in compassion and blessed in so many ways.

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  21. That last sentence was just such a quiet truth to me, as your words are. I somehow do feel stronger in their presence, perhaps partly because I know in my heart the fragility of which you speak, and know, in my heart, that somehow I have to protect and yes, even defend, these big, strong, glorious animals. A very strange thought: a 112 lb., 5’3″ person taking care of and looking out for someone 1,000 times her size, but it makes perfect, beautiful sense. You again put into words that which is felt, but goes unspoken.

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  22. I’ve been reading your emails/blogs for a while now and they always put a smile on my face, this one though, this one really got me, it was like reading something from my own mind and life… thank you for so eloquently putting words to this… know your work is heard and appreciated… I am very grateful…

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