A Love Letter to Dirt.

When we’re new to horses, we get “psychological” about horses and search the cosmos for messages. It’s the dirt that brings us back home, settled and present. Horses know. They depend on the ground to hold them, it’s the ground that gives them flight. If you watch horses, they lose confidence if they can’t trust the earth. It’s why tarps and bridges are obstacles to them and why icy ground frightens them. Watching horses, you can’t miss their profound connection with the earth.

Yet, when we want to connect with horses, we ignore the dirt. We hug and kiss them, our hearts swelled up thinking that their closed eyes mean love returned and not distancing or evasion. We try to love them into submission. Or we use semaphore communication. We wave our arms, use whips or sticks with bags to make our arms longer, and pull their faces with ropes to disconnect and unbalance horses.

No wonder we think it’s magic when horses come to us when we’re quiet or follow us silently at liberty. In spite of all our chatter and rattle, horses continue to try to connect with us. If we were on the right track, we wouldn’t see calming signals constantly. We get so excited to see the horse’s message of anxiety that we don’t hear the intent. Calming signals are the horse telling us that they are no threat, they are prey and mean us no harm. They send the message that we don’t need to be predators. It’s them trying to calm us!

Maybe we need to pay more attention to dirt and less attention to our stormy thoughts.

I’ve asked horses to prove it to me repeatedly. When I halter a horse, step one is to breathe and feel my toes inside my shoes, conscious of the ground. I notice the horse comes. When I’m holding a lead and the horse is stiff with fear, looking in the distance and ready to spontaneously combust, I step to the end of the rope and feel the dirt under my feet. It settles my mind, and the horse calms quickly. I want to think that I’m the safe place, but what if it’s really the reminder of dirt under our feet that gives us each our balance and peace?

We are on the brink of better communication with horses; it’s here with us but we haven’t “discovered” it. Science moves us forward but only because science is also connected to dirt (the natural world.) Research tells us that trees communicate with each other through the earth. We know that each of the horse’s senses is more acute than ours. We talk less of their sense of touch, but those hooves are sensitive. Why do we use our hands, an appendage that horses don’t have, when they listen to our feet and match our stride naturally. When all the human chatter settles, isn’t the dirt under our feet the most primal connection with horses?

It takes a while for the love to settle, for us to realize that horses are flowers of the dirt beneath them. And so are we, if we let the earth hold us and support us. If we love dirt for its hold on us.

The holiday greeting is more literal than we overthink it to be. Let the emphasis on that second part. Peace on Earth.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and join the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.

Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.

Visit annablake.com to find archived blogspurchase signed booksschedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.

Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

57 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Dirt.”

  1. Here in the desert of southwest Utah I am hearing rain on the roof. It’s been dry for several years and I’ve had cactus in my yard die. It’s going to rain for the next week. Even though I want the water I don’t want to ride my guys with clay boots on their feet so I am listening with mixed feelings.

  2. “GROOM” donkeys????? The burro I share space with only wants scratches unless she’s shedding out. THEN she’s brave enough to worm her way between me and the horse I’m trying to scrape hair off. The rest of the time, ear rubs are good. Except for the halter she packs around, she’s her own self…

  3. Funny how each new thing you write leaves me thinking, “Wow, this is one of her best!”

    And this is. The combination of inexorable change, unavoidable loss, and reliable reminders from our animals that of course we’re all dirt. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

    My land is hilly. The dirt doesn’t completely go away; it rearranges itself by running into the pond or accumulating against one of the downhill fences. Lately I’ve had a notion to shovel it from the bottom and bring it back up to the top, knowing it will run down again. Sisyphean? It feels more like recycling. Now if I could just find the time…

  4. Such a fine message for this holiday ! I can’t put my hands on them right now, but there are scientific studies that have demonstrated the positive health benefits for humans in just sitting with their bare feet on the ground. Something about the electro-magnetic field, something that horses know and we have to discover.

    Random thoughts that come to mind: Woodrow my kitty LOVES to roll in the dirt, in apparent ecstasy. The animals “get” it in ways we rather slow humans have to discover. Right before reading your essay, I was noticing Cash had dirt in places that indicated. he had laid himself down during the night. He doesn’t often allow himself to relax that much so that was good to see. I am yet again grateful to have a spiritual community here that is nature/earth based !!

    I am looking forward to your coming to Texas to meet up with my dirt ! And thank you for a fine essay this morning !!

  5. wow…this is fabulous. I think about the dirt too, and how sensitive it is to temperature in terms of supporting what we need to survive. I have often thought about how horses’ (and all four legged creatures’) understanding of the world comes from the ground up – but you put it so very well! I work with horses and veterans and spend most of my time trying to get them out of their thought bubbles, get their hands on our horses bodies and their feet on the ground through the breath. It’s a tall order with all of those thought bubbles floating above their heads. It’s so interesting that we have no idea we’re doing this. NONE. It’s like asking a fish, “How’s the water.” Thank you, Anna

  6. Just when you think Anna has exhausted her repertoire of knowledge that inspires…poof! We get a perspective that surely will connect us with our horses. Amazing!

    With your indulgence, Anna, “Kiss the Ground” is a documentary that shows how we can rejuvenate our earth by “feeding” the dirt under our feet and keeping “poop in the loop.” I think we can all agree that our earth has been sending calming signals for some time now. It seems to me it’s about time that we listen! https://youtu.be/3iknWWKZOUs

    • We all (ALL of us) should watch that documentary – I remember seeing the trailer for it – havent watched the whole thing. And “feeding the dirt under our feet & keeping poop in the loop”? How true. Watching & reading about the drought in the West, knowing that theres not enough being SAID about saving earth – all earth. Just continuing to do what we’ve been doing for now hundreds of years? Thats what is going to be our downfall. Because “consumers” dont want to give up ANYTHING – they want it all! Watching the destruction of our “public” lands and the slaughter (culling?) of wild native animals, then the agriculture that insists on crops that DEMAND more moisture (alfalfa, almonds etc) rather than doing what must be done before its too late!
      Sorry – ranting on Christmas Eve! I agree, Lynell, today’s writing tops the list – once again!
      I hope everyone who comes here has a Merry Christmas & maybe even a good New Year – who knows?

      • When Anna titled her essay “A love letter to dirt,” this video immediately sprang to mind. So I wanted to share.
        Merry Christmas, Maggie!

    • Thanks for providing the link to this powerful and inspirational film! It’s very special and important, and should be shown in high school earth science classes.

  7. Here in Maine we had ice all day on top of 5″ of snow on top of frozen mud in some places. My boy always comes to me with ears forward and head down (it’s our agreement-he puts his head down for the halter, with him at 16h and me at 5’1″, and he gets a carrot. Only fair right? ) Anyway, as I lead him out, I will tell him “be careful here, it’s tricky”. Whether he is listening to me or my legs carefully stepping, I don’t know. He never rushes me or pulls ahead. I guess he figures I am OK as a leader.

  8. Eloquent as ever. And poignant. I grieve the loss of “my” dirt but am glad for whoever receives it, wondering where it lands. The horses simply enjoy it.
    So grateful to know you, fellow dirt-woman.
    Cindy and companions

  9. Thanks Anna!
    Confession: I’ve always been conflicted about those shallow scooped out bare patches in the paddock. Every time it rains my horses take turns for what is clearly a deliciously sensuous roll. I know they LOVE it, but I feel guilty because a ‘real’ farmer, let’s face it, would recognise these bare patches as unsightly, obscene. Certainly evidence of poor pasture management.
    Well now that I can see the other option – beauty spots, comfort zones, special treats, that is hugely satisfying ! Never again will I need to see an eyesore. Liberation! This is quite my best Christmas present! Truly! I’m serious! Thanks so much. Phyllis. Taihape, NZ.

  10. Thought about the dirt all day today. Then his evening on the way home from the barn , Had a chance to settle my feet in the mud and help a horse back to the safe side of the fence line. Lovely.

  11. I love your writing, and especially your point of view. Dirt is All. Without dirt we are nothing.

    On the subject of calming signals, I had a tiny but very exciting breakthrough with a very distant Arab mare the other day. I don’t know her or her field companion well at all, have only ridden the companion (a humorous quarter horse mare) a very few times. Mostly I’ve ignored the Arab as she is giving clear signals for me to leave her the f alone. This time, though, she looked at me so I extended my hand- to which she immediately turned her head away. So, I backed up a few steps and turned to look at the field instead of her. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her head whip around- and she tentatively reached out her nose. I extended my hand again, but without otherwise moving, and she sniffed it from several inches away. I heaved a big breath. She heaved a big breath. Then, both horses wandered down to their stalls to get ready for our ride.

    This beautiful moment made me so happy! THANK YOU for helping me get there!

  12. Stopping by here to thank you for your words, insight and stories. Over the course of some life changes and moves, I had lost my copy of Stable Relation. I love all the chapters in the book but my favorite is The Wild Texas Wind. I was lamenting the loss of the book a few weeks back and discussing the love and mutual respect that I have for mares with my son. He came to live with me for a while at the beginning of the pandemic and helped with the care of my mare. He understands. Guess what arrived yesterday in the mail? Stable Relation! I have already reread it and my favorite chapter several times (with tears). Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and stories. Merry Christmas!

    • Thanks, Lynn. I can’t describe how it feels to know that something you wrote flew away to have a life of its own. Thank you so much for telling me.

  13. If you come east to do a clinic, I would like to attend. I feel like a fish you are slowly reeling in.
    I love reading your posts.

    • That is my master plan for world domination: I wear people down, in this time of tech innovation, by the written word. I hope we meet, Beth. Thank you!

  14. Got an email from Hoofprints today – the first piece of writing was your description of, well, cooking, I guess but the big part was making an apple pie and the end result (besides the pie) was giving the horses the peels & leftovers! It came from one of your books – so now have to find that & GET it!
    Really like Gina’s stories plus she sells great stuff!

  15. Happy Holidays to you and the readers here! I have no love letter to dirt at the moment. On December 1, my otherwise mellow, trusting/trusted Arab, Ryder, had a fright in the arena, and for the first time ever in our lives together, jumped (all four feet off the ground) and bucked high! I fell and broke the femur in my right leg. First bone ever and it was the hardest one. I’m expected to make a full recovery but it will take time. My trainer was with me at the time of the accident, and she (as well as a friend who was there) said it was freakish. No one could see what the hell caused him to react like that. I’m in my early 70’s, and have been with Ryder for years. I will slowly work my way back to him, lots of ground exercises for awhile, and other people watching over him.
    I’ll never know what happened. It was a windy day, but he seemed totally unaffected by it or anything else for 45 minutes of what was going to be the end of our ride, but I anticipated the end to be slowing to a walk, halting, and getting off.

    • Oh dear, so sorry to hear. Take your time and heal well. It is hard to know for sure, but I don’t believe he was being mean. Pain is more likely, but not always easy to track down. So glad your trainer was there to help. Best wishes. I think your plan for returning is good… as much time as it takes. Take care, Jean

      • I agree he was not being mean. He’s never been mean. It could have been pain, but something sudden and temporary. He’s sound. Something in the wind. I wish I knew. Thank you for the well wishes.

        • I have come to respect the power of the wind to deliver threat warnings to horses that are indiscernible to me. Or it could have been gas! Scary not to know. But I’m just here to provide some encouragement for your healing process; I broke the neck of my femur in a freak, non-horse-related accident and, while recovery required patience and perseverance, it was also a very valuable experience. Just be sure to do absolutely everything your physical therapist tells you to do! Best wishes.

  16. Why does my heart beat faster when I read your posts? This was a doozy on every level. For my overthinking monkey brain, you brought so much perspective. For those of us who live close to the land with the responsibility of caring for our critters, we see so much more of the daunting changes, human influx and encroachment plus climate. Thoughts of “Where do we go?”, or, “How do we save this place from change?” make for a roller coaster argument in my head. Over the last few months, the acknowledgement of “dirt” and our relationship with it has come up more times than I can now count. Through books, every day changes on my farm, dinner discussions with my dearest friends, all on their own journey of consciousness, through watching my horses roll…glad you mentioned that last one. The line, “from dust we came and to dust we shall return” gets clearer every day. Thank you , Anna. You are the best.


Leave a Comment