Auld Lang Syne Horses

I’ve heard it a couple of times just today: “As we head into the third year of Covid…” It makes my lungs freeze and my feet stick to the ground. They are playing Auld Lang Syne, “Old Long Since”, and I’m re-running my last year, and dreaming up goals for the new year. Covid has kept me on the short end of my driveway and I’m melancholy. These years of my life will not come back and I have wandered a distance from any age that could be called midlife. These years have been stolen from all of us, it’s true, but just for tonight, I’ll let it be about me and the ones I’m missing. I miss your horses.

When I started training professionally, the first advice I got was don’t be friends with your clients and don’t fall in love with their horses. Smart thinking. I’d been self-employed long enough to know that money exchange makes for uneven ground in friendships. When I was a riding student, I loved my trainers because they talked to me about my horse but I knew we weren’t friends. I paid them to talk about my horse, and that’s my job now. Clients come and go for many reasons and I wish them well. Life is change. The problem is I love their horses.

I am certainly clear that loving the horses I work with is a foolish abuse of my professional boundaries. Don’t smile, don’t think it’s a dream job, and understand that the love trainers like me feel isn’t all sweetness and kisses. It’s fierce and unreasonable. We love “bad” horses, chronically lame horses, and sometimes we’re like women who try to fix their boyfriends; we try to save broken horses that remain lost. We’re wholly focused on making things right for the horse, our personal feelings be damned. It takes a ridiculous amount of energy to hold your heart open in a world of imperfect owners and beautifully sensitive horses you don’t own, but the real problem should be obvious. Horses owe us nothing. If your heart isn’t open to the horse you’re training, you just don’t get their best work. You will never get more out of a horse than you are willing to put in.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?

It was years ago at my first large clinic. I hadn’t planned the start well, and too many horses were in a too-small indoor for an obstacle clinic. Before I could begin, there was a problem. Over toward the wall, a bay mare was being corrected by her owner. The rope snapped as she was repeatedly chased back, but her hind was already against the wall. There was no place for her to go but up, and she was mad. She couldn’t wait. Without a greeting to the group, I asked in a loud voice if I could have a demo horse and caught the eye of the mare’s owner. He looked half relieved and half insulted as he handed me her lead. Not a good start. I took the end, let the middle of the rope hit the ground and her hooves came to rest a second later. All I did was call a truce. It wasn’t magic and she didn’t thank me. There was no romance. But it was beautiful to see her pride, wonderous to watch her breathing go deep as she stood square and tall, as noble as a queen. I knew better than to insult her by petting her but my eyes followed her all day. Like we were alone in a smoky crowded bar. Pathetic.

I visit a few sanctuaries, usually to do a training for their volunteers. Places like that are thick with love because they are run by hopelessly idealistic people. Sanctuary means horses live free of intervention as much as possible. They are horses loved selflessly from afar, but that’s the beauty. Horses doing no more than grazing in herds with little human encumbrance. They are living, breathing fairytale horses. Everyone should love these horses… by sending money.

Sometimes I stand with a client and her old campaigner. I’m the translator, the elderly horse shows me every pain he has, he shows me his exhaustion and how far he has traveled, a flight animal with no escape. He fears laying down for a predator might come. We become complacent about his frailty but he cannot. His human loves him so hard it blinds her to his pain. He means so much to her that she can’t say the word that will set him free. In this precious moment, my ghost herd gets restless, stomping about in my heart until I think my chest will crack open, and I breathe and ask quiet questions until the owner can find her words. Loving elders takes the most courage of all.

My softest spot will always be for stoic horses. The ones who pull deep inside, as still as rocks. They keep their emotions hidden in hope of being safely invisible. They draw me into their silence, as I wait for them to close the distance between us. They will not be hurried and I don’t want their surrender. It’s a war of quiet patience, waiting for a crack in his defense. My love will not save him, but respect can give him space to mend himself. I breathe, a predator trying to sell the idea that a horse can be safe with me. Another deep breath as I watch for a flick of an ear or slight release of his tail. Everything begins with acceptance of who the horse is right now and prioritizing their confidence enough to wait.

Love without possession definitely has its downside. Sometimes you have to trust that they’re God’s horse, but in truth, are any of them are ever really ours? We’re always training for the next horse. It’s a pay-it-forward world we’re building, with gratitude for all horses have given us over centuries. We’ve always used them hard. I surely see the damage we’ve done; hear the horror stories about trainers who have failed them. Horses are heartbreakers and there’s much sadness but our sympathy doesn’t help. We must do better.

All the time and effort are returned tenfold in that instant when I’m reminded that each horse, without exception, has a heart that will never be tamed, never owned by another. Lucky me, it’s my job to fan that spark within them that is forever free; to find the autonomy of that first bay mare again… in old campaigners, frightened rehomed horses, and unnaturally quiet geldings.

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m a whiny old horse-crazy girl missing the horses I didn’t get to meet the last two covid years. Silly me. Here’s to horses!

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne.

(If you see me again, there is every chance I won’t remember your name but don’t take it personally. I’d still like to know how your horse is doing.)

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward Training. Available for clinics and barn visits with safety precautions galore in 2022.

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49 thoughts on “Auld Lang Syne Horses”

  1. Must be my age, but seems lately every one of your posts brings tears – sort of the same kind of regrets for the many horses I knew & didnt know how to help. Another lovely post, Anna
    I hope you arent anywhere close to the fires burning right now. Its terrifying seeing the homes burning – people evacuated – hope everyone is safe.

    • Maggie, I know that your work for horses now, so leave those regrets in the past and work for the next horse… not one you get to own, but ones you love just the same. (The fires are northern Colorado. We’re safe but there is so much loss…)

      • Yeah – as one of the great gals that works hard for our wild horses says(better than I do) saving one “starfish” might not matter in the scheme of things, but it means everything for that one starfish (you can substitute any species you wish for starfish) Know what I mean?

        Thanks for the reply, Anna – glad you & yours are ok. And yes, so very much loss. It would seem time the “powers that be” wake up & pull their heads out of wherever they are (I’m being polite) and stop trashing the planet we live on – you know, find ways to PREVENT these fires, hurricanes, floods etc etc.

  2. I luv this one Anna..doesn’t this go for all sentient beings, humans included..?
    Happy New Year to you! May 2022 release us all from the shackles of a virus and the world around it.
    I still hope you’ll come for a visit, friend, to meet my horses. They surely would love to meet you.

  3. Love what you have written. I wish I had those kind of words to put on paper. Yes I am constantly remembering my horses that have gone before the ones I have now. I think of all the things that I have learned and try not to get depressed about what I did wrong with them and put forward what I think I am doing correctly with the ones I have now. Play it forward, learn all you can and apply what you have learned. We can’t go back, all we can do is ask for forgiveness of what we did, and go forward. Horses forgive us constantly as long as we are open and honest with them. We are human and make mistakes, so just try again. I used to have all papered horses, warmbloods, breed and raised, 17hh. I now have unpapered, much smaller, and I have just as much work. I have two that came from an auction. Both buried inside themselves. The heavier breed one is still deep inside herself, the lighter breed has started to find himself. It is constant work and puzzles. I get discouraged and wonder why they don’t trust me, but I carry on. The ones I raised had only the baggage that I gave them. These two have baggage that I don’t know about, but I carry on. If you ever come to San Diego, Yuma, Cider City, let me know, you could always come by. I never quite know where I will be.

  4. Oh Lord yes, The regrets of how I SHOULD’ve handled the ones from my past! Hoping I’ve done and AM doing better with the ones who live with me now.

    Thank you, Anna – here’s hoping the new year is better than the last.

  5. I used to help run dog obedience classes. I remembered every dog in every class – oh yeah, that’s the Schnauzer lady; the Beagle guy. It was tough, watching, trying to help people learn. The dogs … well, not horses obviously, but so quick to learn when given a chance.

  6. Anna,
    We own nothing in life. I look at these magnificent beings and how much greater they are, in so many respects to us.
    God’s gift to the Earth, long before we arrived.

    Hopefully we can support a free range for as many as possible, that some of their territories may survive.

    Here’s to OUR learning the the New Year, and our horses’ recognition that we are trying harder!

    Happy New Year, Anna,

    Love, Nuala

  7. Thank you for this wonderful read on this cold and frosty New Years Eve. I love that there are people like yourself who are helping us all learn better ways to live with our animals. I am old. In my childhood things were different. Somehow I was born with a love of animals that transcended the acceptable ways to treat animals at the time and am so grateful that overall throughout my life we are learning how to better listen to and communicate with our animal friends.

  8. “I’m always shy to quote my own poems, but I believe it in my bones when I say: Come, look up with kindness yet, for wherever we come together, we will forever overcome” ~New Day’s Lyric by Amanda Gorman

  9. Again a good reflection. Always something speaks to me in your words. I have just realized that my big Gypsy does NOT like being groomed with a curry comb, or stiff brush on certain areas. I was a bit confused for a while because he will allow me to scratch every inch of him with my hands, run my hands all over and asks for more. I also have grooming gloves which he seems to like OK. So now I am listening more carefully to his feelings about being groomed. He was raised in a breeding program before I bought him. Each horse was groomed thoroughly each day, and as Gypsies, had their manes and tails carefully braided, bathed regularly and clipped in the winter. His mane is not as hugely long anymore, as I don’t carefully brush and braid it each day (and he hates having me fuss with it anyway) and I let him be long and wooly in winter. So we progress in me trying to listen to what he prefers. Yes I do get rid of the mud, but I don’t obsess over manure spots on his mostly white coat. He doesn’t care, so why should I?

      • yes- after all, no one ‘grooms’ wild horses. How do they stay clean? Well they don’t, but they roll on the ground, mutually groom each other, rub themselves on trees and bushes. In the summer they cake themselves with mud. When you see wild horses, most of them, from what I have observed, do not have skin diseases. We are told from our first exposure to horses that we MUST groom everyday, that the oils in the skin will not get distributed properly, that the dirt will make them sick. But is this really true? I notice that my horse, who is a Sabino color, mostly white, stays pretty clean all by himself. We will have a damp day and he will be gray from mud, but as soon as he dries off the dirt leaves and he’s actually pretty clean if dusty.

        • It’s funny, I recently had a photoshoot. I got myself cleaned up but didn’t think it through. It was supposed to be me and the trailer. I didn’t think we’d go in the horse pens because it’s winter and they are very hairy. I groom in the spring itchy season but nowhere near weekly. I have gray horses; they looked spectacular. Arguably better than me. And I use ‘hair product’!

  10. As always, your message is true for our interactions with humans and with ourselves! Happy New Year, Anna!
    PS When you mentioned “donations” were you including Infinity Farms?

  11. Such a heart wrenching writing. Thank you. As I try to write this, the tears and emotions are rolling down my face. I have four rehab horses. I am heading towards being 71 and had horses for about 66 years. I am currently enjoying teaching three young girls ranging from 11 to 24, all of whom have health issues of various sorts. They have next to no experience with horses but have that horse crazy girl syndrome. It is wonderful to share time with them and the horses are amazing. Happy New Year. God Bless. xo

  12. Yep. Made me cry again. Just really came here today to make sure you’re okay and not near the fire and read you’re south of it. I always worry about those—and their animals—going through such all-encompassing, disorienting trauma.

    Makes this new year feel like a new owner I don’t trust, after the last two were so cruel. Keeping one ear on it at all times.

    Thanks for putting your words in the combinations you do.

  13. You make me think of my newest horse, Jolene. I named her after a smart, fiesty, honest, dedicated nurse I used to work with. Jolene is a rescue paso fino from Long Island. She was purchased by a friend of mine who lives in NewYork. She had a foal at her side and was skinny and anxious, in a herd of about 13 horses. There was feed available, but I think she spent too much time protecting her foal to eat. I know nothing else about her background. I have had her since March, and it’s been interesting trying to figure her out. Learning calming signals from you has helped me tremendously. For example, you taught me that swishing her tail when I tacked her up meant she was anxious. That, combined with her being cinchy and skinny, and slow to gain weight, made me suspect ulcers. So I treated her for that. She’s terrifically barn sour, but not really herd sour. This summer, when they were out on pasture, she’d be up at the barn alone at dusk when I came down to put chickens to bed. She knew I would give her grain and if she was alone, the other horses wouldn’t run her off it.
    I think someone must have ridden her with spurs and pulled her head to her side too much. If you try to do that, she’ll bite your leg, or act like she’s going to. I bet they did that trying to slow her down. She’s as smooth as glass,and fast. I’m working on getting her to relax and just walk, and not be afraid to leave the barn. I don’t kick her. If she won’t go, I pull her off to the side, but not toward my knee, till she takes a step, and then release. We walked the trail around my pasture the other day. At the end is a grassy spot. So I ‘d ask her to go, she’d take 3 steps and stop. I’d wait, then ask for more. We got to the grassy spot and I got off and let her graze. Switched to halter for that. Then bitted her back up again. She hated to take the bit at first. Would take ten minutes to get it on her. I used treats, and now give her one when she’s taken the bit. She opens her mouth wide to get it now. I believe treats have their place if used correctly.
    Anyway, my point is that this horse has been an interesting challenge, and although you don’t know her, you have helped in her rehabilitation. And I think if you met her, she would be one you would remember. So thank you for your help. Jolene and I are much appreciative.

    • Well done, Beth. Gaited horses traditionally are trained differently and much of what you describe sounds familiar. I’ll disagree on using treats, but sounds like she has found a safe landing. Thanks for sharing, so happy for both of you.

  14. Totally get it on the treat thing. My horse is 16h and I am barely 5’2″. I started training him immediately to face forward and lower his head for a treat. When I first got him, everyone said “don’t give him treats to bridle him! You will spoil him!”. That ensured that he would lift his head up and make it hard to bridle. So I made a deal with him….he lowers his head for haltering and bridling and I will give him a treat. Now he opens his mouth wide for the bit, and always puts his head down for the halter.

    • Thanks, Mary. Glad you are getting good results, many horses don’t respond well. Using treats is a personal choice but I’ll say the horses I train arc their heads toward me and drop their noses into halters and none have ever had treats. What if there is something better than a treat? What if we are the treat?

  15. Hi Anna, I do hope we may cross paths again in the future. Virtual learning does not replace the connections made during a hands on clinic, both for riders and especially our horses.
    Hoping you can get back on the road in 2022!
    Happy New Year!
    Annette, Echo and Rusty ( and of course, the kittens ❤️)

  16. Anna, your writing is ALWAYS inspiring, has DEPTH, and helps ME help my HORSES. Today’s episode went beyond and provided an opportunity for tears and goosebumps as well. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” Yes, from my point of view, parts of 2021 might better be forgotten or better yet erased. On December 30th as I watched the conflagration on a mesa a mere 15 miles from our home, I had panicky thoughts of how I would trailer load and evacuate Ferdinand and Noche if needed. I was kicking myself for not putting more effort into “training” this essential skill with these horses. Though Raz and Chica can load, I feared they may be trampled or kicked should I have to forcibly herd the others into the trailer. But……every time I even approach the trailer on a loose lead with Ferdinand, his anxiety sends him spinning around me in tight circles and it doesn’t feel safe or productive to continue. I totally agree with “Everything begins with acceptance of who the horse is now and prioritizing their confidence enough to wait.”, but my dilemma is how do I insure their safety while I wait for their confidence to move them forward? Yikes, what a year! I really hope the herd gets to meet you in person in 2022. My best wishes to you, Anna .

    • It was a nightmare for sure, and it isn’t always as simple as ‘training’ in situations like that. Glad you are safe and the herd is okay. And I WILL meet your herd. I’m so curious about Ferd.

      The answer in a natural disaster is that we do our best and it won’t be good enough but that will have to be okay.

  17. All best wishes for this new year, Anna. Retired from my crazy, demanding job 12/31, and am now spending every day at April’s home, just 10 minutes from mine. I wrote a note to the owner this morning asking for her to be sure to let me know if I need to pay more attention to “boundaries” since I have fallen in love with ALL the horses there and they seem to kinda like me to! The joy of it is the community of both horses and humans that feels really horse conscious and caring in all the right ways. Still hopeful that sometime we can host you here in Sonoma County, California. Before our big rains this winter, we were ground zero for fires. Yours were not all that far away, and I’ve been thinking of you. Please be careful and have an evacuation plan. Love from me and the herd!!

    • If you’re thinking about boundaries, then pay attention to that. I want your “retired” glee to last forever and horses are always flight animals. I will be coming to CA in May, I think, assuming fires, covid, and the world as we know it allows. I have an evac plan, but wow, this one was nasty. Loading horses in 100 mph winds? I can’t imagine and this one gave no warning. We have to make difficult choices about the climate, I think. Happy New Year, Deb. I’m glad you are wild and free.

  18. Anna, I read slowly in order to savor your blogs’ sentences and paragraphs . You know how much I value your writing. I rarely leave a comment but save and share many. When I slowly reached the end of this one, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. There was handsome, sweet Tattoo looking right at me! For once, I was speechless.
    Hoping you get on the road again this year – soon. You make too big a difference to be tied down by COVID any longer.
    Sending much love to you and all at Infinity Farm.

    • Hey, my friend. I was hoping to make you smile with that photo. Best wishes Jean. I hope to make it to your neck of the wood, or maybe met at Mels this year.
      In any case, sending my best wishes. I’m done being tied down.

  19. Such lovely thoughts and well-wishes as we close out 2021 and begin 2022. My newest foster, who came to us just over 4 months ago as a shell of a horse, just had his hooves trimmed. Without the sedation we were told was a must. He locked eyes with my husband who was holding his lead and never flinched while the farrier worked. His trust was rewarded and none of us will ever be the same.
    Thank you Anna, for the shameless plug for the fairytale horses we can love by sending money. Every single dollar buys a horse some hope.

    • So glad you gave him a sober chance; doesn’t it just humble you? Well done, and give that fairytale horse a scratch from me. Thanks, Sueann


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