Being the Railbird: Anniversary Edition

Beware: Colorado Prairie Railbirds, guaranteed to spook more people more than horses.

A reader gave me a writing assignment. She asked me to write something from the perspective of a railbird. This won’t be fiction.

I was at the National Western Stock Show. It would take me two more years to get there with a horse but showing was the dream since I was a kid. Over the months, I’d been getting ready, buying buckets, hay nets, and a leather halter for good. That day, I bought a show pad that would make my horse stand out and thought about what I’d wear to match. Because I knew so much about showing. After storing my loot in my VW, I didn’t have a truck yet, I joined a handful of acquaintances watching pleasure classes from the stands. A class entered the arena and there was a woman wearing a plaid shirt that strained at the buttons. No chaps, just jeans, riding a non-descript sorrel grade horse with an old tan Navajo pad under a plain western saddle with no silver. I’d love to say she was an impeccable rider, but no. She was stiff, her horse did some head tosses and late transitions. She was an easy mark and my group made lots of snide comments behind our hands. We didn’t hide our chuckles, not that she heard us. She finished last in her class.

The best realizations sneak up from behind and whack you with a two-by-four squarely on your noggin with a cracking reverb, while giving you an instant mental replay of your stupid behavior, complete with internal narration by… a railbird. My realization: That dowdy “loser” was living my dream while I was sitting in the stands. The space between my ears shrank to a pea-sized gap as my heart slammed blood against my eardrums, reminding me I hadn’t been struck by lightning, as much as I deserved it. Not a proud moment.

By the time I was finally showing my young horse, it took me a couple more years of wading through my emotions to get as good a ride as that dowdy but steady woman who focused on her horse and her own business at Stock Show. Enough things initially went wrong that I developed a chip on my shoulder. I tried too hard. My feelings got hurt. My show pad failed me. I thought every railbird in the world was against me. I judged them right back in pouty cold silence. In a totally coincidental and unrelated twist, my young horse was prone to being tense in the poll followed by emotional outbursts. Cataclysmic spooking. Go figure.

You know what a Railbird is, don’t you? They stare and squint, you can feel the burn of their acid eyes. They critically judge and catalog your every false start. When your horse spooks, they laugh at you. When you lead your horse to a trailer, they start the stopwatch. If you pause with your horse for just an instant too long, the railbirds begin screeching over each other with never-fail contradictory advice. Worst of all, they are in the shadows scrutinizing us, even when we know they aren’t. They’re our worst enemy and we know exactly what they think because we are them. They are us. 

I’ll try again. A railbird is a person who has good intentions and would like to help. Sometimes their word choice is not the best. Sometimes they are insecure and graceless, but they absolutely share our passion for horses. Some are afraid to offer a hand, which looks exactly like silent judgment. Sometimes they watch in quiet respect, appreciating the conversation you are having with your horse, but we’re so defensive, we don’t see the kindness of their hearts. Railbirds can’t win either. 

I had a problem. It wasn’t my horse, perish the thought. Besides, I was getting better at staying on. 

My problem was not with competition. If the judgment only took place in the show ring, the choice would be obvious. Instead, I think of competition as the fast track to slaying our demons. It takes practice to improve at anything and that means practice at failing. I swear, that Teddy Roosevelt quote has been running on repeat in my brain for decades. You know, the one about cold and timid souls. 

I had to give up being defensive, not because I am a saint above reproach. Far from it. I have a temper and some lousy boundaries and too many opinions. In other words, I have passion. My mind has nasty runaways if I let it. I had to give up holding a grudge because it impacted my horses. If someone else was being critical of me, I had to let that go because horses don’t have the loyalty to not point out where the bodies are buried. Horses are truth-tellers.

Being adversarial is part of our natural human make-up, but it makes everything look like an obstacle and everyone seem to be an enemy. Pity the fool who told me to relax about this passion that was the strongest, truest force in my life. At the same time, something had to give before my horse killed me. I was saved by finding a sense of humor.

Any mare will tell you that, try as we may, we will never control the universe. Or even our herd. It can give us sour ears if we don’t make peace. We have to force ourselves to slack the rein a bit. We can’t un-hear criticism but we can choose to not be defensive. Separate what is helpful and refuse to take offense at the rest. I think it’s the moment we become recovering predators and start to take responsibility for our actions. It’s the looming and somewhat mature awareness that we aren’t being healed by horses, so much as healing ourselves for horses. We find our humanity.

When the reader asked me to write from the standpoint of a railbird, I’m not sure she connected the dots. I am a horse trainer, the accepted and somewhat flattering term for being a professional railbird. I call myself a loudmouth party-pooper to lighten the air when I advocate for horses. but even now I bite my tongue and choose words with care, knowing that our love for horses is our obvious vulnerability. No one wants to be corrected in public, even when they ask for help. Mucking about through people’s greatest passion is much more dangerous than riding horses ever was, but we have to get past our resentments. Horses give us that choice.

Trying to define a way to be an Affirmative Training railbird is why I started this blog on a Thursday night about 1300 essays ago, this week. It’s been the ride of my life. Thank you, friends and railbirds, for your compliments and jeers. Each has helped convince me that fighting doesn’t work. Being adversarial with horses, each other, or even our own selves is a dead end. I have no plans to stop fighting my demons and praising my better angels. I’ll give an exhale and keep practicing. With gratitude and the humility of an unplanned dismount, I wish you the same, with the blessing of honest horses along the way. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward Training

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

46 thoughts on “Being the Railbird: Anniversary Edition”

  1. Talk about “a picture is worth a thousand words”! I imagine humans AND horses would wilt under that kind of scrutiny!!

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  2. Wow. Congratulations on 1300 ways you’ve made us laugh, cry, and help us become our better selves on behalf of horses. We’ve learned so much. It occurs to me with a snort this morning that I might do better in a particular prickly relationship if I would try seeing that person as a horse …

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  3. Thank you, Anna, for this revelation of your own journey while you help us with ours. I would be proud to wear the badge of a “recovering predator” as I tend to my boys every day.
    I never knew of this quote from Roosevelt before, but it sure resonates, so thank you for that. And BTW, what a terrific photo!

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    • Thanks, Lynell. If I ever forgot my unflattering roots, my horses would remind me quickly. Thanks for following along and commenting so often. I appreciate you.

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  4. Thanks SO much for this one. The railbirds have been in my ears my whole life. Somedays I have to work up the confidence just to walk into the Dollar Store by myself. Crazy! So many things I haven’t attempted because of the voices in my head. Helps both ways, so I will stay positive in my interactions with people and positive about myself. I will refer back to this as I plan to take my dowdy old self and my dowdy old mare on a trail ride. After arriving in my dowdy old trailer with the saddle that I love with no silver on it! Happy trails this spring! 💛 TAZ 🐴

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    • Oh my heart! Taz, accept this apology in the form of an essay, from a dowdy old horse trainer, in a world of rockstar horse trainers. Let’s keep on.

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  5. Thanks for this. Being a little different at my barn ( not liking severe bits and liking groundwork and noticing horses emotional expression)and not the most experienced I often feel at odds with some of the other boarders. I know they mean well, just like I do when I say the heavy 50somerhing green rider should not have bought the wild green red mare 4 year old. So I guess I always think that’s how horse women are: Alpha and opinionated. I do try not to mind when I see the queen bee of the hunter jumpers watching me.
    Best wishes

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  6. I don’t show because I know I will get so tense I won’t treat my horse fairly. I feel it’s unfair to my horse to make her uncomfortable while I overcome my issues. 🥴. I would be interested if this failure in me is in someway disadvantaging my horse? I think in most other public occasions I’m not a victim of it.

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    • Great comment, Lee. I think my process of overcoming my emotions while showing has made me a better trainer and clinician, but it isn’t the only way. How do you overcome it in other occasions?

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  7. ha!!. yes!! i find it strange that in most ( almost all) of my life, i truly do not give a xxxx (whatever works for you) about what people think of me.
    but i get around or on a horse and that changes pretty quick. ive never really been sure why.
    is it that i can blag it thru the rest, but the horse opens the heart too much ? reveals that vulnerability?
    or is it that there are not any folks so judgemental as those around horses (altho go to a dog show and its the same crap)
    or is it just that i feel like i dont get it “right” with horses, and thats pretty much the most important thing?
    or……

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    • Chris, really nice rant. I love a good rant and you made me think. I don’t know (either) what it is about horses that makes getting it right so important, but I feel that too.

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  8. “It’s the looming and somewhat mature awareness that we aren’t being healed by horses, so much as healing ourselves for horses. We find our humanity.” Gosh Anna – that is so beautifully put.

    Also the final paragraph resonates. Best piece of advice from a former trainer (chief railbird): If you treat anyone –
    especially your horse – like an enemy, they will become one.

    Thank you!

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    • Thanks, Christian. It sounds so simple, if we don’t fight, there is no fighting. But then we fight that! Scheesh.

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  9. I started ‘inviting’ my horse to play, rather than any forcing him to work. It has made a huge difference,
    and when he does, sometimes, decide to turn away for a few minutes, to look at something or take in the
    scent of manure, I let him.

    And on railbirds: The last show I attended had several of the unkind sort, standing nearby. Parents of
    children in the arena, who appeared to be focusing ill will on the other children and their horses. And
    one 60-something woman, a trainer, who had a couple of kids in the arena, but voiced extremely rude
    comments at others, even in the ‘over 50 green class’ (please give them a chance).

    And on the good railbirds: Those who cheered everyone on, with good wishes and support — thank you so much!

    It can get a bit nasty out there….

    Nuala

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  10. O. M. G. I was my own rail bird not long ago. Meeting friends who were taking their horses to team roping practice, I was just going to be a rope rack and help hold the hazing line, as a DQ wanna be who struggles mightily with western fenders. Friend called from the freeway, she was stuck in traffic, could I warm up her horses for her? Her hubby had already trailered them all over. Team rope horse warm up: about 20 riders cantering their horses while ponying their spare rope horse, also at the center, in the same arena, all at varying levels of riding/ponying ability. 20 riders, 40 horses, sprinkler in the middle, everyone adjusting their ropes. What could go wrong? Me. I could go wrong. I pull out my…velvet helmet…in a field of ball caps…and feel very out of place. Inner rail bird meet all the outer rail birds. Oh thank god there’s a mounting block. Horse I’m going to get on is not new to me, but I’ve never ridden him. He’s tall. I lead him to the mounting block, get him lined up, and say under my breath, “don’t embarrass me” to this kind horse. Um yeah. He immediately swings his head over and knocks me clean off the mounting block, onto my butt, into the dirt. Something I’m positive would not have happened had I said “good boy” instead. Inner rail bird, meet loudly laughing cow people. One helps me up, and suggests I use the mounting block to get ON the horse. The warm up was easy, uneventful and shame free. I’d gotten that part over with? Note to self. NEVER ask a horse not to embarrass you. You’re really asking yourself, and then you have to prove how embarrassing you are! Why did I feel the need to put it on this horse? It’s not my MO. But I did! And being an excellent mirror, I got as good as I gave! 🤣

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    • Jane, you slay me. Isn’t telling a story on yourself fun? And says this dressage queen, it could be worse, you could have not had a helmet on for the unmounting block incident. I’ve ridden with that crowd of horn holders… my money is still on you.

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  11. Happy 1300 Anniversary !!! That steadfastness and persistance are so impressive. This essay is worthy of being an anniversary offering, clearly one of your best ever. I just love it. As a coincidence, friends and I were having a lively discussion about how we don’t like that we judge and criticize, and now we are calling that part of ourselves our inner railbird.

    I am delighted by the photo which is almost as good as your words here.

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    • Thanks, Sarah. If we can’t keep ourselves from discerning our environment (Judging isn’t always a bad thing), then we can teach ourselves affirmative judgment?? (Just made this up, but it sounds good?)

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  12. Anna,
    This writing, with it’s depth, insight, and richness is certainly worthy of Anniversary status. Congratulations. I’m hoping for another 1300 or more.
    I have to say that one of the few benefits of aging is the forced self awareness (brought on by physical changes), that leads us to the knowledge that we need some emotional healing. And what a great advantage it is for the horses and humans that surround us.
    You are brilliant! Thank you for sharing with all of us.

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    • Thank you Laurie. For the kind words but more than that, the idea of forced self awareness is so sweet. Yay for us!

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  13. Oh my. Truly amazing writing, brought guilty tears to my eyes as I remembered snickering over someone else’s struggles. Immaturiry is no excuse, really. I have to admit to doing it as a full fledged adult. Maybe not snickering, but judging. Laments for the horse, but shouldn’t we extend equal compassion to the human?

    A wonderful reminder not to be a sh** or a judgy jerk from the sidelines. Even if we see someone doing what we interpret as awful (draw reins anyone?) ugly judgment is the opposite of helpful. Even (or especially) behind our hands.

    Thank you for this.

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    • Shaste, me, too. I want to find a kind of Affirmative Judgement, I’ll breathe for that horse, knowing that adding my angst on top is no help to anyone.Thanks for suggesting the topic, it was wonderful to think my way through it.

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  14. Love the idea that we are not being healed BY horses, but healing ourselves FOR horses…..

    Thanks for another gem Anna

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