I pulled down the drive to a farm for a Calming Signal intensive. Meeting new horses and people who care about them is always special and honing our listening skills is the best gift we can give horses. I parked my trailer near a pen with three horses close to the barn. One of the horses was a gray mare who was quite thin, visibly lame, and showed pain in her body. This is a part of my job that I don’t talk about much.
Sometimes I get to a clinic stop and the trainer will let me know that someone in the clinic has a horse that should be considering retirement. Sometimes I see it for myself and mention it as kindly as I can, knowing that I have new eyes. Besides, it’s on the owner’s mind already. It can be easier to talk about hard topics, even death, with someone you don’t know.
The owner came over and we greeted each other and exchanged a few words. I don’t know the mare’s situation but she’s right there, so I ask if she is older. The owner related the horse’s history and her present condition with concern. She told me I couldn’t see the worst of it. The mare had a large tumor on her far side and had been set to be euthanized the week before but the vet told her that the horse was not in pain. I tell her the mare looks pretty uncomfortable to me or maybe exhausted. In a bittersweet way, our conversation was almost good news to the farm owner who said she didn’t agree with the vet, but she loves this mare. It was an intense “Hello, let’s talk about horrible things” conversation, but horses are a shared passion and even this sad topic ended up aligning us more than separating us.
We started early the next day with my Calming Signals PowerPoint presentation complete with photos and videos, so we would know what we were seeing later with the horses. Having a clinician visit is like a good news/bad news joke. I acknowledge everything that’s going well but also listen to the horses and give any suggestions. Clinics are a vulnerable time but we breathe.
Then we went outside where we all took turns haltering the horses for the rest of the day. If that sounds boring and slow, perhaps it isn’t too late to take up bowling.
Haltering is how we greet horses, our first interchange. Every time a halter goes on it means that the horse surrenders to us, so we’re polite and start by listening. To be clear, everyone, horses and humans, were totally capable of haltering. Think of the halter as a conversation starter. It isn’t about getting it done so much as letting the horse tell us something about themselves. Haltering can be a lesson for us. We have always been told to listen, but do you know what we’re supposed to be listening to?
The first horse was a snow-white mini who showed some nibbling muzzle anxiety. We talked about ways to alleviate his stress and the participant changed her position slightly, which is a big statement to a horse. The mini inhaled and stretched tall, nearly transforming into a Percheron. We continued on, each horse and participant having thoughtful exchanges. There were complicated elders and young draft horses who seemed to share one (eighth-grade boy’s) brain. Some horses tried too hard and some said “no, thank you,” with profound kindness. Some horses needed time to speak up. Horses use Calming Signals when two conflicting thoughts or feelings happen at the same time so we wait, letting them sort it out. A considered response from a horse is always the goal. Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want and instead, we get something better.
The last horse of the afternoon was that gray mare. Everyone in the group knew what was going on with her; they’d loved her for a long time and knew her care was impeccable. The mare walked along the front fence line of her pen, passing in front of the group, showing her tumor visible on one hip. She moved slowly, her body stiff, her stride uneven. It isn’t that she was unbalanced on one hoof, it seemed like all four. Her eyes are small and half-closed. Slowly she came to a stop in front of us and dropped her head lower, gave a couple of small licks, and exhaled loudly. These are signals of self-soothing, a release of stress and that’s good theoretically, but it isn’t going to get her out of the condition she’s in. The mare continued after a moment, moving along the fence line through a corner, and stopped, facing up the hill, looking away from the group.
The participant who was going to halter the mare walked through the gate and to the center of her pen. The idea is to begin the conversation away from the gate, and show the horse you’re listening. Give them space and then play the children’s game Mother, may I? Take a cue from the mare, halting when her calming signals showed more anxiety, coming closer when the mare gave a release signal. The participant changes her position patiently a couple of times but the mare shows no sign of acknowledgment at all. She’s frozen and that’s unusual.
When something isn’t normal, we go even slower and listen even closer. If we are too focused on the task, we might miss the message.
I asked the participant to forget about haltering the mare and instead move to her shoulder, facing the mare’s rump. Then I asked her to put her left hand between the mare’s front legs on the mare’s chest and breathe. I didn’t want to explain more, we’re busy with the horse. The participant does a wonderful job of doing less. Behind her back, the mare relaxed, her eyes got larger and softer. Then I asked the participant to step far away. At that moment, the mare turned and walked back along the front of the pen in front of all of us but now her walk is lighter with more rhythm and a little more swing. Her body had softened.
No, the mare was not healed, nothing mystical happened, and I’m not going to call this magic in any way. There is no cure for this pain that’s not an illness or injury. But there is relief in being listened to and the participant felt the shift in the mare, as we saw it visibly. If we feel pressure to save her, it just adds more anxiety to the mare. What horses want from us often is simple acknowledgment. “Yes, we hear that you’re in pain.” The mare showed relief immediately. She was crystal clear. When a horse gets what they ask for, they stop asking and release us. There couldn’t have been a more eloquent closing message to our clinic.
This beautiful and decrepit gray mare was just a horse. I’ve had several similar sad conversations about euthanizing recently, but rarely such a visual affirmation of the power of simple breath. We listen to the horse’s feelings by standing and breathing, with a hand on them or at a distance, as they choose. We’ve been taught less is more. Define less as listening and understand that the value is more.
Some people approach horses like a hell-and-brimstone preacher trying to save a nonbeliever. Wait, let horses express their feelings. There is no finer gift than acknowledging horses just as they are. We aren’t here to cure them of being horses. We’re here to listen to nuance.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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30 thoughts on “Listening is Acknowledgment: A Gray Mare’s Message”
Have to say – to me bowling is very boring!! Mainly because there are no horses involved.
I really feel for the owner of the grey mare – she knew her mare & knew she was in pain – imagine this “medical professional” lacking so much empathy – as to state the mare wasnt in pain. I hope this woman found someone else to help her let this mare go. Because that vet – well – no words! I’ve experienced some veterinarians over the years with my horse, dog, cats, rabbits and some had no, shall we say, bedside manner, most were absolutely wonderful guys & gals who were great AND empathetic – this guy takes the cake.
Loved reading about your clinic & hearing what the results are.
Thanks, Maggie. One of the things we talked about was the shortage of large animal vets. She doesn’t have much choice and that seems to be a trend. Sometimes we have to know we’re right and advocate, which she will do.
I really lucked out with mine – especially the practice I used the last few years I had with Chico. And right now, axel’s vet is small AND large animals. Its a woman & man who both are so empathetic AND also medical professionals. I couldnt do any better.
Hey, Maggie. Those of us who have not only competent but empathetic vets and farriers to choose from are fortunate, indeed. Glad to hear you have found two for Axel.
Thinking back to Chico’s vet & his practice – they had small animal clinics back then & I think he was one of the few at the time who used acupuncture on a few of the horses at our barn. And had several women vets!
Replying to your latest post (There’s not a reply button next to it)a:
What luck to have women vets and acupuncture back then!
“Define less as listening and understand that the value is more”, wow. Consider me knocked over with a feather.
Hi Luey, Thanks. It might have taken ME that long to figure out the complexity…
Thoughtful, meaningful and moving.
Thank you, Sueann
I feel for this horse and this woman. I admire and respect Vets, but like this woman, know my animals better than they do. When it comes to making euthanasia decisions though, I listen and appreciate their input, then make the decision myself. The Vet only sees a few moments of the animal’s life. Chances are that the animal will put on a brave face when a stranger is near. Then there are the politics, many Vets are gun shy about recommending euthanasia and dealing with possible emotional fallout from owners. Anna, you are dead on target, as usual. The best gift we can give our horses is to listen, and base our decisions on what they tell us.
Thanks, Peggy. They have a hard job.
I learn so much every time I read what you post. Thank you.
Thank you, Sidney
What a beautiful and authentic post about listening to horses. Thank you my friend. I also very much appreciate this:
“Then we went outside where we all took turns haltering the horses for the rest of the day. If that sounds boring and slow, perhaps it isn’t too late to take up bowling.”
Teehee. Thanks, Crissi
Awesome essay. What an experience you have conveyed. On behalf if all horsss (especially old grey mares), thank you
Trying to do verbal videos! Thanks, Cindy
A beautiful testament to the power of listening. Thank you.
Thanks, Kaylene. Stay warm up there.
Such a beautiful post, Anna. Reminds me of my old bay mare, when she was getting near the end. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Thank you, Anna, for sharing your part in this journey with this mare. You’ve taught us a great lesson on how to listen effectively in moments like this. I’ll not forget it.
Thanks, Lynell. I think that gray mare taught the lesson… I just spell better.
She taught you; you passed it on!
Loved this one. You are so relentlessly articulate, Anna, and on topics that are hard to put into words. I feel very grateful that my current vet is very clear, saying , ” we are here to support you” and lets me know she and her staff will support my decisions on euthanasia or whatever . I am assuming she would step up and say otherwise if she thought I was making a bad decision.
On another note, I think there is something almost mystical about learning to listen to a horse. Sure, it’s there for anyone who wants to learn and pay attention, but the feeling around doing so does feel magical/mystical to me. … to be in connection with a HORSE is divine. Typically only lasts a momentfor me .. but still..it reeks of holy.
Interesting point… I think the business of listening is different that the moment when you stop the business and get real… and that authenticity (your word) is as close to divine as I know. Thanks Sarah.
Thank you for this post. Ever since I started focusing on being aware and mindful back in the shed when I pick up my halter before I am anywhere near my horses I have noticed a big shift, especially with my Arab mares. Thanks again.
Thank you, Andrea, especially from your Arab Mares. 🙂
Excellent. Take time to truly listen
Thanks for commenting, Lynn