A Training Question About Hurrying Horses …and a Grass Fire

I see people in the grocery store thoughtfully reading labels and pondering choices. The Dude Rancher and I look like game show contestants for speed shopping. We buy the same things every week and tag-team the aisles, scurrying down some and skipping others. We always get fresh berries and never any chips. Get the ice cream cups last and then a flat white to go. So we hadn’t been in long, but coming out of the store, it was shocking to see the sky inked out with black plumes of smoke in the direction of the farm. Now is a good time to remind you that the self-named Dude Rancher does not identify as a horse person. Kind of a cat guy.

Traffic was congested on the road home and the closer we got, the closer the fire looked. There were breaks in the black smoke leaving a thick haze that seemed alive, sometimes gushing and sometimes dissipating. The 30 mph wind would settle to uncomfortable stillness, then bluster back even faster from another direction. More black smoke. Was that someone’s home? The relative humidity had been below 10% for days and 40% is considered low. Several times a day extreme weather warnings ping my phone. This one was still a surprise.

We were directed to take another route once but finally made it onto our dirt road, only to be stopped by a deputy telling us there is an evacuation warning in effect. The Dude Rancher headed into the house to get cat carriers ready. I trotted toward the trailer, with the fire just on the other side of a small rise. Full halt. It isn’t that I didn’t have a fire evac plan. It was just clearly too late.

I have more horses than room in my trailer. I know who goes first if it comes to that. But there was simply no time to hook up. Other trailers might materialize but none right now. I slowed down to have a think. Big breath, my horses taught me that.

This area is over-fenced and I knew if I turned horses loose they would get hung up in one. Could I get them into the pond? Ride out on the only sound horse with the others tied in a pack string? On this high dry landscape, most of us keep our horses on dry lots. For the first time, those big sandy pens looked beautiful. Back when it was time to replace my barn roof, I splurged on metal. Yay, but some of my herd are elderly and no horses are reliable in a smoky emergency. There was an instant that I wondered if I was one of those people who wouldn’t evacuate.

Pause. Are you reading quickly? Has your breathing gone shallow or is your heart rate up? Are you afraid of fire, as I am? Is your mind racing about what you would do if there was no time to do anything? Good. I’ll get back to the fire in a bit.

A client sent me this question: “Sometimes I have all the time in the world to spend and can be completely open to my horses. Other times, I need to get s**t done! Farrier, vet, etc. I don’t always have the time to spend. How do I balance the two?”

I get this question often. On a slow day, we meander through chores, doze off daydreaming on hay bales, and enjoy being on horse time. But isn’t there a time that you’re justified to pop a whip when it’s necessary to be on time? Sometimes doesn’t it just have to happen NOW? She’s right; it is about balance.

Affirmative training doesn’t mean we’re always late, victims of our horse’s mood, or standing around wringing our hands. All it means is that we find a way to say yes instead of sinking to fight or fright.

Here is the tricky part. If you get too pushy with a horse before the vet or farrier comes, they’ll be tense before it starts. It doesn’t work to hurry a horse and how you know this is the number of times horse people lament that it’s like their horse knows when they are late and won’t be haltered or go in the trailer. As if on purpose, horses plot against us with foul intent, just to make us look bad. Egads, there is no diabolical plan. Our bodies are tattle-tales to anyone with eyes. Even small children see it.

Not to mention if part of the time we are all “yes” and “good boy”, and the other part of the time snapping ropes and being emotionally dark, that incongruity will mess with your horse. Eventually, the inconsistency will destroy trust, and make your horse as unreliable as you are. If you are slow and kind 95% of the time, your horse will show you grace when you are in a hurry. But it would be a shame to squander grace just because we didn’t prepare well.

The balance my client is looking for takes some self-discipline. Don’t you just hate to hear that? It’s so much easier to try to blame the horse and then start punishing them for noticing we’re frustrated or afraid.

Even on a bad day, going slow will always be the quickest way with a horse. Can you train yourself to stay affirmative and yet be expeditious? Can you lift your energy without adding unneeded emotion? We must cue ourselves to be emotionally steady and not give in to defensiveness. Try this: Practice consistency when it isn’t easy. On a sunny afternoon when you don’t have a care in the world, give yourself a task on a time schedule.

  • Mentally think it through and prepare so you don’t need extra steps.
  • Practice breathing while being efficient.
  • Give your horse calming signals through awareness of your body.
  • Maintain your identity as a safe place and get the job done. Call it emotional balance.

It’s a learning curve, so keep a peaceful intention toward yourself, too. Then, gauge the situation evenly. Vets and farrier appointments aren’t life and death emergencies, worthy of scaring our horses. Fire might be.

If you have horses, you’ll need good contingency plans for all situations, and my goal in this essay isn’t to preach about needing a plan. There is no debate on that. But step one on every list is to maintain calm for your horse. Scream later, but in the moment, don’t betray your horse’s trust. Stay your horse’s safe place, even while moving things along. That is what fast means in horse time.

Back to our fire. I was getting halters when two men drove in and jumped out of their truck, saying they were here to help. They were a bit wild-eyed but I thought about it. There was no black smoke at the moment. I asked if either had horse experience and one said he’d done some rodeo-ing. I told him we were fine. Then I quietly haltered my horses, even He-who-will-not-be-haltered, and got my phone number on them with the Dude Rancher’s help. We all kept our eyes on the sky. As quickly as it darkened, the sky cleared.

I always have a plan for what to do next and contingency plans after those. I will protect my horses. I’ll do what it takes, but calmly and with intention. We were lucky. The firefighters saved all the homes, with no injury to people or animals in the area. Some farms lost outbuildings. We’ve had fires nearly every day since, but none as close to us. The firefighters do hero’s work, and I bet they do it by staying steady and being efficient.

Maybe we need some of their training. Developing a calm-in-the-storm hero persona is the best way to ensure more sunny afternoons lazing around with our horses.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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44 thoughts on “A Training Question About Hurrying Horses …and a Grass Fire”

  1. Yes, I read also with some tightening of my chest. Amazing how easily that happens. I do know that having a plan helps though. I have 2 Ds with anxiety who have had in the past suicidal actions and intents. I have learned to SLOW down when these kinds of things happen, in order to let my calm brain take over. I had to disarm someone in my family who was despondent and wanted to shoot himself. I knew that I needed to calm my breathing and take it slow. I successfully got him help and he is doing much better. After the situation was resolved, then I fell apart, but in that moment he needed me to be extremely calm and OK, just like a horse would in danger.

  2. Tornandos in Texas and fire at home. It seems that you have had more than your share of narrow escapes lately. So glad everyone is good and still breathing.

    • Yup. It’s the real world, and maybe a sign of what’s to come. Today is a good day. Thanks for watching out for us, Peggy.

  3. We have been so fortunate here in the Northeast. Reading about the floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes etc etc etc. is terrifying. But if climate change keeps on keeping on, I’m sure things will go downhill here, too.
    In my much smaller “world of animals” now, just cat, dog & bird, as far-fetched as it seems, I have thought how I would gather everyone up – cat to carrier, bird to habitat cage, & Axel (who is right behind me at most times). Juliette now has a new hiding place – this since our yesterday’s trip to the vets for ear cleaning & nail clipping-she has to be sedated. Have to find it!
    Anyhow, as usual long story shortened! I think “what if” often. As I used to with Chico!

  4. So very glad you are all safe. We don’t have fires much in our area but we do sometimes have tornados, and I have a plan, knowing on some level that if a tornado touches down right on top of us there’s no plan save underground bunker stalls that would help us. It’s a rabbit hole I try not to go near in my mind.

    • I was in two tornado watches in my trailer in TX. You’re right, limited options. Sometimes breathing into calm is the only option. Thanks, Billie.

  5. First of all – SO happy to hear that all is well Anna. Whew – that was stressful just to read about. Love the suggestion of practicing a timed event on a non-emergency day. ❤️

    There was a (small) tornado here at the farmette last week. First – it flipped over our elderly pony neighbor’s run-in shelter. Skipping through the woods, it missed my hay barn, but took out four large trees – tell-tale twisted trunks and broke off halfway up to the crown. Debris everywhere, but thankfully all humans and animals safe. I could almost hear the equine conversations “I told you so,” feeling smug about why they never stay in shelters when the weather gets wild.

  6. Whew. I know that feeling. I’m glad the event was short and I’m wishing rain your way, not that we’ve had any. The static electricity in FoCo was nuts!

  7. Thank you for this heart-racing and ever-timely essay. Another moment of experiencing how vastly under-rated breathing is -as I seek to calm myself once again.

    • I confess that I had fun writing this one. We have a similar nervous system to horses, sorry to spook you. 🙂 Thanks, Cindy

  8. So this story brings on flashback time: the 2020 Almeda fire in Talent OR that nearly destroyed our small town. Swooped in from the south along a I-5 and a greenway at 40mph. My 3 mares (later joined by neighbor mare) on site. Very quickly learned just how quickly that Plan A and Plan B can turn into an entire alphabet. Skipping thru a story I will never forget – town burning to the south – fire came to within 20 feet of barn that evening on the east – coming toward house on the west. Firefighters arrived with bulldozers, big planes flying in from the north dropping retardant next door and pulling vertical just at the edge of our property. The horses were utterly AMAZING! Turned them loose. They stayed right in the immediate area (safely as it turned out) moving between the barn (just filled with 10 tons of hay), the house, a small orchard, our pasture fencing and an adjoining pasture. No panic, they kept out of the way, moving away from dozer, and fire crew without bolting. When morning finally came, I found them all in the barn aisle, each with their own bale of hay. They were tired (mentally and physically) and sooty (grey, Lipizzan mares, neighbor QH) – each seemed to have an assignment: lead mare in charge, next in was the ‘lunch lady’ in charge of hay, other two just got in line and found a quiet space. They had accessed their water tanks, established order and were having breakfast. They had been approachable and handleable through the night – but kept their own council. They just all hung out for a couple of days – did not ask anything of them, or even moved them around. They were a tightly bonded herd before – even more so after.

  9. Like most all of us here, I was glued to your narrative with more than a bit of anxiety. While reading, I willed that you would bring us to a happy ending. And you did. But the “elevator music” that you played in the middle was superb, because when dealing with some humans, every day can be a grass fire for horses. I am grateful for your teachings, Anna, past, present and future.

    • Thanks, Lynell. We deserve some happy endings, it isn’t always total disaster. Elevator music is a great description.

  10. Well- written essay, Anna..so relieved all turned out well for you and yours.
    I have a plan for evacuation, but plans can go awry quickly in a crisis.

    I like your concept of emotional balance & of developing a calm in a storm persona. Will keep working on those.

    Just as an aside, and you allude to this in your essay, horses dont necessarily behave in predictable ways when the sh*t hits the fan. Would my Cash follow Bear if scared ? Probably not. In flash flood here a neighbor got her horses to higher, safe ground. But in the dark, in terror they fled back to their usual pasture and perished in flood waters. Or at least we assume thats why they returned to that area going under water.
    But, yes, lets all practice the skills needed to feel safe to our horses so we may implement a plan . Even with the one who will not be haltered. Good job !

    • Thanks, Sarah. The only thing I know for sure is that horses are unpredictable. We can’t guess but if I did, I’d say Cash would be a saint or hysterical. Not helpful, am I? For me, I am so clear that my competition years taught me a lot about disaster management. Okay, I didn’t mean that to sound humorous…

  11. I have a horse, pony, and 2 donkeys and a 2 horse trailer. My wildfire plan is to make two trips to safety IF there is time. My plan B is to gather dog and cats in the truck, drive into my large dry lot, and ride it out with the equines. I’ve been warned that we may not survive the smoke but I’m willing to make that gamble. I WILL NOT leave them. I’m so curious if that was your plan that, thankfully, never had be implemented.

    • My area of dry lot pens are huge and not much fuel around me. We aren’t in a bad way for fire, but I won’t kill myself for them. I’d have to judge each case.I have elders that couldn’t travel. In the end, I have to trust the Universe. It’s done a good job for me so far.

  12. The Riverside Fire in 2020 near Portland was bearing in on our town of Estacada. “Get ready.” I have a 3 horse trailer and 4 horses. Who stays? Picked one to stay at neighbor’s place as she was staying put. Her daughter in WA said no, coming down with trailer for her 2 horses so there was room for our 1, also. Offered us shelter at the in laws as we received evacuation orders. Fire also coming in from south, Riverside from east, and smaller fire had jumped the main road to the west. One way out to north. Had cat in carrier, 4 dogs in truck, 3 horses in our trailer, 1 with neighbor’s daughter and trailer with her 2, heirlooms in Jeep, and off we went, thinking of return to devastation. 10 days later we returned to intact ranch, just luck. Fire came to 1 mile from property. Horses had loaded quietly, even the one into strange trailer with other slightly known horses. Love my animals, love my life, but goodness, hope to never have to do that again.

  13. Just want to high five all of you whose stories gave me goosebumps. Like Maggie, I do what-if’s all the time. I feel so fortunate not having to resort to a Plan A, B or beyond.
    Steel Magnolias, every one of you!

  14. Terrifying, so glad you’re all ok. Makes me want to slap my own hand for grumbling about the wet and cold we’ve had in WA lately.

    I wonder if there is any data on how much non-cumbustable space horses need to be safe if a fire is moving through the area? I have a 100×200 arena, my fire plan is to put the horses there. I wonder if it would be safe.

    • I’ve never seen any data but I drive by burn areas to see what there is to see. I’m sure drylots are good, less fuel is good, but what if there are no firefighters. Just no way to know. Thanks, Shaste


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