Gray Mares, Time, and Priorities

Do you notice that it gets a little easier to be yourself every day?

Public speaking wasn’t the sort of thing I was born being good at. My first lesson: Everyone thinks it’s a good idea if the person making the presentation breathes from time to time. I listened to podcasts about public speaking, and I practiced pontificating in a clear loud voice while mucking and simultaneously breathing. Writing helps with speaking, too.

There I was in a large meeting room of a fancy hotel, standing behind a podium. At clinics, I build podiums out of muck barrels and coolers, but this was a store-bought wooden one. My shoes were clean, I had a microphone on my lapel, and it was a good day. Make eye contact with your audience, they tell you. I usually pick three people; left, right, and center. It was going well. There was some laughter when I was being intentionally humorous. Fifteen minutes in, a man who favored cowboy dressing walked down the center aisle and sat in the second row. He stretched his legs out, crossed his arms over his chest, and furrowed his brows at me. I smiled back. 

I was explaining Calming Signals and the man seemed to think I was an idiot and was not subtle about it. He glared, he fidgeted, he grimaced. I wondered if that approach worked on others, as I moved around my podium and walked out directly in front of his legs, positioned like cross rails in the center aisle. I gave him an unrestricted view of me, made eye contact, and showed him every tooth in my mouth, continuing with newfound vigor. He tisked, muttered, shook his head. Was he heckling me? I let my hands dance in the air, I stood square and looked left, right, and straight into his flinty little eyes. I felt shockingly mature as I remembered times in the past I had bit my tongue when dismissed by naysayers, only to stew, hash and broil about it for days after. You know what I mean. 

But now I was a woman of a certain age. I made a conscious choice to not get defensive, and let my voice ride out. There was applause at the end, but he was gone before I could thank him for coming. Genuinely. Things have entirely changed since middle school. I had no idea how much you could enjoy smiling at people who don’t like you. It felt like taking off your underwear at the end of a long hot day. 

It should be easier or come sooner in life. Is there something you’re holding your belly in about? Have you been clenching your jaw to quiet your words or pushing your hands deep in your pockets and looking away? Those are calming signals, too. With horses, calming signals are often expressed at the intersection of two conflicting thoughts. They might want to stay with the herd but be curious about going with their human. When we give them a minute to resolve their emotions, they will make a choice, and that action builds confidence.

It works for us like it does horses, but we have that complicated noodle of a frontal lobe and it gives us the ability to think too much. We weigh both sides and languish in worry and indecision. Then we take a break and worry what others will think. Returning to the first issue, we weigh the other thirty or forty sides to our dilemma because the pandemic makes all things murky and nebulous, and then we overthink some more. At some point, making any decision, right or wrong, would be a relief. Just being yourself would be enough if the path back were visible.

Why should a horse trainer mention these things? Because our painful indecision is illuminated by having a horse. That horse is a changing life, at the center of another life that is always changing. Maybe it’s time to retire your horse and you aren’t ready to stop riding. Maybe it’s time to ease away from riding but your horse is ready to run. You know women making a different decision and you linger, wishing her decision would work for you. Even if the issue is not horse-related, it comes up when we’re with them because horses are anxiety detectors. 

This is your annual reminder that the things out of your control are still out of your control. Maybe a better question is have the priorities changed? Your priorities are easy to know; after all the talking, it’s where you spend your time and money. Has that gotten tangled up? Are you holding ground that might be traded for something better? So many of us have fought so hard for what we have that we’re bound up in the fear of loss. Are our powerful defenses blocking the next good thing?  Maybe we swear off words like should, always, and never to make room for opportunity. Would release feel brand new?

Being a woman of a certain age can be a quirky and awkward time. For all that faces us, may our truest days be ahead. That’s what our horses would wish for us. Authenticity is better than a fantasy, if you ask them. Perhaps it’s time to let go of what isn’t ours and celebrate wanting what is within our grasp.

It’s time to update that personal serenity prayer. Mine includes doing the things that feel like getting out of my underwear at the end of a long, hot, but exceptionally good day. What about you?

 Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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44 thoughts on “Gray Mares, Time, and Priorities”

  1. Unfortunately, I find myself sometimes in that place where I try to appease certain people, not many, but a few, not wanting to offend. Although I do let my true self shine with trusted friends and loved ones, there is still the occasional person that I feel the need to be less than authentic with (like when I want to tell her to KMA — that’s a technical term) but I don’t. But what I do is similar to what you did with that man: I smile, basking in the knowledge that I am truly the superior one in this exchange and make them less comfortable in their smugness. But just yesterday I was at my new boarding barn and I must say I was proud of myself for “standing up” to a few of the less fortunate by just saying, “This is my way, thank you very much.” Smiling, and moving on. Next time I might even chuckle when conversing with them, thinking about how good it feels to get out of that hot underwear! Thank you, Anna Blake, for making me more confident to tell my truth. Or perhaps what I might call our collective truth. Peaches thanks you, too.

    • Kathy,
      I am with you there, too.

      About one week ago, my Thoroughbred, who is a gentle boy, just playful and tends to pick things up and throw them around,
      was nuzzling the barn owner with his lips. He was not being mean, just trying to our attention. She was closer to him and she
      lifted her hand and slapped his face hard. If he was being a little cheeky, he wasn’t being mean.

      I was shocked that she would do this, and said nothing. I literally couldn’t speak for a moment. the conversation moved on, and
      as she is somewhat hard of hearing, she did not hear my request not to hit him on the face, but began discussing politics with my husband. My husband said nothing, either; we were both stunned.

      My horse opened and closed his mouth a few times, as though the ‘sting’ had shocked him, too.

      Two days later, the barn owner lifted her hand as though to hit another horse, but his owner was there; she’s a vet tech.
      The barn owner withdrew her hand.

      I am still upset about this, but the barn owner has been away for a week in Oregon and just returned, so I have not yet said
      anything. Of course, it’s getting worse and I fear she is doing this when I am not there. Apart from the fact that it’s absolutely
      not all right to hit my horse (or any horse) on the face, I am considering how I should approach this. Care is otherwise very
      good at this barn, but if this is occurring, it could damage his jaw or break or dislodge a tooth.

      Like you, I try never to offend anyone. But then, we are taken advantage of. I am not one of her 12 year old students.
      I will have to address this soon and it’s not comfortable. My husband has asked me not to cause trouble (you know how
      difficult it is to find a good barn), but I need to address it.

      The old school (and I remember from days in Ireland in my youth — I am in the 60s, too) was aggression and demands; never gentleness. Any such treatment sours an animal and we have too many of those, already. Once trust is broken, it is very difficult or even impossible to re-establish it.

      I hope I can talk about this without issues. I know you will understand.

      Thank you for your post.


      • I hope you can get thru to this barn owner. As you said – finding a good barn is not easy. Having read your comments for a while I’m sure whatever the result – it will be to your horse’s benefit above all else. Good luck.

      • Oh, how what she did offends me, Nuala! My horse also likes to use her mouth to communicate, never biting, only nuzzling, exploring the world that way, and it is what I want her to continue to do. Part of keeping their curiosity alive and well and not having them shut down is not punishing them for something that is natural! My suggestion (so as not to embarrass her in front of others) is to send an email or text to her, telling her in a kind way that the behavior is something you like in your horse and that slapping him is not something that you agree with or want to have done (or words to that effect.) And as an aside, I was asked to leave one barn, and left another, until I found a good one with an owner who feels about horses the way we do. They are out there! If she is doing it to other horses she has a definite problem. Perhaps she is scared of being bit? Who knows but for me, that would definitely not happen to my horse again. If it remains a problem (again, just me) but I would start quietly looking for another barn. I had a problem with something that was done at the barn I am at now, I emailed the owner about it, she apologized and said not to worry. It will be dealt with, and it was. She is a professional. Owners who don’t respect the wishes of the boarders (if reasonable) are not good ones. And your desire to not have your horse slapped is beyond reasonable. Hope this helps. Let me know what you decide to do. Best of luck with it.

        • I should tell you that I was asked to leave the first barn because I pointed out (found out) that my horse was not getting the supplements that were supposed to be giving her (she has EMS) and when I pointed it out it apparently was a problem for them! Can’t have that. My horse’s well being is first above all else. We are trusting them with something precious and if they can’t be trusted, well……

        • No, no hitting ever, but the reason I keep harping on Calming Signals is that horses talk to us with their muzzle and what we think is curiosity or affection is usually a message about pain. Muzzle anxiety isn’t something to like or dislike, it is a call for help. Have I been too blunt??

          • Interesting discussion. I am not sure that what Peaches does is muzzle anxiety. She doesn’t do it constantly or with any urgency. For example, when she sees a new ‘something’ she reaches out to smell/touch it. A bucket in the aisle. A new chair in the arena area. The new dog she met yesterday. When I put my head into the opening in her stall gate she reaches toward my face and we breath together for a few seconds, then she goes back to her hay. When I sit with her in the pasture she walks over and puts her muzzle in my hair. She sometimes rests her head on my shoulder. Once she went after my boot strings but not in an aggressive way. That kind of thing. I don’t know the definition of muzzle anxiety and of course I am open to learning more, but for my mare it seems to be more of a playful/curiosity behavior than anything else. I suppose that you could say that exploring new things is based on a certain anxiety (is it going to hurt me?) but I don’t see it as a call for help unless I am totally off the mark, which I may be! Thanks very much for the conversation.

      • As I said to Kathy, No, no hitting ever, but the reason I keep harping on Calming Signals is that horses talk to us with their muzzle and what we think is curiosity or affection is usually a message about pain. Muzzle anxiety isn’t something to like or dislike, it is a call for help. Have I been too blunt??

        • Anna, I am relieved to hear your response about no hitting under any circumstance.

          That said, what would you advise these barn owners/managers to do to keep themselves beyond a “muzzling” horse’s muzzle? I would think there are some simple solutions.

        • I can’t seem to Reply directly to your question, so I will do it here. Sometimes, yes. I don’t allow cookies or peppermint treats fed to her by anyone, but I must say (with a certain amount of guilt) that I have offered the occasional carrot but not very often. On average perhaps once a month or so. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I know I should stop completely and I will. I remember you saying, “Let you be the treat!” and I am a believer.

          • Anna, that is good to know and to think about. I will watch that more closely now, seeing it with new eyes, and look into how to get her stress-less. Thanks for the bluntness!!

  2. Wow-I love that: The things out of your control are still out of your control. If only we all could keep repeating that & then really believe it & act on it! It would mean letting go of so many ideas, feelings, actions, etc. that can’t & won’t change no matter what. It would mean a much simpler existence and be the end of trauma & our continued feelings of inadequacy-that if we could only do “whatever” or feel “whatever”.

  3. This hit the spot, Anna I’m a worrier – what ifing things to pieces! Usually stuff that is going to happen – no matter whether I worry about it or not! Have done it with my kids (as I guess we all do) & used to do it with Chico, now with Axel & Juliette. I realize that it doesnt change a single thing – but?????

  4. YES! Cheering loudly! Bravo! This is a defining moment that all of us of a certain age should embrace and encourage amongst ourselves. This time of personal reflection and enlightenment is important in finding our true selves where we can finally move forward with confidence. May the champion of the word always find conviction in her knowledge and sincere voice! Grateful again??

  5. Amen sister! I turned 70 in September and never liked myself better. I am content (of course, not all the time). I have had my beautiful 17 h grey gelding for nine years and have never been happier. If things go south, I can say without reservation, it has been a good ride. ?

  6. Yes, 2 thumbs up! Staying true to myself while practicing ignoring (with a smile) what I can’t change is probably my biggest challenge and my biggest joy in being “of a certain age”.
    And, I’m totally with Kelly – thank you Anna for holding the flashlight to help us make it through this tunnel!

  7. I love this even though I have not found the confidence yet. I’m working on it though. I need to stop worrying about every-little-thing and just decide and go with it. Finding out who I am and what I really want is key.

  8. Omgosh! I SOOO love this. I spent the early years as a sheep, unable to speak, let alone speak my truth authentically. Life and horses have helped me to become someone who now lives deeply in my true skin, masks off. It was exhausting to morph to what I perceived to be expecatations of the outiside world. It is liberating to be ME. Fully. Take it or leave it. Last month I celebrated my move toward “eldership,” by getting a beautiful medicine band tattoo on my forearm. Each line was a prayer as the band was embedded into my arm and my soul. Now, I look at it, wrinkles, saggy skin and work each day to embracing THIS aspect of my life journey. Anna, thanks for this post. For me it was perfectly timely.

  9. I have a 96-year-old barn which is on the Washington State Heritage Barn Register. Every two years limited 50% grants are available from the state for restoration projects. My barn needs trusses replaced and the south face of the hay loft rebuilt. That’s just it’s structural needs.

    Since my husband passed in October 2020 I’ve been working hard to generate cash so I could apply for one of the grants (you must come up with 100% and when the project is finished the state pays you back 50%….yikes.) I sold the little ’73 VW Super Beetle waiting got it’s first car show, sold the flat bed car hauler, sold the 4-horse stock trailer for $3000 MORE than I paid for it in 2009. I amassed $18K in cash and found a local construction manager compassionate about barn restoration. At home a day later I sat quietly waiting for his bid on the labor cost. Through his email, and my tears, I saw his bid come back at $32K. Damn, only $14K short with only a week until the grant applications closed. Knowing materials would probably run me another $15-20K I knew I had been defeated.

    I wrestled with that defeat for about a week. Then I asked myself what was really important in my life. An easy answer: my family and my farm. I still had those. My horses were safe and cozy in their almost century-old barn (they live in the newer “horse side” not the “former dairy cow side”.) My family, although sprinkled further apart than I’d like, are out there and loving and happy. I just need to spend more time with them.

    So this coming week I’ll be putting the $18K down on a new-to-me little motorhome. So I can explore the country with my family. To sit at night by campfires with sticky s’mores fingers and grandkids asleep in my lap. To hike with dogs pulling and children chattering. And to relax and not worry about barn restoration and raising money anymore.

    Those hot underwear on the floor? Yeah, they’ve cooled off already.

    As always, thank you Anna.

  10. Brilliant as usual Anna……..”Horses are anxiety detectors”……I am going to post that in my “She Shed”. Over the years horses have taught me many life lessons. Worrying about what others think might be one of the most valuable. I have learned to trust my gut, made a promise to never doubt my intuition as it is uniquely mine, and to stop psychoanalyzing so much because it tends to immobilize me. I rely on this mantra the horses taught me and it has served me well during my periods of doubt ….. “I’m thirsty, there’s the water trough, I’m going to take a drink”. Period.


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