Winterizing the Compassion Fatigue. Again.


Chatting lightly about weather is considered the tiniest of small talk, unless you live outside the urban bubble. We take it more seriously out here on the prairie.

There was ice in the water troughs this week. It’s dark early now, and the sun is cooling. The flies are slow and stupid, but still with us. The horses and donkeys have grown their winter coats and just like usual, I haven’t added a single hair.

Are there flies in heaven? I mean just tell me now. (I notice I’m a bit testy.)

For a start, I cleaned the tack room, updated the first aid kit, and pulled out the winter blankets, just in case. Then I mucked out my own mind for a while. It was sorely needed.

There’s a term used in the caregiving world: Compassion Fatigue. The physical expression of that term has to be a long deep sigh.

It isn’t an accidental condition, like getting a cold. It’s a term we first heard of in medical caregiving professions, but it soon spread to animal welfare workers and many other helping professions. The shoe fits a lot of us.

I like this definition. It’s broad and it includes real life: “Compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.” –The American Bar Association. (Who would have thought?)

It’s when a few layers of normal things like work and financial responsibilities and world events meet up with fear and loss and exhaustion, along with the awareness that you aren’t getting younger. It feels a bit like doubt, only sticky and dark. Your horse might be the first one to mention your change.

There’s always a fence to mend before the weather changes, and in that quiet work, I indulge my voices. Yes, I hear voices. It’s my parents, both gone for decades now, who come back to nag me for my foolishness.

My father did not suffer idiots. Well into my adulthood, he wanted me to “grow up,” which always meant act like him. After all, the world is cruel and no place for ridiculous idealists. Idealist is my word for it; like most bullies, his terminology was more coarse.

My mother’s approach was practical; she pleaded with me to be more “normal”; to keep my head down. Always reminding me that life was a veil of tears. My mother knew the safe comfort of giving in and suffering silently.

Here’s what I like about replaying the old tapes–I remember who I am. I remember my particular rebellion–it hasn’t changed. I choose to care. In their eyes, I cared about things that were like gravity; things that weren’t worth fighting because they were never going to change. You can’t save them all, so don’t even try.

My steadfast response: For the ones I help, like this relic of a donkey, all is saved.

Now I’m preparing for my hay delivery by pulling out pallets to clean out the musty hay underneath. Change is inevitable. That’s a given, but the passing of a season is like an arm around your shoulder, urging you to scurry along. Okay, okay.

I admit it. It’s been a rough summer. I don’t think of myself as a worrier, but I do keep my mind busy. It’s a choice to be aware; choosing to care is a kind of prayer to the world. What some people see as a weakness, I am most certain can be our greatest strength: To stay vulnerable in the face of darkness. To hold a vision, against the odds. It’s our superpower.

Perhaps compassion fatigue isn’t the worst thing. It means you have compassion as a pre-requisite, and that requires a special kind of strength in the first place. It’s knowing inside that you have enough to spare and then taking a step forward when a door to possibility opens. It’s the best in us. Against skeptics, fly that flag high and proud.

I drag the tank heaters to the barn with a smile. Hail damage got us a new roof and I upgraded. I know the animals will be a bit more snug this winter. Everyone’s weight is good, the llamas are in full fleece, and I’m considering growing some hair between my toes. It seems to work well for the dogs.

Experts say that the remedy for compassion fatigue is self-care. It’s the art of showing yourself the same compassion you have for rescue horses, stray dogs, and your dear ones. It means letting yourself be the stray dog that you welcome into your own heart. To come in out of the cold, welcomed by the person you were meant to be.

My spiritual beliefs rest with nature. It’s my test of true; I’m comforted that gravity works on all of us. I trust the natural laws. I trust that the monotone prairie is just resting and that the sun’s warmth will return. Nothing dies; it transforms. And as butterfly-vulnerable as we can be, the more compassion and growth are possible.

Sometimes there is a sunset like tonight. Just one beret-shaped cloud perched on Pikes Peak, Jupiter is alone in the southern sky, and a peachy pink and orange gloaming soaks down to the tall grasses; the world is filled with unbearably precious beauty. This dusk coats good things and bad things as equals, as we choose. Being vulnerable means that I can have this infinite moment of perfection.

Meanwhile, back in the house, there’s a new Corgi foster dog here. He’s just a year old and the survivor of both shock collar “training” and canine Prozac. He’s a trainwreck, and maybe part of me is, too. But we’re going to bark and chew our way through this together, under the prairie moon.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

65 thoughts on “Winterizing the Compassion Fatigue. Again.”

    • Could be. Most things are allegories for other things, if we want to find understanding. Or maybe experiences learn from each other. Thank you.

  1. Thank you Anna, from one who cares and others think cares too much! Your articles are a breath of fresh air that do help keep me going. I always wondered why the animals grow more hair in winter and I don’t. Nature is quirky!! Keep watching those sunsets and be thankful for the sunrises. Beauty is all around us.

  2. Love this. I especially love how those of us living on farms have parallel chores happening: I recently cleaned out the tack room, did stock of winter blankets, and got the pallets out of the hay tent to dump the hay debris (and some seeds!) around the barn yard, which effectively overseeds that area each fall. We don’t have the rough winters you do so I have never used tank heaters, but each fall I wonder if this is the year I should get one tank rigged up so we don’t have to clear ice when our temperatures fall. Our trees are nearing peak color right now and like you, I am both excited and comforted and find my spiritual rhythms in the passing of seasons. There are so many lessons to be learned and reinforced by simply being in and observing nature. Have you read Henry Beston’s books at all? He’s a similar kindred spirit. 🙂

    • That’s it exactly, Billie. These chores connect us with a bigger thing, and that’s always good. I’ll add him to my list. Winter is reading season on the farm. Thanks, best wishes.

  3. I love that face. I could get lost in that wise gaze. And a wonderful, compassionate message. Thank you! I enjoy the crisp fall days, putting summer to bed and preparing for winter. I do not look forward to ice and freezing temps, but I do always hope for those special sunny warm days that can surprise us in the middle of the deep freeze. May we have enough of them to carry us through and to lift our spirits and relieve our fatigue.

  4. Donkey’s (name?) expression takes me back to Chico’s looking at me in that same way! Occasionally – after mistakenly stepping on my foot (my mistake-dont think it was his) or one of the times we parted company & he really did NOT understand what I was doing down there! Those times were also NOT his fault! Concerned & a little confused, I guess!
    I understand how anyone who IS compassionate in the way we all are would get fatigued! Sometimes just by hearing people tell us that the way we feel about animals & worry about what happens to them is not important. Honestly, at this point in my life – what other people think or believe – not important. (happens when you get older!) Really good writing…

  5. Thank you Anna

    Yesterday was a very windy day in northern Illinois with a coolness that convinced me winter was coming soon. For some reason after releasing my horse back out to his pasture, something urged me to walk out and sit down on the now hard ground and to just observe. The sun gave me just enough warmth to keep put. I was full of amazement with all that was alive.
    The trees were bowing from one direction to the next almost as if they were in some sort of a dance. Flocks of birds were dancing in the sky dipping here and there with the air current and six geldings were eating morsels of grass and trying to figure out what the heck I was doing!

    My point to this story is beauty and a rekindling of the soul can be found in the most unexpected places.

    Thank you for your continued words of enlightenment!

  6. I draw so much more courage and perseverance from a moment spent with you!! You go girl, and the rest of us are right behind you, Anna xxx

  7. My immmediate response to your donkey’s quiry was “No, yes, sometimes, depends on how much compassion fatigue I’m suffering from……”. My vocation is Nurse, which pays the bills that accumulate from my avocation, Archangel of (thrown away) Animals. As usual, you were spot on about our horses being the first to point out a change (good or bad) in our psyches. With the recent loss of one of my geldings, I apparently have been holding my breath waiting for my most ancient gelding to drop dead. Understandably, he has a problem with my attitude. For weeks I have been thinking “Why is he so grumpy, why does he reject my affection? He’s never been like this before!”. Then, heel of my hand to my forehead, and I realize I need to address my compassion fatigue. Living in a parallel universe with those who choose to fill their lives with these challenges, gives some validation and comfort. Thank you Anna, and thank you for inspiring others to share.

    • Oh, do I know that waiting for the other shoe (or horse) to drop feeling. Ick. Trying not to do it here… Thank you for the good work you do in both your jobs… take good, kind care. Thanks for sharing, Laurie, and I might be wrong, but I bet that old gelding has something for you now. 🙂

  8. Anna,
    You have written a beautiful piece today. Thank you. I teach mindfulness, and I have been doing a lot of meditating lately…. as I worry about the world. Then as you say, nature calls us back to her, reminding us that beauty and wisdom and compassion happen in the tiny moments, when we pay attention. Take care,

    • In my world, horses tell me that it’s all about balance. Maybe there’s just one thing to teach… Thanks, Francine. Good to know you are there.

  9. To quote you:
    “It’s a choice to be aware; choosing to care is a kind of prayer to the world. What some people see as a weakness, I am most certain can be our greatest strength: To stay vulnerable in the face of darkness. To hold a vision, against the odds. It’s our superpower.”
    One of the best and most meaningful things I’ve read in a long time.
    I spent the majority of my life taking care of my maternal grandmother, parents and five step kids (still have the spouise and 13 year old dog). I understand compassion fatigue, some days you just want to run screaming from where you are and what you have to do and go hide where no one can find you, others you’re numb. Most of the time it ends up being just what you do, the routines to get through the days, keep the peace, and you don’t think about it much.
    I’m still holding a vision against the odds, don’t know if that’s a failing or a strength but I’m not about to stop.

  10. Oh how I love your words, this message and the love that shines through it all. Thank you! In a world that feels like its’ gone crazy, you are a breath of fresh air and of hope. I love your philosophy and believe in the possibility of never being able to show too much compassion. Not always easy, at least for me. People can be so difficult, animals are easier – but what an honorable path, purpose in life to give that extra measure of kindness. You are a bright spot!

    • Thank you, and just in case you think I’m a pillar of goodness, I’m not. I write these for myself, too. The world is crazy. Thanks, Lorie.

  11. This made me tear up . . . beautifully written. I think going through compassion fatigue is lot like going through the stages of grief. Those daily, weekly, seasonal activities – all necessary, if somewhat mindless – root you back to where ever you’re supposed to be.

    First time reader here – I’ll be back =)

  12. Thank you so much for this and for the beauty of this post. It’s been a long, warm fall, and I hate to admit it, I’m looking forward to winter, to inside work and not feeling guilty for not riding/driving my horses. Though I’m realizing they are missing my presence, and I hope to find some fun ground work type things to do with them. We too have a little rescue dog who has pretty much settled in, though she barks at Bruce every time he moves (was never around men) and seems to have had a rough life before she came here, so I hear you on your little corgi.

  13. Ya gotta stop making me cry, woman!!!!! I’ve been a dog rescuer for going on 20 years. Lately, the thoughts of compassion fatigue are circling ever closer. I can’t look at any more sad stories, any more if you don’t help RIGHT NOW this one will die!!! posts on FB. I know it. I learned a long time ago that no, you really can’t save them all, that no matter how many you have a hand in saving, there are an endless number needing, crying, for you to help. That’s why I can only do palliative fostering…somewhere along the way I realized that I had a talent for nursing the sick, the old, the worn out, but totally do NOT have a talent for letting them go, except into that great mystery. I can hold them while they cross, whisper that they were loved, whether they really were for a lifetime or the last day. I can hold them all in my heart, and do. But lately, I’ve noticed that my heart seems to keep overflowing through my eyes an awful lot. A lot more than it used to.

    This sad, scary week has left me, as a friend said this morning, shattered. I’m afraid, afraid for the world, afraid for those who think that love really does trump hate, afraid for those of us who try to keep our little bits of light going for the unfortunates of this world. So thank you for the reminder, Anna, that things carry on. I live in Nova Scotia, right on the ocean in my own little bit of heaven on Chezzetcook Inlet. I’ve travelled the world, am from nowhere in particular, yet feel viscerally connected to this piece of earth, especially in the morning when the dawn really does “come up like thunder.” I learn from my dogs and the cats and the horses that what will happen will happen, and all you can do in the face of that is to keep on shining, even if the light is a little dim sometimes.

    • Oh Paula, now your comment… now I’ve got something in my eye, too. You know how important you are, I hope you do. Even on the dim days, you shine like Thunder. Kindest thoughts to you.

  14. Aaahh … Compassion Fatigue. But ya know, one can not have compassion without it. It’s part of the package i guess. Beautifully described, Anna. Man,can you write ! I can see, smell, hear and feel your imagery. XO

  15. I just got home from the barn where I lease a horse, and do barn chores to help out. The moon was bright in the sky, the chill in the wind kept my jacket zipped up. I threw an extra big flake of hay to my horse (shh-don’t tell) and leaned on the fence and just watched him eat by moonlight. He was more interested in the extra hay than my company, but it was my therapy session after a long hard week of work, therapy for that compassion fatigue. Barn chores are a way of caring for myself. I love how a barn full of horses nicker to me when they see me pick up a bale of hay. Makes me feel appreciated and sometimes I just need that.

    • Amen, that is just the thing for me, too. Sometimes it’s just about hearing the right kind of thank you. Great comment, Martha.

  16. So Lovely. Your article had a much needed calming affect on me. Though I love fall so much, the winter preparation is a busy affair with needy animals and their humans.

    Love your message!

    Anna W.

  17. You sound weary, but maybe I’m just projecting my own fatigue. Yes, it HAS been a difficult year—my old dog and best friend, who had been with me through so much, breathed his last with me by his side, a good friend whose wisdom I had come to rely on also passed from this world as did the son of close friends of mine. And then there was Tuesday . . .

    It’s a good thing it’s fall. Time to hibernate, to regroup and rejuvenate and wait for spring.

    • Weary indeed. It’s strange to say but Tuesday made me especially miss those I lost, not that we talked politics…And maybe winter is the natural antidote. I’m sorry for your loss. A good old dog is a precious treasure. Take care, Susan. Thanks for this heartfelt comment.

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