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Calming Signals: Repeat afer me, “Not that I care…”January 20, 2023 / Anna Blake

Because they’re doing construction down the road. His previous owner says he once spooked at a llama. The wind is blowing. There are strange sounds in the woods. The neighbor is mowing their lawn. There are kids playing just outside the arena. Motorcycles might go by. Dogs are barking behind the fence. The farrier was over there forging a shoe. It’s almost the Fourth of July. There are grocery bags blown against the fence. Horses die in lightning strikes, you know.

I swear, people are spookier than horses. Never mind that by the time we see or hear something, it’s been on the horse’s radar for a while, with little concern. We do like to look for problems. We react whether the horse does or not. And we’re smart to be aware of our surroundings.

Because we’re not entirely confident the horse is okay. Does he look off to you? That doesn’t touch all the possible health issues. EHV or DSLD or EGUS or DSP or IBD or EMS or dozens more and we learn three new ailments every week. No one knows the number of undiagnosable maladies and brain disorders possible. With global warming, there are more insect-borne diseases like WNV. For all their strength, horses are remarkably fragile. We must be vigilant because horses drop dead all the time.

If we get past all that, it’s time to do something of vital importance. We might be doctoring a wound, cleaning out hooves, or syringing wormer. It is all vital and must be done properly. And of course, there are training issues. Everything is of vital importance.

Our half of the equation: We know we might get hurt and fault ourselves for not being young and stupid. We want to be acknowledged for doing a good job but are self-critical instead. We know we’re being judged. Even if no one is in sight, that judgment is still immediate and cruel. We stare at our horse, a bright young prospect or a crippled old rescue, wishing we’d done a better job grooming them while worrying about the horrible things that might have happened to them in the past.

Best to not bring up the topic of the expense of horses, since most of us aren’t trust fund babies.

We just love horses. We are kind; we anticipate their needs. We study and listen to experts who contradict other experts and try to sort it out. We are half-drown in our own compassion for horses. Every detail matters and we insist on doing our absolute best every instant. Horses are a grand passion that we thrive on. Seeing our horse nibbling at some hay is enough to bring tears to our eyes. We know that horses feel our emotions and we love that about them, too. Even as we flood them.

People explain how much they love their horses and I listen. Theirs is a love mythical proportion, they explain because they are certain this thing they feel is unique. As if horse love is a rare thing that sets them apart from others. As if their heart horses, as we call them in quiet reverence, are a rare and exotic breed. As if horses have not ruled every day of my life.

It’s hard to not take ourselves too seriously, but love isn’t the question. What if we thought more about how horses receive it? Some of us had parents who criticized us constantly because of love. Feared for us because of love. Smothered us because of love.

Love is complicated, says anyone who has tried to hug a mare who thinks you’re a sap. She’s right. We do burn a little hot. A trainer I know calls it Aggressive Love. The mare has her own natural anxiety and now she’s giving you the side eye.

Your horse stands by as you worry there is something in the woods. Your anxiety piles on top of his natural anxiety; now he wonders what you are concerned about, too. The medication needs to be taken so we approach with a bit more anxiety that feels edgy to the horse. Our hands get stronger, we go faster for his own good. Bullied for love.

As a trainer, I’m lucky. My clients are never cruel. No one wants to dominate horses, we train affirmatively. We are more prone to dominate with love. As I listen to all our excuses about wind and other externals, I see calming signals horses give to us because we love hard. We stalk like wolves, we grab like mountain lions. Always with the best of intentions.

And horses read our intentions in our body language. Can they sense if our anxiety is about them or the weather? Are they resisting what we ask or how we ask? Is our kindness served with a dollop of anxiety on top?

There are two non-negotiables. Horses will always be horses. We will always love hard. I hope this never changes. And I hope most of all that my love isn’t a burden for my horse.

I could quiet my emotions, not that I care... Can I have that thrushy hoof, not that I care… Let’s go for a canter depart, not that I care... And those railbirds can sit and squawk, not that I care...

Sometimes horses mistake concern for doubt, as a child might when hearing adults talk about war. We hold our breath wondering about a friend’s horse with EPM and our horse goes quiet in his eye. We see a storm coming and think about colic. Any reasonable owner would, but our horse looks away. Horses seek safety and sometimes that means protecting them from our good intentions. As much as we want to control all the things out of our control, including our horses, we are doomed to fail. But we can monitor our thoughts around horses.

Not that I care… allows me to exhale a bit of anxiety. I will dull the edge of my love and open the door to the positive possibility that is also ours to claim. Because I do care more than a horse can bear.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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