“What I love”

I love that Oberon now has enough strength, and trust, to wag his head proudly at me, impatient for grain, knowing that he will not be hit and knowing that grain will come. I love when he struts like a proud stallion, flashing a shadow of the gaits he once possessed before he was broken.
I love that Razzle is walking better each day, and that she runs out to greet Oberon each morning as he roars and squeals and welcomes her back for another day alive.
I love that Molly knows when I call her name, whether she is to run to me with the herd, or whether (being out of bounds somewhere) she is supposed to take off and slip quickly back in the way she came, unseen by the rest of the band. I love that we lead that band together. I love that then I can approach her, this huge proud black mare, and pet her gently, and she turns and mouths my fingers. I love that she is so gentle and so fierce.
I love watching Finn and Rhett playing at sunrise, circling and rearing and gently nipping, showing big trots and high tails like flags. I love watching the mares watching the boys show off.
I love watching Aggie Jo grow up, becoming strong of limb and mind, a confident little leader. I love that she enjoys watching chunks of ice float downstream, and I love that I have taken the time to learn that about her.
I love that nearly any horse here can be lead gently with just a loose lead about their neck, or just by verbal commands. I love that they trust that we will lead them somewhere safe.
I love that Apollo is calm and happy and that he jumped! That he is thriving despite abuse and illness. And I love how beautiful his sister Sparrow has grown, without a trace of darkness in her soul.
I love that the christmas colts have learned to drink from the stream, and canter around the herd, and come when called. I love that the already trust enough to have their hooves trimmed and coats brushed out at liberty. I love that they are growing.
I love that Clover nickers at me now, a low three beat call, as I approach. I love that her son is learning early that there are humans that are trustworthy. I love that they are still together, peaceful in a field.
I love that I had the chance to know Jed, and that because of that love, I miss him every day. I don’t regret a moment of that. I love that others beyond our little farm got a sense of his magnificent soul, and could see the value in a broken down amish horse.
And I love that others out there may read these words, and knowing the love of a horse, share my happiness.

“Gentling the boys”

Our first feral colt was Finn. It was my first auction and I was unprepared for it. Finn and I met in the back, where he was alone in a small pen, head down, depressed and scared. He wasn’t wearing a halter, but had rough marks on his face from recent failed attempts. I brought the skinny colt a bit of hay, which perked him up, and I took note of his number, figuring that a young horse had value and would find a home. He was run through the auction nearly last, and before he came onto the floor, they set up 8′ high fence panels. I didn’t understand why, until they opened the door and he ran in, angry and scared and unmanageable. I understand now, that untrained young horses, much less stud colts, aren’t wanted by anyone, even kill. They are too much trouble.
I watched sort of in shock, as his opening bid amount, dropped and dropped, to $5, and as many readers here know, we took him home.
That was nearly three years ago, and Finn has blossomed into a gentle young horse and herd leader here. What I wanted to share was one of the techniques that we devised to help all of us become friends.
Finn, like many that we have now known, had some previous handling, and it was ugly and frightening. This makes our task even harder. Finn was being kept in isolation, partly for health reasons and partly because he was a stud. And being a stud was adding a level of testosterone to our interactions that made it even more difficult! I called our vet to geld him immediately and they arrived, and laughed. “We can’t geld him” they said, “we can’t even touch him!”…”Ohh…” my voice trailed off, “I thought you could dart him or something….”. The vet team kindly explained that they would need to be able to calmly halter him, stand beside him, and stick a needle in his neck. They showed me how to use a tooth pick to get him used to the sensation of a needle. Then they packed up, “call us when he’s ready”.
I was left alone with a wild young stallion.
I have tried ‘join ups’ with some success, but felt I needed something else, I needed to have the young horse get used to me, and get used to being handled, and consider it a pleasant experience. And I had to do something that would keep us mutually safe. This is just what worked for me. I decided to use food.
Food isn’t the most unique way into a horse, and some would say that it’s not a good one. BUT, Finn does not need food now to feel safe and comfortable with us, and we do not use treats or anything else at all when at liberty with our herd. So maybe as a way ‘in’ to a scared and starved horse, it’s not so bad.
I began by using a grain in a rubber pan. At first, even this was too scary, and needed to be left in his enclosure. He would circle suspiciously, and sniff cautiously, and creep in for a bite. Then leave. Finn probably hadn’t had grain before, he certainly hadn’t had a lot of food! Finn liked food! And Finn liked carrots. I started putting out tiny amounts at various moments in the day, in various parts of his enclosure, so he began to look for it, and then look for me. Finn learned quickly. After a few days, I started setting the bowl down and standing near it. This was a big step, and the ‘trick’, from the human’s point of view, is to never chase the horse, even by putting a hand out, and following a retreating horse with a hand. Let the horse come to you. Finn finally saw that he could step near me and eat, and I would not try and touch him.
Food on the ground evolved to bowl in my hand. Even closer, Finn got used to coming into my space to eat. This borders on hand feeding and that can have bad consequences, but in this case, Finn was already so frightened, and so ready to bolt, that he needed to feel safe being near a human. And this needed to grow into touch. One touch and Finn was gone. He really didn’t like people. (in another blog we re-count getting him home!). So now that he enjoyed his grain, he was going to have to work harder to get it. As I held the bowl with one hand, I held my other hand up over it. In order to eat, Finn had to willingly put his head under my hand. Many times he bolted. I had to ease into this, holding my hand without any tension, by my face, and slowly lower it when he was NOT under it. If he retreated, my hand did not follow. As he became used to brushing his mane against my hand without awful consequence, he willingly stepped up. The space got smaller that he would duck into, until his nose would touch. I began to switch my hand location, so that sometimes his cheek or underjaw would get brushed. If the contact was too much, he could pull away and I would not follow. It became HIS CHOICE to initiate contact, and it was rewarded with yummy food and soft scratches.
These times extended, as Finn became used to being touched. As Finn jumped less, my hand would become gently more insistent, petting longer and staying with contact for a second longer, then releasing. I began to stand at his side, and began reaching under, teaching the beginnings of ‘release on pressure’, bringing his face in, and into food. I do believe it’s easier to help a young horse learn and adapt, and it wasn’t long until Finn looked forward to visits. We began adding Finn’s ‘good night carrot’ to the daily routine, and finding him flat out snoring in the morning.
Introducing the halter happened in the same small stages; first by having a rope halter present, then by touching him with it, then by insisting that if he wanted to eat, he needed to get scratched with the halter. Rubbing his face with the halter morphed into putting the noseband up onto his nose, and then removing it before he did. Step by step, Finn lost his fear and began to enjoy being touched and scratched, and soon enough Finn was gelded, and able to join the herd. And by then, we were trusted friends; without any food.
I know that there are many systems for gentling horses, this is just something that we developed that worked for us. We have used this ‘bribery’ technique for a pile of colts, who have come to us and just need a chance to learn that people can be safe and caring. I am using this technique right now with Cooper, a yearling colt who arrived unhandled and in need of motivation to bother to deal with us. Cooper can now be scratched and touched all over his head and I am starting to bring his head around, to re-introduce the halter to him. If it gets too much, he can back off and we try again later. So far so good.

“The big scary thing in the dark (or, ‘No, really, I can explain’)”

Sunset is like 4:30 pm in the winter, so chores are usually finished in the dark (persistent procrastination is the topic of another blog, or will be whenever I get around to it). Chores are amusing here; Hay is stashed in all kinds of barns and rooms in barns, connected via obscure pathways, staircases, and shortcuts. Hey, we’re making do with what we have!

As I headed out last night for the lower barn, I debated going the long way and turning on the lower barn lights first, or just taking a flashlight, and the shortcut, down to the lower hay stash, to throw some out to the hordes below. I opted for the latter, as the shorter path (read ‘lazy’) and entered the barn above, from the side.

It’s a short trip through the first room, which used to be very scary before I knew each creak and object; and I stepped into a hole in the wall and onto a lowered ladder with confidence. This leads to the old milking parlor, an unstable floor but useful for packing with hay, as long as one knows where to step. I am brave now! I skipped halfway down before a heard a noise. Standing on what I realize is a very rickety ladder, surrounded by stacks of hay and narrow aisles, I am aware that I am not alone. All those little hairs stand up on my neck. Something is there. Some mysterious huge creature is breathing very close in front of me. Or was breathing, until hearing me, and we both paused, mid-inhale, and waited. And that second became very very long, and every Stephen King story flooded back, and every awareness of being a foolish girl standing alone in a decrepit barn floods your cells. OH, I knew this was a huge mistake. I mean, how long would it take for someone to even find my dead eaten body, out here in nowhere? What was I doing up here in the country anyway? How foolish was I, that now I had caused my own demise at the hands of some scary creature now hiding in the hay stacks?

My heart skipped. Followed by a small snort; was that a horses’ warning sound? A small shuffling…of a hoof? The smell of black hide. And the invisible creature just in front of me took form. “MOLLY?!?”I say, with hope…It was Molly. We both sighed with palpable relief. I am such a wuss.

Molly and Finn had broken into the hay loft, aka the ‘old milking parlor’, and wedged themselves in the stacks for an all you can eat buffet, in an area that they should not have been able to fit. “Didn’t you have enough hay outside Molly?”. Apparently not, she snuffled happily in my direction. Head to head, they could not exit easily or quickly, but stood there pigging out. Fortunate that we all knew each other, and recognized each other, before any of us three bolted. It took a minute to get to the door (around Finnys giant tushie) and get it open again, sufficient to back Finn out, then get Molly to follow. All in the dark. They were amiable enough, too stuffed to care much and just glad I hadn’t been a lion coming down the ladder to eat them. I secured the gate and added another 2 x 4 across the opening. We proceeded to join the herd without incident, altho’ when I was leaving, my heart still a little light, Molly did have a bit of a pout on her pretty perchie face. Lead mares, I swear.

Human interference messing up a good thing…

Everyone talks about how wonderful it is to watch herd dynamics and of course, it’s true. We are blessed to be able to observe many different horses and see what works for them. What works for one doesn’t always work for another, and a good herd combo in Field A doesn’t always jive when moved to Field B.
Case in point;
Awhile back in our history, (maybe 18 months ago!) we were creating a band in a large, borrowed, 15 acre field. There were three geldings in this band; Jack, our 17 hh OTTB who has underdeveloped herd skills; Whisper, our 14.2 hh wild mustang with few people skills but excellent herd abilities’ and Finn, at the time was an 18 month old gelding in training with everyone. Jack had been the ‘de facto’ herd leader until Whisper came along and promptly took over. There was minimal chasing and no actual contact, because Jack is a thoroughbred and they are the equivalent of ‘english gentlemen’, and don’t come to blows if at all avoidable. Jack would rather sit down to tea and watch old episodes of Mr. Ed. So when Whisper arrived, thrilled to be with horses again, he established himself as the leader and began training Finn, who was kept on the edge of the band, which also included a few mares. This tale isn’t about the mares (sorry girls) but their presence is important. Just before Whisper moved in, Jack was desperately in love with the supermodel-of-the-fields, a tall drink of water we called Bella. That romance ended when the short fierce mustang entered the picture and won her away within a few hours. Jack was very ‘english’ about it and returned to his old companion, Ginger, who forgave his dalliance and grazed at his side again.

Things were peaceful in the field for the summer, and Jack seemed to enjoy being second in command; if I approached the herd, Whisper would flick his eye and send Jack back to intercept, sort of like stopping me at the door. If I persisted in wanting to speak to the boss, Jack would block my way long enough to allow Whisper and Bella to trot off. It was a very efficient team, really. As summer shifted to fall, our time in the field was up, and I needed to move the herd to our barn across the road and down the hill. Some new fencing was completed and ready for them down there. Since Whisper still wasn’t copacetic to being haltered, I set up simple rope ‘chutes’ to cross the band to a 1/2 acre fenced field, where I intended to then move them from the other side of that down the hill. We’d done this move a number of times so I anticipated an easy success. With the ropes set up, I crossed the band quietly into the smaller field, and locked up that entry, when I heard commotion.

Behind me, an uproar had begun. Apparently the field wasn’t big enough for other geldings, and Whisper had begun to chase his former first lieutenant around the perimeter of the field. Jack was scared and running; usually when horse is driving off another, they let up once dominance is established, but Whisper wanted Jack out of the field. I was trying to intercept and cut Whisper off (yes I realize now this wasn’t the brightest plan but Whisper’s fear of humans was great and I wanted to protect Jack). Whisper wasn’t breaking stride, and I could not catch either of them as Jack headed back for the closed gate he had come from. I watched helplessly as Whisper angled to drive Jack out and Jack, poor boy, with no alternative, leapt the wood fence.

It was a glorious site, or it would have been under different circumstances, the huge white thoroughbred soaring up and over 4′ of wood; and Jack nearly cleared it, escaping Whisper, he nearly pulled off the jump. But his back hock caught on the fence upright, the angled wood edge, and pulled Jack down, and he skidded instead of landing, on his knees on the road.

It was awful. I ran to him as he got up, cursing and mumbling, scared and angry, bleeding from scrapes and cuts, and I tried in futility to comfort him. Off he marched down the road, fuming in embarrassment, away from the house and field. I walked beside him, hardly able to keep up, agreeing with his insults about Whisper, waiting until I could get him to calm down a bit, and we marched all the way to a neighbors front lawn, and I was able to distract Jack by pointing out the grass, and we slowed and diverged off the road. And breathe. We were both shaking. Jack’s wounds didn’t appear deep but he was soo upset, that was the bigger concern. After several minutes I was able to slip a rope around Jack’s neck and then move to quietly halter him. We had to go back.

Together we began walking down the road, my hand on his shoulder. He wanted to return to the big field, but it was borrowed and our time was up. As we came within site of the small field, still with Whisper and the mares, Jack balked. I mean, balked big time. I tried walking him on the opposite side of the street but that wasn’t going to work. I was able to take him across and up into the neighbors field but things were becoming precarious. Jack was soo upset and so wanted to leave, and I was trying to help get him around and down to our barn to safety but he didn’t understand! Anyone who has tried calming a 17 hh injured panicky horse knows how scary it was for us, as I kept gaining and losing control of his direction, trying to spin him safely away and up into the other fields. Finally we had some small progress, as distance increased so did his quietness.

But we had a dilemma; the only way now to get home was to continue to cross into another neighbors field, and no one was home. Jack walked willingly with me now, and together we climbed a stone wall and into the back area behind their barn, me praying that the dogs didn’t come out. All was quiet; we walked together down their driveway, now well past the field and our house, and when Jack saw that I was taking him down thru the gate to our barn, he sped up joyfully. Whew. So we made it down behind our old barn and Jack saw some familiar faces in some mares that had moved earlier. I watched his face as he brightened, began to rush to them, then paused, a shadow crossing his eyes, as he scanned for Whisper among them. Poor guy. I told him it was safe, and we moved forward again, and Jack was reunited with some friends.

His physical wounds were doctored, the scrapes healed quickly, the fetlock longer. But his mental wounds have taken a much longer time to heal. At Jack’s request, I attempted to reunite Jack and Whisper again in the big field about a month later. I stood at the gate and let Jack out and watched him wander up. One smoldering look from Whisper was all it took and I welcomed Jack back out of that field and back down to the barn, with a different group. His ego was badly damaged.

The boys wintered apart that year with different mares, and by spring, in a new large herd, and under new management, we tried again. It was going to be important for Jack’s health that he face this, safely, and important for our herd management that we be able to have them interact. By this time Finn had taken over the main herd. Finn trained with both Whisper and Jack, and he retains a respect for Jack that is invaluable. Jack is the quiet elder, and Finn protects him. Whisper was de-throned by his young strong pupil and took it graciously, and is a valued member of the herd, usually assigned to outlying security detail. He is a proud member of the herd. When they met again, it was under this new herd structure, and in the field that Jack had called home all winter. With enough space to move and increased confidence, Jack was able to face his adversary. And with increased awareness on my part, I could discretely help ‘move’ Whisper before Jack became trapped anywhere. As Jack’s fear lessened, Whisper pursued him less. He can ‘move’ Jack but usually they do their own thing. Jack is inside with Finn and the mares if he is with the herd, but Jack as also been assigned special duty elsewhere. Jack has found new confidence in spending time with the ‘baby band’ and as we continue to improve his health, his strength returns. Both horses are loved members of the herd.

This recounting is not in any way to blame Whisper for anything; the only blame lays with me and my faulty judgement. I learned a valuable lesson at Jack’s expense. Sometimes when people decide that horses ‘can’t get along’ it may be that they need more space and time to work it out. Horses are herd animals and hierarchal animals, and that is how they survive. In order to allow that to work, they need the space to do it in. Whisper is being the mustang he was born to be, and Jack is being the horse that man made him and in between, we are all learning slowly to find some harmony.

Whisper's first hour with Jack's band...

What will $5 buy you today?

About eight months ago you couldn’t get a gallon of gas for five bucks in many parts of the country.  But the other night we got a deal.

When the aforementioned price of gas went up so did everything else dependent on gas – including the price of hay.  What the hay – you say?  Well this forced up the price of feeding a horse in an already struggling economy.  So what do you do when you can no longer feed Trigger…

I was sick that evening, but the truth be told I really didn’t want to go to the auction in Onadila.  That is, the horse auction.   My wife said she was only going to get some cheap tack.  Of course I knew the risks.  We had gone from no horses to five horses in as many months.  Still I really didn’t want to see this auction.  I’ve seen to many crimeless victims.

So I was just sitting around in my pjs drinking my last glass of Theraflu when I got the call.  I could hear her tears.  “It was awful.  They all went for cheap.  And so many good one went to the kill buyers.”

Unless you choose to put your head in the sand you are probably aware that most unwanted horse end up at auction and the most unwanted of them end up in the back of a truck to a Canadian slaughterhouse.  Now I’m not talking about mean ornery horses that attack people.  Just everyday old trail horses and pets that spent their better years riding people around but were now just to much to feed.

“So how many are we getting?” I asked knowingly.  “Just one.”  I’m guessing buy now you’ve already figured out how much that one cost.

He was a little colt.  Not trained.  Not gelded.  Frightened and alone, they thought he wasn’t even lead-able.  He was brought in the ring, un-haltered, next to last and was going to the kill buyer for $5 when Dawn stepped in.

“How are you getting him home?” Being it was already 10:00 PM and she was an hour away – with no trailer, I couldn’t even imagine.

But round midnight she pulled up followed by a trailer.

Did I mention we have no outdoor lights leading down to the pole barn – the only place we could keep the horse for now?

The older man who had trailered the horse for her swore up and down we couldn’t lead him.   But what choice did we have?   So we hooked up two leads to the little guy and lead him down a pitch black road by flashlight around the big yellow barn to the darkened pole barn at the bottom of the hill.  He was quite frightened but actually quite good.  We tied him to a post and gave him some hay and water.  He was ravenous.  He probably hadn’t eaten for several days.

fin1

The next morning we headed down to the barn to see what we could do with him.  He learned very fast. He let us pet him and brush him and then take him for a walk in the field.  I think he’s going to be a very good horse.

fin_walk

So you may not be able to get a good meal, see a movie or even get an imported beer in your local bar for five bucks today, but if you’re willing to take a chance you could still find some pretty good bargains out there – and maybe save a life in the process.

fin2