Thursday, February 24, 2011

The ponies enjoy their winter

Ben and Commander have been enjoying their winter, and why not?  They’re fat, fuzzy, and exceedingly well-fed.


They haven’t had to work for months.  All they have to do is hang out in their generous turnout, come inside once in a while if the weather’s vile, eat mass quantities of hay (plus a stingy ration of grain – treat time!) and dump the processed hay wherever they like, secure in the knowledge that the human who feeds them will also remove the result.
Being smart (and lazy), they tend not to wade out into the deep snow we’ve amassed over the last two months, unless the cruel human tosses their hay out there and their only hope of survival is to struggle through the wilderness to the life-saving food.
But mostly they spend their time hanging out in the run-in with their pals Cholla and Counterpoint.
Sometimes the boys play face-fight over the divider.
The game can get intense.
Eventually someone gets pissed off.
And the game is over.  For now.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

High winds; high as kite horses; high terror

The adrenaline rush has worn off; the shakes are about gone; the heart rate is back to near-normal, here at home, safe, unharmed. But I’ve just gone through the scariest time in my horsekeeping life.

I’m back now from the barn, from bringing four horses in out of the run-in, into their stalls for the night. The wind’s blowing well over 20 mph, with gusts up to 40. All four geldings – my two; the farm owners’ two – were freaking out from the roar and rush and banging when I got there, even before I started leading them in one by one. At least the ground was bare, the ice all melted, or there’d have been a wreck for sure; at least floodlights illuminated the path we’d have to take; the distance from turnout to shelter was only a couple of dozen yards; but oh! what a vast and daunting distance it was, and worse with each traverse.

The first one out was Counterpoint, the Lipizzaner, herd king, likely to have a meltdown if others came in before him. He dithered at the gate but let me buckle his halter on, slithered through an opening brief enough to get him out without his companion Cholla jamming through on his heels, and snorted his way in, body bunched, head tossing, swinging sideways several times but yielding to my making him circle. Released in his stall, he rushed to the window to see what was happening with his herd.

That was the easy one.

Second: Ben, my normally quiet, laidback, biddable Thoroughbred, now strung out, wild-eyed, nostrils flared to fit a fist in, swinging between head-flinging bouncing whirls around me and brief bouts of frozen staring into the goblin-howling dark before his front feet left the ground again for another plunging eruption. There’s nothing like a half-ton of terrified Thoroughbred to focus the mind, eh? I managed to keep my deathgrip on the lead rope, tight to his head (let him get any slack and he’d have broken free or gone skyward), as we crabwised and spun our way up the drive, around the snowbank at the top, and into the barn. He stayed wired all the way down the aisle and into his stall.

Third: Cholla, the Quarter Horse. Usually in a four-horse take-in I’d leave him for last because he can handle it, but by now he was running and whinnying. I had to bark at him to hold still to get his halter on; almost got body-slammed going through the gate; and could barely hold him back from bolting up the drive, never mind I was spinning him every few steps, my elbow jammed into his shoulder to keep him from trampling over me. He dragged me down the aisle and was still quivering when I got his halter off and slid home the stall door.

Three down, three trips of barely contained terror, and only Commander left. Commander, the smallest of the four, but a Morgan has power to spare and he wasn’t sparing any. By now he was yelling and running and agitated almost out of his skin. When calm, he’ll shove his nose into an outstretched halter and walk quietly on a loose rope. Now? Head-flinging, dithering around the gate, barely holding still long enough to be haltered; slamming past me out the gate; fighting me all the way up the drive as wildly as Ben and Cholla. By the time I got him into his stall I was done for – arm and shoulder aching, hands shaking, legs weak.

I slid his door shut and went back out into the wind, to secure the gates from slamming and to set up breakfast hay in the run-in. Returning to the barn, I found all four had calmed down enough to dive into their hay, and to accept as their due the horse cookies I offered. I dragged the barn door shut, staggered against the gale to my car, and came home.

I should note here my undying gratitude to the persons who put basic ground manners on these horses. True, they were horrible to handle tonight; were on the edge of losing control; but they never went over that edge, despite their freaked-out craziness they listened just enough for me to get us all safely through the ordeal. Badly trained horses would have lost it completely and gotten us into a wreck. Whoever halter-trained the boys deserves credit for that.

Yes, I did have a cellphone in my pocket, and there was a person in the house had I needed to scream for help (he knows bupkis about horse-handling, but I’m sure could cope with ambulance-calling if need be). But it was something I never want to go through again.

Unless, of course, I have to. You do what you have to do.


Update the following morning:

With time to digest the events of last night, to reflect on what happened and what could have happened, I’ve drawn some conclusions, learned some useful lessons, the most important of which is:

Don’t ever do that again. It was dangerous, foolhardy, and needn’t have been done in the first place, had I exercised reasonable forethought.

I was handling the farm owners’ two horses because they’re away on vacation, and another boarder, Donna, is sharing the horse care. She’d been there at 5:00 to do early supper and, had I thought to ask it of her, would happily have brought all four horses in then, in the light, when they were not as worked up as I found them.

But I didn’t think to ask. It wasn’t my only failure to think, either.

I didn’t think to double-check the forecast, to understand just how violent the winds had been and were then.

I didn’t think, when I headed to the barn, that the horses would be as frantic as they were; after all, I’ve brought them in before on windy nights and, while they’d bounced and snorted, they’d stayed sane. But I’d never done so when the gusts were as brutal, the wind-roar, the thrashing in the bushes and trees were so intense.

I didn’t think through just how hard and dangerous it would be trying to bring them in alone, with no horse-capable help at hand, in conditions where every step in the gale-battered semi-dark would spook them even more.

I didn’t think to give up my plans entirely, stuff mass quantities of hay deep in their run-in stalls, and leave them out for the night. It wouldn’t be comfortable for them, true, but they’d lasted out a day of gusty cold and could have made it through the remaining hours of darkness without much difficulty. No great harm would come to them, and we’d all have been a helluva lot safer. Not only did I risk getting seriously hurt by them, but if they’d broken free and bolted, they could have run into the road just dozens of yards from the barn; a road lightly travelled on a Saturday night, true, but the traffic that does fly by flies by at 50 mph or more.

I didn’t think. And that lack of thought put all of us at risk. It’s a failure I won’t repeat.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tomba will have to go

For months now, I’ve wrestled with whether to keep him.  I like the guy, even though he isn’t effusively affectionate like Tanya.  But he has never completely settled into the pack here.  The hostility toward the other males, especially Schooner and Pumpkin, did ratchet way down after I started him on kitty Wellbutrin but never entirely left him.  The screeching growling wailing charging furies still erupt now and then.  It’s not just him and his target that are unhappy when he goes off on someone; all the other cats get more or less upset by it.  Is such daily angst fair to them?  Is it kind to Tomba himself to live with such daily stress?

And then there’s the pissing.  Over the last few weeks I’ve found it three or four times on the stack of catfood cans in one corner of the kitchen countertops.  Couldn’t be sure it was him; could have been Schooner, in  fact, who is the only cat that gets up there when I’m fixing meals and so might consider that territory he needs to mark when he’s stressed about Tomba.

But this morning I caught Tomba backed up to a corner of the second-floor landing, letting loose a stream.  And that was that.

So I’ve called and left a message for Matt, the animal control officer in charge of the shelter, and we’ll arrange a time for Tomba to go back.  At least it’s a lovely, comfortable refuge, with a good-sized, well-furnished catroom rather than a cage awaiting him.  Last time I visited, a couple of weeks ago, there were only two cats in the main room, so his odds of finding a new (one cat only please!) home quickly should be good.

Damn.  I feel as if I’ve failed.


Update, February 16th:

Today Tomba went back to the shelter.  He confirmed the decision by having a meltdown at Schooner shortly before we left.  He had a lot to say, none of it good, about the car ride in the carrier, yet was oddly hesitant to leave its suddenly comforting confines when it came time to decant him in the catroom.  Coaxed out, he scuttled belly-down to a hiding place, growled and hissed at the tortie who came over to investigate him (and who hissed and growled back; no further dramatics ensued), and by the time I left had settled into a sort of lair under a towel-draped chair with a catbed underneath, snug in a corner.  Matt told me he has someone in mind for Tomba already, and given how handsome he is, I suspect he’ll be placed quickly.

So there I was, down to seven cats.  And then as we were chatting Matt mentioned there were these two six-month-old orange boys, just been neutered, he’d be picking them up from the vet’s in a little while, he knows how much I like orange tiger boys, and................

No!  NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I couldn’t possibly.....................

But of course I did.  Damn that Matt!  He knew I’d be a sucker for a new adoption on the heels of having to give back Tomba.  So now I have two orange tiger boys sitting in a cage in my living room, getting over their surgery and getting used to the smells and sights and sounds of their new home, while the other cats, horrified yet resigned, alternate between cautious investigation and hanging out in a disgruntled pack on my bed upstairs.

Names, you ask?  Well, given the difference in size, roundness, and stripe thickness, how about Laurel and Hardy?  Or Stan and Ollie?  Or how about Wire and Cable?  Okay, maybe that last one is a bit much.  Anyway, provisionally they are Laurel and Hardy, but we’ll see.


Update, February 17th:

Everyone is glad that Tomba’s gone – even Tanya, it appears.  She certainly doesn’t seem to be pining at all.  The rest of the pride have been relaxed and happy, even with strangers in the living room, and I awoke in the wee hours to find a tangle of Schooner, Squash, Pumpkin and Peanut snoozing at my left side, their favorite night spot till Tomba uglied them away from me.

Stan and Ollie – provisionally, that’s where I am right now on naming them – are out of the cage and exploring the downstairs.  They still haven’t vocalized – do they mew at all?  I’m beginning to wonder.  Definite differences in personality!  As soon as the cage door swung open Stan was out and exploring – cautious but forward.  Ollie hung back and refused to come out.  Schooner slunk up to sniff; the two exchanged hisses from inches apart; then Schooner retreated and Ollie still sat in the doorway, dithering.

I went away to do stuff and came back some minutes later to find Ollie reconnoitering the living room while Stan did forward scouting through the kitchen into the dining area.  Ted came downstairs and stalked over to Stan, there was an exchange of hisses, Stan backed away – and that was that.  We’ve got workmen whacking away at roof ice outside and the noise scared Ted back upstairs.  The newbies resumed exploring, with Schooner creeping about to monitor from varying safe distances.  I picked up Ollie at one point and he enjoyed a little snuggle before asking to be put down.  They’re both friendly guys.

They’ve been out now for over half an hour and so far – ah, there’s Schooner walking upstairs now, calmly.  I haven’t heard a single yowl yet, and the pride in the bedroom seem not very worried about the strangers lurking below.  No, they’re not hiding on the second floor; they always congregate after breakfast in the bedroom by the slider to the deck, to soak up the sunshine and snooze.  

So far, so good.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I love winter horsekeeping

Since I rough-board, meaning I pay for the horses’ housing but buy my own feed and do most of the work myself, winter is not fun. In exchange for the farm owner doing some of the work (hauling hay bales from the barn to the run-in, doing a couple of hay feedings per day to my boys) I daily refill the water trough that supplies my two and their two, a clawfooted bathtub which fortunately has a floating heater in it so at least I don’t have to smash ice out of it. But I do have to get the hundred-foot hose out of their basement, hook it up to the barn faucet, unreel it to the tub, fill, then drain, recoil, and return it to where it won’t freeze, over whatever the footing may be – and they’re not into putting salty sand down because of salt leaching into their ground. I pull ice cleats on over my boots and walk like a very old person.

There’s also the fun of trying to pitchfork up manure that’s partially or wholly frozen to the ground. Ground which offers an assortment of rock-hard bareness (yay I'm safe!), snow, either fresh to sink into (huff puff slog lurch) or packed (crunch crunch), and ice (creep creep omg please don't let me fall). Normally the horses are out all the time in their run-in, paddock and fields, but in weather like this they come inside the barn, in huge, airy stalls. Huge, airy stalls which I have to muck out. In their stalls, Commander produces about one wheelbarrow load per day of manure and wet/dirty shavings; Ben does more like two. If it’s cold enough they’ll get ice in their five-gallon water buckets that has to be broken out. I get hay bales from the overhead loft and equally heavy bags of shavings from the storage place in the basement floor of the bank barn (built into a slope so the back entrance is one floor lower than the front main entrance where my stalls are), heave them into my barn cart, haul them to where they’re needed, and heave them out.

Sounds like fun, huh? Normally I go there every day, at least once per day, to do the chores. But thank goodness I won’t have to for today and tomorrow. I’ve set up the hay and grain for the two storm days in advance and the farm owner will see to feeding them and giving them water. I did that pre-feeding work when I brought them in late last night, having set up the stalls (bedding, hay, clean buckets waiting to be filled) the day before. No way am I going to go out in this mess!

Why, yes. Yes, it is a lot of work. And I’m almost 62 and getting creaky here and there. No, I don’t know why I do it, especially when it’s 11:00 at night, I’m having to lead two mildly excited horses (“We’re going inside! Into our stalls! With lots of hay!”) through a gate without it swinging back into and spooking them, get them turned around and sorted out so Ben is on my left, the side his stall will be when we get into the barn aisle, trying to pirouette them around me while keeping the leads from getting tangled – and Ben accidentally flings his head WHAM into my face, into my lip, OUCH! and suddenly there’s the taste of blood, it hurts like blazes, I can feel the gore welling on the outer corner of my lower lip, and I can’t do anything about it (other than whimper and curse) because I have the lead rope of a mildly excited (but mannerly, they’re good boys and they don’t actually lose it) horse clutched in each hand and I have to get them up around and into the barn.

Which I do, sneaking in mitten-dabs at my battered lip here and there as we walk, get them into their stalls, and then I can check to discover that, yes, I am indeed bleeding. Fortunately I keep a roll of paper towels in the tack room. The paper towel wad I press to the wound gets big red blotches quickly. I still have to set up the grain and lay out two day’s worth of hay. I need both hands for much of that. Thank goodness I did the water buckets before going to get the horses! I layer a fresh paper towel wad over the injury, chomp down on one corner to hold it there, and get everything set up. By the time I’m done and can leave, the bleeding has slowed from “Omigosh do I need to go to the emergency room for stitches?” to “Eh, just miniblots now; I’ll just go home.” This morning it’s ugly but healing.

Winter horsekeeping is so much fun!