soni: the horse that no one wanted

about ten years ago, i started to collect horses.

okay, that’s not precisely true.

we worked with a rescue organization out of long island, NY and adopted two PMU foals, rosie and qohqoh. after several months of working with these unhandled baby horses, we arranged to adopt q0hq0h’s mother, dana, and a retired ranch horse. the former was pregnant, the latter didn’t work out for us. we swapped the one that didn’t pan out for a true neglect rescue out of queens, NY, an aged appaloosa mare named blondie who was featured on the t.v. program animal precinct. so what was one more when the rescue organization got in touch a year later and asked if we would foster a PMU yearling for a bit, since they had too many coming from north dakota and no place to keep them all? of course we said yes. we had our own yearling already (morgan) and i planned to work with the new horse a bit, geld him, and then let the two youngsters be pasture mates. blondie had passed away peacefully earlier that spring and we felt like we had an “opening”.

the rescue sent him with the hauler they’d sent before with blondie. he warned us that this yearling was a handful, that he’d taken an age to get onto the trailer. as horses always do after a big lead-up like that, the colt backed calmly off the trailer and into the paddock without anyone getting dead. the hauler left and we took a long look at our new guest, who was an absolute scarecrow. a yearling, the only time he’d probably been handled was to be branded as a weanling and coggins tested before shipping. he was thin and lanky with a great ugly scar on one leg. registered AQHA, his papers listed him as a mare, but he was all boy from the first day and clearly had some thoroughbred in his background. his bay roan coat is a color that looks dull and moth-eaten at the best of times, but this was not the best of times for this guy.

there was a recuperating warmblood living at our barn at the time, a big chestnut named john henry who had foundered in all four hooves. he was in rough shape, his hooves were a mess, and he spent a lot of time lying down. he was in the foaling stall, two stalls with the wall between pulled down. we put the colt, soni, into the little stall next door so they could both have some company. they did get to be good friends and, with all the frustrations inherent in trying to make a year-old stallion show some sign of having manners, it wasn’t until the day that a fence went awry and i walked into the barn to find soni standing quietly in john henry’s stall, just hanging out and being a kind little soul, that i realized this guy might have a real future. he could have (and by all standards of horse behavior, probably should have) killed john henry that day, but he didn’t. he just went in to hang out with his helpless, disabled friend.

at some point in our training journey, the rescue organization told us to just keep soni. they were going through a difficult phase, one that would become even more difficult when the owner lost her husband (and primary vet).

this news came as a bit of a shock to us. we were going through some difficult times ourselves (which would become progressively more difficult over time, too) and had just discovered that soni was cryptorchid, which means that his testicles hadn’t descended and there was no way to know if they would. he would have to be kept separate from most of our other horses until his testicles dropped or we found a way to make the necessary surgery happen.

zans soni dee

it was almost two years before we were able to geld soni. during that time, we’d moved our horses to our home, which was nice because we didn’t have to leave home to do chores twice a day, but we didn’t really have the facilities to keep a stallion. he went to be companion to john henry for a while, then came back home to be cooped up in a roundpen, eating hay and not really getting to be a horse. when his second testicle dropped, it was a blessing. we called the vet at once and got him snipped (i do have photos; i won’t share [you’re glad about this]), went through the aftercare process, and turned him out with the herd a month or so later, only to discover he was so submissive and non-food aggressive that he didn’t get enough to eat when he was with the herd. we tried lots of different configurations (and were hindered by the fact that he is a five star escape artist and would often just let himself into another pasture), but were finally forced to pasture him separately again so that he would keep his weight.

we were talking with our neighbors one day and learned that they were actively looking for a couple of horses. we offered rosie and soni on indefinite free leases and they agreed. they contracted with a trainer, who came and picked them up for 90 days of training under saddle. while soni was in training, he got the worst case of rain rot my vet had ever seen and my vet is long campaigner. i suggested that he’d probably seen worse and he said, unequivocally, not even close. he and rosie went from training to their lease home and the lessees worked pretty tirelessly on that guy to get his hide cleared up. he came through the infection just fine, but over the course of the next eight months or so, he started to engage in behaviors that felt unsafe to them, so they finally asked if they could bring him back.

we met them halfway and walked him home, about a mile for each of us. walking him that mile was exhausting. he was a world-class jerk, pulling, striking, crowding, rearing, and just generally doing anything that could make walking a horse a real chore. he was in great physical condition, but he was out of control mentally. i cut his grain ration by about 80% and turned him out without expectations for a couple of months to unwind. he did calm down, but i just couldn’t find the kind-hearted gelding i knew was in there somewhere. working with him was so upsetting; he’d do everything wrong one day and everything right the next, only to do everything wrong again the day after that. there was a major disconnect in his head and it was awful to see.

i was still struggling with him when my mother found an ad on craigslist from someone looking for a project horse. the advertiser lived a state away, but drove over with a friend one weekend afternoon to check out soni and decided that she’d like to have a go with him. she started him on the ground, worked with him under saddle, and thought he might turn out to be a really great trail horse for her mother. she had her non-horse-y boyfriend riding him a bit. she brought him to horse shows with her regular horse, got him used to a lot of different stimuli, and we thought that soni had finally found a forever home. about a year after taking him, she asked him to lope and he bucked her off. her foot got caught in the stirrup and she was dragged. she had no confidence in soni any more and asked us to take him back. he was home again the following weekend.

the difference now, though, was that he’d gotten confidence and with that confidence, his kindness had returned. he came back in top physical and mental condition. he was so calm and quiet that the kids could move safely around him, something i’d never allowed in the past. he tore himself open badly on a gate last winter and spent most of it recuperating. he was the perfect patient. he’s a really great guy.

the hard part is: no one wants him. he’s the best horse i’ve got as far as training and potential and, honestly? i don’t even really want him. i love him, i love working with him, but he’s hard to know. he’s hard to be really, truthfully fond of because as kind and gentle and brave and sensible as he is, he hasn’t really got much personality. that, of course, is why he keeps coming back. you could work through a horse with a bad attitude if you were just nuts over him otherwise. you could relearn trust after being dragged if his soul just spoke to yours. but it’s really hard to want to do those things when the horse is sort of nondescript in the personality department. it’s much easier to give up, find someone with a little more sparkle to be your riding partner.

well, i’m a stubborn bint and i’ll never give up on him. i expect he’ll be coming and going (or maybe just staying) in my backyard forever. and i’m okay with that.

morgan & soni

gratuitous chicken pictures: a chronological slideshow from the department of backstory

while putting together an earlier post, i had to go to my all-but-defunct photobucket account and i found a lot of pictures there that i’d forgotten about entirely. they’re pictures that i posted long ago on a private journal, so friends and family have likely seen them before. for everyone else, this is exactly like those vacation slide shows that your boring aunt and uncle show at family gatherings, only with no interesting tourist crap and landmarks and people you’re related to, just chickens.

felicity, week one

chicken numero uno. felicity was at least two years old (she was moulting) when she meandered through our backyard one evening at chore time and she’s been with us for four and a half years, which makes her a very old lady indeed. here, she’s living in a rabbit cage while i sit on a bale of hay trying to figure out what on earth to do with this frickin’ chicken. that dish to the right is a water dish, mostly filled with rock because she’d try to roost on it and knock it over. rocks are right up there in my arsenal with duct tape and baling twine. (and zip ties.)

modified calf hutch coop

thankfully, i had these two calf hutches on loan from a good friend. i stopped by her house one day and asked if i could modify one to keep a chicken in it and she didn’t mind. i built a door with scrap lumber and hardware cloth, then covered the other openings with hardware cloth held on with plastic zip ties. (while i generally hate using plastic anything, i’m completely addicted to zip ties.) the result was a small, warm, airy coop that was reasonable easy to move daily and was predator resistant. suitable for daytime.

early milk crate nest box

felicity was moulting when she arrived, but i took an old milk crate and turned it on its side with some waste hay in it and put it in the hutch anyway. and then there were eggs! (i don’t even eat eggs, btw. i photograph them from time to time and sell them to other people in order to have money to feed the hens. they’re mostly self-sufficient that way.)

old shed before renovation

after finishing the calf hutch coop and deciding that i needed all the chickens!, i started taking a long look at the ugly little gambrel-style shed that lived in the backyard, full of junk. this photo was taken after two days of hauling out that junk. chicken coop? challenge accepted.

original door

look, there’s still junk in there yet. this is the old door. it was big and warped slightly and drafty and ridiculous. the roof of this shed was recycled by the original builder, so it was totally full of nail holes and floppy around the edges. i used spray foam insulation to fill in the gaps and silicone caulk (hahahaha [sorry, i’m, like, twelve]) to fill in the nail holes. there were approximately a googol of them.

meanwhile, mail!

in addition to entry-level carpentry and heading up the plant pot relocation program, i was ordering chicks on the internet (in a non-escort service kind of way). getting a box through the US postal service containing live animals is probably the most fun box ever. unfortunately, the 6:30 am call from a crabby postal worker, screaming at you about how it stinks mitigates the fun a little bit. for the record, it didn’t smell that bad.

first birds: 3 rhode island reds, 3 black australorps, 3 (4) barred rocks, 3 partridge rocks, and 3 buff orps.

using my usual MO, i researched every available breed of chicken for weeks and decided to start with five heavy laying/dual purpose breeds that claimed to be cold hardy and good to excellent layers. i ordered fifteen birds and got what chicken folks call a “packing peanut”, an extra chick. peanuts are usually roosters, but all four of my barred rocks were hens. it was one of the rhode island reds that turned out to be a rooster. of all breeds, RIRs have the worst reputation for crabby roosters and i was not thrilled that the sexing error happened with this breed, but at this point in time, they’re all just little balls of fluff and i’m blissfully unaware of the red rooster in the mix. i vowed to name one of the BRs “peanut” and unloaded them into the brooder.

rubbermaid tote, converted to brooder with hardware cloth and zip ties

speaking of zip ties… the rubbermaid brooder is the best thing ever. this is an absolutely enormous one with wheels on one end. i cut out the top with a box knife, poked some holes around the edge with an awl, cut a piece of hardware cloth to size, and zip tied it on with the rough side of the hardware cloth on the inside. the brooder light (heat lamp) can go directly over the wire, outside the brooder, and lowered or raised to change the temperature in the brooder.

rubbermaid brooder and peat moss substrate

i also used my awl to poke a hole for a perch that was designed to clip to a parrot cage. i ended up taking it out for the first two weeks because i’d underestimated how floppy and, well, infant-y chicks would be. it became a Thing later though.

a lot of people use newspaper under their chicks, but i decided to try peat moss after reading one or two good things about it online. turns out, it’s basically my favourite chicken-keeping tool ever and i use it in my coop to this day. it’s organic material, so it’s non-binding if ingested, is a great, natural footing for ground-dwelling birds like chickens, devours wetness and odor, and makes a darn good dust bath to boot. for chicks, it has great little sticks (you can see them in the picture) which they can pick up and then run around like crazy things, screaming and flapping and trying to keep everyone else from taking it away. is toys.

warm days out in the calf hutch coop (with a couple of kids [you can see the barred rock on the knee in the background])
poor felicity had to make way for ducklings every day in fine weather. she’d go grumpily back to her rabbit cage and the sixteen rascals would go out to pick in the grass under the calf hutch coop. i believe really strongly in raising chicks in as close to natural conditions as humanly possible, so even if they could only go out for half an hour because of the air temperature, they went out every day.

bob the cockerel and peanut the pullet (plus another barred rock) spending some quality time with yours truly.

i spent completely asinine amounts of time with that first flock of chickies. with the exception of the partridge rocks, which were and are practically feral, most of the chicks were very friendly and would cheerfully roost on my arms. this pair above were absolutely pesty. you can see young bob’s little rooster comb already in this picture. peanut, who passed away earlier this year, was coming to hop up on my knee until the day she died. i’m pretty sure she thought she was people.

too big for the brooder

like all babies, these grew up too fast. in more ways than one, because i still hadn’t finished turning my storage shed into a chicken coop and these birds were getting crowded in the old rubbermaid.

the coop is finished (except for the new door); ALL materials are recycled from elsewhere except some of the chicken wire.

finally. the ceiling insulation is still exposed to this day and i’d like to get that covered or at least tacked up in the spring. the red door is the interior door, a donation from another old shed that got torn down. the final door on our coop is a pink steel door that once belonged to our neighbour’s front entrance. their house was broken into and the door pried open, so they replaced it. i picked up the old one on the side of the road (free sign, ahoy!) and installed it later that summer with the help of my uncle.

the final milk crate nest boxes (still ticking along nicely four years later)

a small piece of wood to keep the hay from falling out was key, so i took some scrap wood, cut it to size, and screwed it to the milk crates on the inside lip. the boxes are then hung in the coop from hooks. they can be quickly and easily taken down and disassembled as needed.

an early roost

i had to move the girls into the coop before i had things like roosts in place, so i made a quick and dirty one out of a pine branch and some lumber scraps with decking screws holding them together.

the final version roost: two 2x4s and a ramp with cleats

this, however, works so much better. these run the length of one side of the coop and can hold upward of 35 birds. the 2x4s are strong, relatively easy to keep clean, and provide a stable base for large hens. also, the benefit of using 2x4s instead of smaller dimension lumber in my climate is that in winter, the birds’ feet are tucked in underneath their entire bodies and frostbite of toes becomes impossible. not that i’ve ever let it be cold enough in there to frost anyone anyway. between that pink fuffy insulation you saw above and weatherstripping around the window, i also run a heat lamp at night when it gets below freezing. this all makes me wonder why i didn’t just get the un-hardy mediterranean breeds i wanted for aesthetic reasons.

the window is installed with lots and lots and lots of help from a carpenter friend

this window came from the same shed as the interior door. i was nervous about building new studs, etc. so a friend helped me install this. he also had a better saw than mine.

the first eggs: one of them is a “fairy egg” (tiny with no yolk)

these first eggs came around the december holidays. it’s amazing how smug you can feel for merely finding an egg that someone else did all the work in making and laying.

... next spring
… next spring

and then i realized i had a “problem” as they say right before an intervention. that hatchery catalog is like crack. this batch was three gold-laced wyandottes, six blue bantam silkies (blue is one of those funny genetic colours; the babies are 33.3‾% blue, splash, and black), and three welsummers. the latter three were replacements for a bad hatch of columbian wyandottes. what a fortuitous bad hatch, because these birds are incredibly good layers. i know this because they lay dark brown eggs, which sets them apart. they moult hard, then they lay like crazy all year.

silkies are pretty high strung, right?
silkies are pretty high strung, right? (that one is sleeping, not dead. sometimes hard to tell with chicks.)
silkie pullets
silkie pullets

i ordered five silkie hens and one silkie rooster. inevitably, i got four hens and two roosters. the hatchery had very kindly included two blue, two splash, and two black chicks. oddly, both the blue ones were roosters.

how one keeps occupied in winter with no television. (yes, it's a bird-feeder. yes, those are birds. but no.)
how one keeps occupied in winter with no television. (yes, it’s a bird-feeder. yes, those are birds. no, it’s not okay.)

free-ranging is fun in all seasons. in the past, my birds haven’t generally gone out in the snow (their choice, not mine). i’m not sure what these ladies were doing out that day, but if there’s anything smarter in the chicken world than australorps’ and partridge rocks, i don’t want to know about it. i certainly don’t want one in my coop.

life is good (subtitle: clogging up the driveway)
life is good (subtitle: clogging up the driveway with cat)
grass
life is really good in the grass, even for grouchy buffies.

 

unrest in the chicken coop

my late grandfather was a chicken man. he passed away while i was still quite young and i only vaguely remember the flocks he had later in life. apparently, though, the chicken gene runs true, because i am absolutely smitten with fowl. for years i said “when i have chickens” (in the same way, now, that i say “when i have bees”), but never did much about it. i didn’t have the time, didn’t have the room, next year, next year, maybe next year. then one evening, fate took a hand and brought a lone, bedraggled yellow hen into my life. she came wandering out of the wilderness like she owned the place, took us all on a wild-chicken chase through the woods, and ended the day in an old wire rabbit cage instead of inside of a fox. we named her felicity and i found she had lit the fire under my butt to start keeping chickens properly.

that summer, i retrofitted the old storage shed beside our house which was half full of property from the former homeowner and half full of plant pots and other gardening debris. a friend scrounged sheets of particle board, some other friends donated some windows and random lumber from their garage renovation, and we picked up a lovely steel door after our neighbours were burglarized and had to replace their front door. i cobbled smashing nest boxes from a heap of old plastic milk crates; learned to use a circular saw; measured twice, cut once, and still messed it up more often than not; and had a pretty good time, all in all.

meanwhile, i ordered fifteen sexed pullets in various breeds from mypetchicken.com. they arrived at the crack of dawn one morning and were plopped into a fantastically retrofitted enormous rubbermaid tote, the kind with wheels on. and there they grew as the coop took shape outside. by the time they’d seriously outgrown the brooder, the coop was ready for chickens. i was immensely proud of the vaguely jagged results, the amount of human space, the simple workmanlike nature of the little space. my hen, fourteen pullets, and one obnoxiously nosy, cocky little rhode island red rooster, moved right in.

the next summer, i ordered another dozen chicks: six layers and six silkies, the latter mini-flock with one rooster. my one planned silkie rooster became two unplanned silkie roosters. knowing the devilish nature of bob the rhode island red, an enormous and cocky individual who spent his days being loudly indignant over not being allowed to be a total asshole, i started making plans early for my silkies. i decided to halve the human space in the coop and build a dedicated pen for the little fluffy muppets. they were out of the brooder and in their own pen for only a few short months before war broke out. ozzer, the primary rooster, hated the very face of his brother, maladict. the warring got so heated that i finally decided to put mal in with the big hens and let him take his chances with bob. suprisingly, bob let him live. mal became the secondary rooster of the flock for a while until bob went blind. he then took over and treated his old boss pretty well.

the main problem with this otherwise harmonious set-up was winter and water. the main coop has a metal fount with a heater. the heater sits under the fount and elements welded to the bottom keep the water from freezing. the silkie pen wasn’t big enough for a metal fount, the smallest of which i’ve found is three gallons. the silkie fount was made of plastic and therefore couldn’t be heated. this meant daily water changes which meant chicken debris in my bathtub every day and small, crabby chickens who were thirsty a lot. only, you know. not when there was actually liquid water. the base of the waterer was cracked from my over-enthusiastic ice smashing, but still serviceable and i persevered.

this past spring, one of my silkie hens, polly, went broody. this happens pretty much all the time. silkies want nothing so much in this world as to sit on eggs basically forever. on a whim, i took eggs from her sister hens for a week (she’d already stopped laying) and let her set. i was anticipating the joy of watching a hen raise a little flock. i was not prepared for the fact that this hen is basically the worst mother ever. true, she sat on those four eggs until three had hatched and there wasn’t any chance that the fourth one would. she taught her babies everything they needed to know about being a chicken. but she didn’t seem to care if they, for example, got eaten. she had no problem with leaving them alone while she went to find something nice to eat and her response to a bad cat leaping into her brood was to squawk and run. for the safety of the biddies, i set them up in a calf hutch that i’d converted into a predator-resistant chicken tractor.

about the same time i decided that they were getting too big to be cooped up, it became apparent that two of the three were cockerels. i melded my silkie flocks, hoping to give ozzer time to establish dominance before his kids got old enough to want to challenge it. some of the hens were a trifle mean to the little ones, but they worked out a pecking order and things were mostly back to normal.

momentarily drunk with my success, i considered combining my two flocks permanently, but quickly decided against it. true, not having to slave over that stupid water would be blissful, but bob was definitely going downhill and i didn’t want to create an enormous rooster war. oz and mal had gotten so into their fights of old that not even a stream from the hose would deter them from their battles. the last thing i needed was for one pet to kill another one. gross.

then one windy, rainy evening i went out to do chores and found that the door to the silkie pen had blown down sometime during the day. the flocks were mixed, the silkies were all soaked as though they’d been loose most of the day (they don’t seem to mind getting wet, unlike the big girls), and all the roosters were hanging out pretty companionably. i put them together that night and watched them for a few days. it all went pretty well, so i dismantled the silkie pen and went about business as usual.

so, it’s been a month or so. oz and mal occasionally decide that the face of the other is too awful to be ignored, but lola, the puppy, goes dashing in between their dinosaur battles and scatters them. by the time they get the ground under their feet again, they’ve forgotten what they were doing. bob spends most of his time in the coop, muttering and hiding his face to keep hens from pecking it off. he does okay, not much different than before the mix.

the problem is the hens. they’re all a bunch of prima donnas. felicity, who has never met a rooster she liked (can’t say whether she’s a militant radical feminist hen or straight up gay), has been trying to move out to the hay shed. i wouldn’t actually mind her roosting out there except that she tries to roost on the floor, where chickens would be eaten by roving predators. never mind the ten or twenty surfaces above five feet high where she could roost safely. she’s determined that the floor is a great place to sleep. so i have to schlep out there every evening and tote her home, while she wiggles and bitches.

meanwhile, bob has been banished from the roost and a half dozen hens of various ages and breeds have abandoned it willingly. never mind that only one silkie hen has taken to using it. she apparently has nuclear cooties. there’s a huge barred rock who tries to roost on the fount, which is cold metal. i have to kick her off every night lest she crap down the side and into the trough at the bottom. bob and blind gloria roost right on the floor in a warm corner. a wyandotte, a welsummer, and two barred rocks are scattered around on the ramp to the roost and on the concrete blocks under the nest boxes. meanwhile, the silkies have discovered that nest boxes are warm, soft, lovely beds. and then they crap in them all night long. if i evict them, they wait until i’ve gone and crawl back in, darkness bedamned. then there’s the one silkie hen who sleeps jammed up next to the chicken wire as close to her old pen as she can physically get….

i’m not sure the happiness of liquid water all winter is enough of a trade-off to deal with all of the hen drama. time will tell.