scurf

horse ownership is a benign masochism.

horses are large, dangerous, dirty beasts with a bite force that rivals many large carnivores and a kick that can easily break bones. they are prone to all kinds of bizarre ailments with charmingly medieval names (fistulous withers? girth gall? founder? strangles? rain rot?) and are alarmingly fragile for an animal so large. they are enormous prey animals and behave accordingly, like jurassic mice, convinced that everything is trying to eat them.

some breeds are more temperamentally mild than others, but the fight or flight instinct is hardwired magnificently in the modern horse. there is no event too small to carry the potential to completely freak out a horse and a freaked out horse is a half ton or so of panicky death on four spindly legs. my large pony mare, a fat, lazy, particularly stumpy specimen, once objected to a tractor mowing in her pasture, cleared a five-foot plank fence, and ran for half a mile, leaving the rest of the herd piled up at the fence line.

their social structure is rigid and they are creatures of extreme habit. take one member of the herd away, even to an adjoining pasture, and you are asking for hours of equine screaming. and woe betide the human who is a couple minutes late for feeding time. there are atomic clocks in those animals and they will begin to complain within actual seconds of their acceptable dinner hour. if they’re feeling especially aggrieved, they may break a fence or open a gate and come looking for you. food is serious business.

horses shed heavily twice per year. in late summer, their “fly coat” comes off, which is a gentle event marked by trillions of tiny fine hairs. in spring in our climate, the average horse has a dense, three inch long hair coat that needs to come out. it doesn’t all shed out at once, but begins at the top and sheds downward. this means that getting the winter hair off takes a month, during which the horse looks like it has been attacked by moths. my bay gelding, who is a glorious red-brown, retains winter hair on his belly long after the rest of his fur has shed, a phenomenon i refer to as “orangutan hair”. in addition to hair, there is a whole bunch of dander and dirt: a lovely, curiously sticky, powder-like substance called “scurf”, which we dutifully brush off the horse and directly into our sinus cavities. there is a knowing joke among horse folks that grooming is the careful and time-honored ritual of removing dirt and dead hair from the horse and putting it all on you. this is only funny because it’s almost entirely true. and then, once you’ve groomed your horse with a variety of brushes, combs, and assorted implements, the horse finds a patch of dirt to roll in and kills your satisfied soul.

there’s a whole extra set of frustrations and perils in store if you’re a rider as well as an owner. one of my colleagues is still recovering from a broken femur that she received from a horse that had just returned from a stint with a trainer with the sole aim of making the horse less nervous. the horse startled, bolted, and dumped his rider, resulting in a profound injury. possibly because of something as harmless as a leaf blowing on the wind. i once got up on a new horse that had been in her saddle for five minutes or more. i did everything “right”: tightened the girth slowly in stages, walked the horse around between cinching, had a spotter. unbeknownst to me, the mare had been holding her breath the whole time in order to keep me from pinching her with the girth. by the time i clambered up on to her back, she was all out of brain oxygen, and fainted dead away, smacking me in the face with her head as she went down and breaking my nose.

so horses are huge, dumb, breakable, filthy animals. let’s not even get into the fact that horses are built to eat all day, which results in an amount of manure that is greater than you would expect. or that grass doesn’t grow in the winter, so you have to put up several hundred bales of hay to keep them eating all day. or that they need regular pedicures and dental work that usually requires a damn scary speculum, which necessitates a sedative. no, there are a hundred more complaints i could make about horses, at least, but i won’t.

because i love them. i love their flighty, stubborn, fussy natures. i love them when they’re hitting the end of the lead rope at a run and when they’re using their lips to open up a gate. i love them when i’m currying pounds of winter hair off them or spraying fly repellant on them or dodging their greedy faces, their ears pinned back, in order to put grain in their dishes. horse ownership is a lot like motherhood: it’s thankless, emotionally draining, hard work. you sacrifice a lot, mostly so that you can listen to your dependent bitch at you and watch in dismay as they drain your bank account. and you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

blizzard

winter storm stella is winding down as i write. we have about two feet of new snow: nice, light, fluffy powder, but blown into every crack and crevice it can blow into by a swirling northeast wind.

the horses look like snow monsters, like candy-colored tanks with long, jagged, ivory icicles hanging from their manes, jowls, and flanks.their blankets crackle when they move as the  ice cracks and shifts. morgan, the dunderheaded bay gelding, has snow matted into his long, wavy mane. his normally dainty neck is massive under a heavy layer of hair and snow. the two appaloosas have short, silky manes and look more normal, but they’re probably colder for it.

i clambered up over the fence panel to shovel the goats out of their hut. they don’t like wading through the deep snow, especially jenny, whose legs are shorter than the snow is deep. i made a trail from the door of their den to the water bucket and the hay net. edward “helped”, by which i mean he bit my butt, scratched his head on my elbows, and wrapped his jaws around the metal handle of the snow shovel. i was half sorry he didn’t stick, the rotten stinker. i climbed back out and threw some grain down their gullets, then bunged some grain into the horses, too. the wind was spooking them and blowing in their faces. i watched them play musical dishes while i sat shivering in the shed, the snow blowing in my face, too. the cobwebs on the ceiling were hanging low with snow and even buckets and junk at the very back of the shed, 14 feet from open air, were covered with a thin dusting of rod-shaped snowflakes.

the nags finally finished eating and i dragged their dishes into the shed so they wouldn’t get buried in snow overnight, but i had to drag myself back outside before bedtime to chuck some more hay at the horses. there was another foot of snow. the goats were tucked into their house, butts to the doorway. the ponies were even more outlandishly misshapen with their loads of snow. i fed them up, shoveled until i thought i would drop, and collapsed into the house.

i will sleep soundly tonight. i hope the weather evens out so my outdoor pals can do the same soon.

roses

i am not a good listener. it’s not that i’m not interested or sympathetic; it’s because i can’t really do two things at once and my brain never stops working (just ask my insomnia). so, as someone is talking to me, i’m having rapid-fire reactions that makes me a. lose the train of the story and b. think of something that i absolutely must say. i’m also pretty terrible at being observant and reading body language and doing lots of things that other people don’t really have to think about. as a result, i have a terrible memory and lose a lot of experiences. i go for long walks, get home, and realize i can’t remember anything that i did or saw along the way. i often have to remind myself to look around, pay attention, soak something up in the moment.

we had a quick, warm thaw this week: two days of temperatures around 50ºF. snow melted, roads turned to mud, manure – oh, god! the manure! a thaw in january is usual in the northeast. it’s difficult to smell warmth on the wind, fight through muck and soft ground, have all the bad things about spring without any hope of the good things to come. not for a while yet. we’re now having a hard refreeze. everything is either bare ground or iron-hard ice.

tonight, as i did chores, i was in my usual groove. everything is done by muscle memory: hang the goat feed buckets on the wall, unstack the horse feed buckets, scoop feed into the buckets from four different feed bins, get the rubber pans for the horses, dump grain from bucket to pan, hang goat buckets on the fence, take down the goats’ hay net, etc., etc., etc. i don’t have to think about any of this. i do exactly the same things every evening every day of the year and the arms know what to do. my brain goes off on its own and does whatever it feels like doing in the meantime. once i’ve hayed the horses and rehung the goat net, checked the water tanks, and raked up the ground, i go and sit to wait for the horses to finish eating. i have to take their dishes away when they’re done or they’ll drag them off into the pasture in the night.

this waiting game is something that is nice when the weather is fine. it’s forced downtime, time to just sit and think or not think and just listen to horses and goats chewing. when it’s cold and blustery (and dark, since it’s always dark for evening chores in winter), it’s a penance. i often don’t sit at all on the bad nights; i jump up and down, run in place, anything to stay warm. tonight was somewhere in the middle: bitterly cold, but calm and quiet. i sat for a bit, but i got cold and bored and had to look around for things to occupy myself with. i grabbed a bucket and went to the faucet to fill the goats up. the faucet was frozen, so my task was in vain, but as i turned back, i was absolutely spellbound by the soft yellow light pouring out of the shed onto the munching horses, glancing off the hard, icy ground and creating a beautiful golden haze. i didn’t even have to scold myself to stop and enjoy it; i had no choice. i stood with my face to the rosy yellow glow and just watched happy, smug horses munching and sighing, they as content as i.

the spell did slowly dissolve as the horses finished their dinner and went carefully to their hay, across the icy pasture: pick pick pick. my spotted gelding chose the wrong line and ended up bunny hopping up a small, icy hill to keep from losing his footing. the mare and the bay gelding picked a better, longer line. none of them have had a good trot in days. they navigate carefully, slowly, circumspectly when the ground is this treacherous. the reflective patches on their blankets disappeared in the darkness, i flicked the light switch, and the magic was over.

 

insulation

winter is the season when every part of your life comes into sharp focus. every flaw in your life, every small thing that you’ve brushed aside, saved for later, or fixed “good enough” comes back to bite with cold, sharp little teeth. you plan for the worst and still come up lacking. snowflakes become avalanches, light breezes become blizzards. one broken cog will take down the whole machine. winter is the hardest row to hoe.

the bitter cold of january has arrived and brought a pack of problems with it. every insentient object hates the cold as much as we do. fenceposts fail, but are frozen fast and can’t be replaced. tank heaters that have worked all winter suddenly go on strike. everything creaks and teeters and threatens to tear free in a stiff gale.

i was wasting time tonight: watching trash on netflix, refreshing twitter, curled up under a pile of blankets with my dog, and thinking about going to bed. i heard a suspicious sound outside and went to investigate. what i found was three horses raiding the birdfeeders, three 900-pound birdies wrapped tight in their winter blankets, which insulate them from cold winds and wet snow, but also the stinging zap of the electric fence. they’d plowed merrily through the wire and headed straight for the bird feeders, guzzling up several pounds of black oil seed and just smiling when they saw me. getting them back in with a few flakes of coarse, over-ripe hay was simple and putting the fence back up was no problem, but i know that they know that the fence won’t bite and they’ll be back out again. maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe not for another week, but they’ll be out again, their cozy, warm blankets insulating them from all nasty things, including captivity.

out of hibernation

out of hibernation
a running chestnut arabian stallion
rescue stallion feeling the spring

mea culpa; apparently, i go dormant every winter.

after the coldest winter probably since the apex of the last ice age, spring is finally nosing its way in the door finally in the mountains of vermont. on monday, it was 70ºF, the first time it’s been that warm since October. The average temperature this past february was 5.1 degrees.

i’ve been having a tough winter. aside from the punishing cold, i also spent a day or two each week this winter volunteering at lucy mackenzie humane society, a local no-kill shelter that seized 23 horses last november that were being starved to death. the catch? these were horses i knew. about 13 years ago, i worked at a private breeding farm that specialized in polish arabians and had an equine population of about 40 horses. it was a stressful place to work, quirky with lots of drama and an employer who was both incompetent and unstable. the turnover was terrible except for the handful of “agricultural exchange students” (veritable slave labor), who were tied to the place for a year. i stayed there almost three years until the unreasonable demands of the owner finally got to be too much and i left. i loved most of those horses and was heartbroken to leave, but this is the line we walk when we horse people work for horse people: we love their horses, but they’re not our horses. we always have to leave them at some point, unless we get the chance to buy them. in the case of my employer, the two mares i wanted desperately to buy she refused to sell to me. she made many excuses, but i think it boiled down to her perception that i wasn’t good enough to own them by virtue of the fact that i was her employee and therefore a lesser being. i spent nearly all of those three years trying to wrest those two mares from her, but she dodged, weaseled, and flat out refused. i finally gave up and got my first rescue horses: two four-month-old PMU weanlings out of manitoba, canada. those first two led to others, to fosterlings and adoptees, and changed my life pretty profoundly.

fast forward to last november when authorities went to the farm where i used to work and found the remaining 23 horses starving and neglected in dangerous, fallen down barns with no electricity, no running water, and, in many cases, no walls, since the horses had eaten the wood inside the barns to stay alive. one stallion had already died from the neglect on the farm. two other stallions were nearly dead, too, and a handful of geldings and elderly mares were in rough shape. none of them looked like horses should look. they were thin with dull, broken fur, rain rot (a bacterial skin infection), overgrown hooves, splinters in their mouths, scrapes and gashes from the nails left behind after they had consumed the wood. worst of all, among the refugees, i found my two old girls, the mares i had wanted so badly to bring home for so long. now bona fide old ladies nearing 30 years old, they were in bad shape, but were better than most of the herd. the two ladies who had inspired me to rescue horses now needed a rescue of their own, so i used vacation time, depleted personal days, and gave up weekends and holidays to help in their recovery. i had originally hoped to bring them home to retire and complete my story with them, but i had some tough news early in the winter which changed a lot of my plans, including my plans to take on a couple more horses. fortunately, another volunteer who was also a former employee at the farm and who has a couple of young horsecrazy daughters very much wanted the opportunity to bring them home, so i happily relinquished my dibs to her. i understand that the mares are being spoiled absolutely rotten, which makes me so joyful. they are special girls and deserve the best.

the mares were the first to be fostered out. in the meantime, the owner lost custody of the horses and all but five of them have found foster or forever homes.

it has been a pretty great experience; i got to spend some time with some horses i loved and have missed for many years, met some interesting people, made some friends, and spent my off-time this winter pretty productively. i was also reminded to take joy in the time i spend with my own little herd, something i was starting to lose sight of. chores had become just that: chores. i had forgotten why i was out there working so hard.

my day job has been tough this year, i’m not going to lie. sometimes the stress can knock out everything else going on in my life and make me pretty gruff and grumpy. i used to describe my job as riding a desk, but this winter, my desk seemed to be riding me.

yesterday afternoon, i went out with a pocketful of peppermints, picked up a shedding blade, and quietly fed my soul. the early evening was cool, quiet. the springtime cacophony of frogs and plague of blackflies hasn’t started yet. a few robins shouted from the treetops, water gurgled in the low spots as the snow melted doggedly off, the sky was brilliant coral as the sun went down to the homely shuff shuff shuff of the blade working long winter fur off the hide of four happy horses.

i am continually rescued by these horses.

placeholder haiku

there is a lot going on here in the wintry hills, but most of it i can’t talk about for Legal Reasons, which sounds very ominous, but isn’t at all. at least this time they are someone else’s Legal Reasons. take it from the voice of experience, this is a blessing we do not give thanks for enough.

at any rate, i am a terrible blogger. the exciting news is that a local company is installing actualfactual fiber optic cable in my neighborhood which means that we may have real-life internet some time in the near future which means probably more reliable blogging. but, you know. some time in 2015.

in the meantime (ha), i’m still busily haiku-ing over at ello, where apparently i am the only user (according to my feed), so have some fall- and winter-themed haiku:

full moon, empty wind,
a crash of oak leaves and smoke,
the air is frost-tipped.

long pink worms stretching
languorously on asphalt
like lazy ladies.

slithery water
drizzling down the collar
rain like mercury.

flowers when they wilt:
spent balloons of youth, beauty,
rubbery, now gone.

geese with strings on wings
pulling seasons behind them.
south now; snow to come.

wintery exhale,
breath of ice and breath of steam:
incompatible.

early morning plumes
rising up like plains signals,
lost words in the smoke.

venerable tree,
home of woodpeckers and bugs,
now wind-wrecked, grounded.

slanting winter light
still shining on golden fall
too early? too late?

frenetic snowflakes
like popcorn unleashed from pans
never to settle.

drama in the skies,
riots of sunset, sunrise,
canvases of gods.

frost is a weapon
to the grass, the ferns, the greens:
blasted, burned, bloodied.

corn stubble in rows
golden soldiers or tombstones
arrayed in the sun.

fish’s eggs of glass
still drops clinging to grasses
hatching fish of frost.

under white snow banks
green grass lingers until spring
quick thaw gives a peek.

bonfire through dark trees
cold pink fire on the snow’s skin
it is the moonrise.

and the rare-for-me 3-5-3:

hold fast, moss.
stalwart among bricks
in winter.

finally, this last one is a link that will take you to a page soliciting donations (cash or horse chow or what-have-you) to help 2 dozen horses that were seized locally due to alleged neglect. there’s also a crowdrise page here with a short video. if you can spare a tenner (or more) to help rehabilitate these horses, please do. i know these nags from way back and they’re a solid bunch, very deserving of a hand up:

hide over horse bones
stretched from peak to peak of horse
lone, starved… but alive.

error: spring not found

this intrepid blogger, hereinafter dubbed mud maiden, has just returned from a two week family vacation to california. while i was gone, the three or four feet of snow melted, leaving behind the muddy brown landscape of early vermont spring, an endless carpet of matted soggy brown grass, earthy squishiness, and manure that takes a creative mind to bear. occasionally, the monochrome of mud and dog turds is broken by a daffodil or a faded wrapper or the sodden once-mighty limb of a pine tree that was dislodged by winter snow and is still stubbornly green, but mostly it’s brown, brown, brown. it’s incredible to me, every year, how many things were left out last fall, how many papery bits blew in on the cold winds, and how wind, air, and water can uproot fence posts, knock over plant pots in winter storage, and seep into every groove and crevice. it’s a bloody mess out there. it’s also chilly and damp with skies the color of wet wood ash that makes me think fondly and yearningly of the warm desert i just left.

the two ducks and half my flock of hens were rehomed a few weeks before i left. my newly-wee flock of chicken remainders, all old hens and young roosters, is free ranging again, raking through a winter’s worth of hulls under the bird feeders for whole seeds that the wild birds missed. they’re scraping around in the pastures for dropped oats and early bugs. they’re picking daintily around the edges of cold puddles for grass shoots and gulps of snowmelt. the roosters battle daily to see who can be the biggest jerk. too many roosters. i have had to go on a hunt of an evening to find old, blind bob, who flees the warlike overtures of the two young silkie cocks and is always under a different bush at dusk. previous attempts at separating him from the flock for his own good (even with a hen or two for company) have resulted in a sad and sullen bob, so i have been humoring him and letting him spend his days in hiding, knowing that some evening i wouldn’t be able to find the old guy and some oily predator would find him in the night instead. because my heart bleeds, after the third or fourth night of digging around in the dark looking for a lump of sleeping rooster under every bush and on every rock, i put up a new pen and bunged him and a big pathetic yellow hen in there. evening chicken chores are much easier now and bob and goldberry seem content for now.

the goats are shedding great sheets of precious cashmere that’s too dirty for me to bother harvesting this year. i was gone while it was still clean and close and now it’s just dirty, ragged yarns of fiber blowing in the wind. the birds in this neighborhood will have luxurious nest linings this year and, truth be told, i have been unable to find the motivation to clean and spin what i harvested last year and the year before that anyway. i tend to like the idea of spinning more than the actual spinning, especially with fiddly little fibers like cashmere. too much bother.

my ponies are rummaging like pigs through the soil for grass roots in the winter pasture, which is all eroded mud and fallen pine branches. there’s a summer full of brush burning waiting for me out there which will have to wait until there’s enough grass on the summer pastures to shuffle the horses. that is a month or more away, so they’ll be skipping and tripping on trees, boughs, and branches for a while yet. perhaps the worst of the blackfly season will be done by then and working outside will be more humane. and maybe the incessant winds will die back for the summer and make burning possible. it feels like the wind has been blowing sharp and cold for six months.

there’s raking to be done and general clean up, too, from a rough winter of “good enough”: the compost pile was completely snowed in, so there’s three or four coop cleanings piled as close to the composter as i could get it (not close enough). the failed garden from last year is deep in old weeds and tough sod and will need to be machine tilled this year instead of turned by hand. my horse shed is a disaster of empty grain bags. this is all very dispiriting.

normally, spring is the time when i turn optimistic and start planning for the mad scramble before fall. this year, the whole dance just depresses me. send some sunshine, mother. i won’t make it long without.