Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Which I am a Happy Horse Mama

I've always wanted a miniature donkey, so once we found some land and moved to the country, I started keeping my ears and eyes open for news of one that might be able to be purchased on the cheap. My dad kept insisting that they were selling up at the sale barn in Iowa for next to nothing. I thought that was simply wonderful, but I didn't think a donkey, even a mini, would do so well on a 4-hour car ride back to Missouri (although, come to think of it, they're not too much bigger than Lucy Lab). It was a Friday during summer school last summer, and whilst my students were playing Free Rice (they LOVE that game, and I am mollified by that fact that even though they're playing an online game, they're also donating food to the starving with every correct answer. Plus, they actually tend to learn something from playing it.), I popped open Craigslist, one of my favorite time-wasters. There were no minis for sale, but my attention landed on an ad for a Missouri Foxtrotter mare and foal for $550. Now, I know we're in the middle of a recession and that people are reducing their horse herds at alarming rates due to the cost of feeding the things, but that was still an exceptionally low price for a twofer. There were no pictures on the ad, but my attention was nabbed. My wonderful horsey neighbor, Claud, had been urging me to start my own herd ever since we moved in. He and I had even talked about what it would take to get the fence made for the pasture. We also had a "barn" of sorts, since Dad had managed to trade our camper for two carports the year before, and we were using one as an open storage shed (to be fair, when we chose to place it way down from the house, we did have in mind that it would be a good barn location one day). I knew I'd have plenty of money to pay for the horses, as well as enough to buy materials for a fence and some left over to pay for several months of upkeep. It was just a matter of saying to myself, "Yes. It's time to become a horse owner." Paul and I drove down to the Lake that next weekend to take a look at the girls, and it only took one glance for me to know that they'd be coming home to Critter Country. Mama Horse was pretty enough, albeit skinny as a rail (and was only green broke -- silly me to think it would be nothing to have her trotting all over our National Forest trails in a matter of weeks). But, it was the baby who sealed the deal for me.

Now, my dad (from whom I've always tended to take my horse cues) is a color man when
it comes to horses. He likes a lot of chrome -- stockings and blazes -- the flashier the better. He has always, always (since he was a little boy) yearned for a "John Wayne" horse -- a sorrel with four white socks and a blaze. And here, standing in front of me, was a pretty little sorrel with a white main and tail, a huge white blaze, and the promise of four high white stockings. Some part of me knew I had to buy this horse for my daddy, even knowing that he would probably never ride her.

Paul and I took a look at the horses, and we went in the pen and played a little with Mama Horse. Paul said to me (knowing full well the answer already), "You want them, don't you?"

I was raised better. I knew that you were supposed to buy a horse based on what you were looking for, in this case, one I could ride all over. If I were going to buy two horses so that my not-such-a-confident-rider of a husband could ride along with me, I should probably turn around, walk away, and look for a pair of geldings. But, oh, that baby horse. The owners hadn't done a thing with her -- never laid a hand on her, in fact. She hadn't been imnprinted (a training technique used by most horse people -- when the baby is a few hours old, humans rub them all over with a bunch of potentially scary items they will come into contact with as adult horses -- clippers, brushes, blankets, ropes, spray bottles, etc), which many horse people will say leads to untold difficulties training a horse when it's older. The owners also didn't have the mare's registration papers in hand -- they were with the woman from whom they'd bought her, who had promised to send them along, yada, yada, yada. But I just sensed something about that little girl horse -- I had mental visions of my daddy's face when I showed him his dream horse, and I couldn't walk away from that opportunity.

So, three weeks later (after a fence was hastily constructed and I went on an internet crash course in horse ownership, considering it had been 20 years since I'd been responsible for one. Even then, Dad took care of things like feeding and vet bills -- I just showed up and rode when I wanted to.), my horses arrived. I bought a halter for my little baby horse, and the previous owner was brave enough to put it on her while she was containe in the trailer. Mama Horse came off the trailer glad to be free again, and started munching on the lawn. Baby came off rearing and whinnying. Neighbor Claud had hold of her lead rope, and she was NOT happy to be held (a fact which, he thinks, led to the fact that she doesn't particularly care for him to this day). We took them down to their new corral, and let them settle in.

Since I was home from school for the summer, I started working on taming my wild baby. I took a lawn chair and a book down to the corral and just sat down. It took about two days, but finally Little Miss Curiosity decided to nose the strange human to see what she would do. By the time a week had passed, we were practicing being led (not very successfully, but we were practicing.). I decided to name her "Ginger," since she was an ornery little girl.

Flash forward to today -- almost a year later. I've had quite a few people tell me I should just sell the baby and buy a horse I don't need to wait three years to ride. Babies are a pain, why feed a horse you can't ride, blah, blah blah. But, Miss Ginger and I are a team. When I go outside, she comes to the fence to wait for me. She doesn't necessarily follow me around like a dog, but if she's in the pasture and I go out to see her, she comes running up to me. Her pretty flaxen mane and tail have turned black, which is genetically impossible for a sorrel horse. Since Mama Horse is technically black (she's a lovely sort of Hershey's chocolate drenched in sunshine) and Daddy was a dark palomino, Ninny had a 50/50 chance of being black or palomino -- those two colors don't mix, and one dominates the other. However, Daddy was a Peruvian Paso, those lovely Spanish horses who throw their feet to the sides when they walk and always look as if they are in a parade. According to the vet, Peruvian genetics are odd when it comes to color, and he believes that she'll either be a one-of-a-kind sorrel with black and white striped mane and tail, or she'll change color entirely at some point. It doesn't matter to me -- she's going to keep those pretty white legs and big white blaze.

Anyway, today was spa day for the horses. This morning, I went out and gave Angel a bath. Their new pasture is full of poison ivy, and I live in fear of getting it from them. Horses don't usually get poison ivy, but the oil can stay on their coats and transfer to their human caretakers -- not my idea of a good time, and not really very nice to the farrier who was coming out to do their hooves. Paul came out and helped me with Ginger, since she had never had a bath before. She is always really spooky about new things, and I knew this bath would be a two-person operation. Paul tried holding her while I used the hose to wet her down, but she looked like a guest star on "Dancing with the Equines." So, Paul looped her lead rope around the utility pole and let her pull for a bit. Once she figured out she couldn't pull away, she settled down and let me give her a full bath. She even went as far as to drink out of the hose when I held it up to her nose -- she thought that was kind of a fun game.

After lunch, I mixed up a batch of homemade fly spray using Avon's Skin-So-Soft, vinegar, and dish soap. Ninny has never let me spray her, either -- but today was definitely a day of firsts. Once she figured out that the spray wouldn't hurt her, she stood still and let me cover her. I'm not sure if the fly spray will work (I'm not sure any fly spray works out here), but if it can give her some relief, I'll be happy. I even painted her little white nose with sunscreen, since it tends to burn on hot, sunny days. Around 2:00, the farrier came out to do the horse's hooves. This farrier has been out once before, but it was while Paul and I were in DC for Braden's baptism, so the house/horse sitter handled them then. She said that the baby was really well-behaved last time, so she didn't expect any problems this time. Ha! We were putting front shoes on Angel and were halfway through when a huge thunderstorm blew up out of nowhere. We went under the garage, but since it is open to the west, we the wind was blowing fiercely and Angel was not having any of this strange pounding on her feet in concert with lightning and thunder. So, we went down the barn, which is enclosed on three sides and protected from the western storms. Ninny, of course, went with us. After Mama Angel was finished, the farrier decided to go ahead and try to trim Ninny's hooves, since she was pretty calm in the storm and curious about the whole operation.

Even though the rain was sheeting and blowing horizontally in front of the shed, and even though lightning and thunder were cracking overhead, my little baby horse stood like a statue while she had her feet trimmed. The farrier remarked, "Man, this little horse is good. She's a keeper." When we were all finished, the farrier came up and kissed her on the nose, then said to me very seriously, "I have never seen a young horse behave this well with all this going on. It just doesn't happen. If this were my horse, I would never, ever sell her." I couldn't agree more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Are You?...and You Haven't Changed a Bit...

There is a strange sort of alchemical magic that occurs when old friends who haven't seen each other for years finally reconnect -- all the time that has elapsed since the last meeting evanesces and conversation picks up right where it last left off.

The first time I experienced this phenomenon was when I met up with my high school friend Liz (who by that time had decided she wanted to be called "Beth" -- talk about your major life changes...) some time after we had both been away to school. With no effort at all, we caught up on what had happened in our lives and reestablished the bonds that had carried us through the joys and horrors of public high school. We manage to get together about once a year, and have become even closer since the miracle of Facebook has plopped us directly in one another's paths -- she gets to read daily updates of my horse and dog stories, and I get to see pictures of her adorable children and hear about their antics.

But I put the timelessness continuum to the test this past weekend. While in college, I was blessed to spend an inordinate amount of time with two friends, Ed and Paige. I met Ed at the beginning of my freshman year -- his dorm room was right next to a friend from high school's, and I feel madly in freshman love with his roommate, who subsequently broke my heart in short order. Ed was there to pick up the pieces and force me to take a reality check look inside. Paige came back to school a few years later, and we immediately became tighter than ticks. All three of us shared a love of politics, karaoke, and time spent with good friends. We managed to take care of one another during the low times in our respective lives, and we celebrated one another's joys and triumphs. When they graduated and I went off to student teach, we vowed to get together often and stay important parts of each other's lives.

And I tried. I have always been a far better correspondent that those with whom I associate, meaning that I tend to send a lot of letters and e-mails to people I care about. Unfortunately, neither Ed nor Paige is all that great about staying in touch, so when combined with my not-so-subtle paranoia about not being liked (Sally Field complex?), I just thought they had moved on with their lives and didn't want me to be a part of it any more. For the first few years, we didn't do too badly, though -- Ed came and spent a week with Paul and I our first winter in Texas and we had a ton of fun, and I spent an evening with Paige in Dekalb while on my way to O'Hare to pick up a flight back to Texas after having visited Mom and Dad. They were both in my wedding -- Ed in the honorary brother role of usher, and Paige as the blue bridesmaid (which refers to the color of her dress, not her mood at my impending nuptials). And that was 13 years ago. Nothing since. I Googled them both through the years and was able to find Paige in Dekalb -- I also found an e-mail address for her and for a while, we e-mailed one another pretty regularly. I also tried to find Ed's address at least once a year to send him a Christmas card (you know, a lot of people poo-poo Christmas cards, but I have to give props to a social institution that forces people to correspond with one another at least once a year in order to keep bonds alive). I always sent the card, and they usually didn't come back, so I'm guessing he probably got them. People Finder on Yahoo is usually fairly accurate, and I knew he was in the Twin Cities, so I was fairly confident when I addressed the Christmas card envelope each year that it had a pretty good shot of landing in his mailbox. When the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis three or so years ago, I took a chance and called the number that was listed in People Finder for him and left a message saying that all I wanted to know was that he wasn't on the bridge when it collapsed, so call me and let me know he's still alive. He did, and we spent over an hour on the phone chatting and remember why we were friends in the first place. At that time, he mentioned that he was planning to ask his long-time girlfriend to marry him that very weekend. He promised to send me a wedding invitation and made sure he had all my numbers and addresses. He also promised to stay in touch this time, and not let another 10 years go by without contacting me.

Never heard from him.

About 6 months ago, Paige bowed to peer pressure and signed up for Facebook. Since that time, we have done a much better job keeping up with one another's lives -- this is the joy of Facebook: instant catching up on the lives of people with whom you share some sort of common bond (even if it's a kid you know because his mom is friends with your mom and with whom you went to elementary school with a million years ago). So, when Paige and I "reconnected" (to borrow FB phraseology), one of my first questions was, "Have you heard from Ed?" I (somewhat grumpily) related my last conversation with him, including his promise to stay in touch this time. She said, "I don't know -- I'm going to call him right now and find out." This is vintage Paige -- meet life head on, and just do it; whereas I tend to prevaricate and think I probably shouldn't just pick up the damned phone since he hasn't called me, and thus must not want me to be in his life, and get all over-reflective and wonder why people don't want to stay in nauseum, ad nauseum.

Two hours later, I get a message from Paige: "Holy Cow! Ed's got a baby! And he's getting married in a few months! You need to e-mail him your address so he can send you an invitation."

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when neither Paige nor I had received an invitation. I was all self-indulgently paranoid and whiny, thinking he didn't really *want* to invite me, when Paige once again gut-checked me (this is why we're such good friends -- she doesn't let me put up with my own crap) and told me to get over myself -- the first thing Ed had said when Paige called him was, "Have you heard from Justine? How is she?" She then went on to say, "Remember -- this is Ed. I'm sure our invitations are still sitting on the kitchen table. I'll call him to see what's going on." That was Tuesday -- the invitation came in the mail on Saturday.

Plans were made, reservations were confirmed, and last Friday, I left Missouri for Cedar Falls. I spent the afternoon and evening with Paige (including experiencing my first-ever pedicure -- it was totally fun, but I'm already tired of my toenail color, and they put some sort of UV coating on it that turned the polish to some sort of industrial car clear coat paint -- I think it will be on there until my toenails fall off...) and family. Her neice is horse-nuts, so I shared all my cell phone photos of the girls with her and told her lots of horse stories (my little girl cool points were way up at that point). We went out for dinner at a restaurant in the building that once my beloved Granny Annie's bakery (sigh -- small sob), then hit the town for drinks (obviously, we've aged -- one drink and I was ready for bed). Around 10:30, we found karaoke -- this was probably the best way for my Cedar Falls life to come full-circle. Ninety minutes and four songs later (thankfully, the place was pretty empty, and there weren't too many singers), we headed for Paige's house, where I took out my contacts and crashed.

The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed (this dragging seemed to be a theme for the entire weekend -- my lifestyle these days means being up at the crack of dawn, which precludes staying up late and enjoying the soulful stylings of karaoke queens everywhere; however, this weekend was all about catching up), showered and breakfasted, and then hit the road for Minneapolis. Yahoo maps promised us that our trip would only be 3 hours long or so, but after a wrong turn and road construction, my latent obsessive-compulsiveness regarding being late started to rear its nervous little head. We originally planned to go to the hotel, check in, change, apply faces, and head over to the church. The closer we got, though, the more we realized this plan would not be very likely to fall together as seamlessly as our college "wing it" plans used to. We pulled over at a rest stop about 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities and changed in the bathroom, which was hilarious. One little girl was totally in awe of our beauty and verve as we cosmpolitan ladies brushed on our foundation and lined our eyes -- actually, she just liked our dresses. My dress was white with black flowers. Paige's was black with white designs. I had a black shrug to wear with mine. Paige had planned to bring a sweater, but forgot it at home, so she wore my white eyelet lace camp shirt. We figured that one of us had to be the negative. Regardless, we looked fabulous.

We headed into Minneapolis and faithfully followed our Yahoo maps instructions to the church...well, we intended to, but road construction shut down the exit we needed to get on, and we spent an extra 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get to where we needed to go. By this time, that obsessive-compulsive tendency was starting to really gnaw at me (either that, or it was the Tuscan Herb Baked Lays I had eaten for lunch). We pulled into the parking lot of the church with about 5 minutes to spare, grabbed camera and purses, and headed on in. We ran into Ed as we were waiting to walk into the sanctuary, and he gave us both a big hug before he headed off into the next phase of his life.

It was a lovely, simple ceremony, and when Ed choked up while reciting his vows, Paige and I quietly wiped our tears away from our seats in the corner. At the reception, after all the beginning hoopla and assorted toasts, he made time to come and talk to us at our table. We could tell it meant a lot to him that we had come. Of course, we wouldn't have missed it. We also extracted a promise from him to sign up for Facebook, so that we could definitely keep in closer contact. We talked about a possible reunion in Cedar Falls for homecoming this year, which would be fun.

And then, we danced at his wedding.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

So, we thought we were done making fence last year. "How much pasture can two horses mow down?" we thought. Mother Nature, however, laughed at our naivete and sent a wet, rainy fall, followed by a wet, snowy winter, and a wet, rainy spring. "It's okay," we thought, "all that water will just make the grass grow." And, it might have, had the grass not had eight hooves slogging through the mud in which it was attempting to root and grow. Thus, it's high spring, and once again, my horses have eaten their pasture to dirt.

Recently, we've been letting the horses out into the yard to eat when I'm home to supervise. This works well, since they're really not going to go very far away from their barn. All it takes to get them flying back into their pasture is the sound of grain being poured into their feed pans. I just let their lead ropes drag on the ground and let them eat down the yard. It was actually working pretty well to use them as our organic weed eaters for a while -- they were keeping the sides of the driveway and side walks nicely trimmed for us. The only real drawbacks when we started letting them out were the fact that Lucy and Tucker thought that Ginger Chasing might eventually become a Canine Olympic sport and decided to practice running after her every chance they got. I feared that my little horse would be scarred forever and totally afraid of dogs for the rest of her life, until the afternoon when I watched her go up to the deck where Lucy and Tucker were snoozing and whinny at them, then turn around and run off, then come back and try to get their attention again when they ignored her. The second disadvantage was the fact that our swimming pool is perfectly-sized for Angel to use a watering trough. I don't know if there will be long-term effects from the horses drinking chlorinated water, but I'm not too worried -- I'm not always very good at keeping the chlorine levels high, and she's pretty picky about her water being clean; thus, she'd rather drink from the swimming pool than her own watering trough.

Eventually, though, all chicks must leave the nest, and Angel and Ginger decided to get adventurous. After yet another trip down the road to retrieve the girls from Steve and Lin Masterson's back yard, I finally convinced Paul to let me fence off some more of the top pasture for horse use, even though he is highly unwilling to give up the prairie as a wild critter habitat. Honestly, I don't mind having as much of a buffer as possible between our farm and the next place over -- that neighbor likes to dump his deer carcasses on the tree line that separates our properties, and walking the dogs out that way is always an adventure -- I never know what they're going to get in to when they wander. But, the farm girl in me says it's just silly to let land sit fallow when I've got hungry livestock. The conservationist and the farm girl compromised, though, and we sectioned off some more of the upper pasture to fence off and use as a day pasture for the girls. I'm really hoping that if I block their access to their current pasture, and just turn them out in this upper pasture in the mornings and evenings (I'll put them back in their barn pasture during the heat of the day), the lower pasture will grow. Of course, after the threatened return of Noah and the Ark this spring, we've now gone two weeks without any moisture at all. It's been great for working on my tan, but we could definitely use a nice soaker.

We tackled pounding the fence posts on Sunday morning. Paul, bless his heart, was the one who pounded them all in. Thankfully, the ground hasn't baked too hard yet, and it wasn't nearly as tough a job as last summer's fencing turned out to be. It was hot work, but we (okay, he -- I just carried the fence posts and held them while he pounded them in) go it done in just a few hours.

This morning, I finished it off.

Now, for those who haven't "made" fence before, it's quite a process. We use electric tape fencing, which is suitable for horses and is relatively easy compared to stretching wire and making old-fashioned tensioned electric fences. Pounding the posts in the ground is only half the battle. Once that's done, plastic insulator clips have to be put on the posts at the appropriate heights. The first time I made fence (and special thanks go to neighbor Claud, who showed me how to do it), I measured very carefully from the ground to make sure that all of my clips were precisely at 2 feet and 4 feet. I'm so over that now -- today, when I put the clips on, I put one at knee height and one at boob height. That will just have to do. So the clips are meant to just slide on to the "T" post and wrap around the other side. I suppose they do that on nice, shiny, new T-posts. I'm working with rusty old ones from someone's back yard, though (thanks to my dad, who found them for me cheap -- they're not pretty, but they're functional.), and the insulator clips don't just snap on. After I put the clips on, I had to take a flat blade of some sort (I just used the scissors I took with me to cut the electric tape) and grab the plastic wrap-around section, then maneuver it over the third edge of the post. Not exactly a mental challenge, but still a pain in the butt, considering that I put posts every 14 feet, and there are two clips per post (technically, I should have put the posts every 10 feet and put 3 clips per post, but I'm running out of fence posts, and I'm calling this a "temporary" pasture, so I cut a few corners. I'm sure I'll regret that decision when the horses laugh at my attempt to save money and walk through the fence as if it were spider web). After the clips were on the posts, I had to start stringing the tape. For this project, I used 1/2" electric tape, which is actually plastic threads interwoven with fine metal wires that conduct electricity and pop inquisitive horses on the hose with an electric charge if they decide to try to go through the fence. Electric tape is pretty east to work with -- I just had to tie it to the end post in a knot, then feed it through the clips on the fence posts, stopping at every other post to wrap it around the clip. It's important the tape be taught, so wrapping the tape keeps the tension in the tape. Eventually, the plastic stretches and the fence has to be re-tensioned, but this is just a matter of wrapping it around the guides on the clips to take up any slack in the tape. Once I came to the end of the fence, I had to use an insulated gate handle to make a gate. This meant that I took the end of the tape and tied it to a piece of metal with a hook on one side and a rubber grip around it. I made an "eye" on the existing fence to hook my gate in to, and then I went back and did it all again for the second line of the fence.

Not such a bad job -- three hours of fun in the sun (and yes, I used sunscreen, but I'm still pretty rosy). I only had one tick crawling on me when I was finished, which was actually quite a surprise considering how many thousands of the little fiends are in the grass. I did have an -- ahem -- encounter with a legless occupant of the pasture. When we were out pounding posts on Sunday, Paul was fascinated to find a long snake skin in the pasture line. At that time, he remarked, "Ooooh, I wish I could see the guy who left this." Unfortunately, he was at work this morning when I got that very opportunity. Mr. Humongous Black Snake was sunning himself next to the very fence pole to which I needed to attach clips and fence. I know snakes don't hear well, but I thought that surely he would hear me very politely saying, "Go away, Snake." After all, I repeated it several times, and increased my volume with each repetition. Since he refused to give up his tanning bed and I refused to walk any closer to where he was, I thought about just abandoning the fence project until I had my own personal snake mover home from work. That would have been admitting defeat, though, and I reallly wanted to get this project out of the way. So, I called in reinforcements. I went over to the Mastersons (again -- the horses had wandered over there two times already) and collected my ninja warrior snake-scaring Foxtrotters and sent them down the fenceline to show Mr. Humongous Black Snake just who would be claiming this fence row for the next hour or so. He was gone by the time I got back with the girls, so I just made sure I stomped on the ground really hard whenever I walked through that area. The horses, of course, obliged me by running down the fence row and then hightailing back over to the neighbor's. I don't know why the neighbors' lawn is so much more appetizing than mine, but thankfully, the neighbors have gotten a kick out of looking out their kitchen window and seeing two horses grazing in the yard. I imagine this novelty would wear off quickly, though, and so I am very glad that the fence project is done. Starting this evening, my girls will be mowing down yet another pasture.