How Spooking the Horses on Purpose Helped Keep Them Safe When It Mattered

It’s my mission in life to scare our horses.

I don’t do this to be cruel; on the contrary, I try to induce their heart attacks from the safety of their home on our farm, so that when we take them out into the big, unpredictable world, they are more likely to remain calm no matter what they encounter.

balloon in barn yard

I had high hopes for Waving Man. They got over him way too quickly.

I never expected the practice to help save their lives.

In October, Matt and I took Yukon and Isabella to a Jonathan Field clinic in British Columbia, where we had a wonderful time riding and learning for three days.

mare and rider

Isabella was 6 1/2 months pregnant at the clinic, which was our last riding hurrah until she foals. Look at that belly!

After the clinic, we were driving to the border with Yukon and Isabella in our 3-horse trailer when we were suddenly struck by an SUV. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but our truck was inoperable, and as the hours ticked away and we waited for help, it became apparent we were going to have to unload the horses in the dark, in the middle of the intersection, with traffic rushing past in an adjacent lane and the lights from the fire trucks and flares blazing away.

Some Good Samaritans gathered to help, including Jonathan Field, who drove his own truck and trailer to the scene in order to transport our horses back to his farm. While fire rescue officials helped block traffic, and Matt and another man stood at the ready to grab a panicking horse, Jonathan unloaded first Isabella, who he handed to me, and then Yukon. Both horses calmly walked off our trailer, sauntered across the intersection and loaded right up into Jonathan’s trailer without any hesitation, not so much as glancing at any of the flashing lights or intimidating fire trucks.

Jonathan shook his head and said, “I’ve never seen anything like it–I can’t believe how calm they were! What a foundation!”

To all the humans there, it was indeed amazing, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. But I think that if we could have read our horse’s minds, they would have been thinking something like this:

“Interesting. All this must be another one of our Human’s stupid stunts that always turn out to be nothing to get excited over. Ha. Good try, Human.”

truck and horse trailer

Yikes. Our truck and trailer, shortly after The Wreck. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and we learned that it really is next to impossible to spook the horses.

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Run, Horse, Run!

The lush grass of spring is gorgeous! Yet it’s also full of sugar, so we limit the time the horses are allowed out on the pastures.

Here’s a short video Matt shot of bringing in Yukon, Mocha and Quill, showing their herd hierarchy. Where was Neela? She was “off island” for a date with a stallion. More on that in a future post!

What’s That Awful Racket? Or, How We Taught the Horses to Not Be Afraid of Drums

Question: How can you get a 3-year-old filly to nearly jump out of her skin?

Answer: Be near the drummers for a high school marching band when they decide to warm up for an impending parade.

That was the scenario last year, when I rode Mocha in the 4th of July parade. Before the parade started, we were riding around the staging area near the baseball field when suddenly we heard BOOM BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM BOOM. Mocha jumped, spun and flew sideways in rapid succession, and somehow, I managed to stay on. As it turned out, I had not noticed the drummers until it was nearly too late.

This year, I was older and wiser.

With the help of some fellow islanders, Matt and I borrowed first one, then eventually two drum sets, and set about desensitizing the horses. At the first “bam bam bam” they all literally turned tail and ran.

Yeah, he's cool: Matt warms up on one of the sets of drums with our substitute drumsticks.

Yeah, he’s cool: Matt warms up on one of the sets of drums with our substitute drumsticks (wooden spoons).

horses run

…aaaand the horses were OUTTA THERE.

drums-horses-fled

horses return

Curiosity may kill a cat but it will draw horses like flies.

Soon, however, they came back, and realized that when nothing attacked them when the drumming commenced, they quickly calmed.

After a few days of drumming, they no longer cared. We even upped the ante and hid the drums in the tack room so that the horses wouldn’t be able to see where the sudden burst of noise came from, and….nothing. We brought in a gaggle of kids to drum….they yawned.

horse

How loud can it get? We invited some young guests to have a go. Yukon looks on with interest, but not alarm.

Finally, the big day arrived: The 4th of July! This year’s theme was National Parks, so Matt was Teddy Roosevelt. He rode a very calm Yukon. I led Quill, painted as the American flag (his blue roan coloring lending to a natural canvas), and Josephine Crosby led Mocha, who agreeably wore a bison costume.

Our prep paid off: Nobody spooked. We had a marvelous time, and I’m already looking forward to next year, when Quill will finally be old enough to ride.

horses in parade

parade-Matt

parade-Matt-1

Quill

Mocha-buff

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The Horses Spring Into Action

Yes, there’s a play on words with that headline. We are full swing into spring and the horses are thrilled to be turned out onto the farm’s lush grass. But that rich grass can be too rich all at once, so we have to work them up to it, starting with just 15 minutes in the morning and adding more time every few days, then adding afternoon grazing time (pastures have more sugar in the afternoon because the sun’s been on it all day).

So this video is of Matt bringing three of the horses back in: Yukon, Mocha, and finally, Quill.

Whee!!

 

We Plow Through the Second (Very Wet!) Winter on the Farm

farm morning

Here’s the view of the farm from my desk. This was taken in winter after a heavy rain. There’s also a reflection of a portrait of a horse that hangs on the wall in the upper right of the picture, like a horse head in the clouds.

It’s been so long since I’ve written that you may have wondered if the Zombie Apocalypse happened here.

And while we did lose a couple of chickens, it appears the cause was more bad luck and a very clever, quick fox than the undead.

chickens and dog

Ah, the life of a chicken. They go wherever they want, and Chiko patrols when he can.

The truth is that between my day job and our busy life on the farm there’s not been any spare time to write. So I finally vowed to carve some out so we could get caught up! Ready?

  • We sold Wilhelmina (to a really great home, more on that in a moment)
  • Matt bought a tractor
  • We lost two chickens
  • We discovered that our multi-colored chickens are not Astralorps, they are Americanas!
  • Matt got a black Lab puppy and named him Levi
  • We added an arena for the horses
  • We added a new shelter for the horses
  • We added two new critters, and finally
  • We put a roof on the compost bin (which is actually exciting news if you know anything about composting).
  • For those of you who rolled their eyes at the news of the compost roof, I will use this little anecdote to explain why it’s so important:
compost bin

Look at the lovely roof on those bins! It makes all the difference in the world for decomposition–too much moisture prevents the manure from heating up and turning into compost.

Imagine it’s night in the middle of a wind-blown rainy Pacific Northwest winter. The rain is drumming on the metal roof of our farm house, a sound that makes me smile as I envision the horses all dry and happy in their new big shelter; the chickens snoozing comfortably on their perches, safely tucked away in their coop; and the dogs snoring and twitching on the floor as they dream about boldly chasing deer out of the back yard.

With these peaceful thoughts, I drift off to sleep.

Not so for Matt.

He hears rain and his thoughts run like this:

I wonder if the septic system is flooding out?

I wonder if that leak in the roof is going to come back?

I wonder if the fields will dry up enough to not be destroyed when Amy wants to turn the horses out?

I wonder if the plastic cover on the compost bin is staying fastened or if it’s blown away?

That last one is why we had a top installed on the compost bin. And of course, made sure it was a red roof.

So, back to Wilhelmina, our 3/4 Friesian cross filly out of Neela, our Friesian/Quarter Horse mare, and Litrik, a STER Friesian stallion. She caught the eye of two of our riding friends from Colorado, Mary and Michael Ellenberger, who decided the filly would make a perfect addition to their herd of two: a Welsh cross mare and an Arabian gelding. Both Mary and Michael are active members of the Weld County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, so I knew Wilhelmina was going to a caring home where she could not only show off her gorgeous looks but also have a job. And since she has her dam’s very sensible nature, Wilhelmina has a strong sense of purpose. She would not have been happy simply being another pretty face. Although, what a face!

filly and geldings

Our friend Sus is in the background as Wilhelmina the supermodel says hello to her half brother Quill and to Yukon, Matt’s gelding. This is what winter looks like in the Pacific Northwest!

filly in snow

Black horse, white snow! Wilhelmina seems to love her new life in Colorado.

filly and mare

Wilhelmina, right, is now bonded with Miss Tia, Mary’s mare who closely resembles the filly’s first “aunt,” my Quarter Horse filly, Mocha.

Of course I cried when she left.

goat and horse

What does a goat eat? Pretty much anything she wants. Here Lola the goat takes over one of the hay bins as Mocha tries to sneaks mouthfuls without getting head butted.

After the departure of our first farm baby, we got our first farm geriatric: A sweet old (very old – 34!) gelding named Silver, and his devoted sidekick, Lola the goat. Silver came to us as a boarder (his previous board situation dissolved when the farm he was at sold) and since Lola was part of the package, she came, too. I held my breath when they arrived–introducing new members to a herd can be a dicey thing, and one that ends with someone being injured–but we took it slow and kept them separated by a fence, putting each horse in with Silver one by one so they would not overwhelm him, and it went fine.

old horse scratching

Silver really, really loves to rub, so much so that Matt installed several panels of Scratch n All so the old guy could scratch safely.

But wait, I’m out of order! The tractor? A brand new, bright orange Kubota. I dropped Matt off at the ferry and he later drove home on it, grinning the whole way. He smiles every time he sees it. It’s a tractor thing.  And a back thing–cleaning out the compost bins is now a job that has been reduced from a back-breaking four hours to an easy 30 minutes!

tractor on ferry

How do you get a tractor to an island? You drive it onto the ferry, of course!

horse lot and shelter

Matt puts the new tractor to work dragging the horses’ dry lot. That’s our lovely new horse shelter in the background (and yes, that’s a red roof on top).

The chickens? Well, one somehow just died in the barn–we don’t know what happened as there were no obvious signs of trauma. The chickens like to wander into the barn and lay eggs and one day we had one less chicken,and a few days after that, Matt found her body.

The other chicken was snatched by a ^%$@#! fox, judging from the feathers left behind near the coop and also that Matt found in the woods. We both took it very hard; I had no idea chickens were such cheerful animals, and losing one that way was tragic.

Since then, we have tried to be more vigilant and more random with our appearances to check on the chickens, and it seems to be working. I do a head count every night as they toddle into the chicken coop: Three red, two white, four black-n-white and one rooster–all present and accounted for!

horse and chicken

Chickens are fun! One of the Americanas takes a jaunt in the winter rain to say hello to Silver.

The lack of presence of Mr. Fox could also be the result of the presence of a new, yet very large puppy: Levi.

black lab puppy

Levi at two months–ridiculously adorable.

Levi is pure black Lab, solid muscle and boundless energy. At seven months, he weighs 55 pounds, and that’s with a lean build. He has a throaty bark that makes him sound like a Doberman, but his nature is all Lab–he’s happy to see everyone.  He loves “Wilson” – if you’ve seen the movie ‘Castaway’, then you know who that is.  Wilson makes Levi very happy.   Matt is also doing some basic search training with Levi who seems to have a knack for it – he trails the footprints of anyone who has recently walked on the farm.

black lab

Levi at seven months. Don’t let the that calm exterior fool you–Levi’s “on” switch can be flipped in two seconds and last a long, long time.

A Sad Day on the Farm

There’s no good way to announce bad news other than to just say it: We lost our water buffalo calf. And it broke our hearts.

We knew something was wrong when the calf still hadn’t gotten to her feet an hour after birth. I called the vet, who said that unlike horses, cows can take up to two hours, and to give her a little more time to see if she would.

She didn’t, and soon it became apparent she had something wrong neurologically. The vet told us later she could have gotten stuck in the birth canal and been deprived of oxygen. We don’t think Lil Bit, the mom, could have eaten anything that would have caused the calf’s condition, as we had our pastures inspected by the noxious weed expert for the county before we put the animals on them, and they said they were safe. I called every water buffalo owner I could find and they all said they’d lost calves before and sometimes it just happens.

One of our neighbors, a farmer, put it bluntly: “If you have livestock, you’ll have dead stock.” Speaking of neighbors, we found out how wonderful ours were. As the word spread that the calf had arrived and was not well, folks dropped by and offered their help and their support. One woman made three separate trips out to our farm, bringing us a calf milk bottle and different sized nipples in the hope that one would work.

I will spare you all the heart-wrenching details, but Matt and I tried for two days to coax that calf to live, including tube feeding her around the clock because she could not nurse, and finally we had to agree with the vet that she was slipping away and that we had to let her go. So we had her humanely put to sleep.

We buried her in the side pasture, both of us crying while we did so.

And then we were left with a larger question: Do we still have the desire to continue with our plan for a small dairy? And the answer was no. So I called a farm on the mainland who’d had water buffalo before, and asked if they wanted Lil Bit and Betty. They did, and they came and got them last week. It’s a great home.

Now we have more time and energy to focus on the horses, especially since Neela is due in about three weeks. Not that I want to be paranoid now, but, I’m paranoid now. As she gets closer to delivery, I will be checking on her around the clock.

Matt built her a baby-proof foaling stall in the barn, and we have started putting her in it every night so that she can build up antibodies to that environment before the foal arrives.  Yukon and Quill got extremely upset the first night they were separated from her, but after doing an inspection of her stall, Neela calmly ate her hay.

She knows. And I’m relying on that composure to see us through this birth.

The Escape

photo 3 (1)For years we jokingly teased our youngest that the minute he graduated high school our front door would be flapping in the wind; we would be packed and gone, having moved to greener pastures (certainly out of Colorado) and to some place that had Big Water.

As it turns out, we exaggerated. It took us four days.

We planned this move for ten years. I had dreamed about it ever since my first blustery winter in Colorado. Cat-like in my distaste for cold and snow, I spent every winter so heavily bundled that I roundly resembled one of those stackable Russian dolls.

Where to flee? There had to be an ocean (my criteria), mild winters (we both agreed) and mountains (Matt’s criteria). Hawaii was too expensive and far away, the Carolinas posed dangerous weather and wickedly hot summers, and Oregon had snow.

Washington state was just right. After that it was simply a process of elimination, aided by cheap airfares and long weekend trips. We trekked across the state, looking for an area that would offer acreage for our horses and a nearby small town we could love.

Ultimately, we stumbled upon our dream home thanks to Craigslist.

I was stalking properties for sale on the Skagit Craigslist when I saw an ad for a horse ranch listed by owner on San Juan Island. We had not considered any of the San Juan islands, not because the thought of living on an island deterred us but because we simply hadn’t thought of it.

So we began considering the ranch, and more importantly, researching San Juan Island. And we liked what we foundphoto 1.

Anchored by the quaint town of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island offered everything we wanted in a place to live: An adorable small town—so small it didn’t have a single traffic light—with a vast array of farms, large and small, just minutes away. There was a brand-new medical center, a library, an old-fashioned movie theater with exactly two screens and a strong whale research community that intrigued Matt, who had just retired after 30 years as a park ranger for the city of Boulder.

And since it was in what’s known as The Rain Shadow, meaning it’s sheltered by the Olympic Mountain Range, it did not have the rainy weather that is typical of Seattle and other parts of Washington state; instead it boasted more of a Mediterranean climate with mild temperatures in both summer and winter.

It was during one of our many Internet searches that Matt found an ad for a small farm with a white picket fence and red metal roofs on every building, even the chicken coop. It was love at first sight. We abandoned all thoughts of the ranch and became obsessed with trying to buy the farm, which we began calling Red Roof Acres.

That’s when we discovered that buying a farm on an island is not an easy thing to do.

We already had a contract on our house in Louisville, a small Mayberry-type city outside of Boulder. Our house was a 1930s Craftsman, and we had recently endured an extensive and particularly hellish renovation that was three years in the planning, all with the purpose of selling the house shortly thereafter and moving out of land-locked Colorado.

Then the next summer I found a hard, marble-sized lump in my left breast that turned out to be cancer. Suddenly our plans took on a new urgency. Through the long hours of my chemotherapy and hospitalizations, we clung to the idea of starting a new life some place where we’d be comforted by the sight of our horses in our own fields, where we could be steps away from the spray of the ocean’s restorative waves.

By the following year, chemo was over, my strength and my hair were starting to come back and we suddenly realized we had less than a year before our youngest was done with high school.

photo 3We put our house on the market in July, a flurry of last-minute scrubbings of dog slobber off the glass doors, arranging fresh flowers and baking cinnamon rolls to make it appealing to potential buyers. By October, we had a contract, and we closed in December, just before Christmas. I found a pet-friendly short-term rental house (again, on Craigslist), and we kept as much as we could packed in the garage with “Keep til WA” written on the boxes in black sharpie.

Shortly before the closing of the sale of our house, we made a trip to San Juan Island to see the farm and a few other potential properties.

It was early December, and the moist air carried a slight chill to it in a way that only seaside towns can do. Outdoor thermometers read 30 degrees, and we were assured the weather was unusually cold.

We thought it was wonderful.

“This is great!” we told our realtor, a cheerful and energetic woman named Michele. “The high today in Colorado is supposed to be 10.”

Armed with printouts of each of the properties, we hopped into Michele’s car and began our tour of homes. Matt and I had already forewarned Michele of our decisive method of home shopping: We would both know within literally one minute of arrival if we wanted to stay any longer to further look at it.

So we’d get out of the car, Michele would unlock the front door and we’d troop in. I would take a quick tour of the kitchen and living room while Matt would typically bound up the stairs. He’d bounce back down, we’d look at each other and at the same time say, “No.”

Michele took it well. “O.K.!” she’d say while fishing out a business card to leave on the counter as proof we had indeed shown up.

For the price range we were looking at, we were shocked at the array of 1980s homes with cheap wood framing, wall-to-wall shaggy carpet, small rooms and no definitive master suite.  Living on an island apparently came with a higher cost than what we were used to in Colorado.

We flew through a half-dozen homes, unhappy with them all. Then we drove to the farm we’d been calling Red Roof Acres. As we came up a hill its solid, cheerful buildings came into view, the shrubberies flanking the farmhouse’s tall brick chimney making it look like a small English estate.

“Oh, you adorable place,” I murmured as we pulled in, beginning an immediate love affair that Matt seemed to instantly share.

We walked in through the open garage into an enclosed porch that had been converted into a mudroom. From there we stepped into a family room that had a heated tiled floor. It opened into a spacious kitchen with gleaming white marble countertops, a beautiful and deep farm sink and a shiny tin ceiling.

There were three fireplaces—a large black industrial-looking one in the kitchen, a wood-burning fireplace in the living room and a novel antique gas stove in what we called “the hot tub room” because that’s what it had.

The rest of the downstairs featured two bathrooms, one of no distinction and the other a large room with a custom-made concrete shower sheltered by a curved wall. The vanity was a large old-fashioned wooden cabinet with a copper sink, and the walls were a light purple. I loved it.

Then we all trooped toward a sharply-inclined staircase with very narrow treads—what I would come to call “the scary staircase,” that led to the upstairs.

“It’s a very unusual upstairs,” Michele said to me in a conspiratorial whisper as we paused at the foot of the stairs. “You’re either going to love it or hate it, and I just don’t know which way you’re gonna go.”

No doubt she feared we’d take one look, say “no!” and flee the house as we had done so many times that day.

She didn’t need to worry. The top of the stairs opened into one very large room with a lofty cathedral ceiling supported by thick wood beams. An eight-foot tall stained glass window greeted you at the top of the stairs, and the room had a wide-planked wood floor. One wall was papered in a farm scene showing a barn, sheep and rolling pastures.

There was a small room with green walls on the east side of the main one that featured an oval stained-glass rosebud above one of the windows; the “rose room.”

I had kept a poker face throughout the tour so far, only occasionally flashing a smile at Michele or Matt. Now I waited until the other realtor had his back turned before I grinned in pure delight at Michele. “LOVE it!” I mouthed, and she smiled back, no doubt in relief.

Matt loved it, too. And since it was a farm, touring the house was only the beginning. There were so many outbuildings I had trouble keeping up with what was what: the large main barn had stalls on one side, a blacksmith shop, office, bathroom with a washer and dryer and a large room with a propane fireplace and wash sinks on the other.

There was a fully furnished guest apartment upstairs, complete with a loft area, separate bedroom, full kitchen and a bathroom with slanted walls and a shower.

There was a small log cabin that had apparently been built in the late 1800s, and near that, a large open shed. A few steps further there was a chicken coop, and a few yards from that a long, low shed barn.

Near the chicken coop a tall chain-linked fence, erected to deter deer, flanked the large garden.

There were two fenced paddocks and two large fenced pastures, one on each side, both edged by dense woods filled with tall evergreens.

And that wasn’t all. On the far southwest corner of the farm, accessible by getting back on the road and driving around to a separate street, was a small caretaker house with a detached garage. Sure, its red exterior was faded by the sun, the walls and carpet were stained and the caretaker apparently had so many family members living there that we could hardly walk through for all the assortment of furniture and stuff piled wall to wall, but it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a decently-sized kitchen, and promised potential as a rental if we did a lot of work.

More farm

The price for the entire farm? At the top end of our budget, with us straining on our tippy toes to reach it.

We flew back to Colorado, full of excitement and high hopes, and after an offer that was countered by the sellers, agreed to a price. We were ecstatic. The hard part was over!

We had no idea.

During the next six months, we discovered we had to write an extensive “farm plan” detailing our goals for the next five years; we had to fill out paperwork asking to retain the farm’s agricultural designation; we fought over inspection items; we joined in the appeal of the seller when the agricultural status of the wooded area was yanked— increasing the tax rate for the entire property, and Matt flew back to Friday Harbor for a frustrating experience with a member of the property appraiser’s office who denied him a chance to speak at the appeal hearing and huffily insisted she hadn’t known he was coming all that way to do so.

All of this posed delays, and the closing was postponed three times. Finally, things were sailing smoothly along. Then one evening, a week before we were scheduled to close in May, our mortgage broker called, his voice thick with dread.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I messed up,” he said. “The underwriters for the lender I gave the loan to just pointed out to me that the property has multiple tax parcels. They said, “Oh, this must be a farm. We don’t do farms.”

And threw out our loan.

We scrambled. Michele scrambled. Then we came to the sick realization that there was no way we were going to get a new loan within seven days, and that we’d have to start all over with a new lender. So we did, putting our lives into the hands of a briskly efficient Chicago loan officer who swore to us he could get us a new loan that would enable us to close by the end of the month.

Aided by a very repentant mortgage broker, we again dove into the mind-numbing and disheartening process of applying for a loan we could only just afford. This meant a new appraisal of the property, and that caused the process to come to a screeching halt when the appraisal company red-flagged our file to the bank: Hey, do you realize this is a farm? On an island?

It’s not currently a working farm, we argued back (which was true, the seller had raised sheep there but they had moved them two years prior). It has the potential to be a hobby farm, that’s all.

Finally the appraisal went through. And so did the loan.

And when the banker did indeed pull it off, we later found out that both he and the mortgage broker had been huddling with the fear that there was no way it was all going to work out.

photo 4Moving was hell. Isn’t it always? We enlisted the boys—I say that even though the youngest is now 18, so they are all young men—and caravanned with our truck and utility trailer and a giant UHaul, the three dogs and two cats on board.

The most memorable part of that trip was having to stay overnight in Wyoming after getting a flat on the utility trailer that we couldn’t fix, so we had to wait for a tire store to open in the morning. We checked into a local hotel at one a.m., putting the cats and dogs in one of the rooms with us, only to discover in the morning that it wasn’t a pet-friendly hotel and we’d be subject to a hefty fee if found out. Oh, no! Matt posted guard and when he gave the signal, the oldest carried the cats in their crate and I grabbed all three dogs by their leashes and we ran out as fast as we could—very awkwardly—for the parking lot.

We made it.

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