Thoughts From The Barn/ archived essays

December 2015

Making Circles

In December in North Carolina I make circles in the fields, using the rake as a metaphorical eraser. The red oaks hold onto their leaves, green to red to tobacco brown, but the rest of the oaks and the tulip poplars, hickory, birch and maple are bare by now, their leaves blown into random patterns all across November Hill. 

It's a gift from the wind and the trees to see the slopes and hollows. On windy December days, the leaves blow and shift like blackbirds in the sky. If you pay attention to where they go you learn the land better than any other way. The dried out leaves will show you where holes and hollows are. 

I usually overseed winter grass each November to give the horses something green to nibble through the winter and to prevent soil erosion. People will tell you this is too late but it's not. I sow the seed and then the leaves fall all over it, but by the time I rake, the new winter grass is coming up. As it turns out the leaves have protected it. 

I learned several years ago that to try to rake November Hill in one big sweep is not good for my back, so out of necessity I created a routine to manage the leaves.

Each day when I muck the fields I do a little raking, usually pulling the leaves around trees in toward the trunks, just one or two trees at a time. Each muck rake of horse manure that goes into my wheelbarrow captures some leaves too, and when I add the mix to my compost snake along the perimeter of our fence, I know that by spring I will have beautiful black compost to spread.

Last week I noticed that our black goddess horse Salina's burial mound was nearly bare. The plants that covered it last summer had died back. As I raked around her resting place I realized that I was putting her winter blanket on. Layers and layers of beautiful leaves.

This week I am starting to see my circles connect. Places where I raked several weeks ago have met up with the places I'm raking today. There is still a lot of raking to do. It will take me until February to get everything completely clear. But the ritual and routine of doing a smaller part of this huge chore bring mindfulness and magic and joy to each day as I stand in the moments where the circles connect. 

In this holiday season, connecting the circles is the biggest gift of all. Discovering once again that every single thing we do, even the most menial task, offers the opportunity for mindfulness and magic and joy. We only need to choose to see it. Sometimes that's the hardest thing in the world to do, but every day at the barn brings another chance and another little miracle to discover.

This December, and on into the new year, I hope you will choose to find the many joys that live in the barn, in the hearts of the horses and the donkeys, in the manure that needs mucking, in the leaves that fall. All of us in the barn on November Hill wish you love and light, peace and joy.

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October 2015

Missing Dickens E. Wickens

This month I am pondering the way life swings like a pendulum sometimes, bringing both loss and blessings in near equal measure.

About a month ago our beloved cat Dickens disappeared. He ate dinner one night, slept in his favorite spot in the living room, and reportedly spent time with our neighbor on her patio the next morning. We haven't seen him since. 

We put out flyers, notified the neighbors, checked the animal shelter, called local vets, posted on lost pet forums. We had one response and determined the cat in question was not Dickens.

Our Dickens is the proverbial barn cat. I've witnessed him training donkeys to keep their distance, seen him stare down a screaming bobcat, watched in total disbelief as he stood his ground with a black snake striking. He slept on bales of hay in the hay stall, curled up in hay piles set out for horses and donkeys, sat with me by late night piles of burning brush. He took naps in the horse trailer and got in the cars of every vet, massage therapist, equine chiropractor, and hoof trimmer who ever pulled into our barnyard. He patrolled the property lines of our farm several times a day. We called him the Cowboy and sometimes sang James Taylor's Sweet Baby James to him. When he was a tiny kitten he climbed to the top of a hickory tree in our back yard and surveyed his kingdom. Looking back I suspect he was drawing out his plans, determining his territory.

So far I have not cried. I got tearful two Sundays ago when our neighbor called to say the minister in her church held up a flyer at the end of Sunday morning service. It was one of the flyers we'd put out, a photo and our hopeful message that someone might have seen him. The minister asked everyone to look for him and to pray for his safe return. It is so fitting that Dickens ended up being the tail end of a church service.

I'm not sure why I haven't yet cried. In my mind he is still out there somewhere doing his thing. Dickens was always a loving and friendly cat but he also had his work and it has been clear to me for most of his 10 years that he had his own life to live. He was out doing his job most days of the year. Once a season he seemed to take a vacation - staying inside for a week to relax - and then back to work he went.

We miss him but there is no regret. Dickens lived a good life and I hope he's still living it. All of us are dreaming every few nights that he comes back home. We will see.

So this is loss we feel, but it touches on grief, a reminder of last year's tick-borne disease that put two of our cats in the vet school hospital and took the life of another, sweet River. Once I start thinking of the animals we have said goodbye to, it goes on and on, all the way back to the first cat, Freckles. This is the way it goes with our companion animals. They stay with us this way.  

But even with loss and remembered grief there is the fullness of autumn. Wild muscadines. The fall orb-weaving spiders and their intricate webs. Figs ripe and ready to eat. Leaves changing and the heat of summer slipping away, a little at a time. Winter fur coming in on horses, donkeys, cats, and Corgis. Acorns falling. 

This is my favorite season of the year and I feel its pleasure even as I keep my eyes open for a black and white tuxedo cat, hoping he slips back into our lives as quickly as he slipped away that morning.



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August 2015

Making Hay

Back when Keil Bay and his magnificent painted pony sidekick Apache Moon joined our family they were boarded at a small stable that encouraged self-care, which meant we were responsible for mucking stalls, cleaning and filling water buckets, and supplying all feed and hay. For nine months my two children and I drove to the barn daily to ride and learn the work of living with horses. Once a week I bought their feed and hay and we loaded it into our minivan, drove to the barn, and unloaded bags into feed cans and bales onto a small wooden pallet in the hay storage area we were allotted.

I quickly learned the difference between orchard grass, timothy, alfalfa, and all the combinations. I learned to check for dust and mold, to feel the softness, and to look for sticks and other sometimes bizarre objects that got baled along with the hay itself.

Periodically the local feed store would run out of the hay we fed and a wild hay hunt would ensue. I remember well the harried drives all over a 5-county region in search of good horse hay.

Back then, with two horses, we paid feed store hay prices and were thrilled to pay them. All I cared about was that the supply remained intact and consistent.

When we moved to November Hill I located a farmer who grew and sold organic orchard grass. It was by far the most beautiful hay I had ever seen, and the cost seemed low because we purchased it directly from him, alleviating the feed store's mark-up. The owners of the farm we bought had already moved before our closing date. They graciously allowed us to go ahead and bring hay and stall shavings to November Hill so that when we moved in we would have what we needed. 

I've written about this previously on my blog: how good it felt to see the dump truck deliver a mountain of gorgeous pine shavings and to know we could bank the stalls as high as we wanted. At the boarding barn we were allowed two wheelbarrows per week. We spent an evening here loading the stalls with shavings and it is one of the most perfect memories of my life. My children and I making trip after trip with our new wheelbarrow to each stall, banking those clean new shavings a foot high, making deep and lovely beds for Keil Bay and Apache Moon, who would join us the morning after our closing.

An equally perfect memory was seeing the hay stall that we had gradually stocked the weeks before we closed. The square bales were gorgeous, reasonably priced, and stacked neatly on pallets higher than I'd ever been able to stack them. We were stocked up with hay. There was plenty more to be had. I would not have to drive around in a mild panic looking.

We enjoyed this hay source for many years and, as the herd grew, we were able to get big round bales, even more affordable, especially as the cost of good hay skyrocketed. We traded in the minivan for a farm truck and bought a hay tent to store the big bales. I learned how to balance my horses' diets, having the hay tested and using the numbers to balance minerals in correct ratios. Since hay is generally the bulk of what horses get fed, the hay test results are critical. This hay tested amazingly well. 

We had a couple of drought years when the hay was less plentiful and our farmer ran out mid-winter. I had to scramble to find hay to tide us over until the spring cutting. But for the most part we were completely spoiled and our hay supply was steady and good.

Last fall our hay farmer, who is getting older now, unexpectedly sold his entire hay supply to two buyers. We weren't notified and it was both a shock and a betrayal. Suddenly we were back to square one, looking for good hay, scrambling to find a new source. As it turned out, the best and most reliable source was our local feed store. Although 3x the cost each month, the hay was good, it was there when we needed it, and it was a relief to go back to buying the smaller, easier to handle square bales. 

This spring we returned to our hay farmer but, from first to second cutting, the quality of the hay has seriously declined. Two of the 1000-lb. bales were used as mulch because our horses wouldn't eat them.  Last week my husband had to take back the round bale he'd purchased because it was full of stalks the size of my fingers. The second bale he brought home had to be returned as well. 

Last week I bought a truckload of orchard bales from the feed store. Yesterday we went to a farm that trucks in hay from New York State and got a load of orchard/timothy bales. We plan to stock up, filling the hay tent first, then a stall, and finally the horse trailer. The cost is again triple what we were paying, but as I said to my husband: horses eat hay. It's a non-negotiable expense. 

The good news is they love it. We did a taste test last weekend, making small mounds of each kind of hay and watching them pick their favorite. I'll send off the winner and get it tested. If we're lucky the mineral profile will be easy to balance. And we'll stock up as best we can. 

It occurs to me that people who don't live with horses have very little sense of how important hay is to their horsey friends. We talk about it, we watch the weather for states we don't even live in because we need to know whether it's going to be a good hay year. We look for it, we hoard it, we revel in it when we find good bales and sources. I hardly remember a time in my life when hay was not on my mind. 


This fall we're going into winter with a plan. We have a month's worth in the tent and we'll be adding to it each week or two. What we have been paying has been a gift but it was totally out of line with open-market hay costs. We were doing a lot of work getting the round bales off the truck, into the tent, and then forking it off many times a day. Our hay farmer is getting older and so are we! This gets us back in the ball park of "regular" cost and it gives us back the ease of use of square bales and flakes. I'm calling this a positive change and moving on to the next horsewoman's seasonal delight - autumn and cooler weather and a return to riding! 

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July 2015

Cleaning Deep

July has passed quickly and I’m not sure how this happened. It’s been hot most of the month and we’ve had many three-shower days, an indication of how many times I was out at the barn and how many times I came in drenched in sweat. I’ve hosed horses and fed wet hay and filled countless water buckets. The days seemed long as I lived through them, as only the days in July can be. So when we finally hit a cooler spell this weekend, you’d think I would kick back and enjoy the break in the heat.

Instead, I was out at the barn cleaning. The tack and feed room has been gradually deteriorating into a dusty mess. It’s been too hot to tackle it.

This morning I went out and started to work. I had a lot of help. Keil Bay and Cody both tried to inch their way into the room with me, all 16.2 and 15.3 hands of them.

I had a bucket of Dr. Bronner peppermint soap and water sitting in the doorway and Keil helpfully tipped it over. He knocked over a few rakes, tried to dump the feed bag recycled into a trash bag, and made a good effort at getting into the bag of Chaffhaye. 

I took several empty feed cans out to the barnyard to clean and he tipped those over too. They’re only used as supports for a table top right now but he remembers the days when they held oats and alfalfa pellets and I guess he just had to check to make sure they were empty. The rest of the herd came to see what he was doing. 

I didn't intend to do as much as I did. I went out planning to tackle the floor and one wall, but ended up going further. I cleaned all the saddles, emptied and rinsed the big water tank that serves as a back-up in case of power outages, washed the walls, de-webbed the entire room, and reorganized the feed tub table. I brought out the new vinyl tablecloth I’d purchased for my work area. The sunshine coming through the window illuminated its rich colors and made me happy. The tack and feed room is the barn version of the kitchen inside my house. It’s the center of activity in the barn, whether I’m preparing food tubs, making notations on the barn calendar, getting ready to tack up for a ride, or sitting and planning work routines for the horses. It’s the room where they all come and stick their heads in. It’s where they walk right in if I let them. It’s the place where the horses can easily keep company with me. The space we share.

Sometimes I imagine the room with a bunk bed in it and a desk to write. It feels like living space to me so I like to keep it clean.

Today was the perfect day to take this on: the ability to work without the stifling, sweat-inducing heat we’ve grown used to this month. 

The fans were going, the herd had hay in stalls, but they too enjoyed the cooler day, going out to graze and then returning periodically to help me with my cleaning. 

I cleaned the saddles on the gate under the huge oak tree, accompanied by the donkeys and the pony. I’m not sure what it is about cleaning tack that soothes me and attracts them, but it never fails. 

In a way it seems crazy to pick the hottest month of our year to do this kind of cleaning. It’s fueled by the fact that for me, July is a good time to do household cleaning because it’s too hot to do much outside. I’ve been cleaning mini-blinds and washing curtains in the house and knocking out a few deep cleaning projects I usually do twice a year. Sprucing things up inside made me want to do the same in the barn.

As is always the case, barn time is different than regular time. I get lost out there. My brain stops churning. Even the chores stretch out like the ocean view on a holiday by the sea.

Aside from the zen mind the barn brings, getting this cleaning done now means that when it starts to seriously cool down (I’m talking highs in the 80s instead of the 90s) I’ll be ready to get this crew back into work. They all seem ready for the shift to the next season.

Can I take a moment to catalog the signs that fall is on its way?

Wild muscadine vines are laden with grapes - still green but that’s okay! The dogwood trees’ leaves are very slightly starting to turn. They start early and go slowly but once you see the shift from green to something slightly less than green, the countdown is on. The blue of the sky changes in late summer and I’m seeing that happen this week.

And we’re harvesting huge amounts of vegetables from the garden right now. This will peak and then slow and then it will be time to plant fall vegetables. 

I’m enjoying the bounty of summer, as are the equines, and even as I look forward to fall, I’m trying to remember to stop every day and just take in the green. We’ve had good rain this year and the landscape is luscious. The tree frogs, cicadas, katydids, and crickets are in near-constant song. In some ways summer in North Carolina is the richest time of the year. 

Tomorrow I’m cleaning bridles and halters and I still have a shelf to dust and organize. I had so much fun today it seemed like a good idea to save a few things and spread the good times even further. 



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June 2015

Feeling Pain

This week at the barn I got a splinter in my thumb. I didn't notice when it happened but later, while I was filling a water trough, something pinged, like a tiny beacon going off and on, off and on. I glanced at my thumb and saw a dark sliver of something but even the visual didn't click. It took the ongoing ping of pain to bring my attention, finally, to what was hurting.

I decided to wait until I was done with chores to go inside and get the splinter out. And what happened was that after awhile, the pain stopped. By the time I got inside, my finger felt no different than any other one. It made me think about the purpose of pain in our bodies, which is to draw our attention to the hurt place. If we ignore the little pain when it pings, the body grows used to it and things can get worse. 

We learn to stop and check things out when something hurts.

As attuned as we can be to our own bodies, we can't feel our horses' pain. Actually, that is arguable and I'm going to argue it for a moment right now:

I think sometimes we CAN feel our horses' pain. When Salina was alive and had a rough day with one of her arthritic knees, I often had knee pain myself. My own knee pain became a way for me to know I needed to check HER knees. So I think it's good to keep this in mind - sometimes we mirror the pain in those close to us. And they might do the same for us.

Generally though, we don't feel their pain. Just as I noticed that tiny sharp pain in my thumb, I need to pay attention to the horses. They don't speak to us in English or any spoken language, but they do talk to us if we observe and listen. We can learn their cues.

If Keil Bay stops on our way to the arena for a ride, I have learned to trust that something is off. I've had a few trainers raise eyebrows at me when I take him back to the barn and untack him without ever getting on. There are people who think horses will do anything to get out of work, but my experience with Keil Bay tells me otherwise. He is happy and willing to work but if something is wrong, he lets me know. One day he stopped and I didn't listen. When I went to mount, I had somehow forgotten to tighten the girth and the saddle slipped completely under his belly when I put my weight in the stirrup. I ended up on the ground under his belly and the saddle.

Other times he has needed chiropractic adjustment. Once he had a tick in a delicate spot. I've learned to listen, and instead of him learning to get out of work, our communication has sharpened. He can trust me to pay attention and to take care of whatever is wrong. He actively works now to show me what is wrong and where. 

Another day with another tick he spread his hind legs wide as I was grooming. Thinking he needed to use the bathroom I took him in a stall and waited. Nothing. Back in the barn aisle he spread his legs wide again. I knew he was trying to tell me something but it took a few minutes for me to figure it out. Then I realized and when I checked, a tick.

When something is off under saddle, we stop the work, he gets rest and treatment, and if it's anything I can't manage, I call the vet. I don't want to let things go to the point where he stops trying to show me something hurts. 

When I removed the splinter in my thumb later that day the area was tender for a little while but today it's completely normal. If I hadn't noted the pain, hadn't seen the splinter and removed it, it would be red and painful today. And I would be dealing with an infected finger.


The wonderful thing about horses is that they can and will tell us when something is wrong. All we need to do is pay attention. And the more we pay attention, the better our communication gets.

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April 2015

Retreat

I was away for ten days this month on a writer-in-residence retreat where I had no chores, no responsibilities except to feed myself and write, and the company of other writers who also happen to be dear friends. What more could a woman want?

Anyone who lives with equines knows the answer already. The barn! 

I came home on Monday and was greeted by two ecstatic Corgis, five slightly less demonstrative cats, and the moment my voice was heard out at the barn, the whinnies and brays of equines whose calls were so sweet I followed them right out the back gate. In a flurry of soft snorts and gentle muzzles I handed out peppermints, mucked stalls, and hung out for a good part of the day.

The entire farm has greened since I left it. I stood in the barn doors and gazed out, feeling the roots of home inside me sinking back into this patch of earth I love so much.

Most of the time I don't try to figure out what it is that feels so good about being in the barn. It's powerful and visceral, a whole mind-body experience. The barn is its own destination, its own country, with its own time zone. When I leave and come back I'm more aware than usual of what I've missed.

Entire days can pass almost without my awareness when I'm at the place I call "out at the barn." Everything else in the world seems to fade away.

The evening of the day I got home was the belated birthday celebration for Keil Bay, who turned 26 last week, and Apache Moon, my daughter's pony who has just turned 15. I handed out more peppermints and served dinner tubs with carrots and reviewed in great detail with the herd the highlights of the birthday boys' years with us.

And I was amazed all over again. How could it possibly be that the 15-year old Keil Bay is now 26? How could it be that a 4-year old pony is now 15? It seems impossible and then my daughter comes out and brushes the pony and I realize that the pony being 4 and now suddenly 15 is intimately tied in with her being 7 and now 18. These wonderful animals weave themselves into our lives and in a way that I don't know quite how to explain, become structural. They hold us humans up and give us a strong trellis on which to grow and bloom. 

The elaborate routines of care become infusions of meditation into our days.

I was incredibly productive during my ten days away, writing 6000 words daily and finishing a full-length novel while I was there. But for the first three days I could barely sleep. My nervous energy increased to the point of exhaustion. We attributed this to some spooky new stories about the old mansion. Those stories definitely played a part. But the underlying issue was the lack of my daily routine at the barn: the physical labor, the rhythms and habits I have created, the soft snorts and whinnies and brays, the curious nudges and muzzlings, and the near-constant communication that goes on between me and five equines. 

To go from here to anywhere else is to untangle myself from that very substantial trellis. Fortunately coming back is glorious and the reattachment happens almost instantly.

Now, three days back, I'm completely rooted again. The idea of planning the next writing retreat? I can't fathom leaving. Why would I ever leave? I'm back where every day I walk out the back door and somewhere between the deck and the gate to the barnyard I cross a well-traversed border. The clock as we know it stops. I'm at the barn.




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March 2015

Beach

A lot of my time is spent at the barn. Every day when I walk through the barn aisle I marvel and then I say a quick thank you to the universe that I get to live with my horses and pony and donkeys. 

I grew up pining for a horse from the earliest time in my life. I finally got to take riding lessons at age 9, and when I was 13 worked on a farm putting tobacco leaves on a stringer for two summers to pay for my first horse. He was boarded the entire time he was mine, and it remains one of the saddest things in my life that we had to sell him when I went off to college.

My lifelong dream has been to live with a small herd of equines and I've been living that dream for ten years now.

It's wonderful.

So wonderful I almost never want to leave the farm. 

But it's also true that a change of scene is good, and this weekend I'm celebrating my daughter's college acceptances and a friend's wonderful new home at the beach. We've enjoyed good company, lots of beautiful birds, surf and sun, a good meal, and now a relaxing night with no barn chores.

But I have to tell you: while walking on the beach today I saw what looked like hoof prints and I heard what sounded like a whinny. There was no horse in sight, but our passions follow us wherever we go.

The beep of a text message came through a little bit ago. It was my husband sending a video of Cody trotting through the barn aisle and Keil Bay standing in the paddock. 

They're all at home waiting. When we get back to the barn, this time away will make me appreciate it all the more. 


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Fe-brrrrr-uary 2015

We sailed through January with warmer than usual temps, more than the usual amount of rain, and enough sunshine and warmth that I almost took the Christmas tree down.

Good sense prevailed. Fe-brrrr-uary rolled in and everything took a dive. We've had little snow flurries that arrived out of nowhere and seemed to be centered only over our barnyard, cold winds, and temps in the teens and single digits. We do experience this sometimes in North Carolina but usually only for a night or maybe two. 

This week we had sleet, then ice, then snow. Add to that very low temps for an entire week and you get two horses, a pony, and two little donkeys who have spent more than their share of time in and close to the barn.

Today it got up to 29 and I decided that while there were still some very slick areas, I would let the two horses out in the pasture. They ventured to the furthest back fence, spooked, galloped back to the barn, then sauntered calmly into the front field.

Meanwhile the donkeys were eating hay in the sun and the pony was resting, uncharacteristically for him, in a stall. As I did barn chores I wondered if he was feeling badly. What if he hadn't had enough water? What if his feet were sore from the frozen ground? My head started spinning with horsewoman nightmares.

I opened a stall door across the barn from where he rested, hoping he would walk through and join the horses in the field. He took his time, then stood in the barn shelter, and finally headed out. He paused by the water trough and did not drink. Oh no. But I had just seen him drop manure and also pee (in the stall I'd just cleaned) so I reminded myself that he was likely fine.

The donkeys asked to join the herd in the front field so I let them, relieved that if only for a few hours this afternoon all was back to "normal" on November Hill. The herd, after being separated for a full week, peacefully grazed together around patches of icy snow. Suddenly a car flew down our gravel road and the sound of the tires on the ice was like a monster. The herd bolted to the top of the pasture. I held my breath until they settled down.

A few calm moments passed. I had turned back to chores when I heard pounding hooves cracking through snow and ice. The pony was galloping wildly, bucking and rearing and generally inciting chaos. Every equine was running at full speed from front field to back field, then circling back to barrel down the dirt (now icy) paddock toward the dead end fence by the barn. Thankfully Keil Bay and I had the same idea at the same time. Divide and conquer. I opened the gate and he came through. Cody backtracked to the other gate and I let him through.

The pony, thwarted by the sudden removal of two big herd members, snorted a few times and then went to join the donkeys who were once again munching hay.  


All was quiet on November Hill. And I'm keeping the white twinkly lights up until March!


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January 2015

On The Sofa

Today's column finds me sequestered on the living room sofa sick with a cold while many parts of the country wait for record snowfall. We here on November Hill have had a lot of rain this month and, while it doesn't stop traffic the way snow does around here, the mud takes on a life of its own after weeks and weeks of it.

It's a chore keeping horses clean when everything around them is wet and clay-colored. As much as I try to offer other areas to them - a clean barn, the arena (which has stone screenings and terrific drainage so is wonderful for rainy day play), and frequent rotations so no one gets too bored - the equines end up marching out to the pastures to graze and roll. It's a mess! 

This is the time of year when I can't remember what November Hill looks like in spring, or summer, or fall. The ground seems ruined beyond all repair. And yet I know from every year I've lived here that at some point the season turns, the earth repairs itself, and grass grows again. You'd never know the hoof-churned mud look we have right now.

Last Thursday I spent the last sunny day of the week preparing for the next several day round of rain. Getting in hay, feed, shavings, setting up stalls so horses and donkeys could stay under shelter. We found some time that day to play and I'm glad we did, because 24 hours later it was raining again and all three humans were sick. Fortunately the bug staggered its attack so that husband went through the worst of it first, then daughter, now me. Yesterday and today I'm in the worst of it, nose stuffed, eyes leaking, cough rasping, muscles aching, as I drag myself from bed to sofa, doing little bits of household chores as I can, but very grateful that I have a husband who is both competent and willing to take over the horse and donkey and cat and Corgi care while I recuperate.

Years back I did all of the horse-related chores. We learned that when I went away, the horses, especially Keil Bay, reacted strongly to me suddenly not being here. The first time he ripped the radio off the barn wall and broke it. The second time he broke into the feed/hay stall and got into a bin of feed. He also got his hoof stuck in a wooden pallet and husband had to saw it off! The pallet, of course, not the hoof. 

At that point I realized we had to create a routine for the horses that got my husband in the loop of care. He started doing night-time dinner tubs and weekend morning tubs so that he stays familiar with all the feed and supplement info. And the horses have grown much closer to him and no longer react if I take time away. 

Being stuck in the house has me thinking about this. Our animal family members are part of the FAMILY. The whole family. It makes sense that the humans all take active roles in the care of the non-human ones. 

I don't know what animals think when their humans leave them, either due to sickness or death. I have heard tales of animals mourning and grieving and I'm sure they do. I can't guarantee the horses, the donkeys, the Corgis, or the kit-meows that I will outlive all of them. But I can make sure they are accustomed to being in the care of other familiar/beloved people part of the time so that if something happened their routine would not suddenly change.

This isn't something I like to ponder, but consider it my first of the year PSA. Take a bit of time to consider what your animals would do if you became suddenly unavailable to care for them. Get a plan of some kind in place. I know from living with Salina during her last few years that she prepared me for the morning she went down and could not get up again. I owe it to the rest of the crew here to do the same for them.

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December 2014

Leafing

This time of year there is a huge chore that inserts itself into my daily life at the barn. November Hill’s fields have many trees. They provide budding growth in the spring, shade in the summer, gorgeous color in the fall, and in the winter they go bare, providing a stark and lovely contrast to the winter skies. 

We have oaks of several kinds, hickory and birch, maples and dogwood, tulip poplar and pine. The horses chew the bark, they go after the acorns, and they rub against the trunks for itchy spots. In the summer months I see them go under low-hanging branches to knock the vicious horse flies off their backs. We love the trees.

After living here close to a decade I have learned the rhythm of the land and incorporated the seasons and what each one brings into my daily routine. In December, most of the leaves have fallen. A few of the oaks hold their leaves on through the winter months, offering a lovely tobacco brown color to the winter landscape.

But there are many leaves on the ground. I try to over-seed with a little winter rye to keep the ground covered and to give the horses and donkeys something to nibble on. This is tricky because everyone tells you to put the seed out when the nights get cool but not below freezing and when the daytime temps come down below 70. This often coincides with the first falling of leaves. I’ve learned to use my common sense. I put the seed out before a light rain or after a heavy one. I rake what leaves have fallen, toss the seed, and then don’t sweat the leaves that fall after. The leaves actually make a nice protective layer over the seed until it sprouts and takes root. By the time I need to rake again, the grass is growing well and can handle the raking.


I learned years back that to try to do all the raking at one time is murder for my back. So I started incorporating the raking into another chore I do every day: mucking the fields. I scoop leaves up with every pile of manure. This seems like a drop in the bucket but when you muck many piles a day you make a dent. 

*******

November 2014

Giving Thanks

It's easy to get caught up in all the things there are to do in and around a barn that houses horses and donkeys. There is always mucking, some kind of repair to be done, tack to be cleaned, dust to be wiped. Feeding and grooming. Water troughs and buckets.

Last week I used one of our warmer days to clean the stall guards, which wore the last of the fall spider's discarded webs like decoration. Peppermint soap and water makes the chore more pleasant and I always fancy the peppermint smell lingers and soothes the equines when they're in the barn.

Every day I've been doing a little raking of leaves, over-seeding of winter rye, clearing acorns from beneath the oak trees in the arena.

It's a good daily practice to take a look at things as they are. When I get frenzied about all the things I haven't gotten to yet, I stop and remind myself to take a long, slow look around. What if I left the oak and hickory leaves right where they are? What if I never managed to sow the winter rye? What if the dusty webs stayed in the barn? 

No disaster would befall. Life would go on. And horses and donkeys would be as happy as they are. In the end, they need good hay, clean water, and love.

It's true that keeping things clean and tidy make a difference. It's also true that making improvements offers pleasure. But sometimes I need to tell myself the more enduring truth: often things are wonderful just as they are. Stopping the urge to do more, clean more, improve more can be a very good thing.

This week I let things be. I give thanks to my friends in the barn:

Keil Bay, my friend and therapist, for good rides, great conversation, harmony in motion, and a kind eye.

Cody, another friend, for frisky morning head tosses and passage in the field.

Little Man, for his high-pitched sweet whinnies and teddy bear winter coat.

Rafer Johnson, for the best donkey hugs in the whole world.

Redford, for his sweet face and guardian duties. He took over when Salina left us.

For the barn just as it is, for November Hill, for the moments that remind me there is no to-do list, nothing pressing, just being to be done.

A good friend sent me a quote awhile back, saying it reminded her of donkeys and their insatiable curiosity. It speaks to what they give us, the donkeys, the horses, and the life that we share with them:

"What is our business here, and in the words of Thomas Merton, 'our business is life itself.' Someone, as Thoreau said, must be Inspector of Snowstorms, Inspector of Sunsets... together we are Inspectors of Wildflowers, Secretaries of Sunshine, Surveyors of Meadows, Auditors of Birdsong, Clerks of Clouds, Vice Presidents of Hilltops and Valleys, Bogs, Trees, and everything."

-from Come Ye Back To Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen



*******

October 2014

Crow Ride

A few weeks ago I was riding Keil Bay, thinking about the change in seasons. The shift from summer to fall is my favorite time of year. It was still warm out but not hot. We'd been gifted with several cold spells which brought delightful shivers on early mornings. The horses love this season too. It's fun to watch as they wake up from the heat of summer. Biting insects die out. Suddenly the things that are most annoying about summer in North Carolina lift and fade.

There was a very light breeze that day, and sunshine. The deep blue sky of autumn was above us. We have oak trees at H and F in our arena and those areas were littered with acorns, so many that Keil Bay and I shifted our circuit to avoid them.

Out of the blue (that bright blue sky!) a magical thing happened around us. A storytelling of crows appeared. They were in both oak trees, they were in the pine and hickory trees adjacent to the arena, they landed in the arena with us and began to march around. 

And they were talking, back and forth, loud and soft, fast and slow. 

We have a large number of crows on November Hill. When we first moved here they were shy and it took years for them to get comfortable being photographed. Gradually they have become bolder and more trusting. Now they visit and sometimes, like the ride that day, they interact directly.

I do not know what tale these crows were telling, but it was long and powerful. Keil Bay and I walked and trotted and listened. I imagined they were telling a story of autumn. There were parts that seemed harsh and I think those sections had to do with the clearcutting of their forest next door to us two years ago. I listened and although most of the story was a mystery to me, I realized that like children who do not yet understand words, but love being read to nonetheless, this story had the same ability to resonate.


Sometimes we try hard to know the facts of something, when really all we need to do is listen and experience and accept the not knowing. For me, that morning, that was the gift of Crow, and I carry the story they told inside my bones and my muscles and my memory.

*******

September 2014

Healing Circles

A few weeks ago our little calico cat Pixie was off her food and very lethargic when we woke up so I quickly called the vet. It was a Saturday and they were fully booked but offered to work us in.

I arrived planning to stay so that Pixie could be with me instead of in a cage in back. The vet tech took us to an exam room right away and got Pixie's temperature, which was very high (105) and made a quick decision to administer fluids and get some blood.

Once they were done Pixie came back to her carrier and she and I found a corner in the waiting room to await the results of the blood work.

It was a busy morning in the vet's office. I was grateful they worked us in, and although I was very stressed about Pixie, she rested quietly and I tried to sit back and appreciate the pets coming in for wellness check ups. There were cute puppies and obviously well-loved older dogs in a continuous stream. I had thought I might work on my iPad but I couldn't stop greeting the dogs and their owners.

Most people asked if I had a cat in the carrier and when I said yes and that she was very sick and we didn't know why yet, they immediately offered condolences and sincere hopes that she would be okay. It's amazing how much it helps to hear that kind of thing, and when I looked in at Pixie her eyes were open as if she too were absorbing these good wishes. The energy from each person was palpable.

A man about my age came in with a very cute little dog named Smokey. They had to wait while someone else checked out so I said hello and told Smokey how handsome he was. His owner smiled but didn't say anything - then took his turn and  told the receptionist he didn't have an appointment but just wanted to make sure Smokey's shots were up to date and hopefully get any that weren't. She went into the medical record and assured him Smokey was just fine. By that time another couple had come in with a tiny tick in a jar and they wanted to look at it under the microscope. Another woman was there with a puppy for a wellness check.

Suddenly we were all there waiting, and someone asked about Pixie and I told them she was very sick but we didn't yet know why. Smokey's owner turned to me and shared a story about Smokey and how he has learned to help out on the farm by herding the cows and goats that this farmer raises. He talked about how Smokey has over the years become his best friend, his "eyes and ears" when working in the fields. We were all eager to hear more about Smokey and his owner's face shifted from a little bit reserved to a face full of crinkles from smiling as he went on and told a story of his own medical issues and surgery and how when he came home from the hospital Smokey slept on the bed beside the leg that had been operated on. The owner said Smokey had never done that before or since but during the recovery time stayed on the bed with him, keeping him warm, guarding his man's leg.

I wish I could accurately describe the man's face and how it softened as he told this story. Everyone in the waiting room softened with him. We were in a circle because of how the seating is there, and it became a healing circle and a circle of pure connection.

I told the story of my father's dog Shadow, who used to walk my dad to school and then come back and wait for him at the train tracks when school was out each day. He did this until my dad graduated from high school and joined the Army and went to Korea, and Shadow kept going to the train station every day for months - the place my dad left from to go to war.

Eventually Shadow stopped going to the train station, but several years later, my dad came home from Korea and from his army base unannounced. That day, out of the blue, Shadow went to the train station and sat there waiting because somehow he knew, even when no one else did, that his best friend was coming home.

This story led to another Smokey story and then to other stories and by the end of it our little circle in the waiting room had got on to the subject of healing and mystery and how animals know so much more than we do. We talked about animals in rest homes and nursing homes and how people with animals live longer and healthier lives and how sad we all felt for people who don't know the love and the mystery and the connection of dogs and cats and horses and donkeys and goats and cows.

At some point the puppy's turn to see the vet came, and the couple with the tick in the jar realized the vet was overwhelmed and they would come back on Monday, and Smokey and his best friend were ready to go on to their next errand on a Saturday morning. They all wished Pixie well and we all said goodbye and yet even when the waiting room was empty again and it was just me and Pixie waiting, something of that circle stayed with us. 

When we got the news that she had cytauxzoonosis, a very serious and fatal tick-borne disease and would need to be treated in the ICU of our local vet school hospital, that circle and its power stayed with us all the way to the much bigger, more clinical waiting room we next went to. There was no magic circle in that waiting room, which was cold and less personal and I wished I knew how to create the same thing there for the people waiting with me and my husband who had joined me. 

Pixie and another of our cats Mystic were both admitted to the vet school's ICU and received top notch care for 7 and 5 days. They are home now, safe and healthy again, leaving a wake of slightly astounded veterinarians who all seem surprised that they recovered so quickly and so completely.

I know what fueled their recovery - the healing circle that formed in the waiting room around Pixie that Saturday morning and continued on Facebook as I shared the story and gave regular updates. The medications and supportive care provided by the vet school were necessary and good, but I believe with all my heart that a loving, healing circle acts as an amplifier for the medical interventions. I am certain Pixie, who is sleeping peacefully on the bed a few feet away from me right now, felt all that love and concern and that it helped her heal. 

Seek out the healing circles in your lives! Find one and join it, create one if there isn't one already there. As Pixie rolls and stretches in front of me, we both say thank you.

*******

August 2014

You Can Lead A Horse To Water

...but can you lead a donkey away from a full feed tub when he hasn't had his breakfast yet?

Yesterday morning I went out to feed breakfast. My daughter had been out earlier and moved the pony and donkeys over to the near side of the barn for the day. This time of year they like coming in with hay and fans, taking respite from heat and insects, and since they go in and out of stalls, we split them up to let them take turns being on one side of the barn and the other. Some days the pony and the donkeys are on the near side, which feeds to the barnyard and the grass paddock. Other days they're on the far side, which feeds to the dirt paddock (half filled with grass this time of year!) and the pastures.

They all enjoy the change, and once a week or so I also change up who partners with who. It keeps them all flexible and no one gets too attached to things being one way.

Yesterday I got feed tubs set up and since the two big horses were on the far side, I took their tubs over and put them in grass patches in the dirt paddock. They eat together fine so there was no need to close them in stalls for the meal.

Back to the feed room to get tubs out to the pony and the two donkeys. Except there was only one donkey!

I thought Rafer Johnson might be in the hay tent but he wasn't. Another hiding place is behind the horse trailer in the barnyard, but no, he wasn't there either. It's also not like Rafer to hide when it's time for breakfast!

When I got back to the barn I glanced over at the big horses and there he was, sharing Cody's feed tub.

Rafer is halter-trained but as is the case with many donkeys, if he is scared or if he really doesn't want to do something, he will stop and stand. It's almost the opposite of the flight instinct in the horse. A donkey's reaction to something he doesn't like is to stop. I've never tried to change this reaction. In a lot of ways it's easier to manage than the flight response in a spooked horse. 

Sometimes though, like yesterday, I didn't want him to stay put. I wanted to take him away from Cody's feed tub. Immediately. Mainly because he doesn't need the extra feed, but also because Cody's supplements were in the wet timothy cubes and I wanted him to get every bit of it.

I got Rafer's halter and lead line and did what I always do when I need something to happen with the equines and I suspect they might not want to follow my plan.

I relaxed, breathed all the way down so my energy was centered to the earth. I put my intention ahead of me, that I would put the halter on and Rafer and I would walk away from the big tub of feed (a feast in his eyes!) past Keil Bay and another big tub of feed, and through the gate to the grass paddock with absolutely no problem. I visualized the two of us sauntering along, without a single slowed step.

And then I went and that is exactly what we did.

I've been reading a lot about dominance and leadership with equines. I aim for partnership, and to keep the equine's thinking process intact because sometimes they know more than I do and often their input is valuable.

Salina, our 30-year old mare who left a year ago, taught me to do what I just described. I didn't need a set of DVDs or a big-name trainer standing in a makeshift pen bossing a scared horse around to teach me what to do.

All I needed was a black mare with one eye who had her own mind and a keen sense of justice. She taught me that if I ask quietly, if I center and balance my own energy and my own emotions, if I visualize what it is I want and it's a fair and reasonable request (and usually even if it isn't that), I get what I ask for.

Salina taught me her method the first week she was here and it has never failed to work.


Yesterday it proved that not only can you lead a horse to water - you can lead a hungry donkey away from a full feed tub with grace and ease and a big hug on the other side of the barn.

*******

Thoughts From The Barn/ July 2014

Surprises

I was away for ten days during mid-July as a writer-in-residence at Weymouth Center For the Arts and Humanities, a gorgeous mansion that has lovely rooms, a cozy writer's kitchen, well-manicured gardens, a cleaning service, and blissful quiet. It's a gift to be able to go there twice a year and work on my novels, but the best thing about it is that as much as I look forward to my time there, once it's done, I look equally forward to coming home to November Hill.

It took a couple of days to readjust to daily chores in the heat. A few days after getting home I was in the barnyard tidying the hay tent, dripping sweat, thinking I was probably half-crazy to keep going since it was midday and the sun was hot. But once I start a chore I like to finish it, so on I went, raking and moving trampled hay to bare spots in the barnyard.

While I was standing there having the internal argument with myself - finish? - make the call that I'd done enough for the moment? - I heard a huge rustling sound. Maybe it's the images I've been seeing of the rescued elephant Raju recently, but the first thing that came to mind was that an elephant was coming out of the woods behind the back field.

That was a joy in itself, that fantastical thought, an elephant no longer in shackles, free to come crashing through the forest. All thoughts of the hot sun disappeared and I forgot my sweat as I waited to see what was coming.

A few moments later a kettle of black vultures, at least 20, erupted from one of the trees in the back field. They had been there all along, invisible and hidden inside the foliage, and I watched in awe as they emerged, more than you would imagine could be inside the crown of that red oak. 

Later, in the cool of the house, I pondered why it is I love being out at the barn so much. Even when I complain about the heat and the cold and the elements, what I notice over and over again is that being close to nature brings ongoing moments of delight and joy and connection. I wonder sometimes if Facebook, with so many people sharing images of animals and landscapes and tales of our adventures in the world, is providing our inside selves with vicarious moments of joy. 

For me, the barn is what pulls me outside each day, the horses and the donkeys and the work and the fun. Part of what the equines do is put me front and center to these moments when something hidden is revealed. Joy and wonder.


If there's a message in this month's column it is this: make time and find reasons every day to go out in the world, where it's hot, or cold, wet, or windy. Keep your eyes and ears open for the surprises that rejuvenate. I am absolutely certain they are there.

*******

June 2014

Anchoring

As we head toward the summer solstice I have been struggling to get all the barn chores done each day. This week in particular as I wake up to 80s heading for the upper 90s, I have been wrapping my head in cold cloths, stopping to take breaks in the shade, and joining the horses in their cold hosings so that none of us get too hot. 

Earlier this spring I moved a folding camp chair out of the feed room to the end of the barn aisle, right by the barn door. Since the heat moved in I've made good use of the chair. But it's more than a place to sit on a hot day.

That chair is an anchor.

It didn't occur to me right away. All I knew was when I sat in the chair I felt centered. I felt anchored to the earth, in the very best way. 

It's a spot in the barn where Salina often stood, looking out toward the front field, catching the breeze. I always wondered why she stood there and now I think I know.

There's a sense of calm in that spot. 

If you looked on a map for the exact center of November Hill Farm, it's right there. 

Anchoring has become my daily ritual. I am spending at least some part of each day sitting in the pale gray chair, doing nothing but gazing out, listening to the horses eat their hay in the stalls behind me, enjoying visits from the equines one by one, as they choose to come touch muzzles to my shoulder. I'm being anchored, I'm anchoring. It feels like a circle of energy that does something good for all of us here.

On the summer solstice we will celebrate the longest day, and I'll look toward fall, which is my favorite season, when we can ride again without biting insects trailing us, when the heat fades and November Hill goes from green to a seasonal show of gorgeous color. The summer solstice for us is not really the middle of summer, not when we're talking heat indexes and humidity. But it marks a turning point, and I celebrate reaching it. July can be brutal here, as can August. But we're on the way to fall once we pass the solstice.

Speaking of riding - a few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to try out one of Two Horse Tack's products, and I chose to customize a bitless bridle, in black leather, for Keil Bay. It is absolutely beautiful, and I'm happy to share that Two Horse Tack has partnered with me here to give one lucky reader a chance to win and create your own customized bitless bridle!


Keil Bay and I ride with a double-jointed snaffle sometimes, but I love being able to give him a choice. I've tried a number of bitless bridles and this one is the best and most beautiful. It's our new favorite piece of tack.

*******

May 2014

Anniversary of the Passing of a Goddess

A year ago this month my husband came in to tell me that Salina, our 30-year old German Hannoverian mare, was down. For the last two years of her life we had grown used to this occurrence. She got down and couldn't get back up again. Usually the donkeys would bray and let us know, and every single time it happened, I would hold my breath and wonder if that was THE DAY. 

If you live with horses, or dogs, or cats, or other beloved animals who have grown old in your care, you know what I mean.

THE DAY is that time when we need to make a very difficult decision. I have done it with dogs and cats a number of times in my life. I had never done it with a horse.

Salina took it upon herself to teach me. I cried, I stressed, I asked her if she was ready to go, and watched in total amazement as she gave me the answer - NO. We had vets out who agreed. She was not ready. We learned how to best help her get up. We learned how to move her if she was too close to the wall so she could get up on her own. I watched my entire family work together even in the most difficult moments to help Salina. And it was apparent how much she appreciated our efforts. 

The morning she left us I ran out to the barn, once again faced with the question. We had practiced it all those times. I asked and she said YES. She was ready to go.

She had struggled some but was mostly calm. The vet got there within the hour and had a very hard time finding a pulse. I was so emotional I stood in the barn aisle doorway, tears raining down my face, while my son held Salina's head as the vet gave her the injection. I heard a long rasping breath and then I had a perfectly clear vision of Salina - a beautiful black mare who had one eye and two arthritic knees, suddenly healed, full-sighted, sound, galloping the perimeter of our farm, then heading up to the sky and disappearing. 

After the vet left, I brought each herd member to her body to say goodbye. The donkeys were heartbroken. Rafer Johnson repeatedly pushed his face into my chest, burying his eyes in my armpit, simply inconsolable. It was a very hard day.

Salina was buried just outside of our arena, at A, beneath a line of trees where she and her herd enjoyed browsing foliage. In the weeks that followed the herd wore a path to her grave. They still make their way out there regularly, but in the early months after she left us, it was a common occurrence to see one or more of them standing by her, just gazing at the mound. 

I did not ride from May to October. I grieved her loss deeply. She was not the most affectionate of the horses I live with, but she had a strong bond with me and I trusted her completely. There were many nights when she came to my bedroom window and whinnied and her message was clear: get out here now. There was always a reason, and she never used that whinny if it wasn't a good one.

When I started back riding last fall, Keil Bay and I created a new ritual. We often stop at A and spend a few moments checking in with Salina. I stop by her grave and chat with her when I'm doing chores. I feel her spirit with us, and I've had a number of experiences where I look out the window and see her grazing with her herd. 

There have been occasions when I felt scared or upset and the vision of a black mare circling our farm returned to me. When the forest behind our property was logged recently I watched Keil Bay go and stand between the unseen sound of cutting machines and Salina's grave.

She is in so many ways still here with us.

I have planted an heirloom local apple in her grave. I hope it grows. I know Salina would love it. 

I didn't know what it would feel like to get to this anniversary month. I have found myself feeling sad for no reason, obsessing over Keil Bay, who, at 25, is now my most senior horse. I have gone to her grave and communed with her. I still miss her. I still cry if I ponder the occasion of her death for more than a few minutes. 

And I remember all the things she taught me: how to center myself to the earth to calm her down, that taking the time to do things slowly always works better than rushing and getting frustrated, that mares are incredible partners, that having one eye never stopped her for a moment from doing what she wanted and needed to do. That the love of a mother (she had many beautiful babies in her former life as a brood mare) never wanes, even when the "babies" are miniature donkeys who, in terms of size, never grow up. 

That however much you think you are ready to say goodbye to a beloved friend, you aren't, not really. But even the hardest thing, the goodbye, can be a gift. 


For the last two years of her life, the lesson was simple: trust me, listen to me, let me go when it's time. She promised me I would know, and I did. There are 5 equines here who will be with me until the end. Thanks to Salina, I know how to ask, how to listen and, most importantly, to trust the answer.

*******

March 2014

Joy

This month, while winter and spring are playing tag with one another, my thoughts are from the kitchen sink - I was standing at mine looking through the window while making my morning coffee.

I was womaning the farm for four days without my usual family help, mulling over the idea that with thirteen animals to feed and care for, I would probably not manage to ride Keil Bay, much less Keil Bay AND Cody. The pony enjoys having his time too. The donkeys? They want ear scratches and cheek rubs. I always manage that!

Waiting for my coffee water to boil, I washed the few dirty dishes in the sink and gazed out at the barn. Maybe I could squeeze it all in. Feeding, mucking, grooming, the rides. 

Within a few seconds, two horses and a pony appeared in the arena, which I had left open the night before.

They walked. They trotted. They cantered and galloped. I watched as Keil Bay made huge figure 8s, showing off his floating extended trot. Cody performed passage and piaffe, doing elegant head tosses as he went. The pony did levade, an upper level dressage movement, one of the airs above the ground, in which he stands on hind legs, hocks bent to support his entire weight. 

In between doing their special movements they trotted three abreast, pirouetted in line and went the other direction, walked in collection with rounded necks, and cantered in perfect cadence.

Then they all took off in long, ground-covering gallops, disappeared behind the barn, and reappeared at the other end of the arena as I did my own much less elegant dash to the sliding glass doors in the dining room so I could continue watching their play.

For the next twenty minutes I ran back and forth as they continued the show. I was impressed at their incorporation of the entire arena into their routine, as well as every gait, many special movements, and the grace with which they each avoided the others.

It occurred to me that every time I ride, I am hoping to capture exactly what I was seeing them do at liberty: elegance, freedom, grace. And joy.

It also occurred to me that to saddle up later in the day would be plain and simply superfluous. We riders talk about keeping our horses in "work" and how we must train regularly. We speak of wet saddle pads as necessary proof of productive time with horses. 

I'm not someone who thinks we shouldn't ride the horses with whom we share our lives. I adore being on Keil Bay's back, seeking the moments of connection and harmony. I love when it feels like I am part of his body and his feet are not touching the ground. That time with him is magical and I actively seek it.

But I also know, especially when I see them as I did this March morning, as a herd, sharing pure joy in movement, that what is most special about the Horse has nothing at all to do with the ride. 


It's them. Their spirit, their energy, their beauty. This particular morning it is them entering the arena, of their own accords, doing the movements they each do well, inviting and joining and moving in line, then splitting off to move separately. And when their bodies are warm and their muscles soft, they slow and stop and walk out of the gate, one after the other, because it is time for breakfast tubs. The woman, me, will be there soon, they know I will because they see me through the window. We are, without saddles or bridles or wet saddle pads, in perfect harmony. 

*******

February 2014

A Winter Night, and Light 

It's a cold, wet February night here and time to head out to give hay to the horses, pony, and donkeys.

They've been in the barn since mid-day, when it started snowing, wet flakes that melted fast. They've been free to go in and out but have chosen to stay dry, with comfy bedding and a bottomless hay buffet.

I slide the big barn doors open, calling out that it's me. It is pitch dark. I'm eager to turn on the lights so I can see them, heads lifting in unison, eyes blinking like owls. Keil Bay is the first I see. He steps forward and puts his head in my hands.

I peek in over the stall doors on the other side of the barn to make sure the donkeys and the pony are okay. Cody is behind Keil Bay, waiting for his hello.

They're all ready for hay. I get the pitchfork and walk across the dark barnyard to the hay tent. Keil walks with me, stopping halfway to stand tall, gazing intently out over the open field that used to be Crow Forest. It was clear-cut by its owner in May.

Tonight, I notice the four security lights that come on at dusk along the top edge of the cleared land. At first when the trees were cut it was odd to see lights up there. We had only ever known the dark forest, loved its depth and mystery.

But we get used to things when we have to and even come to take pleasure in them. The four security lights look like pale blue planets to me now, or small moons, but they have a protective, all-seeing quality that appeals to me.

Keil Bay stands very still, as if he sees something I cannot, likely the November Hill deer herd, but they are quiet and my human eyes are deficient so I trust Keil Bay to do the seeing and I walk on to the hay tent. He snorts a long soft snort which lets me know everything is okay.

I take hay from tent to barn one pitchfork at a time. My daughter and husband think this is crazy but I enjoy making the trip once for each equine, and they have come to know this routine and are not impatient with it.

Keil Bay goes back in the barn when I serve his hay, and Cody comes out with me, as if they're taking turns guarding me on my journey to the tent.

The donkey boys and the pony stand beneath the shelter outside the three stalls they've been in and out of all afternoon. They too are watching.

I muck and check waters and settle them in, then cut the lights and walk back through the darkness to the house along the well-worn path. The golden porch lights are warm, like welcoming lanterns, and guide my way. From the back, I see what the horses see, what they must think of as our barn, the human herd in their own warm stalls, moving from room to room, visible because of our inside lights.

When I come through the laundry room door, I glimpse the lamp in the living room, the warm woodstove, the corner of the sofa, several sleeping cats, the one remaining strand of twinkly lights through the window to the front porch.

Lights in the house, lights in the barn, lights over Crow Forest. Above it all, winter starlight. Home.

*******

January 2014

The Coldest Day

This morning the sun rose on the coldest day of the year. Not only this new year, but the entire past twelve months. When I got to the barn it was 11 degrees Fahrenheit. My head was full of concerns. Did the horses and donkeys drink enough through the night? Did they get cold? How icy had the troughs gotten? 

Last night I filled troughs to the brim and brought every water bucket inside to fill with warm water so they had choices. The warm water from inside the house or the icy mix in their big troughs.

I know for many of you this kind of weather (and colder, even) is a daily occurrence during the winter season. We usually have fewer than five of these days in a years' time, so every year it feels like a fresh concern.

I put on my trusty Lands End knee-length squall parka, added a fleece balaclava and lined hat with ear flaps, and gloves. I was layered beneath that with winter breeches, turtleneck, thick socks,and muck boots. I headed out.

The horses were fine. The air was so clear it felt crystalline as I breathed it in. There is a purity to the very cold landscape that I forget until I'm in it again. 

I made the breakfast tubs and served them to patient horses, pony, and donkeys. They aren't always patient, but something about this perfectly still, cold morning called for that.

The pony almost always finishes first. I hauled buckets of warm water out while they ate, positioning two bigger buckets in the paddock so they could stop and drink on their way out to the pasture. I had cleared ice on two of the big water troughs, but hadn't yet cleared the one they pass on their way out to the front field.

The dark brown and white painted pony had on his cobalt blue blanket. His colors gleamed in the morning sun. He walked by me with purpose, heading out again to graze hay after his warm feed tub. I stopped and watched, waiting for him to take a nice long drink of the warm water. 

He marched past the first bucket, then the second bucket, and headed straight for the iced over water trough. Crunch. Effortlessly, he pushed his nose through the ice and drank. And drank. And drank.

When he finished he turned to look at me before sauntering out to the field. 

I'm half-Shetland, he said. It was as clear as day, those words. It's in my blood. And so it is. Shetlands are known for being hardy and the strongest equine for their size. I saw that this morning when the little man pushed through the ice and chose the coldest water, the water he had to work to get. 

I also heard his message: take care of me, think of what I might like and what I might need. But don't fret too much. And give me the choice. Let me surprise you. 

2 comments:

billie said...

COMING SOON!

billie said...

Goodness, 4 years later, I manage to start the transferring of these essays. :)