Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Horse, a Boy and a Hay Ring

When we moved up here three years ago, I had the privilege of not having to work a day job for six months. It was great! I was a full time 'mom' to the eight horses we had at the time, two dogs, and four cats. It also happened to be during a time of year that I could invite our then 7 year old grandson, Ricky, to come spend his Spring Break with me. Yeoldfurt was working out of town for a couple of weeks so it was just me and Ricky and all the critters. It had rained almost every day that week, but usually let up enough in the afternoon that I could saddle a horse for Ricky to ride. Unplanned adventures are often the best though and this is the story of just such an adventure.

For any non-horsey readers I may have, let me lay some ground work here. Everyone knows what a horse is but if you don't have much experience being around horses, you might not know how incredibly ingenious they can be about finding ways to get into trouble. You can wrap them in bubble wrap and put them in a padded stall and they will find a way to get themselves in trouble. Boys can be the same way, but most everyone knows that. Some city folk may not know what a hay ring is though. It's an 8-foot round metal ring, usually with three rails, and is designed to sit around a big round hay bale and keep the livestock from trampling the hay before they get a chance to eat it. Being constructed of metal and fairly big, hay rings are heavy and awkward. So it's common practice when they're not around a bale to stand them up on their side and roll them from location to location. It had been too muddy to move a round bale into the paddock for a while, so our hay ring had been standing on it's side over by the tree line for over a week. It didn't seem to bother the horses and they didn't bother it first. A few days earlier, I did notice that a couple of the younger horses were making a game of running through the middle of the ring, chasing each other and having a good ol' time. Lucy was one of the ring leaders and the game seemed harmless enough at first. Then Lucy decided to spice things up.

To give you a little insight on Lucy, is our buckskin mare, five years old at the time this story took place. She is half well-bred Paint horse and half wild mustang ...our own piece of Americana. But her heritage and how we came to have her is whole 'nother story and I'll save it for another time. Just know that her mama is one of the smartest horses we own and her mustang daddy must have no slouch either because Lucy is always thinking. What she thinks up usually gets her in trouble, but you have to give her credit for thinking.

Since Ricky was out of school for the week and I wasn't punching a time clock at all, we got up when we woke up and did morning chores together before breakfast. Ricky was always eager to get outside in the mornings, so he was usually the first one out the door. I could lag ten or fifteen minutes behind him and he would just amuse himself playing with the dogs or feeding the cats until I got there. This particular morning though, he had barely been outside two minutes when he came running back into the house yelling, "Gramma, Gramma ...Lucy is down, she's stuck!" He sounded truly panicked and having seen first hand some of the hairy situations horses can get themselves into, I hurried out the door behind him to see what was wrong.

Ricky was right, Lucy was down ...sort of. She had her head and shoulders wedged through the side of the hay ring. Her head and shoulders were on the outside of the hay ring, her front legs folded under her, her nose on the ground. Her butt was up, her hind end still in the middle of the hay ring and she looked for all the world like she was kneeling, almost as if she was praying. The other six horse were gathered around her with the most incredulous looks on their faces. They looked like they didn't know whether to be alarmed or annoyed or amused, they were stunned. I wish I had the foresight to have a camera ready before I went out the door ...but with her in this predicament, it didn't seem the time to tell them all 'hold that pose, I'll be right back!' So I instructed Ricky to get me a halter and lead rope. While he was busy with that, I went to put the other horses in their stalls. I wasn't sure how we were going to get Lucy unstuck from the hay ring, but I didn't want any help from the other horses while we were working on it.

Once the rest of the horses were in their stalls, I haltered Lucy and looked her over real good to make sure she wasn't hurt anywhere. She seemed okay, she was just stuck. Once assured she wasn't injured, I did take a minute to go get my camera, so I would have some proof for Yeoldfurt. I could tell him the story, but this ...this was the kind of thing you really had to see to believe.

My first idea to get Lucy unstuck was to have my 80-pound grandson hang onto the back of the hay ring and I would try to pull Lucy on through. But Ricky didn't like the idea of being behind her, he was worried about her kicking him. I told him she was a lot more concerned with that hay ring than with him and I was pretty sure he would be out of range for her to kick him as long as he was on the outside of the hay ring anyway. Maybe it was my use of the phrase 'pretty sure' that got him because he set his jaw and just said, "No." Just a poor choice of words on my part, but there was no convincing him at that point. So, okay, next idea ...I was still mulling over the situation and Ricky said, "I have an idea. Let's call the horse people!" I chuckled under my breath and just kept on mulling things over. "No, really, Gramma, I think we need to call the horse people!" God love him, he was just trying to help. As gently as possible, I said, "Ricky ... honey ...I know you might not believe me right now ...but your Grampa and I are the horse people in these parts. People call us when they have a problem with a horse." I could tell by the look on his face, I was right ...he didn't believe me. Ha!

We finally did get Lucy free. Fortunately for her, we feed our horses real good and, probably due to the mustang in her, Lucy is a real easy keeper. So she's got a thick, spongy layer of fat over her ribs. I let Ricky hold the lead rope at her head and encourage her forward while I stood on the edge of the hay ring to keep it from going with her. Meanwhile, I worked my fingers over her fat to get the hay ring past the widest part of her ribs. I'm not sure who was more surprised when she was finally popped free ...Lucy or Ricky. They both just stood there for a minute looking at each other like, "Whew ...that was not fun!" Then Lucy shook from head to tail like a dog after a swim with Ricky holding the lead rope out at arm's length and looking surprised and wary, not too sure if shaking was all she was going to do.

Adventure over, disaster averted, I suggested to Ricky that he walk Lucy on up the hill to her stall and I would go get the horses' breakfast ready. He started up the hill, then turned around and looked at me, smiled and said, "You really are the horse people, Gramma!" I'm sure that day will be one of his favorite memories 'from the farm' when he gets older.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Chicken Whisperer, Tales from the Coop

Most of the time, Yeoldfurt is the one taking care of the chickens morning and afternoon. Things ended up that way partly because my day job has me away from home 11 hours of the day and partly because the whole chicken venture was his idea, but mostly because he enjoys it. When the responsibilities fall to me, I rinse and refill their waterers and top off their feed and I'm done. It only takes me about 15 minutes and that includes walking down the hill to the coop and back. Okay, it's not really a 'hill' ...just a sloped part of the yard but my point is, taking care of the chickens takes very little time when I do it.

Most evenings, however, we split up the chores and Yeoldfurt takes care of the chickens. He'll put the feed in the buckets for the horses and then head down to the chicken coop while I bring the horses in, fill their water trough, make up their feed for in the morning, feed the barn cats and the dog, water the vegetable garden and then turn the horses back out. In the thirty minutes or say it takes me to do all that, Yeoldfurt is usually just finishing up with the chickens.

His routine goes something like this. As he begins his walk down the hill, he starts 'talking' to the flock. Now we all know that roosters crow and chickens cluck, but chickens make a lot of in-between noises too. Yeoldfurt seems to have mastered quite a bit of their vocabulary. It's very hard to spell chicken talk, but I will try. The sound Yeoldfurt makes when he heads down the hill is an 'r' sound, very low, very quiet, very drawn out, then crescendoing to an abrupt halt ...errrrrrrrRRRRRRR! (long pause) errrrrrrrRRRRRRR! It's very similar to the cooing sound that pigeons make. It's a comfort sound for them, I guess. Anyone who has been around chickens when they're relaxed and not worried, just doing chicken stuff, has probably heard this sound. But he starts talking to them like that on his way down the hill and darned if they don't answer him.

When he steps into the coop, they don't scatter and head for the far corners like they do when I walk in. They keep out from under his feet, but he can walk among them without making them scatter and get upset. Maybe it's the chicken talk he's using, I don't know. If Yeoldfurt is feeling content and complacent, he might reach down and pick up one of the hens from the flock. She squawks a little when he first lifts her up, but he holds her with one hand up to his chest and very gently cups his other hand over her head. Meanwhile, he drops his chin and makes the cooing comfort sound to her. Within seconds, the hen is completely relaxed in Yeoldfurt's hands. Still 'talking' to her, he then sets her up in one of the nest boxes up on the rail. Sometimes, she wants to pop right up and jump down, but Yeoldfurt just keeps cooing and strokes her until she relaxes. The three big bully roosters, however, see another side of Yeoldfurt.

One day while we were sitting out with Hoppy and after he had regained quite a bit of mobility and balance, we decided to see how he would do back with the flock. Yeoldfurt gathered him up and walked into the coop with him. The chickens moved off from Yeoldfurt but not far and not in a panic. Yeoldfurt set Hoppy down in the middle of the coop and just stood with him. The three big roosters moved to the front of the flock and just stared. Hoppy raised himself up and stared back. As much improved as Hoppy was, he was half the size of the three roosters still with the flock. But he did his best to fluff up and look confident. They all just stared at each other for a minute or so and then the three roosters moved toward Hoppy almost in unison. Hoppy stood his ground, surely reassured the fact Yeoldfurt was standing right behind him. Then it got ugly.

The biggest of the three big roosters pecked Hoppy hard right on top of the head. Hoppy squawked, I don't know if it was pain or just surprise or perhaps a little of both. But Yeoldfurt moved like lightning to scoop up our little friend out of harm's way. Startled by Yeoldfurt's swift movements, feathers flew as the big roosters scrambled back to the hens and the whole flock moved as far back as possible. Yeoldfurt stood with Hoppy cradled against his chest, cooing comfort sounds while he made sure there was no blood or obvious injury. Then he handed Hoppy to me outside the coop. I brought Hoppy back to the grassy area by our chairs and sat down to wait for Yeoldfurt to join us, feeling bad for Hoppy that we had put him in that position.

The next thing I knew, I heard a ruckus in the coop. I looked up and saw Yeoldfurt standing with his back to me, but I could tell he was holding something close in his left arm and looking down. Whatever he was holding in his left arm, he was 'spanking' with his right arm ....smack, smack, smack rapid rhthym. The other chickens were in the far corner, looking wide-eyed and on the verge of panic. I said, "What are you doing? Are you spanking that rooster?!" Yeoldfurt didn't slow down or even look around at me. He just said, "Yup" and kept swatting. I said, "How do you know you got the one that pecked Hoppy?" He set that first rooster down, snatched up another rooster, and said, "I'm gonna spank all three!" Knowing the roosters weren't in mortal danger, I laughed. It was that moment when I began formulating the story in my head about the day I caught Yeoldfurt spanking his rooster in the chicken coop.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm Going to Miss Hoppy Hour

One of Yeoldfurt's and my newest venture in our efforts toward self-sufficiency is to add chickens to the menagerie. We wanted enough eggs for ourselves and maybe a dozen or two a week to trade. So we bought 12 chicks in early April, 12 little yellow balls of fluff. Each one a tiny fragile handful of life. We got a heck of deal on a small broodbox at the local Tractor Supply. Someone had apparently been less than careful with the forklift and the box looked like it had been shishkabobed on corner. We got it for only $50, half price ...what a deal. We bought the broodbox, a bale of shavings, a heat lamp, a waterer, a feeder, 10 pounds of chick starter and 12 chicks for $140. As I wrote out the check, I was having a slap fight with myself in my head about 'how many eggs I could buy for $140!' Shut up, Self, I said will be an adventure. Little did I know. Ha!

The adventure began as soon as I got home with all the goods and we peeled the cardboard away from the unassembled broodbox. The labels on the box promised 'Easy Assembly' and sturdy construction. Well, the hardware is sturdy for sure but the wood was soft. I remembered popsicle sticks as having more surface tension. Fortunately though the damage to the outside of the box was very much exaggerated to the actual damage to the broodbox. One of the side members had a hairline split, but it wouldn't affect the strength of the box once it was assembled so we were pleased with having gotten it for half price.

Now Yeoldfurt and I have collaborated on many projects together over the years, and generally speaking, we get along well and work great team as long as everything goes smooth. But if things start going awry, Yeoldfurt ...being of the male persuasion ... tends to get loud and vocal with his frustrations. I know, I know, he's not mad at ME but ... being of the female persuasion (or maybe it's just me) ... I tend to take it personal after a while anyway. So in the decade or so we've been together, we've both made an effort to evolve. He's developed a lot more restraint (longer fuse?) than he used to have and I've developed a somewhat (okay, only slightly) thicker skin when he's on a rip about something. I would like to say the spirit of cooperation was born solely out of our love and respect for each other and that's sure a big part of it. But the crux of the matter is, deep down we both know that most of the jobs we have to tackle require (at least) four hands and all the patience we can muster. I like to think we've both experienced some personal growth from our efforts.

An hour or so after we started, we were both sweaty and dirty but the broodbox was standing square and sturdy and ready for the chicks. We spread some shavings in the bottom, filled the water and feed containers and set our little golden fluff balls in their new quarters. They cheeped and huddled together in the corner for a few minutes and then slowly, the more adventurous ones started exploring. We kept the light on them since the nights were still in the 60's and they were less than a week old. They stayed in the broodbox in the garage for the first several weeks, growing more than few feathers and, yes, even personalities in that time.

At about four weeks, we moved them to the chicken coop outside. The nights were warmer by now and the chicks seems delighted with their new surroundings. All of them had real feathers now, but there was one that was smaller than the others. It was a Rhode Island Red and seemed to be laying down a lot. The other chickens, especially the three bigger Rhode Island Red roosters would peck on the smaller one. Yeoldfurt brought the smaller bird out and set it down on the grass. It only seemed to be able to stand on one leg. We couldn't really tell that the other leg was broken or dislocated, but the bird didn't want to bear weight on that leg. Yeoldfurt started calling the poor little bird Hoppy because when he really wanted to move, he could hop pretty good on that one leg. We decided to move the broodbox down by the chicken coop and give him a chance to get better.

Hoppy lived in that broodbox for almost two months. Every evening when I got home from work, we would have supper and then go out and sit by the chicken coop with Hoppy. Yeoldfurt would lift Hoppy out of his cage and set him on the grass, hoping some fresh greens and a few bugs would get him interested in moving around. Our Boxer dog, Maggie, did her part to encourage Hoppy to move too. If Hoppy sat down for too long in one spot, Maggie would whine and nuzzle Hoppy's tail feathers as if to say, "Come on, quit bein' lazy!" Hoppy would squawk chicken insults back at the dog and would even reach around and peck Maggie on the muzzle every once in a while. But neither one was very serious about hurting the other. We began to refer to the hour or so we spent like this in the evenings as Hoppy Hour and it was a nice down time for all of us. As the days rolled into weeks, Hoppy got stronger. He went from hopping to hobbling and finally developed a pretty good scratch and strut. Hoppy was growing up, but he was still smaller than the other three Rhode Island Reds and he's definitely a wimp. So the three big roosters are banished to the smaller section of the coop and Hoppy has the three hens all to himself ...only for another few weeks though. Only hens live long and prosper around here. Roosters have it good while they're around but they're freezer bound as soon as they're grown up and big enough to eat. They started crowing for the first time about a week ago. It won't be long now.

It doesn't bother me to eat meat I've raised. We knew when we bought the chicks that our goal was to keep a few hens for eggs. Any roosters in the bunch would end up in the freezer. I'm sure going to miss Hoppy Hour though. We used to sit out in the evenings fairly often before Hoppy came along. But somehow, making it all about Hoppy ...a sort of physical therapy for the little lame bird ...made it more important, more of a routine. Ending the toil of the day with an hour or so of quiet time with Yeoldfurt was a good habit to get into. I hope we keep it.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Living the Dream

Some nights, sleep just doesn't seem possible, regardless of how tired I am. My mind races in multiple directions, going over lists of things I should have done today and even longer lists of things I need to tomorrow. I usually give myself two hours to fall asleep. If I'm still awake two hours after I crawl between the sheets, I'll generally sneak out of bed and crank up my computer. I say 'sneak' because Yeoldfurt is already slumbering and there's no sense in both of us being sleep-deprived the following day.

Sometimes an hour or two of surfing or Solitaire is sufficient to make my eyelids heavy. Other times, I just stay up all night and tough it out the next day. Sometimes these bouts of insomnia are related to particular worries in my life at the time, but most times they just seem random. Tonight, it's definitely random. I'm just awake and bored with trying to go to sleep.

I used to lead a very different life. I was a frustrated suburbanite, longing for wide open spaces and what I imagined to be a slower-paced country life. Sure, I knew even then that livestock and large scale gardening were labor-intensive propositions. But still, everyone talks about the rat race of city life and I longed for the country lifestyle. I got my wish when Yeoldfurt came into my life. He came as a package deal with a couple of horses and I came as a package deal with a couple of horses of my own, a dog, a cat and two grown kids. We spent the first six months of our new life together in a tiny little town in northern New Mexico. The kids probably thanked their lucky stars they were grown and didn't join me in that particular chapter of my new life. The dog and cat didn't complain much but the four horses would have probably preferred to stay in Texas too. They couldn't figure out why, as far as their eyes could see, the only thing green seemed to be the sagebrush and the cactus ...and the alfalfa that we threw to them twice a day to make up for lack of pasture.

Life was good in New Mexico, but very different. Before I moved up there, I had a pager, a cell phone, Internet access and a landline. When I got there, I discovered that my cell phone and pager didn't get reception except in Albuquerque (150 miles away!), there was no Internet ISP's available (pre-satellite days) and there was a waiting list for a landline. Oh, my... talk about withdrawal! But we were only up there six months and Yeoldfurt got transferred back to Texas. By then I was weaned of my connectivity addiction. These days, I use a phone only as a last resort. I still love Internet and email, much more flexible with an inflexible schedule.

Our first place in Texas was a little 5-acre tract with a mobile home about halfway between Houston and Galveston. It was a bare patch of dirt with rickety fences when we bought the place. We were there six years and made some major improvements. We seeded and fertilized, fenced and cross-fenced, built a couple of run-in sheds and landscaped around the mobile home. The property was located at the end of a small but upscale neighborhood with custom homes on oversized lots. There was a little park at the other end of the subdivision from our property and we used to saddle up and ride down to the park. Nothing like the clippety-clop of horses hooves on pavement to bring out the kiddos in a neighborhood. It was good desensitization for the horses when a passle of kids came running or cycling up, waving and begging, "I want to ride!" If we headed out the other direction from our driveway, it was only about 100 yards to cross a county road and then we had 100's of acres of rice patties and hay fields to ride through and around. There were few fences and always access roads around the fields, so it was a nice place to ride.

Wanting to get away from the humidity and hurricanes of the coastal area, we moved up here three years ago. We have 11-1/2 acres now, and are up to six horses, a dog, three cats, and eight chickens. Three of the chickens have the misfortune (for them) of being roosters and will soon move to the freezer. The five hens should start laying soon and we'll be self-sufficient in the egg department. The dog earns her keep every day, letting us know when anything is amiss. The two outside cats do a pretty good job keeping the smaller varmints in check and the one inside cat ...well, she just IS. I can't say the horses earn their keep anymore either. We raised our last foal in 2008, had him sold before he was weaned. His dam is for sale and so is the three year old we bought back as a rescue late last year. The people we sold her to a year earlier grossly exaggerated (overestimated?) their abilities and experience with a young horse and darn near ruined her. But she's back sound and sane and up for sale again, but only the (truly) experienced need apply! So if we can sell those two, we'll be down to our goal of just four horses. Two that are our rides and two that have earned their golden retirement.

The chickens and the garden are new projects within the last six months and have really impacted our daily chore routine. I'm not complaining, it will all be worthwhile once we start collecting eggs and gathering from the garden, but life sure is busy these days. When I was still trying to sleep earlier, I was thinking back to when I longed for the 'slower-paced' country life. I almost laughed out loud at the thought. Now that I'm living my dream, my day starts before the sun is up and finishes well after the sun goes down. But I wouldn't trade this life for anything.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Never a Dull Moment

Living in the country has many advantages, not the least of which is the lack any formal dress code. When you're 50 to 100 yards off the road and your closest neighbor is twice that distance, what you're wearing doesn't matter much. Now as far as I know, there are not 'clothes police' in the cities and suburbs yet, but when homeowners associations routinely tell you what you can (and cannot) park in your driveway and what color you can (and cannot) paint your house ...well, a dress code doesn't seem that far fetched.

My day job during the week is a 40 mile commute and requires that I'm up before the chickens and gone by first light. So, on the weekends, the first thing on my agenda is sleeping in. The advantage to a 5:00 a.m. wakeup time during the week though is that even without setting the alarm, we wake up around 7:00 a.m. and feel like we've had a real treat. And yet 7:00 a.m. is still early enough to beat most city slickers to town if you have errands to run. So on Saturdays and Sundays, we don't set the alarm and whoever wakes up first usually does the outside chores. This morning, Yeoldfurt woke up first and I must have been really tired because I didn't hear him at all. Instead, the first sounds that registered for me this morning were three loud blasts of a shotgun, definitely outside but not far from our bedroom window.

There was a time when that might have startled me, might even have scared me a little or at least got my adrenaline up. But I've been married to Yeoldfurt for nearly a decade now and it takes more than a '20-gauge' alarm clock to stir my juices in the morning. My first thought was "I wonder what he's shooting." My second thought, "Oh, Lord, I hope it's not another skunk." I'm dreading the day when one of these polecats is gonna 'shoot' back and hit Yeoldfurt or the dog. It may not be lethal, but it's sure gonna stink! Sooner or later, it's bound to happen.

I got up, got dressed and wandered out the back door to find Yeoldfurt sitting on the bench on the patio, our good ol' dog sitting next to him on one side and his trusty 12-gauge on the other side. He was wearing only his briefs and a pair of moccasins, smoking a cigarette with the slow satisfaction of a man who had just dispatched yet another pesky varmint. I said, "What were you shooting?" (No need to ask if he hit it, he always does.) He smiled and said, "A skunk up in the front paddock. I'll take care of it later." I smiled back and said, "Uh-huh ...and did you go traipsing after that skunk in your boxers?" He looked down at his own scantily-clad lap and grinned and said, "Uh-huh."

I wish I'd had a camera with me. Both he and the dog looked so pleased with themselves. I could tell this was just a hunky-dory way to start the day as far as those two were concerned. I gave a kiss and then laughed and said, "Well you've got to be a redneck if you're shootin' skunks in just your boxers and moccasins." And, with that, I went back in the house to figure out my day.

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