Saturday, April 24, 2010

with a circus mind that's running round

April has been luscious for riding this year. Here is Pie's mane in the sunshine of morning. (Sorry about the crazy vignette effect of some of these photos. My cell phone lens is blurry.)

Sovey and Pie are watching the activities at the church.

Sovey is sleeping in his shed and Pie is nibbling (of course!).

This is my view from the ground of Pie's back (complete with sawdust flakes). I am having trouble mounting bareback lately. Pie doesn't like it when I fling myself up - I don't blame him. When I mount using a saddle, I always slowly get on and softly lower my weight. The mounting block is too low to do that bareback. I rode Sovey bareback the other day and I used a small ladder with zero problems. I tried it with Pie, and I had to fling up again because he is taller. When I fling, his ears go back, so I know he hates it. I think it is time to enlist Brian to build me a proper mounting block - um, I mean - stairway.

This shot was taken when we were heading back to the barn after another amazing ride. While we were riding yesterday I told my mom that the worst part of my day is the time that I have to dismount and it is so true. Lately, all I think about is being with the horses in the pastures or riding. This semester has me teaching in the afternoons so I have (happily) been able to ride most mornings.
After our rides, we graze the horses in the tall grasses and talk about our ride and how wonderfully behaved these boys are. Yesterday, we really had a lot to talk about. We rode over to the church across the street. I've ridden Sovey over there before, but Pie is afraid of the paint lines on the road so I never can get him to cross over. I was hoping Pie would follow Sovereign over. Mom crossed over and waited, but Pie was having none of it. I think he thought it wasn't solid ground for some reason. Mom and Sovey crossed back over to us. Then, we tried again. Mom and Sovey went over. Pie made it out to the middle, but then he started backing. Sovey and Mom crossed back to us. Finally, they went across and I just dismounted and walked him over. I did have a saddle so I found a bench and mounted and we had a beautiful ride around a huge open field. I think it was nice for my mom to ride over there because all of that land used to be a horse farm where her friends boarded. She has many memories of riding over to meet them there. On the way home, neither horse wanted to cross back, not because they were afraid, but because they wanted to keep riding. Sovey finally agreed and Pie crossed like a big brave boy. It was great fun to go somewhere new with both horses. We have started working the horses at the trot on our own land. They are doing very well, although, Sovey collects much better when he is following Pie. If he is leading I think he anticipates a possible race!

Here is a Dogwood in full bloom near the pastures.

At my post-ride lunches with Brian, all I do is talk about my ride and the horses and what characters they are. In fact, most of my day is spent thinking about the horses and where I will ride next. I see so much land around me while driving in the car to work and I imagine riding on it. It is green and lush and no one is riding on it. I just feel like tacking up and riding right out of town through the fields. Today, Brian and I took Maizie geocaching all over Michaux State Forest and I imagined riding on all the trails with Pie and/or Sovey. When I was little, my friend, Patty, and I would pretend we were riding horses. We would "canter" everywhere and it seemed like I was "riding" all day. Now, I really do want to ride all day. I don't think I would want to do a trail ride for days on end (I already mentioned my obsession with hot showers) but I do think I could ride everyday in a new field. I wonder: (1.) Where on earth can this happen and (2.) Does everyone dream about riding all day too?!?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stepping off sharply from the rank and file

Look at this gentle face. This is Pie waiting patiently for me to attempt to mount bareback. He is so tall and my ($99) three-step mounting block does not go high enough. So, I have been using a barstool, but it is not safe. More on this another time. Now, to the point of this post...

Here is a lovely Sovereign-boy in the pasture. (He has some sort of mushed dirt mark on his side - it is not a gash or cut!) The horses are turned out all the time now, day and night, 24/7. I have mentioned this new (to us!) program in earlier posts, and promised my dear blogging friend, Kristen, of Sweet Horse's Breath some more details, so this post is my take on the whole situation thus far. This is a work in progress and I don't have it completely sorted yet, but I can share what we are doing and what we have learned to date.

I have come to realize recently, that what I have been doing with horses my whole life, from riding to grooming to horsekeeping in general, is exactly what I was taught to do, with little concern about what actually makes sense to me or to the horse. My evolution as a rider included questioning bits and horseshoes early on (8th grade) but my questions pretty much stopped there. I never really thought about how stalls, turnouts, pastures, nutrition, and/or domestication in general effect the overall health of my horse.

I come from a family who has always owned horses, but when I hear about how the horses were boarded in the past, I have to shudder. Locally, the boarding of horses for recreation isn't too different than the boarding of horses historically for transportation. If you walk up and down the back alleys of my town (below) you see that every house and yard has a small carriage house. Obviously, in the days before cars, the carriage was kept in there, but so was the horse! There was no large fenced pasture for exercise. The horse got enough exercise pulling the carriage. There was no grass for food. The horse was fed grain and hay and water. By 1953, when my mom, at the age of 10, got her first horse, Chaplain, it isn't such a stretch to imagine that Chaplain was kept in a standing stall at his boarding stable. The horses were not turned out at all! The owners came and groomed and rode and grazed them for cool-downs, but the horses were primarily fed hay and grain. They didn't even have water buckets! The barn owner would periodically walk all the horses to a watering trough during the day. This sounds positively barbaric to me.

In 1957 my grandfather bought our farm with 40 acres and a bank barn to keep my mom's horses. You can read that story and see photos here. The horses had nice sized stalls and there was a small paddock built. The horses were turned out approximately 2 hours a day and my mom rode every day. I was born in 1967 so this horse boarding set-up was all I knew as "correct" even though, now, when I think back I feel terribly guilty that they were kept inside so many hours! We fed hay and a sweet feed with molasses that smelled heavenly. We never would allow our horses to eat wet grass. (Now I know that the sweet feed was probably way more dangerous than the wet grass!) Our horses all lived well into their 30's, but we had our share of colic. Working for the large animal vet, I spent tons of time holding the pump and pumping oil into horses at boarding stables too, so I never questioned that the way we were keeping our horses might not make the most sense.

Recently, I have personally witnessed horses at boarding stables who are turned out all night and kept in stalls during the day all year long. They are blanketed in the winter, but kept in pastures that have no trees or shelters. This arrangement makes no sense to me. I have also personally witnessed owners who keep their horses in treeless, shelter-less pastures in the hot summer sun. This also makes no sense to me.

When I requested to foster and retrain two Thoroughbreds from the excellent organization, Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, they recommended that the OTTBs be kept outside 24/7 with adequate shelters. We didn't have shelters at that point so I kept the boys outside 12-14 hours a day and inside huge (12' x 15') stalls the rest of the time. In the winter they were inside at night, and in the hottest part of the summer they were outside all night and inside during the day. We fed the boys alfalfa, brome and a very small amount of grain.

The horses were doing well on this program. They were excellent to ride and their weights and feet were perfect. So why change a thing?

Well, first of all, we did have two 12' x 24' shelters erected last summer. I watched the horses use the shelters as protection from the sun and rain and ice and snow, so I knew they were comfortable in there. Second, this winter, when I was in Florida, Pie started chewing his stall during his time inside at night. He was not cribbing, but clearly, chewing the barn down out of boredom. He was turned out the same amount of hours that he always was, and was given the same amount of hay as always, but he wasn't being ridden. When I returned, I resumed riding, but I sensed that putting the horses inside at night was not actually what they wanted. I started reading and trying to re-educate myself about the true nature of horses and horsekeeping. I had the most trouble understanding the keeping of horses outside in the winter. My own sense is that a warm, cozy bank barn on a cold winter's night is the place to be. This is not necessarily true for our equine friends and I still am having difficulty believing that because I get so cold in the winter!!! I love Jessica Jahiel's article on the subject of winter horsekeeping:

Also, reading all my favorite horse blogs made me realize that many of you have happy, healthy horses who are kept outside all of the time with adequate shelters. I spent the month of February worrying and deliberating and thinking of how it could all work. Our bank barn is not structurally set up to allow access to the stalls, so the shelters would have to do. Finally, after a vet check and thorough discussion with our vet about our pasture grass, I left the boys out 24/7 on March 16th. Our grass at that time wasn't green and I am watching it vigilantly for any sudden richness. Our rain has held off so they have most of the grass nibbled down. In addition, I cut back even more on their grain while my mom is still giving them the same amount of hay twice a day. After our daily rides, we hand graze them on some rich grass outside the pasture for approximately 15 - 30 minutes since their pasture grass is so sparse. So far everything is working out super well. To my mom and I, who have kept horses in stalls only, this is really a big deal!

My shift in thinking has been further influenced by a book I stumbled upon accidentally. Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding by Jaime Jackson (pictured below) has ideas for encouraging movement within the pasture so as to avoid colic, founder and foot problems. Mr. Jackson uses the behavior of wild horses as his blueprint for the Paddock Paradise design. The book is a quick read and the idea of the Paddock Paradise makes sense to me. I am constantly wrestling with my role in the domestication of my pets. This system seems to me to give the horses "on track" a sense of freedom in a natural environment. In additon, the "track" does not need too much land which makes me wonder if this is the boarding barn model of the future.

I am starting to think about how to possibly set up a Paddock Paradise "track" on our farm. Below, I have outlined our property in green and our existing fencing in dark purple. I used pink for a possible Paddock Paradise track complete with "camping" spots in the protected shaded areas of our field. Mostly, I would like to incorporate direct hay eating during the spring, summer and autumn months, forgoing the farmer baling and selling us our own hay that we carry, store and then re-distribute.

Pie and Sovereign seem extremely happy so far. I bed both sheds with shavings and know from the shavings in their tails that they use their sheds. Instead of cleaning stalls alone in the barn, I spend each morning walking around the pastures (with two horsey helpers) picking up manure piles and scrubbing buckets. I didn't sleep much at first, but I have to say that I am surprisingly reassured knowing that at any time, day or night, the boys are happily munching grass with two nice shelters and plenty of fresh air, hay and water.

Another Jessica Jahiel post about "killing horses with kindness" has brought me much comfort in the decision to try this new turnout program:

As I said before, this is a work in progress. (I know all you cowgirl blogging friends are cracking up laughing at me for making this into such a big deal. Your ponies have been living happily outside forever.)

In my own experience here in my area of Pennsylvania, humans have devised horsekeeping systems that have been around for so long that they are "the norm". Subsequent generations would have no way of knowing that these systems are not what is best for the animal, but what was easier for man. I am trying to move into new territory for me, which is ironically old territory for the horses.

Friday, April 9, 2010

these are the good old days

Our record breaking warm temperatures came to an end on Thursday evening with a violent storm followed by this lovely double rainbow. Pie and Sovey treated us to daily pony rides all week. My tailbone is hurting from too much bareback riding. Ouch - but I do hate to complain when the boys are so good. Today was cooler and windy and I decided to just groom and graze each horse. I admit to being too busy to blog properly, but it is a happy busy. I'll catch up soon!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

seemed to greet me with a smile

Today I had a day of perfect balance, perfect harmony, bliss at every turn.
Amelie has a strange feeling of absolute harmony. It's a perfect moment. A soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city.

Our morning was warm and the forsythia were blooming their little yellow heads off. I silently groomed Pie and Sovey, soft and quiet, and tacked them both up. Mom joined me and hopped on her little bunny-rabbit Sovey Boy and I hopped on the Pie. The wind was still and the birds were singing like crazy. We headed out through the fields and around our entire property. It was so gorgeous and the boys were obviously enjoying themselves. I didn't have my camera so I stole these photos from last year's posts, but imagine the most beautiful day ever!

We walked off our property through the sleepy little streets of Sunnyland. The spring trees were full of pink and white puffballs and the lawns had daffodils and hyacinth clumps here and there. The boys quietly walked the neighborhood like they were in a Thoroughbred parade. One friend was leaving her drive and when she spied us in the street she smiled and said, "I love my neighborhood!" Another friend came out to touch the muzzles of both boys. (Pie pawed the ground to beg for a carrot, but our friend did not get the hint!) We gently walked through the cemetery and quietly visited Brian's mom's grave. We turned to go home, but both boys pulled us toward town. Some other day, we promised! Grazing and grooming followed to somehow try to repay them for the safe and lovely "pony rides" they gave us.
Next, a yummy lunch with Maizie and Brian (Maizie is off school for Easter break) and then Maizie and I headed out to pick up one of her friends for a geocaching expedition. We found 5 of the 6 caches we attempted and had a sunshine -y day in the forest.
Home for dinner, and then Maizie was off to another friends' house and I headed back to the horses to clean manure from the pastures. The boys are out now 24/7. I promised a few posts ago to tell about this new arrangement and I will get to it soon! For now I will say that my daily stall cleaning routine has been replaced by pasture-poop-pick-up-patrol which is amazingly therapeutic. I shared a glorious pink sunset with the boys happily munching grass beside me. Tonight, like Amelie, I have a strange feeling of absolute harmony.