Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An April Morning on the Farm

Usually when the rest of the family leaves, I settle down to writing first thing. I work best that way. But this morning I'd agreed to do morning chores for my friend who boards his horse, Syd, on our farm. All I had to do was give Syd his morning grain, give a token handful of grain to Shakespeare, our elderly pony, who is Syd's best friend and spends the night in the barn with him, and then turn them both out into the back pasture.

But it was such a lovely morning. Overcast, with more than a promise of rain, and yet warm enough that even I could be outside with just a sweatshirt (and pants. I promise I wore pants). The air smelled of the newly greening grass and the robins were fighting for good spots to build their nests. The plum trees in the orchard, which I have been planning to prune for months now, are blooming, meaning I won't be pruning them anytime soon. It was a fine morning to be outside.

So, after I fed Syd and Shakey, I decided to move Gully and Hot Wheels into the old sheep pasture. Gully, my first event horse, and Hot Wheels, my son's old pony, are both retired. They're also both metabolically challenged, in that they could grow fat on a asphalt parking lot, and keeping them to a weight that doesn't kill them is a perpetual issue. I let them graze in the big field in the dead of winter, when the grass was sere and brown: they plumped up like Thanksgiving turkeys. A month ago I moved them into the "pony paddock," a third of an acredirt  lot at the back of the barn. I put them on a strict diet of 8 oz grain and 2 flakes grass hay per day, and guess what? They've barely lost a pound.

Anyway the pony paddock needs a break--it's a mess. What it really needs is a good hard rainstorm and then a few days baking in the sun, which it might get, given the forecast. So I poured 8 oz grain in two buckets and went out to the ponies. They milled around me, desperate for food, until I opened the door to the adjoining sheep paddock, which is also about a third of an acre in size. We tilled it last fall, because our sheep dog had dug so many deep holes in it. I really need to reseed it but I haven't done that, either, so it's perfect for the chubby ponies, little sparse tufts of grass but nothing overwhelming. Grain graingrain, they thought as they followed me to the gate. Grain grain OH. Grass. Both ponies slammed their heads to the ground, ignoring the grain buckets entirely. I moved a water trough into the field and filled it, but for today giving them hay will be a colossal waste of time. And hay. They're happy.

Back in the pony paddock, I dumped the trough there and left it on its side to drain. Put Shakey's grazing muzzle--sugar is bad for him, so we have to restrict his grass intake, too--on him, then let him turn himself out while I haltered Syd and led him to the field. Syd danced and cavorted. Shakey looked disapproving. He usually does. "C'mon, Boo-Boo," I said. He cut his eyes at me. Don't call me Boo-boo, bitch.

I called the other horses--Sarah, Mickey, and Pal--up from the big field, then tended to chores in the barn, cleaning Shakey's stall and rebedding it, and making his hay mush for the night (he's so old he doesn't have many teeth left, so he can't chew hay that hasn't first been soaked). It was too early to feed the cats but I gave up and fed them anyhow, after tripping over them half a dozen times. I straightened up the manure pile (why am I the only one who straightens the manure pile?), cleared away the hoof shavings in the wash stall (ditto; why??), set up the grain for Sarah, Mickey, Pal. Then I went out to the big field.

They were far down in the bottom, ignoring me. They like me, and they like grain, but grain is nothing really compared to the glory of spring grass. "Saaar---ahhhh!" I called again.  "Dinnnnnner!" Sarah looked up. She loves me, adores me, usually comes running when I call. She bobbed forward happily, then disappeared from view as she got to the base of the small hill in the field. I waited to see her ears coming over the crest of it. Meanwhile my daughter's horse, Mickey, turned his back to me. Old Pal, another retiree (for the record, that's 4 retired horses, 2 we can ride, and Syd), looked up quietly. He conserves his energy, and I knew he'd never move until Mickey did.

I waited. Waited. No ears. Then I saw Sarah trotting away from the base of the hill, ears perked gaily, tail held high. It was one of those days. Spring gets to them, I swear.

"Sarah!" This time I went with the Authoritative Voice. She swished her tail. Mickey, unexpectedly, wheeled around and began to run toward me, which made Sarah run (everything's a race) and even Pal start forward at his steady walk.

They got to the top of the hill and slammed to a stop, staring at me. "Oh, for heaven's sake," I said.  "Come on."

Nope. Nope. Dancing, prancing, a whole bunch of snorting. Meanwhile Pal continued forward progress, and it was only because the other two couldn't stand to have him pass them that they approached the barn at all.

WILD SPOOK!  Horrors!  There was something Very Scary near the barn! The water trough in the pony paddock was laying on its side. Clearly it had eaten Gully and Hot Wheels, and was coming after the three of them next.

Huh. Eventually I got them all inside. Sarah finished quickly--big mouth, small serving--and I haltered her for our planned work for the day, which was 15 minutes of walking on the concrete driveway. We're doing that 3 times a week now--Sarah has a weak ankle ligament and this strengthens it. We march down the drive to the second lamppost (just before the drive gets steep) and back, over and over. Sarah finds this inutterably boring. But, she says, better than that effing dressage.

Yesterday I rode her very carefully and precisely in our dressage arena, mostly at the walk, mostly working on an exercise Betty gave me in Florida that is easy to do but hard to do right. Chin up, I tell myself. A boob on each shoulder. (Don't ask; it makes sense to me.) Keep your hips swinging. But doing all that at once is like walking and chewing gum at the same time, and I manage to screw it up. Sarah's back goes tense: I've stopped my hips. I lose her shoulder: I'm looking down. I lose her hind end: could be anything. After awhile Sarah, who actually only wants to jump things, grew so frustrated she let out a huge buck and nearly had me off.

"I hope you smacked her," my daughter said. I said no; it had not been a smacking sort of a day. You pick your battles with horses. Especially mares.

So now we're walking, walking, clomp clomp on the concrete, and Sarah is sighing with the sameness of it all. I'd latched the stall doors but not double latched them, and Mickey, who's done eating and is dying to know why Sarah's on the driveway, wiggles the bolt loose. He bursts into the field like the racehorse he used to be. This livens things up. Sarah wheels around. Mickey farts, bucks, rears. He races along the pasture fence beside the driveway. See, Sarah, I'm faster. I'm faster. I'm winning.

It's so annoying. Sarah can't go faster, because I'm holding her back. She never does beat him anyway. Pal hangs his head over his stall door, chewing. He could be watching a good movie from the look on his face. Mickey runs, spooks at the overturned trough--"it's not even in your field, doofus," I yell--bucks, runs some more. It's no wonder that of all the horses, he's the only one we can't keep weight on. He never stops moving.

Sarah and I finish her walk. She sighs and lowers her head so I'll pet her. When I turn her out, she marches straight to the pony paddock side of the pasture. She stares hard at the overturned water trough, then, snorting, runs down the field, Mickey and Pal trailing behind her.

It's very good to be on a farm in the spring.