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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Morning Exercises

5:59 am. The alarm has not yet rung, but I’m up. I always wake just moments before the buzzer goes off. I swing my legs out of bed and pull the window shade up. No sunrise yet. I look over at my sleep partner, who is blowing imaginary smoke rings toward the ceiling: poof…poof.
I pull on barn jeans, sweatshirt and woolly socks and pad down the stairs to the kitchen. The offspring are still asleep. I don’t mind the solitude; the peaceful quiet is rejuvenating.
I look out the window. The pre-dawn light has turned everything blue.
I make coffee for the Farmer, green tea for me. Cody has spotted me in the kitchen window. He taps a dance on the roof of his dog house in anticipation. He can wait.
I pull on my barn coat and stuff my feet in my boots. I take a scoop of soft kibble for the sheepdog, and grab a box of chicken broth from the fridge. As I slide open the patio door, I hear Misty stomping out a rhythm in her stall.
“I’m comin’,” I gasp. A blast of frozen air steals my breath.
Tiger, our most aggressive little kitten, meets me on the path and turns to lead the way. He squawks out instructions. Stops at the stable door and turns to see what’s taking me so long. I scoop cat food, pour the chicken broth over it and refill the water bowl. Then I turn to the horses.
In the night, Ashley and Misty have dumped all of their hay out into the aisle where they can’t reach it. They have also thrown their heavy water buckets – possibly when full of water, by the telltale mark on the wall. I’m pretty sure they regret playing this game in the early hours of the morning before I arrive to fill their rumbling stomachs.
I pick up my pitchfork and collect all the loose hay, refilling their feeders. I scoop water from the heated barrel into each of the buckets. I give each horse a scoop of corn and duck as Misty flips her dish at my head. I stand there and stare at her, hands on my hips. She looks at me with one eye, then reaches her snout under the feeder divider, helping herself to Ashley’s corn. It just tastes better, she thinks.
Leaving the Belgians to their breakfast, I unlatch the door and slide it open. I put the food in the sheep dog’s bowl and refill her water bucket. I don’t pet her, because she’s nuts. Without looking her in the eye, I tell her she’s a good girl and pat her quickly on the head with my leather-gloved hand.
The cows are lying on a bed of hay around the feeders. They look very comfortable. Mocha lets out a low moo, and I notice that the feeders are empty. Several sheep are munching on the hay bedding. Several more are standing on the path that they have beaten to the barn. They are staring at me. Louise the leader lets out a low baa.
“I noticed. Empty. I’ll go get him.” I make a mental note to plug the tractor in before returning to the house.
I head into the barn, where I fill up the water and put out one more bowl of cat food for the shy ones. Then I climb up over the gate and let myself out the back door of the barn, taking a pail of water with me. As I approach the lambing room, I hear the lambs and ewes knickering to each other. It’s the only sound on this still wintry morning. I unhook the door and let myself in. A warm, red glow from the heat lamp lights my way. The air is warm and steamy. The ewes call out to me for their feed. I unhook the water pails from where they hang, frozen solid. I grab a hammer and step outside. Turning the buckets upside down, I tap all the way around and sharply on the bottom of each pail, until the ice slides out. My first year on the farm, I must have cracked a dozen buckets. I’m good at it now.
I refill the water buckets with the water I’ve brought with me. Then I pick up the pitchfork and let myself into the next room, where the hay is kept. It’s time to start a new bale, but I can’t seem to get one free to pull a flake from it. I haul my ass up and onto the nearest 5-ft round bale, and wedge myself in between two of them. I alternate shoving with my legs against a bale as I scooch my bum downwards. Suddenly the giant roll shifts and I’m firmly wedged, my knees pressed to my chest. A squirrel screams down at me from the rafters. He is probably hoping I’m stuck so he can eat me. Finally I get the bale rolled over so I can release some hay. By the time I’m finished, I’m drenched in sweat.
I put a scoop and a half of sweet feed in the plastic garbage can lid and toss it into the middle of the pen. Three ewes and five lambs dig in. Then I take half a scoop and pour it into the dish in the creep.
The creep is an area of the pen that has been cordoned off with a low fence so that only the lambs can get in. They creep under the fence and through the feeders to get at the feed, often getting their fat butts stuck. I watch to make sure they get through safely. The littlest ewe tries to squeeze through, but she is too fat.
I turn the overhead light off, latch the door to the feed room and let myself out. Picking my way back over the ice, I walk back through the barn, the yard and the stable, patting hungry, indignant animals on the head as I pass.
Back in the house, the coffee is ready. I pour a cup, add sugar and cream, and get my tea out of the microwave. I quietly step upstairs to wake my husband.
“Good morning, my love. The animals are waiting.” And my morning exercises are over.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

By jove, I've been Googled!

Ok I’ll admit it. I’m totally at a loss for what to write this week. I can’t write about my farm cats and how I healed them with a combination of vet-prescribed conventional medicines and friend-prescribed homeopathic cures or I will get hate mail from the people who don’t support the farm-cat practice. (The cats are doing quite well, thanks for asking. Bright eyed and bushy tailed again.)
I can’t write about the horses because they have been naughty and don’t deserve a story about them this week. They have taken to tossing buckets full of water at me - much like a child who throws his pacifier out of the playpen hoping you will pick it up, only to throw it out again – except these water buckets can injure if they make contact with your head. The horses have also been big bullies in the barnyard, chasing the calves away from the water supply and neighing at the cows to hand over the hay.
I can’t write about Donkey again this week or he will get a big head and think he’s a star.
So, as I sit at the computer with writers’ block, I decide to take part in one of my favourite free time activities, and troll other farmwife blogs. I entered “farmwife” in the Yahoo! Search engine and this is what came up:
“Livin’ High on the Prairie – Farm life at a mile high” is the blog of an anonymous (at least I haven’t found her name yet) farmwife who lives up in the mountains. She just blogs about day-to-day life, as I do, but I think her writing ritual somehow keeps her feeling connected to the outside world, as she lives in the middle of nowhere. She raises goats (I didn’t know the mother goat was called a doe) and seems to have a very busy birthing season, just as we do with the lambs.
Also on the Yahoo Search page is “Memoirs of a Farmwife”. She is from Southern Illinois and “loves the Lord”. This is a common declaration among the Farmwife blogs, I am discovering. I think having to depend on the weather and so many other uncontrollable factors for your livelihood tends to make you rely on a higher power. I admire these women who farm fulltime. It’s an art and a gift.
Melissa Hart – The Knolltop Farmwife has posted the tagline: “doing what I always dreamed of and getting more than I bargained for!” Ain’t that the truth. Actually, I never dreamed of being a farmwife (I dreamed of living in a log cabin in the woods with a bearded mountain man and writing romance novels while he chopped wood for my fire…). Ms. Hart also declares that the true definition of a farmwife is a woman who can mend a pair of pants and the fence that ripped them. Hmm. I have some work to do on both parts there.
After spending an hour perusing these sites, I must agree with some of my readers who have said that they prefer the actual farm-related tales (stories of lambs and cows and donkeys – oh my!) than the updates on my children and married life. However I do believe there is an exception to every rule – if the Farmer is a true character (and he is), then he falls into the category of things that people want to read about. He’s interesting. And unusual. And please keep in mind – the Farmer is a character loosely based on my real husband. I have to add that disclaimer there or I won’t be allowed to write about him anymore.
There is a “Brainy Farmwife” on Facebook. She claims to be a good cook, and she is smart. Too much competition there. I prefer to read about floundering, frazzled farmwives. We have more in common.
Eyewitness to features a story from a farmwife circa 1900. In one photo, she is milking Bessie the old-fashioned way. Wearing a bonnet and floor-length skirt. After milking the cow, she fed the children, corralled a bunch of runaway hogs and repaired the fence. I was exhausted just reading about her life. There is a reason I was born in this century and not that one. The Lord (there He is again) only gives you what you can handle. I heard that somewhere. I guess that means if He gives you a lot to handle, He perceives you to be one of the strong ones. Food for thought.
If reading about Farmwife life is an escape for you, or a visitation to your own past, I encourage you to try entering “Farmwife” on your Internet search engine and see what pops up. We are an interesting breed.

Trying a little tenderness. With Donkey.

It occurred to me last week, after our horseback riding lessons, that we took the halters off the horses before turning them out of the barn. As I drove past horses in the field on the way home from work later that week, I noted that not a single mare was wearing a halter. I went home and looked at Ashley and Misty. Misty shook her head at me.
“You want that thing off?” I asked her, and she took a step toward me. I reached up – wayyyy up, 7 feet in the air, and grabbed hold of the halter where it snugged in behind her ears. She lowered her head to me and stood, patiently. Suddenly I had a vision of Ron, the man who raised the horses, straining to pull their halters up over their ears, just as I was doing.
“You aren’t supposed to have these on all the time, are you, honey? I’m sorry. We’re new at this. Can you tell?” I unhooked her canvas straps and set her free.
She snorted at me and turned away, tossing her mane and relishing her newfound nakedness.
Ashley stepped forward next but played hard to get as I tried to reach her ears. She kept tugging away just out of reach. Finally I unhooked the clasp and she stood quietly as I pulled the halter down and off of her snout. She too gave her head a toss as she trotted out into the barnyard.
A soft jangling of chains told of Donkey’s approach. Ah yes. Donkey. Our before-we-had-horses-horse. Donkey sports a long chain dangling from the chinstrap of his halter, as a deterrent to running, jumping fences and tackling sheep for sport. It’s supposed to smack him in the kneecaps when he runs, so that he will think better of the idea and slow down. It doesn’t always work. Many a time I have looked outside to see Donkey tearing down the field after a bleating sheep, his gangster-chain tossed up and over his shoulder, out of the way. It really serves no purpose. And after seeing how happy the horses were to be “free”, I wanted to do the same for Donkey.
I walked up to him and ran my hands over his halter straps, looking for the clasp. The sun had fallen and the full moon was just rising, so we were standing in mid-darkness. Donkey looked at me nervously, all crazy-eyed. But his ears were up, attentive and curious (as opposed to pinned back and aggressive) so I knew I was ok.
Finally I found the buckle and undid it. I pulled the halter up over his head, gangster-bling and all. Donkey’s head lifted up a bit from the release. He stood there for a moment, dazed. The halter had matted his hair down and his winter coat had grown up around the straps, leaving him with quite a ‘do. I giggled at him and he leered, showing his teeth at me. “You’re not a donkey, you’re a monkey,” I told him, scratching him behind the ears. He pulled away from me suddenly and started trotting toward the barn, slipping a bit on the ice. I think he was afraid I was going to put the halter back on him.
I hope he can refrain from biting my sheep. If he does, I may let him go free permanently.
Life is a lot more interesting for Donkey on the farm since we added cows and horses to our menagerie. Donkeys are very “intelligent” (and I use that word loosely...) so they get bored quite easily. Donkey’s favourite game is terrorizing the sheep. They make funny noises as they run, which Donkey finds quite amusing. But now he has the horses to follow around all day. I think he looks up to them (literally), and more than once it has become evident (I won’t go into detail here) that he is quite enamoured with them.
The only problem that Donkey seems to have with the horses is that they have their own private quarters, with their own supply of good hay, corn and water. That really ticks him off. When I bring the horses in at night, Donkey follows close behind them as they file in, his head down, hoping I won’t notice him. Most days when I go out to give the horses their morning feed, Donkey is at the stable window, his nose pressed up against the glass. I have brought him a bowl of corn before, and he just sniffs at it. He wants to come in and serve himself. Beside the horses. Occasionally we find him doing just that. Donkey loves windy days in particular, because the wind causes the stable door to swing open. He bides his time, waits for the right moment, and when the door opens he pushes his nose in to hold it ajar. Then with one more shove he lets himself in, where he can feast at his leisure with no sheep or cows to bother him. Usually the door slams shut behind him also, closing him inside and concealing his crime. Until Annie comes home and sees his big ears in the window of the stable. Then the gig is up and Donkey gets ushered back outside, to eat with the other lowly farm animals that don’t have sensitive horse stomachs. Maybe one day we will expand the shed-turned-garage-turned-stable once again and include a stall for wee Donkey (to be said with a Scottish Shrek accent, if you please). -30-

Monday, February 1, 2010

Horseback 101

We just had some new trails cut through our property. The Farmer could hardly wait to get on his ATV and see how things are faring on the back 40. He checked for deer prints, coyote markings, and beaver dams. I kept thinking that I wish we could ride the horses back there to check things out. Maybe next year.
Our daughters complained a bit when we bought Ashley and Misty, because the horses have never been broken. At first I thought that meant they had never been ridden. I now know it means more than that. It means they don’t speak the language. At all.
Well, I guess I shouldn’t hold it against them because I don’t speak it either. I don’t know how to communicate with a horse. We all need to go for reprogramming.
I already have someone picked out to break and train our two wild girls. He comes very highly recommended, in all the horsey circles we’ve dared to stick our noses into. I would like to send the horses to school this spring, so that we can potentially ride them this summer and fall. Is that crazy thinking? Perhaps. We will soon find out. The horses are 8 and 10 years old. If they typically live 25 to 30 years, I figure they are 24 to 30 in people years now. They are set in their ways. Are they too old to train?
While we are making plans to have the horses broken, we thought we might get ourselves more familiar with the beasts. So I called up Turnout Stables and asked Deb Williams to give me and the Farmer a riding lesson on Sunday morning.
To her credit, she didn’t laugh.
I grew up down the road from the Williams, and they were nice enough to let my sister and I ride their horses way back then. We rode the mares and the ponies up and down Abbott Road and through the quarry that is now Oxford Heights subdivision.
But that was about 25 years ago.
I was not altogether convinced that I would get the Farmer to agree to this adventurous mission. But he agreed he most of all required a more thorough introduction to the world of horses. So we arrived at the barn and got ourselves introduced, to Trinity and Abby.
Bear with me here. I am learning the language, one word at a time. The school horses are mostly standardbreds, meaning they are “an animal of an American breed of light trotting and pacing horses. They are bred for speed and noted for endurance.” We were depending on the light trotting and pacing, and hoping they had lost a bit of speed over the years. The Farmer was assigned to Trinity, who proved to be a bit lazy. This suited him just fine because, as he often says, he’s been “on three horses and off two”. He tends to be a bit nervous around them and he has to get over that. I’m the opposite. I’m so comfortable around the horses, I tend to be a bit stupid. I haven’t been kicked yet, but I’m learning that some horses don’t like their noses touched, or their tails combed, or to have someone standing in their blind spot. But I haven’t learned the hard way yet, so that’s a good thing.
We climbed up on a step-stool to mount our horses, from the left. I noticed the saddles are placed from the left, and the horses are led from the left. Apparently this custom leads back to the days when soldiers wore their battle swords on the left. They had to keep their horse on their right so as to avoid equipment disaster. But I have heard that horses should probably be trained to accept riders mounting from either side, for the comfort and convenience of the rider.
Once on our mares, we were told to squeeze our calves against the horse’s side, to make her step forward. I did, and it worked. I also think my horse understood the verbal commands that Deb was giving, because she was often on her way before I followed through with the actions. This was fine with the walk, not so great when I switched to a trot. She was already trotting when I gave the command, which made me lurch and then start giggling uncontrollably. I felt like a complete idiot. But I hung on.
Wanting to slow the horse down a bit, I squeezed my feet against her again. She took that as a kick and went a little faster. Oops. Whoa! And she stopped. On a dime. I stopped myself from falling forward and looked over at the Farmer. He had a bit of a worried expression on his face, and he was shaking his head at me. It’s hard to take him seriously in his helmet, however, so I started laughing again. After an hour of ring work, walking, stopping, trotting and walking again, my horse started charting her own course, right through the middle of the ring. I had to learn to correct her, and soon we were communicating. I was very proud of myself. And proud of my Farmer too, because he even got his old lazy mare up to a trot.
So lesson one was a great success. So far, so good. Next step, breakin’ the Belgians.