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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Requiem for a beloved horse.

Hooves thundered through the night and up the field she ran
Tossed her mane, flared her nostrils, soft approached the man
Power bursting through her veins, freedom celebration
Tasting every breath fresh air
Feeling her elation
Ashley was the name she wore
Hearts have not yet healed
Every morning on my lips
Yet she lies ‘neath the field.

This is one of the most difficult columns I’ve ever had to write. Last week we lost our horse, Ashley, and I am still in shock. It never should have happened. I keep replaying the events leading up to her death in my mind, trying to find a moment where I could have altered the course of fate. There was no reason. No sense.
On that Sunday morning, Ashley was sick. We called the vet, who showed up within minutes to take her temperature and to administer fever medication and antibiotics.
After Ashley had her shots, she seemed to be feeling better. We dried her off, covered her with a warm blanket, and she began drinking water and eating hay. Thinking she was on the road to recovery, we went back into the house to say goodbye to our dinner guests and to clean up the kitchen. Then I sat down to write a column about my sick horse.
Two hours later, the Farmer went out to check on Ashley. About half an hour later I heard the door slide open and shut as he returned to the house. I heard his footsteps on the stairs. He came up behind me and put his big hands on my shoulders. I thought he was reading my writing over my shoulder, until I heard a sniff.
“Is Ashley okay?” I asked, afraid to turn around and look at him.
“She’s dead.”
I couldn’t believe it. Neither could he. Disbelief and shock propelled me down the stairs where I put my coat and boots on and ran to the stable to see what I was sure would be my sleeping horse.
Misty snorted a startled greeting as I ran into the stable. She couldn’t see her sister, who had fallen down. The half-wall between them blocked her view. Ashley lay in her stall, as if she had curled up for a nap. Her eyes were open. I let myself in to the stall for a closer look. Her hide was cool to the touch. Obviously she had been gone for a while. I stared at her. I just couldn’t believe that the life had gone from that massive, muscled body.
What could be powerful enough to kill an enormous Belgian horse within minutes? Was it an allergy to penicillin? A reaction to one of the other two drugs she was given? I called the vet and let her know what happened. She suggested we get an autopsy, because she agreed that while the horse did have a fever, she did not appear to be dying at the time of treatment. She was on her feet. She was stealing food from her sister. She was not dehydrated. We did what we should have done, according to a team of local vets and the consultants at the Ontario Veterinary College. But she died anyway. There will be no autopsy on our horse. It won’t bring her back.
It was quite a shock, and it has only been a week, but I have a feeling that we will mourn the loss of this creature for some time to come. I guess we really are “horse people” now.
The first day I met Ashley, she put her nose on my chest. She loved human touch. A horse lets you know what they are thinking. This horse was content, beautiful, strong, at peace. She trusted us. And that’s what hurts the most, I think. Knowing that we let her down. We weren’t able to keep her safe.
To her previous owner, who raised her and her siblings from birth, I am sorry. To her sister Misty, who spends the better part of every day now looking and listening for her, I am sorry. And to Ashley, who will never get the chance to have a foal or pull a wagon or take a human for a ride on her back, I am sorry. This should not have happened.
I believe that everything in life happens for a reason. But I think I’m going to be waiting a while to find the reason in this one.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Healthy as a Horse

Some of my best memories of growing up were of riding horses from the Williams’ farm down Johnston road. I’ve always wanted my own horse.
One big deterrent to getting horses of our own was the string of horror stories that we heard from other owners about their animals’ fussy stomachs and the unpreventable illnesses leading to high vet bills.
But we got horses anyway. We researched the appropriate care, shelter and feeding, and we gave them plenty of attention. By all accounts, Ashley and Misty are two happy, healthy Belgians.
March 1st marked our one-year anniversary as horse owners. On March 11th, the weather was so mild the horses decided not to come in at night. They stayed out in the field. The next day, Ashley was very quiet, and she wasn’t eating very much. She didn’t even finish her corn. On Saturday morning, she left the stable, trudged over to the hay beside the feeder, and lay right down. I sat down beside her and she put her enormous head in my lap. Then she stretched right out and laid her head in the hay. This was not normal for her.
Horses display all of their emotions in their mannerisms, their habits, even the way they hold their head. Misty knew something was wrong. She kept plunking me on the top of my head with her muzzle, as if to ask me to do something. I let Ashley rest, and later in the afternoon I saw her wandering down the field so I assumed she was feeling better.
Sunday came with a cool, wet drizzle and Ashley refused to come in to the dry stable. She just stood in the rain, her head hanging down. I got her to drink from a pail of water but she refused to eat. Somehow, the Farmer managed to pull her into the barn. I called Deb Williams, who gave me the number for her vet. Within an hour, a young woman was injecting my horse with penicillin and fever medication. Ashley had a fever of 103.
It’s a scary thing, dealing with an 1800-lb patient who can’t communicate in your language. But communicate she did, as best she could. We got the message. Looking in her eyes, I could see her thoughts.
“I don’t feel good. My body aches. My nose and eyes are itchy and running. I’m cold. Tired. Misty is bugging me.”
After the vet had given us instructions on how to inject the medication into the big muscles at the horse’s neck and rump, I went to the house to find a big enough blanket to throw over her.
Down in the basement, I found the heavy fleece bedcover that none of the girls would accept as their own due to its bright orange and blue colouring. It now belongs to Ashley. She seems to like it. Misty was very curious about Ashley’s new covering so we brought an old blue blanket for her too.
I’m going to be a little preoccupied for the next few days, until my horse gets better. This enormous creature is totally dependent on us for her wellbeing and the responsibility is just as big as she is.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In which Cody receives a gift he doesn't want

It was the last windstorm that did it. With one big gust, Cody’s doghouse lifted itself off its base and slid sideways. There it sat, with its faded paint, chipped edges and furled shingles. It had a list to it like the leaning tower of Pisa.
Cody hid under the cedar tree until the wind died down. Then very carefully, he crawled into his crooked, tired little house as he had every night of his life. It smelled like him. The wooden floor was smooth where he had curled his body into it in sleep.
That’s where we found him the next morning.
“Oh, poor Cody. Come on out of there. We have to fix your house.”
“Actually, I’ve been building him a new one. It’s all done except for the shingles and the paint job,” the Farmer piped up behind me.
You would think the dog would be grateful. You would think the dog would be excited to have a new house. But he wasn’t. When the Farmer came around the side of the house on the tractor, Cody jumped up onto his busted old doghouse.
As the long fingers of the tractor shovel slid under the dog house, Cody shivered and jumped off. He saw me on the porch and tried to climb the wall to get to me.
The tractor bit and clawed at the house. The Farmer jumped down out of his seat, gave Cody a comforting hug, and heaved the remnants of the structure up onto the shovel. A groan escaped from Cody. Slowly the tractor pulled away. Cody moved to stand on the spot where his house once stood. He sniffed the ground, turned around exactly three times, and sat down.
It was time for lunch. The early spring sun warmed the back porch, so the Farmer and I sat there on our Adirondack chairs with our soup. Cody lay beside us on the grass. He started to moan and groan in a continuous melancholy song.
“I think he is really upset.” The song went on.
After lunch, the Farmer jumped down off the porch and walked over to the dog. Cody melted into a wagging puddle.
Then it was time for the gift. The tractor rounded the house once again, this time with a freshly painted red wooden dog house on it. I tried to make a big deal over the arrival, oohing and aahing. Cody shivered and a whimper snuck out of him.
Once the house was carefully centered on its spot, the Farmer jumped down off the tractor and patted the slanted roof of the house. He helped Cody to jump up onto it. The shingles were already warm from the sun.
An hour later, I peeked out the door to see Cody sound asleep on his new dog house. I haven’t seen him inside it yet, but I’m sure he will eventually check it out. As soon as the smell of fresh paint wears off. It took him years to get his other house smelling just right. He has work to do.


March enters like a lamb

We may have another three weeks to go until spring officially arrives, but all this thawing and melting is afflicting more than one species with spring fever.
Last week, the Farmer and I were at our regular riding lesson, but the horses had a few surprises in store for us. My assigned horse, Abby, was in heat. Taking me for a trot around the ring was the last on the list of things she wanted to do. She fussed when we tightened her girth, repeatedly stopped to chat with other horses, and when I gave her the signal to trot, she decided to show me a canter. I had to hang on for dear life.
My inner thighs hurt for two days after that lesson. I discovered muscles I haven’t used in years.
Deb says I did just fine. I think I’ll give the horse a week or two to get normal again before I climb back into the saddle.
On the homefront, we have two cows that are supposed to have been bred back in July, but they are taking turns dancing with the new bull as if they are in heat. Unfortunately, the bull has not figured out that he is supposed to take the lead in this particular dance. And the cows are much bigger than he is. I hope they don’t hurt him or damage his ego.
Thank you to everyone who sent a name suggestion in for this new addition to the Fisher farm family. My favourites were: Coal, Angus, and Romeo. The Farmer says that the name Romeo brings to mind an image of someone in a smoking jacket, with a cigar and a pizza. I’m not sure where the pizza comes in...
I’m leaning toward the name Angus. The bull is a black Angus, after all, and I grew up listening to the music of Angus Young and AC/DC. Young Angus. It’s as good a name as any.
After breaking out of his bull pen within hours of his arrival, Angus has settled in quite nicely among the cows. Despite Betty’s bullying and head-butting, he likes to stay with the herd. Mocha is his favourite: they are always side-by-side.
We have another month to go before the new calves arrive, if in fact either of our cows are pregnant. It’s so hard to tell, and they are acting so strangely around Young Angus, I don’t know whether they are expecting or just plain fat.
It will be a nice surprise if April rolls around and someone gives birth.
We had the rams locked up into December, so we shouldn’t see any more lambs born until the snow is all gone. I’m looking forward to a lambing season where we don’t have to worry about frozen newborns. It will be nice to start them in the pen with their mothers and then turn them out into the new green pasture when they are weaned at eight weeks.
Our horses, Ashley and Misty, are acting quite spirited these days also. The warmer weather puts a spring in their step, and leads to mischief.
We have survived our first winter with all the animals together, in the same fields, eating from the same feeders. The hierarchy has definitely been established, with the big Belgians ruling over the cows, sheep, and donkey.
They seem to know that spring is coming. There is a lot more vocalizing going on, as if they are asking each other, “did you hear that bird? What is that smell?”
On sunny days, the horses lie on the bed of hay that the sheep have pulled from the feeders, and put their noses right down on the ground. The sheep lie in a domino chain, each one with her nose on the back of the sheep in front of her. I tried to get a picture of this but they had moved by the time I returned from the house with my camera.
We live in the best country in the world, and I wouldn’t trade the four seasons for anything. They help to mark the passage of time and to instill memories. And this past winter was more of a lamb than a lion. It wasn’t bad at all.


Monday, March 1, 2010

A Bull with no name

After watching the cows for about six months and coming to the conclusion that we were not very good at determining when they were in heat, we decided to place an order for a bull. Surely he would know when our cows are in season.
Within a few weeks we got a call. “I got you a bull,” the drover said. It was a nice, medium-sized Angus. But it was red.
I like red. But the Farmer wanted a black Angus. Apparently they get more at auction. They consistently get a higher price than the other breeds. And he just likes the look of black. So we passed on red and waited for black.
A month later, we got another call. The drover had our bull. He is just 18 months old, about a thousand pounds, and he’s black as pitch. The Farmer was home sick anyway, so he spent the morning shoring up the old turkey pen as the bull’s new living quarters.
“Why the turkey pen?” I asked, doubtful.
“It’s got those strong beams,” the Farmer answered. I worried that the bull might jump over the cross beam, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t crawl under it. How do you get a big bull to duck?
When I got home from work, I asked the Farmer how our new addition was doing.
“Well, he’s just a little guy. We put a rope around his neck and he just walked off the truck, He’s in the pen. Went in easy enough.”
I wanted to see him, so I quickly changed into my barn clothes and out we went.
Before heading to the barn, we filled up the horses’ feeders and slid the stable door open. No horses. The Farmer called them a few times, and then we heard a rustling in the corner of the barnyard, near the chick coop. “There you are. Come on, girls.”
That’s weird, I thought. They are usually standing at the door at dusk, pushing on it to get in. Inside the barn, the sheep were huddled in the corner, looking concerned.
“What’s up, guys? Did you hear a big ruckus today?” We continued on to the back of the barn, and let ourselves through the door to the bull pen. It was empty.
“Well, *&#!” the Farmer cursed. “He must have jumped the beam. Dennis did say this one hates to be alone…”
We shone our flashlights on the snow, following the hoofprints. That little bull had followed the fence line around the barn, seen the other animals at the hay bales and jumped the fence to join them. We went back through the barn and stepped out into the dark barnyard.
“There he is,” the Farmer shone his light on a dark shape near the chicken coop. Mocha, our 2-year-old red cow, stepped out of the shadows. Beside her stood our bull. He is bigger than our 8-month-old Julie, but not by much. And he seems to have a thing for older women, because he is following Mocha around, nose-to-tail.
“Well, we could leave him out. I was going to keep him in a while though, until he settles. We could put him back in the pen with a sheep or two, so he doesn’t get lonely.”
I watched as our bull followed Mocha and Julie across the yard to the hay feeders. Big Betty confronted the little bull, blocking his way to the hay. She would help him build a competitive spirit. “He isn’t lonely now. Looks pretty settled in to me,” I said.
And so our little herd grew by one.
We will have to watch the bull to see what personality emerges. Will he be a flower-sniffing Ferdinand, or an aggressive Toro? I have a name in mind, but would love to hear your suggestions. If you would like to help us name our new bull, email your ideas to: