Friday, May 28, 2010

The Maggie Express

In April of 1860, riders for the Pony Express began "galloping" the mail across the Western United States between Missouri and California. Maggie and I have our own, much shorter mail route.

We don't have the kind of long country driveway that you see at some traditional farmhouses. No, ours is only about 35 to 40 metres long. But, at the end of that driveway, we do have have a typical country mailbox. It's the kind with the little red flag which can be raised when mail arrives-- mail which is delivered by a mysterious, never-to-be-seen someone in a wine coloured, SUV. It's a two-way service. When we have mail we want to send off, we put it inside and raise the flag, then the person in the wine-coloured SUV stops and picks it up.

Sometimes, when we see the red-flag raised, Muscade and I jog out to the mailbox together to sift through the junk-mail and bills. Lately though, it's Maggie who accompanies me to the letter filled box.

After I ride Maggie in the ring, I take her for her "strength-training session" on the hill. When we finish, we move to the other side of the road and I line her shoulder up with the mailbox. I lean down from my perch atop her back, lower the red flag and reach inside the green plastic box to pull out whatever surprise awaits. Maggie generally stands quietly throughout this process, though sometimes she twists her head around and sniffs the box. So far, she has yet to receive any carrots or apples by special delivery.

I have tried this feat once or twice with Murray. I have yet to pull it off. For one, he's a couple of inches taller which means I have to lean quite precariously off the side of the saddle to lower my arm enough to reach inside the box. That wouldn't be so bad except for his tendancy to lurch sideways in fright at every unexpected movement and sound. The noise I make grasping for envelopes inside the plastic box seems to count as an unexpected sound. So, for now, I'll stick with the Maggie express.

Muscade's Misadventure

I adore Murray. He's my first horse. He's moved with me from city to city and I've known him for longer than I've known Dave. But Murray can be a difficult companion, aloof and temperamental, distant and untrusting, fickle and frustrating. Muscade on the other hand, well, Muscade is a dog. And like any canine, she offers unconditional love, loyalty and trust. She sleeps in our room, she comes with us on vacation, she's part of the family in a way the horses never can be. She's also getting old, so anytime something goes wrong with her, my heart starts pounding frantically in my chest.

Sunday, May 9

Dave and I check on the horses at around 10:30 pm. Muscade, with her ageing, greying face, comes along to keep us company. As we fill water buckets and toss hay into the stalls, she takes her position at the entrance to the barn. Her back is toward us as she scans the dark driveway for kitty cats, or other nighttime prowlers. None materialize.

We finish-up, and as we make our way back toward the house, Muscade energetically leaps across the lawn and pounces on the green, soccer-sized, half-deflated "jolly ball" that has been hers since the moment we plucked it out of the snow in one of the paddocks-- just days after moving in. It's meant for horses, and is too big for her, but she takes pride in lugging it around all the same.

It's a beautiful night, warm and windless. So, we induldge Muscade by chasing her around the lawn as she darts left and right, trying to keep her ball out of our grasp. A few times, we snatch the ball away from her and fling it across the grass. She takes off in pursuit and sometimes somersaults over it in her exhuberance. It's a vigorous play session, and by the end of it we're all out-of-breath. But it's so good to see our 11 and a half year old golden girl bounding around like a puppy.

Monday May 10
Muscade trots out to the barn with me as usual. It's early afternoon before I notice the first sign that something might be wrong. I'm riding Murray in the ring. Muscade has followed us down. She takes up her usual post on the soft grass between two, young, evergreen trees lining the entrance to the ring. As Murray and I leg-yeild down the quarter-line, I catch sight of Muscade. She hoists her front-end up into a sitting position, then she twists her head around and lays back down. It looks as though she's trying to scratch somewhere that she can't reach. She does this three or four times, then she simply lays down again. It's a hot day and the flies are making their first appearances of the season, so I assume that they're getting under her skin. I make a mental note to check her for ticks later on.

Murray and I are hot and sweaty by the end of our workout. I ride him back up to the barn, but Muscade stays just where she is. That's unusual. Typically she follows close on our heels, but it's a beautiful day so I figure she's just enjoying lounging in the sun.

I un-tack Murray and try to brush some of the sweat from his coat. By the time I'm finished, I see that Muscade has made her way back up and is curled up amdist the bright yellow dandelions in the backyard. I'm ready to grab some lunch, so I call to her as I walk toward the house. She looks at me, but doesn't immediately respond. I call her again. She stands up, then instantly drops back down to the ground again. Perplexed, I walk up to her, calling her name. She doesn't get up. I run my hand across her side and over her ribs. When I reach the point between her ribs and her stifle (her waist I suppose), she winces and whines. That whole area is rock-hard and twitching with pain. My heart does a flip-flop.

My very first thought is that she's been kicked or stepped on. But I know she hasn't been that close to either of the horses. My next thought is bloat. Bloat, similar to colic in horses, can be deadly. She's never had it, but at her age, anything could happen. I dash toward the house to call the vet. Muscade gets up to follow. She takes a few steps, then drops to the ground, a few more steps, then drops to the ground again. Eventually we both make it into the house, and I start flipping through the yellow pages trying to find the vet's number. When I finally dial, they tell me to bring her in right away. It's about a 35 km drive on a winding road, so I tell them I'll be there in half an hour.

Now that I've made the call, I slow down and take a closer look at my dog. She's laying down, but she doesn't look all that bad. She looks at me inquisitively, and then picks up her squeeky toy and starts chewing. If she has bloat, she should be looking much less chipper, also she shouldn't want to eat. I hold a treat in front of her. She noses my hand, and licks at the edges of the marrow-bone sticking out between my closed fingers. Her tail is wagging, her ears are up. She wants to eat it. This doesn't fit. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe there's nothing wrong afterall.

I kneel down for a closer inspection. Her belly itself is not hard and bloated. Her sides, however, are as hard as bricks, and again, she wimpers when I touch them, even lightly. My next guess is that there's something wrong with her kidneys. That seems a moderately better prognosis than bloat, but still very serious. I shove a collar over her head and onto her neck and make tracks for the car.

Again, I start to doubt myself. With the collar on, Muscade is as perky as ever, primed for a walk. She can walk out to the car, she's definitely not lame, but she still lays down the instant she stops moving. She doesn't immediately jump into the car either. She just stares at it as though waiting for an elevator to lift her in. Finally she attempts a jump, but collapses before she can make it. I do my best to hoist her in, but I don't know where to put my hands so that she doesn't hurt. We finally perform the un-graceful maneouver. The moment she's in the car, she lays down, starts panting, and voices the occasional wimper. Now I know I'm not imagining things. Something is definitely wrong.

It's illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving in Nova Scotia. So, as I'm bumping over our pot-holed dirt road, I call Dave, who's at work. He doesn't answer. I leave a message. I need someone to talk my over-active imagination out of it's ever increasing panic, so I call my very good friend KK, the vet-to-be, and my go-to person for all animal advice it helps that her husband is a vet too). She can't give me any answers, but at least she commiserates with me. When I hang up, I can hear Muscade panting in the back, and I start imagining all kinds of horrible scenarios: poisonning, kidney failure. I realize I'm not ready to lose this dog. I'm not ready to say goodbye.

While I'm thinking all this, my cellphone rings. It's Dave. He's worried, but as always, he's calm and un-stressed about it all (he didn't have to see our girl struggle in pain). He's in a meeting. He tells me to call back as soon as I have news from the vet.

The 25 minute drive seems to take forever. It doesn't help that we're in the dairy capital of Nova Scotia, and I'm stuck behind a sputtering farm tractor doing 40 in a 70km/hour zone. Eventually, we hit a straight stretch and I put the gas pedal to the floor and pull my station wagon out to pass it.

It's about 3:30 when we reach the clinic. I park the car and run around to the back. I gently lower Muscade to the ashphalt. She puts her nose to the ground and lifts her tail and starts investigating every whiff of every scent she picks up. She's the picture of health. Ok, this is getting ridiculous. I run my hand down her side, instantly she flinches and sits. No, she may be putting on a brave face, but she's not ok.

The vet turns out to be a kind, middle-aged woman with glasses and salt and pepper hair. She assures me that it's normal for dogs to act as though they're fine when they get to the clinic. It's a combination of the excitement and the instict not to show weakness. She does some checks, proclaims Muscade to be free of bloat, and likely free of any kidney problems. She has me walk her up and down the isle.

"I think", she says, "that she has pulled her lumbar muscles". I think back to the night before, the rough play just before bedtime, the sommersaulting, the sliding stops. She seemed fine in the morning, but perhaps by afternoon, her muscles seized up. I wasn't entirely convinced, but couldn't think of anything else so, Muscade got a shot and a prescription, and I got the bill.

Tuesday, May 11
I wipe the sleep from my eyes and wander dazedly to the barn to feed the horses their breakfast. Muscade watches from her bed. She makes no effort to get up. I finish the chores and begin to dish up my own breakfast. Still, Muscade doesn't get up. After a couple of hours, I coax her up and take her outside for a pee. I manage to get some food into her before she gingerly drops back onto her bed. She seems worse, not better.

At 4pm, it's time for her next does of medication. Within an hour of taking it, she's much more perky. By evening, she's wandering the kitchen in search of crumbs.

Wednesday, May 12
Muscade is almost back to herself. She feels so good that we have to encourage her to take it easy, not to run or play.

Now, almost three weeks later, she runs around as if nothing was ever wrong. I guess it was her lumbar muscles, and I guess they healed pretty well. Now she, Murray and Maggie have all met the vet. Lets hope Ruffles doesn't continue the trend.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Here Kitty Kitty

The cats that appeared on the fateful day of Maggie's accident seem to have taken up permanent residence at City Limit Stables-- or at least one of them has.

Shortly after they first appeared, the tabby tom and his black-and-white female companion began holding clandestine meetings in our sagging, leaking, mostly empty sheep-barn. One of them would duck-in through a gap below the poorly-hung door, and then a few minutes later the other would follow. It seems our sheep-barn became their love-shack.

One afternoon, I ventured inside to grab something-or-other that we had stored there. Apparently the tom had been lounging inside, and was frightened to the point of panic by my un-anticipated arrival. I was two-steps inside the door when I saw something streak across the floor and then leap through the air. The flying ball of fuzz launched himself straight for the barn's front window. Now, while much of the "sheep barn" is falling apart, the windows are actually in very good shape. I'm guessing that Mr. Tom didn't realize this when he hurled himself at the 2 foot by four foot pane of glass. He hit the glass, bounced off and tumbled to the floor. He seemed none-the-worse for wear though since within a heartbeat he was on his feet again, scrambling for the hole in the bottom of the back wall.

With him gone, I took a moment to look around and found that there was clear evidence of feline occupation. For one, the straw that covers much of the sagging floor was littered with feathers and tiny bones. And, ironically enough, the cats seemed to be using the space in front of the two-seater outhouse as their litter box.

Within a few days of his run-in with the window, the tom disappeared. I saw him one day, about three kilometres down the road. He was loping through the long grass on the shoulder of the road. I guess he had other mistresses to pursue. The female though, did stick around. We've named her Lily. We're not sure why, it just seems to fit. With the tom gone, she's abandoned her stark love-shack for the coziness of the hayloft. There are cat-doors in the barn, so even if the doors are closed, she can easily get inside. Once there, she jumps onto the stall doors, climbs up the posts and expertly walks the rafters until she reaches a spot where she can squeeze through a small hole and into the loft.

I know cats are supposed to be nocturnal, especially cats that haven't grown up being groped and mauled by humans, but she seems to spend her nights curled up amongst the hay, and her days hunting for food. In the mornings, just as I'm about to venture outside to feed the horses, I'll occasionally spot her through a window. She slips out the barn door and glides silently into one of the fields. Under the cover of the tall grasses, she crouches, still as a Sphinx until some small rodent or bird crosses her path. Then she pounces. I've never seen her with her prey, but I haven't been feeding her, so I presume she's a reasonably successful hunter.

The elusive tom does return from time to time, presumably to rendez-vous with his shy concubine. When he's here, his mournful meow echoes across the property for a few days, then the noise stops and he's gone again.

For her part, Lily keeps her distance from us. She's getting bolder, and will sometimes lounge in the sun on the front lawn, even if Muscade and I are outside. But if either of us makes any attempt to move toward her, she's gone. I have to assume that she hasn't been spayed. If that's the case, then I expect we'll hear the cries of hungry kittens sometime within the next few weeks. I haven't decided what to do once they arrive. I'd like to keep one or two as barn cats, but I'm not sure what Lily will think about any attempts I might make to befriend her kittens.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Day, Another Vet Bill

Since making our home at City Limit Stables, Murray has: pulled a check ligament, been kicked in the forearm by Maggie (causing football-like swelling in his knee), and kicked himself on the inner part of his cannon bone (again, causing serious swelling and leaving a nasty-looking, but superficial gash). None of his injuries required a vet-- until now.

Friday May 14th.
Murray has his hooves trimmed and shoes reset. I ride him that evening. He seems off. I'm not that concerned, he does occasionally get sore after being re-shod. I take him for a walk around the property and call it a night.

Saturday May 15th.
Murray has the day off.

Sunday May 16th.
Dave and I are puttering around outside. We fill up the water bucket in the pasture. As Murray comes up for a drink, we see that he's licking his lips obsessively, and sticking his tongue out and twisting his head. Then he rubs his lips on the fence, and on the ground. Something is clearly bothering him.

I bring him in, I check his mouth but find nothing. While I groom him, the licking lessens. I tack him up and go for a ride. We warm up on a loose rein. There's a slight touch of unsoundness in our first few turns, then it disappears (again, not too worrisome for a boy of his age). I take up contact on the reins. His head shoots up and he stops. I try again. As soon as the right rein tightens, he shakes his head as though a fly has landed on his nose. We try this a couple of times, and things improve...well, things change. He stops shaking his head when I pick up the right rein, but now he's leaning on my left rein and is not willing to flex or bend to the left at all. He's also struggling to canter on the left lead. I have a short ride, and check his mouth again. I don't see anything. I begin to think that he may be sore behind, and that the head-shaking is a reaction to being asked to step underneath of himself a bit more.

Monday May 17th.
I ride Murray again. Again, it's the same. He's fine on a long rein, but as soon as I pick up contact, he clearly becomes agitated. Bending him to the left is almost impossible. Things improve as the ride goes on, but he's clearly not comfortable. There still don't seem to be any problems with his mouth. He's eating fine, and chewing fine.

I check his back. It's slightly tender, but that's quite normal for him too, especially now. I bought him a new saddle a few years ago to accommodate his changing, ageing body. But his mountainous withers have become more prominent, even since then, and his back seems to sink ever lower and lower. As a result, even his "new" saddle doesn't fit him perfectly. I think that perhaps one of his stifles (rear knee joint) is acting up. I start him on bute (anti-inflammatory).

Tuesday May 18th.

It's hot. Murray is lethargic and hounded by flies. I give Maggie a bath, and give him the day off.

Wednesday, May 19th.
Murray has now had four doses of bute. He should be feeling no pain. I ride. It's the same thing. He shakes his head on contact, he leans on my left hand and avoids all contact on the right rein. I take things very slowly and ride with a very soft hand, and by the end, he's going better than I would have expected, but something's still not right.

Thursday, May 20th

Before I turn Murray out, I feed him an apple. He has no problem crunching through its crisp core. I check his mouth again anyway. I run my fingers along the pink flesh on the bars of his mouth (the space between his incisors and molars-- the place where the bit sits). On the left side, all is fine. I move to the right, and before I even pry his mouth open, I notice that there seems to be some swelling along his jaw, just in front of his pre-molars. I slip my fingers into his slimy mouth. The flesh on this side feels different, like a soft sack. Before I can explore too much, he jerks his head up and away. I try again. He yanks his head away. I try pressing on that area from the outside of his mouth. He is NOT happy. BINGO. There's something wrong here. I call the vet for advice. He wants to come out and see for himself. At this age, he says it's not uncommon for horses' molars to split. He says he can be out in a couple of hours. I'm beginning to think I should get a preferred customer discount. *sigh*


The vet gives Murray a sedative and pries open his mouth with a metal contraption that evokes images of Hannibal Lecter's famous mask. Even in his drowsy state, Murray lets it be known that poking and prodding on the the right side of his lower jaw is painful. When the vet squeezes on that side, he uncoordinatedly jerks his head up, or sideways.

The teeth seem fine. None are lose or cracked. The only thing the vet finds is a very small (about 2mm wide) scrape, or prick on the inside of Murray's cheek. Much to Murray's dislike, he pushes all around it to see whether there might be a thorn, or a tiny piece of hay, or anything stuck inside. He doesn't come across anything, and there's no tell-tale stench of infection.

The vet concludes it's one of three things:
1.a brewing abscess in the root of the tooth. It doesn't seem likely to me, and the vet seems to think that's the least likely scenario too.

2. a hairline fracture in his lower jaw. This is the diagnosis the vet seems to be leaning toward. It's entirely possibly, but I would be surprised, only because the swelling is pretty moderate, and when Murray gets even a scratch, it usually swells to balloon-like proportions.

3. there's a foreign body stuck in his cheek, and there's an infection festering there. I tend to think this is the most likely explanation. The vet says usually horses don't have a whole lot of pain with something like that, but he doesn't know Murray that well. He doesn't know what a complete and utter wimp he is.

In either case, the vet says "wait and see" is the best plan of action for now. Five more days of bute, just to help Murray feel a bit better. Call him (the vet) back in 10 days with an update-- unless of course things get worse. Here's hoping that whatever this is will simply clear up on its own. With Murray's luck, that's not entirely likely.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Trails

Wednesday April 29th
It's mid-afternoon. Outside, it's cold, damp and windy. Inside, part of me just wants to cozy-up with a warm blanket and take a nap, but the other part of me wants to ride. I decide to take it easy on myself and the horses. I'll ride, but today will be "trail-ride" day-- just a relaxing 40 minute jaunt up and down the road.

If I thought that would take less energy than schooling them in the ring, I was wrong.

Maggie's easiest to catch, so I ride her first. I've only ridden her a couple of times since her accident and she's a bit fidgety. She's tacked up and ready to go, but she's moving around so much, and tugging at the reins so much that it takes a few minutes for me to mount. I start to wonder whether there's any pent-up energy that I should be worried about. But, once I'm on, she easily settles into her non-hurried, meandering pace.

We start our ride with the usual muscle-building jaunt down and up the hill. All is well. At the top of the hill, as we pass by our driveway, I have a great view of the road ahead as it curls back upon itself like a snake. About five hundred metres ahead, I notice what looks like a large sheet of white plastic entwined in the brush on the side of the road. I wonder briefly whether Maggie will spook at it once we get close. I push the thought out of my head so she doesn't pick up any nervous vibes.

I shouldn't have worried. She plodded by without even glancing at it. On the way back, I halt her beside it so I can lean over and have a closer look. I see that it's not plastic, it's paper. It's about 3 feet high and 4 feet long. It appears to be a blueprint of some sort. As we stand there, it flutters a bit in the breeze. Maggie stretches her neck to grasp at the long grass growing beside it. She seems completely oblivious to its existence. I nudge her sides with my calves and we continue home at a snail's pace. It's a relaxing, enjoyable ride.

Now it's Murray's turn. Even as I bring him in from the paddock I can tell that he's feeling more than a bit fresh. On our way into the barn, he skitters sideways and snorts at a white bucket I've placed under the eaves to collect rain (he's been by this at least a dozen times now). On the cross-ties, he pushes his hindquarters toward the wall and swings his head around to look, wide-eyed over his shoulder. He's like a schizophrenic in the midst of a particularly disturbing paranoid delusion.

It crosses my mind that in his wired, anxious state, Murray may not be a good candidate for a relaxing ride down the road. I'm stubborn though, so I figure I'll give it a shot anyway.

We don't get off to a very good start. Murray is normally quite mannerly when I mount. Not today. Today, in his vigilant state of high-alertness, Murray seems entirely oblivious to my attempts to hoist my body onto his back. His shifting gaze flits back and forth between the red-breasted robins hopping about on the lawn, and the branches of the spruce trees waving in the wind. He jumps at every sound, and simply will not stand still. Eventually, in a not-so-graceful move, I haul myself into the saddle and manage to gather the reins as he lurches sideways out of the grasp of some unseen monster. We prance down the driveway, his head swinging from side-to-side in paranoid angst.

Like with Maggie, we start off down the hill. We do the usual walk-down, trot up routine, and by the time we reach the top, he's lost much of his nervous attitude, or so I think.

As we pass by our driveway, Murray's head shoots up, his ears flick forward, and his eyes widen. He's just caught sight of the slightly twitching, white blueprint about half a kilometre ahead. He pauses mid-stride. His focus on the out-of-place, bright-white object is intense. I push him forward into a trot, then a canter, and figure that if we stay on the opposite side of the road, he should pass by it with little more than a sideways glance. I was wrong.

Murray and I canter up the road, but his eyes never leave the blueprint. We're still a good 25 to 30 feet away when he skids to a halt. I give an encouraging cluck, and a tap with my whip and Murray wheels himself around in a 180 degree pirouette. I turn him back around. He spins again. We enter into a strange, lurching dance, one where we're both fighting to take the lead. He darts sideways, kicking and rearing, and when that doesn't work, he brings out his signature move. He starts running backward toward the shoulder of the road with the steepest incline. In this case, the shoulder drops off quickly into a beautiful, but steep grassy field.

When Murray gets this frantic, he goes into what I call his "self-destruct" mode. Most horses might try to ditch their rider, but they'll do what they can to keep themselves safe. Not Murray, when he's like this, it seems like he'd rather throw himself off a cliff than give-in. He's one of two horses I've ever ridden who can get like this (both thoroughbreds), and it's the only time I ever get nervous.

After a minute or two in frenzied battle, we're both exhausted, but both two stubborn to give in. I somehow manage to get Murray to stop his backward spirals long enough to agree to a momentary truce. We're halted, facing toward home, away from the evil white paper. Despite the cold air, his neck is soaked with sweat, and his whole body is shaking, vibrating like a just-plucked guitar string. I decide on a partial retreat. I've fought these battles with him before--sometimes for hours-- and I know he won't give up, besides we're on a road. It doesn't get a lot of traffic, but it does get some, and I don't trust him to get out of the way of on-coming vehicles.

I figure I'll ride him home, get him settled, then come back down the road and make another attempt at passing-by this terrifying white paper. I relax the reins and urge Murray forward toward home. Murray doesn't accept my peace treatise. He throws himself sideways and launches another barrage of half-rears and backward spins. I kick, I scold, I pull, and I sit-tight, but after a few more minutes, I change tactics. I decide to bail.

During one of his less frenzied moments, I hop off. I stand beside him, grasp the reins and in frustration lead him purposefully down the road, past the object of his terror. He snorts and dances sideways, but with some firm coaxing, he allows me to take lead him by. We circle past the paper again and again and again. He never relaxes, but after a few minutes, he makes less of an effort to dodge sideways each time he passes it. I decide it's time to get back on.

I lead Murray off the main road onto a gravel path which provides access to the local cellphone tower. I try to get on. He rears. I try to get on again. He rears. I try several times, and each time he rears higher and twists more violently away-- now he's intent on heading home. Finally, my very tall horse rears so high that I'm forced to let go of the reins. As Murray hits the ground again, he spins away from me and starts to bolt toward home. I lunge forward and just manage to wrap my fingers around the sweat-stained leather reins before he can get more than a few feet away. My arm is yanked forward as he tries to dart-off anyway.

I decide I have no choice but to lead him home. I hate giving in, but I can't risk having him loose on the road, I just can't. By this time, I've had enough. I try to be patient, but I'm fuming. He's 22 years old. I mean really, there are times when it would be nice if he would actually act his age.

As I turn to lead him home, a light drizzle starts up. On the road, a car passes by. The driver gives me a funny look, and I do my best to smile. I can't imagine how I must look, decked out in my helmet and half-chaps, but instead of sitting astride of my noble steed, I'm walking, humiliated at his side. To make matters worse, he's still riled-up, and gives a little jump sideways as the car goes by. It's all I can do to keep myself from taking my anger out on my horse. Admittedly, I probably give him a few sharper-than-necessary tugs on the reins when he tries to trot out ahead of me, but other than that, I leave him alone.

Back at the house, I get on again. Then, I try to get him down the driveway, but he's having no part of this at all. He runs backward until he hits the telephone pole and scares himself. He runs backward until he hits the outside wall of the barn and scares himself. He tries gamely to turn and run into the barn, but I'm ready for that and I yank him the other way.

Just when I begin to worry that I really might lose this battle, he pauses in his assault. I take advantage, and throw every weapon I have into use. I kick, flail, cluck and flap my arms, and Murray moves forward into a reticent trot. We reach the end of the driveway and I can feel him starting to throw his shoulder to turn around. I dig my heels in as hard as I can and tell him to gallop. I think he's surprised by my determination. He's lost the element of surprise and has no choice but to gallop forward down the road. I don't let him ease up, I keep him galloping, galloping, galloping. We're not stopping until we're past that fluttering paper. It works. This time he barely even has time to look at the paper as we fly by. Once we make it, I pat his neck and I let him slow to a trot, then a walk.

Murray's winded, his nostrils are flared, and his C.O.P.D. lungs are gulping for air. Part of me feels bad, but mostly I'm relieved that I won...if I hadn't, he would remember his victory every time we're out on the road, and he'd be the one in charge. He walks pretty calmly back to the barn. He's still leery of the paper as we pass by it on our return trip. Unlike with Maggie, I certainly won't try and stop him beside it, but at least he'll walk by.

By mid-afternoon on the next day, the villainous blueprint has disappeared. I don't know whether it's blown off into the woods somewhere, or whether someone has picked it up and taken it away. Either way, I'm kind of glad I won't have to pass by it again.

Can someone please remind me why it is that I'm such a fan of thoroughbreds?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Non-twitter tweets

I may have to get a bird book.

In the morning, we wake up to a cacophony of whistles and tweets (not the online kind) as robins, finches, crows, sparrows, and the occasional blue jays flit about from tree to tree outside the house.

Aside from those fanciful flutterers, there's also the daily drumming of the grouse which apparantly lives in the un-lanscaped, patially treed brush at the edge of our property. And then there's the slightly unnerving bicycle-bell-like cry of what I'm told is a pheasant in search of a mate (I hope he finds one really soon).

There is also the red-chested sparrow or swallow (not sure which) which is determinedly trying to take up residence in the barn. Shortly after movning here, I noticed two nests, side-by-side in the rafters above Murray's stall. The wall beneath them is dotted with tell-tale white streaks. I thought about removing the nests, but never got around to it. Now I wish I had. The sparrow/swallow seems to want to re-claim those nests, and in the evening it darts about over Maggie and Murray's heads. I try to chase it out with my broom, but usually my arms get tired before I can swat it out an open window. Besides, the windows and doors will be open all summer, and I expect it will be a never-ending battle.

The comings and goings of our feathered friends do provide great entertainment to the animals. They help keep Ruffles awake during the day. He can spend hours crouched on his cat-tree or perched on a windowsill, tracking the birds' quick movements with his wide-open, bright green eyes. His fluffy black tail twitches quicker and quicker as he spots more and more birds. His jaws open and close as he cackles at his would-be prey. It's as though the birds, sensing his yearning, purposefully taunt him by hopping and fluttering just outside the windows.

They don't taunt our dog Muscade. When she bounds out the front door in the morning en-route to her favourite pee-spot, she detours toward any birds scrounging the ground for a protein-rich breakfast. Her hackles come up, her step quickens, and she aims her biggest barks at whatever bird is closest. She seems to consider it her duty to send them sucrrying skyward where they belong.

Unfortunately, while they always manage to avoid being clutched within Muscade's gaping jaws (I don't think she'd ever hurt one anyway) our flitting finches seem to have a fatal attraction to our picture windows. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a dead bird on the deck. I looked up, and sure enough, there was a small bird-shaped smudge on the outside of the window.

Today, I was in the kitchen when I heard a thud. I recognized that sound, and looked out the window onto the deck. Sure enough, there was a small finch, lying on its back, its head twisted to one side, with its twig-like legs propped straight up in the air. It wasn't moving, or at least I didn't think it was, but as I kept looking, I noticed that I could see its chest heaving...its tiny heart still beating. I realized I should probably do something to put the poor thing out of its misery, but I simply couldn't bring myself to do it. Ruffles looked as though he'd gladly lend his claws to the job, but I couldn't bring myself to allow that either. I went back to the kitchen to finish the dishes.

About five minutes later, I looked out the window again, by now expecting the heaving chest to be still. It wasn't. The bird was still on its back, it hadn't moved, but it was definitely still breathing. I couldn't bare the thought of it out there suffering, dying a slow death, possibly to be picked-off by the occasionally-seen feral barn-cat. I took a deep breath and pulled on some gloves. I prepared myself to snap its neck. I really didn't think I could do it, but I also couldn't bear the guilt of leaving it there. I quietly opened the patio door and stepped outside. I knelt down in front of the upside-down bird. I reached toward it and in one swift movement...the bird flipped itself over and hopped two steps back. Thank goodness.

It tilted its head and looked at me out of dark, round eyes for a few seconds, its little heart still visibly pounding in its mottled chest. I didn't move. It hopped a few more steps. There was no blood, its wings seemed intact. I went back into the house. I looked outside 10 minutes later, and the bird was gone. And they say cats have nine lives.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dave's New Girl

Dave is in love, and it's not with me.

The new object of his affection is the feisty, delicate, grey haired "Amy". She came to live with us for a few weeks before moving to New York, and she has captured my husband's heart.

He may have to fight Murray for her though. Afterall, like Murray, Amy is a thoroughbred, and they've been exchanging languorous, lingering looks across the fence. Of course, in the evenings, confined to her stall, she bats her eyelashes at Dave while licking his hand. Both Maggie and I feel somewhat slighted.

Perhaps I should back up a step. A week ago, I got an e-mail from an acquaintance asking if I could perhaps take-in a horse for a couple of weeks as her barn was full-to-overflowing. Dave and I discussed it and decided we might as well. That's how Amy became our first border. She arrived the next day, at the same time as the vet came to give the horses their shots, and a lovely couple from Bridgewater stopped in to deliver our new-to-us hay conveyer.

Amy didn't seem to mind the chaos, though Murray and Maggie were immediately tripping over themselves to get a good glimpse of this new guest of City Limit Stables. Poor things, they didn't get much of a chance to oggle her. Within a half-hour or so of her arrival, both of my horses were tranquillized so their teeth could be floated.

They were still pretty dopey when I put them back outside. They barely noticed her across the fence. Murray did turn his droopy lids toward her once, but my guess is that he considered her to be some kind of side effect from the drugs. I think it was a few hours before they truely realized they weren't alone.

In any case, Amy seems quite content with her temporary home. She works-out in the mornings by trotting around her paddock, then she spends the afternoon napping in the warm sun. As a guest, she's not allowed to socialize with the permanent equine residents, but there's little I can do to keep her and Dave apart. He keeps asking if we can keep her. I tell him three's a crowd.

The Hill

Our house is at the top of a long, sloping hill. The hill is about three-quarters of a kilometre long, and while it doesn't seem that steep when you're driving, it certainly gets your muscles burning and lungs chugging if you're walking. I could use that hill to get myself in shape. Instead, I've made it a part of Murray and Maggie's workout routine. Every time I ride, I walk them down the hill and get them to trot back up. It's amazing how different two rides on the same hill can be.

Maggie's approach to the hill is much the same as her approach to every other energy consuming task in life--leisurely.

On the walk down, she plods along the the side of the road, weaving like a drunken sailor, snatching at wayward branches in hopes of pulling off a few leaves.

When we reach the bottom, we turn back toward home and I urge her into a trot. She reluctantly shuffles into a slow, short-strided jog. With much prompting, she maintains this energy-conserving pace until we're in line with our neighbour's mailbox (about halfway up the hill). Then, we take a short walk break. Once we pass the neighbour's driveway, I cluck and squeeze, and manage to get the same reluctant up-hill jog once again. She huffs and puffs, but I'm usually able to keep her trotting until we reach the crest of the hill. Then I let her slow to her meandering walk once again.

Murray has more of a "hurry up and get this over with" approach.
On our way down, he marches purposefully, head up, ears pricked and eyes focused on the traffic travelling the pothole filled Indian Rd. a kilometre or so away. Often, he's paying so much attention to his surroundings, and so little attention to what he's doing that he trips over his own hooves.

When we get to the bottom of the hill, he jigs a bit, in anticipation of the inevitable turn back toward home. I wait him out as long as I can, then, when I'm ready, I point his nose back up the hill. I make him walk for a few more steps, then I simply think "ok, lets go". His pent-up energy explodes, propelling him up the hill at a gallop. I squeeze the reins and slow him back down to a brisk trot.

Murray's ground-covering up-the-hill trot is nothing like Maggie's shuffling jog. He's so full of exuberance that he practically floats above the surface of the road, reaching, stretching, covering more ground that many horses could even at a canter. He flicks his toes and rotates his shoulders so that his legs are extended to their fullest reach, and for a moment in each stride he's suspended in mid-air, with all four feet off the ground.

It's a great feeling. The problem is, it's a pace that simply can't be maintained over a long, steep incline. A quarter of the way up, and his enthusiasm starts to wane. His nostrils expand and contract, pulling in as much oxygen as possible. His steps shorten, his rhythm slows. By the time we reach the half-way point (the neighbour's mailbox), the bounce has gone out of his step and his whole body heaves with the effort of each breath.

We take a break. When his breathing settles, he willingly moves back into a trot, only this time it's much more subdued. Unlike Maggie though, Murray can't make it over the crest of the hill. He has to come back to a walk several metres before the point where overweight, energy conserving Maggie does.

I thought that after a few times, Murray might catch on, and might try to use his energy more efficiently, but alas, he always starts off with the same burst of vigorous enthusiasm, and it always fades before we reach the top. I guess I understand now how slow-and-steady really can win the race. Perhaps that's why Murray was so unsuccessful in his earlier career on the track.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Maggie on the Lam

Murray had his taste of freedom, I guess Maggie deserves hers as well.

There's just one problem with letting the horses run into their stalls from the attached paddocks. The inner stall doors need to be closed, or else they can run right out through the front of the barn and into the driveway.

It's supper time and Maggie, as usual, is waiting outside her door to go in to her feast. The door that leads from her paddock to her stall has to be opened from the outside, so, I go outside, crawl through the space between the fence boards (too lazy to open the gate), and open the big door. As I swing the door back, I can see through her stall to the inner door. And I see that it's open. It's too late for me to close it though, Maggie's already shoving her way into her stall.

For a moment, I think that she might ignore the open door and choose to eat the hay that's already neatly piled in the corner for her, but no, her natural curiosity propels her out the door, out the barn, and onto the un-mowed grass immediately behind the house. I head toward her thinking that at least she's much easier to catch than Murray, but she's got a green-grass buffet, and she's not anxious to give it up. She looks at me out of the corner of her eye, and trots a few steps further away, without ever lifting her grass-mowing muzzle from the ground. I head back to the barn to get a bucket of grain.

Inside the house, Dave is sitting in the rocking chair by the picture window. Suddenly, he sees something large and black on the lawn. His first thought is: "Melissa must be taking Maggie out for some grass, that's odd though, 'cause it's supper time". His second thought is: "That's odd, Melissa's taking Maggie for some grass, but Maggie doesn't have a halter on". His third thought is: "Melissa's taking Maggie for some grass, but she doesn't have a halter on and, Melissa's not there". At this point, he puts down the laptop and comes outside.

Dave comes outside just in time to see me standing on the lawn, wrestling Maggie into a halter while she has her nose shoved into a bucket of grain. "What are you doing?", he asks. I glare at him and ask for some help.