Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When the Cows Come Home

The horses got their first glimpse of the neighbour's cows earlier this spring. It was about mid-May when the black and white "ladies" of milk were turned loose into the pastures at the bottom of the hill.

Maggie was the first to make their acquaintance. We were riding down the hill one day when she spotted them grazing in a lush pasture on the right hand side of the road. She stopped in her tracks and stared. Then, unprompted, she started trotting toward them. I like that Maggie is generally more curious than frightened, so I let her have her way and she barrelled on.

Unfortunately, the cows were less curious and more frightened. When they saw this lumbering black beast heading toward their pasture, the whole herd turned tail and ran, udders swaying awkwardly between hobbling hind legs. Maggie, utterly dejected, stared after them until they all disappeared behind the barn's sloping green walls.

The roles were reversed during Murray's first encounter. His ever-searching, high-alert eyes spotted the mottled coats of the cows through the trees when we were still several hundred metres away. He tried to turn around. I gently guided him forward. He warily continued, and skittered sideways when a cow rounded a corner and seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Again, Murray swung his gumbi-like neck around in an attempt to go home.

The cows, however, were divided in their response to him. Several leaped up from their mid-morning slumbers and cantered awkwardly toward the barn. Others merely turned their heads, flicked their tails, and kept right on chewing their cud. Two or three of the animals even ambled bravely toward us.

Murray wanted none of their friendly advances. His nostrils flared, his knees trembled and I decided this was enough bovine exposure for one day. I made him walk a few more steps forward then purposefully turned him toward home, leaving the cows to feel the sting of rejection this time.

After a few similar encounters, the horses and cows stopped paying as much attention to one another. But today the animals took each other by surprise once again.

I'm currying the loose hair and dirt from Maggie's coat when I notice Murray outside, staring across the road. I suspect a deer might be passing through, but when I pop my head out, I don't see anything. Moments later, Murray barges into his stall, turns around and cranes his neck cautiously out the open door. He reminds me of a nervous child, peeking from behind his mother's skirts. As I scrape the dirt from Maggie's hooves, Murray darts back out through his door, and stares, statue-like again across the road. I take another look myself, but again see nothing. This routine, with Murray flitting in and out anxiously continues the entire time I have Maggie on the cross-ties. His pacing drives me nuts, but I leave him to it as I lead Maggie out of the barn for our morning ride.

The instant Maggie crosses the threshold, she freezes and her head snaps up. Now that we're outside, I can see what was out of my view before. It's the cows. They've been let loose in the field directly across the street from the house. Maggie lets out a loud snort, forgets that I'm holding her, and makes a beeline for the herd.

I give her a tug on the reins, and a shove on the chest to remind her that she's not to use her 1250 pound self as a battering ram against her owner. I turn her away from the cows, and march her toward the ring for our workout. Every few feet, she swings her head around to try and catch another glimpse of the grazing cattle.

After an unproductive 20 minutes, I decide to let Maggie have her way and we head back up to the road. As we stroll by the barn, I see that Murray is still doing his in-out routine, though his intervals outside seem to be lasting longer and longer.

Maggie's eyes are glued to the herd of 35 cows grazing oh-so-close to our house. She's anxious to get closer, but this time I make sure she takes it slow. The "ladies" seem to interpret her more leisurely advances positively this time. No one takes off in the opposite direction and three boldly make their way toward us. As they reach the fence, they lift their heads and sniff the air with their wet noses.

All that separates the species now is a water-filled, grassy ditch and a few strands of barbed-wire fencing. Maggie pulls on the reins in an attempt to get even closer, but I'd rather not negotiate the ditch today. Instead, I let her stand there watching in awe. Several minutes pass. The calm gawking continues, but I've got work to do, so I turn a reluctant Maggie back toward the barn.

I briefly consider taking Murray out for a closer look too, in hopes that it might ease his anxiety. But I know Murray too well. He's not one to mingle. So I leave him to his peek-a-boo routine, which will likely continue until he's satisfied they're not a threat.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Besieged by Buttercups

The rich hues of green in our pastures are accented by yellow dots of colour. Buttercups. Their bright, upturned faces bring back memories of childhood-- times when we'd hold the flowers beneath our chins to find out whether we liked butter. Unfortunately, buttercups are toxic to horses.

Monday, June 7

It's about 8:30 in the morning. News of the latest shootings, stabbings and car accidents is blaring from the decades-old ghetto blaster in the barn. Maggie is already outside. Murray's about to join her, but when I look at the caked mud on his neck and legs, I feel guilty. I decide to give him a quick grooming before sending him out to "his girl".

Even Murray's face is masked by a layer of thick, brown, dried mud. I attack his broad cheek with my brush and as copper-coloured hairs slowly emerge from beneath the grime, I notice something odd. A four inch long section of his cheek is puffed out. It's an uneven, jagged-edged welt. I poke at it. He doesn't flinch, there's no pain. I wonder about it, but continue my grooming job.

I move to his right side and lift the edge of his fly sheet to get at the mud he managed to grind into his belly. There's another welt, only this one is about a foot long and it stretches back across his ribs. I take off his sheet for a closer look. Most of his body is fine, but the length of his belly is covered in these large, swollen patches of skin which look like maps to some unkown land.

Murray has sensitive skin and is prone to skin allergies. I think back to the past few days. He hasn't eaten anything unusual. He hasn't had a bath, or been exposed to any strange chemicals. It's not his fly-sheet because the area covered by that is fine. The only difference in his routine is that we rotated him and Maggie to the larger of the grass pastures. They spent three hours a day there for the past two days. That's when it dawns on me. The buttercups. Out in the pasture, Murray positioned himself the midst of belly-high patches of rain-soaked buttercups. He didn't eat them (they're quite bitter and will burn and blister their mouths), but he greedily shoved his face in and ate around them.

Since Murray seems to be suffering no other ill-effects, I put him out (NOT in the grass pasture) and come inside to google some answers. It turns out that buttercups are toxic not only when eaten, but their stems also excrete an oily toxin which can irritate the skin of horses and humans.

I check Maggie for any similar ill-effects. She is unscathed, not surprising since she has coarse hair and tough skin. Murray has fine, baby-like hair and extremely sensitive, thin skin. I keep the horses off the pasture. Within 24 hours, Murray's welts have faded to barely visible lumps. I will put them back on the pasture again, but I'll check Murray daily for any kind of reaction. Now, if anyone has any suggestions as to how to rid acres of pasture of thousands of buttercups, I'll be more than willing to listen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Murray's Misstep

Dear Municipality of East Hants,
Last week, I looked out my window and was delighted to see your yellow and brown trucks moving slowly along our pot-hole-filled road. You were finally grading it. However, in future, could you please use something other than seemingly unscreened fill consisting primarily of 2-3 inch long, sharp rocks?
Sincerely yours,
East Gore Resident,
Melissa Friedman

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

This morning was one of those mornings that makes a person want to get out of bed early. Outside, a mist-like fog lingered over the paddocks, clinging to green blades of horse-mowed grass. But even as I watched, the sun began to burn its way through, pulling the fog up off the ground and lifting it into the trees. It was the perfect morning to take in the view from the back of a horse.

Dave and I had both ridden Maggie the day before, but Murray had had the day off, so I chose him as my beast of burden. We've had days of deluge, so the footing in the ring was too soft for Murray's sensitive suspensories. It seemed like the perfect morning for a ride down the road anyway, so we left the driveway and pointed our noses down the hill toward the dairy farm.

The road was graded about a week ago. Since then, I've avoided taking Maggie on hacks. The new surface is riddled with large, sharp rocks, which leave her barefoot-hooves tender and bruised. Murray, however, has shoes and he has been able to walk, trot, and canter on the road without any problem whatsoever.

As we get closer to the dairy farm, the mist finally loses its battle with the sun and disperses into the hot, humid air. At the foot of the hill, two black and white dairy cows eye us warily as we walk past their lush pasture. Murray returns their stares with equal suspicion. But both the cows and Murray are too preoccupied with soaking up teh warmth of the sun to act on their mutual unease. We continue our leisurely stroll until we reach the intersection with the main road. Then, Murray and I lazily turn around. It's a picture-perfect morning, and Murray obligingly allows me to drop the reins long enough to snap a few quick shots.

We reach the base of the hill and as we begin to climb, Murray moves into a trot. He takes two enthusiastic steps, then in typical Murray form, trips over his right toe. As he recovers, his head bobs up and down, and I can tell by his awkward, uneven gait that he's limping. I immediately bring him back to walk and continue on for a few more steps. At first I figure he's just stung himself, much like stubbing one's toe, and that he'll soon be fine. But the lurch in his step continues.

I hop off and look down. Murray is bending his left knee and holding his left hoof pathetically off the ground-- the one that caught all his weight as he tripped. My first thought is that he's torn a tendon or ligament. But then I take a closer look at the hoof itself. There are a few dots of blood on the hard sole, and amidst the blood there's a thin gash about a 1/2 centimetre long. It looks much like a typical paper cut, only no paper could penetrate the tough substance which makes up his sole. A deep purple bruise is already forming around the cut. It seems that in trying to stay on his feet, Murray put his hoof down on a sharp rock. Well, so much for a perfect morning.

I pull the reins over Murray's head and lead my limping horse up the hill. Either this hill really is steeper than it looks, or I'm out of shape. I'm huffing and puffing by the time I reach the top.

Inside the barn, I dig through my well-stocked first aid kit for the necessary supplies. Same-old, same-old for Murray, only this time, I'm trading-in the ice packs for Epsom salts and hot water.