Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Monday April 18
I'm on my way to teach riding lessons outside of Halifax. I'm sipping my tea, listening to the radio, and enjoying the sunshine that's filtering in through the windshield.

It's an ordinary day, and an ordinary drive until I pass Withrow's Farm Market, just 12 minutes or so into my hour-long drive. As the car slips into fifth gear, it shudders a bit. It's barely perceptible, but it's definitely an unusual feeling. I slow down, I speed up, and sure enough, it does it again. I keep experimenting to make sure I'm not imagining the sensation. I make a mental note to mention it to Dave when I get home. I hope it's nothing serious.

A couple of kilometres further down the country road, and one of the "check engine" lights starts flashing. The car shudders some more, even when I slow down. Then, the light stops flashing, and stays on. The shuddering disappears. Optimistically, I hope for the best, but within a minute or so, it starts flashing again, and the car starts shuddering again.

When I reach the exit to the highway, I pull into the car-pool parking lot and call Dave to ask whether he thinks I should keep driving. He tells me that if the light's solid, I'm probably ok. If it's flashing, I'm probably not ok. I tell him it keeps switching between the two. He's not sure what that means.

The light's solid now, so I decide to take a chance on the highway. I head down the exit ramp, and the light starts blinking and the shuddering returns. I experiment with various speeds, and occasionally the shuddering goes away, and the light stays solid-- but never for more than 30 to 60 seconds. I know there's a reliable little garage not far from the next exit, so I pull off the highway. The shuddering becomes almost constant as I drive the last kilometre or so to "McNeil's".

It's three pm. They close at five. They're busy and I don't have an appointment, but they agree to take a look at the car anyway. I call to cancel my lessons-- or at least the first couple. I'm hoping I can still make it for the last two.

In the waiting room, a couple of other customers read newspapers and books while the wall-mounted TV in the corner broadcasts an American daytime TV celebrity talk show. A larger bearded man in his fifties flips through a Dick Francis book he's brought to pass the time. I'm a huge Dick Francis fan, so we start a conversation-- which inevitably turns to horses since it turns out his University-aged daughter is a horse-person too. People coming in and out of the garage clearly know the man, and we all talk amongst ourselves during the hour or so it takes before the mechanic gives me the good/ bad news.

My car needs a new ignition coil. This has something to do with spark plugs and is apparently a fairly common problem in Mazda vehicles. It will only take 15 minutes or so to replace the part. "Great," I think, "I'll be able to make it to the city to teach my last two lessons."

Unfortunately, the garage doesn't have the part in stock. The very helpful and very friendly receptionist calls around, but can't find anyone who can get the part to them before the next morning.

"Is it safe to drive it to Halifax?" I ask.

The mechanic scrunches up his face in an apologetic way that lets me know the answer even before he speaks: "it's really not a good idea...not that far. And you risk causing a lot more damage."

I call to cancel the rest of my lessons.

As I give the garage the information they need to do the work tomorrow, the Dick Francis fan (Mr. Young) retrieves the keys to his car and pays his bill.

Young: "Do you need a ride?" he asks.

Me: "Oh no, it's ok. I'll just walk to the grocery store and loiter around there until my husband finishes work."

Young: "How long will that be?"

Me, glancing at my watch..."a couple of hours I guess".

Young: "Look, these people here know me. They'll tell you I'm loud, but I'm harmless. I'll give you a ride."

Me: "It's a pretty long drive from here". I'd already told him I have horses at home, and had given him a rough idea of where we live.

As I return to my conversation with the receptionist, Mr. Young makes a call on his cell phone. I hear him asking his daughter if she wants to come see some horses.

Young: "See," he says. "You'll feel more comfortable if my daughter comes with us, and she will get to see some horses."

So, I got in his car, we picked up his daughter, and we talked mostly horses for the entire 20 minute drive. It was much better than wandering the isles of the not-so-big grocery store for two and a half hours.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Three's Company

Well, Jaava's been munching hay and trotting around our paddocks for more than two months now, so I suppose it's time to explain why we added a third equine to the herd.

Friday February 4th-- mid-morning

With the horses fed and mucked out, I dig into a bowl of oatmeal and turn on my laptop. A new message pops up in my inbox. It's from one of the girls from Five Elms Stables-- the barn where I used to board Murray near Moncton.

The message asks whether I've heard the news-- the news that the roof of the 30+ stall barn collapsed overnight on Wednesday. My jaw drops and my heart starts pounding. Thankfully, the next line of the note answers the first question that comes to mind-- and yes, miraculously, all the horses are ok. In fact, the boarders have already been moved to other barns in the area, but the owners' horses and a couple of school horses (including Jaava and her "brother" Poet) are still homeless, and are currently living outside. I quickly write back asking her to let me know whether there's anything I can do.

As the news sinks in, I start thinking...we have two empty stalls. We could easily keep the ponies here for a few weeks or even months while the barn owners figure out what to do. I call Guy and Cheryl to offer what help I can.

They tell me how they walked through their two-acre apple-orchard in the morning, believing all was normal. They didn't see the devastation until they opened the door to the barn. That's because the roof collapsed over the back half of the barn-- the section furthest from view. It was a pile of rubble. Had there been horses there, they wouldn't have survived. However, for the first time in a dozen or so years, there were no horses there. That's because the stable had recently closed down its lesson program, and sold off most of the school horses. With fewer animals in the barn, they moved them all together to fill the stalls in the front isle.

After they tell me their harrowing story, I offer up the two empty stalls.

Cheryl responds by asking if I want a pony-- to keep for good.

Me: "Uh, what do you mean?

Cheryl: "Make me an offer, any offer."

Me: "For Jaava?"

Cheryl: "Sure, we could have her there by breakfast tomorrow."

Me: "uh, really?"

Cheryl: "yes, we need to find her a home. We might keep the others anyway, we're not sure, but not her. She needs a home."

This is not what I expected when I made this phone call. I expected to maybe temporarily house a couple of ponies, and have them off my hands by summer. I'm a bit flustered by this idea of buying one of them. But I'm also immediately tempted.


I worked with Jaava a fair amount when I was at Five Elms. I rode her her a couple times a week for the last six months or so that I was there. And I coached one of the more experienced girls on her as we started her over fences. Jaava is, and always was, a firecracker. She's naturally athletic, which means that when she spooks, she can spin on a dime, and can bolt from one end of the ring to another in a heartbeat. But when she goes well, she's a joy to watch. She's fidgety and insecure, but doesn't have a mean bone in her body.

I'd heard a few weeks earlier that Jaava was for sale. And for the first few days after I heard that news, I'd flirted with the idea of buying her. But, what the heck would I do with a pony? I already have two horses to ride. And while she's got oodles of talent, she needs an experienced rider, so even if I ever decide to start a small lesson program here, she's not an ideal school horse.

Buying her would mean higher shoeing and vet bills. It would also mean more work. I decided Jaava could find another home. I made peace with my decision, and started dreaming instead, of saving money for a horse trailer.

Then, the barn roof collapsed, and Jaava became homeless.


I tell Cheryl I'll think about it, and I hang up the phone.

I lift the receiver back to my ear and call Dave.

Me: "Um, so can I get a pony?"

Part of me genuinely hopes he'll say no. Part of me knows we can't afford another mouth to feed. Part of me knows this is going to disturb the well-established hierarchy that Murray and Maggie have settled on.

Dave says yes. I explain the situation to him, and he replies that we certainly should buy her.

I hang up with Dave and phone one of my best friends. "Am I crazy?" I ask. She tells me that no, I'm not crazy, and that yes, I should get the pony.

I call Cheryl back. I make an offer. She accepts, and says she'll have the pony, and 100 bales of hay here by 11 o'clock the next morning. I'll be at work. Dave will have to unload the hay and get Jaava settled on his own (thankfully though, our horse-sitter agrees to come help out).

I spend the rest of the day cleaning the empty stall next to Murray's. I wonder whether he'll remember his new neighbour from his old barn.

A Taste of Freedom

When horses misbehave, it's generally the fault of the humans around them. This was no exception.

Saturday March 5th, 2011

I wake up with a start and flip open my cell phone to check the time. It's 6:15am. I've overslept. I have a vague, foggy memory of turning off the alarm a half hour ago. At the time I thought I'd just doze for another 2 minutes or so. Yeah, right.

I have to leave for work at 7:45, so I'm going to have to do the barn chores in record time if I want to fit in a shower and some breakfast first. I lift yesterday's barn clothes from the heap on the floor, and get dressed as I walk to the mud room.

Out at the barn, I dump grain into the horses' buckets, and muck the stalls while they eat. Thankfully, the stalls are fairly clean, and I figure I'll finish them just-in-time. I'm in Jaava's stall, tossing the last few forkfulls of manure into my wheelbarrow when I hear "clip-clop, clip-clop" on the wooden floor. I crane my neck around and catch a glimpse of Murray's navy blanket as he meanders down the isle. I'd left his stall door open-- as I always do.

I don't panic. I lowered the garage-style door behind me when I came in the barn. Well, I lowered it most of the way. There's a three foot opening at the bottom, but even if my 16.3 hand Murray were to crouch on his knees, that'd be a tight squeeze. All the same, his strut down the isle has the girls quite excited.

Jaava is astounded by the fact that Murray is walking the isle alone. She pokes her nose out the front of her stall and calls to Murray in her ear-splitting, high pitched voice, then she begins dancing in circles and rearing. Her door is open too, but the overflowing wheelbarrow is blocking the exit. I shimmy my way out of her stall so I can nudge Murray back to his before he starts a riot.

Now that I'm in the isle, I see that Murray, like the good-ole-boy that he is, is already making his way back to his stall. But Jaava doesn't seem to notice. She's bursting with excitement and clearly wants to be part of this unusual adventure. And before I have time to move the wheelbarrow and close her stall door, she sits back on her haunches and launches herself into the air. Suddenly, she's whizzing by my side as she leaps over the wheelbarrow. Unfortunately, she clips the edge of it with her hind toe and it, along with its smelly contents topple to the floor with a crash.

Murray is now trapped between a crazed-pony whom he dislikes, a toppled wheelbarrow, and an almost-closed garage door. I don't have a clear view of what happens next, but in an instant, there's another crash and I see the garage door flying violently up toward the ceiling, as Murray's blanketed body dashes out into the driveway. The door hits the end of the track and quickly springs back down again, only to be bounced back up as it hits jaava's round rump. Kicking up her heels, she gallops off in Murray's wake.

With two horses loose in the driveway, it's Maggie's turn for hysterics. She's now screaming in panic, and letting loose with furious, frustrated kicks against the back Wall of her stall. So, before I go after the two freedom seekers, I take some preventative measures. I raise the bars on the top half of her door (which are normally lowered so the horses can look out), to keep her from attempting any ill-fated leaps herself.

Then, I run to the feed room to grab a bucket of grain and the horses' halters. I'm annoyed that the horses are loose, but I'm not really worried. Murray's generally a chicken who's not interested in exploring. So, I figure that he'll loop around the front of the house, then turn back toward the paddocks to be captured there-- and I'm sure Jaava (who can't stand being alone) will follow his lead.

When I finally make it outside though, my heart skips a beat. Murray and Jaava haven't come back. I scan the horizon for a moment before I see them. Murray is standing in the middle of the road in the blind spot on top of the hill. We don't get much traffic, but the traffic we do get generally speeds up as it climbs the hill to keep from slipping in the mud, or ice, depending upon the season. From where he's standing, there's no way that oncoming vehicles will see him until it's too late. Jaava is just a few feet behind him.

I start shaking my bucket of grain and calling their names. Murray takes a few steps away-- down the hill. Jaava follows. Then, they have second thoughts. They turn around and head back up the road toward the driveway at a trot. I hold out the bucket of grain, but they don't even pause to consider my peace offering. Instead of turning down the driveway as I'd hoped, they ignore me and continue up the road. At least oncoming traffic will be able to see them now.

It's at this point, as I'm standing in the middle of the road, helplessly shaking a bucket of grain, and holding two halters, that I pull out my cell phone. I could really use another set of hands to help me round them up, and Dave is inside the house-- asleep. I dial our home number and the phone rings and rings, until the voicemail clicks in. I continue down the road toward the horses, and redial the number....still no answer. I yell into the phone "wake up and pick up the phone"! as Murray leads Jaava off the road and into the woods.

I call Dave again...just as Murray sinks up to his belly in snow and begins to flail around. Deciding that "off-roading" is not such a good idea, he and Jaava turn back toward the road. I call Dave again. He picks up. His slurred sleepy voice asks "what's going on?" and I know he's just seen us outside the window. "GET OUT HERE NOW AND HELP!" is all I say before hanging up the phone. I look up to see Murray and Jaava trotting back toward me. Again they ignore the grain, but thankfully turn into the driveway. This time, they head straight down the lane, through the open gait, and into to the pasture. Dave arrives, wearing rubber boots and fleece pyjama pants, just as I close the gate behind them.

At least he tells me that he'll handle the rest of the chores (including cleaning up the contents of the toppled wheelbarrow), so that I can make it to work on time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Murray

Last year, Murray's birthday was overshadowed by Maggie's Kamikazee incident.
Thankfully, this year Murray had the chance to eat his birthday stud-muffins without all the chaos.

Monday April 11

The horses have been separated in their smaller paddocks for the past week to give their larger paddock a chance to dry out. Today though, with rain and wind in the forecast, they're to be reunited again-- so they can huddle together in the run-in shed if need-be.

"The girls" are already outside, choosing their hay piles by the time I bring Murray out. He walks obediently by my side, but I can tell by the spring in his step, that he's having a hard time containing his enthusiasm.

I open the gate, and walk him into the paddock. He turns his head toward the mares as I close the gate behind us. I stroke his neck and he jumps slightly. Yep, he's clearly on edge. I reach up to remove his halter, but just then, I notice that his blanket is crooked. I don't know why this bothers me. It's always crooked, and no matter how many times I fix it, it promptly slips back over to the left. But, for whatever reason, I feel the need to striaghten it before turning Murray loose.

The lead line slackens as I step to Murray's side. As I grab hold of the blanket, Murray can't contain himself any longer. He spins and bolts off at full speed toward the back of the paddock. I have a split-second decision to make-- do I keep hold of the leadline, or do I let go? I decide to hold onto it, partly because I don't want to risk having him running around with a leadline wrapped around his legs, and partly, because I don't want him to think he's allowed to do this. It's a long lead, he gains a fair amount of speed before he reaches the end of the rope. When he does, the force of the pull yanks my arm forward and nearly tugs me off my feet, but I hang tight, and Murray is forced to spin back around to face me.

He's clearly shocked to find that he's still tethered, and he balks at the pressure. He rears stright up, offering me a full view of his round hay-belly. Then he tosses his head and tries to yank the leadline from my hand, but I hold tight. I stalk up to him, glaring, and yelling: "YOU. DO. NOT. TAKE. OFF. LIKE. THAT. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!". But my anger is just a farce, and really, I'm having trouble keeping a straight face. After all, it's Murray's birthday. He's 23. I'm glad he still has the strength and energy to pull silly stunts like this.

Murray lifts his chin and offers an arrogant look which is clearly unrepentant, but nonetheless, he allows me to lead him back to the gate. He stands quietly while I straighten his blanket. He lowers his head as I slowly drop the halter off his nose. I give him a final pat on the muzzle, then whisper "ok". This time with my blessing, he explodes like a rocket into the middle of the paddock. He leaps into the air, bucking like a bronc the whole time. As he approaches "the girls", he tosses his head and twists his front legs sideways into the air, striking out at imaginary targets. He leaps and prances around them, trying to entice them into playing with him-- but they're thinking only of food.

Murray does another lap around the paddock in this half-gallop, half-bucking gait, then he pauses to rear up. He stands so tall on his hind legs that his front hoof clips the roof of the run in shed. After that, he spins in circles, then drops to the ground to roll in the mud. When he gets up, his blanket is twisted to the left. I don't even consider fixing it. I just laugh and wish my good old boy a very happy birthday.

Getting Naked

Sunday April 10

It's a warm, sunny day. I take off the horses' blankets so they can frolic naked in their paddocks. Of course, with their blankets removed, one of the first things they do is roll in the mud.

Murray's blanket's going to have to go back on as the temperature drops at the end of the day, so once the mud dries, I figure I'd better spend a few minutes cleaning him up. So, as Murray suns himself in the centre of the paddock, I start flicking a shedding blade across his fuzzy coat, sending dusty clumps of chestnut coloured hair swirling through the air. By the time I'm done, much of that hair is clinging to my own clothing, hands, and face.

In the past, there were times when I refused to use the shedding blade on Murray's thin, bony body, afraid I'd actually hurt him. But this year, I have to press into his flesh to find his ribs, and his hip and shoulder bones have lost their angular qualitites. He's also developed a low-hanging hay belly.

I kiss Murray's velvet muzzle, then step back to take a better look at his condition after the long, cold, storm-ridden winter. Last year, when spring arrived and I lifted off his mud-caked winter blanket, Murray looked old. This year, at 23, he still looks old. Grey hairs continue to spread across his face, and his lack of muscle means his back is starting to sink. But, at the same time, he looks, well, he looks good. In fact, for the first time in the fourteen years that I've had him, he's come through a winter without losing weight. Actually, I think I can legitimately say that he's fat.

There are probably a few reasons for his weight gain. First of all, all winter long, we offered him as much high-protein second-cut hay as he could eat. And, for the first time ever, he had the winter off (with the exception of a few rollicking romps together in the snow).

But it's not just his weight that I'm happy with. I worried that with the winter off, he'd be stiff, sore and arthritic by spring. But that's not the case at all. He's certainly unfit, but he's feeling great. I've given up on trail rides since I can't seem to contain his overabundance of energy when we're out on the road, but the few rides I've had with Murray in the ring have been fabulous. His trot is a springy and fluid as ever, his canter stride is big and bold, and he's as sound as he's felt in years.

There was a time before we moved here that I thought I'd have to retire him for good. His stride was uneven, he kept stumbling, and his right knee would completely give-out during almost every ride. But since moving to Nova Scotia, our new farrier has made some changes to his shoeing, and I can't believe the difference those changes have made to the way he moves.

I'm knocking on wood as I write this because it's early spring, and who's to say whether his soundess will last into summer. But I'm hoping it will because it's going to take quite a few rides to work off that hay belly of his. And, I haven't told Murray this yet, but Dave's been busy building jumps in his workshop, and if Murray's a good, sound boy, maybe he'll get the chance to try them out before the end of the summer. He won't be jumping any four foot oxers, but with any luck he can step over a few smaller fences just for fun.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Disappearing Horses

Sunday April 3rd We spend most of the day mending fences and cleaning up the "storage" stalls in the barn. By 4pm, we're finished most of our work and we decide to duck out to the corner store (on the corner 11kms way).

Before we leave, I toss the bored-looking horses a couple of flakes of hay. They're barred off from the large pastures to give the ground time to firm-up and the grass time to take root. They'll thank me for this when they're munching on an abundance of lush green grass in July; but right now, they're annoyed at being cooped up in the mud-hole which is currently their paddock.

A half hour later, we're on our way back from the store. Usually, as we crest the hill, I can see the horses meandering in their paddock. Not today. I press my nose to the window to catch a glimpse of the run-in shed. Murray spends many-a-day there, with just his head sticking out, his velvety muzzle breathing in the fresh spring air. He's usually easy to see since his red coat stands out against the painted-black shed, but today I don't see him.

The paddock disappears from view for a moment as we pull into the driveway. I wonder if maybe the three of them are hiding out behind the shed, perhaps gulping down some water from the large blue bucket in the corner. But no, they're not there either. This is odd. It is possible that they're in the shed, and I simply haven't seen them, but since we got Jaava, I've never seen all three of them in the shed. If she tries to enter, Murray usually chases her out, and leaves her to stand by whichever outer wall best blocks the wind. I mean really, the shed is only 10' x 20'. It's a bit cramped for three horses-- even if one of those horses is a pony.

Dave puts the car in park and I jump out, heading toward the paddock. Still no sign of the horses-- and Jaava always whinnies in greeting when we get home. The gate's closed, so it's unlikely that they're loose. Maybe someone stole them? But we've only been gone for half an hour-- and lets be honest, as much as I love my horses, they certainly aren't the sort horse-thieves would be after....if there even are horse-thieves anymore.

I walk toward the paddock. There are no heads peering out at me....no gluttonous mares running to the fence in search of food. Finally, my boots squelching in the half-frozen grass, I reach the side of the fence and lean around so I can see inside the shed. I'm only about 10 feet away. "Hey guys", I yell, even though I still can't see any of them. Suddenly, there's the sound of a startled horse jumping in fright, and three fuzzy equines pop their heads out of the shed simultaneously. I can't believe it. All three of them have been standing there inside-- completely inside, without so much as a tail hair or a whisker poking out through the openings.

Now that they know I'm here, Murray and Maggie wade through the mud and jockey for position at the fence line, hoping that I might be there to dole out some kind of treat. Jaava hangs back warily. She knows by now that the other two will gang up on her and viciously chase her off if she tries to snatch her rightful share of anything I might have to offer. On the bright-side, it seems that as of today, even if "the big guys" aren't willing to share their food with her, they are willing to at least share their shelter. Score one for the pony.