Monday, April 9, 2012

Boots Made for Walking

"Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world"~~ Marilyn Monroe

Early Spring 2011
Minute by minute, the days are getting longer. The sun's ever strengthening rays have melted most of the snow, but they still aren't powerful enough to soften the still-frozen ground. I slip Maggie's halter from her head as I turn her loose. She stumbles and cringes as she navigates her way across the the paddock-- where the ground is a rutted mess of frozen clay. Finally, she makes her way to a pile of hay beside the run-in shed. She stands there for most of the day.

When I bring the horses in at the end of the day, instead of rushing to the gate and jockeying for position, she hangs back. Once the others are in, I walk out to the shed to get her. The edges of her feet are breaking up, and small pieces of hoof are missing. She walks forward reluctantly, gingerly, each step deliberate as she searches for a smooth piece of ground to place her tender feet. She looks extremely lame. Thankfully, as soon as we're out of the frozen-clay paddock, and onto the much smoother path, she picks up the pace and walks normally.

Murray's oblivious to the rough, rutted ground. He has shoes with rubber pads, so he has much more protection. Like Maggie, Jaava is barefoot, but her hooves are smaller, and in typical pony-fashion, much tougher. She occasionally takes a tender step, but for the most part, she bucks, rears, and runs with as much spunk as usual. It's just Maggie, with her naturally brittle hooves and tender soles who appears tortured by Jack Frost's unwillingness to relinquish his final grip on winter.

After a second day of watching Maggie navigate painfully around the paddock, I'm worried. Her hooves were in terrible shape when we bought her. There were deep cracks running from her toes to her coronary bands, and large chunks of wall were missing. Between regular visits from our diligent farrier, a balanced diet, and ample servings of hoof supplements, her feet are finally starting to look normal. I don't want a few days on hard, uneven ground to undo all the progress.
For the next few weeks, I separate her from the other two, leaving her alone to meander on the smoother, softer sand that covers her small paddock. She's lonely, and she's also without shelter on cold, wet, or windy days. It's a poor trade-off, but at least she's not in pain. I'm relieved when the ground finally softens and turns to slippery, squelching mud. I tell myself I should look into hoof boots so we don't have to go through this again. But of course, I don't.

Early Summer 2011

They've regraded our road again, only this time, they've covered the soft dirt with a layer of sharp, blueish stone. I'm not impressed. One of these razor-like stones pierces our truck tire. Even worse, when I try to take Maggie for her usual workout up-and-down the hill, she stumbles and trips. She jerks her head up in pain as the rough edges of the rocks press into the soles of her dinner-plate-like hooves. After a few metres, we turn around. Maggie loves the road work, but it looks like we're confined to our soft, sandy ring for the foreseeable future.
I need to find a way to toughen Maggie's tootsies. I could put shoes on her, but I don't really want to. Shoes are expensive, and since she's not competing, and she's fine without them most of the time, they seem unnecessary. Besides, she's eight years old and as far as we know, she's never worn shoes. She may not take kindly to having a smokey piece of iron nailed onto the wall of her hoof.

I have heard of hoof boots, and I think they might just be the fix I'm looking for. I don't know much about them so I do some research. I discover several companies which make them. My favourite boot, by far, is the colourful, bionic looking "Renegade" (I have my heart set on "Burgundy Blitz"). Alas, Renegade doesn't make boots to fit her large, draft-cross hooves...nor do any of the other brands I come across. It turns out that finding a boot for Maggie is as difficult as trying to fit one of Cinderella's dainty glass slippers onto the elephant-like feet of her evil step sisters.

October 2011
Autumn arrives, and Maggie is still bootless. The first early frosts harden the rutted clay in the paddocks, and my big mare chooses her path more carefully. I kick myself for dallying on the boots, and I renew my search for something that will fit. In desperation, I send an e-mail with Maggie's measurements to the "Easy Care" hoof boot company. I ask whether they make anything for her wide, round hooves. Within days, I receive a response-- I'm told that size 4 BOA boots should do the trick.

The boots aren't cheap, and I'm indecisive, so I put off ordering them for awhile, but when the ground begins to freeze in earnest, I dig out my credit card and order a pair. Her front feet are much more sensitive than her hind, so I buy boots to fit those feet first. I hope to put-off buying the hind ones until the spring.

It takes almost three weeks for her boots to arrive. Maggie stands patiently on the cross-ties while I try to wrestle her hooves into the boots for a good five minutes. I can get her feet partway in, but no matter how I twist, turn, pull, push, and shove, I cannot get her hooves all the way into the boots. I stop, I re-read the instructions. I check the size of the boots, and check the measurements required for that size. She's at the maximum width for those boots, but still, they should fit--barely.

I try again. After another ten minutes or so, I'm sweating, and swearing, and Maggie is becoming less and less willing to hold up her hooves for me. The boots are undeniably too small. I angrily throw the boots in a corner in the tack room, where I try to forget about them for a few days.

I consider sending the boots back. But the shipping and customs fees alone would cost a fortune, and they're already slightly scuffed. I decide to try again, but this time, I put the boots on her slightly smaller hind feet. According to the measurements, they should be a size three. Instead, they fit perfectly into the size four boots intended for her front feet. I look at the measurements for the size 5 boots. By rights, those boots should be too big for her. But if the size fours are too small, what other option do I have? I sigh, and decide to order the bigger boots. At least the boots are on sale now. I buy them at almost 50% off.

The weeks go by. I try the boots on Maggie's hind feet several times. They're still not easy to put on, but they stay firmly in place, and she barely seems to notice they're there. Finally, the larger boots arrive. Despite the fact that these boots are quite a bit larger, it still takes me a solid ten minutes to shove her hooves into them. They're a bit big and clunky, but they'll have to do.

Late Winter/ Early Spring 2012
As soon as the winter winds die-down, and the sun softens the ice, I take Maggie for a ride down our rocky road. There's no wincing, no stumbling, no sudden head-bobbing. We walk, trot, and even chance a small canter, accompanied by a large buck. Maggie is feeling no pain. Despite her antics, the boots stay firmly in place. Now, regardless of whether the ground is a rutted, frozen mess, or a hard, rocky trail, Maggie has the right boots for the occasion. But I'm glad she doesn't need them every day because I still break into sweat trying to pull them on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Close Encounter

Maggie HATES small animals. She loathes the dog, but she particularly despises the cats.

Saturday April 7th, 2012 (Easter Weekend)
As I throw the horses their mid-day hay, stray pieces of the dried grass are lifted into the air by a strong north wind. Because Maggie's recovering from a recently pulled check-ligament, the horses are segregated in their individual paddocks. They can see each other, but can't interact (or chase each other around). Murray's turn-out is in the middle so, to save time and energy, I toss hay over the fence to each of the "girls" from there.

The fence between Murray and Maggie is higher than most, with just small gaps between the boards. It was designed to separate the previous owners' stallion from the mares. With effort, I toss a flake of hay high over the fence and into Maggie's paddock. But Maggie doesn't notice. She's around the corner, in her stall, gulping up the fresh water I just poured into her bucket.

I call her name, but my voice is carried away on the wind. I call again, and bang on the fence to get her attention. Finally, I hear movement from her stall. It seems, however, that my voice has also reached Zorro's ears. My sly, dog-like, tuxedo- wearing cat suddenly appears at my feet. He pauses briefly to rub his sleek coat against my filth-covered boots. Then, with a flick of his tail, he stalks-off under the fence toward Maggie's lunch.

Hay piles are to Zorro are like empty boxes are to little children-- they're great places from which to build forts and plan attacks. Murray's mounds of hay (larger, and longer-lasting than those of the mares) are Zorro's favourite playgrounds. Thankfully, Murray is ambivalent toward Zorro's antics. For the most part he ignores him, though occasionally he gently rubs his velvety muzzle deep into the cat's fur. Unfortunately, such close contact with cat hair almost always causes Murray to sneeze, and that almost always frightens the cat away.

Maggie, however, has no tolerance for feline companionship. She gnashes her teeth at Zorro when he uses her door as a spring-board to launch himself into the hay loft. She shakes her head and squeals at him when he trots along the path outside her paddock fence. When he carelessly wanders into her paddock, she angrily chases after him. That generally leads me to duck frantically through the fence rails to scoop up my wayward cat.

Zorro's pursuit of Maggie's hay pile begins just as Maggie lumbers lazily around the corner, her hooves thudding dully on the dusty ground. My heart speeds up. I try calling Zorro back to me. He turns his head momentarily, but continues decidedly toward the hay. I look back at Maggie. Her kind, elephant-like eyes scan the paddock for her mid-day meal. Her ears prick up as she glimpses the new pile of hay.

In the next instant, the ears flick backwards, and are suddenly pinned against flat against her head. Her nostrils crinkle, her lips curl. She thrusts her jaw forward and lowers her head like a bull about to charge. Tension fills her body as she zeroes-in on Zorro. Unfortunately, Zorro, such a prolific hunter himself, seems to have no idea that he's being stalked.

Zorro ignores my frantic calling. His singular focus is a piece of hay waving in the wind. I want to duck between the fence boards and pull my feline friend to safety. But I don't fit. Only the tiniest of children could slip between the boards in this section of fence. And it's too high to climb. And anyway, each board is protected by an innocent-looking strand of electrical rope. All I can do is watch.

Maggie, within a stride or two of Zorro, menacingly shakes her head toward the cat, and grinds her teeth in anger. Then, with surprising speed, she lunges forward. I scream. I don't mean to scream. I intend to yell "whoa" in the deepest, most authoritative voice that I can muster. But what comes out is a high-pitched, half scream, half cry. With that, Zorro turns his head and his eyes widen in alarm as he finally notices Maggie. In that moment, she strikes violently at him with her dinner-plate-sized front hooves. She throws her entire 13 hundred pound frame into the effort. Dirt and sand spew into the air as her hooves hit the ground with a deafening thud.

Somehow, Zorro manages to shrink his lanky frame into a tiny ball, and her hooves merely graze his back, missing their mark by inches. Maggie, frustrated, squeals and lashes out again with her front feet, but as she raises them into the air, Zorro dashes-off with cheetah like speed. She turns to pursue him, but I regain my voice, and this time my deep, angry yell gets her attention. Besides, he's on the other side of her paddock now, and there's a fresh pile of hay at her feet. Maggie's features soften, her ears come forward, and she begins to make quick work of her lunch. Now safely outside of the fence, Zorro (unscathed except perhaps for his pride) takes a brief backward glance before heading into the field to find (hopefully) a less dangerous place to play. One of these days, his nine lives are going to run out.
How Zorro has spent his nine lives thus far:
1. Stuck his neck in the door of the truck as it was being slammed shut
2. Got knocked down out of the hayloft by a bale of hay
3. Jumped out of the hayloft for fun
4. Stayed out late when the coyotes were on the prowl
5. Got chased by Maggie
6. Got beaten up by the Tom cat
7. Tried to take a nap on Maggie's door and nearly got eaten
8. Rubbed up between Jaava's hind feet while she was being tacked-up
9. Got chased and nearly stomped on by Maggie
Hmm... so maybe he has 10 lives?