Middle Age Gals Stick Together

I’m deep into my sixties now and some days I’m reminded how deep more than others. Though I’m well past the hot flashes of my fifties, I now deal with the typical aches and pains of my seventh decade on earth. Every once in awhile, I compare notes with our aging Haflinger mares (now all well into their twenties) on our farm and watch how well they too are coping with their advancing years.

For instance:

These mares still have a lot of life left. They sometimes run like the wind when turned loose, their manes and tails flying in the wind. They can buck, kick and fart with the best of them. And then limp around for the rest of the day, regretting their momentary indiscretion.

These mares know who they are. There is no identity crisis here. They are mothers who have finished their mothering years, and are well into the grandmothering years. Even so, they still like to flirt – although they aren’t sure they remember why they want to attract attention from a certain fella in the neighboring field.

These mares aren’t thrilled about work anymore. They are a bit out of shape with a tendency toward the fluffy side of fitness, so require a moment to catch their breath once in awhile. Their muscles hurt the next day. They break out in sweat easily. They appreciate a break for a mid-day nap – or two – or three.

These mares are opinionated. There is no question they know their own minds, what they want and how they are going to get it and they keep no one around them guessing. They want to make sure everyone else knows how right they are even if they (so very rarely) are wrong.

These mares are stubborn. Once they’ve decided something, it takes more than soft sweet persuasion, like a whack on the behind, to change course. Once they’ve decided they don’t like another horse, the only way to change that opinion is for the other horse to adopt an attitude of complete servitude and submission, giving way whenever approached and grooming the boss mare whenever asked.

These mares are hungry. Always. See “fluffy” above although chewing isn’t as easy as it used to be. Grazing is now classified as “work.”

These mares don’t sleep all that much, but wish they could sleep more.  Even though they might look like they are napping (see “mid-day naps” above), they are actually meditating, with their eyes closed, on the next plan of action.

These mares’ feet and joints hurt at times – sometimes dealing with broken and cracked nails, trouble walking over uneven surfaces, and being impatient and touchy about manicures.

These mares are not as fussy about their appearance as they used to be. Their fur coats are no longer as sleek and smooth – their hair can stick out at weird angles, their beards grow long and their eyes aren’t quite as clear. Their four foot manes have been rubbed down to two foot manes and have a few more tangles in them. Their tails have stains (don’t ask why). They stride through mud puddles without a second thought, whereas when they were younger, there was no way one hoof was going to set foot in such mucky stuff.

These mares don’t keep as tidy a bedroom as they used to. Why bother? Life is too short for making neat piles in pristine surroundings.

These mares know how to be the best of friends. If their best forever friend is not turned out with them in the field, they will stand at the gate, and call nonstop for an hour asking where she is. And when they are reunited, they mutually groom for a long time, until their mouths are so full of hair they can’t stand each other – until tomorrow, that is.

These mares know how to give great kisses and hugs. Especially if you are hiding a carrot on your person, you’ll be mugged.

Yes, we “deep-in-the-middle ages” gals, human and equine, do seem to have a lot in common.

I do appreciate knowing we can always stick together, through thick and …well, thick.

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Fairing Well

The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden is underway this week and for the ninth year in a row, our Haflinger horses aren’t there on display.  I feel wistful as I wake up too early on a foggy summer morning, remembering the twenty years where I would gather up our sleepy children and their friends and head into the fairgrounds to clean stalls, walk the ponies and prepare for the day.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, and I’m still a little bit sad about that.

Our farm, BriarCroft, had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well-decorated outdoor display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late 1980s to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But now that our children are all grown up and moved away, we lack their help to “man” the horse stalls. I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, most of them now with children of their own.

Every year between 1992 and 2012, we were there, sometimes sharing space and duties with other Haflinger farms (Rodenbergers and McKees), along with several brave young women (Kelsy Smith, Chesna Klimek and Emily Vander Haak) who did Haflinger “trick riding” as part of the daily Grandstand show. The older kids watched the younger kids, the in-between kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and we adults sat and shot the breeze.

Our display created good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes. Our horses came to represent what dreams are made of.

Countless times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some 10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

Gary was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I have lost track of Gary over the years and I hope he is faring well. I hope his connection with our horses left him with a legacy of love for animals he’ll pass onto his children someday.

So on this misty late summer morning, instead of heading to the fairgrounds to clean stalls, I’m going to turn our dusty, unbathed Haflingers out in the field as usual.  They don’t even know all the excitement they are missing.

I do hope the fair-goers still miss the friendly golden horses, with the big brown eyes, who helped make dreams come true.

Our Haflinger display at the NW Washington Fair
Trillium as a yearling with me at the fair 1993 – she is still part of our herd at age 29

Thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano, Emily Vander Haak, Kelsy Smith, and Chesna Klimek for their photos in this collection.

A photo of our Haflingers and poems are found in this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Hollowed

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.
~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.
Hollowed.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

photo by Andrea Nipges

New book available to order from Barnstorming!

Licked to Its Feet

When we reach the field
she is still eating
the heads of yellow flowers
and pollen has turned her whiskers
gold. Lady,
her stomach bulges out,
the ribs have grown wide.
We wait,
our bare feet dangling
in the horse trough,
warm water
where goldfish brush
our smooth ankles.
We wait
while the liquid breaks
down Lady’s dark legs
and that slick wet colt
like a black tadpole
darts out
beginning at once
to sprout legs.
She licks it to its feet,
the membrane still there,
red, transparent
the sun coming up shines through,
the sky turns bright with morning
and the land
with pollen blowing off the corn,
land that will always own us,
everywhere it is red.

~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.

First,
her fluid
flows in subtle stream
then
gushes in sudden drench.
Soaking, saturating,
precipitating
inevitability.
No longer cushioned
slick sliding forward
following the rich river
downstream to freedom.

The smell of birth
clings to shoes, clothes, hands
as soaked in soupy brine
I reach to embrace new life
sliding toward me.

I too was caught once;
three times emptied into other hands,
my babies wet on my chest
their slippery skin
under my lips
so salty sweet

In a moment’s scent
the rush of life returns;
now only barn or field birthings
yet still as sweet and rich.
I carry the smell of damp foal fur
with me all day to
recall from whence I came.
I floated once
and will float free someday again.

Heart of the World

The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                                            into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind 
                                                                       some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                           the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
                On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.
~Charles Wright “Miles Away”

It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture.  The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.

But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard.  The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.

There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar.  We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.

Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar.  They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.

One early spring some years ago,  as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them.  Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying.  There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.

They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up.    I approached,  quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed,  spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass.   Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.

We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.

I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road.  As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster,  they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled:  our stallion.  He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.

So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives.  Guys can do that to a gal.  You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.

Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.

Like a Century Ago

I like farming.
I like the work.
I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. 
It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. 
I now suspect that if we work with machines
the world will seem to us to be a machine,
but if we work with living creatures
the world will appear to us as a living creature. 
That’s what I’ve spent my life doing,

trying to create an authentic grounds for hope.
~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

I don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry me to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as my grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two or three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for my constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

I depend on them
to depend on me
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Christmas Eve at BriarCroft

For years, before the birth of this Barnstorming blog, I would sit down Christmas Eve to write a (sort of) rhyming farm poem — here are several from 15-18 years ago

Growing up as a child on our farm,
I remember the magic of Christmas eve night,
Bundling up in layers to stay warm,
To the barn to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
And spoke in words we could all understand.
They worshiped a Child born in a tiny town,
In a barn such as theirs held in God’s hand.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
The blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
In a barn, while shepherds and kings came by.

Yet my childhood trips to the barn were always too late,
Our cows would be chewing, our chickens fast asleep,
Our horse breathing softly, our cat climbing the gate,
In the barn there was never a peep.

But I knew they had done it, just too quick to see!
They were plainly so happy and at peace.
In the sweet smelling hay, and no longer hungry,
In our barn, though so humble, a miracle had taken place.

I still bundle to go out each Christmas eve,
In the hope I’ll catch them this time.
Though I’m older now I still must believe
In the barn, birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Yet our horses nicker as I come near,
They tell me the time is now!
They drop to their knees without any fear
In our barn, all living things bow.

Imagine the wonder of God’s immense trust
For the loving creatures who were there that night.
Now I know why this special Child must
Be born in a barn, it was only right.
(written Christmas Eve 1999)

Sometimes it seems time flies too fast
Amid our daily work and play
We want to make each moment last
and value in every day.

A place we’ve found that time slows
Is the Haflinger barn on our farm.
As we listen to the chewing among the stall rows
We know each horse is safe and loved and warm.

Years ago, such peace was found
In a Baby lying in a manger.
Sung a lullaby of animals’ sounds
Sleeping protected from earthly danger.

We can know that peace apart
From the rest of our worldly care
The Baby’s found within our heart
A knowledge we gladly share.

(written 2000 Christmas Eve)

noblesseeye1

I walk to the barn tonight as I do each year,
Counting my blessings, knowing my flaws,
Praying for family and friends so dear,
And for each precious creature with hooves or paws.

Each horse is content and a witness to peace,
And I wish every person could know,
Sadness and worry for a moment can cease,
While patting noses down a stall row.

For once I see the sky is clear
And stars are shining bright
The northeast wind is coming near
And briskly chills this special night.

For weeks stars hid behind a cloud
Of doubt, of fear, of weeping rain,
Explosions at once so horrid and loud
The whole world instantly felt the pain.

Like stars that glow through blackest dark
Good overwhelms bad with barely left trace
All owed to a Child who left His mark
By giving Himself in infinite grace.

(written Christmas Eve 2001)

On a night long ago
The two traveled far
After days on the road
Sought rest beneath a brightening star.

Yet no room was found
As they asked all they could
Instead they were bound
for a cave in the wood.

In a barn dry and warm
Farm animals welcomed them
Safely sheltered from harm
And the closed doors of Bethlehem.

Where else can the birth be
But deep in a cave?
Where the heart is set free
Our lives and souls saved.

My barn, like my heart
Should always have “room”
For the Word had its start
In a manger assumed.

As your Haflingers welcome you
To their barn home today
A heart is shown what it must do–
Always give Love and Peace a place to stay.

(written Christmas Eve 2002)

Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

The Light of the Horses

From the window I saw the horses.

Like waves of fire, they flared forward
and to my eyes filled the whole world,
empty till then. Perfect, ablaze,
they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs,
with manes like a dream of salt.

Their rumps were worlds and oranges.

Their color was honey, amber, fire.

There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked. I looked and was reborn:
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.

I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.

I will not forget the light of the horses.
~Pablo Neruda from “Horses”

The Haflingers have been here more than half my life. They are now mostly retired as I soon will be.

They belong on this farm even more than I do: they were born to graze on steep hillsides, to find the tenderest of clover leafs hiding among the bulrushes and thistles. They laze about under the branches, swishing flies with those abundant tails.

Most of all, they are the copper and gold so badly needed in the gray light of fall and winter. When my eyes and heart feel empty and in need of filling up, I go out into the fields to absorb the riches of their honey coats, their deep brown eyes, their stark white mane and tails.

They won’t be here forever, nor will I. We will someday be dust – no longer glinting of gold nor burning with the fire of life on this earth. But the memory of our light is forever as nothing can extinguish a beauty that is heaven-sent, whether horse or human.

The Outside of a Horse

There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse
~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders

Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.

It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.

After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.

This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.