It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.
It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
We have a water bucket graveyard on our farm. Buckets, tubs, barrels, you name it – if it once had water in it, it is no longer functional and therefore is not only merely dead, it is really most sincerely dead.
Over the decades, we have bought various styles of buckets and tubs with which to water our Haflinger horses. None have survived more than a few weeks, all thanks to one Haflinger in particular who sees anything rubber, plastic or steel-coated as his personal ninja playground.
We discovered early on that Haflingers do have a variety of creative techniques for attracting attention to themselves when someone walks in the barn, especially around feeding time. Over the years, we’ve had the gamut: the noisy neigher, the mane tosser, the foot stomper, the stall door striker, the play with your lips in the water and splash everything, and most irritating of all, the teeth raked across the woven wire front of the stall. A few Haflingers do wait patiently for their turn for attention, without fussing or furor, sometimes nickering a low “huhuhuhuhuh” of greeting. That is truly blissful in comparison.
We raised one filly whose chosen method of bringing attention to herself was to bump her belly up against her rubber water buckets that hang in the stall, making them bounce wildly about, spraying water everywhere, drenching her, and her stall in the process. She loved it. It was sport for her to see if she could tip the buckets to the point of emptying them and then knock them off their hooks so she could boot them around the stall, destroying a few in the process. Nothing made this mare happier. When she had occasion to share a big stall space with one of her half-siblings, she found that the bucket bouncing technique was very effective at keeping her brothers away, as they had no desire to be drenched and they didn’t find noisy bucket bumping very attractive. So her hay pile was hers alone–very clever thinking.
This is not unlike a wild chimpanzee that I knew at Gombe in Tanzania, named “Mike” by Jane Goodall, who found an ingenious way of rising to alpha male status by incorporating empty oil drums in his “displays” of aggression, pounding on them and rolling them down hills to take advantage of their noise and completely intimidating effect on the other male chimpanzees. Mike was on the small side, and a bit old to be alpha male, but assumed the position in spite of his limitations through use of his oil drum displays. So my noisy and water splashing mare, became alpha over her peers.
Our current bucket destroyer is intent on making the kill rather than making noise for attention. During this gelding’s fifteen years of life, I estimate he has gone through over a hundred buckets. Ironically some buckets bite him back, causing such significant lower lip tears that on two occasions a vet made an emergency call to perform a laceration repair (also known as plastic surgery in the barn aisle) so this Haflinger bears scars for his bad bucket habit. Unfortunately, expensive lip repairs have not discouraged him from ongoing bucket battles. His latest victim was found this morning, its steel handle broken, the bucket itself half-buried in a hole my gelding had dug in the dirt floor of the stall. He isn’t even waiting for me to issue last rites anymore; he’s taking care of that himself.
We humans aren’t much different in our destructive tendencies and our need for attracting attention. Some of us talk too much, even if we have nothing much to say, some of us strut our physical beauty and toss our hair, some of us are pushy to the point of obnoxiousness. Some of us are real bluffers, making a whole lot more noise and fuss than is warranted, but enjoying the chaos that ensues. Sometimes we even tear down what is important to our own survival and nurture (everyone needs water, right?) and leave a wake of destruction behind us – all done to make sure someone notices.
Well, now I notice each time I buy a new bucket and am reminded:
I need to quit stomping and knocking doors in my impatience, as well as quit hollering when a quiet greeting is far more welcome and appropriate. I need to quit soaking everyone else with my splashing drama – after all, it yields me nothing more than empty broken buckets that sometimes bite me back. Eventually, when I destroy every bucket in the place, I will get very thirsty and wish I hadn’t been so foolish and brash.
So if my horses are potentially trainable to have better manners, so am I.
And then I realize: over the years, my horses have been busy training me.
More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM. More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.
The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts. Mousey body parts or birdie body parts. I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak, of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder. I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper. Yet I do and I have.
I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” – kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them. Nonsense. Ask the mouse or bird how they feel about becoming the blood sacrifice.
I believe the welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans. Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…
So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff. Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals. Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction. These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its two stomachs for a number of hours.
It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the dozens to local schools) are great teaching material. It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good. There is fur and there are feathers. Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn. Ask the mouse or rabbit (or occasional kitten) how they feel about becoming owl litter. There should be a law.
Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing. The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak – like part of a cloth tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a Haflinger represents on earth.
At least we have figured out how to recycle all that poop back to the fields to feed the next generation of grass, which feeds the next generation of Haflingers, which becomes poop to feed the next generation of grass, and so on and so on and so on…
This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of grass/hay/silage to chew it again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure. If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously. So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen? Probably as many as purple cows. I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.
In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so figure the rest can rot.
Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 50 years. Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind and (sometimes) recycle what they don’t want or need.
I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing. I can go green, just might save on the grocery bill and my bathroom scale would thank me.
And came the horses. There, still they stood, But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound. Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons, High over valleys, in the red leveling rays
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces, May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews, Hearing the horizons endure. ~Ted Hughes from “The Horses”
Five years ago this week, Marlee went to her forever home, far sooner than we planned. She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.
But something dire was happening to her over the previous two weeks — not eating much, an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.
Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off. But the time had clearly come.
Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver, but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis. She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she learned people’s behavior, understood their nonverbal language, and discerned human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we were tasked with teaching her the proper social cues.
When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scattered when they saw her face change. The irony of it all is that when she was “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.
She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.
The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.
She was the first among North American Haflingers to not only become regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.
With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor, she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s. She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.
She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond (aka “Mondo”), and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.
This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said: “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.” Marlee was, to put it simply, trained to train her riders.
I miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. I miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night. I miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was always on.
What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan. What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years. Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me all those years, as the surrogate mom who loved and fed her. May I meet her in my memories, whenever I feel lonesome for her, still unable to resist those bright eyes forever now closed in peace.
He’s of the colour of the nutmeg. And of the heat of the ginger…. he is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him; he is indeed a horse… ~William Shakespeare from Henry V
Not just because of the long wavy mane, and bushy ringleted tail, the feathers on the fetlocks, the black-rimmed deep brown eyes, topped with long elegant lashes, the glistening nutmeg ginger color, the perfect parallel little ears, the forelock that almost reaches to the upper lip….
The real reason to love a Haflinger horse is its nose.
Pink noses, gray noses, nondescript not-sure-what-color noses, noses that have white stripes, diamonds, triangles, hearts or absolutely no white at all.
With hot breath exuding fragrance better than pricey perfume, lips softer than the most exquisite velvet.
Noses reach out in greeting, blow, sniff, nuzzle, caress, push, search, smudge faces and shower snot.
O! for a horse with wings! ~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline
One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. ~Dale Carnegie
When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; ~William Shakespeare from Henry V
We all should have a buddy who will simply hang out with us, helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up before they draw blood.
It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.
Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these birds do leave “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, having to clean up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.
We’re buds after all – best forever friends.
And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast and the other provides the wings. We’re fully fed and we’re free.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us. Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what could they possibly say? — Mary Oliver from Blue Horses
This is not a world filled with kindness – I think we all realize that most days. There is so much hurt and misunderstanding and lack of communication leading to all kinds of ugliness between so many of us.
When beauty is bestowed upon us, unexpectedly and silently and bountifully, where can it come from but from God? How can we possibly forget wherein He dwells richly, especially wherever beauty is so desperately needed.
The Haflingers don’t have much to say, but then … they don’t need to.
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 almost 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.
…let me live in a small room up the narrow stairs from the stalls, the horse shifting comfortably below, browsing and chewing sweet hay. A single bed with blanket the color of factory-sweepings will suffice, each day shaped to the same arc, because days can only end when the lock slides free on the stall’s Dutch door, and I lead the horse in, then muscle the corroded bolt shut. That’s what days are for: I cannot rest until the horse comes home. ~Julie Bruck from “To Bring the Horse Home”
The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from six stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.
I’ve enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy, I am at peace and sleep better.
It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking. It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.
If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I awake thinking about where my next step will bring me, and then the next, like each chew of sweet hay. I try to live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.
But the reality is:
life’s rhythms are often out of sync,
the cadence is jarring,
the sounds are discordant,
sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness.
Maybe that is why this lullaby in the barn~~this sanctuary~~is so treasured. It brings me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting, and peace, however elusive now, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.
Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.
in the early morning. ~Billy Collins from “Morning”
He had driven half the night From far down San Joaquin Through Mariposa, up the Dangerous Mountain roads, And pulled in at eight a.m. With his big truckload of hay behind the barn. With winch and ropes and hooks We stacked the bales up clean To splintery redwood rafters High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa Whirling through shingle-cracks of light, Itch of haydust in the sweaty shirt and shoes. At lunchtime under Black oak Out in the hot corral, —The old mare nosing lunchpails, Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds— “I’m sixty-eight” he said, “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen. I thought, that day I started, I sure would hate to do this all my life. And dammit, that’s just what I’ve gone and done.” ~Gary Snyder – “Hay for the Horses” from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
Sure enough, I’ve gone and done it — spent over 50 years of my life taking care of horses. I’m hoping for at least a decade more if this little herd of mostly retired Haflingers continues to bless me with their good health and mine.
No one said I had to do this and plenty of people saw it as folly, including a few folks who continue to aid and abet my horse ownership.
When I was young and agile and full of energy, I didn’t really project ahead fifty years to see that picking up hay bales, moving manure piles and being stepped on by a 1000 pound animal is a bigger deal than it once was.
But fifty years hasn’t changed anything else: the smell of a muzzle, the feel of a powerful muscle under my hand, my reflection in their eyes.
When I lived in a city apartment so many years ago, I knew I sure would love to wake up every morning to take care of horses the rest of my life. And you know what?