Monday, June 28, 2010


Things were not going well.

Migraines, mud, misunderstandings and mishaps, poor hay-making weather, projects piling up; they were all getting me down.  I worked non-stop, it seemed, and tried to keep a positive attitude... but it felt as if I would never get caught up, never feel better, as if I were caught in a really bad day that kept repeating.

One day, while ruminating on all that... stuff... I walked into our machine shed while looking for some nails to repair a fence.  Again.  In doing so, I was startled by flapping wings as a white bird flew up right before me.  When my breath came back, I could not help but look in amazement at the creature which had shown up in my grungy old shop:  a pure white dove.

At first I thought it probably an albino barn pigeon... an oddity, but somehow more likely.  We have a few pigeons that hang around, eating spilled grain, creating a mess of feathers and excrement in the storage shed.  But this was no common pigeon... she was beautiful.  Pure white, docile... I could get within a few feet of her, and her calm demeanor was somehow so peaceful.  Regal.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed she wore a leg band, and realized she was a domestic dove.  Most likely she was released at a wedding or some such event, and for whatever reason ended up on my farm.  I wondered about how to go about capturing her and returning her to her owner, but somehow that didn't seem quite right.  She was a free bird, here by choice, and it blessed me.  I dubbed her Emma, short for Emmanuel, which means "God with us"... and considered her a good omen of peace, happiness and prosperity for our farm.

Emma took up residence above some old wooden grain bins in the shed, and just hung around for awhile. I would set out extra grain especially for her, and she would clean it up once I was out of sight.  Every time I saw her, it was such a lift to my spirits; her exquisite beauty, the pure white of her feathers, the peaceful aura which surrounded her and her unlikely presence seemed somehow supernatural.

Emma is gone now.  Maybe she just flew off course, needed a rest stop and we offered her the food and shelter she needed; or maybe she was here for a higher purpose.  At first I was so disappointed to realize she had moved on, but now have adopted the attitude that having her here, if only for a little while, was one of those little blessings in life that one must appreciate in the moment and later remember fondly. I'm so glad I made no attempt to capture, cage or return Emma to some owner, contrary to her free will. Doing so would have served no purpose, and somehow diminished the experience.

As it is, the little white free bird is, indeed, free.  Interestingly enough, the migraines have also subsided, the weather improved, the mishaps and misunderstandings and projects not quite so overwhelming, and my mood improved.

Thanks, Emma.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"You're on your own, kid..."

Its been awhile since my last post... mostly just because springtime on the farm is busy.  I'm bottle feeding a dozen calves, keeping fences up... and the yard mowed... and the barn clean...and hay put up... and weeds pulled or killed... and foaling out mares.  And it seems that when it all gets done I'm fairly exhausted and left without the energy or creativity to write about the experience, and its time to start over anyway... but that is life on a farm and the life I chose.

The foaling part is the biggest deal for me; I rearrange my stalls to allow for a large foaling pen in the barn, have my vet kit ready, and check the mare every two hours around the clock as she approaches parturition. It can be exhausting, but I really wouldn't have it any other way.  While a barn camera which would allow me to check on the mare from the house is a nice thought, it somehow cannot replace my 2AM walks to the barn, pausing to breathe in the mellow air of a balmy spring night, looking at the stars and wondering whats beyond them.

When the big moment arrives and the mare stretches out in the straw to push her baby into the world, I do my best to be there.  That is the moment of truth, when a year (or fifteen, if truth be told) of preparation and planning and dreaming and hard work come together and that new foal draws its first breath.  While its icing on the cake if the foal happens to be a color and pattern I've hoped for... the real satisfaction comes in seeing the straight legs, long arched and refined neck, the laid-back shoulder, the long hip and level croup, the short back, the large eye and exquisite head, the breed-type and refinement and athleticism and the disposition I've bred for and come to expect over the years.  Regardless of the color or sex, it seems that each time I dry off and imprint a new foal, tears of joy and thanksgiving roll down my face.  I will never get over the delight in helping these foals into the world, in being the first to caress their delicate muzzles, in witnessing them take their first clumsy steps and first vital gulps of colostrum.  I imprint, or bond with, them all at birth... after that, while they belong to their mommas for a few months, they are in my own pocket for life.  That's due in small part to the process... and in large part to the breed I've chosen.  The experience makes all the blood, sweat, tears, and cost worthwhile.

Yesterday was a beautiful day, of the sort that have been somewhat rare this year with all the rain we've received.  It was the perfect sort of day to turn a new, week-old foal and her momma in with the herd for the first time.  The rest of my family had been gone for a few days, and while I normally wait until someone is here with me to do any major rearranging of herd dynamics, just in case something were to go awry... turning out a new baby is usually no big deal, and I was looking forward to watching her stretch her legs and discover the new world.

Um.... yeah.

Upon releasing said mare and baby into the pasture, it was a pastoral scene for about thirty seconds... and then hell broke loose.

Creedence, our herd sire, was very happy to see Momma, so to speak, and said so in a loud, trumpeting manner.  Daddy's exuberant  greeting scared the living daylights out of Baby.  Baby fled for the hills... in the process, going through a fence and into another pasture occupied by two mares who would have been more than happy to claim her as their own.  Their misguided affections spooked Baby further... and so imagine my horror as she ran/tumbled/scrambled/rolled down the hill...

into the lake.

Now, my pasture is surrounded on three sides by this little lake, and while I always foal the mares in the barn rather than the pasture to avoid a newborn falling into it during its first awkward attempts to stand... the lake has otherwise never been an issue.  The shore is mucky and the horses tend to avoid it.  Water?  No thanks!  They prefer theirs from the tap.

Apparently, however, this baby felt the murky depths to be a safer option than the terrifying sounds and smells and sights of a milling herd of monsters... or the thorny grasp of the brush and trees clawing at her as she made her escape.  I watched and waited for a moment, thinking and hoping that Momma would run down to the water's edge, holler for her baby, and that Baby would do as she was told and return to her mother's side.

No such luck.  Momma was busy romancing Stud Boy, who was, in turn, unashamedly admiring the miraculous return of her girlish figure.  Realizing they would be no help whatsoever, I went into motion, running down the hill with one goal in mind... to save the baby.  In doing so, I thought about the fact no one else was home... and thought, "You're on your own, kid..."

Truth is, however, I'm never really alone.  I've got a few bad-ass guardian angels who've been battle-tested through the years, and I trust God to command them concerning me and guard me in all my ways, as He promised.  I'm thankful its not so much great faith on my part as it is faithfulness on His.  I knew, as I dove into the lake and called out to Him for help, that He would.

That said, I *hate* murky water, and the mud beneath it.  Murky water is creepy... I cannot see what lies beneath, be it fallen trees or snapping turtles or leeches or dead bodies.  Our lake is murky for two reasons; one, because we have a lot of iron in the water, which oxidizes and turns it brown.  Another, because this farm was once a dairy... and all plumbers will tell you that, put politely, manure runs downhill.  Fifty cows times fifty years, you do the math.

And so, until yesterday, suffice it to say I'd not yet taken a swim in our lake.  But when a baby is in danger, be it human or equine, maternal instinct takes over... common sense flies out the window... and I went for a swim.  With a panicked foal.

She would whinny to me, let me approach, almost get to her... and then swim away.  Further and further into the lake.  As I was fully clothed and wearing shoes, and the bottom slimy, slippery, muddy, my feet sinking in if I tried to walk rather than swim, it was a fight.  I had a lead rope in hand, but they tend to be too floppy to make a good loop to throw; one has to be right on top of the target.  I simply could not catch her.  The only option was to swim to shore, run up the steep hill to the barn and retrieve the lariat.  I thought of the two boats sitting in the shed, knowing I did not have the time or strength to get them in the water by myself, nor the skill to operate one (if it would, in fact, start) and simultaneously capture the foal alone.

After scrambling, water-logged, up the steep incline... I was beat, and thinking, "How am I ever going to do this alone?"  I made a couple quick phone calls, seeking prayer cover (successfully) and the remote possibility of physical help (no such luck), caught my breath, retrieved the lariat, and ran back down the hill... back into the lake.

It took some swimming, and a few throws and misses (water-logged lariats apparently don't travel as straight as dry ones).... but finally, the rope encircled her neck.  I swam to where some footing, albeit treacherous, could be obtained, and proceeded to lead/pull/encourage her to shore.  I was exhausted, somewhat jubilant, and relieved.

That relief, however, would be short lived.  She did not *want* to come ashore.  It was too muddy, too scary, too steep.  The water was, somehow, safer.

I could get her out of the water, past the muck, and onto dry land.  She would then proceed to panic, turn tail and head back to the water.  Even with the rope in a snug figure-eight around her body, a configuration which will usually control the most fractious of foals in a safe and effective manner, I simply did not have the strength to push/pull/lead her up the steep incline with her fighting to get back to the "safety" of the water.  We struggled there, at the lakes edge, tripping over fallen logs and sinking in the mud, for some time.  It was like Jacob wrestling the angel.  At this point I was not going to give up, lose the ground I'd gained and lose this foal to the lake... and she was not going to give up, either.  My compassion for that scared baby was overwhelming.  It was not stupidity, nor stubbornness, which made her fight... but fear and inexperience.  Until then, all she'd known in life was a safe, dry stall and the comfort of Momma at her side.  For her it was like the gates of Hell had opened up and surrounded her with every terrible and frightening demon it could unleash.

Enter Creedence.

Stallions can be a pain in the neck.  They are driven by hormones; the urge to gather, breed and protect their harem is their primary focus in life; pity the fool who would get in the way of those instincts.  I have been so fortunate in the fact that Creedence is so tractable and good-minded, and has been since birth; he is, quite honestly, one of the most quiet and well-behaved stallions I (or my farrier) have ever encountered.  But he is still a stallion, still a horse programmed by God to fight-or-flee when necessary... and so what I would do next would be one of the greatest risks I've ever taken with horses in my thirty years of working with them.

Creedence stood by, watching the struggle... somewhat nervous about the chaos taking place in his kingdom. Nearing exhaustion, I realized I had to do whatever it took to get that foal up the hill and away from the water.  Saying a prayer, I put another loop in the lariat, at the opposite end of the foal... and put the loop over his head, and down around his shoulders.  Pointing him uphill... I said, "Okay, boy... I need your help here.  Lets pull this baby up the hill."

What happened next was not perfect, not story-book, not pretty.  I could say that the stud just plodded up the hill like an old plow horse... truth is, I've never once in fifteen years asked him to do such a thing. While he did the job, it was not without some fast-talking (and moving) on my part.  I could say the foal just gave in and trotted up the hill behind her Daddy... um, not so much.  I could say that it was a piece of cake, that I did not risk life and limb and trampling by looping a lariat around a stallion's shoulders and asking him to pull a trashing foal up a 50-degree grade while navigating brush, rocks and trees.... truth is, it was risky, it was scary, it was dangerous for all involved and could have resulted in disaster.

But it didn't. It worked.  Creedence helped me, albeit reluctantly, to get the foal up the hill to her momma and away from the lake.  We were all shaking, exhausted, dripping with lake water and mud and sweat... but we did it.  No one got hurt beyond a few scrapes.  All horses involved have forgiven me, and now placidly graze in the summer sunshine.

Best of all, however... the experience reinforces, yet again, the fact that regardless of the circumstance, this kid is never really on her own.

God is so good.