Monday, January 24, 2011

What I Love About Winter - A List

1. Friday night is family night... especially in winter.
After a busy week filled with work, school, tae kwon do classes, church youth group activities and which sometimes includes overnight business trips for Dad, Friday night is our night to come back together as a family and just... be.  We make a pizza, watch movies, make popcorn, watch more movies, laugh and snuggle by the fire and sometimes the card players play cards.  I am not a card player, but just listening to the banter while the rest of my family is embroiled in a heated game of Crazy 8's brings me great joy.

2. Snow days.
Working from home means when Mother Nature shuts down the school, I have no need to scramble in an effort to find child-care or venture out in horrible conditions.  So, we sleep in.  Drink hot cocoa.  Watch the snow fall.  Make a pot of soup.  And enjoy every minute of it.

3. Homemade soup.
And speaking of making a pot of soup...  well, I love making homemade soup or stew.  Venison or beef stew, koephla soup, chicken soup, chili, broccoli cheese, chicken tortilla, minestrone.  There is nothing quite so therapeutic as chopping the vegetables and simmering stock, nor so comforting as a bowl of hot, homemade goodness after spending time outdoors in frigid temperatures.  Yes, I do make soup the rest of the year... but in winter it restores my soul.

4. Learning
Winter is the season when I have a bit more time to take classes, read, and try new things.   If there is a project I need to tackle, winter is when I have the long evenings to read, research, contemplate, and create.  This year one of my new projects is creative journaling, using paint and decoupage and embellishments of all sorts.  My dining room is now a studio and my astonished family intrigued by the sudden burst of creativity.

5. Rest.
Dark winter afternoons often beg for a nap.  And sometimes, I indulge them.  Having endured years of chronic sleep deprivation when my daughters were younger (and even mono when the youngest was a baby), I've now rediscovered the bliss that is sleep.  While I feel guilty taking a nap on a beautiful summer's day (and usually have little desire for one), in winter its a different story altogether.  And... a rested mom is a happy mom. :)

6. Dreaming... and planning.
Winter is when I do the most dreaming in regard to where I want to go in regard to my farm, family and business.  Its when I plan the next year's farm improvements, the vegetable and flower gardens, and which mares will be bred to which stallions in the spring.   I ponder whether to raise more bottle calves, or if we should build raised beds for the vegetables.  I dream about the foals growing in their momma's bellies and prepare for their births.  This is also the time of year when I catch up on the organizing, paperwork and correspondence which falls by the wayside during the busy summer months when we are haying, fixing fences, mowing, gardening, barn-cleaning and, sometimes, fishing.

7. Cozy things.
Warm shearling boots.  The wool scarf my mother brought back from Ireland for me.  Micro-fleece neck warmers.  Duo-fold long-johns.  The jeans quilt my husband had a friend make for me out of our "farming jeans" for Christmas when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter.  Yes, I am thrilled when the weather warms and I can pack those items away for the next season... but the winter makes me eternally grateful for their presence in my life.

8. School.
My family is profoundly, abundantly blessed by the fact our children attend an amazing public school with a wonderfully kind, attentive and creative staff.  The academics are top-notch, the school concerts and activities always enjoyable, and I take great pleasure in watching my girls learn and grow by leaps and bounds in that nurturing environment.

9. Reading.
Yes, I mentioned it earlier, but winter reading is in a category all its own.  In summer, I trend toward novels which can be read in fits and starts on the front porch while resting between chores.  Wintertime brings with it deeper, more thoughtful reading, the sort which commands more time and attention.  It broadens my horizons, yet clarifies my perspective.

10. Springtime.
Yes, I realize this is a post listing all I love about winter... but hear me out.

On the coldest, most brutal of days, when soup and warm boots and a good book don't work, I rest in the knowledge that spring will, indeed, arrive.  I never know exactly when; it could show up anytime between March and (Heaven forbid) June.  But that's precisely my point.  It is something we can look forward to and depend upon.  I know that when the weather breaks and the snow disappears, I will hit the ground running and slow down very little until freeze-up.  Knowing the hard work and long hours of springtime are just around the corner, I take pleasure in mindfully creating a pot of soup, in devouring a new book or taking the time to learn a new skill, in sinking into my sofa under a warm quilt and taking a nap.  Its about enjoying the moment and the life I've purposefully created.

I cannot live for summertime alone, at least not here in Minnesota, lest  I spend many depressed months lamenting bad weather and boredom (believe me when I tell you I've gone that route and it wasn't pretty) .  Life is what you make it, every day, every single season of the year.

And right now, I'm making soup.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Afternoon Delight

Relating with small children, other than those I've actually birthed, is not one of my natural talents.

While I've done plenty of outside-the-box, adventurous and even (dare I say) courageous things in my life, a room full of Kindergarteners strikes fear into my soul. The very thought of a troop of Brownie Scouts and their mothers gathered for a meeting gives me heart palpitations.

Needless to say, I've never been among the first to volunteer for "classroom mom" duty.

Having said that, I love my daughters (and being their mom), love to read to them and love books. (My husband will verify the last statement with a copy of the credit card bill, the Amazon and Barnes & Noble purchases highlighted in pink).  So, when the opportunity arose to help out in my youngest daughter's Kindergarten classroom for a few hours on a Friday afternoon by reading stories for their "Winter Literature Day", I felt it would be a good opportunity to do my part, spend a bit of special time with my daughter, and face my personal demons (or one of them, anyway).

Yes, I was nervous.  Seriously, all I had to do was read a couple books to some little kids and help with a craft project, but it felt like I was heading for a court appearance or something.  Thank goodness for the "reading" part; it was my crutch, shield and security blanket.  I did not know ahead of time that I would also be helping with crafts, which is good considering crafts are only slightly less terrifying to me than other peoples' small children.

Another mom went first... it didn't help my confidence any to learn she was a trained teacher and had even substituted in that very classroom before.  She donned the microphone (since when do they use pyrotechnics... er, I mean electronics... to that degree in Kindergarten?) and read her book, turning the pages and showing them to the class like an elementary school version of Vanna White.

When it was my turn, I shunned the microphone; anyone who knows me, knows I don't need one in a room housing fewer than 50 people.  Stepping to the front of the room,  I picked up Jan Brett's Daisy Comes Home, and related the tale of a little hen in China.

So, two counts were in my favor... reading, and the fact I was reading about a chicken.

I know chickens.

Boldly, I made the leap of faith that chickens in China behave very much like American chickens.

I'm not sure if the children are used to ad-libbers reading to them while also making comments about geography, chicken flock dynamics, or fishermen who claim "finders keepers"; they were, however, either extraordinarily well trained or really enjoyed the story.  They sat quietly and attentively while I read to them and responded with great enthusiasm to my questions and comments.  I had great fun with it, and totally enjoyed the experience.

So much, in fact, that I wasn't even all that scared when it came to making crafts with them (though I did offer up a prayer of thanks that my craft station used adhesive-backed peel-and-stick foam shapes as the only ingredient).  The children were divided into four groups and each group sat at a different table, heard a story, and then did a craft related to the story.

The lovely book at "my" table was The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen, about a little old lady who misses her grown-up children and begins to knit mittens for the children she sees gathering every day at the bus stop near her home.  I would read the story, we would decorate foam cut-outs of mittens with the peel-and-stick foam shapes, the children would rotate to the next table and I would do it all over again with the next group.  I have to say it was great fun to spend a little time with each child in my daughter's class, putting faces to the names she mentions every day and getting a taste of each unique personality.

The best, best, very best part of the whole experience, however?

The smile on my little girl's face when I showed up... and the whole time I was there.  

It didn't matter to her how well I read the book, my page-turning skills or whether I am all thumbs with glue and Popsicle sticks.  All that mattered to her was that  her Mommy was there.  She was radiant, and overjoyed, and proud to have her mom visit her classroom.  Just for her.

I wish I had a picture of her smile that day, though really don't need one as I doubt I'll ever forget it.

And besides... I'll see it again, very soon, the next time I volunteer to read to her class.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter Horse Care, The Frostfire Way

People often ask about my winter horse-care routine. Since we spent some time last week digging out from back-to-back blizzards, filling stock tanks and moving the horses out of the barn and back into their outdoor digs, the subject was on my mind and I thought I'd share some of my ideas in regard to it.

Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes in what is present day Kazakhstan.  The place is not known for its tropical climate... quite the contrary, the winters there are frigid and somewhat similar to those here in Minnesota.  While the ancestors of the horses I raise trace back to the deserts of the Middle East, and when we think "desert" what comes to mind is "heat"... the nights there get very, very cold, and its a brutal climate in its own right.

Horses evolved, and were selectively bred, not only for their ability to look pretty and tote humans from points A to B... but to survive, and even thrive, in less-than-ideal conditions.  It is my opinion that keeping them swathed in blankets and in a heated barn is usually unnecessary (if not detrimental for some).  Obviously if one has a sick or elderly horse which requires that level of care, or even has high hopes of showing a slick show-pony at an early spring event, the barn and blankets are wonderful help in that regard.  But for a breeding or pleasure horse, I've found that a much more simple routine yields healthy horses with sound minds who thrive in all but the nastiest of weather during our Minnesota winters.

Care, and not fine stables, makes a good horse.                        - Danish Proverb 

During the winter months I keep my horses in small groups of three to five animals, and put those groups together giving consideration to age, nutritional requirements and temperament.  They are provided with good-quality hay, fresh water and salt, free-choice; the young stock are fed small amounts of concentrate as necessary to promote adequate growth and condition.   Each horse has a stall in the barn, but unless the weather is particularly nasty or we are awaiting a visit from our friendly farrier, they normally live, and are happiest, outdoors.  They do have shelter from the wind, which is important.  Horses' coats get quite thick in winter and are good insulation, provided they can get out of the wind and are not soaked through with rain.

Having been at this more years now than I care to admit, I've experimented with just about every winter horse-care routine out there.  Stabling with daily turn-out, stabling and blanketing with turnout, blanketing with full-time turnout... you get the idea.  (I've also used every bedding system out there... deep litter, straw, sunflower hulls, pelleted bedding... but that's a post for another day.)  My experience (and I'm just sharing my experience and opinion, not judging anyone else's system or making any recommendations!) has been that my horses are healthier, happier, and make it to springtime in much better shape when allowed to live in a herd situation, with hay available at all times (the digestion of roughage is what keeps horses warm) and free access to fresh water and salt... along with fresh air.

No matter how nice the barn, how immaculately its kept or what bedding system used, the air quality in a barn simply cannot match that of the outdoors.  I've experienced far fewer vet bills with horses living outdoors; they seem to avoid the respiratory ailments associated with stall-dwelling, as well as other injuries and mishaps such as stable vices and getting cast in their stalls.  There is also the added bonus of reduced bedding costs and far less time spent mucking stalls.

In Minnesota, water is the most difficult to provide in the winter, but it can (and must) be made available.  A few years ago I purchased a heavy-duty hose reel on wheels and it has been a God-send.  It allows me to keep the hoses in the garage, which stays above freezing on all but the most frigid of days.  When it does get cold enough that the hoses are in danger of freezing up in the garage, I roll the hose reel into the foyer to warm up before taking it out to fill the stock tanks.  Not a practice which would earn me "Homemaker of the Year", but it works... and, well, this is a farm and the well-being of the animals is the priority.  By next winter, I plan to have my tack/feed room insulated and heated in order to store the hoses out there and thus avoid dragging them to the house; what a joy that will be!  But this works, for now... and actually quite well.

Each little band of horses has a large water tank with an electric de-icer which keeps the water from freezing. I've found the drain-plug de-icers work the best, as the animals cannot flip the heating element out of the tank and the cord stays out of harm's way.  One day I will own automatic, heated waterers and my days of dragging hoses and filling tanks will be a thing of the past, but for now I just consider it part of my fitness routine!

Its good to have helpers!
A caveat... if the weather truly is bad and the horses look uncomfortable, I do stable them and am happy to do so.  One of my favorite simple pleasures is tucking all the horses into the snug barn and feeding them while Ol' Man Winter kicks it up outside.  They enjoy the reprieve as well, though by the time the storm has passed they all are more than ready to get back outdoors and into the fresh air and sunshine.

Horses can't talk,  but they can speak if you listen. 

I believe the most important aspect of horse care, not just in winter but year-round, is observation.  One must know your horses, their personalities, idiosyncrasies and habits... that way, when one is a bit "off" you may intervene quickly to discern and remedy the problem.  Of course, this observation requires presence, and so just kicking the horses outdoors does not absolve one from the responsibility of checking on them regularly.

Second to observation would be innovation.  While the magazines and trade shows would have us believe that all horses must live in some sort of climate-controlled, horse-proofed and hazard-free Nirvana, that's not practical nor is it reality for most of us.  I would garner that even the most successful among horsemen started their careers in fairly simple and humble surroundings.... those giant indoor arenas and climate-controlled barns (and the employees required to clean and maintain them) came later, after they'd established themselves.

So, how does one provide good care without breaking the bank (or your back)?  You get creative. It does not take a big, expensive barn to keep a horse out of the bitter wind... a simple, homemade three-sided shed will suffice.  Barring that, a windbreak can be constructed from big straw or hay bales, or even discarded pallets.  Same goes for providing water; even if your horses are a mile from an open water source or a spigot, water can be hauled in (and, many years ago, I spent a winter doing just that.  Not the ideal situation, but it worked.).  I don't recommend any of these methods over having a barn with running water, and one should give thought to how adequate winter care will be provided before ever bringing a horse home.  On occasion, however, situations and circumstances change (loss of a job, a poorly-timed relocation, etc.), and a committed horse owner will do whatever it takes to provide the basics of necessary care.  If you own horses long enough, there will be times when innovation will make the all the difference in providing good care.

That, and a positive attitude.

When its fifteen below zero and the brass coupler snaps off the hose after you finally got the whole works thawed out and pulled into place... or the tractor won't start and you must resort to pitching (lots and lots of) hay over the fence by hand... or the tank heater mysteriously got unplugged and the brand-new water tank froze so solid it burst a seam... those are the days which test your attitude, your innovation... and your dedication. And, quite frankly, make you question your own good sense.  Its important to remember, however, that spring always comes.The good news is that as long as the basics are provided and regular, attentive care given, horses actually do quite well living outdoors in winter.  

Even in Minnesota.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.  ~Albert Camus

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

I cannot believe it's now the year 2011... last night as my husband and I were watching the Gin Blossoms and Rick Springfield rock Times Square before the big ball dropped, we were asking each other, "Can you believe its 2011??? Can you believe we've been married twenty years???"

Back when we were dating... like, twenty-one or so years ago (in a time our daughters call the "olden days")... the year 2000 seemed far in the future, and now we are eleven years beyond even that.  In looking back, however, I would say while the time passed quickly and there were plenty of obstacles and heartaches and lots of hard work along the way, it was time well spent.  Given the fact that one cannot go back and change anything, its probably a good perspective to have.  Regrets are worthless, and dwelling on them a waste of precious time.

And so, I choose to live in this moment and to look ahead.

At this very moment in my home, we've just finished up a board game.  Now my older daughter is upstairs practicing tae kwon do with her dad, while the younger is feeding our dogs (after compassionately encouraging the elderly, arthritic one down the stairs).  Nothing particularly special or noteworthy about the moment, outside the fact that everyone is home.  Everyone is safe, and healthy, and content. There is no drama, no crises, no pressing deadlines or weighty concerns.  That, in and of itself, fills me with a deep sense of gratitude.  My heart overflows with it, and to be honest, my eyes overflow a little as well.  I don't think one could know that same depth of gratitude without first experiencing the obstacles and heartache and losses... and so I am grateful for those as well.  Wouldn't want to experience them again, but am far richer because of them.

Now, as we begin a new year, I look to the future with gratitude for the opportunities and blessings to come, as well as great excitement and expectation.  2010 blessed me abundantly with some wonderful new mentors and friends, among them Heather O'Sullivan Canney and Amy Lundberg.  They both have opened up great big new worlds for me, have set the bar really high, and I have a whole lot of work to do as a result... both inside (working on me) and out (growing my business).  The thing is, I can't wait!  They are both phenomenally gifted women and I am so grateful to have the chance to work with each of them.

The older I get, it seems the less I know, but the more I love to learn and grow.  Now that my daughters are both in school and my days a bit more my own, it feels like a great gift to have the opportunity to focus more on my self-care, personal growth and business while they are in school, while still being an attentive and present mother to them when they are at home.  2011 will be a wonderful year, and I look forward to sharing it with you here in my Frostfire Journal.

Thank you so much for making the time to read about my thoughts and adventures here in this little blog... I appreciate it, very much, and hope you have a truly healthy, happy, prosperous and joyful 2011.  Happy New Year!