Saturday, March 26, 2011


As my kids’ riding program started picking up a few years back, I found I needed another gentle horse to add to the lesson roster.  And my husband needed a reliable mount for the occasional trail rides we took together.  We’d tried a few other horses in the early years on the farm – one “borrowed” from a friend, one that turned out to have too much arthritis for regular use, and of course the infamous Honey (see two blog entries ago) who luckily was never tried in the kids’ program – but none of these had been quite the right fit.  So one spring I set out to find the perfect addition to our small herd.

I once again turned to my two faithful online friends, Craig’s List and, as well as local horse contacts and friends.  Turns out what I was looking for was what everyone wanted:  a gentle, pretty, smooth-riding gelding between 7 and 12 years of age with no major health issues.  Oh, and did I mention I was on a fairly limited budget?  I drove many miles that spring, looked at quite a few horses and even brought several of them back to the farm on a trial basis.  But it appeared this was going to be harder than I had expected.  Either the horse was too flighty and inexperienced, didn’t get along with the other horses, had training issues I wasn’t prepared for or interested in fixing, or had some kind of physical concern.  I guess if you had this ideal horse, you either were happy with it and kept it, or you knew you could ask a lot of money for it which meant it was out of my price range.

The months ticked by and I was only weeks away from my first horse camp of the season with only three lesson horses in my line-up – one of whom was on loan from a friend.  I could manage with three if no one got sick or lame, but I was anxious about not having a fourth horse in case someone had a problem or my friend decided she needed her horse back for her own use.  I had one potential new horse at the farm on trial with the vet scheduled to come out for a vet check the next day, but I’d already decided this horse wasn’t going to work for my program because of inadequate training.  I was scheduled to ride another potential horse the next morning and then I spotted a new ad. 

The ad was for a pretty sorrel Quarter Horse gelding name Jose and it had just been listed.  He was 10 years old, had been ridden by kids in Little Britches Rodeo, and was in my price range (just barely).  I made arrangements to go see him the next morning and planned to do something I never did – take my horse trailer with me.  I always figure if I like the horse I can talk options with the seller and come back for him if we work things out.  It somehow seemed presumptuous and like bad luck to bring the trailer on the first look.  But this time I knew I had the vet scheduled already and if this was the right horse, he’d need to be looked at anyhow.  I rode him and liked him, so I asked the owner if I could take him for the vet check and then bring him back if he didn’t work out.  She agreed saying, “but trust me, you won’t be bringing him back”.

Well, she was right.  He passed the vet check, the hubby check and the Belle check (a requirement we had put in place when another horse we had considered kicked our older mare, Belle somewhat violently and I had promised my daughter that all future horses would have to be nice to her or they couldn’t stay).  And so I finally had my 4th horse with only two weeks to go until camp.  I normally get to know a horse for a month or more before putting him in the kids program, but I worked with him for those two weeks, knew he had a strong background with kids, and felt comfortable putting him right to work.  I did have to change his name, however, as Jose just didn’t sound like a horse to me and didn’t roll off my tongue easily.  I decided to stick with a Spanish word and arrived at Amigo as the perfect name.

Amigo was a gem the whole first week of camp, and one of the campers fell in love with him, riding him every day.  The day before camp ended, she practiced all she had learned for the end-of-camp show and was excited to get to demonstrate for her parents how well she could ride her new friend.  But the afternoon before the show, Amigo threw a shoe and though we were able to get the hoof trimmed a bit, he was sore as heck.  The next day, I didn’t have the heart to tell the little girl he couldn’t be ridden after all the preparation she’d done, so I gave Amigo a double dose of bute (the equivalent of horse aspirin) and hoped for the best.  When it came time for the young camper to ride him in the show, he gingerly made his way around the arena, obviously still somewhat uncomfortable, but doing everything he was asked with a can-do kind of attitude.  Then and there, I knew I’d made a good purchase.

And the icing on the cake?  Turns out Amigo is a distant cousin to Belle!

Life Lesson:  Know What You Want and Don’t Settle for Less

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barn Cats

My passion for horses goes back to early childhood, but my first and most enduring animal love was and still is the cat.   Some families are dog families but mine was a cat family.  Throughout my childhood we always had at least one feline in our home and to this day, every member of my immediate family has one or more cats sharing their lives.  I have five.

Now if five cats seems a little excessive to you and makes you wonder if I’m one of those crazy cat ladies, put your concerns to rest.  Considering we live on 5 acres, that’s only an average of one cat per acre!  And only three of our purring pals live inside the house with us (each adopted from the local humane society) while the other two are barn cats.  Well, sort of.  Put it this way, the two outdoor cats don’t actually live in the house with us, and they do catch mice in my barn, but they aren’t what you might think of as traditional barn cats.  In fact, they spend much of their day sprawled on a comfy chair in my heated mudroom and are more social and affectionate than your average Golden Retriever.  So let me tell you how this came to be.

Several summers ago, the mouse population in my barn reached an alarming number.  They were chewing through the Rubbermaid bins where we kept grain, building nests in bales of hay and helping themselves to the snacks that kids in my summer horse camps brought with them and stored in lunch bags on shelves in the barn.  I had just built a tack room addition onto the barn which could be used as a safe place to keep a barn cat in at night so it wouldn’t become a coyote meal, and I convinced my husband that if I got a barn cat, it would indeed stay outdoors.  Of course, it would need company, so we would need to get two. 

I located a litter of kittens in need of homes on a nearby farm, and one beautiful early June day, surprised my daughters with an outing to go pick out two of them to bring back to the farm.  I let each girl pick out and name a kitten and soon we were headed home with a pair of tabby brothers, one silver and one yellow, they named Dusty and Rusty.  We set them up with a cozy bed, food and water in the tack room and lavished them with love and affection.  A few days after their arrival, we began our first of four summer horse camps, and so the kittens were handled and adored by kids right from the get go.  As a result, they are two of the friendliest felines ever known.  In fact, when I took them to get neutered around 4 months of age, the vet commented that she had never seen such relaxed and easy going cats and that they had actually purred through the entire procedure!

As Dusty and Rusty grew, they became wonderful hunters and my mouse population declined significantly.  When the fall nights started getting chillier, we added a heating pad to their bed to keep them warm at night, and our process of rounding them up at dusk and closing them in the tack room for the night seemed to be working well.  All was going according to plan until one late fall day when we noticed that Dusty’s left eye didn’t look quite right.  That pupil seemed more dilated than the other and the whole eye seemed larger and almost bulging.  A trip to the vet’s office confirmed that the pressure was high in that eye and he was diagnosed with glaucoma – rare in cats and even more unusual in a young kitten.  We were referred to an animal eye specialist (can you say Ca-ching$?) and it was determined that he was blind in that eye and probably in a fair amount of pain.  We started him on a regimen of pills and eye drops to see if we could control the pressure, but after a couple of weeks with little or no change, we were advised that we should have the eye removed.

My first reaction to this news was one of alarm at the price tag.  When it was all said and done, this “free” barn cat was going to cost well over $1,000.  But I felt we had made a commitment to the kitty just as we had to all our animals to be their caretakers and providers, so I gulped and swallowed this bitter pill.  My next concern was that my daughter, Molly, whose kitten he was, would be upset by the prospect of her beloved Dusty soon having only one eye.  She was fairly upset and worried that he would look weird and that it would be hard for him to adjust, but I assured her that he’d adapt and that we’d all get used to it. 

The day of the operation in early December just happened to be the coldest day of the year up to that point, registering only about 5 degrees.  Dusty sailed through the procedure in his usual, easy-going manner, but when he got back to the farm for his convalescence, I just couldn’t imagine sticking him out if the frigid tack room while he was in such a state of vulnerability.  It was agreed that he would spend a couple of days recovering in our heated mudroom, and of course his brother Rusty would have to keep him company.

And so it was that my “barn” cats became “mudroom” cats.  Once they discovered the joy of being in a heated room attached to our house, where they could actually see us in the adjoining kitchen, they never spent another night in the tack room.  I’m happy to say that Dusty recovered fully and has had absolutely no trouble adapting to his one-eyed condition.  His brother, who has become quite the rolly polly fat cat, loves him just the same, and Molly even thinks he looks more distinctive and unique than before.  And they both enjoy and live up to their new nicknames, Winky and Twinky.

Life Lesson:  Animals and Kids are More Resilient Than You Might Expect

Saturday, March 12, 2011


A few years ago, our older mare, Belle, colicked one afternoon late in November.  For those unfamiliar with the term, colic is a common ailment that horses are susceptible to and it can be deadly.  There are different types and reasons for colic, but basically it’s some kind of obstruction or upset in the gut and horses often roll to try to get rid of the pain, which can cause all kinds of internal problems.  At any rate, it’s not uncommon but when it happens to your horse, it can be pretty scary.  Luckily, with some meds and vet attention she bounced back quickly.   But over the next year or so, she colicked two more times, which got me sort of worried.   She’s an older girl and I wondered if this could be the beginning of the end for her.  She’s a really special mare with a great disposition, and I got to thinking it would be nice to have a daughter or cousin of hers that could carry on her legacy when the day came that she moved on.

So, I set out to search for a relative of hers using the horse sale search site,  If you think you might like to buy a horse some day, this is a great place to look, but if you don’t want to get hooked, I’d stay away if I were you.  It can be addicting.   Anyhow, Belle’s great grandpa was a fairly famous Quarter Horse named Impressive, and using Dreamhorse I was able to search for horses with his bloodline in their lineage.  So, I gave it a try.  And lo and behold, I found a distant cousin for sale just 30 minutes away!  A pretty little palomino mare named Honey.

It was February when I found Honey which isn’t the smartest time of year to buy a horse, but because of this, prices are usually pretty good then.  She was priced attractively and the owner sounded fairly desperate to unload her as she had just bought another horse.  So, I drove out to see her on a very cold, snowy day.  When I arrived at the facility, I found it to be a run down place with small, dirty, uninviting runs for the horses.  Honey was in a little semi-sheltered area with a few other horses and she looked a mess.  She was small and scraggly, her coat was dull, and her mane was choppy and in knots.  The gal that owned her told me she’d gotten her from an auction along with a foal, and that she wanted the foal but not Honey.  She’d ridden her a few times and said she didn’t seem to know much and got a little worked up at times.  She’d recently thrown a girl that came to look at her when the girl’s foot banged against the rail while riding her in the small arena.  OK, my head should have taken over at this point, but my heart was louder and stronger and I felt I needed to get this little mare out of this less-than-ideal setting.  I rode her briefly and thought she seemed sweet enough and had a smooth jog, so I decided to buy her.

Over the next few months, I worked at getting some weight on Honey and doing some basic training in my arena.  She seemed willing and responsive, and most of the time was real calm and sweet.  And she and Belle got along well, so all seemed good.  I started taking her on easy trail rides nearby and she went along pretty nicely.  Until one day when I was riding with a friend and a jogger came running toward us from up ahead.  For whatever reason, Honey got worried and started to back down the embankment by the trail and then she started bucking.  Now I’ve got a pretty good seat and have been bucked around a bit in the past, but this happened so suddenly and swiftly, I was off before I knew it.  I landed on my wrist resulting in a hairline fracture, but other than that I was o.k.

I decided I’d better get some help with training Honey and enlisted the assistance of a local Natural Horsemanship trainer.  We spent a month or so together doing ground work and were just getting to the point where I was going to get on and try riding her again.  That weekend, my daughter and I decided to go to a trail riding clinic – she with Belle and I was planning to take my big, reliable gelding, Chummie.  But at the last minute, I thought it would be fun to make it an “all girls” outing, and took Honey instead.  Do you notice the emotion involved in making that decision?

Well, let’s just say, that turned out to be a bad idea.  About half way through the clinic, Honey got spooked and took off to bucking again.  Not just a little hop, but a full out bucking bronco rodeo routine.  It felt like it lasted forever (I’m sure it was only about 30 seconds) but it was clear she had no intention of stopping or slowing down until I was off her back.  The minute I landed on my knees, I knew I would be selling her.  The first time could have been a fluke, but this round made it clear this mare had some ghosts in her past and was downright dangerous. 

I sent her off to a trainer for the summer to work out as many of the issues as possible, feeling it would be hard to sell her in this condition.  Once the trainer deemed her safe enough, I went back to my old favorite, Dreamhorse, and listed her for sale.  I was 100% upfront and honest about my experience with her in the listing as well as when people came to see her, but because she was now a pretty little thing after putting on some weight and muscle, it didn’t take long for her to be sold.  The new owner claimed to have good experience with “troubled horses” and I wished her the best.  As the trailer drove away and Honey headed off to her new life, I was both hopeful for her success with her new trainer and relieved that it wasn’t my burden any more. 

And by the way, Belle hasn’t colicked since.

Life Lesson:  Listen to your Heart, but don’t ignore your Head

Monday, March 7, 2011

First Kids

Babies are born every second of every day all around the world.  But when it’s your baby, especially if it’s the first one, it seems like the most original, unique, personal and miraculous experience on earth.  That’s how it was for me when my first child was born 15 years ago this month, and that’s how it was when her first child was born.  OK, my 15 year old doesn’t actually have a first child yet (thank goodness), but she does have a first kid.  The goat kind, you know.

When we brought Skittles the goat home through a raging blizzard in January of 2008 (see The Great Goat Adventure – Jan. 29th blog entry), she was newly pregnant with her first kids.  We had waited a long time to bring her home after it took three tries for her to conceive, but now the real waiting began.  January and February tend to drag for me anyhow with the cold, limited daylight hours but that year really progressed slowly.  We were all so excited about having new spring arrivals, and May felt like such a long way off.

When the warm weather finally arrived and Skittles’ due date of May 6th got closer and closer, we decided we should have a plan to make sure everyone who wanted to attend the birth had a chance to.  My mother had recently moved to the area from Ohio and she for sure wanted to be there.  Megan, whose goat it was, wanted to be there no matter what she had to miss.  And May is about the busiest month for school kids with all the end-of-school-year activities, so it seemed inevitable that she’d have to miss something to witness the birth.  My other daughter, Molly wanted to be there, too, but my husband figured he’d see the new babies soon enough, so no need to be “on call”.  The plan was that if Skittles began showing signs of being in labor during the school day, I would call my mom and she would swing by the girls’ schools and pick them up on her way to the farm.  Both school offices were alerted to this possibility and we agreed that a message of “kids on the way” texted to Megan at school would mean go to the office and prepare to get picked up.

You’ve heard the saying, a watched pot never boils?  Well, that’s what it felt like those first few days of May.  Every hour or two I was out in the barnyard checking on Skittles, and although she was big and round and her udder was starting to form, she pretty much looked and acted like her usual self.  Until the morning of May 5th.  That morning, she was real quiet and seemed to be in her own little world.  She didn’t eat a lot and wasn't interacting with her buddy, Springer much.  She just stood by the fence and seemed to be lost in deep thought.  I had a bunch of little errands planned for that day but something told me I should stay close to home, so I put those things on hold.  It was a beautiful spring day and it was easy to keep myself busy with outdoor chores so I could keep an eye on Skittles.  I checked in with my mom mid-morning to let her know she should be on stand-by.

Then around noon, Skittles started pawing the ground, laying down and then getting back up again.  I knew from the reading I’d done about goat labor that this was a sign that things were about to begin.  I moved her into the stall we had cleaned out as her birthing suite and when she started making low groaning noises and something that sounded like a cross between a click and a snore, I called my mom, texted Megan and put the whole plan into motion.  It sure was exciting when 20 minutes later, everyone was home and excited to watch the birth of our first farm babies.

Well, you know how labor can go.  Sometimes it’s a whole lot of hurry up and wait.  So, wait we did as Skittles got up, laid down, pawed a little and then stopped.  A few minutes later she’d groan a little, shift positions and then stop.  The she’d stand up, turn around, lie down and stop.  After about an hour of this, we decided to get comfortable and got some folding chairs, magazines, and snacks and settled in for the long haul.  Molly lost interest and went to play on the trampoline while the rest of us hung out and tried to guess how long it would be.  At this point we wondered if Megan would make it to her band concert scheduled for that evening, which would be a drag to miss, but we had our priorities.

Around 4:00, my goat mentor-friend, Melanie showed up to check in on things, but after waiting and watching with us for an hour or so, she gave up and went home, promising to come back when the babies graced us with their presence.  No sooner had she left, when Skittles started moaning really loud, and pushing and straining, and within minutes, out came a beautiful, perfectly formed tiny brown goat kid.  I quickly checked for the gender and said, “oh darn, it’s a boy”.  Now I know that’s not what new grandmas are supposed to say, but in the dairy goat world, the girls rein supreme.  He was so adorable, though, that we quickly let our brief disappointment go as we helped his mama clean him up and dry him off.   Just as he was starting to try out his wobbly little legs, Skittles crouched down, moaned and pushed again, and before we knew it, there was a little black and white baby.  Again the gender check and this time, cause for celebration – a darling little doeling! 

Megan named the kids Snickers and Milky Way, in keeping with the candy theme, and as she snuggled with the babies and showered Skittles with affection and appreciation, she really did look like a kid in a candy store.  Oh, and she even made it to her band concert, although a little late.

Life Lesson:  New Life is Always Miraculous