Saturday, August 30, 2008

He Came to Conquer

Friday night, after an agonizingly long wait, we welcomed the newest member of the White Bird family. Ulysses was a school horse in NJ, but he developed arthritis in one knee. Because he was no longer able to do his job, he also lost his home. Ulysses has been on our waiting list for a long time. Thanks to the dedicated and kindhearted people who acted as his safety net, he was kept out of harm's way until we could take him. But getting him here was an ordeal.

For the last several months, I have been corresponding with his caretakers to coordinate his move. Once the decision was made to move him and a date set, we relaxed and looked forward to the big day. Of course, we relaxed. That's because we were on the receiving end and not the ones doing all the work- you know, rushing around to find a good hauler, getting his health certificate, writing up his bio, researching his medical history, etc. Monday was his scheduled arrival date, but even before then, we were aware that there were problems with his transport. According to his haulers, this trip went down in their history as the absolute worst on record.

It began with truck brakes that were making a strange noise. The haulers stopped and had them repaired, but soon discovered that while the brakes were quieter, they were no longer working. Another delay. Once the brakes were repaired, they picked up a horse from another location. There were a few things that might have cued them that all was not well with this horse, but of course twenty-twenty hindsight is wonderful that way. The owner was not present when the horse was loaded, he simply left him in a stall with the paperwork. Ten minutes into the trip, the horse went crazy, ultimately knocking a hole through the roof of the truck (this is not a small truck), kicking out a back window, and jumping over the partition. When the owner was contacted, he told them they were on their own, as he "never wanted to see the &^%$!! again. Nice. It is very likely that the horse had been sedated and that the sedation was wearing off. The haulers were forced to unload the horse at a highway rest stop at one point (a dangerous step of last resort), to get him under control. He was finally delivered to a rescue in WI. If anyone reading this is from that rescue, guys, we feel for you.

Once the Demon-Horse-From-Hell was unloaded, the haulers breathed a bit easier. They proceeded on their way to pick up Ulysses and his traveling companions. It was about that time that their tire blew out, ruining the rim. So we, Ulysses, his caretakers, and the haulers, waited for the delivery of the wheel. By Thursday, we were told they were back on the road. Ulysses was finally picked up Thursday evening, to everyone's huge relief.

Meanwhile, back on the truck, one of the passengers began to panic and was threatening to kick through the front of her stall. The haulers were very grateful to Ulysses for calming her down, something he apparently has a talent for. We were in contact with the haulers by phone throughout Friday (I'd like to point out that we were a long way from the relaxed state we started out in). In the course of our conversations, they told us that we were going to "just love this horse." Originally anticipating his arrival in the morning, we finally saw the headlights in the driveway at 10:30PM. It had been a long day (heck, a long week!) for everyone. The haulers dropped Ulysses off, then literally flew out of here because the filly that he had been babysitting went ballistic the second he walked off the trailer. They accidentally left their check here, too. We sure hope the rest of their trip went better than it started. At that point, they had been on the road for 2 weeks, total.

We unloaded a very tired, achy horse who had just had one long ride (about 27 hours), but who still had plenty of curiosity about his new home. We put him in a nice, thickly bedded stall and the first thing he did was drop down and roll in it. You could almost hear him say "Aaahhhh!!!." He was glad to be out of that truck! And we were equally glad to have him here. We discovered the next day how smart he is. Ulysses has an arthritic knee and we know the trip was hard on him. The next morning as Tom was feeding him, he looked dead at Tom and held up his leg as if to say "This hurts! Can you fix this?"

When we made the decision to take Ulysses, we felt that this horse, who had taught so many to ride, deserved a decent retirement and a new job as "pasture ornament." Because White Bird is based on urgent need, one of the requirements for horses entering the rescue is that they have nowhere else to go. But sometimes, we can't reach them quickly enough. Ulysses is one of the lucky ones because of the people who cared enough to go to bat for him. A big White Bird "thank you" to Jennifer, Kathy and the Board of FOLSS, who worked so hard to keep this horse safe. Well done!

We are finding Ulysses to be lively, sociable and curious about his new home. He genuinely likes people. We have been told that he was once thought to be a little stubborn under saddle. We just cannot believe this- a stubborn Appaloosa? Yes, we are kidding. These horses are famous for having opinions on just about everything and we are sure that Ulysses has them, too. I guess I didn't mention that the Demon horse on the truck was also an Appy. But the haulers were right. Already, we just love this horse. By the way, Griffinsburg, your check's in the mail.

Farewell to Rudy: 1968 - 2008

And the cycle of life on a Rescue farm continues. We love what we do, but rescuing horses is a bittersweet experience. Yesterday evening, we gently escorted Rudy out of this life. This elderly, much loved Appaloosa had lived the majority of his life with his former owners. He was surrendered to us in 2005, when he became totally blind and they were unable to protect him from the obstructions and steep drop-offs on his farm. Otherwise healthy, but with nowhere else to go, all he needed was a safe environment, though it took many trials before we found him companions that wouldn't pick on him (a problem all blind horses have).

Horses adjust to blindness in various ways, some better than others. Rudy learned to depend on his sense of hearing, doing the "blind horse tilt" when he was listening intently to something. He knew everything that was happening on this farm, all the time. His common sense, upbeat nature and confidence in his human caretakers enabled him to thrive, despite his loss of vision.

After the failed matchmaking attempt with Rodney, his best friends became Oreo, the ancient Welsh pony and Chamara, the blind Arabian mare who he liked to scratch over the fence. Two years ago, Rudy developed Cushing's syndrome, but with medication and a controlled diet, he continued to do well. He even managed to tolerate the two "mini monster mares" who also lived in the "Paddock for Blind and Foundered Horses." He enjoyed his regular meals of "soup" (senior feed with lots of water) as befitted a 40 year-old with the usual collection of missing teeth. As with Rodney, he had become a rescue fixture and seemed impervious to the advancing years.

Recently, though, we started to see some unsteadiness that was difficult to pinpoint. We initially chalked it up to "blind horse" movement, combined with an unfamiliar paddock, as we had started to feed him in a small paddock alongside his own to keep the "monsters" from bothering him. But we began to watch him carefully and we soon recognized an emerging and serious neurological problem. Throughout the past three weeks, we had seen a steady deterioration in his condition, and we began to realize that instead of talking about him having the odd "bad day", we were more and more looking for the "good days," and these were getting fewer.

The decision to euthanize is hard for any caretaker to make. At a horse rescue, when so many of our residents are aged, vision-impaired, medically challenged or unsound in other ways, these conditions are the norm. Reaching the conclusion that any or all of them have become too heavy a burden for a horse to carry becomes no easier with familiarity. To take a life, even for the most humane of reasons is still an awesome and humbling duty, and so it was this time.

On a beautiful summer evening, with a belly full of fresh grass from the previous week's rain and a handful of molasses cookies, Rudy took his last walk, accompanied by his friends. Confident in the hands of his people, Rudy was a gentleman to the end; he expected us to do the right thing by him, no more and no less. He was a kind and patient horse who served his family well, and who lived out his remaining years with dignity. He will be sadly missed.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vacation on the Farm

So, I am now an accomplished multi-tasker (ignore my post "Old Dogs", that was the wimp I was before conquering my milking phobia!). I can now milk Bessie with one hand on the bagpipes, whilst reading the Foxfire Book collection, listening to NPR, and discussing bovine digestion with coach Robin on my cellphone. I am Renaissance man - skilled in the old ways of the farm, shouldering my share of our life's travails with my bread-winning wife (not averse to bed making and cooking, I still have trouble with dusting, and washing machines - Hey no one's perfect you know!). There is a wonderful sereneness about pacing one's life to accommodate feeding times for horses, a calf, chickens, birds and dogs, and milking the cows. Pre-electricity, you got up at dawn and went to bed at dusk, and that cycle still exists if you want to follow it. The chickens are ready to go out as soon as it is light, and Merlin crows his welcome to each new day. Equally, they put themselves up as the light goes. The horses are perfectly aware of feeding time, as are the cows when it comes to milking. It is pretty much a 24/7 lifestyle, although we do keep our fingers crossed that nocturnal colics are avoided, and I have tried to make this summer as interesting as the daily routine will allow.

With the long, hot days this summer has been very like the Lot Region in Central France. My ex-Brother-in-Law (long story) has a farmhouse there, in an area not too disimilar from Southside. Mainly rural, agricultural communities with a few small towns. Pleasant people, still living a lifestyle unchanged for decades (well except for electricity, the motor car and television of course). Anyway, working around the farm I have aquired a tan similar to the one I used to get sunning myself by the side of the Dordogne, and most marvellous of all we now have a source of goat's cheese (at its best a greatly underrated cheese over here) from Goats-R-Us that rivals the fromage chevre I used to get at the local market in Bretenoux. Add a bottle or two of George DuBoeuf's Beaujolais Villages and, voila, those farm chores just melt away. Well, there you have it, want to make light work of your working day? Enjoy the sun and turn it into La Grande Vacance with goat's cheese and red wine. You can't beat it.

Of course since I started drafting this post Le Deluge commenced, and the farm is more like Louisana swampland than France's Massif Central. Yesterday we awoke to clouds skimming the trees, high humidity and a temperature in the 70's. Makes one want to throw off one's clothes and embrace the soft showers of cleansing rain. That is until the wind switched to the North and the drops became buckets. Vacation over, as the horses and cows turn the gate areas into a quagmire. Ironically as we looked out on the flooded fields and driveway the radio announced that Chesterfield had put drought restrictions in place! Just to emphasize that we probably need another month of this to rectify the low rainful and drought of the past few years. Oh dear, I'm starting to sound like an Englishman, always talking about the weather and never without my rolled-up umbrella! Just go back to the beginning and stop at "goat's cheese and red wine".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rain, rain, rain!

At long last, and by "long" I mean since the last post I mentioned it in, we have finally gotten a substantial rainfall. Last night, as Tom and I were out bringing in horses, cows and chickens, we noticed the darkening sky. But we've had so many false alarms and storms that went right around us that we weren't convinced we were going to get this one until the first rumble of thunder. When the storm hit, we had horses that didn't want to come in, cows that did but were in the wrong field, and calves that had never seen anything like this. The chickens headed for the safety of their cozy coop, except for the pair of Silkies who just don't seem to have a lot of common sense. They normally sit there and get wet until you fetch them and put them up. Tom and I were drenched and muddy- but didn't mind a moment of it. We had finally, finally gotten some rain.

It occurred to me in a metaphysical sort of insight that rain is liquid life. There is no life anywhere in the world without water (unless you count viruses and spores and they only half count) and it is the universal solvent- the medium through which biochemical reactions occur. Water is the yardstick by which we measure the potential for life on other planets, like ice on Mars. Rivers and tributaries have been the cradles of civilization providing both sustenance and transport. Water (H2O) is a deceptively simple little molecule- two tiny hydrogen atoms ionically bonded to an oxygen atom Mother Ship. If you blew the whole structure up to balloon size and put a string on it, it would look just like a Micky Mouse head without the smile. But from that humble beginning, water's unique properties make it the ebb and flow of every living thing.

Walking back to the house in dark, I was surrounded by the excited trilling of a million toads. As I neared the small herb garden by the house, I was hit by the
sudden, pungent aroma of rosemary and oregano. Even the plants know, at a certain level, that something life-giving and miraculous is happening.

There are probably no people more in tune with the weather than those who live on farms. Okay, maybe sailors, so we'll give them equal billing. But we depend on the rain to replenish our crops and water our animals (and ourselves). We take it for granted until it isn't there. But when it finally arrives after a long absence, it's as if everything takes a deep breath, sighs and renews.

Having said all that, it's hurricane season. If the barns get flooded out, we'll be the first to complain about it.

Droplet photo by

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Memoriam: Rodney Dangerfield 1962 - 2008

Yesterday afternoon we lost our oldest inhabitant, Rodney Dangerfield. At 46 years old, it had seemed that he would be with us forever, but of course that could not be. This quiet, unassuming old Morgan horse came to us five years ago after his owner died and the family was going to sell him, two other horses and a mule to a dealer, and an uncertain future. Luckily for them a neighbor interceded, literally walking them off the truck. But Rodney went downhill quickly. Kept in a small paddock and fed hay and grain, he had so few teeth that he couldn’t chew what he was being fed. Another neighbor that we had met on-line on an elder horse group asked if we could take him, and the thin, but sprightly old horse arrived in June of 2003.

With a change in diet, and attention to the few teeth he had left, Rodney thrived. His gentle, affectionate (if sometimes distant) personality endeared him to visitors and volunteers alike, and the decision to retire him was made in August 2004, when he began showing signs of Cushing’s syndrome. That, his lack of teeth and his advanced age, suggested that adopting him to a new home would not be in his best long-term interests. Rodney was to live out the remainder of his life with his White Bird friends and family as a sanctuary horse.

Whilst he was never a “horse’s horse” (he was too far down the pecking order to be entirely comfortable in the herd) he did like having other horses around. But his tendency to be universally picked on earned him the name Rodney Dangerfield - like his namesake "he got no respect". He would tend to go off on his own, but it was never very far from the group. A curmudgeon in every sense of the word, Rodney loved human attention- on his terms, tossing his head impatiently if you went on longer than he felt was necessary. Hardly a vain horse (no Arab there!) he took an unusual delight in a new blanket he was given one winter. Wearing it like Superman’s cloak he paraded it in front of the other horses, daring them to pick on him. He was also highly intelligent, and if anyone could find a way through a latch or a bolt, it was Rodney. He was the ringleader of several notorious break-ins to the hay storage area at Stillwater.

We tried on a number of occasions to find him a special friend, but with little success. In one of our efforts at matchmaking, Rodney spent one day with Folly and Fallon when they were foals, in an attempt to bring out the nurturer in him. Fat chance. We even tried him and Rudy together, thinking that, as a blind horse, Rudy wouldn’t notice any posturing and that Rodney was so submissive he wouldn’t challenge Rudy. Wrong! As soon as Rodney discovered that Rudy wouldn’t push back, he reverted back to boss hoss. Even the lowliest on the pecking order has his day! The closest friend he ever had was Star, an amiable old Arab who never gave up trying to win his friendship, and who learned to stay just far enough away to remain in Rodney’s comfort zone.

Rodney was quite happy in the small paddocks at Stillwater Farm and when we moved to Southside, we were worried that he might not adapt to the new farm. We were also concerned about the 4-hour journey, itself. Well, of course, Rodney excelled himself, coming through the journey unscathed, and he settled into the grassy, open fields of his new home with obvious delight. We are sure that this was horse Heaven for him, with his roomy 12 x 24 foot stall, cushy sawdust bedding and his huge tubs of special recipe senior mush. Did we mention his enormous appetite?

Rodney had a long and good life, living like royalty as the oldest horse any of us had ever seen. He was amazingly free of the arthritis that you’d expect in a horse of that age, though his face had gone nearly white and he had lost most of his hearing. At most stages of his life, he appeared to have been loved and cared for and, in coming to White Bird, he got the retirement he deserved. His last official job was to educate visitors (astounded at his age) about senior horses. He departed this life in the open air of his favorite field, succumbing to cardiac arrest. He will be buried alongside the little copse of trees that was his shelter from any unwanted attention. His spirit has crossed the rainbow bridge and roams free from the cares and worries of this world.

We will miss you Rodney and there will be an empty space in the paddock for a long time to come.