Thursday, April 24, 2014

You Live Where?

When I say that I live in a barn, the reaction is always the same.  There is a look of surprise followed by a few moments of silence in which I imagine the person is thinking my living quarters look something like this:

 or this:

Source: John Dominis. Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images

I assure them that I have an actual (albeit small) apartment across the aisle from my horse and that the living situation couldn’t be more ideal.   The barn owner is a decorator so the two-level apartment is beautifully furnished.  Visitors always say that, once inside the apartment, you would never know you were in a barn. Everyone who has seen it has been incredibly impressed by how livable such a small space can be.  (I’m now a huge proponent of the small-living movement). I don’t have a true kitchen but since I don’t (can’t) cook, that doesn’t bother me at all.  

That’s not to say that it didn’t take some getting used to sharing living space with ten horses.  For the first few weeks, I had no idea what constituted normal nighttime horse noises.  There was the usual snorting and stomping but was the sound of a hoof striking the wall repeatedly just boredom or the sign of a horse cast in a stall?  I think I got up to check on the horses at least three times a night during the first two weeks. 

Even more than a year later, several times a month I’ll hear a strange noise and go out to check the horses.  It’s 2 am, I turn on the lights and all of the horses are looking very innocent, peacefully chewing their hay or sleeping.  I firmly believe that they’ve made a game out of trying to get me to walk the barn aisle in the middle of the night.

“Okay, Bronze, it’s your turn.  What are you going to do tonight to wake her up?”

“I thought I’d squeal like a little school girl repeatedly as if I’m being attacked.”

“That should work.  She’s so gullible.” 

“Deja, your assignment for next week is to cough loudly a number of times at about 1 am.  Really make it sound like you are choking.  That one always scares her.”

This is not to say that there haven’t been times when I was glad I checked on nighttime noises.  For example, several times someone forgot to attach both hooks on McTavish’s stall guard.  Despite being a fairly broad Haflinger, McTavish can be a real Houdini.  He got out and started wandering the aisle.  Since he has front shoes, I could hear his very definitive “clip-clop” on the cement floor.  

After nearly a year of having  just a stall chain,  Deja (who is just about 14 hands) discovered she could shimmy under it.  FREEDOM!  Because they are on strict diets, Deja and Queenie do not have access to as much hay as the other horses in the barn, so freedom meant that Deja could find the nearest hay pile.  

Two horses, Diva and Super Girl like to push their hay out into the aisle to eat (for dining while watching all the barn activity, I suppose).  Deja only had to wander down to one of their stalls to find ample hay in the aisle.  Deja escaped twice before I heard a noise in the middle of the night and opened my door to find the little fugitive calmly enjoying Super Girl’s buffet.  

Queenie at my barn-side door

It didn’t take me long to figure out that kicking and banging are very frequent occurrences at all hours of the day and night for a variety of reasons.  McTavish, for example, discovered that the bottom of his stall door was not secured to the broken slide mechanism.  He would “ask” for attention by pushing the door so it swung out about a foot and then slammed back against the stall.  He was particularly fond of doing it during the evening if I was preparing Queenie’s medicine or cleaning her stall.  

WHAM! Followed by the humble, “Can I have a treat, please?” look.    

And, I admit that I was guilty of responding since McTavish has the sweetest “woe is me” face ever.  We finally tied the stall door so that he’s unable to bang it quite so hard but he still will push it to create a little “notice me” noise.  

McTavish, the cutest (and only) Haflinger in the barn
For several months, we had an almost 18-hand Oldenburg in the front stall recuperating from surgery.  His temperament and behavior reminded me of a lab puppy—big and very goofy.  When he first arrived, he was confused by the two (of our four) minis in the stall behind him. He could hear but not see them and his reaction was—you guessed it—kicking the stall walls incessantly.  With his size and force, the whole barn would shake in the middle of the night.  

Then there are the times when a horse is upset about a change in the normal routine.  Super Girl LOVED Tex, the handsome Palomino in the next stall.  About six months after I moved into the apartment, Tex’s owners decided to move him to a farm closer to their new house.   Tex’s stall became home for two very young minis that were rescued from a farm owner who planned to send them to auction.  Super Girl was NOT happy about the change.  For a week, she kicked the back of her stall loudly and often to protest having those impish minis take the place of her beloved Tex. 

 Super Girl showing her displeasure

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m definitely not.  As I’ve said in earlier blogs, I came back to horses after a 43-year absence.  I was starting at the very bottom of the learning curve.  Living on the farm, and in the barn in particular, has been a crash course in horse care.   I’m often stunned to think about how much knowledge I have gained, but I have so, so very much more to learn. I look forward to continuing my “living classroom” experiences.  

One of my favorite things about living in the barn apartment is having minis in my front yard.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Riding in the Footsteps of History

I have a wish list of trail rides that includes the 2-mile trail at Woodlawn Manor, an 18th century brick manor house surrounded by meadows, woodland trails, pond & streams.  Woodlawn is only about 10 miles from the farm so it was an easy trip on a warm spring afternoon. 
Francis Scott Key was a frequent visitor to Woodlawn Manor

Woodlawn's stone barn is thought to have been a stop on The Underground Railroad.   The 2-mile trail commemorates the involvement of Montgomery County residents in the Underground Railroad and celebrates the Quaker heritage and traditions of Sandy Spring. 

As we started on the trail, we met a group of students on a simulated Underground Railroad experience hike.   A volunteer “conductor” was teaching the students about the various techniques that Freedom Seekers used to elude trackers, find food, and navigate their way North to freedom.  

I overheard the “conductor” tell the hikers to look for food, water and shelter.  As we rode, I thought about the incredible courage of the slaves traveling through the woods at night trying to elude potential captors. 

When we reached the hollow tree, I could imagine a young mother and her small child crouched in fear as they traveled North to avoid being sold and separated.  We rode along a stream that was undoubtedly important as a source of water for weary travelers.  
The hollow tree provided shelter for weary travelers

After our long and tiresome winter, it was wonderful to ride leisurely through the woods and see the buds beginning to appear on the bushes and tiny wildflowers in bloom.  Passing a pond, we heard the shrill song of the spring peepers.  
Spring peeper
The Underground Railroad Experience Trail

And typical of our weather this year, as I’m writing this the temperature has dropped below freezing and it's snowing and sleeting again.  Nature has a really cruel sense of humor.     

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stop, Drop and Roll

I decided to join Saiph and Carol, a new boarder with a lovely quarter horse, for the 3-mile loop in the woods behind the barn.  It’s what we consider our “safe” route—no big hills, streams or other trail challenges.  
Carol took this photo of Saiph and I riding the back loop.

Queenie was moving along nicely except she would throw her head every so often.  As we got to the halfway point in the ride, Queenie began trying to scratch her face on trees.  I rode up beside Carol and asked her to check Queenie’s face to see if a fly was annoying her.  Carol assured me that nothing was evident.  

Queenie resembled this horse while she was scratching her head on the trees.
Since we were heading home, I decided to wait to check Queenie’s bridle, fly bonnet, etc.  When we were within sight of the barn, Queenie began circling around a spot in the field.  I assumed there was some particularly tasty grass there but urged her to continue following the other horses.  

Suddenly Queenie’s knees seemed to buckle and my first thought was, “heart attack!”  But within a second, I realized that she wanted to roll.  Luckily, she went down in what felt like slow motion so I was able to roll off.  I laid there for a split second staring up at the sky.  I must have yelled or said something because Saiph and Carol turned around quickly.

I would have preferred that Queenie rolled like this horse--without her saddle on!

All I could do was stand by and watch as Queenie joyfully rolled against my saddle.  She was rubbing her face on the ground as well and managed to remove the bridle and shift the fly bonnet off her ears.  When Queenie finally stood, she calmly started grazing.  I imagined her congratulating herself and saying, “Yep, I got rid of the itch and that pesky woman on my back too!”

I grabbed the bridle and Carol jumped off and started fixing the saddle.  When Queenie’s tack was back in order, Carol gave me a boost into the saddle and we finished our ride, laughing all the way back to the barn about Queenie’s unexpected decision to practice a fire safety technique—stop, drop and roll!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Just Saying "No" to Those Muddy Trails

In a rainy season such as we’ve had, the "North Tract" of the Patuxent Research Refuge has some of the best trails to ride.  The North Tract encompasses over 8,000 acres that were formerly a military training area.   Because the trails were originally built for tanks, they are wide, flat and rarely become muddy. 

The land was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Patuxent Research Refuge in 1991.  The North Tract now is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is part of America’s only wildlife refuge devoted to research.

Saiph and I joined 20 other TROT (Trail Riders of Today) riders on a beautiful spring morning to ride the North Tract trails.  I opted to join the walk-only group while Saiph went with the walk/trot/canter group.  It was fun to compare our experiences and the people we met.

My group of five riders was led by Trish, who in her mid-80s, still mounts up regularly to ride near her home and with TROT.   I’ve ridden with Trish and her tiny, dead-calm Arabian before but on this ride, Trish was on an Icelandic.  At 38 years old, her Arabian is enjoying retirement.  
I hope to be riding well into my 80s like Trish
There were a number of Icelandic horses on the ride and Saiph and I decided these amazing little horses are perfect for an older rider.  They are gaited and even at a canter, the rider barely moves.  

 Icelandic horses have a gait called the TÖLT - a four-beat lateral gait in which there is always at least one foot on the gound.  Because there is no moment of suspension, the Tolt is very smooth and comfortable for the rider. It can be performed at any speed from a slow trot to a gallop. 


The Tolt is an excellent gait for trail-riding.

Like Trish, I hope to still be riding in my 80s so I’ll be putting an Icelandic horse on my “must list” 20+ years from now.

The wide trails and comfortable pace of our 6-mile ride made chatting with my fellow riders very easy.  

One of the first questions is always, “how long have you had your horse and where did you get him/her?”  Charlene said, “Chief had been a cart horse in Baltimore.”  Amazing!  Chief and Queenie were among the 19 horses seized by the Humane Society from Baltimore’s Arabbers. The two horses went to different rescue groups, however.  I adopted Queenie from Days End Farm Horse Rescue and Charlene got Chief from another rescue group.  

Chief was also a Baltimore cart horse

My fellow riders

We spent much of the ride comparing our horses’ initial post-adoption behavior and the training issues we’ve encountered.  We both agreed that having horses that were exposed to so many sights and sounds during their time pulling carts in Baltimore resulted in pretty unflappable mounts. 

The walk group returned to the trailers first but the other groups arrived a few minutes later.   We unsaddled the horses and gave them beet pulp and hay.  After 2.5 hours in the saddle, I was as hungry as the horses.  Saiph and I joined the other riders for a potluck lunch.

Horses, ideal weather, good food, and nice people—the perfect combination for an enjoyable day.