Tag Archives: Cold Moon Farm

The De-Feralization of Spring

In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me.  I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four:  January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.

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The barn cats took over one of the horse stalls. They are not impressed with winter either.

This is sheer genius.

Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION.  Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:

January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.”  [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”

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Lee is making sure that I am aware that I have neglected to hang her hay bag.

March 1 (HOPE).  “I see the bare earth!  Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it.  It still exists!  I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month.  We are going to get an early start on the season!  It is going to be brilliant!  We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”

March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season. There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt.  Ever.  And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months.  I will never ride again.”

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April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right?  So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.

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The riding arena in late April.

 

April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral.  They scream when I separate them.  They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”

 

Oh spring.  All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior.  In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.

I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’

Insert diabolical laughter now.

I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.

Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:

Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.

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Spring is at least good for some stunning sun rises.  This is Izzy.

We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.

In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.

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Rabbit, the polydactyl/slacker barn cat who did NOT catch the mouse who ate my bridle.

I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work.  Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well.  But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”

To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.

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Lee’s first ride of 2018, sporting her stylish new biothane bridle.

Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics.  In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.

Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.

In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency.  And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.

So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.

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Julia and I try a mounted selfie.  Yes it is May.  Yes I am still wearing a down vest.

Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.

Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness.  De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.

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Rabbit and Smokey are back in their usual “spring spot”.

 

 

Managing your Velociraptors…Or your herd of mares

Mares aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t mind them and without any sort of conscious decision making on my part, I find that I have now acquired a herd of three of them.  Little did I know, however, that establishing harmony in this herd would prove to be so emotionally draining for all involved.

For the past nine months, the Dark Mare (Lee) has contentedly been living here alone at Cold Moon Farm.  She was pretty settled in her routine, hacked out here there and everywhere alone, and admired the goats which live next door.  This all is quite impressive given that at her core, Lee is a pretty anxious and insecure horse who draws a lot of her confidence from the animals around her.

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Lee enjoying grass in the new fencing for the summer pastures.

But last week, I upended her little world.

On Wednesday, I brought home our new friend, Spring Hollow Marquesa.  Marquesa is a 20 year old purebred Morgan who has been a part of the school horse team at the U of New Hampshire for the past eighteen years.  She is still quite full of life—everyone knows that a 20 year old Morgan is merely middle aged—but as far as we can remember, she hadn’t been off the UNH property in nearly fourteen years, and that just to school cross country.  Considering all of this, the fact that I was able to quietly load her on my own and bring her home uneventfully is pretty impressive.  But even so, the move was a big lifestyle change for her, too.

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Spring Hollow Marquesa

Marquesa is a sweet mare, and in my twelve years of teaching off of her, I have never seen her so much as flick an ear back at another horse, never mind exhibit any of the other stereotypical “marish” behaviors that people dislike.   I figured Marquesa would be dominant over Lee, who would be happy once again to have an Overlord to tell her where to stand and what to do all day.

I put them in side by side paddocks to meet and greet.  There were a few quiet squeals but nothing too terribly dramatic.  I left them like this overnight, and then the next day turned them out together for one hour on grass.  They seemed to be pretty content with one another, and were clearly taking comfort in each other’s presence—while still exhibiting all of the behaviors of sorting out dominance. And I started to see a side of Marquesa that I hadn’t before; she was acting a little bit like a bully.

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Meeting officially.

Marquesa’s main body language cue was the snaking of her neck.  Watching her do this motion over and over made my own neck hurt.  She walked circles around Lee, arching her neck and snaking it around and around.  Lee clearly understood this meant to pay attention and smartly trotted off.  I didn’t ride her in those forty-eight hours, but I suspect she easily covered ten or twenty miles being ‘driven off’ by her alpha.

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Out together for the first time.

At feeding time, I stood guard between them.  Again, the first few meals were funny…Marquesa actually tried to get to Lee’s food, in spite of my presence.  I drove her away with voice and body movement, and she reluctantly moved off, snaking her neck the whole time.  What had happened to the sweet mare that I had known for twelve years?

This is where my ‘mare drama’ started to remind me of the movie Jurassic World.  If you haven’t seen it, the lead male character, played by Chris Pratt, is a trainer who works with a pack of the highly intelligent velociraptor species.  If you are a devotee of the franchise, you will know that the “raptors” are clever, communal hunters.  They can open doors and seem to be able to use logic to solve complex problems.  If you are going to be followed by dinosaurs, raptors are not the ideal.  Pratt’s character handles the animals by establishing himself in the ‘alpha’ role; this required a relationship with each individual but in particular the beta raptor, Blue.  This alpha role was reserved for him alone; other humans could not step into his place within the hierarchy (which is played up to great theatrical drama in the movie).

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Marquesa is allowed to be dominant over Lee, but under no circumstances is she going to be allowed to be the alpha mare.

That would be me.

But I wasn’t done disrupting the peace and harmony previously enjoyed at Cold Moon Farm.  Two days after bringing Marquesa home, Annapony also joined the group.  Having previously experienced the challenges of having Anna live in the same paddock as Lee when we went to Tamarack Hill two summers ago, I had already decided that side by side living was going to be preferable this time around.

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A moment of peace after several days of chaos.

So now there were three raptors.  The challenge:  figure out how to manage the group so that horses can be handled and ridden safely with the minimum of risk to person, animal or property.

The first forty eight hours after Anna came home were probably the worst.   All three horses were acting like feral creatures; unhandled and rank, ill behaved, no respect.  I really wondered if it was going to work out.

Right now, the horses spend most of the day in the sacrifice area as they are gradually introduced to grass.  Three horses in two paddocks and one human means that in order to get everyone into the grass fields, someone at some point is going to be alone.  Anna was the logical choice, and she more or less was good about it—except for one day, when at the end of the lead rope she demonstrated the most amazing array of airs above the ground that I have ever seen from her.  I took to wearing my helmet for turn out and turn in.

The first time Anna saw the peaceful goats that live next door…velociraptor snorting and passaging up and down the fence line.  So Lee next to her also became concerned about the goats and starting running around to help her feel better.  The same goats that have been here THE ENTIRE NINE MONTHS SHE HAS LIVED HERE.  Lee’s behavior then irritated Marquesa, who started her neck snaking behavior again. This sort of communal drama played itself out repeatedly.

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Lee lays down only on rare occasions.  She seems to feel safe with this pack! Note the fence board which doesn’t fit the others.  Raptor Repair # 1.

Then came the process of separating the mares for basic care.  You know, those unusual sorts of things we like to do with them—daily grooming, riding, etc.  Oh the screaming and the calling and the nervous pooping.  The two who were left together outside weren’t happy.  The one who was inside being tacked up wasn’t happy.  The drama. The chaos.  I was left truly questioning my judgement in bringing them all together into one place.

With the mild weather, I have been sleeping with the windows open, which meant I could hear every snort or squeal, and every set of trotting hoof beats (no doubt as Marquesa snaked her neck again and set Lee off moving).  I tried only to get up when the noises sounded extreme, which took some discipline.  Still, I slept with the flashlight by my bed, ready to shine it out on their fields in the front of the house at the first sign of significant drama.

Like any good raptor pack, this group has been religiously testing the fence line.  Now, it is on the agenda for the summer to do some replacement of worn boards, run a new fenceline down one side to block off the wet area and finally install some functional electric wire to keep them off the boards.  But these edits have not yet been made.  So far, we have broken two boards and destroyed the bungee gates which were separating the two paddocks, resulting in all three raptors being out together one morning earlier this week.  That ruckus I slept straight through, and in the morning I found them all fairly peacefully existing in the same space.

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The new gate.  Installed courtesy of YouTube and my interns!

But day by day, the raptors seem to be settling into their new routine.  They are almost ready for full day grass turnout, which will give them plenty to do other than test boundaries—and if they do, they will receive a strong electric charge for their efforts.  Each horse can now successfully be taken away from the others for their daily care and exercise, with Lee being the last one to come around (it is as though nine months of pent up frustration over being home alone are all coming out in one week of temper tantrums).  Sweet Marquesa is back to being her cheerful self and is learning how to be an independent trail horse.  And Annapony has really set the bar high with excellent dressage schools and a solo hack two miles down the power line trail and back. Perhaps there is hope for this pack after all.

I wish I could say that I had stayed calm and cool through it all.  In reality, I was a nervous, worried mess and could barely focus for my worry.  If I had had a friend in my situation, I would have said the same things my friends said to me:  “Give it time”  “they will work it out”.  Intellectually, I knew this but emotionally I stressed.

In the meantime, we continue to adjust to our new lifestyle. The thing about mares is that you can’t force them to do what you want.  You must present the question and then give them time to choose to participate.

I think the raptors are choosing to be okay with their new arrangement.