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Category Archives: Ginny’s Ark

Llama liason


      Each day, I go down to the barn to visit Pulani, who has been confined in a double stall for six weeks now. I enter the stall. We stare at each other. She pins her ears back. I stick my tongue out at her. She lifts her head as high as she can, her nose straight up in the air so she will be taller than her opponent. In her mind, this establishes her superiority. It’s  as aggressive as she gets and all it does it make her look silly, so I don’t’ take offense. My scars have long since healed from the wrestling match of catching her, but there is a lingering distrust on both of our parts, so we proceed carefully.
     Thus begins the dance of taming a llama. I walk slowly around the room and she sidesteps away. I corner her and pat her back while she nervously keeps her face away. This contact is more than we’ve had for the entire past year together, so I revel in the feel of her thick wool and the muscle under her coat. Her skin shivers under my palm and her eyes dart around nervously. I let my hand slide down to her belly, hoping to feel something exciting, but this usually makes her kick so I pull away in respect to her anxious state.
   For ten days I’ve been going into her stall to grab her halter, clip a lead rope to it, then wind the rope around a slat in the fence so I can pull her face up close to confine movement. I proceed to pry her mouth open with a syringe to squirt medicine down her throat, and wait until she swallows it. The sour paste was given to me by the vet to get her to produce milk for her baby. Of course, when he demonstrated giving it to her, Pulani had been given a tranquilizer, so it looked easy. The first time I tried on my own, it took me half an hour to catch her and another half an hour to figure out a creative solution to getting the paste into her mouth. Each attempt became easier, partly because I became more coordinated with the system, and partly because she started to accept that I wouldn’t leave until she ate the stuff. At long last, I’ve finished giving her the entire prescription. 
     Pulani’s due date to have her baby came and went over a month ago. I kept careful records of the breeding and had arranged my entire summer around the event, so I was more than a little annoyed as the days dragged on and there was no baby. I stared at her in the stall, thinking she didn’t even look pregnant. Perhaps the mating didn’t take. It’s unheard of to keep a male and female llama in a pasture and not have the female get pregnant, but leave it to Pulani to be so ornery that she’d turn away her mate. 
   In the meantime, I had pressing commitments looming that I had scheduled under the assumption I’d free after July 10th. I had to go with Neva to Girl Scout Camp for four days, and I’d paid for a four day trip to Vegas with some nice bells and whistles for Mark’s birthday. Each time, I left Denver to care for the animals with a signed check for the vet and a DVD on llama birthing “just in case”.
    She would look at me with total disbelief and say, “Are you kidding me? You wouldn’t dare leave me here if she was really going to go into labor!”
      “It’s just in case. She wouldn’t dare have that baby without me. Trust me.” But a part of me thought my belligerent llama was just waiting for me to go to have her baby. But the trips came and went and still, no baby llama.
         Since Pulani’s entire purpose was to be a companion to the late Dali, and she didn’t seem to be pregnant, I decided to sell her.
       I wrote an add for the classifieds and stuck it on the visor of my car. It hovered over my head for days, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to drop it off at the paper. In the back of my mind I thought she still might be pregnant, and it would be irresponsible to sell a pregnant llama without disclosure. Besides which, my only hope of retaining a piece of Dali was that baby, so I couldn’t send Pulani away unless I was sure. I hadn’t scheduled a vet checkup for my horses for a year, so I called him out to give everyone their shots and to give Pulani a pregnancy check.
         Sure enough, the vet said she was pregnant and would have the baby within two weeks. “Llama’s don’t foal on cue like horses. They have their babies when they are good and ready”, he said.  That was two weeks ago. 
     So now, I’m driving down to the barn about four times a day. Waiting. Waiting.
    I say, “Have that baby, dammit.”
    She sticks her nose in the air as if to say, “Make me.”
    A former student, now 30, who recently opened her own small studio in Florida, came up to visit for a few days to pick my brain about dance. I warned her that she was welcome to come, but I’d make her join me in the llama delivery if the time came.
    She just laughed and said, “After dancing with you and Mark for a dozen years, nothing you’d make me do would come as a shock. Just promise you won’t blog about me if I make a fool of myself.”
     “I never would do such a thing!” I said, with a devious grin making me look like The Grinch when he told Cindy Loo Hoo that he was only going to fix her christmas tree before stuffing it up the chimney. 
    We have another ex-student from Jill’s generation now living in Atlanta (Jamie), so we called her to come over and visit too. We barbequed and had a wine tasting party and slugged down my cordials, having a grand old time swapping old stories and new, laughing, screaming and teasing eachother so loudly we shook the roof. But no baby. I really thought my having provided an audience would have inspired Pulani, but she still held out, much to everyone’s disappointment. I had my guests primed and ready for some unique entertainment. Ah well. 
    Pulani is starting to act bored, hormonal and lonely in that barn. I can tell she is glad to see me no matter how standoffish she acts. She’s started moaning whenever she sees me and she follows me as I do my chores, pacing inside and out to watch me work. I think she is at long last ready to get this ordeal over so she can return to her pasture. She had finially realized I am the one with the decision making power, so she isn’t nearly as snobbish as she was a month ago.
    For example, I’ve been trying for a month to get her to take a cookie out of my hand, but she always refuses, so I drop the treat into her bin. I keep my eyes downcast so I appear less of a threat, and keep my head low (this is how I trained Dali to take my treats) but to no avail. I also started holding her grain in a scoop over the fence, making her take the first few bites from the end of my arm before pouring it into her bin. All the nearness must have paid off. Last week, she tentatively took a piece of carrot from my fingers, and then suddenly, she got over any fear of being fed by hand. Now, she leans her head over the fence for cookies or carrots every time she sees me. She can be downright aggressive for attention.
    So it seems we’re coming to terms with each other, developing an odd relationship built on respect, curiosity and cookies.  She looks cumbersome and uncomfortable despite the fans I’ve set up in the barn to keep her cool. Thanks to the medicine, she should be producing milk so I am hopeful that she will nurse this baby (you may recall my mentioning that she turned away her last baby. It had to be bottle fed, which is what made the disillusioned breeder sell her in the end).    
     It has
been work tending to a llama each day, making my summer revolve around her pregnancy, but considering I may have to go into the stall to help the birthing process, I understand that the 6 week delay has been for the best. And I trust this will be one more unique experience to color my world, so it will be worth the trouble. Thanks to Pulani’s confinement and my determination to make her more civil, things will probably proceed with less grief for us both. We’ve developed a repore that will make it difficult for me to sell her now. I‘m not surprised. Life has a way of railroading you, dragging you by your emotions towards directions you never imagined you’d go .


    So, that is why I’ve been quiet this month. Llama responsibilities eating up my blog time. I’ve been swamped with work – writing, writing, writing…. I’ve been preparing a dossier to apply for grants and fellowships and working to develop teaching opportunities. Time to get into gear and do something to make me grow, beyond animal experiments. There is so much to share about life here – so much to reflect upon, yet so few hours in a day to put it all on paper.  


     God willing, I’ll post pictures of a healthy baby llama soon.   Perhaps that will untangle my fingers and inspire me to blog again too. I can’t imagine resisting sharing that story, and while Jill wouldn’t want anything written to make her look foolish, I clearly have no problem doing that to myself.

So, until another day . . . 
       
       
    

Spit

The bear came back. He had tampered with my bunny cages again. I got pissed.
So, I called the Georgia game warden and we made arrangements for him to come out to give me some advice.
Whatever is attacking my rabbits tends to defecate at the base of the cages, so this time, I saved the poop.


The warden came. His name was Joe. I said, “Joe, look at my poop. What do you think?”
Joe spit. Joe happens to spit every third sentence, which I thought was weird until I described it to Mark and he pointed out that the man probably had chew in his mouth (Ah yes. That makes sense. I’m not used to government officials with a wad of tobacco in their mouths, but then, I’m sure he’s not used to farmers calling him in who have classical music blaring on the loud speaker either.)


Joe considered all the evidence and took a look at my cage damage. He kicked my poop. Then he announced that yes, I have a bear. Nothing else could reach so high and bend the steel supports of my cages or leave me such a nice, big gift poop. I pointed out how the bear throws the heavy cage covers half way around the barnyard. He said they do that because it amuses them. He also said it was odd that a bear would be visiting my rabbits this time of year, because the forest has so much to eat now that the blackberries and such are in season. But the fact that he appears every ten days or so means he had staked out a large territory and he’s made of habit of his rounds. Joe suggested I stop leaving food in my rabbit cages, and then maybe the bear will take me off his grocery stops. This means more work for me and inconvenience for the rabbits, which seems sort of unfair. Joe did say that if I tried to discourage the bear and he continued to visit, they could come set a trap to have him removed, but they rather that be a last resort. The traps are dangerous to dogs and kids, and they’re a lot of trouble. He said that deer season will come around soon, and then we can shoot the bear if we want. Gee, thanks for nothing, Joe.



I said, “What if I start feeding the bear, just leave him a bucket of food so he won’t bother my animals.”
Joe about choked on his tobacco and said that would be a really bad idea.
 
I showed him my llama skull, now sitting in bleach in a bucket in my barn (which everyone in my family thinks is totally gross. Mark says, “What are you planning to do with it, Dear.” I told him I was going to use it to decorate a Christmas wreath for the barn or something.” (I was kidding) What can I say, I just felt compelled to save it. Actually, it is a fascinating thing – it looks like a dinosaur skull because the shape of the skull is so unlike a familiar cow head on the desert. The jaws are long and thin and filled with teeth like a pterodactyl. If only I still had a preschool, I’d donate it to the science collection where they had butterflies and beetles and bird nests to study. Probably scar my students for life, but still, it would definitely be something other preschools didn’t have to offer. Oops… I’m off the subject. Pardon me.)


I asked about mountain lions. Joe laughed, spit, and said that they had reports of that often, but they have yet to document a case. People call them in to see tracks, and they take a plaster, but it always ends up a big dog or something. He said we have no mountain lions – but we do have a few bobcats. They won’t eat anything bigger than a chicken. I told him the rumor down at the feed store about the person whose horse was killed and “split down the middle”. He said, “Trust me, it isn’t a mountain cat.”
Well, that is good news, I guess.
 
Joe said that a bear didn’t kill my llama. A bear would have buried the remains to come eat later. They won’t attack anything that big unless desperate, and with all the goodies I have around here, that just wouldn’t be the case. The fact that the skeleton was intact meant Dali was probably taken down my coyotes. They would gnaw at the flanks but leave the rest for other creatures to polish it off, just as they often do with deer. Had I discovered him sooner, I might have had evidence to support that theory. Glad I didn’t.


Joe suggested we try to shoot the coyotes, because they are not indigenous to the area and there is no law against killing these marauders. But, even if we were crack shots (and we aren’t) we won’t ever get rid of these pests, because they’ll repopulate faster than you can blink. Gee, Thanks for nothing, Joe.   


He said my dead chickens are not a result of the coyotes or the bear. That is probably a possum or dog or fox or something else or most likely a combination of the above.  So, catching the bear or shooting the coyotes still wouldn’t solve my problems. Apparently, nature is a resourceful enemy and she is going to keep coming at me over and over again, despite my best efforts to thwart her.


Joe told me to erect an electric fence around my bee hives for safety. (Then he spit) I might want to put one around my rabbit cages too. (He spit again)  I pointed out that I have no electrical in these areas, and he suggested I purchase solar units. (More spit) This is getting complicated. Thanks for nothing Joe.


I will have to think on all this. I am getting pretty aggravated and I don’t know how much more my tender heart can take.


I’m mad enough to spit – not mad enough to take up chewing tobacco, but still, mad enough to spit. I’m either going to have to buy a gun and learn to shoot it, or start raising goldfish. Neither option appeals to me. Actually, spitting doesn’t appeal to me much either. Some days I really ask myself what the heck I’m doing here.

Llama Trauma

I feel like I’ve been in a motorcycle accident. Actually, it’s just a bit of llama trauma. I’ll explain.


Summer is in full swing now so I really had to get my momma llama sheered before her baby comes (July 13). Wool is so hot that if you don’t sheer a llama before the worst of summer, they can actually expire from heat stroke. It’s only been 9 months since my animals were sheered last, because last year I couldn’t find anyone to do the job until fall. Usually, sheering is done in the spring, but this year I waited in hopes that Dali would magically show up to get this haircut too. Once I found that animal pelt in my driveway,  I decided to go ahead and call Don, the fellow who owns a llama farm in Hiawassee. I hated to ask him to drive 2 hours to sheer one llama, but he is the only person I know who has the skills to do it properly, and I knew he’d help me if I asked.  At her advanced state of pregnancy, Pulani must certainly be suffering so it was time to get her on a correct schedule. Don agreed and we scheduled an appointment. This meant I had to catch my belligerent female llama and have her secure in the barn before he arrived.


When faced with this kind of trial, I turn to my son. He is at all times, a congenial and thoughtful guy, and as I expected, he agreed to help me catch Pulani.


Now, this llama of mine is a very evasive, impersonal bitch who often strokes my ire because she’s bossy with my beloved Dali. She takes his food and spits at him, giving my dear donkey a hard time too. I’ve always had a tender fondness for Dali, but Pulani has had a bad attitude from the beginning. I only keep her as company for Dali and for bringing new llama’s into the world. In all fairness, I haven’t bothered with her for a full year, so I’m guilty of indulging her bad habits which makes her even more difficult.  I’ve talked about selling her all winter, but haven’t done so because I thought I should wait for the baby to be born first.


For an hour and a half, Kent and I chase this llama. We have a system where we both hold a long rope, stretched out between us as we approach the llama. We try to corner her so she has to run into the rope, then we quickly change sides so the rope winds around her neck, enabling us to move in and correctly loop the lead around her neck, or even better, get a halter on. We had her once, but she went wild, flinging her head in circles to unwind the rope. She is smart. Mean, but smart.


Finally, we had to admit that we couldn’t catch her alone. She is nothing like Dali, who acts a bit standoffish like most llamas, but is gentle enough to catch. Once Pulani understood our intentions to catch her, she was determined to evade us at all costs. She charged from one end of the pasture to the other, jumping the creek and hiding in the ribbon of trees along the perimeter of the pasture.  We followed her around, but it was soon obvious we needed a third party to chase her into the rope. So I called Mark and talked him into coming home from work at a reasonable hour to help. As we were leaving the pasture, Kent convinced me we should try one more time, so we wouldn’t have to  admit defeat. We sneaked into the woods after her and stood a few feet away, talking about our strategy, when all of a sudden, Kent starts screaming and flailing about like a mad man. He runs out into the open. For a moment, I thought he was kidding around, but then I saw that he was covered from head to toe with wasps.


I chase him down and brush him off, but he was still yelling in a panic and in pain. He had stepped on an underground hive and it only took a moment for the wasps to attack. I was standing only two feet next to him, but not a single insect bothered me. Weird how fickle nature can be.


Kent was stung 15 times, on the face, legs and arms. I felt horrible. Pulani watched from the woods, smug as always, probably thinking we got just what we deserved. Damn llama.


We went to the house and took care of his stings. A few hours later, Mark came home and we had to go back out to catch that llama again, and Kent, good sport that he is, was willing to give it another go. Now there were three of us (and Neva trying to help) but still, we couldn’t get close enough to Pulani to catch her. I made a pact with Kent he wouldn’t have to go into the woods, so every time the llama walked into the trees to avoid us, I had to charge in making noise to chase her back out. I figured I might run into the wasps myself, but what choice did I have? It is, after all, my llama.
Pulani would see me, run out and jump the creak to go to the opposite side of the pasture. I’d walk another five minutes, fuming, to get near her again.


As we were jumping across the creak to get to the other side of the pasture, Mark said, “What’s that horrible smell?” He looked down and jumped back. “Um. . Honey, I think I just found Dali . . . or what is left of him. Stay back, you don’t want to see this.”


Of course, I ran over. I needed to see whatever it was. Closure, don’t ya know.


There in the creek, in my very own pasture (which means Dali was killed inside by something big and mean and very near all of my beloved animals) was a llama skull, ribcage and residual fur. It was horrible.


For some reason, this made me even madder at Pulani. I was thinking  “Why couldn’t it have been you the attacker ate instead of the good, sweet llama.” Of course this wasn’t fair at all, and the fact was, Pulani’s preservation instincts and sour disposition are probably why she survived.
We chased her for another hour, my heart heavy because all I could think about was Dali’s last moments – if he was frightened or if he suffered. And my anger towards Pulani was escalating, because she really didn’t have to be so difficult. We were trying to catch her for her own good, so she wouldn’t suffer in the heat and to assure she would not be out there like bait for the llama-eater’s second course.  


A car came sputtering down our road. It was the neighbor’s kid with a friend. He was trying to learn to drive a stick shift. They stopped and apologized for driving on our land, explaining they didn’t know how to turn around yet. I said, “No problem. Hey, want to help me catch this llama?” 


Sixteen year olds just can’t say no to a question like that, so the boys joined us. Now we had 5 people after that llama. We caught her a few times, but at three hundred pounds and in a sour mood, she pulled the rope out of everyone’s hands every time. I was getting so pissed I was ready to shoot her. Really.


“Without Dali, who needs her anyway,” I grumbled. We’d been out there three hours now and were no closer to catching her than when we started. My attitude had gotten as bad as hers.


Finally, I said, “Give me that rope. I’m getting her this time, and unlike you wimps, I WON’T LET GO UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!”


And we caught her, and I didn’t let go.


Unfortunately, this meant she dragged me about 15 feet over the rocks, like I was the stunt man in some kind of Western Movie. In the end, I had to let go. The skin had been scraped off of the entire right side of my body. My right breast looked like something out of a horror movie, (not that I flashed it to others, even though I wished I could for sympathy and so I’d get extra credit for sustaining injuries in the line of duty). I also had a bruise the size of an open hand on my right hip. My knuckles were bleeding and swelling and there was a scrape on my chin and under my eye. Ouch.


The boys couldn’t help but laugh nervously at this woman who cusses at llamas, is willing to get dragged in the dirt to prove she is master of the beast, and who had just gone around bragging about how she wouldn’t let go, then paid for her folly.


I rolled over and sat in the dirt, wanting to cry – not because I was hurt (though I was) but because I was so mad. I brushed myself off, dabbed at the blood and said, “Well, I didn’t let go.”
“And you expect us to admire you for that? Look at you,” Mark said. “You should have let go.”
What was he thinking? The man has been married to me long enough to know that letting go is not an option.


It’s not like sitting there feeling sorry for myself was going to get the job done, so I got up and went after her again. We kept chasing Pulani until she was got so hot and tired, a horrible gurgling came out of her throat, like a growl. I figured she might just drop down dead before us, but that was OK with me. I was ready to pull a Blazing Saddles move and walk up to her and punch her lights out anyway.


In the end, she let us catch her because she didn’t have it in her to run anymore. Neither did we, but she didn’t know that. She did reserve enough energy to fight us all the way to the barn. And don’t ya know that the moment she was inside, she behaved sweet as pie, peering over the gate to beg for food. Damn llama.


Damn me. I actually gave it to her.


The next day, Don came to sheer her. I told him what it took to catch her and showed him my bruised knuckles. She behaved like your average lovely llama, just to make me look like some kind of liar, I guess.


He said, “You have to give her a break. She is pregnant, you know.”
Of course I know. That is the only thing that kept me from shooting her or punching her in the nose.


I told him about the sad fate of Dali, and he said, “Well, you know what they say. If you’re going to raise live stock, you’re also going to be raising dead stock too.” (Grin)


Then he told me about the two llama calves they lost this year and how all twenty of his guineas had been picked off. So, it isn’t just me.


At 58, retired and now building up new business running a llama farm, he has a jovial sense of humor. I appreciate his down to earth view of life and the conversations we have as he runs the electric sheers over the llama and hands me huge hunks of wool to put in a trash bag (because I will send this to the carding mill with angora fur to turn it into magnificent roving).  We talked about the huge adjustments that come with living in a small town, raising animals, and living in a closer relationship with the land when you were formerly a city dweller. He said, “It isn’t for everyone, but it sure feeds my soul. I’ll take a day out in the sun with a llama over a day in an office any time.”


He inspected my garden, which this year is just twenty rubber storage boxes used as makeshift containers. I have zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers already making a debut.


He said, “My garden has been doing poorly because all the trees around the area have grown so big the last few years, they now block the sun. Maybe I’ll try what you’re doing so I can pick up the plants and chase the sun when I need to.” 


Considering he is always helping me with out with my questions about llamas, I liked that I had something to contribute in return.


He told me a story about how some customers of his, a gay couple, who always stand over him with scissors while he is sheering their llamas. Every time he pauses, they fuss and clip off any stray hairs to make sure their llama’s hairdo is perfect. He laughed and said, “It’s so silly. Even you don’t do that.”


Even me? What’s that supposed to mean? I had to ask, “What do you mean, even I don’t do that. I’m not fussy, am I?”


He leaned against the llama’s back and grinned and said,  “No, but are you aware that the music you always play out here isn’t your usual barn music?”
I guess he has noticed I always have classical music blasting. I laughed and said, “My daughter does kid me about that. Just the other day she said, “Only my mom would be out in a barn, shoveling horse shit to classical music.”


Don said, “Funny, but the music doesn’t seem to fit you. I’d take you as a country music type. Don’t you like country music?”


I explained that I like it fine, and listen to it plenty since Mark has it on all the time, but it isn’t my first choice. My first choice is always Jazz and blues. My second choice for a radio station is NPR because I love the interviews. Then, I’ll go for a classical station. The problem is, I don’t get many stations on my little boom box at the barn. I have a choice of country, a Christian station, and a very highbrow classical station. So, considering the options, you always hear Beethoven and Brahms at my barn. If I ever remember to bring CD’s down, I’ll be blasting jazz and vintage soulful blues.


“You’re not what you seem,” Don said, packing up his llama gear.
Up here, few people do have an inkling of who I am. But sometimes I think the people from my last life were just as clueless. I had to choke back a smile, wonderng what he would think if he ever spied on me when I was alone at the barn. Dances with Wolves has nothing on me. I have Dancing with Donkey down pat. No joke.
 
Anyway, now my female llama is secure in the barn, cool at last, thanks to her new hair cut. I go in the stall everyday (limping because of my bruised hip – still covered with scabs) to desensitize her with handling – partly because I know it is important I do this to teach her to behave better, but also because I know it annoys her and she doesn’t deserves too cushy a set up after yesterday.


I guess you could say we are tolerating each other, but I must admit, some good friendships begin that way. I’ll decide her fate when the baby is born. If she turns the calf away and refuses to nurse it (as she did with her last offspring), she’ll find herself on the auction block before she blinks and I’ll be left with one baby llama to bottle feed. If she is a good mother and does her job, she has six months reprieve and we’ll see how I feel about her later. But between you and me, I’m guessing my llama days are numbered.


I still have to consider the safety issue. Today, when I told the people at the feed store what happened they said, “That was your llama missing in the paper? Sorry. It might be a mountain lion. We have those around here. Just last week one of our customers lost her horse to a lion. She found it split open down the back, filleted.”


Did you have to tell me that? Eee-gad. My heart can’t take much more of this.


This may sound morbid, but I’ve decided I want Dali’s skull. I’ll bleach it and hang it in the barn – like all those cow skulls they use for western decoration. Mine will be a private shrine to a special pet. . (and it will serve as a great conversation piece). Kent thinks I’ve really lost it, but that didn’t stop him and his friends from bragging that they’d retrieve it for me. They walked out to see what was left of Dali, but they came back so grossed out they said they wouldn’t touch it for a hundred bucks. Big sissies. I figure we can wait a few days until the remains are picked clean by nature, then I’ll put on gloves, get the skull and bury what is left of my old boy in a respectful way – classical music accompanying the chore, of course.  I don’t fear dead things the way I did when I moved here (desensitized, apparently), and because it’s Dali, I want to assure he rests in peace.
You can bet the scarf I’m making out of his fur will be very, very dear to me.


Anyway, that is the story of my llama trauma.


    

Lost llamas and bad bears




The pasture has exploded with daisies and my llamas like to nestle down in the middle of them in the early evening. I thought this was striking, so I took a picture.
Then, another “bear event” (which I’ll explain later) happened and for the next two days my llamas didn’t come out of the trees which run along the border of the pasture. When it is hot or raining, the llamas stay tucked away in the shade and it’s been hitting 90 this week, so I didn’t think much of their absence. Until  they didn’t come out to eat in the morning for two days straight. That was uncommon.


I started to get concerned because Pulani is due to have her baby in one month. I wondered if it was possible she gave birth early and the llamas were in the woods with a newborn. Sometimes, llamas need help with the birthing process, and Pulani turned away her last baby, so I am on standby to do what I can to make this season’s birth go on sucessfully. I also couldn’t help but notice the llamas had been missing since “the bear event”. Hummm……… gave me a nagging sense of unease.


So, in the early morning, I decided to take a walk in the pasture to hunt them out. Pulani was lying in the trees, nonchalant. Still pregnant. But Dali was no where around. They usually stick close to each other, so I considered this odd. I walked the entire circumference of the pasture. No Dali. I figured I must have missed him, so I walked along the fence again, checking to see if any portion of it was knocked down to allow escape. The fence was intact, but there was no Dali. I took a third spin around the huge pasture, now looking for signs of a dead llama, not that I expected to find such a thing, but since I was unable to explain his absence I had to check. Nothing.


I’ve left this pasture dormant so the grass will grow and repair itself. So far, I’m growing daisies, not the coveted grass I seeded. Ah well.  Llama’s tread lightly and eat little, so they’ve had the run of the place to themselves while the horses are maintained in the front, beat to hell, all dirt and weeds, pasture. This means the gate to the lush pasture has not been opened for weeks. Llamas don’t jump fences and they don’t try to escape. If they do get out, they hang around because they are territorial, especially when their mate is nearby – herd creatures stick together. Llamas are mellow and standoffish, like cats, but they do attach to home and I have some very content llamas, which curbs wanderlust.


So, how is it my male llama has simply disappeared? I can’t figure it out.


I’ve been baffled and bothered, which soon escalated to “worried.” Yesterday, I put a “lost llama” add in the paper and made flyers to put up at the feed store and post office. I’m slapping them on signs and putting them in neighbor’s mailboxes. A few people have suggested that my llama might have been stolen, but who would venture all the way into our land, unnoticed, to steal a llama, which is damn hard to catch, by the way? And yet, if he was attacked by something, and I can’t imagine anything around here that could kill a llama, other than a cockeyed hunter, I’d certainly see llama remains. Not like even a bear can haul a 600 pound animal over a fence.  If Dali got out of the pasture on his own, he wouldn’t have wandered far. It’s as if he just sunk into the daisies and vanished forevermore.


I’m devastated; waiting by the phone hoping someone will call and say he wandered into their yard and I should come get him. Because deep down, I can’t stop thinking it might be connected in some way to the bear incident.


Early one morning this week, I heard my dogs going crazy outside. They often bark at daybreak, chasing raccoons or possums and/or greeting the new day with a boisterous racket. But this day, their barking was furious and wild – coming from the barn. I wondered if they were wrestling with coyotes or stray dogs so I hopped into my mule to go check. When I got there, the dogs had run off, chasing something. There was one dead chicken on the ground. Considering I now have 70 chickens (too many) I was not exactly devastated. Dead chickens happen. I checked on my duck, who’s still sitting on eggs in the barn (which have long passed their due date, so they aren’t going to hatch, but I don’t have the heart to take them away from her. She’s been such a diligent mother – but alas, if you don’t nookie with the boys, your eggs will never be more than just eggs.) She was fine – though she hissed at me to leave her alone. The ingrate.


I decided to feed the rabbits as long as I was down at the barn and that’s when I noticed that the cage erected high on the wall of the chicken house holding my young bunnies had been tampered with again. This time, the stiff wire side had been pried away from the top, breaking all the metal fasteners and a strong metal support had been bent at a  90 degree angle. Heck, it’s such a thick piece of metal that I couldn’t even bend it back into place. This clearly has to be a bear – nothing else can reach that high or do that kind of damage. My bunnies were huddled in their nesting box, sitting in their own urine – obviously traumatized, but safe at least.


I was pissed. Damn bear. Poor bunnies.


So, I decided to drive back to the house to get my car and go to Home Depot to get what I needed to repair the damage and further secure my cages. But as I turned the corner, I see the back end of a black bear wandering into the woods. The roar of the mule made him run off. He was larger than my dogs (which are big) and his butt was two feet wide. Big bear. I stopped the mule, wishing I had a gun. I’m a gentle, animal lover, but I was seeing red and well – at least a be-be gun or a powerful paint gun would have been nice. A glue gun, perhaps?


I get off the mule and head into the woods to follow the bear. I wanted to see him up close. Don’t’ ask me what I would have done if I found him – tell him off or something. (When I told this to my mother later, she told ME off for tracking a bear. I had to hear all about every bear attack that ever happened in North Georgia. Sigh.)  But somehow, that sneaky bear just disappeared the moment he entered the woods. At least I had my proof now about who’s been messing with my rabbits. Damn bear.


I called Mark at the office and said, “Honey, something was messing with my angoras again, and it IS a bear because I just saw him running through the woods towards your workshop.”
Mark said (I kid you not), “Don’t worry Babe; a bear won’t hurt any of my tools.”


Like I was worried about his tools. Did he think I imagined the bear would crank up the chain saw and come after the rabbits with a weapon, like Rambo-bear? I was like, ‘Um… there’s no food in your workshop, I know he won’t bother anything there. I just wanted you to know he’s in the area and there’s no longer a question of what’s doing the damage at the barn.” 


“I can’t come home now to shoot a bear for you,” he said. “I’m on call.”


Clearly, the man wasn’t getting my drift. I didn’t expect him to do anything about the bear – I just wanted to vent. The bear was already gone –and even if Mark did drive the 35 minutes home with a rifle on his shoulder like the cavalry, the bear would even goner. 


Last night, the big wooden plank I keep on top of my rabbit cage for extra security was thrown eight feet again and another tarp was demolished. Something is gonna have to be done about the bear. It’s against the law to kill a bear, but a friend of ours says he wouldn’t mind relieving me of the burden, and he’d even give me a nice bear rug for Christmas. Um… no thanks. I’m alergic to dead things that leave me racked with guilt.


Mark explained that his gun won’t penetrate a big bear’s hide so if he shot at it, he’d only hurt the beast at best, which might just make the animal mad as hell and it would attack. He found out we can call the Park commission and they will set a bear trap and cart it away to the state park. That is probably what we’ll do.


Meanwhile, I’m now worried about my bees. In two minutes flat, Bears will destroy a hive that took a full year to build up.  I’m pretty convinced my rabbits are secure, but that doesn’t mean they are comfortable with a hungry bear working on the cage every night like it was rubics cube he’s trying to solve– and hey, he still might get lucky one night if he keeps at it.


And where the hell is my llama? Sort of spooky, the fact that he disappeared the same day the bear visited. Now, if the bear would just go eat those rotten duck eggs and save me from having to be the one to disappoint my dear little duck, I wouldn’t be half as mad at him.


These are the kind of troubles I deal with now a days in my “Little House on the Prairie” stage of life. I figure if these are my complaints about life, I should have no complaints – for even in Eden there’s bound to be a few bad apples. This month, these just happen to be mine.


    
 


 

Bee Basics

“Take me to your leader,” I  want to say when I step out in my bee suit.
I feel compelled to move in slow motion, like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.


But for all that it looks dramatic, a bee suit is really nothing more than a stiff jumpsuit made of canvas. The gloves and headpiece are all you truly need to work with bees, and even then, you end up taking the gloves off because the thick leather fingers make it hard to get a hold of the closely spaced honey files in the hive.

I’ve been working with my bees for a year now and I’ve yet to be stung. They get plenty mad, mostly because I am clumsy and slow when working in the hive, due to my lack of experience. The bees swarm around me and make a racket, but they haven’t successfully stung me. A few have tried, but I’m a weenie who suits up before doing anything serious with the bees, so they can’t get to me. Occasionally, I sneak a peek or walk over to feed them wearing shorts, but I don’t open the hive without being prepared for attack. I suppose, the more familiar you get with your bees, the less likely you are to bother with the suit – then you are bound to get the occasional sting.


I received the 6 pounds of bees I ordered in January this week. There happened to be another double order at the post office awaiting pickup . I thought it remarkable that someone else had placed the exact same order from the exact same company. There are hundreds of bee supply companies to choose from and people usually order one swarm, not two. Apparently I have a neighbor who is toying with bees at the same speed I am. Wish I would run into them one day.


When I drove to the Post office to pick the package up, the post master, Vicki, said, “I thought you’d come in a truck. Few people pick up bees in the car.”


“Oh?” Of course, I didn’t know that. This is my first bee package after all. I sort of shrugged like I was brave and cool and loaded the box in the back of my van wondering if I would regret it.


Driving home, several loose bees swooped around my head. I wasn’t bothered by them. Ever since I began working with the insects, I’ve felt calm around them. I trust nature and feel very in tune with my animals, no matter how small. Mark says they are my surrogate students, and I think he’s right. I lay in bed worrying about their health and happiness in the same way I used to loose sleep pondering my student’s successes and failures. I get frustrated with my animals but because I care, it passes quickly. Yes – I see the similarities.


Anyway, I got the bee package home and set up my two new hives. I had planned to set the new bees in a different area, but as I was situating the concrete blocks to hold the hives, I noticed my guineas hanging about. Guineas will eat bees and they can clean out an entire hive in two days. Obviously I had to rethink my plan, so I ended up putting the new bees with my established hive out near my blue berry bush . I’ll move them all in the fall (which is a big ordeal, because you have to move the hives 5 miles away and keep them away for a month before returning to your land even if all you want to do is move them a foot from their original position. If you don’t, you’ll have a bucket of dead bees on the ground where your hive once stood.)


Mark would prefer my bees not be situated at the entrance of our land, because no one will mow around the hives and we have this nice cared for lawn area except in the corner where the hives are nestled in overgrowth. It looks as if the forest is trying to swallow the boxes whole. If he would teach me to use a weedwacker, I’d go take care of the area myself. Gee wiz, bees are only quarter inch insects with feet sweetened by honey. Why is everyone so worried about them? They are far too busy gathering pollen to want to mess with humans.


I was slightly frustrated getting my bee package into the hive, because I couldn’t figure out how to open it.

I first had to jam on it with a hammer to separate the two packages. Then, I pried open the top of one and there was a can wedged in the opening. I wasn’t expecting that. I pulled on a tag thinking that was going to lift the can, but it simply pulled away and I heard a thunk in the cage. Oops. Turns out this was connected to the queen’s cage and now she was laying at the bottom of 40K bees. I had to lift her out without squishing her soldiers, which I couldn’t do with my clumbsy gloves – so I ended up taking off my gloves and picking up the cage with my bare hand. This had about a hundred bees crawling on my skin in a second. A gentle blow and a shake the bees fell back to the hive, but dozens were flying about my head. Now, I had no way to secure my queen’s cage in the hive. Dammit. Meanwhile, the buzzing of thousands of bees growing ever more agitated grew deafening. I wedged the queen cage between two frames and hoped it wouldn’t fall to the floor again.


When I got the can wedged out of the opening, which turned out to be bee food. Of course, I had no can opener to actually take advantage of this. I shook 3 pounds of bees on top of the hive. I had sprayed them with sugar water, so they wouldn’t just fly away. They fell from their cage like rice pouring from a package and huddled on top, then crawled in after their queen.

I’m afraid I squished quite a few as I put the lid on – again, lack of experience. For all that learning new things is gratifying, it always comes with some degree of frustration, because being a novice makes you feel like a bumbling idiot. I feel that a lot in my life now.


The second package went smoother. I knew what to expect now. I didn’t pull on the tab, so this queen’s cage came out intact and could be hung center as it should be. I shook the bees up good to make them dizzy and plopped them onto the hive. I waited longer for them to crawl inside so I wouldn’t squish them unnecessarily. By now, I was feeling very comfortable working with the hive and I swear they could sense my calm. They were not nearly as buzzing mad as the first group.


The next day, I went to check to be sure my bees were inside the hives. Occasionally, a new swarm will simply fly away. But when the queen is secured in a cage, the bees will stay to care for her through the cage’s screen. The bees are supposed to eat the candy plug that holds her inside and free her within a day. When I checked, both my queens were still captive. So, I took a screwdriver and popped the cork so she could crawl out into the hive. In one night, the bees had made a good start of building honeycomb, so I’m convinced they plan to stay. Neva stood a few feet away to watch. I held several frames up to show her the new comb and how it was swarming with bees . She was fascinated. I’m guessing she’ll be needing a bee suit soon. I know that look in her eye – curiosity will override her fear before you know it – especially the more she sees me working with the bees without incident.


I paid an extra dollar to have my queens marked. They are painted with a little red dot. This allows me to locate my leaders easily whenever I open the hive. A queen is a bigger insect and not too hard to spot, but when you have 80K bees crawling around and eyes as old as mine, it is nice to have a cheat sheet dot. I carried the cage over to Neva so she could see the queen before releasing her. She reached out as if she wanted to touch it,  then drew back. Yes, it is only a matter of time before my curious little nature lover joins me.  


It will be a year before these new hives will be established enough to provide honey to harvest. The bees will work hard, but their efforts this season will be towards building new comb and storing food for the winter. In the fall, I’ll make my first awkward attempt at taking the honey from my established hive. I should harvest about 10 pounds – more than enough for this family. This will be my practice year – next season, when the three hives are all in full swing, hopefully I’ll be better at honey harvesting – for I’ll be seasoned as well.
Here is my little bee apairy – not so impressive, but it’s exciting to me. Each hive will grow taller as the season progresses and I add supers (the boxes that hold the frames) for the hive to expand.



Keeping bees doesn’t take much time and it’s a really unique experience. When I discover things like this (like making wine) I always wonder why I didn’t do it in Florida. I could have made the time and it may would have given me the diversion from dance I so desperately craved. Of course, it never occurred to me to diversify my life then. Would have been good for me, though. Might have stalled my cracking up.

I guess, everything has its time. You have to trust in that. . . or else go crazy. 


  


 

Show and tell

Yesterday, I made the family steak and eggs for dinner. I served them with hash browns, warm biscuits and homemade jam. I know this sounds like breakfast food, but I thought it would be nice for a change and I wanted to use some of the all natural ham steaks we had in the freezer (which are nothing like the smoked ham steaks you get in the supermarket).I also have to get rid of some of my jam, because it will soon be the season to make more.

It seems, when school is in session, we are never all together for breakfast anyway and I miss serving the big home-style breakfast (my favorite meal of the day) so I thought, “Why not?” Besides which, I had an alternate agenda.


As. everyone was digging in, I asked, “How do you like the eggs?”


“Great!” Mark said, shoveling in forkfuls.


“Glad you think so. You’re eating peacock eggs, by the way.”


Kent and Neva thought this was cool. Mark’s face screwed up into a pinched ball and he said, “I just lost my appetite.” He put his fork down, and don’t ya know he wouldn’t take another bite.


I was, as always, respectful of his sensitivity about what food he is served by his experimental wife, so I said, “You nincompoop! Don’t be such a big baby. It isn’t any different from chicken eggs. Only bigger. I mixed it with guinea eggs anyway (which are very small) so that evens out the proportions in a way. Take another bite or I’ll tell everyone you’re a big sissy.”


He pointed out that I gave him too much, and he was finished anyway.
The way I see it, this makes me duty bound to mention it on the blog. The world should know I married a man who’s a big peacock egg weenie.



I’ll admit, it was hard for me to eat the egg, but not because I feared it. I just had a lump in my throat because it felt like such a waste to eat something that, had circumstances been different, would have been rushed to my incubator with excitement.


I was serving this egg because my beautiful boy, Prism, ran off (damn peacock), so I know for a fact the egg isn’t fertilized. I was buying peacock eggs for about twelve dollars a pop only a year ago. I’m not about to just throw them away. I found another peacock egg today. For all I know, they’ll start coming fast and furious so I’m gonna have to work on my husband’s egg-sensitivity so he’ll be more receptive.
Not like I’m feeding him emu eggs . . . yet.


I thought I might do a bit of spring-time show and tell today.


My bunnies are five weeks old and ready to go. I gave two babies to my neighbor’s good friend who came by to have a look-see. She is an older woman living alone who happens to be a spinner. She was raising an old sheep, but it had died that afternoon and she was feeling low about it. She was thinking she might try angora now but she wasn’t making any decision. I got the impression she lives frugally, so I told her I’d make her a deal she couldn’t refuse. Her eyes perked up. “What would that be/’


I gave her two of the bunnies in the name of spinner sisterhood and neighborly good-will. She was thrilled.



I gave one another to Kathy, who had mentioned her son would adore a new bunny. I figure, since I see her every week, I’ll be around to answer questions. Angoras need more care than a regular bunny.  This rabbit came with a water bottle, a bag of feed and I even through in one of my fiber brushes so they can keep it groomed.  Our reading lesson was pitifully unproductive today, but we had fun playing with the bunny as it changed hands.


I’m keeping the white baby.
 
Sad to say, a dog or coyote happened to tear open my white male’s cage open on two ends last week. The cage was dragged several feet. I imagine my poor bunny was terrorized. There is no sign of his being killed, but I don’t hold up much hope for his having escaped. I’ve always known that cage was unsafe and I had intentions to build something new. Just goes to show you should never put off until tomorrow what you should have done today to be responsible. Anyway, I’ll keep the white baby as a replacement rabbit in respect to its father. I’ve also promised Neva she could keep one, and she picked a half tan/half gray that she named Nero. 



I’m going to put the three extras (all fawn colored) in the paper and hope someone comes forward wanting angora fiber. A part of me is ready to let them all go – I’m really feeling the need to downsize the animals I’m responsible for, but now that the weather is beautiful, I’m not feeling very disciplined. Remind me of this next winter when I’m cussing under my breath over all the time I must spend out in the sleet and stinging cold changing out frozen water bottles and such.     


My chickens have been out and about, roaming the barn area. My peacock likes to follow me around like a puppy. She is cute. Sometimes, I pause just to stare at my birds. They will perch on a fence or nestle in the flowers and you could swear they are posing just to make my like feel like a hallmark card. It is inspirational (in a simple way).


 


 Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time may remember I hatched seven ducks in an incubator last spring. During their adolescent phase, they started getting picked off by coyotes. I ended up with two surviving ducks, one solid white and the other an Appellate, which looks like a mallard. Love my ducks! 
Realizing that a duck’s survival skills increase dramatically when they are full fledged adults, I bought two grown Muscovy’s from the flea market. Within a week, one had been eaten. The other joined my duck duo and they became a threesome.


I bought two more Muscovy at the Flea Market. Don’t ya know, one member of this mating pair was eaten too. Then, for some unexplainable reason, my duck threesome just didn’t like the survivor and they kept running it off. I assumed it was a case of one male not wanting to share his babes. Clicks can be so mean.


My lonely duck kept to himself. We called him Romer because he often went exploring by himself. One day, Romer disappeared. I didn’t see any signs of duck carnage about the lake, so I figured he might have just decided to move on to someplace with friendlier duck residents. But two days later, I saw him at the barn.


This delighted me because one of my biggest disappointments about selling this house is the fact that the pond goes with it. I worry that the new owners won’t feed my ducks, or worse, they will want them removed because occasionally, they poop on the dock. Mark insists that whoever wants this house will love nature, so the ducks will be a selling point, not a detriment. They will be fine.


Anyway, the idea that Romer might occasionally visit me at the barn made me very happy. I would see him swimming in the creek at the base of the chicken coop and sleeping in the hay shelter by my young chick cage and I figured he was looking for some new bird friends. He made good friends with my peacock (also the odd woman out), and they often sleep in the sun a few feet away from each other.


Meanwhile, my duck click started wondering what Romer was up too and they started flying down occasionally to swim in the creek and watch me go about my chores too. Spring has my animals doing all kinds of unusual things. I’ll be coming home from the store and see the ducks walking out in the middle of the pasture as if they were a cow, or just walking down the road far from the pond where they formerly never left. I almost expect them to stick out a thumb as I drive by to bum a ride home.


Then,  about ten days ago I was leading my horse into her stall and I heard a hiss. I thought there might be a possum in the corner, but when I looked, it was Romer. He (excuse me – SHE) had made a nest in the shavings and she had no intention of letting me and a 1000 pound horse anywhere near it. I lead the horse back outside and explained to her that she had lost her stall for about 29 days. Then, I returned and made Romer move so I could see what was under her. She is sitting on about 15 eggs nestled in a pile of down. I guess all her hanging out at the barn was her way of checking out a good place for her brood. And she must have been laying eggs all along because it takes time for a bird to get ready to sit. The weather has been so nice, I just haven’t been using the barn stalls, so they must have seemed like a nice, vacant duck hotel to her.   

 


I know nature will take care of things without me, but once I discovered her, I couldn’t resist sticking my curious nose into her business. So, I began taking Romer food and filling a water bowl for her everyday. She hisses and gets all bent out of shape every time I come near– the ingrate. Doesn’t stop me. I lean over the stall wall and say good morning and talk to her everyday. She eyes me like I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


I can’t help but wonder if any of her eggs will hatch. After all, she has been ostracized by the other ducks, so how can these eggs be fertilized? Then again, I’m no duck babysitter, and who knows what goes on when I’m not looking. I’m going to hope for the best. I do know that if Romer has ducklings, they will be a mixed heritage, and any babies created between a Muscovy and domestic duck will be sterile (like a mule – you can only get one by mating a donkey and a horse, but they can never procreate themselves). I guess that will control the duck population in the long term. (Are you as impressed as I am that I know these kinds of barnyard animal facts? Amazing, all I’ve learned in the last few years.) 


My other Muscovy, a pretty cocoa brown duck, has now disappeared as well. I am pretty certain she is sitting out in the woods somewhere. I’m so curious I can’t stand it, so today I’m planning to hike around and see if I can find her.  Just yesterday, while walking the pasture to seek out a missing halter I saw seven guinea eggs. No one sitting on them yet – drat. My hands are itching to pick them up and thrust them in the incubator – haven’t done the guinea egg thing yet.

I sure hope that next month I’ll be seeing some cute baby ducklings out on our pond. Of course, then I’ll worry about them being picked off by hawks or being the main course at a coyote’s duck fest – but this is the first year our ducks have had an actual pond for safety (before they lived in the creek) so I’m counting on that helping matters.


Let’s see – does that complete my show and tell? Almost. I guess I should mention that my chickens are all doing nicely. I have about 60 baby chicks running in two pens. I finally couldn’t stand the mess and the work of changing the litter in the small cages, so I moved them to the big pen. But they were still so small, they could just squeeze out thought he wire sides. Little pint sized chickens were running everywhere. Neva and I propped boards and a tarp and anything we could find along the edges of the pen trying to contain them. I unrolled a bunch of smaller chicken wire along one side, but when it ran out, that was that. I didn’t want to put too much energy or investment into the problem, because I know the chickens will grow to be too big to escape within two weeks. I spent the entire afternoon devising brooders in the pen – I erected a dog house and our dog crate inside, ran a long extension chord from the barn and set up lights inside for warmth. I was cussing and complaining the entire time because it was awkward and I couldn’t get the temperature right. I just wasn’t in the mood for all that work for a bunch of chickens. 


I rue the day I went crazy and ordered so many on the internet, but what ya gonna do? I was in the shopping zone and mesmerized by the wealth of unusual choices. We have some pretty strange looking chicks.



I am going to start giving chickens away next week. I don’t have room for all of them in my chicken house, and I’ll be darned if I want to build a new one. I also can’t see my using 75 eggs a day – especially without the coffee shop. Ah well – you learn by your mistakes.  Kathy said she’d love a few spring chickens. Our friend Ronnie will take some – and he knows all sorts of country folk who would appreciate some freebie chickens. I will let Neva pick out the chickens she feels we don’t need to get our poultry situation manageable – but it won’t be easy. I want to keep the thirteen leghorns, because they are the best layers but all the others are rare breeds and it’s fascinating to see them change as they turn into striking adults. Sometimes our curosity overrides our good judgement when it comes to animal adventures.   


My bee hive is getting taller as my bees multiply and become established. I’m going to attempt to extract honey this season. Yikes. That will be novel. I am expecting a shipment of two three pound bee packages (with queens) this week. I am going to set up two additional hives. If I’m going to do the work, might as well have enough bees to make it worth the time and trouble.


The horse training is going well – but that deserves a blog of its own. I’n not nearly as bad at it as I expected.


There is a lot going on in our world. Real stuff. Mark has a new job – the kids are into all kinds of things – my writing is humming along – we are building a new house…. but honesly, I haven’t been in the mood to write about anything “real” lately, so I opted for the animal show and tell.  Consider it a placemark just to remind everyone I’m still here. It’s spring – a few months ago I was ready to get rid of every animal I owned. I was sick of the work and trouble of this farm existence. Now, it’s spring . . . Nature can be seductive when it has a mind to.


Training the trainer

My two horses are very dear to me. Both need work.


Peppy is a light gray quarter horse (looks white with a hint of shadow on his butt. His tail is supposed to be white, but it’s become permanently stained from the red Georgia clay). He came to me well trained and wonderfully mannered. He is now pushy and lazy. My fault. I seem to have a problem remembering a 1000 pound horse is NOT a 60 pound dog. You could say I treat the horses like the chickens – I enjoy watching them and puttering with them, but I settle for minimum maintenance, always thinking I’ll do fill in the blank tomorrow.  I tend to love on ‘em and give ‘em treats even when undeserved (sort of like my husband) feeling as if they demand a good chunk of time even without the extra effort. I feed them day in and day out, have them shoed and wormed like clockwork, and groom them  when I’m inspired to do so or they become so dirty I’m embarrassed to call them mine. They go months without being ridden or worked and when I do take them out, I let them have their way too often. They are overfed and underworked, as horses go. So, their attitude is not unlike that slight edge of nastiness and spoiled sense of entitlement that teenagers get when they are being raised by over indulgent parents. Doesn’t mean they are bad kids, only that they have forgotten who the boss is.


Joy is my drop dead beautiful saddle bred pinto. Her striking coloring, muscular body and brilliant blue eyes make people stop in their tracks just to admire her equestrian splendor. I discovered her in a herd on a breeding farm. She’d been there for six years, mingling with other forgotten horses, getting lazy and fat. I happened to be there to look at another horse, but when I saw her I became immediately smitten. No other horse would do. Since Joy’s been with me, she’s lost weight, gained muscle, and turned into the beauty I knew was hidden underneath all that slack muscle lumped on top of an over-grazed figure. I feel she is far happier living here where daily action keeps her alert and a pair of warm hands are quick to rub her nose, than she ever could have been abandoned in a field  – even if the grass was greener and more a-plenty there.   


Her lack of training is due to the simple fact that no one has bothered to teach her manners. She happens to be very people-oriented and sweet beyond measure. She wants to be with humans all the time and has a sincere curiosity about the world. She stands at the fence watching Mark on the tractor digging out the creek, or me planting bulbs or feeding the rabbits, fascinated and friendly. She’s extremely smart, can open the gate herself and has a willingness to please. As such, when she does get a small dose of training, she responds very well. This is the sign of a potentially great horse.


I was promised some intense training when I bought her, but it didn’t materialize (lots of excuses). I was quoted a price that included 60 days of daily training, begining on the ground in the ring, as most good training does. Joy would be neck reigned, would stand still, would be bomb proof, side-step at the gate . . . etc… etc…. What I got was a horse that was simply saddle broke and “ridable”, accomplished in a few sessions of power play with a grumbling cowboy wrestling with her from the saddle wearing spurs.  As such, I paid way too much for her, because training is imperative to establishing a horse’s worth. Untrained horses, even pretty ones, are considered useless, except to a meat factory, and sadly, that is where many of them end up.


I didn’t do enough research to really understand the breed. I did do some reading, but somehow I missed that all saddlebreds are high strung and best suited for advanced riders and/or people seeking energetic show horses. I was looking for a calm, bomb proof trail horse that I could put Neva or other beginning riders on. One of the factors that keep me from riding daily is that I must go alone. I’ve been able to handle whatever horses we’ve owned, but when I spend the entire time worrying about whoever is riding with me losing control from my ill mannered, underworked horses, riding becomes more a stress than carefree joy. As such, most of the riding I’ve done has been day long affairs with friends who have their own horses – that’s fun, but not the ideal I had when I set out to keep two horses.


No matter how much training Joy gets, she’ll never be a calm, easygoing horse. Again – my fault. I knew darn well what I needed, but bought what I wanted instead- I succumbed to an instinctual connection I felt for the animal. Then, I trusted someone I barely knew to train the horse to be something other than what she obviously was. I wanted to believe they would and could turn her into the horse of my dreams. Everyone knows that when it comes to horses, what you see is what you get – and even so, you take your chances, praying the seller hasn’t found a way to camouflage more serious flaws. It was a very foolish and delusional hope to think that this wild beauty was going to magically turn into a well behaved, highly trained horse in a few months. What ya gonna do? I chalk it up to another one of those Hendry learning experiences of which we’ve had so many since moving to the country. Learning to “live simply” has actually been very complex. This transition has been a minefield of hard lessons and expensive mistakes while we struggle to carve a life of self sufficiency and harmony with nature.  The rat race was something we longed to escape, but it was at least chartered territory.


Even if Joy isn’t the perfect horse for anyone and everyone, she is certainly loved. She makes an impressive and challenging mount for me, and she is my horse, after all, so there is no reason tshe has to be user friendly for the masses. I have Peppy for whomever might want to be my riding companion.


Meanwhile, people say, “Put that Pinto in some shows and she’ll blow the competition out of the water – then she’ll be worth 20 times what you paid.” That is all well and good, but it’s sort of like saying, “Take that little child with no dance training yet good flexibility and throw her on Broadway and she’ll be a star…” The point is, the long hard road between here and there is not only grueling and takes time, energy and investment – it also requires teachers who know what they’re doing. In dance, I do. In horses, I don’t.


I can pay someone to train her, but honestly, it becomes so cost prohibitive that it takes the fun out of owning a horse for me. Horses are not my life passion. They’re simply a recreational joy and once the sacrifices demanded of a hobby outweigh the pleasure you get in return, the pleasure ceases to be pleasurable. I can’t stand situations where you find yourself doing a cost analysis to determine if the investment of your recreational dollars is measuring up. I just want to relax and enjoy those things in life that you can’t put a price on – leisure time being one.


I adore my horses. I love how they neigh and come running whenever they see my car. I love how they rub their noses against my jacket and act jealous of each other when I give either one a bit of attention. I especially love watching them come charging across the pasture when I call. Joy looks like a refined racehorse with her head held high, her chiseled body most striking when in motion. With her long legs and powerful build, she is always a good 50 paces in front of the others. Peppy follows behind, determined to catch up because he’s established his authority as leader in this herd even if he is of common stock. He’s my main man, and he knows it. Dumpy donkey trots in the rear as if to say, “Hey guys, wait for me. . .” (He’s wins the prize for cuteness.)


The weather has turned lovely as spring peeks around the corner. Flowers are in bloom, the sun is high, and a cool breeze makes being outside uplifting. I have a terrific barn now, a 50 foot ring for training, and two well bred horses that sincerely want to please me, despite their innocently adapted ill manners. It’s time to dig in and do something with these resources or sell the farm – literally.


Life has taught me that if you want a job done right, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. So, pondering my dilemma, I got it into my head to train the horses on my own. Only one small flaw in this plan. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m an average rider with minimum training, no real horse experience to speak of, and  limited time to invest. Humm…. The odds are stacked against my success. All I have going for me is the fact that I don’t fear animals bigger than me. Of course, this doesn’t deter me in any way. I figure whatever doesn’t kill me is good for building character – and while I might be a big fat failure at the project, I’ll at least learn something in the process. And there’s always the chance I’ll succeed.  Then, I could breed Joy, train her offspring and sell her to some thrilled person like me who lusts for a horse that is both beautiful AND well trained. It would pay for the upkeep of my own horses for a year. I could then enjoy a high end hobby with a balanced budget. How cool would that be?


So, I started purchasing Clinton Anderson horse training DVD’s on e-bay. This man  happens to be a brilliant young cowboy from the outback with a lovely accent and an even lovelier way with horses. He is firm but kind, has a logic to his system and has become world famous due to his well organized training system and the positive results people get when implementing his advice (and he’s famous thanks to some great marketing too, I’m guessing). These tapes aren’t cheap, but they’re much less of an investment than hiring a trainer or enrolling in horse clinics. Best of all, they give me the foundation required for ongoing success. Just as Peppy began a well trained horse and lost it, an understanding of ongoing training practices is important. If the owner doesn’t follow through and reinforce what is learned, horses soon slip back into bad habits – like kids (or husbands). Consistency is key. Logic dictates it’s just as important (maybe MORE important) to train me as it is to train the horse.


I walk on my treadmill about an hour a day, so I’ve taken to watching my new training tapes during this time. I plod along, huffing and puffing, staring at the TV and thinking it all looks rather easy. Of course, I’m sure in real life it won’t be nearly as smooth going. Clinton only needs to stare into a horse’s eyes and they’re ready to roll over for him. Joy and Peppy will no doubt paw the ground, whinny and give me the evil eye once I attempt the same. But at the same time, horse training looks like something I’d be a natural at. Training horses is sort of like a dance. You stand in the center of the ring doing a series of arm gestures and clicking your tongue, flailing a whip at the horse’s hindquarters to make them run a certain direction. Meanwhile, you circle the pen at the horse’s flank putting in some miles yourself – good workout, and since I’ve become a failure at running in Georgia (and I’m now a treadmill sissy) this may be a nice substitute. Every once in a while, at just the right moment, you must trot backward to cut the horse off at the shoulder without breaking eye contact. This forces the animal to turn into you rather than into the fence and change direction – turning their hindquarters to you is an unacceptable sign of disrespect. There is a grace required and a level of coordination on the part of the trainer. I watched a student lesson and the girl looked very clumsy and uncomfortable, getting tangled in her own whip and tiring out quickly. I may have problems, but that won’t be one. When it comes to spatial awareness and moving on my feet, I’m well versed. I even choreographed a dance with a whip once. I happen to have experience lashing and moving with rhythm and style.  How many adults can claim that?


I’ve watched the series on training on the ground twice already and feel confident I’m ready to do the exercises. I then moved on to Riding with Confidence level 1 ( a four DVD set) and feel this is all within my range as well. It is a simple set of riding exercises anyone who is familiar with a horse can do. I have level 2 and 3 of the riding series to study later, after I successfully get the horses through the paces of level one. I have ordered a DVD series for dressage (which is the exercises and training skills needed for showing horses –something Joy was born to do so I might as well see if it’s possible for the two of us), and a few short subject DVD’s – like training horses with lunging techniques, teaching them to tie calmly, etc. Amazing, the resources available to people now a days thanks to computers and DVD’s etc…


I’m sure I’ll be average at best at training horses, but it will be fun to see what I’m capable of. I might even get my son to video me in the ring bossing those horses around to post on the blog one of these days. Showing off might be a good incentive for me to keep at it. Wouldn’t want to lose face as a cow-girl in training with friends who still insist I lost my mind and went of the deep end when I left dance and moved to the hills.


So, today, I plan to begin the horse training process. I’m committing an hour a day to working with them – five days a week. I assume weather and life will get in the way of anything more. It would be better to give each horse an hour each, but who am I kidding? Failure begins when you set up a plan you’re unlikely to follow.  Better to keep a new project within a time frame you can handle, in my opinion. You can always add more time or effort when you’re on a roll, but first set a minimum you positively can handle so you don’t shrug your shoulders and give up too soon because the follow through is “too much”. At least, that’s the theory I’m leaning on. And honestly, finding an extra 5 hours in my week is going to be tough as is.
 
I have a few hours to myself today before I get swallowed by family and work commitments. The weather is beautiful. I plan to begin by visiting my bees and checking out how they fared the winter. I must set up two more hives so all is ready when my shipment of 6 pounds of bees and two queens arrives at the end of the month. Then, I will spend an hour in the ring cutting away the roots and sticks that are sticking up out of the dirt in my ring. I already did this a few months ago, but the freshly leveled area settled over the winter and it needs a bit more maintenance to make ready for the work to come. I’ll return to the house in about two hours, tired and wanting a nap, but I’ll put in my treadmill time regardless and watch another tape for inspiration. Tomorrow is my birthday, but the next day I’ll begin the actual training with Peppy and hope this whole thing is as simple as it looks.


Ya never know what you are capable of until you try – and having a few well trained horses is only one of the benefits I’ll get from hanging on, one more time, to the belief that anything’s possible