Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Word of Gratitude For the Tough Guys

Mike and Cliff unloading the last wagon
here’s a part of the horse life that a lot of horse owners, trainers, and barn owners take for granted.  When I first got “into” horses, I didn’t even think about what went into caring for them beyond which horse I’d be assigned for my lesson.  I didn’t know about farriers and vets and the rest of the horse professionals, just the horse under my butt and the guy in the red coat yelling instructions from the middle of the riding ring.  I was fifteen and nowhere close to owning my own horse, so I can be forgiven for my ignorance.

Later, when I owned horses but kept them boarded out, I learned about shoes and vetting and (eventually—which is a sad statement) about dentistry.  I thought I was really getting the full horse experience because I had to get my own horse out of the stall (or chase her around the pasture with a halter and a pissed-off expression).  I wasn’t even close.  

Eventually I moved to a farm where there was a lot more hands-on stuff.  That’s because it was, really, a farm, not just a bunch of stalls in a fancy barn in someone’s backyard.  It wasn’t a “stable” or a “facility”.  It was a working farm with cows and tractors and fields full of corn and soybeans and alfalfa and hay.  Until that point I’d had only a nodding acquaintance with such stuff.  My Cliff, a former dairyman from PA, tried hard to get this all through to me, but I didn't get it.  This was to be an enlightening three years.

The Hay Guy was omnipresent throughout the 50 years of my horse life, of course, and the source of much bad blood and target of criticism.  Whether the Hay Guy brought good hay or bad, on time or late, in sufficient quantity or short a few bales, cheap or high-priced was a topic of conversation akin to political discussions.  We owners weren’t directly involved with the ins and outs of the work of farming.  We rode horses and complained.  That was our job.

That last farm where I housed my horses was where I learned why the hay is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes early or late, sometimes cheap and sometimes unaffordable.  And I learned to work.  I put my shoulder to the wheel and helped unload wagon after wagon of hay bales and stacked them.  And I loved it.  I loved it so much that, when it came time to buy a place of my own (when I had six horses boarded out seemed a good time to do that), I looked for a place where I could grow the hay I fed the horses, and from a 30-acre lot with a modular bi-level on it, my farm grew.
Down the Line:  Martin on the left, Tommy on the right,
Dean invisible in the stall or behind me...I lost track of him.

What an amazing experience it’s been to be able to plant and grow exactly what I want my horses to have, and I use my never-ending Xanax prescription mostly to get me through haying season twice a year!  The Weather Channel isn’t just 24 hours of droning to me.  It’s my lifeblood.  I wake up to it, go to sleep to it, and have the app on every piece of wireless and wired equipment in my possession.  Non-hay folks may think a 20% chance of showers is just a minor inconvenience.  Put 600 bales worth of hay on the ground, and it becomes a nightmare that leaves you sleeping with one ear to the sky…assuming you sleep. 

Eventually, and with a great deal of good luck, the hay gets made, and that’s where my gratitude for the tough guys comes in.  I’m not talking about the buff bods grunting at the local gym.  I’m talking about the nice guys who do real work for a living.  In my current gang of helpers there are three auto mechanics (including my man, Cliff), a contractor, a carpenter, and a US Marine putting jet engines together as a day job.  These are my Hay Guys.  I'm pleased as all hell that they're our friends. 
Ryan, catcher, on the stack

I’ve got to quote Mike, the mechanic co-worker of Cliff’s, who put it succinctly when he said, “I love this!  I get to come here and learn something new every time.  It’s physical and makes me feel like a better person.  It’s great!”   

Martin, a newbie, announced with a smile, "I could do this again."  That’s just how I feel about it, and the other guys seem to concur because they will show up, as they did last week, in 90+ degree heat and stack 673 bales of hay, cracking jokes and laughing all the while.  I pay them when they’re willing to be paid, which isn’t always.  Endless bottled water, beer, and sometimes pizza is part of the deal.  Camaraderie is key.  I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the wagon. 

No, I’m not in the photos.  That’s mostly because it’s my camera.  I love riding my horses.  I also love my job of “monkey” (that's my coined term--one guy called it “ballerina”, but I hate that), scaling the outside of the freshly-filled wagon to break apart the puzzle of bales and toss them down to the guys waiting below.  Love it.  Really love it.  Even in mid-chemo when climbing was out of the question, I couldn’t resist pushing the bales along the elevator.  Putting hands on fresh hay bales is somehow thrilling, and watching them stack up until every spare inch of space is full is what every horse-farm owner dreams of.  The weight of a bale has a certain power to it and lifting that weight is the best kind of affirmation.  What’s not to like?

And I get to be in the company of these wonderful, tough men who don’t ever get the credit they deserve for the kinds of work they do that keeps us all moving smoothly through our days.  These are my hay guys, the  mechanics, the laborers, the contractors, the Marine, and, at other times, the tree guy, the high school football players, the horse shoer…they’re my hay guys, my tough guys, and they're the real force behind a society that’s run astray following the guys in thousand-dollar suits.  How’s that workin’ for us?

Next time you saddle up at some competition and are totally thrilled with the gleam of your horse's coat, give a thought to these people and the ones that grow the grain and grind the sawdust and sweat bullets on a daily basis.  Thanks, Tough Guys, for all you do!

Leo and Duke say thank you, too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Horse Power at Odds

everal months ago we had an incident that appeared benign on the surface but which turned out to be a   (figurative) loaded gun.  A local motorcycle group staged a "cruise" that took a couple of hundred bikes  slowly past my farm.  Unwarned, I had two horses in the paddock close to the road.  Until that day, we'd never had any issues with passing motorized equipment.  Trucks, tractors, snow plows, cars, even motorcycles had never presented a problem for my horses.  But there was something about the endless low rumble of the bikes as they streamed by in single file for what seemed like an hour--and may have been even longer--that upset the two closest horses, and when I tried to move them to a more protected location, both managed to burst through the gate and lead us on a merry chase. 

The older horse, Leo, gave up pretty quickly as escaping is never his main goal.  He might, after all,  miss a meal, and that would be too depressing for him to bear.  Eating, sleeping, and romancing his lady love are what he lives for.  He ran a few feet, then waited while I put a lead on him and took him to another paddock.  Duke, the mini, however, likes nothing better than a little freedom and the possibility of getting out with the herd where he can stir up trouble.   So for twenty minutes Cliff and I used all of our combined wiles to tire him out enough to effect a painless recapture and release into a pen far from the column of bikes.

Horse Power I

Horse Power II

 Oh, we've had other horse-power-related events, like the time the kid across the street pulled the big diesel tractor out onto the road through the pasture gate at his grandfather's farm while I was hacking around my hay field on Dakota.  It wasn't the tractor that made Big D do a sit 'n spin and launch me into the dirt.  It was the cows.  The cows didn't like the tractor noise, so they bolted away from it.  Dakota, never one to miss a red flag, saw that, figured they had to be frightened for some reason, and spun around to see what it was.  Wimp.  

That was an easier problem to solve as soon as I got back aboard and rode the big fellow back and forth in front of the gate while the cows regrouped.  There was some twitchiness involved, but once everyone had a nice chat about the noise situation, sanity returned. The motorcycles were not so easily crossed off the terrorist list.  For nearly a year, I couldn't get my two horses back into that front paddock. We're okay now, but weekends I've learned to leave that paddock empty as I never know when there will be a replay of that cruise.  And now every bike that goes by gets several worried glances, and I found myself face down in the road when one passed me and little Duke on our daily walk.  

That's my basic horse power complaint.  We don't do daily walks anymore, more's the pity.  That was a fun thing to do and good for our respective jell-o butts.  But there are other kinds of "horse power"--ramped up output for no good reason other than its own purpose--and for other reasons we also have to resign ourselves to limited trail riding on our own property thanks to the new development that abuts my woods.  Start with the dogs constrained only by underground fencing that appear to be charging my horse and add the screaming children and the pool toys that blow aimlessly through my woods.  We duck-and-cover on holidays as the neighbors in said development like to shoot at things when they're drunk, and my pasture seems to be their backstop.  And even my hunters have complained about the music cranked so loud it makes my office windows rattle more than a thousand feet away from the source.  Certainly not riding towards that.

My preferred form of horse power is pretty quiet and tends not to annoy the neighbors.  I intend to keep it that way.  It's ironic that by choosing to husband the land and maintain open space and a rural atmosphere in a place that outwardly prides itself on that, I'm finding myself more and more constrained, not by ordinances and laws, but by people whose attitudes simply don't match mine.

So I'm writing this whiny version of my blog in the hope that even one of my readers may think twice before engaging in an activity that a neighboring horse owner might find upsetting or even dangerous.   I don't expect non-horse people to be knowledgeable, and horse people need to be open-minded as well, but if we all, in all situations, assess our surroundings first before we act--listen before we crank up the volume, look at expressions on others' faces before putting that cell phone on speaker during dinner,  check in before checking out--we might all like each other just a little more. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012


ometimes it seems as if the best laid plans are the first to go awry. This week my personal backfire was small but annoying.  After fifteen years of battling to stuff the horses' blankets onto racks that were too small and cheap enough to break with regularity, I went for the gusto and bought a whole new set of powder-coated, heavy-duty racks and spent an hour or so removing the old ones and putting up the new.  I'm really good at that now, in case anyone needs advice.

The new racks are super!  They are truly heavy-duty and leave enough room between the rack and the stall door for an assortment of weights and sizes of blankets.  The row of neatly folded horse clothing is stunning.  Looks like someone else's barn.  

That should be past tense.  "Looked" like is more accurate.  I was really excited when several days elapsed without any of the horses dragging blankets off the racks and dumping them in the aisle or stomping them to bits in their stalls.  I truly believed I'd mastered the situation.  But these are horses we're talking about.  

There is no mastering anything when horses are in the picture.  
Before the makeover...yuck!

Post-Makeover, pre-backfire.  Yay!

Last night, with thunderstorms lighting up the sky at feeding time, I opted to leave the horses in their stalls overnight.  Normally, they're okay with that, especially if it's been a while since their last confinement.  But the beautiful day, cool breeze, and blue sky tortured them enough to force them to make a statement against my good intentions, and this morning the barn aisle was littered with fly masks and a random blanket, pulled off the racks and tossed as a demonstration of equine pique.

If there's one thing I've learned from owning horses it's that there's always something else to learn.

I'm not going to change the racks again, but I'll make a mental note (my mental notebook is really frayed around the edges) to make future changes one horse at a time.  I know my horses.  I know who's going to act out first, and I need to apply that knowledge.  As goes Zip, so goes the herd...eventually.  Want to know where the weak spots in the fence line are?  Turn Zip loose for an hour and follow him around with your toolbox in hand.  Are the brackets for the stall fans mounted far enough out of reach?  Ask Zip, then retrieve his fan and move the bracket.   How close is too close to leave the muck bucket to a stall door?  Zip's the one to ask.

This isn't my first backfire.  My first was the brilliant idea that if I put outside doors on two stalls, I could use them as run-ins for the herd during storms while I was busy building the rest of the farm.  It never occurred to me that three horses would cram themselves into one 10 x 10 stall with a fourth poking her head in because that was all that would fit.  That fail led to the plan to close up the stalls and use the center aisle.  Much better as 9 horses fit nicely into a 12 x 90 space.  Worse, however, as the amount of manure splattered on the walls and doors and floor and equipment was epic.  And Zip (naturally) took the opportunity to test the buoyancy of a number of helmets, crops, and other non-floatables I didn't think he'd bother with.  

Those are the key words:  "I didn't think"

To avoid backfires, thinking like a horse is essential.  It's also nearly impossible as I have yet to find two horses that think alike beyond the obvious desire to eat and fear of squirrels.  So guesswork is all we humans have in our defensive arsenal, and we're totally out-gunned.  

On the up side, this is what keeps the job interesting.  It's not too hard to avoid really hazardous situations once we get a grip on the definition of "hazard" where horses are concerned.  But the backfires will always leave us shaking our heads and (mostly) laughing.  


I said last post that this was not going to become a product-oriented blog, and I meant it.  But I got a new toy that warrants comment. This is it.

What this is is the One K Defender Pro Gloss Helmet with Retractable Sun Shield, and it deserves that abundance of capital letters if only to highlight the hefty price tag.

Most of my readers know I'm a backyard rider with occasional forays to clinics and lessons, and I gave up showing years ago.  This fancy hat is definitely made with the show rider in mind. 

Why would a non-show person drop a huge chunk of change on a pro-level helmet?  Well, obviously coolness isn't a factor as it's rare that anyone sees me ride.  But do you see that nifty retractable sun shield? That's the draw!

Years ago after a lawn-dart moment that smashed the heck out of the helmet I was wearing, I wound up having to have surgery for a detached retina.  That was not a fun time.  Nine months of incredibly annoying procedures left me very cautious about my eyes, so I never leave the house without sunglasses.  Ever.  Sometimes I forget and leave them on when I get home.  On those days I wonder why it's so cloudy out when it was sunny a minute ago, but that speaks more to the level of dementia I've attained.

Anyway, after many years of experimentation with sunglasses of all styles and equestrian goggles meant to fit neatly under one's helmet (they really don't), I'd reached a level of frustration that made my joy at the advent of this product so overwhelming that I ordered immediately.  It works.  It's a comfy helmet.  It's shiny so Cliff will be able to find me when I'm lying in the snow awaiting rescue.  It's got a sun visor!  And best of all, the visor retracts with a touch and pops back into place just as easily no matter how clumsy your gloves might be.  It's also replaceable by the same color visor or a lovely blue for a very reasonable price, so you don't have to worry that the first branch-smack will ruin it forever.

There is one small caveat.  It's imperative to center the helmet on your head.  If you don't, the first time you pop that visor down it will make sharp contact (not painful, but startling) with the bridge of your nose.  Trust me, it won't leave a bruise or a scar, but you'll notice the impact.  

So if you've got money burning a hole in your breeches pocket, this is a fine place to spend it.  If you're a Person Who Shows, it comes in a matte finish as well for that traditional look.