This will be a short post because I can’t think of a way to explain the irrational love that I (and many other women) have for horses. I liken it to the way that a man will throw money at something like a boat that is seldom used, for I seldom have time or opportunity to be with my horse.
I have been scared near to death on a horse,
injured on a horse,
frustrated nearly to the end of patience by a horse,
money poor because of a horse,
and yet I love horses.
And though, unlike boats, they can get sick and die, also unlike boats they are living and can love you back. They are a bit like people – some handsome, some not so much, some with great personalities, some a little cranky – all kinds of apt comparisons. If you’re at the right end, they smell really nice, like fresh hay and they have wonderfully soft noses. That’s some of it, but like I said, it doesn’t really explain it all.
I have posted this sequence before but it was fun (funny) and I love to relive it.
Back in t he old days, we had to learn to sew. Everyone took one semester of sewing in high school, and it was a popular project in 4-H. Some people even made a lot of their own clothes (me)! Since then I’ve made quite a few things and worn out a couple of sewing machines in the process. I’ve made home decor projects, several wedding dresses, baby clothes, doll clothes, but I haven’t often sewn horse clothes. Well maybe not clothes, but accessories would be a better label for this project. Some horses just want to stand around looking pretty, you know?
It started when my friend and former employer decided to adopt three Freisian horses. They are beautiful animals and have done carriage pulling for a lot of their careers. They are semi-retired now and have the “life of Riley” (they have it pretty sweet, for those of you who don’t know Riley. Come to think of it, I don’t even know Riley, but I know what it means.) My friend also has a lot of horse art and in looking at one of her wall paintings she began imagining her own charges looking just like the horses in the picture. Clearly, some horse capes were needed. With tassels, please. I decided to take the job.
I have been to the stable and met my models and measured them. They are sweet animals and on the large side. I have been trying to imagine how to sew their capes ever since. It’s just a rectangle, you say, how can it be hard? I will tell you. There is a lot going on when a horse walks and this piece of cloth has to stay on and not scare the horse, or anyone for that matter. It has to be durable, comfortable, and in this case not terribly expensive. All these things add to the complexity of the project.
I initially spent time on the internet looking for suitable fabric because there aren’t a lot of fabric stores to visit. It wasn’t going well. Fabric is ridiculously expensive in our country, and as I said, these are big horses – lot of yardage. Then luck happened and the only fabric store left in my town went out of business and put most of their stuff on sale at 60% off. The fabric and tassels were there. The purchase was approved. I’m now sewing. This is probably one of my weirdest projects, just sayin’.
The sky is getting dark. I expect an afternoon storm. The heat has been overwhelming and we could use some cooling down. Earlier I walked through the field looking for a fly mask one of the horses had lost. I found it but also found so many interesting plants that I could not stop photographing them.
I suppose they are actually weeds, because we would prefer to have grass growing there. But I had to appreciate them for what they are, beautifully and intricately designed. The field is a wild garden that is every bit as fascinating as the ones I’ve admired in people’s yards.
Be glad you can look at it vicariously, in pictures because, like I said, it was really hot out there. I’m glad for the breeze, the clouds, and the thunder. Just sayin’…
Love, whether or animals or people, involves risk. Let me amend that, love involves the certainty of pain and eventual loss, always. Because we know that, every moment that we spend with each other or with a “quasi-human” pet should be filled with awareness and appreciation of life. Over a lifespan, the love we enjoy far outweighs the pain of separation. It leaves us enriched, more experienced, and better able to process what we know will come.
For some reason many of us as children were fascinated by the idea of sitting on a horse. Our mothers set us up on the horse of our choice on the carousel. Maybe we got to ride a real pony around in a circle at the fair. We read Black Beauty, and watched My Friend Flicka. I did all these things. So did my children.
For many of us the fascination wears off. We discover that real horses are bigger than we thought, and stronger than we knew, and less inclined to be caught and gently led, let alone ridden. But for some, like my daughter Julia, the dream goes on, and if horse ownership is denied for lack of money, time or any other practical reason, the dream builds pressure until it explodes. And so, a horse entered the life of our family and had effects that are still in operation today.
Julia, her sister Esther, and I had ridden and worked at a small stable in northern Wisconsin for several summers when the owner brought in a new string of horses she had bought in Minnesota. They had to be ridden a lot and carefully gauged for their trustworthiness before any of the “dudes” were put on them. The owner, Miss Lolly, had one that was her favorite – a nearly white quarter horse mare she called Ghost. She rode her most of the time but occasionally one of her better outriders were asked if they wanted to try her. That was the summer Julia fell in love with Ghost. The next year she bought her, one payment at a time, with her own money.
Logistically, it was crazy. We had moved to Florida and had no place for a horse. So Ghost lived in Wisconsin on Lolly’s farm and she and Julia continued to work together in the summer. But the time came when school and work made the summer trips up north shorter and Julia missed her horse. It was time for Ghost to come to Florida.
We knew little to nothing about trailering a horse over that distance. Our borrowed one-horse trailer was hitched behind a mini-van, of all things, and I have pictures of our travel arrangement that make me wonder how we ever made it. The roughly 30 hour trip had one overnight, as I recall, and lots of stops where we would check on Ghost’s water and hay. Only once did we actually take her out of the trailer briefly and let her walk around at a country exit off the interstate. I think we were worried we wouldn’t be able to get her back in.
She made it to Florida and to Springrock Farm where she spent a number of years with J.C. Barnhill watching over her. Julie’s regular trips to care for Ghost benefited the horse but also furthered Julie’s interest as she learned how to trim hooves, care for horse teeth, and feed and exercise horses. One of the biggest surprises was when it was discovered that Ghost had come to Florida in foal. Rocker, a pretty paint colt was added to the family. Several years later Ghost was bred to Barnhill’s thoroughbred stallion, Officer, and had a filly. Julie named her Fea, and although she came out brown, she soon was the spitting image of her mom. The family was a herd of three.
The family spent time at several other properties as the years unfolded, always necessitating Julie to travel daily to watch over, feed and ride. They were her charges, her dependents. Her knowledge and interest in veterinary care of large animals increased and ultimately led her to enter the DVM program at UF, Gainesville. Ghost and the family moved to a small farm there for four years. The next move was to Jacksonville, FL where Dr. Julia began her job with Jacksonville Equine. At the small boarding pasture where her herd now lived, Dr. J. had to deal with Ghost’s problems of advancing age, especially weight loss and inability to compete with other horses for feed. The last few months were a triumph for Ghost and Dr. J. as Ghost was healthy, energetic and looking well nourished. Only a few weeks ago Dr. J. and some friends took her on a trail ride with Rocker and Fea and all did well.
We’ve all heard of the benefits of having pets. There Is even more to a long term, committed relationship to the care and welfare of an animal. It is much like parenting, in that patience is learned, along with so many other skills. Love is practiced through good times and bad. Faithfulness has its demands for both owner and animal. Those demands, decisions and courses of action can be stressful and sudden.
A week ago Ghost had a medical emergency, colic, another name for equine bowel obstruction. It could not be resolved with initial treatment and Dr. J. took her quickly to the UF vet hospital for diagnosis and ultimately, surgery. Given every chance, Ghost was still unable to survive. She has been laid to rest in a quiet corner of her pasture and will not be forgotten.
I often visit Dr. Julia in Jacksonville and have adventures as Vet Ma, helping with horse chores and riding truck with her as she does her rounds. The area has had more rain this season than it has in 40 years according to the older generation. The pasture where she keeps her four horses is a sea of mud.
!. Arrive at pasture. Try not to get truck stuck in the mud.
2. Squeeze size 9.5 feet into daughter’s size 8 boots.
3. Wade to feed room. Fill two buckets with grain.
4. Wade to pasture. Approach small herd of excited, rowdy horses eagerly waiting to be fed. Try not to be anxious.
5. Put halter on old lady horse so she can be fed by herself outside the pasture. Try not to let her drag you through gate. Try to stay clean. Try not to be anxious. Try to shut gate.
6. Don’t let old lady horse knock over pail and eat grain meant for other horses. Scoop up spilled grain. Grab her and get her to her own pail.
7. Catch other three horses who have gone through open gate while you were catching old lady horse. Try not to panic. Try to keep them from eating grain meant for old horse.
8. Make a big deal about grain you still have left in pail. Wade out in pasture to feeding trough and hope horses follow. Dump grain in trough, make lots of noise doing it. Try to keep clean. Try to remain calm.
9. Get out of way when horses stampede to feeding trough. Try to remain upright in mud. Forget about clean.
10. Forget about feeding old lady horse by herself. She’s eatiing. Take halter off. Get back to gate, shut it.
11. Return pails to feed room. Remove muddy boots. Breathe sigh of relief.
Having spent a few days with Jacksonville Equine veterinarian Dr. Dietz, I noticed a trend in her business. It goes something like this:
“Hey doc, while you’re here would you mind doing a Coggins on my horse. I just live next door. It will only take a minute…”
Well, as long as you’re here go ahead and float my horse’s teeth if it needs to be done…”
“As long as we knew you were coming, my sister brought her horses over too. Could you vaccinate them as well…”
“Hey, as long as you’re here, do you have time to castrate a goat, or maybe all three of them?”
Several days with only a few known appointments have turned out to be considerably longer days than expected. Some days this is good. Others, not so much. It can be a scheduling nightmare. However, Dr. J is getting good at upselling her services and rarely turns anyone down. Because farms are often far apart it is much easier to do more work in one location and apologize to the next client for being a bit late, than to come back later. The “while you’re here” conversation usually means a savings of time for her and is welcomed.
My unusual experience on this trip was the procedure on the three goats. I’m not going into details here but in general, she is good with the knife and it didn’t take very long at all. One was awake and walking around by the time we left, the other two were still sleeping off the anesthesia. Goats snore.
The five days I spent in Jacksonville were sunny and beautifully temperate which is different from our usual rainy weekends there. The farms we visited were green grassed and clean. Our own horses were looking sleek and shiny and their pasture was dry, not a sea of mud. I could imagine it being a good place for Dr. J to live and practice.
Today Dr. Julia had only one appointment and we were going to spend a good part of the day switching her vet box from one truck to another – a process requiring a lot of unloading and reloading and four strong men to do it. Unfortunately the doc has also been on call all day. It is now dark and she is still giving shots to Howdy, Whiz, and Li’l Snip.
It’s been a long day and a hard day. The worst of it was euthanizing a sweet little mini who was in severe colic. We shed tears along with the family over that one. Those are not easy decisions to make.
And we have not even started switching trucks. Maybe tomorrow. Some days are just this unpredictable.
They really are beautiful animals, horses. When I think about it very long, it starts seeming strange to me what an network of industries has been built up around this one animal. Even though they are not used for work in average situations anymore, are not a common means of serious transportation, they are large, eat a lot and require a good amount of care – still people are so enamored with horses, especially women. You see horses standing peacefully in a field, or yard or stall and you naturally think “people ride those horses”. No they don’t, not necessarily.
I spent three days with Doc Julia last week. She hurt her back and needed a lackey to help lug her equipment around. I love watching her work and was glad I had the time to go. It was three days of meeting more horses than people. Horses with infected ears, horses with kick wounds, horses with bad skin and sunburn, horses with worms, horses, horses, horses… It seems being a horse in today’s world, especially in Florida, has a lot of hazards.
First of all, if you’re a horse, you had better belong to someone with a little extra cash because you eat like a horse. There is a good reason for that common saying. Horses eat continuously (except when sleeping). They are grazing animals and are most healthy when they can have a little bit of hay or grass going through their system all the time. My daughter’s horses live in a big pasture which appears to be green with some kind of plant but the reality is that the good grass is pretty scarce. Horses don’t like to eat most weeds. (They only like to eat the ones that aren’t good for them – that’s how smart they are.) Bales of hay cost from $7 -$15 and you get what you pay for in quality. And most horses down here also need to be fed some kind of pelletized feed, or oats – also costly in the amounts needed. There is also the supplement market which rivals the human supplement market in competitive fury and complexity. $$$$$
All this eating does amazing things to a horse’s teeth. They wear down where they rub against each other. If their bite isn’t perfectly balanced (and most of them aren’t) they get high places, points, and hooks where there is no wear. It can get difficult and painful to eat if these areas aren’t filed down and smoothed. Enter horse dentistry. $$$$ In the three days I spent with Doc Julia we did eight dentals. Think about your own experience with the dentist. Now try to imagine this happening to a huge, clueless animal who doesn’t like it any more than you do. Yeah, right.
Horses that eat the wrong thing or not enough of the right thing get sick. They get ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, stomach ache and bowel obstruction. Again, if you are a horse you had better have an owner who is willing to call the doctor for a house call because you could die quite suddenly in great pain and agony if you don’t.
If you are a horse, you are on the lookout for anything that could be preying upon you. If you get scared, you move fast to get away. You run into barbed wire fences and tear up your skin, you step in holes and break bones. You can hurt yourself in your own stall. Your life depends on being able to stand on your feet but your hooves are subject to all kinds of conditions that could disable you. You founder, you get eye infections, you get rain rot on your skin. You are a horse and you had better have an owner who loves you.
All this brings us back to the peaceful scene in the pasture – horses grazing on green grass, tails swishing, manes moving with the breeze. Many of these horses can no longer be ridden because of age or infirmity. They are there because someone likes to look at them, pet them and spend money on them. They are there because someone has memories of their better days and loves to see them happy and content. I’m just sayin’, they are the lucky ones.
One of my all time favorite tv series is James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small”. How interesting and fun it is to now be watching my daughter live out her own version of that story. Real doctors treat more than one species, or so it says on the back of her t-shirt. Doctor J is a vet’nary specializing in large animals, mainly horses but also cows, pigs, sheep, goats and other farm creatures.
Although this is a long standing dream of hers, to be a vet, and she finds it meaningful and satisfying, it is not always pleasant, convenient or easy. In fact, it is often unpleasant, inconvenient and hard. She has a mobile practice and travels from farm to farm with her truck full of supplies and equipment. At present, the area she covers is wide and she spends much time on the road. Many nights she is not home until 9 or 10 and still has her own animals to care for, oh, and herself to feed and put to bed. …
Sometimes when I visit, I ride with her and pretend I’m part of her team (after all, I am a nurse – I know how to fetch a scalpel or a suture, or the lubricant…). From my daughter I learned how to hold a sheep and how to pull a horse’s tongue out of the way while his teeth are getting filed (floated). She has saved a choking horse and set a lamb’s broken leg. She does ultrasounds and x-rays on her patients lugging heavy equipment cases to the field or the barn. She endures the most awkward positions for hours while sewing up a bad laceration or bandaging a difficult area. And she is often called upon when owners decide that their animal needs that last compassionate act.
And who would have thought that someone with sensitivities to organization (sock drawer perfection) and cleanliness (professional house cleaner) would develop such a high tolerance for dirt, manure and horse spit? It’s all part of the job for Dr. J., Equine Vet’nary.