Transitions at the Farm, Part IV

The next morning, as I walked down to the barn, I was greeted by this sight:

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Good morning!

Somebody was ready for breakfast. I opened the big doors at the back of the barn and greeted Shady. I brought him into his stall to eat, and a moment later, Foxie appeared, ready for her breakfast. It was a lovely surprise as I had envisioned having to track down the horses by foot every morning, knowing that Foxie would just as soon stay out and eat grass rather than make the trek to the barn for the handful of grain she received during the summer months. Thank you, Shady!

While Shady was learning the new routine and Foxie was adapting to her stable mate, little did I know that there were still a few more challenges in store for us.

Intense heat was not unexpected for mid July, but the string of hot and humid days with heat indexes over 100 degrees were hard on the horses and people alike. After breakfast, I turned the horses out for an hour or two in a paddock where there were trees. But by mid morning, it was too hot for Shady to be outside because he would wander out of the shade and into the sunlight where the temperature was several degrees warmer. Even grazing in the shade, at times, his coat would be wet with sweat. So I brought the horses in around 10 or 11 a.m. each morning, and they stood in front of their fans, licking their salt blocks.

By 4 p.m., each afternoon, the barn heated up, and I felt it was more comfortable for the horses to be outside in the afternoon shade. The stalls had to be cleaned fairly quickly to avoid the fly population multiplying. I could feel sweat running down my face as I scooped up piles of manure in the near-100-degree heat.

Because the smaller shady paddocks were getting overeaten, it was important to move the horses into the big pasture for the night. But the big pasture was in full sun most of the day, until about 7 p.m. At that time, I turned the horses out to the bigger space.

Unfortunately, Foxie and Shady’s second night together was also the evening of Barnstock, an outdoor rock concert that was just down the road. Over the past several years, during the evening of the concert, it’s been hard to sleep at night as the music played on and on, sometimes through the wee hours of the morning. This year, the equipment must have been upgraded because the music seemed even louder. The horses were anxious as the music played on and on. Just before dark, my husband and I took a walk down the road to see what was going on with the concert. I also wanted to check on the horses. They were standing on the lower part of the hill where the music was slightly muffled. I imagined their sensitive ears were still ringing the next morning.

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I was sure we had survived the worst of things when I walked down the hill to the barn the next afternoon. Suddenly, I heard gunshots. They were so loud, I wondered if should duck or call out in case someone was shooting near our woods. It felt like a bullet might come whizzing towards me at any second. Sunny, who usually likes to run ahead, pressed close to my side.  The horses were anxiously pacing the fence line. I peered through the trees on the edge of our property and saw my neighbors in one of their fields. They own a large dairy farm, and, occasionally, I’d heard shooting coming from that direction. Perhaps a fox or a coyote was bothering their calves or maybe they were just having target practice. I had no idea what they were doing, but they were awfully close to us, it involved guns and I wanted it to stop. I brought the horses into their stalls, hoping to calm them. Shady couldn’t stop circling and Foxie, who normally carries her head low, was alert and anxious.

It wasn’t quite 7 p.m. and the big pasture was still mostly sunny and very hot, but I thought the horses might settle down if they were further away from the shooting. I led the horses to the back of the barn. Once there, they galloped up the lane and into the ring (which is in the middle of the big pasture). During the sunny hours, the ring is the hottest place on the farm, so I didn’t want to leave them there. The horses were too anxious to turn around and go back out the gate they had entered because that would mean they’d have to move closer to the gunshots. So I walked up to the ring to slide open the metal bars that were on the far side away from the noise. After I slid the top rail off, Shady trotted over and jumped the lower rail. Foxie waited until the second rail was open before joining him.

There was a patch of shade by the trees that was slowly expanding, and I hoped the horses might walk into it. By now, the horses were both covered in sweat, after running up the hill and then standing in the hot ring. The combination of heat and anxiety worried me. I didn’t want either of them getting dehydrated or suffering from heat exhaustion. I walked back to barn and grabbed a halter and lead rope. Back in the big pasture, both horses were still standing in the sun, heads high, as they looked towards where the gunshots were coming from.

I walked over to Foxie, put the halter on her and led her into the shade. Shady followed close behind. I stood with the horses enjoying the slightly cooler air. But as soon as I slipped the halter off of Foxie, she cantered right back into the sun, with Shady right behind her.

I grumbled aloud. The heat and their reactions were making me irritable. I wasn’t that surprised. They wanted to be as far from the gunshots as possible. And fear overrode discomfort. But I couldn’t leave them in the sun, their coats slick with sweat. I walked up to Foxie again and slipped the halter over her head. My plan was to lead her (with Shady following) down to the shady paddock. They would be a little closer to the gunshots, but at least they wouldn’t overheat.

I led Foxie down to the cooler paddock, and, as I suspected he would, Shady followed. I opened the gate and walked Foxie several feet in in order to give Shady room to enter behind her. Without thinking, I slipped the halter off of Foxie, preparing to walk over and close the gate. Typically, Foxie would stand still, drop her head and begin grazing. But at that moment, another round of loud gunshots went off. As soon as Foxie felt the halter clear her head, she whirled around, galloped past me, slipped out the gate and took off up the hill. Shady, of course, was right behind her. I stood there shaking my head, exasperated.

About this time, I heard my husband’s car coming down our hill. I hurried to the front of the barn to meet him, waving my arms to slow him down. He opened his window with a questioning look. I yelled: “Do you hear the gunshots? The horses are going crazy! I’m afraid they’re going to overheat! Can you call the neighbors?”

A few minutes later, my cell phone rang. Joel told me the neighbors were shooting skeet. He told them the horses were acting up, and they kindly offered to move to another field. I’m thankful that Joel made the call, as I know he was extremely cordial, acknowledging that they were on their own property and asking very politely for a favor. As I’ve said in the past, we have wonderful neighbors. But at the end of this long week, seeing the horses so upset and dangerously hot, I wouldn’t have been so polite.

A few moments later, thankfully, the gunshots subsided. The horses were still in the direct sun, so I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them there. This time I walked up our gravel driveway, hoping to call to them and encourage them into the shade, now that the noise had ended. But, of course, the horses weren’t ready to settle down and graze peacefully. They trotted around with their heads and tails held high. I had been reading lately about heat exhaustion in horses.  The article warned of flaring nostrils as a first sign. I could see the pink of both horses’ nostrils.

I still had Foxie’s halter over my shoulder, so I went to the big gates along the driveway. I would slip through, halter Foxie and lead both horses to their stalls. That way I could give them baths and let them stand in front of their fans for a bit, cooling their body temperatures before turning them out again. A wasp was circling the gate, but I figured I could easily slip by it. I made it inside when the chain that kept the double gates closed fell to the ground. I leaned down to pick it up, then wrapped it around the metal bars. Unfortunately, I had to do this blindly, and being overheated and stressed myself, I was rushing. I felt two pin pricks on my arm. Ugh! The wasp! Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. My adrenaline must have kept the pain down for a minute or two. Suddenly, I felt the intense sting that always comes with a wasp. It was accompanied by another wave of irritation … I knew better. I could have prevented this.

Foxie and Shady walked somewhat placidly down to the barn. I bathed them both and let them cool down in front of their fans before turning them out in the smaller paddock. In the wash rack, I ran cool water over the swelling on my arm. What could possible happen next?

Well, the next afternoon, Foxie showed signs of being in heat. I first noticed her pacing the fence line, then, after turning her out in the big pasture, she stayed by the barn, circling the small area at a trot. Shady, who had cantered up the lane to the big pasture, realized Foxie wasn’t behind him and slowly meandered back to the mare. As soon as Shady arrived, Foxie trotted back out to the big pasture. A few minutes later, she came trotting back to the barn and began circling again. She did this over and over…and Shady followed her back and forth. Foxie hadn’t turned into Super Mare, the way April did, but this was not Foxie’s normal behavior. She was in a stronger heat than I’ve ever seen with her.

I was beginning to wonder if the universe was conspiring against me and the horses. From Foxie escaping to the loud concert and gunshots to the unbearable heat, wasp stings and now Foxie’s strong heat. Shady was new and his presence at the barn had shaken things up. I was prepared for some activity. But usually horses transition to new situations within a few days. This wasn’t Shady’s fault. He was as much a victim as I was.

A part of me was frustrated and tired, but another part of me noted each unusual event with curiosity and interest. Horses and their personalities have always fascinated me, and watching how they reacted to new situations was like unraveling a mystery. I appreciated the opportunity to understand these wonderful animals at a deeper level. But I was tired…and ready for a rest.

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First Glimpse

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After the scare with Foxie going missing the previous day, I wasn’t sure what I would find in the big pasture the next day. I was so relieved to catch this “first glimpse” of the horses in the morning. They were together, resting under the trees. It looked like a glimpse of Eden.

I called to them as I walked up the hill. Both horses turned to face me. It took some time, but eventually Shady took a few steps towards me. We hadn’t established a morning routine yet, and, without April to lead her, I knew Foxie might not walk towards the barn.

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My second glimpse of the horses.

I walked back to the barn and grabbed a feed scoop with some grain in it. This time when I called to the horses and shook the scoop, Shady walked purposely towards me. He liked the sound of breakfast. And Foxie began moving slowly behind him.

That morning was drama-free, and I enjoyed watching the horses as they ate their grain, and later, as I turned them out into the shaded paddock beside the barn. Maybe we were turning a corner.

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All is peaceful as Foxie and Shady graze in the paddock beside the barn.


Transitions at the Farm, Part III: Foxie’s Reaction

After saying goodbye to April, it was time to let Foxie and Shady get to know each other on their terms. We turned Foxie and Shady out into adjacent pastures, so they could visit over the fence. To my surprise, there was no squealing, just some touching of noses and then a sweet moment of mutual neck scratching.

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Foxie and Shady getting to know each other.

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The horses nibbled on each other’s necks with no squealing. It seemed like a good sign.

Since things were going so well, I decided to let the horses graze together in the paddock. I watched them for a long while to see how they would get along. Mares are typically “in charge,” and will often put a gelding in his place with a well-timed bite or kick. Shady was clearly more interested in Foxie than she was in him. He followed her around the pasture, never letting her get more than a few feet away without walking or trotting up to her. Foxie seemed mostly disinterested, though occasionally she would pin her ears at Shady, as if to say “That’s close enough.”

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Shady keeps his eye on Foxie in the pasture.

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Foxie allows Shady to come close. Just not too close.

That evening, I turned Foxie and Shady out into the big pasture together for the first time. In preparation for this, earlier in the week, I put April and Foxie in the big pasture during the evening and put Shady in the ring where he could graze and see them. I wanted Shady to get a feel for the openness of the larger pasture, and I wanted Foxie to get used to Shady’s presence.

Shady cantered up the lane to the big pasture, and Foxie trotted behind him. I hoped that this would mark the beginning of their friendship — an evening together, grazing and watching out for each other in this larger space. Later that night, Sydney and I walked down to see how the horses were getting along. All looked calm and peaceful.

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Shady and Foxie grazing together in the big pasture.

The next morning, I woke up to the quiet anticipation of seeing Foxie and Shady together in the big pasture, noticing their interactions and watching how the feeding routine worked itself out. Which horse would lift his or her head first? Who (if either of them) would come to the sound of my voice? Would Foxie whirl and try to kick Shady to teach him to respect her? Or would Shady come galloping over, leaving Foxie to meander to the barn at her own pace?

The first thing I noticed when I got to the barn was that the large back doors were parted and Shady was peering in. We close them in the evening when the horses are in the big pasture, so that, on the off chance that Foxie might wander back to the barn, she wouldn’t be able to slip through the white bars at that end, walk through the aisle, slip through another set of bars and escape. She did this once a few months ago, when April was here, and she stayed near the front of the barn contentedly grazing on the fresh grass there while April called to her and paced back and forth at the back of the barn. April was a little afraid of the sound that the white bars (which were basically chains covered in pvc pipe) made when they moved, so she would never try to slip through them. And I had the sense that Shady felt the same way.

But my first thought when I saw the barn doors partway open was NOT that Foxie had slipped under the bars. Shady wasn’t acting anxious or worried as a horse might if he’d been left behind. He simply seemed happy to see me and ready for his breakfast. So I brought him into his stall and gave him some grain and a flake of hay. Then I walked out to the big pasture and called for Foxie. I was a little surprised that she wasn’t nearby, in the lane or on the hill going up to the ring. But, maybe she was pouting about April being gone…and keeping her distance from Shady.

I looked at the stand of trees near the driveway. No Foxie. As I crested the hill to the ring, I expected to see the top of her back. She was often hard to spot until you were almost upon her because of her low head carriage and the way her light palomino color blended with the morning sun. But she wasn’t in any of her usual places…near the fence by the road, in the far corner of the pasture. A flash of panic went through me. She’s gone!

I made myself think logically. Maybe she was lying down. Could she have colicked during the night? The stress of being with a new horse could have made her sick. She could be in a low spot in the pasture, more difficult to see. No. The pasture appeared to be empty. My mind started clicking…Where could she be? Looking for April? She was in heat yesterday, the sides of her vulva slick with moisture. In the past, when she was in heat, she often ran towards the fence to our west. We often joked that “her imaginary boyfriend” lived over that way. But once or twice when she had perked her ears and called out, she actually received a long, neighing response coming from somewhere in that direction.

I half-ran back to the barn, threw another flake of hay to Shady, who was getting antsy by himself in the stall, turning in circles and whinnying. “It’s okay, fella,” I said softly. “We’re gonna find her.” I walked back up the hill to the house. My plan was to get in the car and drive around the pasture, to look more closely at every spot of the field. And I needed to tell Sydney. I hated to wake her with this news. But Foxie was her horse, and she would want to know. I also needed her help. If we found her somewhere, one of us would have to lead her home, the other drive the car.

“Sydney, Foxie’s gone. She’s not in the pasture,” I said. It didn’t take her long to process my words. “What? Where’s Foxie?” I could hear the panic in her voice. “How’d she get out? Where did she go?”

“We’ll find her,” I tried to be reassuring. “I’m going to drive around the pasture to make sure she’s not there. But I don’t think she is. I’ll come back to the house after that. If I don’t find her we’ll need to search for her.

I drove the car slowly around the perimeter of the pasture, looking for any golden swell close to the ground that might turn out to be Foxie. But I saw nothing but grass and weeds. I drove up our next-door neighbor’s driveway. They have a park-like area next to a creek where cows who escape from the neighboring dairy farm sometimes come to graze. The grass is lush and green. I peered into the shadows under the trees. No Foxie. I drove towards the back of their property where there is a half-acre field, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Still, no Foxie.

As I drove back to the house for Sydney, I considered dialing 911. Is that who you call for a missing horse? Or should I call Animal Control? In all my years of working with horses, I’d never had one go missing. I could post a notice on Facebook, share the news with the local horse forum. But, first, I thought I should stop and talk with the neighbors. We had wonderful neighbors. Living in the country over the past two decades, I’d learned that neighbors look out for each other. This past week, after Shady arrived, April had escaped, the first time she’d ever left the barn (and Foxie). As best we could figure she jiggled the latch to her stall door with her nose and opened it, then jumped over the white bars. Our neighbor saw her cross the road and his father, an old dairyman, was able to catch her and lead her back to our barn with a string of twine. This was the same neighbor who built our barn over 20 years ago.

I grabbed Foxie’s halter and a scoop of feed, and Sydney met me outside the house as soon as she heard my car. “Where could she be?” she asked as we drove down the gravel driveway. “I think she’s looking for April. She could be really far away.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, trying to soothe us both. But in my own mind, I imagined Foxie wandering through the brush, searching for her friend. I had felt her sadness when April left yesterday. My chest had ached when Foxie looked out her stall window and let out a piercing whinny. “We know she’s in heat,” I said. “And whenever she’s in heat, she’s starts calling for her boyfriend.” I gave Sydney a wry smile. “But I know she misses April.”

“We’ll start looking in the closest places and go from there. We’ll talk to all our neighbors in case anyone has seen her.” I pulled down the drive of a nearby farm, the place where we had envisioned Foxie’s “imaginary boyfriend” living. There was a white fence and an empty field with long grass, then a stand of trees. I kept driving and there was another pasture. “There she is!” Sydney pointed. As we both looked, we saw the shape of our Foxie standing towards the back of the field. She turned her sweet face toward us, as if to say, “Hello. I know you. Look what a lovely field I found.” There was a barn just beyond the field, and we saw a man there who must have been the one who caught her.

“Oh, thank goodness,” I said, sighing. I pulled into the driveway in front of the barn and got out of the car.

“Did you lose a horse,” the man said, straightening up from behind a lawn mower. He wiped his hands on his pants. “She’s a sweet one. How’d she get out?” he asked.

“We have a new horse at the barn,” I said, starting to explain. “She nudged the barn doors open and went under some poles.”

“Well, I guess you’ve got a job to take care of this afternoon,” he said to Sydney, his eyes twinkling.

When I called Foxie, she came trotting over,  and I slipped the halter onto her nose. I looked around to see if there was any evidence of “a boyfriend.” A miniature horse was trotting around a small enclosure.

“We’ve just got a little pony around the place now,” the man said. “Want a pony?”

I laughed. “Not really,” I said smiling. “We’re having enough trouble with this one.” I looked at Foxie, who was happily grazing.

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We found her! Foxie had discovered a lovely field on our neighbor’s property.

Sydney and I worked it out that she would drive the car home, while I led Foxie back to our barn along the road. It was less than a mile and Foxie behaved herself. She appeared no worse for the wear, and maybe even a little proud of herself that she’d had this adventure. She particularly seemed to enjoy ending up in a pasture with nice long grass.

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Foxie on her way home.

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“Wait,” says Foxie. “Did I miss breakfast?”

Shady welcomed her home with a loud neigh. I led Foxie up to his stall and they touched noses. There was no squealing or striking out with front legs, just a calm sort of acceptance that they were back together again.

I turned both horses out into the paddock behind Foxie’s stall where they could enjoy the morning shade. The horses grazed without taking much notice of each other. A couple of times Foxie wandered over to April’s stall and looked inside. Every now and then, Shady would pick his head up from the grass and walk a little closer to Foxie. She didn’t move away or towards him, just simply continued to graze.

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Foxie and Shady back together again, after Foxie’s adventure.

It’s my sense that when horses are in a small herd, as Foxie and April were, transitions are harder for them. They seem to become bonded in a deeper, more abiding way than when they are part of a large herd, or stabled with a greater number of horses.

When Shady first arrived at the barn, it shook things up. His presence was extremely exciting and stimulating for April. She went into a strong heat and was thrilled to see him…at least half of the time. April was prancing near Shady, lifting her tail and whinnying for him. The other half, April would stand in a far corner of the field with Foxie, as if they were a clique – two girls whispering about the new fellow. Foxie, on the other hand, never took a lot of notice of Shady. She seemed to be the steadying influence, the calm horse in the midst of a sea of hormonal surges. But once April was gone, I think Foxie missed her friend. It was more than habit for her to stick close to April or hide behind her. It was a sweet relationship, a deep friendship and bond that had grown over their year together.

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Foxie and April at the far end of the paddock, away from Shady.

Now that April is gone, I trust that Foxie and Shady will “work things out,” that they will become friends. But, it will be a process. I don’t expect the kind of drama that went on this morning to be ongoing. In fact, I suspect Foxie’s laid-back attitude will prevail and the horses will fall into a relaxed rhythm and routine, that Shady and Foxie will grow fond of each other. But it remains to be seen how their relationship will develop. I’ve never had a single mare and a single gelding at the barn, so I’m interested to see how it might be different from having two mares. My hope is that these two horses will grow close and learn to trust and rely on one another as Foxie and April did. But it will take time and shared experiences. There is no rush. We are at the beginning of something new….

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Foxie and Shady grazing contentedly.