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. Β 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. IΒ had been reading lately about heat exhaustion in horses. Β 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.