It had snowed the night before. It was a light fluffy snow that had had gently settled onto the earth. It filled the crevices and depressions in the forest floor. It left a thick insulating blanket over the landscape.
The grouse had taken refuge in the lee of a familiar poplar and except for the occasional fluffing of her feathers she did not stir all night. She knew that somehow she was not in danger of being trapped by a heavy wet snow. This light airy blanket could completely cover her and she would be fine.
It had been an easy fall with mild temperatures and plenty of food. Her clutch of chicks were grown and gone. She would spend a solitary winter. She would forage and rest until spring. The drumming of the cocks would signal the change and the time for mating.
For now her life was simple. There were no young to protect and feed. There were no males vying for her favor. The absence of these complicating factors added to her already quiet rest.
The snow stopped sometime during the night. The morning dawned bright and clear. With a sudden rush of energy she burst from her bed. The wind picked up crystalline snow scattered by her exit and swirled it into the air. The sun caught the airborne prisms. It was as if there were thousands of diamonds caught in flight.
She flew to an oft-used perch in the same poplar that had sheltered her during the night. With typical animal patience she sat and surveyed her world before hunger motivated her to move.
It mattered not to her that today was Christmas. She knew a less specific calendar. In her own way she was thankful for her good fortune but no more this day than any other. She had three seasons of successful chick rearing behind her. There was plenty of forage. The owls and hawks had let her be. She was fulfilling her purpose in life. She was content.
I have been a horseman since I was a teenager. I began my riding at a resort in Virginia called The Greenbriar. I had gone there with my family. I don’t remember much about that first ride other than my horse sneezed when I was in the saddle. It scared me to the point of never wanting to get back on a horse again. Fortunately, that did not happen. I went onto ride in many places during my youth and later as a young man in my twenties. When we were first married and living in Boston I would travel out to Concord to ride out of a barn there. I gained the trust of the barn’s owner and was given permission to fetch an horse and go on my own on the trails in the adjacent countryside. I rode a Belgian mare whose name escapes me now but the memory of our rambles lives on.
We did a spell in Ann Arbor when I went back to college at the University of Michigan. There I leased a horse at a barn in Hell (small town near Ann Arbor, not the legendary Hades). Again my mount’s name escapes me but I do recall that he was prone to spooking at anything white that we came across on our rides. It could be a discarded fridge or even a scrap of paper by the trail but he never failed to think he was about to be eaten by a monster and would launch himself sideways with no warning. I learned to be ever vigilant for all things white.
Fast forward to the present day. I now am the owner of two horses. Cyra, my mare, is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland pony. She looks like a miniature Clydesdale but in fact is small enough to be still technically a pony. I also own a gelding by the name of PJ who is 16 hand Tennessee Walker. It is an interesting pairing, the pony and the big rangy gelding but I love them both very much for the very reason that they are so different and provide me with very different riding experiences. Cyra is very steady and slow. PJ is spooky and fast. It is Cyra I am going to write about today.
I work at a barn about a mile from my farm. Both of my horses are involved in the work that I do. I am the co-founder of an equine assisted psychotherapy practice called Healing Through Horses. I ride PJ to work on Tuesdays and Cyra to work on Thursdays. With Cyra’s broad back, short stature and even temperament, I choose to ride her bareback. Sitting on her is like sitting in a warm overstuffed easy chair. PJ is too tall, too bony and too hot for a bareback ride. I ride him in a western roper’s saddle. On Thursdays our sessions go till after dark so our ride home is in the dark. I have equipped myself with the same lights a bike rider would wear, white in front, red in the back. The rides home after dark are always different. There are some nights when there are no stars or moon and perhaps even some fog. Those nights are very interesting as I have to trust Cyra to not be bothered by the sudden appearance of the headlights of oncoming cars and trucks.
Several weeks ago we made our way home not on a dark cloudy night but a night filled with stars and a nearly full moon in a cloudless sky. It was so bright, I turned our lights off. I normally ride home on the roads at night but this night was so bright that I decided to thread my way through the woods and fields to get back to my home barn. Coming out of the driveway at work, feeling the warmth of her body under me, I turned her toward home for a short stretch before disappearing into the moonlit woods. Riding by moonlight is a wonderful experience. The light is so ethereal that it feels as though you have entered into another world, similar to the day world but strangely different as well. Everything is softer with muted shapes and light that tricks the eyes into seeing things that are not there.
We crossed an open field at one point and the snow glowed softly in the moonlight. The apple trees that dotted the field seemed eager to transform themselves into other forms. I half expected to come across sleeping deer under those trees but did not. I grabbed a handful of Cyra’s thick black mane and picked up a trot and then a canter. Cyra’s hooves threw snow into the air in swirls at her feet. She was wearing a string of sleigh bells and the tinkling sound of the bells added additional magic to the already mystical ride. We reentered the woods at a walk, making our way though the dusky pines. We were soon back at the barn, welcomed by the whinny of PJ. I slid off her bare back, gave her thick neck a hug, fed her a treat and led her into the barn. It was a ride I will not soon forget. Michael Fralich firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifteen years ago I came home one afternoon from my teaching job at the Gray New Gloucester Middle School to find a flock of four geese sitting in my barn driveway. I had kept chickens for years but I had never had geese. I had no idea where they came from or what to do about them. Chickens I knew. They lived in a coop in the barnyard. I raised them for eggs. They went into their coop at night and I closed the door. Being an animal lover and knowing that I would learn as I went along with these new additions to the farm, I began to offer them food and water.
They seemed to settle in quite nicely. They didn’t mind the horses and the horses, although curious, didn’t seem to mind them. They were all white and after some research I determined that they were a breed called Pilgrim. While you cannot tell the sex of a goose by external characteristics, behavior is a guide. All of my new geese seemed to be getting along just fine with no one goose standing out as dominant. This led me to believe they were all females with no male or gander.
Word in the neighborhood got out that I now had geese and I was approached by a local family who had a gander that was looking for a home. This gander was a Toulouse which has dark varied plumage. I agreed to take him on knowing that this would likely result in my having more geese at some point down the road. I had a goose house built for them which they studiously ignored, preferring to claim the barnyard as theirs. When winter rolled around, they still ignored their house and would camp in the barnyard in the foulest weather, heads tucked under wings riding out even the worst of storms.
When spring came, they began to lay eggs and it became a tradition for the kids to take an egg to their teacher as a gift. They ultimately hatched out multiple clutches of goslings. Our children were in grade school at the time and were fascinated by the babies and were afraid that if I left them to fend for themselves, even with their parent’s protection, they would be taken by predators. We decided to take them from their parents and keep them protected. The babies then imprinted on our kids and would follow them around the farm like feathered puppies. They would take them for walks down to the brook to give them a chance to swim and then back to the farm and their house. They were a cross between their white moms and dark dad and were a lovely mottled color.
As the years rolled by more geese raised made it to maturity and the flock increased in size to at one point just shy of twenty individuals. When our kids were no longer kids, we let nature manage the flock and there were some years when no babies made it to adults. In the spring when the geese were laying but not sitting yet, I would collect the eggs to have for breakfast. One goose egg made a dandy meal. Our daughter once collected enough eggs to make a platter of hard boiled eggs from them. It was quite impressive as goose eggs are easily four times the size of a chicken egg.
The geese that did survive to adulthood were of course not all females. Ganders were added to the flock which made the flock dynamics interesting to say they least. In the spring the barnyard was a raucous place as ganders fought with other ganders for the right to breed with the females. A dozen geese all honking at each other is a sound not to be forgotten. We had a gander one year who decided that it was his job to either bite me in the butt when I wasn’t looking or to bite the tires of the school bus as it stopped to pick up kids. He met his end under the tire of a truck one sad day.
One of our geese once developed an infected foot, Bumble Foot we discovered was the name of her condition. I made the perhaps foolish decision to treat her and took her to the vet. He gave her a shot of antibiotics and sent us home with ten preloaded syringes to continue her treatment. My sainted wife opted to be the holder of the goose while I was the shooter ( I had to inject her breast with the medicine). She recovered nicely but I don’t think my wife ever did. It was at that point that we learned that geese can live to be thirty years old.
Our present flock numbers twelve. All of the original flock is gone. They roam the property at will adding their voices to the symphony of sounds at the farm. Some have died of old age, some have been taken by predators (fishers will kill a goose, take its head and leave the body untouched). Our current challenge with the geese centers around our two dogs, Mocha and Sadie. They are English Shepherds and are hard wired to herd animals. They have taken to herding the geese off the farm. The geese were taking up residence in the middle of the road much to the sometimes amusement and sometimes chagrin of our neighbors. I built them a pen, moved them back onto the farm and into their pen but the dogs have continued to drive them out (the geese are capable fliers when pushed). As of last week, the geese have taken up residence in the marsh opposite the farm. There is open water there. They are out of the road. The dogs will not go there as it is outside of their Invisible Fence. I am walking to the marsh and throwing them cracked corn each morning. Everyone seems quite happy.
Life at the farm is never boring.
Postscript to my geese journal…..
February 3, 2016
Since I completed my entry concerning my geese there have been some new developments that I would like to touch on. When I went down to the marsh last week to scatter some cracked corn for my errant geese I was shocked to discover that six out of the twelve were missing. It seemed unlikely to me that a predator or predators would have taken six adult geese in twenty-four hours. There was no sign of struggle, no blood or scattered feathers that would have indicated an attack had taken place in the marsh. I heaved a sigh, fed the remaining six geese and went on with my day.
The next day when I went down to scatter cracked corn I was dismayed to discover that all of the geese were now gone. Again, no sign of struggle, no blood, no feathers. I could not hear any sounds that would indicate that they had just gone further into the marsh. They were just gone. Twelve healthy, adult geese each weighing approximately fifteen pounds, had simply vanished. I was left to ponder their fate for several days before I saw three of my flock on the road near the barn.
I the intervening days, I have been on the lookout for the remainder of the flock to no avail. I have not heard any sounds that would indicate that the other nine gees were anywhere in the marsh. I have been leaving food in my enclosure with the gate open and have had luck walking them into their new space several times but when I go to the barn to do the morning chores, they are always gone.
I am perplexed about the fate of most of my flock and it is entirely possible that I will never know what happened to them. Stay tuned for updates. I will share any new news as I have it.
In my fifty years being around horses, I have learned many things not only about horses but also about myself. That process will never stop. My animals are my greatest teachers. Some time back, I was asked by a friend to come to a workshop she was planning and talking about my experiences with horses. My response to this request was to come up with a list that I called Michael’s Maxims. It is in no way a complete list of suggestions, just thoughts that came to me at the time. So, without further ado, here they are….
1. Always close all doors to stalls and double check that they are closed.
2. Never get between two mares in a tight space.
3. Talk to your horse whenever you are around him or her.
4. Make sure you touch your horse every day even if you do not ride.
5. Never leave tools where your horse can get to them.
6. Buy more hay than you think you will need. If you can’t store it all in your loft, ask your hay supplier to store it for you.
7. Install a frost free hydrant in your barn no matter the cost.
8. Go for full moon rides.
9. Find a teenager in your neighborhood who you trust and have them help you with chores when you need them.
10. Learn to ride bareback.
11. Never let your horse run back to the barn.
12. Find a feed store that you like and be loyal to them. If they will deliver to your barn, take advantage of that.
13. Find people in your area who can do large animal care. Establish a relationship with them so that you can travel when you want to.
14. Sleep in your barn at least once in your life.
15. Find horse people in your neighborhood and ride with them.
16. Stay in the barn after you are done with your chores and hang out with them as they eat.
17. Watch your horses when they can’t see you from time to time.
18. Occasionally skip grooming and feet and go for a twenty minute ride if that is all the time you have.
19. Clean your barn as if the vet was coming every day but also don’t beat yourself up if your barn chores get neglected from time to time.
20. If you can afford a second horse, get one. If you can’t, take in a boarder.
21. Be firm with your horse but always back up that firmness with love.
22. Whenever you touch your horse, put your heart in your hand.
23. Whenever you have the time to make it happen, remember that groundwork is essential to a good ride.
24. Regularly take the time to just stand with your horse and just hang out.
25. Find your horse’s special spot to be scratched and frequently give it a good scratch.
26. Know that your horse loves you unconditionally and always try to return that love unconditionally as well.
27. Always listen to what your horse is telling you and respect what you are reading from them.
28. When your horse has a flight response, try your best to determine what triggered it.
29. Trust your horse’s instincts. If they do not want to go forward, understand that there is a reason why.
30. Remember that with horses, it is all good until it suddenly isn’t and when shit happens, breathe.
On Monday, February 18th at 10:00 AM, my beloved friend and greatest teacher, Tonka died. He had been in my barn for twenty years and for the past seven years was totally blind. He never lost his courage or confidence when he lost his sight. He adapted and got on with his life. It was easy to forget that he lived in a world of darkness. He knew his world very well and would frequently canter away into the pasture with no hesitation, in love with his life to the very end. He touched many lives and will be remembered and held tenderly in many hearts.