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.
Last week I laid out the journey that brought me to found Healing Through Horses with my friend and business partner, Sandy Fletcher. This week I would like to continue that narrative. I will attempt to capture what this new phase of my life has meant to me and the people that we serve.
Years ago I realized that I wanted to dedicate my life to serving the needs of others. I did this first through my volunteer work at Maine Audubon, leading nature walks for them. This led me to become certified to be a public school teacher. This morphed into my becoming certified as a therapeutic riding instructor at Riding To The Top in Windham. After eleven years there, Sandy and I founded Healing Through Horses here in New Gloucester.
Healing Through Horses (HTH) differs from Riding To The Top (RTT) in one key way. HTH partners with mental health professionals to offer counseling to people seeking help with their challenges in life. RTT teaches riding to disabled children and adults but offers no mental health services. At HTH I sometimes teach riding to clients if that fits with their treatment goals but not always. Some clients prefer to just learn how to take care of horses. The work at HTH is always done with two providers and the client My therapist partner, Susannah Harnden, works with the client to address their mental health needs. My job is to keep everyone safe as we partner with thousand pound animals that are hard wired to always be on alert as prey animals for danger.
I will begin to reflect on what this works has meant to me with the fact that I love to relate to those I talk to about HTH. I live a mile from where we do our work. My two horses, Cyra and PJ have their own clients in the practice who look forward to seeing them every week. On Tuesdays I ride PJ to work. On Thursdays I ride Cyra to work. Being a life long horse person to be able to not only do this work in partnership with my horses but also to ride them every week, all year round in the day and at night (our Thursday sessions in the winter end at 6:00 when it is fully dark) is a dream come true for me.
At this time of year when the weather is cool and the bugs are gone, I leave my house with plenty of time to be able to wander through my seven miles of trails on our land to make my way to HTH. This never gets old for me. Every time I throw my legs over a horse, it is magic for me. It is such an privilege to be on the back of these magnificent animals. I never take that for granted. That they allow me to be on them and that they are willing to thread their way through Norumbega’s woods through mud, over stone walls and across streams never ceases to amaze me.
When we arrive at HTH, a different kind of magic begins to happen. In the three years we have been in operation, we have gone from Sandy and me partnering with three horses in service to three clients to the present where we have four mental health professionals working with ten equine partners and eighty clients. Not only to we offer mental health counseling we also have a partnership with Avita of Stroudwater, a facility for elders with dementia. Twice a month Avita brings residents to HTH for interaction with Sammy, one of our Quarter-horses, and Cookie, our miniature horse mare. With the addition of the elders we have clients who range in age from six to ninety-six. We also have a small but growing program for veterans struggling with adjustment back to civilian life.
Before I began this work at HTH I had a deep respect for my horses. I knew how they enriched my life. I knew what joy they brought me in all aspects of my journey with them. To be able to fly across an open field on the back of a galloping horse is an experience that I hope I am able to have in my life for years to come. At age sixty-four, it seems nothing short of astounding that I am still able to do that (bareback on my mare Cyra!). Now that I share my equines with others and am witness to what they are able to do in other people’s lives it has deepened my love and respect for them beyond measure.
I will close with a story about just how profound this work can be. We had a client who I will call Mark (not his real name). A vet who suffered from PTSD, depression and anxiety, he came to us heavily medicated, suicidal, house bound and estranged from his two sons. In six weeks with my mare Cyra under Sandy’s and my guidance, he completely turned his life around. He got off his meds, reconnected with his sons, moved to a better place and enrolled in school. When asked how he was able to make such a miraculous transformation in his life, he replied, “It was all because Cyra accepted me as I was and helped me see who I could become.” I feel so blessed to be able to do work that flows from my heart in service to others and in partnership with my equine companions.
Since I graduated from college I have worked at a variety of jobs. I actually went to college twice. I graduated in 1974 from Goddard College with a BA in photography. I tried my hand at being a freelance photographer and managed to get a few jobs before taking a job at a camera store as I needed a steady income. I went back to college and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1981 with a BS in Natural Resources. Once again I was unable to find a position in my field and ended up doing many things for a number of years before I realized that what I really wanted to be was a teacher. I had done volunteer work for Maine Audubon for years and really loved being with children, sharing my time, knowledge and energy with these wonderful young beings. This led me to go to school once again to get my teaching credentials. Thus at age forty, I began a career that finally fit and paid me to do what I loved.
I worked in public education for fifteen years until I decided that while I loved teaching, it did not allow me to call upon my other passion in life, horses. I quit my job at the Gray New Gloucester Middle School and got certified as a therapeutic riding instructor and worked for eleven years for a non-profit located in Windham called Riding To The Top (RTT). At last I was able to blend teaching with horses. For eleven years I worked with a broad range of very special people ranging in age from five to sixty-five.. Our clients were all special needs riders with a variety of physical and emotional challenges. I learned a lot about horses, about myself and about the incredible resilience of my riders.
Four years ago we at RTT were approached by an organization called Crossroads for Women that provides services for adult women recovering form addiction. They came to RTT with their own mental health therapist as RTT had no therapists on staff. Six women came for six weeks for this pilot program. When they arrived for the first time, they were quite intimidated by our equine partners. None of these women had experience with horses. I started out by giving my safety talk and teaching the ladies how to interact with the horses in ways that minimized the chances of feet being stepped on a fingers ending up in horse mouths.
In the six weeks we were together I watched in awe as their new equine friends acted as catalysts for emotional growth and healthy introspection for the women. By the end of their time with us, the women had bonded with their equine partners to such an extent that many tears were shed as they bid farewell to the horses. The journey had been transformative not only for the women but also for me. I realized that this work, equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP), was what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life. It brought together not only my passion for teaching and my passion for horses but also my desire to partner with horses in ways that I never knew existed in service to others as they struggled with their challenges in life. It was at this point in my life that I called my long time friend, fellow horse person and therapist Sandy Fletcher to suggest forming our own non-profit to do EAP. Next time I will continue with how this all unfolded for me with the founding of Healing Through Horses.
We all do chores. It is part of keeping our lives and personal spaces organized and not overwhelmed by the detritus that results from living, eating and maintaining a healthy life. For me, chores are a way of keeping me grounded on a journey that can be at times very chaotic. Chores require a routine. If that routine is adhered to and adapted as conditions change, my life can achieve a fragile state of balance. When a chore cycle is done, I always feel better about myself. I feel as though I have made some sense of my life and the spaces I inhabit. I can stand back and see the results of my labors and know that I am a good person for having disciplined myself to address the clutter that inevitably comes from being alive. My chores are divided into two realms, the house and the barn. It is the barn chores that are the subject of this blog post.
I am a keeper of animals. Some live in the house but most live outside, either in the barn and its environs or in one of the several pastures and orchards that are part of our farm. My outdoor chore cycle begins with a trip to fetch Mocha and Sadie who sleep in a kennel overlooking the orchard. Mocha and Sadie are English Shepherds. Their job is to keep deer out of our orchard. They spend 90% of their time outside in a twenty acre area defined by an invisible fence. They are both trained to the fence and know the boundaries of their domain very well.
With the girls in tow, I head to the barn. At the barn I have two horses, a flock of sixteen geese, a rooster and six laying hens. My two horses are Cyra, a mare that is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland Pony. My gelding is a Tennessee Walker named PJ. I begin my care of them with their grain. I then begin cleaning their stalls. When that is done, I give them their hay, refresh their water and feed the geese, hens and rooster. The sweeping of the aisle completes the barn chores. I take pride in my barn. I always feel good when it is clean and my animals are well fed and watered.
I next turn my attention to preparing to do the chores of the animals who do not live in the barn, the pigs, cows, turkeys, ducks and meat birds. I fill five 5-gallon buckets with water as well as two buckets with pig grain and cracked corn for he birds. That done, I load these buckets into my pick-up truck, call Mocha and Sadie, get them into the cab and drive up top to the orchards and pig pasture and cow pasture.
I have a breeding sow and a boar named Shuhka and Shorty. Shuhka recently gave birth to piglets. They live in a pasture adjacent to our orchard. Their piglets are eight weeks old and are quite independent. They are still nursing but are also fond of the grain that I feed Shuhka and Shorty. Mocha, the older of our two English Shepherds, is very fond of the piglets and will mingle with them and even lie down amongst them if they are settled. Sadie keeps her distance. Mocha tries at times to herd the piglets but getting a pig of any age to go in any one direction is virtually impossible if the direction is not of their choosing. I now have Shuhka and Shorty separated to give her some space from him and to manage the breeding of the next litter. The piglets move freely between Mom and Dad, depending on who has the best food and wallow. Shuhka and Shorty split twenty-five pounds of grain a day with the larger portion going to Shuhka who needs the extra protein for her milk production. At over four hundred pounds, she requires a lot of feed.
Watering the pigs comes next. My pig pasture has no water source so I transport water up to them in five gallon buckets with lids. They go through about ten gallons of water a day each. Shorty is fond of nearly immediately dumping his water to create a wallow to relax in. Shuhka’s water becomes a wading pool for her offspring as well as a source of drinking water. Depending on how rushed I am with my chores, I often pause to give Shorty a good back scratch which he enjoys immensely. I also enjoy watching the antics of the piglets and their canine buddy, Mocha.
The fowl are next. The ducks are water intensive birds and I have to give them ten gallons a day to drink and splash around in. They live in a portable coop in the orchard. The coop can be moved so that with its wire floor, new grass comes up for them to eat every time we move it. Their waste goes into the ground to enrich it. The ducks are quite shy so I have no problems working with them as they retreat to the far end of the coop when I am feeding and watering them. The turkeys and meat birds are another matter. They are very curious and friendly and frankly a pain because they always attempt to get out when I have their door open. They are not as intensive in their demands for water. They get by with five gallons a day. Mocha and Sadie are fascinated by the birds and will dance around the outside of their coop when I am doing my chores. This is not appreciated by the birds.
Last on my list for chores are the cows. We have a Red Angus bull named Wild Bill, three Black Angus heifers and a steer calf. We have nicknamed Wild Bill, Chill Bill as he is a very laid back bull. He definitely is deserving of respect as he weights over a ton but I have never felt threatened by him. I don’t ever turn my back on him or the heifers but we all seem to get along just fine. I fill their one hundred gallon water trough from a hose that originates at the Cider House. The Cider House is off the grid so delivering water to the cows requires that I turn on the generator to have access to the well. Mocha and Sadie have gone into the five acre cow pasture from time to time but recently, they have chosen to hang back. Mocha has also tried to herd the cows with slightly better results than with the piglets. The cows browse on grass and saplings in their pasture, supplemented with a round bale of hay. I do feed them grain upon occasion but they really don’t need it and it cause for great excitement for them which sets them in motion and propels me outside of the fence for my own safety.
With the cows fed and watered, I am done for the morning and can then go to work! In recounting all that I do for my animals, it seems like a lot but I would have it no other way. They keep me grounded and entertained. When they are all well cared for, I feel better about myself. Though these tasks are called “chores” it is not a chore to do them. Caring for other living beings forms the center of my life. I would have it no other way.
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.
When you hear the word commuting, what images come to mind? If you are a working person in all likelihood you think of your own commute to work. Perhaps you live in a suburb of a large city and your commute involves making your way from your home to a four lane highway with thousands of other commuters in a mad rush of metal and global warming gases drifting up into the already dingy sky as you make your way into the city with its dim of noise and frenzied energy. Perhaps you already live in a city and your commute takes you underground to cram your body into an already jammed subway where you do your level best to avoid the inevitable physical contact with your fellow travelers. You might also be one of the lucky ones who works from home. For you your commute might be from your bed to your computer involving no need for car or subway, just you two feet. Maybe you bike to work and then you have the proper clothing and gear to contend with to keep you safe and warm as you dive into the stream of much larger vehicles, any of which could cause you bodily harm or death.
So what do we generally have as commuting options; car. bus, subway, bike or feet, right? How about commuting to work on a horse. That is what I do. I live in a rural town in Maine called New Gloucester. I have a farm situated on three hundred acres of mostly woodlands. I raise pigs, keep geese, chickens and I own three horses. My son has an orchard on our farm and makes hard cider which he sells commercially locally. We have gardens as well where we raise a variety of herbs and vegetables. All of our roads surrounding our farm are dirt. Two days a week, I work at a non-profit that I helped found called Healing Through Horses (HTH). HTH is an equine assisted psychotherapy practice that partners mental health practitioners with horses to help people with the challenges they face in their lives. We have four therapists and eight horses serving sixty clients at my partner’s farm a mile from my farm. My mare, Cyra, is a member of our practice with a list of her own clients who love her and rely on her healing presence in their lives so I ride her to work.
Cyra is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland pony. Anheuser Busch has made the Clydesdale breed famous because of their use of them in pulling their famous beer wagons. Cyra has the look and build of a Budweiser horse in a smaller package. She has a broad and at this time of year, a very furry back. For this reason I ride her with no saddle. My only “tack” or equipment for her is a rope bridle that I made for her out of yachting rope. She is a very sensible horse that knows her job and does it without fuss. She can be stubborn and pull attitude (at work we call this “Cyratude”) but on our rides to and from work, she is rock solid. On Thursdays, we go home after dark and she is not at all phased by cars and their headlights, even when they are oncoming and blindingly bright on our otherwise dark ride home. Recently, we went to work with the temperature at five degrees below zero. The following is an account of that ride.
The recent blizzard had dumped over two feet of snow so the farm was buried under a layer of white that muted the contours of the land. I had cleared paths with the snowblower to get to the barn, the garage and the woodshed. I had spent all of the previous day doing snow removal, not only at our farm but at HTH. There I used our 55 hp four wheel drive John Deere diesel tractor to clear the paddocks of snow. I had not listened to the weather so was quite taken aback when I came down in the morning to see the temperature was -10. By the time I had all the animals fed and watered (I had to snowshoe into the pigs with their water and food), it had warmed up to a balmy -5.
I have lived in Maine since I was seven so I am used to the cold. On bitterly cold days, I layer up and can stay warm for most of the day although movement is cumbersome with so much clothing on. This morning I had six layers up top and two below. I have down filled LL Bean muttons that do a good job of keeping my hands warm. As ready as I would ever be, I returned to the barn after having put our dog, Mocha, back in the house and greeted Cyra with a horse treat, grabbed her bridle, slipped it on and led her out of her stall. She is shod with studded shoes (she threw one recently so until the farrier comes, we are making do with three) so I am confident of her footing. Prior to the recent storm, we had some winter rain which froze and left the barn driveway covered in treacherous ice. I decided to walk her down the driveway and mount her at the bottom because of this ice layer under the snow. Once on her broad furry back, we set off, her three shod feed crunching and her on bare foot squeaking on the packed snow.
There was no wind which was a blessing. Even the slightest breeze can make -5 seem much colder. I could feel the heat of her body coming up through my clothing and I silently thanked my living seat warmer for that gift on this cold day. Cyra was feeling perky and picked up a trot soon after leaving the barn driveway. I was not at all convinced this was a good idea and brought her back down to a walk. During our summer commutes together, we leave the roads as soon as we can and take to the fields and woods to get to work, trotting and cantering when the footing is good but on this morning we stuck to the cleared roads and kept our pace to a sedate walk.
I could here birdsong as we rode along. Our resident chickadees, were optimistically singing their two note song, usually reserved for the spring. Not much else could be heard except for the crunch, squeak of Cyra’s hooves. The winter months are a time of stillness and quiet in the country, especially after a big storm when animals are hunkered down and not moving much. I settled into the rhythm of Cyra’s movement under me. I was transfixed for a while by the sight of her lush mane as it flowed from side to side with each step she took. There was nary a cloud in the sky which was an unbroken azure dome above our heads. Even at a walk, our forward progress on the dirt road caused my face to burn with the cold winter air. Stone walls lined the road on either side of me, their long ago stacked rocks now white instead of granite gray. There was an 1820 farmhouse on my right. Moses True had built it and had farmed this land almost two hundred years ago. His old farmstead stood at the top of a hill and as we crested it, I looked back to see the just risen sun doing its best to warm up this January day.
I heard a car slowly approaching behind us and was pleased to see that as it drew along side it was my wife in her commuter vehicle making her way to her work. I pulled Cyra up into a halt and we chatted for a bit before she got out of her car and took some pictures of us. When she pulled away, we were left to ourselves once more, descending the hill now on the second half of ride. At the bottom, the woods fell away to be replaced by hay fields recently sculpted by the wind during the storm. The shadows of the trees at the edge of the fields were crisp and black on the new layer of white. Our shadow too kept us company as the road was now bathed in the sun of this new day. The cold air had a clarity to it that made everything seem sharper and more clearly defined. A slight breeze blew over the fields and my face felt this stirring of the air.
The driveway to HTH was now in sight. As we turned into it and I saw our round arena awaiting the day, I was filled with a sense of wonder at my life and its richness. I would spend the day sharing my energy and my horse with people who were as connected to her as I am and that felt good to me. I knew also that by the end of the day I would be chilled to the bone and would reverse this trip on my trusty friend under what I hoped would be a dome of stars. I felt truly blessed to be living a life so unique and full.
In the sixty-three years that I have been alive, I have nearly always been a keeper of animals. As a child, my first memories of a family pet was a Cocker Spaniel named Mickey. Mickey made the transition from our home in Dayton, Ohio to Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1959. My memories of Mickey are sketchy at best. I do recall he was very focused on my Mom and did not do well with our move to Maine. Mickey was replaced by Princess, a collie, who had health issues and was perpetually in heat. This was back in days of free roaming packs of neighborhood dogs, many not neutered.
We constantly had swirling masses of male dogs on our front porch, vying for the attention of Princess. It became an issue when the mailman could no longer make his way to our front door without fear of attack by sex crazed pooches looking for love. Princess went to live at a “Farm out in the country” which I know now was a euphemism for euthanasia. During this period I also had cats, parakeets, and hamsters. From all of these animals I learned what it means to be loved by a fellow creature no matter what my human mood was.
Over the intervening years the list of animals I have kept and cared for is as follows: dogs, cats, hamsters, mice, rats, snakes, frogs, turtles, lizards, fish, chickens, geese, ducks, quail, sheep, goats, parrots, horses and pigs. I have learned many things from tending to the physical and emotional well being of my non-human friends. They have been my best teachers with the overriding lesson being that one can never have enough patience in dealing with another living being be they human or not.
My current inventory of animals includes one dog (a six month old English Shepherd named Mocha), one cat, one goldfish, one python, two horses, two pigs, twelve geese, one rooster and one hen. It is about Mocha that I want to write about today. In the four months since she came to us, she has reviewed for me all that I have learned in the past about being a friend to a canine and reminded me of lessons learned but forgotten. In spending so much time with her I have come to once again realize just how valuable a teacher Mocha is to me and how much I want to be more like her.
I have no desire to exchange two feet for four, shed my smooth human skin for a hairy coat or swap fingers for paws but there are many personality attributes that she possesses that I wish to emulate. I have made a partial list which I would like to share. I am sure more will come to me as I move through this exercise. I realize full well that she is a dog and I am not. Her way of being is different than mine. She is not burdened with a brain capable of the creation of things of great beauty but sadly also capable of great cruelty. I view this lack of hers not as a negative but rather a purer way of being to which I aspire. So this, in no particular order, is what I have come up with.
Mocha is always in the moment. We human have a term for this, quite trendy at present, we call this state mindfulness. We struggle with achieving this way of being, not letting the past or the present interfere with what is happening right now. Mocha has this nailed. That moment could be the touch of my hand as I scratch her tummy or it could be the story of the woods that she is reading with her nose. Whatever is in front of her is the most important thing in the world to her. Every time we are together I remind myself of how good she is at this and how I so often fail to achieve this wonderful state.
Mocha takes pleasure in the smallest of things. I have seen her leap up in the air to catch a passing moth or find a piece of bark to be captivating. She has no filter to prevent the appreciation of these small pleasures. They are just there for her to respond to and enjoy. While I too do enjoy interacting with things that enter my consciousness, I have the burden of that big brain that colors everything that I encounter in life.
Mocha is always curious about her world. To watch her in the woods on our walks is to see this in action. She may pause to sniff a twig or look up to see a crow fly overhead or wade into the brook to investigate the sound and feel of a little waterfall. There is always something that engages her no matter where she is. It could be something as simple as the end of her tail or an ant crawling across the kitchen floor. Everything fascinates her.
Mocha is always ready for adventure. She could be sound asleep on her settle mat in the kitchen but if I propose a walk, she is on her feet and ready for whatever I or the world has to offer for fun. There is no hemming or hawing, she is instantly ready for whatever life has to offer her.
This next one is huge for me as I struggle with this in my relationships all the time. Mocha is able to love unconditionally. She gives love freely trusting that it will be received in the spirit in which it is given. I too try to do this but find myself struggling with the idea that I do not want anything in return for the love I give to others. Mocha of course appreciates it when I love her back with a friendly scratch or an invitation to climb up and join me on the sofa but she would love me even if I didn’t love her right back. Her love is so pure. It is something that I strive every day to achieve.
Mocha is always happy to see her friends. She greets all she knows and even those she doesn’t know, with energy and enthusiasm as if to say, “It is so great to see you, you just made my day!” She does not carry any grudges about anyone. All canines and humans are sources of fun and joy to her. She also makes friends easily. She is ready to play with any person or dog who she encounters, willing to share her joyful spirit with no reservations. In greeting others and in play, she seems to have boundless energy. I know that she is still a puppy and that when I was at her equivalent in human age, I too probably had much more energy than I do at my age but it is inspiring to be with her and I find her energy to be infectious.
Her tireless energy combines with her playful spirit to create a being that engenders a desire in all who meet her to be with her as much as possible. When I have to say good-bye and go off to work, it is always with a twinge of sadness, already looking forward to when we can be together again.
She is a very affectionate, a trait that I really appreciate. She does not beg for attention but is always ready to receive a good tummy rub and will respond with lavish kisses. When we are both in a settled mood, I stretch out on the couch, invite her up and we have snuggle time which I find to be a great antidote for a day full of human challenges.
She eats out of hunger, not out of habit as I tend to do all too often. Food is nearly always available to her but she will ignore it until she feels the need for it. Food is not a crutch to her. She eats to fuel her body and when her tank if full, she moves on to other things.
This list of traits of Mocha’s that I wish to weave more fully into my life will grow with time as we get to know each other better. She has been a part of our lives for just four months but as this post reveals, she has already had a profound impact on my life. She has added richness to my already full life. Having had dogs in my life for most of my life, I know that our time together will go by all too fast. It is startling to think that Mocha could potentially be my companion and beloved friend until I am in my late 70’s. I will do my best to learn from her and follow her lead, staying in the moment with her every step of the way, treasuring and savoring our shared journey for as long as we are together.
I am a sixty-three year old man who is constantly amazed by where my life has taken me. I work two days a week at an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice, Healing Through Horses, that I co-founded three years ago, I partner with my son in his hard cider business, Norumbega Cidery, I raise mulefoot pigs, I run, with my wife of forty years, a musical venue, the Village Coffeehouse, in our church’s vestry, I am in the process, along with my family, of raising and training an English Shepherd puppy, Mocha, to be a deterrent to deer in our son’s young orchard and I tend to a barn that houses two horses, twelve geese a rooster, chickens and am in the process of building a winter shelter for my sow and my boar.
At this stage of a man’s life, one would typically expect a slowdown in activity, a reward for a life spent in providing for one’s family but I find myself becoming even busier as the years roll by and the projects I created and support take on lives of their own. This is not a bad thing. It keeps me engaged with a life that is richer that I ever could have envisioned. I am learning new shills and am outside and physically active every day as I tend to all of the various threads of my life.
Where I live is as important as what I do. When my wife and I were first married, we knew that we both wanted to settle in Maine and raise our family in a setting that would foster in them the strong connection we both felt to Maine. We grew up in the suburbs of Portland but wanted to be out in the country for the next phase of our lives. We purchased one hundred and sixty acres of woods in New Gloucester and promptly erected a tipi beside one of the property’s brooks. We lived in Boston at the time and would come to New Gloucester for weekends and the occasional week as we both continued to finish up our educations. In 1979, we moved back to Maine, took a course in home building at the Shelter Institute and shortly thereafter, began to build our home on the land we we had dubbed Norumbega.
A year later, we moved in to our far from finished home and began to explore what it meant to live out in the country in a town we were just beginning to get to know. In the years that followed, our lives began to take on a richness that left us both wondering what we had done to deserve so many blessings. Our son was born in 1985 and his sister followed in 1988. I took on a new career as a teacher when I turned forty and in the years since, my life has continued to evolve and morph into the multifaceted existence that keeps me so busy today.
Through all of this, Norumbega (a Penobscot word that once referred to all of the northeastern part of what is now the United States), has nurtured my soul. As I a child I spent countless hours wandering the woods and shoreline of my hometown of Cape Elizabeth. I could not have expressed it at the time, but intuitively I knew that where I was happiest was outside. Years later, while perusing my studies of Native American culture and spirituality, I allied myself with a Lakota Medicine women named Night Walker, and took on the adopted Native name of Woods Walker, to reflect that part of me that had always been such a vital part of who I was and am.
As I launch this new way of sharing my life with the world, I have a strong desire to express the joy and amazement that each new day brings me. I begin each day in prayer with the recitation of a personal creed. It touches on the aspects of my life that are so important to me. One of these deeply held feelings is gratitude. I feel so blessed to find myself in what some would call the “Sunset Years” of my life, vital and engaged in pursuits that touch not only my life but the lives of others. It is my intention through these posts to share the joy of my journey with all who care to join me.