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 email@example.com
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.
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.