Horse Friendships

Too much is made in the horse training world about how horses are prey animals, and that’s why they’re different to train than dogs, which are predators. Yes, horses are wary and sometimes skittish, but my horse, Tonka, knows I’m not about to chase and eat him. If anything, my approach means that something good is coming his way (this time of year, it’s apples from the orchard.) Too much is also made about “dominance” and “leadership.” The basic premise of that is that horse herds are composed of a head horse that keeps all of the others in line via aggressive body language. That assumption has been debunked by ethnologists studying feral horses. So, if it’s not about dominance or fear, how do we go about communing with these animals? For horses, it’s all about relationships.

In Tonka’s last boarding situation, he lived in a paddock with three other horses. They each were given a pile of hay twice a day. The paddock was bare dirt and so there was nothing to nibble on between meals. Tonka had to eat up quickly or have to defend his forage. Horses use teeth and hooves. Tonka had marks on him. This had nothing to do with herd leadership, but was because there was a pecking order due to limited resources. Horses are relationship oriented animals. Given enough food and space, they form lasting friendships. Buddies graze together, groom each other, and even stand head to tail to flick flies off of each other’s faces with their tails. But, shrink their resources and those relationships can be stymied. Other horses in his group were able to deal with this feeding schedule, but not Tonka. Tonka did not have a friend. He was too concerned about keeping his pile of hay to himself.

The remarkable thing for us humans is that horses form close friendships not only with others of their kind, but with their people, too. Tonka didn’t have a horse friend, but he did have me. His attachment was obvious. At the new stable I asked someone to hold his lead rope for a moment while I went into the barn to get something. “He ignored me” she said. “I thought that maybe this is a dull horse. But when you came back his head lifted and his ears pricked.” For the last year, I’ve been Tonka’s best friend. But now there’s another woman in his life.

When we moved to Sterling Stables, Tonka was put into a spacious, shady paddock. Next door was a grey mare named Maggie. She was very interested in this new gelding. Tonka ignored her. Tonka was now getting hay four times a day. There was no one to chase off of his pile of feed. He relaxed. Maggie was put into his paddock. There was plenty of hay and both horses have calm natures, so there were no scuffles. Still, he ignored her.



Tonka kept his distance from Maggie. He looked for me.

T and M


But, Maggie was smitten. Her owner told me that last Sunday that Maggie looked so lethargic when led out of the paddock that she took her temperature, thinking that her mare was ill. However, as soon as Maggie got sight of Tonka, she perked right back up. Maggie was lovesick.

It took a couple of weeks, but Tonka gradually realized that this grey mare wasn’t competition. She wasn’t going to bite or kick him. I arrived last week to see them side-by-side, scratching each other’s backs with their teeth. That is the ultimate sign of horse friendship.

Maggie has claimed him. When I arrived on Monday, Maggie knew that I was going to take Tonka into the barn. She tried to block me.

M blocking


Tonka said hello as best he could. Over her neck.

T looking


Under her neck.

head under


Maggie is a sweet mare. I told her that I was willing to share. She agreed to that.



It’s good for Tonka to have another woman in his life, one with a tail for swishing flies, and teeth to give back scratches, and that keeps him company for all of those hours that I’m not at the barn. It’s okay, because we’re still best friends.

Tonka in bridle

Alfalfa Update

On and off over the last couple of years, I’ve fed alfalfa from bales, and chopped alfalfa from bags, to my hens. My girls have benefited from the highly usable protein and calcium, as well as nutrients found in leafy greens.



When you feed roughage. there’s always a risk of impaction and intestinal blockage, however I feed the alfalfa as part of a balanced diet. My hens aren’t hungry and they have lots of interesting things to peck at in their compost piles. They leave most of the tough stalks and eat just the good bits. Also, they have access to grit, which is granite that’s been broken into small pebbles. Chickens eat these rocks, which go into the gizzard – that is the powerful muscular pouch where food is ground up. If chickens don’t have grit in their gizzards, they can’t digest food thoroughly.

I recently heard from a reader who found this odd pile of manure in her coop:

fibrous manure

She also had a hen that was huffed up and looking uncomfortable, although she was still eating and drinking. A day after the hen passed this manure, she was back to normal. What’s going on? I found out that the reader had recently begun to feed alfalfa. There’s a chance that the eager hen ate too much of this new treat. I was also told that although grit is offered free-choice, that the only type available at her feed store was the fine stuff for chicks.

I dispense chicken keeping advise for a living and I take the responsibility of what I say very, very seriously. I base what I say on twenty years of hen keeping experience, plus lots of looking into primary research materials. But, I could be wrong. What works for my flock here in New England, on my soil, with my coop structures and management, might not work for you. If anyone else has issues with feeding alfalfa, do let me know!

Animals IN Nursing Homes

For the last year I’ve been involved with a forward-thinking nursing home director who understands that animals can enhance, engage, and delight the lives of her facility’s residents. Ellen Levinson appreciates what dogs can bring to an institutional setting. She has two of her own that work alongside of her.


But Ellen wanted to go beyond traditional therapy animals that are brought to a bedside, and then are taken away. The nursing home is owned by a large corporation, based in Texas. Somehow Ellen convinced the accountants that bigger, permanent animals were worth paying for. The home is sited on a large piece of property. There is a field. She had it fenced, built a barn, and installed llamas and goats. Then Ellen came to one of my chicken keeping workshops, decided that chickens were essential too, and I was brought on to establish a small flock of hens on the grounds.

Ellen believes that having animals living on the premises gives the residents a sense of control. They get to choose when they see the animals and how to interact with them. Some just look. Some touch. Physical therapy sessions can take place outdoors, on a track around the pasture. There’s a destination for the exercise.

Yesterday a camerawoman and a producer from Chronicle, the Boston ABC station’s long-running human-interest news show, came to Life Care.

They filmed the hens. In this photo you can see an occupational therapist encouraging her patient to stand up to get closer to the chickens.

nursing home coop


It was a beautiful fall day and so the patients were out on the track, viewing the animals, doing physical therapy, and getting fresh air and sunshine.



Llamas are unique creatures and Ellen needed someone who knew how to work with them, so Ellen sent one of her employees to “llama school.” This is the designated handler,

llama handler


but anyone can pet Travis.

llama outside


Not all of the residents can go outside. No problem. Travis comes in.

llama in hallway


Animals bring the unexpected into a place where life is regimented by meal times, therapy sessions and visiting hours. My photographs failed to capture the sheer craziness and joy of the animals in this building.

Not only was Travis plodding on his camel-feet down the carpet, but there was this young dog in training learning to work with his occupational therapy owner:



Along with Ellen’s two goldens,  there was this shaggy fellow spreading happiness:

shaggy dog


I was taking the whole the scene in and looked up to read this banner:

perfect score


There’s a llama and four dogs in the building, and chickens and goats outside, and yet the facility gets a perfect score from the health inspectors. How wonderful is that?

The segment on Chronicle will air mid-November. I’ll let you know when it’s on.

Um, Ellen? I know all about horses :)


Every year I know it’s going to happen. The change of seasons. The trees change color. You’d think that I’d become blasé. I’m not.

Every year I’m gobsmacked by how spectacular fall in New England is.



Isn’t it wonderful to have an excuse to use that word? The colors are really and truly just like this.



Three days ago there was a torrential downpour and the trees shed leaves. Last night was the first serious frost. We’re now past peak. But fields still look like this.


Yep, gobsmacked.

Ascites in Hens

This past week I have fielded questions from two readers about clear fluid coming out of their hens’ beaks.

Chickens do not vomit. Unlike humans, they don’t have the ability to upchuck the contents of upset stomachs. So, when you see fluids come out of your hen’s beak, something is very, very wrong. It might be that the chicken has a tumor, or an impaction, or a dead section of the intestinal tract that is blocking the passage of material, so that the only way out is up through the throat and mouth. If that’s the case then what is ejected is dark and vaguely food-like. Your hen might have sour crop, which is when the crop isn’t doing it’s job, and yeasty, sour-smelling liquids accumulate there. Your hen might have peritonitis, which is often caused by internal laying and a subsequent infection. Dark fluids fill up the body cavity, and when there’s nowhere else for them to go, they come out the beak. It’s awful. I’ve seen it here.

If the fluids coming out of the mouth are clear, then it is likely a case of ascites. This is a disease seen across the animal world. Humans can get it. Hypertension and liver damage cause fluid to accumulate in the body cavity. Chickens also get ascites. It is an economic liability in the commercial broiler world. The meat birds grow so fast that their organs can’t keep up. There’s a genetic component to this disease, specific to industrial agriculture, but ascites is also being seen in backyard chickens. There are some possible causes.

Chickens have lungs, but unlike ours, they are fixed in the thoracic cavity and are small and can’t expand. When the hen has oxygen demands that it can’t meet, ascites can occur. Poor ventilation and damp conditions with ammonia in the air can reduce the lung’s ability to function. Too many backyard coops are small, dank, and not well-ventilated. That can add to the ascites risk.

Liver damage can cause ascites. Cancer and tumors in older birds can impair liver function. A necropsy on my elderly hen Edwina showed a diseased liver, with the concurrent clear liquid in the body cavity. This was understandable to find in a nine-year old bird. But if your young (under two-years of age) hen shows signs of ascites, it might be because what you are feeding is harming the liver. Excessive scratch corn can cause fatty liver disease and possibly contribute to ascites.

There is some research that shows that stress, including rapid changes of temperature, can increase the ascites cases in a flock. This makes sense, since the disease is linked to blood pressure and overworked hearts.

So, what to do if your hen “vomits” clear liquid? Unfortunately, that will likely be the first sign that something is amiss, and by then the situation is severe. Do not isolate and bring inside. Your chicken needs fresh air and sunshine. If she is so ill that others are bullying her, separate to her own pen. Do rethink what you are feeding. If your ill hen is eating and drinking, leave her be. She might rebound. However, if after three days she is lethargic, and is not eating, she could starve to death. Please consider euthanizing her. This is the hard part of chicken keeping. You can’t always fix the problem.

If you’ve had a hen have clear fluid come out of the beak, please tell me about it here in the comments, or send me an email. I know of no scientific research on ascites in backyard flocks. The more that I learn, the more that I can share.

black star

A healthy Black Star hen.