My Beautiful Horse

I know that I haven’t posted much about Tonka recently, but I’ve been thinking big thoughts about horses, relationships and training, and I’ve needed to let my ponderings stew and become coherent before committing them to words on this blog. At the end of October I moved Tonka to a stable a half-hour drive from my home. It’s well worth the time spent in the car. Tonka is now getting hay four times a day, which keeps his belly full, which is essential for both health and mental well-being. He is turned out all day in a paddock with one other horse, a beautiful grey mare named Maggie.



He says that she’s okay, but bossy, and that she claims the best hay rack. Since there’s always enough hay for both of them, he defers to her. He’s a peaceful guy. Here is Tonka coming to say hello. Note that one ear is on me, and one ear is watching out for what Maggie is going to do next. She’s just told him that this hay is her hay. She might be in love, but that does’t include sharing.

Tonk and Maggie


There’s ice under the snow. Although Tonka has studs on his front shoes, which give him traction on slippery ground, his back feet are bare. He’s standing, braced.

Tonk in snow


He’s outside, but not able to move freely, so I led him to the indoor, and let him loose. I left the blanket on, because I’d be riding soon, and I didn’t want his back to get cold before putting on his saddle.

Tonk said that it felt good to stretch his legs.

Tonk in indoor


But, he’s ever so sane. No mad galloping. A bit of cantering.

Tonk canter


Some trotting and snorting to clear the lungs.



Some fancy trotting down the long side.

tonk mirror


And always, my beautiful horse has a kind eye turned to me.

Tonk at play


Like Maggie, I’m madly in love with Tonka, but unlike her, I share, and he knows it.

Storm Preparation for Chicken Coops

If the weather report is accurate, we’re in for a doozy of a storm tomorrow. There will be sleet and snow accumulation. It’s the sort of heavy, icy precipitation that causes power outages and dangerous roads. Today there’s no hint in the blue skies of what’s to come. I took advantage of the nice (albeit below-freezing) weather to prepare for the storm. I let the animals out to wander and forage while I readied the barns.

animals out


There is frost on the ground, but the hens pay it no mind. A half-foot of snow, though, will be another story. They’ll be inside for at least a day, and I want to make sure that their coops are dry and fully stocked.

chicken feet


Water is more essential than food. We don’t have running water in the barns in the winter (the pipes would burst, and so they’re drained and turned off in November.) But, there is electricity. So, instead of hauling water out daily, I’ve installed a large heated bucket for a water source. It’s so much more convenient to fill the waterers from this than to carry them inside the house. Each barn has a tub, and they’re filled once a week – on our schedule, on a nice day, not in the middle of a storm!

water tub


The hanging feeders needed to be topped off.

hanging feeder


Manure, even frozen, is too full of moisture to leave in a coop, especially if the hens have nowhere else to go and the pop-door will be closed to keep out blowing snow. This is only two days worth, it’s what drops down when the hens sleep, and they usually stay out of it during the day. But it had to go before the storm arrived. I mucked out and refreshed bedding. Unfortunately, the manure that is frozen on the ground outside is stuck hard. That will have to wait for a thaw. But, I was able to sweep the goats’ patio clean. That will make shoveling the snow easier.

Manure under roosts


Dust bathing outside won’t be possible – so I added fresh sand to the inside dust baths.

dust bath


Sunshine is essential to your flock’s well-being. I can’t imagine keeping hens in winter climates in coops that don’t have large windows (all too prevalent in small, prefab coops!) Coops do get dusty, and so I swept off the windows to let the full amount of sun stream in.

clean coop


Not a bad place to weather a storm.


The other day I had a discussion with Phoebe.

Does this fur coat make me look fat? she asked.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 3.29.38 PM

Ahem. Well. To be honest, I said, although it is a very thick and lovely coat, you have been the only one eating that pumpkin. Let’s just say that you are well-insulated from the winter’s cold.

Phoebe sniffed. This is the best season. Dressed properly, one can enjoy it fully.

Agreed, I said.


Thank you to Melissa who sent me the screen shot.

For more about keeping a rabbit with your flock, read this post.

An Icy Path

It rained on Saturday, which washed away much of the snow. This is called the January Thaw. It is not always a good thing. Cold and wind followed the rain. Black ice coated the roads. Driving was hazardous. So is the walk to the coops.

to barns


Even the dogs step carefully. Lily is smart enough not to chase squirrels.

icy path


The hens, however, are fine. It’s 20° F, and they’re outside. They don’t stand still on the ice, but they do walk about on it, with no ill effects.

chickens in pen


Those dinosaur feet do just fine.

hens pecking


I, on the other hand, worry about falling. I wear treads. I don’t go outside, not even to the mailbox, without them.



It is just as bad at the stable where Tonka lives. He has studs on his shoes so that he can safely walk out to the paddock. Yesterday at the barn, three of us were talking and comparing winter footgear. Conversations about such things can go on at great length! We all had some version of these rubber pull-on ice cleats. The ones on my boots are from LL Bean, but I think that the next pair that I get will be these. What do you wear when the walking is treacherous?

Scooter and I Graduate

Just over eight years ago I decided that my good farm dog Lily needed a buddy. She was working hard, chasing foxes, coyotes and neighbor’s dogs off of the property. Because her job was to keep these canines away, it wasn’t easy for her to make friends. How was she to know who was a threat and who wasn’t? Lily didn’t take a break during her day. Even when napping, she would listen for hawks in the sky. I thought that Lily looked stressed. She needed a light-hearted playmate. It was time to get another dog.

I knew that it was going to be hard to integrate a second dog into the household, so I looked for one with the right temperament and history. I found an 8-week old puppy that was in loving foster care, with a big dog and teenagers in the house. He was happy and unfazed by what was going on around him, and friendly to us.

In the last eight years, Scooter has earned his keep as Lily’s sidekick. He’s Robin to her Batman. When she gets too serious, he pesters her to play. He keeps her company on her watch. Sometimes his nap vibes are so powerful that even Lily relaxes.

on bed

Scooter was born perfect. Potty training was easy. I didn’t bother with any formal lessons. I didn’t have to.

But last year, that changed. I enrolled in the KPA Professional Trainer’s course. This is a six-month program that teaches how to train animals with positive reinforcement (a system sometimes called clicker training.) Part of the curriculum entails doing exercises with a dog that has never been trained with this method. Luckily, I had one right in the house – Scooter.

When I started training him, he was seven years old. Yes, you can certainly teach an old dog new tricks! Before we began, he didn’t do much more than turn his head if you said his name, and even then, he rarely looked for eye contact with humans. Rather, being a little guy (only eleven pounds) and close to the floor, he paid attention to our feet. Unlike other dogs who make connections – the jingling of keys means a car ride is imminent – Scooter went through his days oblivious. For example, he has never connected the leash with going for walks (which, by the way, he loves.)

Despite being a dog of little brain (and I do say that with love), I knew that he could do the coursework. Positive reinforcement isn’t useful just for smart animals (it’s what’s used to train dolphins.) A clam can be trained to open it’s shell with this technique. Surely, I could train Scooter. For the final evaluation, Scooter had to be able to do ten behaviors on cue, with no breaks in-between. The criteria for these behaviors are exacting. The cues had to vary, some auditory, some gestures, some the presentation of a prop. The response to the cue had to be immediate and the behavior precise. You can’t just say, “My dog will stand on a book.” You have to say with which feet. Does your dog sit? Well, is that for 2 seconds or until released? I’m spoiled with dog training. Lily is a genius. She has a whole repertoire of tricks that I’ve taught her just because I could, and it was fun and easy. Lily watched the training sessions that I did with Scooter. You could almost see her roll her eyes. I trained Scooter to whack a tile with his right paw. Progress was slow. In frustration one day, Lily got up from her place (where I’d asked her to wait – she is a well-trained dog) and she thwacked the tile as if to say, Dim wit! This is what she wants you to do!

Training is simply a way to communicate with animals. Be consistent, clear, tactful and rewarding, and the being you’re working with engages with you. Even Scooter. Soon, instead of a dog that looked at my toes, he was gazing into my face. And he was asking for more training sessions.

Scooter stares


In between all of that work, Scooter kept to his usual schedule, which entailed sleeping in, and many naps.

Scooter in bed

The final exam was last week. We drove to a dog training facility, which was a stressful place for Scooter. There were smells and weird surfaces to walk on. Dogs he didn’t know, barking. Lily didn’t come. It was Robin, all on his own.

Scooter did his behavior chain flawlessly. He was quite proud of himself. Here he is right after, back in his safe crate, where, after he let me know that he is a genius dog after all, he promptly curled up and fell asleep.

proud scooter

I don’t have a video of the final, but here is one taken about a week before. (Note that the paw whack there is with his left paw. I retrained that for a consistent right paw touch. Scooter learned that in 3 days.)

I am taking my certification and training skills into the horse world, where there is much need of kindness, and of training based on science and ethology. If you want to understand why your horse does what he does, if you want a cooperative horse that eagerly engages in training and enjoys his work, I’d be happy to help. I’m available for email, Skype, or in-person consultations.