Ears Do More Than Hear

Ears are for listening. The horse’s ears swivel in response to sounds both near and far, so if you pay attention to the ears, your world opens up. My horse hears far better than I do, so by watching his ears I see things that I would otherwise not have noticed. I recently followed Tonka’s ears and saw a person far off the trail in the woods. Because Tonka let me know that there was someone there, as the hiker emerged from the trees later, neither of us were startled (although the hiker was!)

ears from saddle


Ears also communicate a horse’s mood. Here is Tonka, relaxed after a warm up and ready to enter the dressage ring.

relaxed under saddle


Sometimes ears can be an early warning system for the rider. Horses are large, and to us humans, mythic animals. We think of them in dramatic poses – galloping across plains, rearing up, neighing loudly. Yet in their personal lives horses prefer to communicate with subtlety. They never yell if they can get their point across in a nuanced way. Unfortunately for our horses, we’re often oblivious to what they’re saying until they have to escalate to dangerous behavior. I’ve written about how to read a horse’s ear position here.

Tonka has only bucked a few times while I’m on his back, but they were doozies. (It felt rather like this.) I’m an experienced enough rider to sense when something is about to happen – the ears pin back, the horse’s body bunches, and then his legs do a sproingy step right before the imminent eruption. That said, those warning signs can take only three seconds which is not enough time to convince the horse to do something other than leap with all four off the ground. (It’s enough, though, for me to sit tight and not come off!) A big buck can seem like out of the blue behavior, but it’s not. There are always antecedents to the acrobatics. The first buck that Tonka threw happened when we were behind another horse on a trail. Tonka likes to amble and the horse in front was moving along at a faster clip. Tonka would lag and then trot to catch up. I didn’t want him to do that, and in an attempt to get a more energetic walk, I held him back from trotting. Tonka was annoyed and he let me know it.

At the time I did notice the pinned ears and the tensing body. But it took another buck before I noticed an odd warning sign. Right before he let loose, Tonka twitched his head and flicked his ears as if there were bees buzzing around him. Nothing frantic, just a head shake. Since then, I’ve seen Tonka do this a dozen times, and in each instance it’s a clear tell that he’s overwhelmed. That ear flick is the equivalent of him saying, Terry, I’ve had it. This is too much!

Along with trail riding, I also do dressage. In dressage competitions, you ride patterns in a rectangular ring. Dressage builds up to balanced, cadenced, seemingly floating movement. This can (and should) take years. It’s like a figure skater going from wobbling on a blade to leaping double axels. We’re in the early stages, but we’ve recently had a breakthrough to the next level. Tonka is now able to push off more from his hindquarters and lift his forehand as he goes. He’s getting lots of rewards (mints and praise) for his hard work, and he seems to enjoy it – he’s going with a relaxed back and happy ears. But yesterday, as he gathered himself to go into this frame, I saw that head shake. If it was fly season I might have written it off as something buzzing about, but there are no annoying insects in March. The work was irritating him. The rest of Tonka’s body was doing as I asked, but I saw the tell. Good training builds on successes, it doesn’t push past a physical or mental limit and then punish failure. I want cooperative, enthusiastic engagement, not forced behavior. So, I respect what those ears have to say.

I don’t know what at that moment bothered Tonka. Last week the horses got their spring vaccines. Maybe he was sore. Maybe there was a twinge in his hocks. Maybe the movement felt like work and not joy. Whatever. I took a deep breath, relaxed, and ratcheted back to a basic, swinging. long-necked trot. Sometimes the slower you go, the faster you get there.


Version 2

Here is Tonka later that day. All of the horses “had the wind under their tails” and were snorting it up around the paddocks. He’s carrying himself in a way that we’re working towards under saddle. Even at liberty, this is physically demanding and he only sustains it for a dozen strides.



Spring Coop Dusting

My chicken coop is airy, dry, and doesn’t have any bad, lingering odor. I pick up and remove the obvious piles of manure several times weekly. But, that’s not enough to keep the environment healthy for the hens. Chickens create a huge amount of dust. They shred bedding and manure with their feet. They take baths in loose dirt, then come into the coop and shake. They lose feathers and grow new ones. As feathers unfurl, they release powdery keratin.

All of this dust settles on surfaces.



Keeping the coop as dust-free as possible is key to a healthy flock. Bacteria and viruses hide out in dust. As it accumulates the risk to your hens increases. So, several times a year I do a thorough cleaning.

I shovel out all of the bedding. It’s been a few months, and you can see the fine matter that’s settled to the coop floor. That gets swept up.



My post and beam barn has flat surfaces and tight corners. I can use a shop vac to get the dust, or, I can use a leaf blower.

flying dust


Whatever the tool, I wear a 




At the end of an hour, it looked like this.


You don’t want to inhale this stuff!

After the thorough stripping and dusting, all new bedding was put in place. The Girls were ecstatic.

new coop bedding


The next spring cleaning chore is window washing. For that I need to turn on the outside water. I’m always eager to have the water flowing from the barn spigot, but I’ve learned to wait. If I switch the valve too early we’re bound to have another deep freeze! Next week you’ll see me out there hosing and scrubbing windows. Sunshine is an effective disinfectant and it’s as important for the flock’s health as dusting. It’s also lovely to have sunlight streaming into the coop.

It’s a lot of work, but spring cleaning is oh, so satisfying. What have you been cleaning lately?

The Growing Season Begins

It was an easy winter and now we’re into an early spring. Yesterday the last of the snow by the driveway melted. It’s the time of year when things green up, which can’t help but make one optimistic about the days to come. On the other hand, it’s the time of year when it becomes oh, too clear, how much work there is to be done in the garden.

This is what my asparagus bed looked like on Saturday:

asparagus bed


Obviously, it needed a serious cleaning up. Luckily for me, I have friends to keep me company as I work.

cleaned bed

Count Your Hens

Yesterday I spent some time in the vegetable garden, raking leaves and taking stock of what needs to be done next. The goats helped.


I let the Girls out, too. They were more helpful than the goats.

They helped get rid of overwintering bugs in the pumpkin patch.

pumpkin patch


They tidied up the butterfly garden.



They fertilized the lawn (which obviously needs as much help as it can get – I’ll be reseeding soon!)



They looked under the leaf cover near the roses for grubs.



When it’s time to put them back into the safety of the coop, all I have to do is shake a canister of cracked corn and holler Girls! and they all come running home. (Watch this video.)

Still, I always count the hens to make sure that there’s not a wayward hen too distracted by the great outdoors to come back to the coop. Yesterday, I called them home and counted thirteen in the run. I have fourteen hens. Beulah was missing. I looked in all of the usual spots. Under the wood pile (a favorite dust-bathing site.) Not there. In the deep leaves of the raspberry patch. Nope. Behind the asparagus bed. Not there. I called. I shook the can of scratch grains. No hen.

I looked in the barn. I didn’t see or hear anyone. But I had a thought. Do you see that gap between the hay bales and the wall?


Beulah was there. She must have thought it’d be a fine place to lay an egg, but then discovered that she was stuck. She couldn’t turn around and she couldn’t back out. I reached in and extracted her. Beulah was quite relieved to rejoin her flock. So, the lesson of this story is to always count your hens!

Happiness at the Zoo

Last week I attended ClickerExpo, which is a conference all about positive reinforcement training. Most of the people who go are dog trainers. It’s great to go to a conference where dogs are welcome! (I fell in love with this Bull Terrier.) I went to seminars that help me be a more nuanced trainer, and I got to talk, non-stop, with like-minded people.

bull terrier

At ClickerExpo, along with the dog people, there were also horse trainers, like me, and zoo keepers, too. One day at lunch I sat next to a man who, for the last 17 years, has cared for penguins at a zoo. What a great conversation that was!

I understand why some people don’t like zoos. It can be upsetting to see wild animals confined in small areas, on concrete and behind bars, in environments that aren’t like what they’d have in the wild. I remember going to the Staten Island Zoo decades ago, on a school field trip. Being near the animals was thrilling, but seeing the conditions, even then as a an uneducated child, was unsettling. On the other hand, there is nothing like being within a few feet of an exotic animal. At a zoo last week, I was transfixed by the flamingos, watching them dip those ridiculous heads, balance on one leg, and simply blink. The difference between in-person viewing and in a book is like the difference between seeing art on a postcard or in a museum. Just like a Jackson Pollack painting might look like a simplistic splatter pattern when viewed on a piece of paper that fits in your hand, when you stand next to a wall-sized canvas, you get it. So, too, a video of manatees isn’t anything like being two feet away from these massive, peaceful creatures as they float and bob up for air



Zoos have gone through, and continue to go through, transformation for the better. Some zoos are making more progress than others. Enclosures are now designed with the animals’ needs in mind. There is enrichment so that their lives are more interesting, and training so that veterinary procedures and handling isn’t stressful. For example, the elephants at the Cincinnati Zoo have been trained to put each foot, in turn, on a platform so that their toes can be trimmed. No longer are whips or tranquilizers used. Zoos are focused on education and on conservation. In some cases, some species would be extinct if it weren’t for the knowledge that they’ve gained studying the animals in the zoos, that has enabled resultant reproductive programs.


The conference was inspiring, but for me the highlight was the pre-conference backstage tour of the Cincinnati Zoo. We watched cheetahs get their exercise and fun by chasing a toy at 40 MPH. Afterwards, this cheetah purred as loudly as a car engine, while licking her handler. This sort of relationship only comes through training, respect, and providing the animal with what it needs to thrive.



A tortoise was out for a stroll with her keeper. It’s hard to know what a reptile thinks, but the joy of the children who got to pet her shell was obvious.



Educating children is part of this zoo’s mission. They have a petting area and a show that entertains while teaching about the animals. Among the stars, there is a trained skunk, a pig, a rabbit, a dog, and goats. The goats have been taught to paint. First they learned how to hold a paint brush in their mouths, and then how to swipe it on a canvas. Being typical picky goats, during the training process, they told their handler in no uncertain terms that they each had to have their own brush. No way would one goat deign to put a brush in his mouth that had been slobbered on by another goat. Others in the audience were surprised to hear that goats are fussy like this. I was not! We got to see a goat paint, and I got to be the easel! At the end of the video, note the click sound – that marks that the goat has done her job and is about to get a cookie.



One of my friends trains rhinos at another zoo. These are massive, dangerous animals, and yet it turns out that they bond with their keepers. She says that the ones that she knows like to being scratched on the folds of the skin on the hind end and will lift their legs to show their favorite place to be itched. She also says that the youngsters will roll over on their backs like dogs for a belly rub. Now that thought makes me happy!