Springtime?

It’s 22º F. This is the view from my office window:

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It’s April 5, way too late for an April’s Fools joke.

I’m home sick with a fever and a cough.

So, momentarily, while I’m upright, I thought I’d post a couple of photos from summer.

When the chickens get out on green grass-

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When flowers bloom-

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The goats get to gorge on meadow plants-

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Tonk and I go out on trails (and I don’t have to wear three layers of clothing plus a heavy coat!) –

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and Scooter gets to sleep in the sun.

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There, I feel better already.

None of us are listening to the rabbit tell us how much she likes snow.

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In fact, now that I’ve posted this, the dogs and I are going back to bed. Wake us up when spring is here.

April Snow

Last week the temperature rose to almost 70º F. Eager gardeners raked and tidied. Some bought pots of pansies, unable to resist the flowers at the garden centers.  I wasn’t one of them. This wasn’t because I worried about freezing nights, no, it was simply that I had other things to do. I try to get the cool weather crops of lettuce, kale and peas in by April 1, but this year the seed packets are sitting on the bench in the mudroom, reminding me to get to work. It’s a good thing that I ignored them. It’s snowing.

Snow in April is so pretty on the lawn that’s been greening up, and it outlines each branch of the beech trees almost making them look like they’re in bloom.

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I’ll plant those seeds in a couple of weeks.

Lily is 13

When I brought Lily home, she was somewhere shy of six months of age. Like so many dogs now in New England, she was brought up from the South where spay and neuter programs aren’t as prevalent. I found her online, from a “border collie rescue” – but it was more like one good-hearted person channeling dogs to new homes.

Here she is on the day that I met her.

lily w: Heidi

Yes, she was black and white, but she wan’t a border collie. I was told that she was good with dogs and people. It became clear early on that that description wasn’t accurate either. In fact, Lily missed the crucial socializing window. Despite much work by both of us, Lily has never learned how to read other dogs’ body language, and so becomes fearful and thus can be suddenly aggressive. Lily is also reactive to movement, and I’m pretty sure that in her early days she hunted in order to feed herself. This made it difficult to integrate her into my family, which at the time had two young boys who, like all children, ran and made sudden noises. To keep everyone safe, and simply to make life easier, Lily and I attended puppy classes. More control classes. Beginning agility classes. I had a private trainer come and help.

It took time and attention but Lily did become a much loved member of the family. However simply being a pet was not in her nature. She had work to do. Ever vigilant, Lily has spent the last dozen years keeping all squirrels off of our property. Chipmunks, too.

after squirrels

Lily excels as a farm dog. In thirteen years we haven’t had a single predator attack on our hens. Then again, I can’t put her out with the Girls. That reactivity to movement is still there and if a chicken were to flap too quickly past her, well, it’d be snatched up before Lily could think. Lily has managed over the years to make a few dog friends, but on the whole, she keeps them at bay. This is not a bad thing. She’s done a good job of keeping a neighboring Portuguese Water Dog out of the koi pond, a loose labrador from harassing the goats, and various wandering dogs off of the premises.

Five years in, her job kept her busy, and she was my constant shadow, but I thought she’d be happier with another dog in the house. Nine years ago we got Scooter. It was the right thing to do. He’s Robin to her Batman. (Here they are soon after he arrived. It took some doing to teach Lily that Scooter was not a chipmunk!)

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In her heyday, Lily was astoundingly agile, fast and athletic.

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Thirteen is old for a dog, especially one of Lily’s size (50 pounds). She’s slowed down. She sleeps a lot.

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Her face has grayed.

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But she tells me that she’s still on the job.

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Last year Lily tore her cruciate ligament and went severely, painfully lame. We decided not to do surgery – it would have been too hard on this old dog who can’t bear to be confined. Miraculously, Lily has recovered. She’s gimpy, but yesterday, in the spring breezes, she had zoomies out in the yard, and made a point of smiling at me as she sailed past.

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Lily is starting to have senior moments. She gets up, looks confused, and lays back down again. Her hearing isn’t acute like it used to be. She no longer hears my car as it turns into the driveway. She doesn’t even hear the garage door. She no longer greets me at the kitchen door. Every time I come home and she’s not there, it is a poignant moment for me. Lily is an old dog.

But Lily’s essence remains intact. She still lets me know when those dogs are walking down the street. Thank you, Lily, and a very Happy Birthday to you!

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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!)

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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Whatever the tool, I wear a [amazon text=protective mask&asin=B000MPLVVA].

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

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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.

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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?