Transitions are never easy. I can't imagine being a horse and having to go to a new home after being settled in to a life. Horses like people get attached to things, other animals, their surroundings, people, a routine, what's familiar.
Both my new pony Pie and my dear pony Pickle have just been through that transition period. Pickle moved in December from our farm in to a retirement herd in Virginia and Pie came to live with us from the Yoder's Rock Valley Stables in Ohio where she was well loved and well cared for especially by her five year old friend Eva Yoder.
It's hard to be asked to start over. To make new friends and alliances and to begin feeling like a new place is home. Both ponies, I am happy to report, are making great strides at this. Pickle has integrated into his new herd, and funnily enough, he has befriend my old horse Sara who is a member of that herd. They never knew each other before as Sara had been retired to that farm long before I got Pickle.
Pie, though I think she still misses her old home and the Yoders, has made good friends with the mules and really started to relax in her new home with us. I am hoping one day she will feel a bond as strong with me as she has with little Eva. I will work for it with all the respect and admiration that smart, little horse deserves.
Below are some pictures of the ponies making their adjustments. It is so important that we humans realize what big asks we demand of these intelligent, sentient beings. We must always be patient and grateful for their goodwill and effort to readjust.
It's one thing to brag about a big house and quite another to brag about the night sky. But this is where I most proudly live, in the little cabin under the big night sky. One doesn't have to be rich so much as lucky to live here. Sometimes we pay for it in loneliness but mostly it's the grandness of nature at our door that fills our souls with an overflowing gratefulness. How grand it is to call this place home.
The mules and Pie snort, shift and munch their hay under the starry sky. And Snook curls up beside the bed on his blanket. Our heads touch close to the wide open window above the bed. Eyes gaze at stars from under the heavy puff.
The fire has gone out. The house cools. The brook noises come alive as our eyes close. Then, maybe an owl calls before the night is lost to sleep. Home is dear. It is our comfort. Our place in the universe.
Sleep well where you dwell.
I wrote the following post on my birthday Jan 7th 2021 in response to the insurrection that sadly occurred in the American Capital yesterday.
We must have faith in a stable, free and honest government serving all the people of this nation. Faith that good people can be fairly and honestly elected to our government and that they will serve it with the greater good in mind not self interest.
We must all strive at this crucial time for civility, integrity, responsibility, transparency, open-mindedness, fairness, sensibility, discourse, hope and unity. We must keep at bay the insidious destroyers of fear, selfishness, one-up-manship, bigotry, force, hatred and terrorism.
We must use carefully chosen words not weapons. We must listen to one another. We must solve what ails us in unity.
And we must be very careful to seek out truth and fact.
America is a great country. It has stood for great things. It is a land of opportunity. It is not perfect but it is our home, our country and OUR PEOPLE. We come from many histories, many backgrounds but we are all American.
We should be grateful for such a land and system of democracy. We should not tear down our government but fix it through discourse, voting, checks and balances and above all respect and civility.
We must love America not hate each other. We must help our country not pull it apart. We must unite and make America work for all of us, all Americans.
Baby let the good times roll, because they sure didn't for most people last year. Although we missed spending time with friends, Bernie and I spent the majority of this year feeling very grateful for our lives. We were glad to have our health, our cozy cabin, our sweet animals, a good garden, plenty of food and warmth, Snookie our old dog, the beautiful land and each other to laugh with.
Out here not the fractured nation nor the pandemic could take the wonder out of the land aglow in moonlight nor the joy out of the song of a Carolina wren. Here we could chalk up a good year of farm projects completed and set forward. On the farm it was a good year. Personally for me it was a good year, all but the missing of friends. And how sad that was not to see and to spend time catching up with these most cherished people. I have always said the thing I am most proud of in life is my friends and my animals. I have wonderful friends. I hope 2021 will allow us all to get back to seeing our friends without the guilt of maybe making anyone sick.
At the start of last year we'd never even thought of such a concept of not being able to visit our friends but now we know what a luxury it truly is. Here's all to a better year, a return to friends far and wide!
This is a hard post to write. I've been avoiding it for about a month now. It's fun to write the posts when you feel in the driver's sea,t with something interesting to say or some knowledge gained that you'd like to share, perhaps some insight that might help others as well. I have none of that to offer here. This time I simply must admit I failed, came to the limits of my courage and abilities. It's an admission of falling short of the mark I'd have liked to reach.
Pickle as most of you know is my favorite equine I've owned since I was a child. I got him from a woman that saved him from a kill pen. He'd obviously had quite a poor start in life and was at one time almost starved. The very nice woman and her husband had treated Pickle kindly, got some weight on him and then sold him shortly after that to me.
Some where in Pickle's past he was treated unkindly. He had some fear issues, mostly around men and sometimes his anxiety would build up and he'd buck and bolt when under saddle. He'd gotten much better with me. Work in the round pen, on the ground and many hours in the saddle had made him quite a fun and reliable horse to take out on the trails both alone and in company. Most people still could not catch Pickle loose in a pasture but he'd walk right up to me even if it was dark out. Pickle needed to trust people and to know they would not hurt him.
He'd learned that with me, but would sometimes still booger, buck and bolt when something like a bicycle or a motorcycle would pass him on the road. For that reason he was deemed by Bernie and I as a fairly unreliable road horse. Yet I decided that I would keep him and keep working on him in the round pen, sacking him out, doing ground work and riding a bike around him. I decided that when we were ready to travel, although not ideal, I'd use him as my pack animal when we were riding along roads.
I decided to find a very road broke horse to pair him with, that could become my main saddle horse when we ride along busy roads. So I started searching for a small, road safe horse. I found a lovely Haflinger mare owned by the Yoders of Rock Valley Farm in Strassberg, Ohio. Though it was a bit of a drive from our farm, Bernie and I took a road trip with Snookie (our old dog). We drove 6 and a half hours up to Ohio, had a look at the mare, tried her under saddle and then went for a drive in a cart with her owner at the reins. When a huge dump truck came clattering at us while trash was blowing under her hooves and passed us with out much of a reaction from the mare, we were sure that she would be a wonderful addition to our herd as my main road safe saddle horse. Pickle could be dallied to her far side carrying the packs as we road along roads.
The mare was indeed for sale but she was consigned to a horse sale and the owners felt strongly about not selling her before the auction. So Bernie and I waited two long weeks for the auction. When the day came, Bernie phone bid on her for me while I watched the auction streaming live on Bernie's computer screen. We had pre-agreed on a price that we would not go beyond. The bidding went up fast and I was sure we'd lose her. As our final number went roaring by I gave Bernie the thumbs up to go one more number up. We both knew we would not go any higher. It seemed for a moment that the bidding had roared on by, but then I herd the guy say on the phone to Bernie." I think you have her. Youve got the high bid." It was so exciting. Our first purchase ever at a sale and we were so excited to be bring home such a nice mare.
A week later Bernie, Snookie and I got up before light and drove back up to Ohio to pick up our new mare, which we named Pie. I called an hour out from the Yoder's farm to let them know when we'd be arriving. Debbie answered the phone and said that her five year old daughter wanted to ride her pony one more time before she left. We said that was fine. When we arrived Daniel and Debbie were in their barn and their five year old daughter, Eva was riding Pie who they had called Cami up and down the aisle of the barn. Little Eva sat so proudly and relaxed riding her pony bareback in an Indian war bridal up and down in front of the other horse, sticking their necks out into the aisle.
But when it was finally time for her to get off the realization that her pony was leaving for good overtook her and she began to cry as her father gently slid her off Pie's back and into his arms. She was so sad to be seeing her favorite pony leaving. I could see that her parents felt for her and I sure felt for her. In fact I felt terrible taking her pony away but it was their family business and very much going to be a part of her whole life. We gave her a moment as she worked to contain her sobs.
But then I heard more sobbing coming from another corner of the barn not near the child fighting to be brave as her pony was leaving. I turned around to find Bernie also consumed by tears. Boy, he sure felt that child's loss too. It's hard to lose a favorite pet. We all sure know that. Eva was so brave for her age. She got a hold of her tears and walked her pony out to the trailer, a really fine young horse woman in the making. Bernie too got a hold of himself and with promises that they could come and visit her anytime and that we would send updates and photos we left. Poor Eva. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be holding back my own tears as I too said goodbye to my favorite pony.
We got home around 9pm and put Pie, for the night, in a temporary stall we'd made in our barn. The next morning I got up early and took her for a walk down the road so she could see where she was. Then I got Pickle out of the corral and brought him down to Pie's stall so that they could meet each other. I assumed that things would go well as Pickle has been very easy to introduce to all horses and mules. He's spent time at other barns and has always gotten along with pasture mates and has been good with all the mules we've ever brought home.
They sniffed noses and squealed. Then they arched their necks and sniffed some more. Then Pickle struck out with his front leg. They repeated these moves a few times then went back to munching. He on the grass right on the other side of the corral panel that separated them and Pie on the hay that was next to the corral panel on her side. I thought that was more or less it. I put Pickle back in his corral with the mules and went in for breakfast. After breakfast Bernie and I led Pie up into our round pen which sits inside our corral. We decided we'd let Pie loose in the round pen to eat some hay and let the mules and Pickle have theirs on the outside so they could all get to know her a bit over a fence before putting them all together.
Well, no sooner had we put Pie in the round pen when things started to go south. Pickle got very aggressive. He started striking at her with his front legs. Then he started running around the pen kicking at it. Then he started leaping up on the fence. Then he started trying to charge over it. He reared up on the fence almost getting over it. Not once but three times while we ran in and waved him off the panels with our lead ropes. He bent the round pen panels trying to leap over them. It looked very scary and dangerous. We were afraid that he'd hurt himself and her at any moment. So shaking with adrenaline I ran in and got a rope and halter back on Pickle.
Both Bernie and I grew up on horse farms and that was by far the most aggressive we'd seen a horse want to be to another one. We decided that an introduction, unless done off our farm where Pickle would not be on his territory was not a good idea and would be dangerous to both of them.
We contemplated taking them to another farm and doing a slow introduction over a fence. Perhaps it would have worked. In the end given Pickle's other issues we decided instead to retire Pickle to a farm in Virginia where I have another horse living the good life out in a herd of other retired horses. They run in big grass pastures and are checked daily by a lovely couple that own and run the farm. I have no doubt he will grow in to a stout but happy horse there but I will miss him so much. I will visit some when I can.
I know the tears that Eva shed when Pie left her, they are mine too when I let Pickle go in to his new life in a Virginia field. One pony in one pony out life goes on and we grow a bit from the pain.
Between the sheep and the duck I sleep so cozy. The bed is stuffed with wool and the puff is filled with eider down. At my head is a wide open window from which the early morning, misty air fills my nostrils with cold blasts of an air so pure. No one except Bernie loves their bed so much. Below us on a bed of his own Snookie sleeps. We can hear his content sighs of comfort and relaxation. Sometimes, when I look down at him below us, in the early morning, and talk to him softly, he will groan and stretch out his front paws in sheer bliss.
It is fall and the flowers are starting to fade. Old Snookie is fading too. I think he's no longer a perennial whose bloom I will get to see again next spring. I watch him daily now with so much love and appreciation. Surely he's a fellow I was lucky to meet in life. The feel of his fur is so soft. He's a wonderful temperature to snuggle against and his smell to me is one of comfort and familiarity. He limps after us down the drive each morning with such determination. I will miss everything about him, including his sighs. I am aware of this coming loss every day now and it pangs my heart.
Snookie and I can't discuss the being apart that is coming, we can only sit together in the glow of our remaining bond. Around some corner rather too soon, the trouble will come and I will have to step up for my old friend and make a hard decision to keep him from suffering and to preserve his dignity.
This is a hard task for an old friend. To have to be the one that parts us forever. I will say a final goodbye and he will be gone from me. No more yellow shadow keeping his eye upon me. Knowing this makes for a poignant autumn together.
Perhaps that is why the sky seems bluer than usual. Why the leaves changing color look more vibrant than I've ever seen them. The air feels so fresh. The fire so warm and cozy. The cold mornings so invigorating. I am in love with life not just for me but for Snookie too. I know his time is short but before his eyes are these glory days and the love that we are bestowing upon him. Among the best is a nightly bowl of wood-stove warmed milk. He loves it, and we love sitting together listening to him lapping it up.
For now he is not a dog to pity but one to relish. His life is good. Our lives our good. This autumn is a glorious and special one. I will absorb now and then remember later this time on this farm with Snookie as a blissful one, one in which the notes are resonating in a rich harmony. Fall is a time of passing but it is also the most splendid of the seasons.
Here in western North Carolina we've recently had a lot of rain. It might have been as much as 1 foot in the last 2 weeks. Too much. Now, the skies are back to blue and they are clear as ever they have been. The halt in airline travel and the slower economy have really cleared the skies of pollution. Even in this gorgeous corner of rural North Carolina, where we have always thought the air to be so fresh and clean, we can see the difference.
Snookie and I are happy to see the sun and blue sky today. It's a splitter of a day! So drastically different then a recent day of down pours. On that last rainy day Snookie asked to be let out so he could sit on his blanket on the back porch. I opened the door for him. He looked out at the rain coming down, turned around and asked to be let out on the front porch instead. I obliged but when he saw it was also raining just as hard on that side of the house he turned around in disgust and went back to bed. Sun Dog was sick of the rain.
What fun ponies are. I've ridden camels, donkeys, cows, horses and ponies....of all the fine rides I've had, those on ponies seem the most carefree. When I was a kid I used to pretend I was winning the Grand National on my pony. Or that I was the best cowgirl alive, better than all the cowboys at rounding up stray cows. Some times I fought indians. Some times I fought cowboys. Some times I won races both flat and over fences. Sometimes I was an outlaw living under the stars on my pony in the desert.
My mind set free in the saddle could go anywhere. Ponies are dream machines and now when I ride pony Pickle each day the world again becomes alive with endless possibilities. Who said the adult mind could not still play? Have any doubts find a pony to ride. Now I must go because Pickle and I have a great race to go win and some cows lost in the mountain to find before dark.
We were stacking wood on the front porch when the book from my brother arrived. It was a book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood The Scandinavian Way. Here in the winter time our wood is at the center of our lives. It book ends the day. This morning when I got out of bed to go get some fuel into the mule's and Pickle's bellies in the form of hay, the thermometer read 22F. The windows in the bedroom were wide open, the field out side was covered in a heavy white frost. I could see my breath in the cabin.We heat only with wood and the fire in the stove had gone out in the night.
I think it's good for one to pop out of a warm bed in to a cold room. Gets the system firing and keeps you hardy. But oh, when the fire in the wood stove gets going and the coffee is ready, how nice it is to feel that stored heat of the sun radiating not only out in to the room but also in side you. Oh how lovely to watch the flames licking away at the wood, wood that Bernie has splint by hand and I have helped to stack and harvest, sometimes even with the help of a mule to twitch out the logs.
Each morning and evening we sit cozily in front of the wood stove. It gives us great pleasure to watch the wood chewing on cherry, or poplar, black birch, and occasional pieces of old apple tree. We use pine and poplar for the splits and of course rationed sticks of fat wood to get it going. I indulge in 3 sticks and Bernie does it with only 2. We never use paper and we never have any problem in getting this great little stove to just fire right up. Of course they are top down fires, wood stacked tight in decreasing size from bottom to top.
We think about the BTUs of the various woods and build fires according to the outside temps, cooler fires for warmer weather. That's when it's nice to have the Poplar choice in the stack.
Living here with Bernie at the cabin was the first I ever even understood that there was an art and craft to wood fires. That there was a way to operate a stove for efficiency and clean burning. To drive one like an engineer knowing when to throttle down, when to engage the catalytic converter. What to do if you must add more cool wood to an already hot fire. There is a lot of pride and satisfaction in driving the wood stove well.
Things like the wood stove and the thought and energy and physical work that goes into the assurance of a cozy winter spent is one reason why I like the life out here so much. I've not been so content with life since living on our farm in Vermont as a child. This rural life with animals and a great partner is the way to go for me. I enjoy the physical element of tending to our winter needs as well as those of our animals.
Below a few pictures of my day.
As the year winds to a close, I am taking a moment to appreciate how lucky I feel to live in a beautiful, tranquil place. I also feel so lucky for our wonderful animals Polly, Pickle, Brick, Cracker, and Snookie..
I am grateful that Snookie is still doing well enough, giving us a little more time with him. Lastly, I am grateful that B has had a wonderful adventure with Brick and Cracker and is now back where I can laugh with him and ride beside him. It's been a great year. Happy New Year to all our friends.
For the past two years I've been on a very different path in regards to my approach to training and riding horses. It started with my desire to reach and retrain a great little horse, Pickle who had recently been plucked from a kill pen. I wanted to find a good path forward with this horse who showed some symptoms of miss-handling and abuse in his past. He lacked confidence and trust
I thought perhaps some work together in a round pen where he could be worked at liberty would help him find a way to be with me. To learn both respect and trust from me, which I might add I needed to learn in my own way from him as well. The round pen did prove a wonderful place to begin a better relationship between us and a place from which we have begun a growing foundation of understanding.
I had not previously used a round pen and am now a convert joining the masses who have known of their benefit for decades.
This however was not the biggest revelation I have experienced in my work with Pickle during these past two years. When I got Pickle I decided to read two books by some of the founding fathers of Natural Horsemanship (although neither called what they did with a horse this). The books were True Unity by Tom Dorrance, first published in 1987 and Think Harmony With Horses by Ray Hunt, first published in 1978. Ray Hunt was Tom's student. In both books they talk about the importance of timing, balance and “feel”. All three are critical to good horsemanship and are always elusive in the sense that arriving at perfection is always just a goal and not a point at which you ever fully arrive. Both Tom and Ray would say they were working towards good horsemanship even though all that saw them ride or had them work a horse would think that they had clearly arrived at or at least close to perfection.
Good timing requires the rider to understand and know exactly where the horse's feet are and accordingly to know exactly when to ask for a stop, a lead or a transition. It takes a lot of listening to the horse and time in the saddle to get good at knowing where the horse's feet are at any given time but with a lot of practice you can at least understand how to get better at it and even how it can be achieved.
Balance also comes along with practice. It is clear enough that sitting upright over the horse's center of gravity can help him balance as he turns and transitions from gait to gait to halts and back ups.
Perhaps the hardest thing to fully grasp though, is what “feel” is all about and how to develop a good feel with an individual horse. Feel is different with every horse and rider combination. Understanding feel is crucial to keeping or making a horse light and responsive and willing. If a good feel is achieved, a horse will be feather light in his response to your request. A glimpse of a good feel with a horse will make you sense you are operating that horse with your mind only. It's a completely different kind of riding than I have ever felt before when you start to get a ride from a horse based on a good feel.
To develop and achieve a good feel with a horse a rider must spend a lot of time on the ground teaching that horse where he can move his feet, forward, backward, side to side. The horse must develop a suppleness and lightness in his movements both side to side and up and down. The horse learns to respond to the lightest pressure. The only reward the horse needs is a release from that pressure and the acknowledgment by the rider (on the ground or in the saddle) of his slightest try at the moment he gives it. This requires very keen attention from the rider.
The amount of pressure with which we ask a horse to yield should be so little, think of being even lighter than touching a dandy lion gone to seed without destroying its form and ramp up from there only to the point of the slightest try or yield back from the horse.
Over time, from a consistent light touch and an immediate rewarding of the horse for every little try he makes, a great communication can develop between a horse and rider. A well developed partnership between a rider and a horse based on a good feel does not even require a bridal to obtain collection.
I hold an image of this beautiful soft feel kind of riding in my head, Buck Brannaman cantering one of his well made horses sideways across a field in full collection with as much elevation in that horse as if he were performing an upper level dressage test, yet there is so much float in the reins as to be able to throw a cowboy hat through them. His body is perfectly upright, balanced and quiet as this horse floats underneath him, no ringing tail, quiet eyes and with a relaxed expression.
To me this kind of riding is a revelation. To me this has become a whole new goal, a new type of riding to try to achieve. This kind of riding is completely free of force and restraints, like any kind of nose band that closes the mouth, or any bit more leveraged or aggressive than a simple snaffle bit. Every problem is solved by fixing the issues in the foundation through ground work and riding. And yes, it is possible to fix any fixable horse this way. With this kind of training there is no use for ramped up bits or mouth restraints.
Collection has never been about constant contact with the horse's mouth anyway, like I and so many others were taught. It is about established communication and partnership through feel, a feel so soft as to appear almost not there, one in which most of the time there is considerable float in the reins. It is a whisper of pressure and release.
I have been making steady progress with this approach for the past two years with Pickle. He can now break into a canter while being held on the buckle with out picking up too much pace. Stop on the cue of my weight dropping back and go into reverse from a canter halt with out touching the reins. There are still miles to go and a lot to work on but I am now so convinced that this is the right way to approach training any horse.
The other day a single photo caption in a book by Bill Dorrance (Tom Dorrance's brother and another founding father of natural horsemanship) upped my understanding of how light one's feel with a horse should be. In the photo a boy is stroking the face of his horse. The caption with the photo said that the boy was touching the horse with too much force as his hand was ridged and did not seem to be softly absorbing the feel of the horse. There should be no brace what so ever in one's touch, it should be fluid.
In fact you come to understand that pressure can be put on a horse without touching him, merely through movements into his space or a certain direct eye contact. This is important to note as sometimes with some horses you need to back off the pressure before you've even made contact with them. I have now come to understand the lightness of pressure needed at a deeper level than I did previously and have had the best rides so far as a result. This stuff when you begin to scratch the surface only starts to become more magical and full of possibility.
Below as a gift to all my riding friends who are curious and certainly with the benefit of their horses in mind, I have listed all the books and DVD's that have influenced this change in my riding and training choices. I hope some of you will give it a try if you are not doing so already. I'm wishing to share in this magic.
True Unity Tom Dorrance
Think Harmony With Horses Ray Hunt
True Horsemanship Through Feel Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond
7 Clinics With Buck Brannaman (DVD)
* There are a lot of different gurus of what has become known as natural horsemanship, but these four cowboys above have all come from the same branch of it, both Buck Brannaman and Ray Hunt were at one time students of the Dorrance brothers so there is a lot of continuity in their training methods.
All that is left of B's trip is to slowly absorb and relay the details and to unpack the ruck sacks. The animals have all been reunited and it feels so good to have them back. I am happy. So happy to have everyone home. Togetherness in my mind can not be over rated.
I get B back today. I've been waiting months for this day. I have been reflecting on B's extraordinary qualities, just thinking a lot about the uniqueness of the man my heart is firmly welded to. I love B's courage, his faith in humanity, his self confidence, his abundant warmth and his enormous energy. These are the strengths he has that allow him to take on what to most would seem overwhelming, solo adventures. One of B's adventures in a life would be more than enough for most people.
Not only did B just finish a seven month ride on his mules Brick and Cracker from our farm in Lenoir North Carolina to Hailey, Idaho. He then flew home picked up his 1992 Dodge truck and our rickety old two horse trailer and drove all the way back again to Hailey, Idaho, where he picked up the mules. Today he will finally arrive with them at our farm.
I was thinking of the many warm welcomes and offers of lodging, food, help, money, gifts and companionship that B received from Americans he encountered all along his route from North Carolina to Idaho. Not one night did he and the mules not find a good place to rest. B found a warm and friendly America in this time that most of us have been so worried about the fractured nature of this nation. B found overwhelming generosity in the people he met.
Perhaps B's journey is a promising bellwether. Perhaps there is still some hope that the good and hospitable individuals that make up this country can find enough common ground before we irrevocably tear this country apart. B's journey has offered proof that most Americans are more generous than they are self serving.
I believe that B did find good people every where he went but I also think that partly his warm receptions were due to the way that people were greeted by B. B has a broad smile and a warm heart. His greetings radiate kindness, vulnerability, time and trust. B's wide open and people are drawn to him for this reason. B's capacity for love is also broad and his judgements reserved.
B has so much faith in everything. In a world riddled with anxious people, where nothing feels safe, in defiance, here comes this man with two mules, no gun, a top hat, and a large grin riding down roads with speeding cars and cell phone crazed drivers. He has no plan where he will spend the night nor which roads he will go on to take him towards Idaho. He has faith that he will get there, that people will help, that his mules are the best, that a way will be found, that he can do it. How can you not just love a fellow like that? His positivity is a gift, a true gift. Everything responds well to openness and positivity.
Americans have been wonderful to B, the mules great, the trip a success. Thank you one and all for B's return to me.
I welcome B home with tremendous joy!
I thought I might share this email I wrote to a friend while in the Sandhills of Nebraska recently as it is a different experience than many of us are familiar with.
Having a great visit with B out here in the Sandhills of Ne. Weather has been very kind, slight breezes, blue sky, little rain. The mules and B look great, all in their element. B is well in to the beautiful part of his ride under the open sky.* The Sandhills are rich with grass though the cowboys say it's a "washy" grass and hard to make a horse fat on. I don't know, I wouldn't tell that to Brick and Cracker, they look fatter than when they left the farm and both are shiny.
B's not fat but he is shiny too and seems so happy with life under the sky and with the mules.
In some ways I think this kind of trip is conducive to resting the mind and finding a life in the present. An animal like mind with little concern other than daily survival, sleep, eat, walk, prepare to sleep... then repeat until arrival some point or destination in the future.
Now that he is off the fast moving roads of the East and out under this magnificent sky, I can honestly say I am jealous of him. We are already musing together about a massive tour of the West on horse and mule leaving from this area of Nebraska (some time in a Snookieless future, which I am certainly not wishing for but know is coming around a corner too soon.)
We watched saddle bronco riding last night. We were on the fence right next to where they released them from the gate. One jumped out of the high pen right next to us before the rider got on and almost landed on us. The headline that didn't happen. "Mule-man's 2000 plus mile journey comes to an abrupt end when bronco lands on him at county ranch rodeo."
Man though, some powerful beasts those horses were, cowboys sent a flying. Those horses were big and they were powerful and perhaps they were even furious about the flank strap. You never saw so many cowboys drinking so much beer in a hurry. Oh and I don't think I saw more than one rider who was over thirty. Maybe sometime in a cowboy's life around that age, he realizes that bones break rather easily and mend more slowly than he'd like. Jobs depend on these limbs best to try to avoid snapping them. Ranch work trumps rodeo.
But the mind set? How the hell does anyone even the young, make themselves get on one of those snorting, steroidal beasts when everything in their head is screaming " not a good idea"? That's a crazy kind of balls! It's respectable but perhaps not admirable... although you really can't help yourself.
Eyes staring straight ahead, mind in their own world, like in a trance, the cowboys climb one by one over the fence when their number is called. With determination they, straddle the animal, put their feet in the stirrups and secure their grip. “Let her rip!” The flag man lowers the flag he is holding over his head. The gate is drawn open by men in cowboy hats wearing concerns on their faces. The animal is released into the arena, twisting and snorting so loudly.
You hear not only the horse grunting with effort from where I sit but his muscles working. There is so much effort, fear, and exertion present. It even seems to enter the spectators bodies and fill the arena. The crowd is so still, so quiet, we are all mentally with the cowboy until the moment he is flung off, or jumps aboard the pick up horse and his ride is over. When the cowboy hits the dirt, the crowd is quiet until he gets back to his feet, then they cheer. If he makes a successful ride and dismounts from the back of the pick up horse, the crowd roars. The cowboy goes back to drinking beer and the horse is caught by the out riders. The flank strap is released and the bronc is lead back to the corral holding the other broncs who have already been unsaddled. It's a crazy fast 30 seconds or so, which takes much longer to process when it is all over.
Glad saddle bronc riding has not so far caught B's interest. Maybe B, no-longer a young buck, he no longer requires that kind of an adrenaline rush. Maybe he got it out of his system in his steeplechasing days. Plus I know he's not into the philosophy behind it. There's ways to gentle horses these days without riding out the bucks, far better and far safer methods that last and make for better horses that seek out a partnership with their riders. That's what we are looking for after all, a good horse or mule that will go the extra mile for you not because he is forced into it but because he is willing to.
This all was going on at the Hyannis, Nebraska ranch rodeo while we were there. I did not know what a “ranch rodeo” was until I attended this one. It's a rodeo for cowboys from the various ranches to show off and test their ranching skills against ranch hands from other ranches. The ranches enter as teams and compete against each other. All events show off their talents for roping, working cattle and using their horses.
The cowboy must use the same horse for every event accept the bronc riding where the broncos are supplied by an outfitter. All the events show off practical skills except maybe the bronc riding, which takes the necessary skill of being able to sit a buck to an unnecessary extreme, however thrilling. A more practical skill to show these days would be the ability to gentle a horse, garnering its trust and respect in a round pen(for more on round penning go to my old post, consideringanimals.com/saddle-under-the-stars/the-round-pen-dance) but this simply would not be in the same fast moving vain of the ranch rodeo.
Hope all is well with you guys and on the home front. I leave B tomorrow afternoon and start back for Rapid City then fly out from there early Tuesday morning. Lots of love from me and from B too.
Note: B has also posted on this ranch rodeo to read his post go to riverearth.com/ranch-rodeo-saturday-night
* For those of you who are new to my blog, B (Bernie) is my husband. He set out from our farm in Western, NC early in April of this year and has been riding a mule, packing one and sleeping under the stars. He is on his way to Hailey, Idaho. I had just visited with him in the Sandhills of Nebraska when I wrote this post. We had not seen each other in four months. To learn more about Bernie Harberts and his adventures, including the current one go to riverearth.com.
We can’t quite know our future. People try. They plan everything. Well, it sure seems like a lot of people try to plan for a lot of things. We are caught by surprises less and less often these days. For example, most people, when on holiday, know where they’ll sleep each night. This sometimes wisely prevents a certain amount of panic and frustration as one looks for a place to lay their head for the night as darkness closes in around them.
But what this constant control over our lives through planning everything out ahead of time does is prevent us from the growth of serendipity, stumbling in to opportunities and experiences we could not have planned if we had wanted to because we had simply not a priori ever known they existed or were possible.
I believe that by planning a little less, increasing our faith that things will work out, and finding our pluck, our lives will become greatly enriched. The more something is controlled the less you learn about yourself or the world around you.
My husband Bernie (B) has lived this philosophy for much of his life as he has traveled solo around the world in a small boat, crossed countries by bike and mule wagon and traipsed 3 times across this country on mule backs, almost never knowing his plan for the night ahead of time. I am newer to this philosophy, though I have traveled some distance on mules with Bernie spending the night wherever we were loosing the light and am eager to do much more.
Bernie has now been gone for 4 months from our farm. Four months ago when he was set to leave from our gate with mules Brick and Cracker was the last time I had seen him until 2 days ago. We are now reunited in the Sand Hills of Nebraska catching up with each other and resting the mules for a quick week before B continues on to Hailey, Idaho and I return a rented car to Rapid City and fly back home to my dog Snookie.
B has now spent 115 nights on the road this trip and has not had one night in which he had any trouble finding a place for him and the mules to stay.
Mostly it has been the generosity of American families that have provided his quarters. B has met so many nice people and families from all the 8 states he already crossed through on this trip. He has seen the different places and ways they all live, an experience he would have never had if he’d pre-planned his trip.
Our rendezvous in the Sand Hills has been the same. We agreed to meet up in the Sand Hills. I’d fly in to Rapid City and rent a car and come and find B and the mules in a little town called Hyannis, about a 4 hour drive from Rapid City. Other than knowing we’d give each other a massive hug upon our eyes meeting again, little was possible to envision how or where we’d spend our week together with the mules.
I brought only a small knapsack with me with a very thin sleeping bag folded up in it, a change of underwear, sweatshirt, a pair of shorts, a small stick of deodorant, my toothbrush plus a rain jacket. That was it because the ticket I purchased said I was only allowed one personal item 12” x 9” x 17”.
If I really thought about it though, for one week, what else would I really need anyway?
We could find a campground or someone’s yard to pitch the tent. We could stay in a little motel if we found a place close by to keep the mules. Or, possibly, if we were really lucky, find a cabin or bunk house on a nearby ranch where we could be with the mules for the week. The important thing for me was spending the week catching up with B and the mules.
What ended up lining up through serendipity was way beyond my wildest dreams, a charming cabin built from rail road ties on a lake with a picnic table out under a cotton wood tree. The cabin looks across a reedy lake at the town of Hyannis and among the first buildings you see looking toward the town is the Hebbert’s sale barn where the mules have found quarters in corral pens meant for Charolais bulls. They spend their days out eating the lush grass around the sale barn on their pickets then they go in to the corral pen, drink water at night and sleep safely inside the secure high panels of the corral.
As for us I found the first day of my vacation fulfilling an old dream of being a cowboy working cattle on big land under a wide open sky. It so happened that the couple B rented the cabin from are horse trainers and cattle ranchers. B and I were invited to help Seth Adam (cabin owner) and his brother Doug move and doctor cattle for the day on their family’s ranch. This day was a highlight I shall never forget, an unplanned gift of having faith in the power of serendipity.
I've heard both, that I should have gone with B on his mule ramble West (click here MulesWest) or, that B should have stayed with Snookie and me on the farm. True we did just get married. We got married because we want to be together long term. B and I understand that we each have our own missions and responsibilities that must be tended to and that these may unfortunately not always allow us to be together in the same place. The following essay explains our current choices, his to go rambling westward with his mules Brick and Cracker and mine to stay behind with Snookie for this trip.
B draws a pie chart and sees that he's already used up half his time on Earth. He sees what's left and understands that the years of good health in which to really pursue living are less guaranteed with every passing year. If you are B “really pursuing living” means to challenge yourself both physically and mentally, to push hard and to take in the experience with an open and fresh mind. He takes trips like sailing alone around the world or riding a mule across America on roads no longer designed or expecting such a slow moving form of transportation.
They are big undertakings that take a lot of time, courage, discipline and commitment to pull off. The kind of thing a few people do when they have been diagnosed with some terminal illness and become aware of the shortness of their time left. Then they throw caution to the wind, shirk assumed responsibilities and roles, and head off to pursue that one wild dream of a lifetime.
Fortunately, B doesn't have death yapping at his heels from a terrible diagnosis, he just is keenly aware of time's true worth. He really loves his life and plans to use up every bit of it to the fullest he can through first hand experiences. He wants to ride his quarter till its last penny has ticked through the timer and the 25cent operated horse has rocked forward for the last time and come to a complete halt. Ride over! Then and only then will B be ready to rest. He is a true adventurer.
To love a man like B is to understand his need to go. If I could stop time perhaps he could wait for me to be able to come along but no one can stop time. To make B waste any of his life's quarter would be wrong, unthinkably so.
This love that B has for adventure is no less important than the love I have for my old dog Snookie, which prevents me from going along this time on the mule ramble West. Snookie is now approaching 11 years old. He's starting to have trouble jumping into the car. His hind end is getting noticeably weaker. He trips and stumbles more often. He's a lot wobblier then he was as a pup but he still enjoys ball games and walks.
Sitting here looking at Snookie, I am aware that my time with him is dwindling. The vet mentioned degenerative myelopathy of the spinal cord as a potential diagnosis of his weak hind end and stumbling. If this is the case, he might have a year left before he will be paralyzed in the hind end. Even if he doesn't have this degenerative disease, he's an old dog and his remaining miles are limited. I think of the years we've had together. He has been and still is a wonderful companion.
Time, again in this decision, is the limiting resource. Given this situation, I have to give my time to Snookie. I want to be with him for the good time he's got left.
I'm sad, that I can't be with B on the mule trip West, that I too can't be off on a long ride now while my health is great, that this time can't be shared by the three of us in the same place, that the better part of our year will be apart,. But, I am comforted in knowing that we both have thought carefully about the worth of time and that we are not wasting it. There will be no regrets later on for B not heading West with two mules while still healthy and able and no regrets for me not spending time with Snookie while I still can. B and I understand each others decision and we both understand the worth of time. It's sobering to really think about the preciousness of this commodity. Use it wisely.
Since I am not going to be out under the stars with my saddle for a while please find future posts at Old Dog Diaries which is also on the Considering Animals Website.
Brick, Cracker and Bernie leave our front gate, April 6th for a destination far in the West. They shall be gone until the snow starts to fly again or until the Pacific Ocean laps at the mules' hooves. The Photo was taken by our very nice mail lady Robin who happened to be passing by as Bernie was leaving.
Snookie, Pickle and I will most certainly miss our dear friends and family/herd/pack members but we will keep ourselves busy while they are away. I'm not quite sure yet how we shall fill those many months until they are back but I will keep you posted. There are some ideas and projects in the works. One of which will be a new blog on Consideringanimals.com called Old Dog Diaries. Look for it to start sometime soon.
Ever since I was small I've dreamed of riding for days straight. Last autumn's mule trip with Bernie from our home in Western North Carolina to Grayson Highlands in Virginia via Damascus was a highlight of my life. But I had to make the sacrifice of leaving my yellow shadow behind. That's my faithful friend and dog Snookie.
Snookie is now ten years old. I was reluctant to leave him then for the six weeks we had to do our ride to Va. There aren't that many years left to be together. We are not apart much. He pretty much follows me around all day long keeping his eye on me and sleeps by my side at night.
So how do you make the decision to leave such a dog companion behind for the better part of a year as you ride a dream West? The answer at least if you are me, is you don't. Not right now. Snookie is my friend, my responsibility and my dog. He's a preexisting condition. I've had him longer than I've known Bernie. I know he'd be crushed if I left him that long. Maybe dogs are so loyal because that bond they have with their human is the most important thing in the world to them.
So as much as I would like to be on the next adventure with Bernie, riding West on Pickle for the better part of the year. I will be instead waving goodbye to him and the mules from the gate.
Bernie will leave out our front gate on April 1st and head West. Brick and our newest mule Cracker will go with him. We wish them good speed so that we may see them all again as soon as possible.
On February 23rd Bernie and I got married on the town dock in Oriental, NC. A close friend of Bernie's, Keith Smith officiated as the minister. The day was overcast and chilly. It blew a heavy mist over us and our guests. It seemed fitting for us who love the outdoors no matter its mood to be married in the mist.
A romantic timelessness emanated with the mule, the mist, the tuxes, Keith's (the minister's) black vest, the shrimp boats in the harbor and Bernie's top hat.
To me our wedding will always represent a lovely mix of what we hold dear, friends, family, animals, boats, the grand outdoors, casual effortless fun and a touch of romance. Enjoy the photos because, to me, they capture the wedding perfectly.
We thank and credit Ben Casey for the wonderful photos of the wedding. All of the wedding photos here were taken by him. The honeymoon photos were taken by Christian Harberts, Bernie Harberts and kind passers by.
For Bernie's post on our wedding click here.
I read the ad about the mule with interest and a bit of skepticism. The ad said in bold, “Mule That Walked Across America For Sale”. The ad said that Woody, age about twenty-three, was looking for a new home. Good for riding and packing. Can also be bought with small pinto pony mare, age over twenty, named Maggie who also walked across America.
I had my doubts. How could such a small pony and mule walk all the way across this country in modern times in such a busy fast moving world? And who would be bold enough to do such a thing?
And why if they had done such a spectacular thing would the person who'd gone with them ever part with them?
I went online to see what else I could dig up about the likelihood of this event ever having taken place. I Googled “Woody the mule walks across America”. Up came a photograph of a mule tied to a Forest Service truck. The mule's eye was rolled back in his head and he was rearing. The caption said, “Mule Woody rearing in a panic as he does not like to be separated from his pony Maggie.”
There were other images, too, of the little red mule and pinto pony in the desert, on city streets, standing with interesting looking people, sculptures and other animals. Yes, it did look like they had been on quite an adventure across America. They looked like real characters. Yes, their walk across America seemed for real.
Now I wanted them. I wanted to save them, retire them and give them a nice old age together on my farm in Essex, Massachusetts. But they were far away in North Carolina. Besides they were old and the man who owned them wanted a thousand dollars for each of them.
I decided to write him an email telling him who I was, where I lived and about my experiences being raised with and taking care of animals. I promised him in my letter that if he gave Woody and Maggie to me instead of selling them I could use the money to get them to my farm. There I would keep them together in retirement for the rest of their lives. I sent pictures of my farm with the red barn sitting with its green pastures looking out over the Essex River and marsh. I also sent pictures of my shiny coated, well cared for animals, my dogs sleeping peacefully together on the couch. I told him I had grown up on a horse farm and that I'd ridden and taken care of animals since I was a child.
I didn't hear anything back for two weeks. My friends laughed and wondered what I'd expected. Someone to just hand over their accomplished animals to me for free? Ha! How likely was that?
Then on the third week an email arrived from Tasmania. Bernie Harberts, their owner and co trans America adventurer wrote a quick note.
“Dear Julia, I received your email today. Sorry for the delay. I am in Tasmania at the moment sitting in an internet cafe. I have read what you propose and think it could work out well. I shall contact you in another week when I return home. Sincerely, Bernie Harberts.”
I waited and two weeks later I got a call from Bernie in North Carolina. He told me a bit more about Woody and Maggie and we made arrangements for me to plan their shipping up to Massachusetts. Bernie told me that he'd been traveling a lot. That he did not own a place of his own where he could keep Woody and Maggie. He told me that he was taking care of older parents. Woody and Maggie were living with a friend of his named Liz Munson who was in her mid seventies. Liz had miniature horses and did all the work herself on her farm. She was ready to downsize her herd and so Woody and Maggie needed a new place to live.
When he could not find a good solution he put an ad online. But all the people who had called on them did not seem to suit what he wanted for them. They wanted to buy the mule but not the pony. Or the other way around. I think he and Liz were really reluctant to part with them and to have them separated from one another.
I contracted with a van line to have them come up to my farm in July which was a few months away. Bernie gave me Liz's number so I could get the up to date specifics on their care. Bernie also said he would send me the book he wrote about his trip with them so I could get to know them all better. The book was called “Too Proud To Ride a Cow”. (Can be ordered here at riverearth.com)
I read the book cover to cover gleaning all the information I could on them. It seemed the pony was easy but that mule! Ugg! What had I gotten myself into? The PTSD mule who ran away from Bernie once per state. That would not accept being separated from his pony for a single moment and who was hard to trim, hard to catch, hard to deworm and almost impossible to give shots to without tying him up like a pretzel first. In another phone call with Bernie he assured me that it all could be done quite easily.
He sent me a hand drawn diagram of the Scotch hobble, a way to control Woody when giving him shots. He also emailed me a video on how to trim Woody's hooves while distracting him with a bucket of grain. He said, “hold on to that pony and you will never lose that mule”.
In July Woody and Maggie arrived with a watermelon at my farm via an East Coast van line. My best friend Beth and I greeted the van at the street. Out came a pretty little pinto pony followed by a slightly taller, determined-eyed red mule. I was saying to the van driver that Bernie suggested we unload the mule first as the van driver lead Maggie out. Next thing I knew out flew Woody towing the large muscled van driver down the ramp with him to catch up with his pony.
Slowly, I figured out my own methods with Woody and Maggie. The two of them slipped into a peaceful retirement at my farm.
Bernie, Liz and I kept in touch. We talked always of our friends Woody and Maggie and how they were doing.
One day I got an email from Bernie saying he was heading up to Newfoundland with his mule Polly. Would it be alright to stop and visit us?
I hadn't given as much thought to Bernie as I had to his mule and pony. Then he showed up at my farm.
It was a raining-sideways night. He pulled up with his old Dodge truck, his old horse trailer mounted on a flat bed with his little red covered wagon. In the blowing gale, in the dark with a flood light shining on to him, in his signature hat and a rain poncho, with a huge smile on his face and open arms, was the first time my eyes had set upon him. Here stood Bernie. I knew then that this person was going to be special to me.
Sometimes Bernie and I just simply say now that a mule introduced us when people ask how we met.
The sky that day, the day that... It was Jan 20th and it was Sunday. Bernie and I went for a walk up the mountain to the orchard where there is an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was sunny and cold. There were a few strange clouds just clearing out as a new high pressure system worked its way in. We were lying side by side on our backs in the tussocky grass watching the clouds changing and the jets going by. We saw a cloud that looked like a rabbit appear and another that looked like a heart.
B said, “never mind the rabbit and concentrate on the heart. I am asking you to marry me.” I said
Then he placed a ring on my finger made out of a piece of wire fence and another made out of the same wire he put on his own finger. Bernie doesn't know how people get married but that's not important. What is, is that he wishes to marry me.
So we shall.
Read Bernie's account at riverearth.com
I think living out on a horse or mule was what I was made to do. I absolutely love being in a saddle all day in the grand outdoors. Nothing better in my opinion. When we went on our mule ramble this fall we used Bernie’s old faithful, cross-country mule Polly to pack our gear. We did not take very much other than a tent and cook gear.
We ate small meals, carried lentils and ramen noodles, and a whole grain cereal mix that we make and eat every day at home as well. We enhanced our meals with herbs that we found. Some times we were given vegetables from people's gardens. We asked for and sought water along the way. We only carried two small jugs of water on Polly. We each had a small canteen as well in our pommel bags. A few times we all went thirsty for a while.
Bernie and I each brought only enough clothes to fit into a gallon freezer baggie. That included everything- jacket, long johns (that were not worn), undies, one set shorts and one set clean pants. We wore one piece work suits with shorts and t-shirts underneath.
The sun was hot but it felt better to be fully rugged up from it with suits and gloves, hats and sunglasses. You can’t understand that kind of over exposure from the sun until you are out in it relentlessly like that.
Meals were rationed as we only had one small mess kit and limited gas and water with which to cook. .Most days we ate two or less energy bars (between the two of us), road apples and nuts between breakfast and diner as we rode along.
We each had a light sleeping bag. One of us slept on the horse blankets and the other on a small camping pad.
We were constantly in motion riding, setting up camp, breaking camp, caring for mules, saddling, unsaddling, and hunting for places to stay the night. Where to stay each night was a question that would begin to weigh on us every day as we would watch the sun sinking. It’s ok at first but grows more desperate as the sun gets lower in the sky as you ride further searching for the answer. Where can we put these good mules who have worked so hard and need to rest, drink and eat?
We had to find them places with enough forage and grass for them to eat and enough space so that their leg pickets would not get tangled. We stealth camped only twice on the whole trip. Kindness and generosity always came to our aid in the most magical and reliable way. We always got to settle down and sleep.
The thing about constant motion and rationed, good quality food is that it makes you feel bionic. I came home feeling better than I have felt in years. There’s something to that more feral form of living for both animals and humans. I hope to always remember this. Those raw feelings like being a bit cold, hungry and tired keeps your immunities up and your body healthy. There’s a certain sharpness that comes from not being comfortable all the time.
We as a society and as stewards of animals are in danger of forgetting the importance of not letting everything in our lives become too easy, too comfortable and too rich.
Maybe when my good old dog finally meets his end in a few more years I will lean in more to this life of a nomad. I could see staying out there a good while but I do also love a home and a hearth and a community of good old friends. The pull and push of life.
My New Years resolution is: to try to not always let myself eat till I am full, to embrace being a little too hot or cold sometimes, and to remember that comfort is not always your friend.
Happy New Year!
lA suspensory tear on a horse is a serious injury and takes a long time to heal. We've been working on healing Pickle since he injured himself last February. He's still not completely healed but a digital image check up with Dr. Hay at Tryon Equine Clinic in early November showed a substantial improvement to the ligament. Pickle has been sound since October.
Pickle is in PT, a program prescribed by Dr. Hay. We do trot sets with him at increasing increments. He's up to 3 trot sets of 3 minutes each with 5 minutes of walking between sets and 5 minutes of walking at the beginning. Next week he moves up to 4 minute trot sets. By March he should be cantering and back to having his freedom in the pasture. It feels like a long road back.
So it was extra nice to get out to Moses Cone on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Blowing Rock, NC with him last week for a walk/trot trail ride. It wasn't a month long jaunt like I'd recently completed with mule Dusty but it was a very pleasant hour and a start.