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IMG_2564In a little more than a month I’ll be having surgery to fix a back problem. I’m really looking forward to it: I didn’t move onto this little property with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to be an active part of life here. But the surgery has pushed me to do something I haven’t wanted to do: I’m sending Haggin away, perhaps forever.

This is very difficult decision for me.

Haggin came to me after his career as a racehorse fell apart along with his fetlocks. When I first met him he could barely walk; a year later he was still in padded shoes. He went through so much Bute that I figured I’d lose him to the side effects. But slowly, gradually, he got better. Much, much better. Late summer of 2013, I had someone staying for a while who was a pretty good trainer, and she worked with him. He did really well. There were three horses here at the time, two of them she was training for sale.

She left, they left. And Haggin was left bored, sad and lonely. Read the rest of this entry »

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supplementsAbout a year ago, I stopped being a freelance writer when I was offered a really good job working for a pet health insurance company. The job offer was different from anything I’d done before: Instead of writing about pets for pet-owners, I would be writing about medicine, economics and small business for veterinarians, veterinary students, practice managers and veterinary technicians.

I liked that proposition. Over the years (17 books and a syndicated column a week for a couple of decades) I had explained how to get a cat to use the litter box or a dog to take a pill about as many ways as it was possible to do so. I had grown to love veterinary medicine, and I liked pushing myself to handle the business and economics topics. It wasn’t that big a jump: I’d worked on the business desk at The Sacramento Bee earlier in my writing/editing career.

As I threw myself into the new job, I put this blog on hold. I really just didn’t feel like writing for the hell of it any more. A couple months ago I helped a friend get her blog rolling, and I started to realize that I was missing writing for my own pleasure. The new job had leveled off to the point where I had free time after work, which is something free-lance writers never seem to have.  If you’re not writing, you’re selling your writing. With freelancing it’s all such a big scramble to write more and more, while dealing with the fear that someday no one will pay you to write anything.

And then, of course, you’d be living in your car.

Having a “day job” again ended that worry, for the most part. All these months later, I am now starting to have my head fill up with things I want to write about. Guess I needed to water table to rise before I went back to the well. Read the rest of this entry »

Ifeathers‘d like to say it got easier, watching my friend pull a sharpened knife across the neck of a turkey, waiting as the bird’s consciousness drain just behind, and then just ahead, of the blood flow. But it never really did.

No doubt you can get pretty callous when you work in an industrial slaughterhouse, when the speed of killing and dismemberment leaves little time for regret, or even thought itself. But thinking is something you have lots of time for when you spend months raising your own meat, and that’s even true when you spend a beautiful autumn afternoon helping to kill, pluck and butcher a small flock of birds you don’t really know.

It takes three people combined about 30 minutes per bird, and that’s if you’re really staying focused on the task. Plenty of time to think about life and death as you go through the routine: Catching a bird from the stall you put them in the night before. Putting him or her upside-down in a traffic cone you’ve hung from eaves of the barn. Severing the artery in the neck with one swift, bold stroke. Standing as respectful witness as the bird dies (this is actually, thankfully, the swiftest part of the procedure, just a second or two in duration). Waiting for the death throes to end. Plunging the carcass into 155 degree water to loosen the feathers, then plucking, butchering, packaging and freezing.

Then back to the stall for the next bird.

I know many people don’t name their meat animals, seemingly to spare them some of the emotions when it’s time to slaughter. But honestly it does not matter if you name them or not, since when you’re raising your own food in such small numbers you come to know one bird or animal from another, never more so than when you’re ending their lives. Their lives pass not in front of their eyes, but in front of yours. I didn’t know this flock that well, but I’d seen them a few times since they first arrived as fluffy babies on the farm. That was enough to remove their anonymity: They were individuals to me, just as much as if they had been named.

The friend who pulled the blade across their necks apologized to each bird before she did so. Her thank you a second later was the last thing each bird ever heard.

I also always say “I’m sorry” and “thank you.” I would bet that’s not uncommon. Read the rest of this entry »

BigAlI did not want a rooster. And really, I still don’t. When I first looked at the house almost two years ago, the property had a resident rooster. He attacked my real estate agent, taking a chunk out of his khakis (but fortunately not his leg). On subsequent visits to the place, I brought a poultry hook so that I could prevent further incidents. When the sale closed, Mr. Rooster Man (his real name) moved next door along with the two horses who’d been boarded here, all of them belonging to a person who took an near-instant dislike for me, for reasons best not explained. (Other people were largely responsible, and it wasn’t anyone’s finest moment, mine included.’Nuff said.)

When I lived in plain ol’ suburbia, I had chickens. Where I lived, hens were allowed if you had a single-family residence on a minimum lot of a quarter-acre, which I did. I maintained a flock of about 10 chickens for four or five years before moving to this house, where “AG-RES” zoning made roosters (goats, sheep, cattle, horses) allowable.

Twice before I’d raised “female” chicks who turned out to be roosters. One died in the jaws of my chicken-killing retriever, the late McKenzie, and the other one I rehomed to my friend’s farm. But the fact is that it didn’t matter what I thought about having a rooster where I used to live, because they were not allowed by zoning, period. My neighbor, who’d taken up chickens about the same time I did, was not as fortunate. She seemed to get about 30 percent males out of chicks purported to be “95 percent” sexed as females. She rehomed hers as well, but it wasn’t easy: The feed store where she’d bought her chicks suggested turning them loose in a nearby town, or dropping them on the American River Parkway for the coyotes to eat. Or, quite sensibly, killing them for food. She did none of that, but her roosters-to-hens ratio was so bad that she stopped raising chicks. Last I heard, she was just letting her hens live out their roosterless lives.

The first spring I was here I was too busy to raise chicks. Last spring was the first chance I had, and I went a little overboard at the feed store. By the time summer came around I had 22 chickens, or about a dozen more than I’d brought over from the old house. By July, it was apparent by the dawn serenade that one of those “shes” was a he. Wouldn’t you know it: It was the “just one more” chick I’d pulled from the Ameraucana tray at the feed store. The chick had caught my eye because of the markings, and yes, that chick grew up to be a striking rooster, now named Aloysius or just plain Big Al.

Good-looking he may be, but welcome he is not. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall at RBF

Some pictures from the last couple of weeks.

A horseless winter

I knew the haggin0929property had a “drainage issue” when I bought it. The sellers told me, and my neighbor told me. The day my offer was accepted, in December of 2011, I went out to celebrate finally buying my own small piece of rural property by standing in the ankle-deep mud of my new pasture. Yeah, it was bad, but … well, Mud Season is one of the two known to all horse-owners, Fly Season being the other. The pasture was still ankle-deep in mud when I closed in February of 2012, but again, if you have horses, you’ll have mud. I bought a pair of Muck Boots in preparation for last winter, but thought everything would be fine otherwise.

In December of 2012, it rained for five days straight, and the pasture was under water — it was, in effect, a lake — for the better part of two months. Even then, it could have been worse: Had it rained a little harder for a little longer, my barn would have flooded. But the rain stopped just in time, so I had two dry stalls for the horses and the $3,000 worth of hay stayed dry so I could feed them. But I knew I had been lucky, and couldn’t rely on luck again. For this year, I needed a short-term solution. A longer-term solution — fixing the drainage issue — would have to wait until I have money to afford it.

The first step was getting down to two horses, because the barn has only two stalls, and the third “stall” is a makeshift affair that doesn’t shelter much — it faces into the wind — and floods with the pasture. On short notice last December, reducing the “herd” meant giving up my very best (in terms of training, conformation, markings and temperament) horse, Patrick. I was lucky to be able to donate him to the Sacramento Police Department, where Officer Patrick now has several arrests under his cinch and a fan club.

That left River, my Kentucky Mountain Horse, and Haggin, my off-track Thoroughbred. At the beginning of summer, I started thinking about how to prepare for another wet winter with the two of them. In late summer, I had my hay shipment stacked on double pallets, so even if water got into the barn there might be a chance to save my hay. I had a “curtain” made from a tarp added to the front of the barn (the original barn doors disappeared heaven-knows-when) to protect the hay from wind-blown rain. I started getting load after load of wood chips dumped in the stalls, on the pasture’s lowest spots and on a “road” from the house to barn. Fortunately, one of my neighbors owns a tree company, and he and his crew are happy to empty their trucks at the end of a day of trimming and chipping — for free. I’ve been taking all they’ll give me, and as long as the pasture is dry enough for them to drive onto I’ll take more. Read the rest of this entry »

I didn’t bottle-raise the two Nigerian Dwarf does born here in February because I didn’t want goats who followed me everywhere. Instead, my plan was to let their mom raise them, taking less milk so she had enough for them. Then I watched as she slowly taught them to eat more on their own and less from her. I think she was getting pretty tired of nursing, to be honest.

The doelings were not afraid of me, by any means. But they really wanted very little to do with me. Looking for that happy medium, on Monday I pulled the two girls and put them in a small pen not far from their mother. This did not go over well:

After a day piteous non-stop sobbing on the part of the doelings and the mother, I switched them, putting mom in the new area and putting the babies back in the are where they were raised. That seemed to work much better for all. Then I started teaching the youngsters to associate me with food, and at the same time started milking the mom while giving her lots of yummy grain.

Five days later, things are going pretty well. Mom is patient and content while I milk her, and although she still cries for her babies, things are winding down on her end. She has been through this before, after all. And the doelings have gone from eating sweet treats near me, to eating out of my hand, to eating while being held in my lap.

We getting there. And I think I’m going to keep both of the doelings. They’re very nice kids.

I’ve been in the local media all week. First was my monthly appearance talking about pets on Capital Public Radio’s “Insight” program. And today, my horse Patrick is featured in The Sacramento Bee:

An ideal equine officer is unfazed by the sound of train whistles, the chaos of large public events, the blasts of boom boxes or the crackle of bullets or fireworks. He must be capable of quickly moving through crowds, creating barriers and pushing criminal suspects into a position of submission when called to do so.

Patrick, tan and white with a blond mane that sparkles in the sunshine, excels on all fronts, [Officer Kate] McLoughlin said.

[…]

Patrick’s personality, in particular, “puts a smile on people’s faces,” she said, including one suspect who, as McLoughlin was interviewing him, lost his can of King Cobra malt liquor when Patrick snatched it from his hands to try to drink it.

“He’s got the kind of personality and spirit that you just can’t train into a horse,” McLoughlin said.

True that! But King Cobra? Patrick, really! Here, he drank Guinness.

Don’t miss the photo gallery, here.

Great work by Cynthia Hubert and Lezlie Sterling. Fun, informative read and fabulous pictures.

Image: Patrick with his clothes off, here at the ranch.

Goatlings …

Born a week ago. Two perfect little does …

 

Two weeks after my pasture flooded, I still have standing water, two pools about 20-30 feet across and couple inches deep. The twice-daily slog to the barn is trying, as the mud sucks at my boots and plays with my balance. The biggest concern of all, though, once I realized I wasn’t losing $3,000 worth of hay to rising water, was the health of the horses. They needed to get out of the mud.

I have picked their hooves and rotated them through the higher and dryer back yard every day, but the problem at night remained: I have  two dry stalls and one flooded one, lots of gooey mud — and three horses. One of the horses had to be re-homed, so that meant: Which one was most sellable? Which one did I like riding? Which ones had other options?

All answers pointed to Patrick, my 9-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse, as the horse who was going to leave. He’s the best horse I have, well-trained, smart, good-looking and with great feet, conformation and health. But he’s too much horse for me under saddle, and our relationship as horse and rider had become more strained as I became less and less able to earn and maintain his respect. He was never dangerous or unkind — he’s bright, friendly and playful — but his energy, intelligence and boldness meant I could never relax on the trail.

The quieter, shorter and frankly more boring Rebel was a much better ride for anxious older rider I had, at almost 55, suddenly become. And the third horse, my trashed ex-racer Haggin? Total sweetie, but more of a pet than a ride because of track injuries. And even when sound, he’s also too much horse for me as a rider, although my friend Ann rides him when she can.

As I prepared to sell Patrick to the best possible home, my friend and trainer Alana Henley of Sunfire Equestrian mentioned that she thought the Sacramento Police Department’s mounted unit was looking for a very special horse, and that mine might be perfect. She knows what it takes: She used to be a Sacramento PD mounted police officer. She called, and last Friday, two officers came over to look informally, and two days ago, the unit did, in uniform. The next day Patrick passed the veterinary check at Loomis Basin, and he officially went to the police barn as an officer in training. It will be 60 days before I know if he’ll “stick” or come back, but there’s no downside for me or for him: Two months of great care, dry footing and good training. Being a police horse is a great life for on outgoing, confidant horse, with constant attention from the officers, volunteers and public. If he doesn’t make the grade, he’ll be even more appealing to potential new owners.

It’s the second time I’ve tried to find a new career for him (although it’s the first time the career has meant his leaving me for good)  and I think this time, if he passes, he’ll be great at the work. Arena work as a hunter-jumper didn’t suit him (although he loves jumping!) but being out all day seeing the world? It’s perfect for him. The police officers think so, too, and they’re very picky about the horses they try in their program. Today I visited him after his first full day in training, and got a glowing report, very promising.

He’s also had a head start! The place where I boarded him when he first arrived was adjacent to trails that wound through a wooded area notorious for quick sex. The men turn up in cars at the park that caps the trail system, and hook up with each other, or, occasionally, hookers, and head into the brush.  Some of them apparently bring in reading material, to judge by what we found on the trail one day. The same area has homeless folks, some of whom behave in very unpredictable ways. We saw a lot of very strange behavior on those trails, and Patrick handled it all with grace and tolerance.

I just couldn’t be happier with this turn of events, and I’ll be holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed that he gets through the training — it’s high bar! — and becomes Officer Patrick of the Sacramento Police Department. He’s also be a trend-setter, a horse of a different color for the force entirely: All the other police horses are solid-color horses. With his natural bling, he’ll really stand out!

Meanwhile, back at RBF, I have two dry stalls and two horses, plus the help of a young woman who lives around the corner and works as a veterinary technician. She’s 29 and a good horse-trainer, and she helps me a few hours a week with all the heavy lifting and stall cleaning. Winter? We’ll get through it. As long as the levee doesn’t break, that is.

Top image: Patrick, clean, last spring at RBF.  Middle image: Patrick at the Sac PD barn, first day in training. Learning to wait is an important part of police horse work: There’s a lot of standing around for these equine officers. Lower image: Leftover porn stash on the trail, ho-hum.

So who’s here? Three dogs: McKenzie (still fighting cancer but running out of time), Faith and NED the puppy. Two cats, Ilario and Mariposa. Two horses, Haggin and Rebel. Two Nigerian dwarf dairy goats, Bayberry (mine) and Blossom (loaner). Two ducks, Bernadette and ABBA. And 13 chickens, none named.

I haven’t written about the goats yet (that’s Bayberry on the left, with my friend Susan Fox, a noted artist) since I wrote about the goat I ended up not getting. The reason? Sugar Maple would have needed milking all winter, twice a day, and I’m just learning. I figured learning to care for goats was enough of a Step 1.

But not long after, Joyful Hearts had a goat I thought would be a perfect fit: Bayberry. She’s older, more experienced at being handled and is easy to milk when the time arrives. She was also being sold as potentially pregnant, due in the spring. Perfect.

Because goats need companions, I asked my friend Xan of Flyway Farm to loan me one of hers for the winter, and she agreed. Which is how I came to have one goat and one loaner goat here at RBF.

 

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