Saturday, November 24, 2012

What Money Buys

Hi Folks!

Wow, have I been gone awhile, or what?! My regular readers will know that I was rather busy, this past summer, falling in love with the most wonderful guy in the world! For those who haven't yet read my blog, things will make a lot more sense if you first scroll down and read the entry titled "Do Overs Part 2." For those of you who already read that entry, I'm pleased to report (major spoiler alert for new readers, here!) that Duddy and I are now engaged to be married and couldn't be happier about it!

While Duddy has had plenty of pets of his own, through the years, getting to know - and learning to live with - a Critter Lady has been quite an eye-opening experience for him. He's not accustomed to someone putting the needs of the animals first, for instance, and being shooed out of his own kitchen so that the cats can eat in peace really doesn't sit well with him. The duck who spent several days living in our bathroom gave him pause for thought as well: the smell of duck poop alone was enough to make him wonder about that whole happily-ever-after thing. At some point, he began to question where, exactly, he fell on the totem pole, and found it understandably galling when he realized that he wasn't necessarily at the top! What can I say - sick critters take precedence over healthy humans!

To give credit where credit is due, though, I'll say this: Duddy has been a surprisingly good sport about most of my critter peculiarities. At one point, he actually managed to get antibiotic pills down the throat of the aforementioned duck, which impressed the hell out of me. And, he's even made friends with formerly-feral Buddy the cat - a cat who sees little need for relationships of any kind. I have to figure, if Buddy likes him, Duddy must be doing something right!

Duddy also seems to have embraced volunteering with me at The Harmony Barn. While he's not a big fan of poop scooping, he attends to water bucket cleaning briskly and efficiently. After the buckets are all cleaned and refilled, he makes the rounds and visits with the critters he likes most. At the top of the list is Handsome Harry, the resident donkey. As he's done with every other volunteer, Harry has charmed Duddy by resting his huge head on Dud's shoulder. And while Duddy appears to dismiss my belief that if you talk to animals, they will talk back, I'm fairly certain that he and Harry have had some meaningful conversations when I wasn't around to overhear!

While Duddy knew little about horses before hooking up with me, he was intrigued about the concept of leasing a horse, once he learned that such a thing was possible. For those of you who don't know, horses are very expensive animals to own. In the first place, there's the monthly cost of boarding, which, in this area, runs about $350. I could buy a heck of a nice car for that price! In addition to boarding costs, there's the fee for the farrier to come trim the hooves every six weeks. Then there's worming, and dental care, and the price just goes through the roof. For folks who can't afford all that, leasing can be an option.

Leasing is basically renting a horse. You pay a monthly fee, and you get to ride as often as you wish without all the extra expenses like those I mentioned above. I'd never leased a horse before because I couldn't afford it, and I certainly never felt qualified enough: while there's an instructor present during lessons, you ride the leased horse on your own time, when there's generally no one around. It never occurred to me that I might know enough to be able to ride all on my own - didn't occur, that is, until I mentioned it to Duddy. He'd been casting about for a suitable gift for my birthday when the subject came up. Knowing how much I loved the Harmony Barn and its horses, he decided that my gift would be his leasing Bit for me. Wow! 

Now, you regular readers know that I took a few lessons on Bit, and that we were slowly forging a relationship together. But leasing him, and figuring out how to fill my time with him, was another matter entirely. You might think that I would just go out to the barn, saddle him up, and hop on every time, but that was never the case. I suppose I could've done that, but I wanted more than to just ride around in circles in the arena; that can get boring pretty quickly!

So I set myself the task of trying to make him a trail rider. Since Ruckus died, we'd lost the one bomb-proof horse that could manage a trail ride calmly and smoothly. I knew that Wendy wasn't going to go out and find another trail horse - her mission is rescuing abused horses, and the space available at the barn for that is limited. The obvious solution seemed to be to teach a horse who was already in residence. Since no one had any objection to my idea, I took lead rope in hand and set about showing Bit what the world looked like on the other side of the fence.

There's a u-shaped track that parallels the pasture fence. Ron and Wendy use it to drive the poop-filled tractor out to the back of the property.  Bit and I would walk that u-shaped track, stopping often so he could snack on the grass which grows in abundance out there. I made sure, in spite of the numerous times he startled at something, that every excursion ended positively, with lots of snacks, and lots of praise.

Day after day, week after week, we walked that track. When he startled at the corn stalks rustling in the wind on the neighboring property, I pulled a few ears and let him eat them. When he nervously eyed the old wooden wagon filled with junk and sitting forgotten next to the track, I walked him up to it, rapped my knuckles on it, and encouraged him to sniff out its harmlessness. Every scary issue was addressed quickly and confidently to ensure that he didn't harbor any lingering fear of it. And while it sounds like I knew exactly what I was doing in all this, I can assure you that I did not. I made it all up as I went along.

It was precisely because I had no idea what I was doing that I began to wonder whether I was actually making any progress. Perhaps the lack of any specific goals kept me from seeing the small changes as they occurred, but occur they did, and as we repeated this adventure time after time, I began to pick up on them. The most noteworthy change was that Bit startled less often. All those times I had calmly assured him that everything was o.k. were finally paying off. While that was encouraging, I still wasn't sure whether we were making real, lasting, progress until the day I walked out into the mud lot to collect him for yet another walk around the track.

To avoid predictability, I tried to mix up our routine. Some days, I would put a saddle on him before we took our walk so that he would get used to wearing a saddle outside the fence. Other days, I brought Duddy along on our walks so Bit would get used to the presence of distractions. We would walk in different directions on different days, and never stopped to graze in the same place twice. The whole point was to get him accustomed to the idea that strange new things weren't going to harm him and could, in fact, be rather pleasant. It actually became a non-routine routine!

Before our walks, I always groomed Bit and picked his hooves because I saw those things as part of my relationship-building efforts. Due to his EPM balance issues, picking his back hooves could be a real challenge. Indeed, during our lessons, I would have Connie stand in front of Bit to help maintain his focus while I tried to keep from getting kicked. Bit wasn't actually trying to kick me, he was flailing his back leg because he felt off-balance. Because I would be picking his hooves alone when I leased him, Connie insisted that I learn how to do it all by myself before leasing began. This I ultimately did, and being able to hang on to that flying leg seemed to reassure Bit that I could be counted on to handle whatever needed handling. Indeed, I seem to have succeeded in reassuring Bit, as I learned that day I walked out to the mud lot to collect him for yet another walk.

It was my habit to walk out into the mud lot and call out, "Where's Big Boy Bit?" I had begun to notice that he would drop what he was doing, when he heard my voice, and walk over to me from wherever he was. This particular day, though, he was clearly feeling downright enthusiastic because, much to my everlasting surprise, he came trotting around the corner of the barn! In my time on earth, I've had dogs run to greet me, the ducks at the pond run to greet me, and even the occasional cat, but never a horse! I was floored! In my search for an indication that my efforts with him were working, Bit's trotting across the mud lot to me was the proof I needed. We were, indeed, developing a relationship, and Bit's enthusiasm cheered me no end.

I made a point, then, of telling Duddy what a great gift his leasing of Bit was for me. While I certainly enjoyed riding Bit on those occasions when I did, the experience was about so much more than that: my confidence in myself and my horse knowledge was growing by leaps and bounds. In addition, the quiet time spent with Bit did wonders to calm the ever-present chaos in my head - the result of having been molested as a child. Those chaos-free hours have been better medicine than anything the pharmaceutical companies could dream up, and I've relished the time that I've been able to spend alone, quietly, with my best pal, Bit.

I've received some wonderful gifts in my life, but the gift of time with Bit has been by far the greatest. We've all heard it said that money can't buy happiness. While I have some sneaking suspicions about that - those rich people sure seem happy, don't they?! - it's been my experience that money buys opportunities, and it is those opportunities that can bring you happiness. Such has been the case with Duddy's generous gift. At the time, I had no idea that leasing Bit would be so fulfilling on so many levels, and I marvel, now, at how a modest sum of money brought so much peace and joy to my life. If any of you ever get a chance to lease a horse, I urge you to grab that opportunity and run with it!

With winter weather now nipping at my heels, here in Northwest Ohio, it will be too cold outside to continue our walks. So I've set myself a new task - improving Bit's ground manners. I have no idea how to go about that or whether I'll succeed, but I know it will involve a large measure of patience on my part as we go about the arduous task of teaching and learning. I'll be sure to keep you posted on our progress! In the meantime, I encourage you to seize your own opportunities for relationship-building with your animal pals, and remember, please be kind to all the critters!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Do-Overs Part 2

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

As many of you regular readers know, I occasionally like to veer off the subject of animals and write about other things. I do this because the story generally involves a "Thing" that interests me, and might interest you, too. Such is the case with this entry. For those of you who are new to my blog, this story will make a lot more sense if you go into the archives on the right side of the page and read the entry called "Do-Overs" that was published September 5, 2011.

                                          * * *

His name is Dudley, but no one ever called him that. To those of us who shared the small town of Whoville with him, he was "Duddy." He first turned up on my radar in junior high, when I heard other kids talking about him. Cute, slender, with a mop of sun-bleached hair and an easy-going nature, all the girls wanted to date him. Because he was a year younger than me, though, I didn't give him much thought until I saw him at a party a couple of years into high school.

Those high school parties were all about under-age drinking. Any time someone's parents went out of town, we gathered in large numbers, bringing with us cases of illicitly-bought beer, bongs, bottles of hard liquor- whatever we could get our hands on. We'd turn the music up loud enough to piss off the neighbors, and generally have a fine time pickling our livers while Whoville's Finest turned a blind eye to our antics: many of the heaviest drinkers were star players on the high school sports teams.

This particular party was the same as all the others but for one thing: Duddy was there, and he had with him an acoustic guitar. He and his buddy Jeff sat down a few feet away from me and proceeded to play a surprising repertoire: songs by America, and Neil Young, played well and with feeling. One of them - I can no longer recall who - even played harmonica, as well.

Of the little that I actually do remember about my time in high school, 30-odd years later, I remember this: Duddy played America's "Lonely People," and it was magical. It was magical because for the two minutes and twenty-seven seconds that it took him to play the song, Duddy was lost in the music, and I, lost in him, watching. I was fascinated! He seemed so comfortable in his own skin, so confident. And so cute!

A year or so later, I worked up the courage to ask him to accompany me to one of the high school's formal dances. To my everlasting surprise, he said yes. While I have no memories of the dance itself, I vividly recall how, as we stood in front of the fireplace at his mom's house posing for pictures, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I was instantly transported to a heaven that I didn't know existed! It seemed so important then, and so silly now, but that impulsive peck cemented Duddy's place in my memory. To this day, I feel the same giddiness, recalling the moment, that I felt at the time it happened.

There were a few make-out sessions after that dance, but we were never a couple. I don't know why. We drifted through the subsequent years of high school running around with our respective crowds, and then I joined the service. While I didn't stay in for the entire period of enlistment, I was still in the army when Duddy's younger sister Katharine - who I had befriended my junior year for the admittedly selfish reason of wanting to spend more time in Duddy's orbit - sent me a picture with a note attached: Duddy had gotten married. At nineteen! She was a local girl, and they were expecting. Our lives took wildly divergent paths, then. But while I wouldn't see Duddy again for many years, I never forgot him entirely.

He came back on the radar just after his mother died. I read the obituary in the Whoville Journal and immediately got in touch with Katharine. She and I spent a few months, then, keeping each other company as she worked through her grief. Duddy was playing some gigs with a band at a local bar, and we'd go watch them play. It was fun, but it wasn't magical - there were too many people there, and it was too impersonal. The magic happened when Duddy came by his sister's house one evening and stayed into the small hours of the night.

Pulling out the guitar he'd brought with him, he stood before me and serenaded me with America's "Sister Golden Hair." I sat on the couch in awe, feeling like a shy teenager all over again. For a while, time stood still, and we were cocooned in a moment that neither of us wanted to end. We were both at places in our lives that wouldn't permit us to take things any further than those precious few minutes, although I did muster my courage at one point and let him know I was open to the idea of dating him. The comment floated between us but nothing else was said. At the time, I took Duddy's silence to mean he wasn't interested. It would be twelve years before I learned that I couldn't have been more wrong.

Those twelve years were hard ones for Duddy, and for me. I spent them dealing with the aftermath of having been molested as a child, suffering from depression, isolation, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Slowly, as time went by, I found a measure of self, and sanity. At the same time, Duddy's life spiraled out of control. After his divorce, there was a hideously toxic relationship, drinking and drugs. I had no idea how awful things were until I found Katharine on facebook and asked my usual How's Duddy these days? The answer shocked me, and I fully expected to hear that Duddy had died from alcoholism, or something worse. I actually spent some time listening to my Best of America CD and thinking about what I might say at his funeral. It was that bad.

You can imagine my surprise when he turned up on facebook, alive and well! I immediately sent a friend request, which was granted within minutes. We got to talking, then, me asking questions, and Duddy responding with mostly monosyllabic answers: How are you doing these days? Gettin' old. Playing much? No band now, just me. I was getting nowhere fast when I threw out the game-changer: What's a girl got to do to get you to play for her? That did the trick! Next thing I knew, I was picking him up at the half-way house he was living in, and driving to Olive Garden, where I spent the next few hours being pleasantly surprised.

He peered at me over the glasses that had slipped down his nose. It was an incredibly endearing look, made all the more so by his determination to tell me his story. The words spilled out, tumbling on top of one another in his hurry to fill me in. Yes, he said, there had been years of chaos and insanity. After his marriage ended, there was a relationship in which he had become a battered boyfriend, and alcoholism that would've killed him if he'd let it. The half-way house was his salvation, coming, as it did, after thirty days of inpatient rehab. Duddy was sober, and proud of it. His new-found enthusiasm for life was infectious, and by the end of the evening, I found myself hoping that we would see each other again soon.

In fact, we got together again the very next night. He brought his guitar along, and spent an hour or so singing all sorts of songs - including "Lonely People." It was my own private concert, and I relished every minute of it. Things had clearly changed between us, after all those years, but the changes were for the better: now, we brought sanity and sobriety to the mix, as well as the maturity that comes from having lived and learned. We were still giddy teenagers, but we were sensible adults now, too. It was an interesting mix of feelings.

When the radio announced that America would be playing a concert an hour away, we jumped at the chance to see them. We arrived early at the gated community that was hosting the gig, marveling at the genteel charm of the village as well as the incredibly cheap ticket prices. The seats in the 80 year-old auditorium were first come-first serve. We ended up in row 17, center aisle. We couldn't have bought better seats at any other venue. When America came on stage and started singing "Lonely People," things seemed to come full circle: there I was, listening to the band whose songs Duddy had played at that party all those years ago, and there he was, sitting right next to me, playing air guitar to his favorite tunes. It was - yep, you guessed it - magical!

It was unfortunate that Gerry Beckley had some sort of voice issue going on that rendered him more of a Muppet than an actual singer. Imagine Kermit the frog singing "A Horse With No Name" and you'll understand what I mean. His backup vocals were fine, but when he sang lead, his voice went places it simply shouldn't have, which sent Duddy and I into fits of giggles. And here's the Thing: Duddy and I laugh with abandon. We giggle like teenagers. And we smile like people who have been to hell and back and are grateful to have survived the trip. Life is suddenly very interesting indeed!

Where the future will take us, no one knows, but this much is certain: after years of wondering what could've been, we're finally getting a chance to find out. Few people get this lucky, and we both feel extremely fortunate that the Gods smiled on us after all our respective years of agony. We've definitely earned our do-over, and we fully intend to make the most of it!

That's all for now! Thanks for reading this anyway, even though it had nothing to do with critters! Please feel free to leave a comment below so I know you were here!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Notes From The Critter Lady

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

I had intended to write one story like I always do, but there has been quite a bit of activity happening lately, so I thought I'd touch upon some of the events I've dealt with recently.

As you know, I look after a gang of abandoned flightless ducks at McKinnon's Pond here in Whoville. At last count, there were twelve ducks all living quietly on the pond. Most have mates, particularly at this time of year, which is mating season. They've all staked out a small bit of territory around the pond, and they all tend to respect each other's areas. If someone crosses a territorial line, he/she is quickly sent back across the DMZ!

If you've read my book, Crazy Critter Lady (available at, you'll know that there are actually two ponds within close proximity to each other: McKinnon's Pond, and the one I refer to as the "small pond well-suited to ice skating in winter, and quiet reflection in summer." It was at this small, nameless pond that someone recently abandoned six fully grown Pekin ducks.

I'm told that someone witnessed a child leaving the ducks, but six full-grown Pekins is more than one youngster could handle; there's no doubt in my mind that at least one adult was also involved. Regardless, when Animal Control Officer Dave called and told me about them, all I could do was shake my head in disgust. When I went to check them out for myself, I thought tiredly that I didn't have the energy to worry about six more ducks, and I wondered what could be done about them. I left them some cracked corn, but the poor creatures were so terrified that they never ate it. I noticed on subsequent visits that they didn't touch the corn left by my volunteer, either.

It was Officer Dave who proposed rescuing the ducks, and he wanted to do it quickly: he was due to go on vacation, and didn't want to have to worry about them while he was gone. After I consulted a couple of duck rescue sanctuaries on Facebook, Dave and I hatched a plan we were confident would succeed: Dave borrowed some temporary orange fencing of the kind that you see around construction zones. We agreed on the best place to set up the fencing, then Dave went off to round up some teenagers who were spending the summer working for the City of Whoville. When he returned, we discussed strategy with the kids, and put everyone in position.

Dave had assigned me the task of herding the ducks. We were fortunate in that all six continued to huddle together under a tree, rather than separate out in the water. I advanced on them with measured, deliberate steps, walking ever so carefully. I didn't want them splitting up and running in different directions. Slowly, the huddled mass was herded toward the staging area. Dave and the kids flanked us on the right, effectively cutting off any chance of the ducks veering in that direction. Thankfully, it didn't occur to the ducks to run into the water, so I continued to press gently onward until they walked into the staging area. Dave quickly closed them in, and then he and I proceeded to grab the ducks one by one and put them into the cage he had brought along for that purpose. After we all posed for pictures, Dave drove the ducks to their new home, thanks to a name supplied by the local Humane Society. Everyone walked away immensely satisfied by the happy ending.

Make no mistake: we got lucky. We got very lucky! The Gods were definitely smiling on us that day, because when ducks feel threatened on land, they almost always head straight for the water. Had they done so during our rescue attempt, we would have had to come back another day - with a boat, no less! - and try again, and no one wanted to do that. Dave and I knew exactly how lucky we'd been, and ended up so pleased with ourselves that we shared not one, but two congratulatory fist bumps! We parted company hoping we wouldn't be called upon to do any more rescues like that one any time soon.

                                   * * *

Not long after that rescue, one of my abandoned gang was killed by a predator. I had developed a pleasant routine with Mama Duck - pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable - while she was nesting this spring. Mama was a sneaky girl whose nests were always difficult to find. Those nests had eluded my best search efforts more than once: indeed, Little Nipper - whose leg injury required me to rehab him my bathroom a couple of years ago - was one of her offspring.

While I was out looking for her nest this past spring, I happened upon a fellow outside one of the apartment buildings that fronts McKinnon's Pond. Offhandedly, I asked whether he knew of any duck nests in the area, and he immediately pointed me toward a large evergreen shrub, behind which was Mama's nest. Boy, did I get lucky, there: I would never have found it on my own! Since Mama was a very dedicated nest-sitter, and since I knew better than to leave food lying around near her nest (it attracts predators), I got into the habit of picking her up off the nest and moving her a short distance away, where I would dump out a portion of cracked corn for her.

It must be said that Mama never enjoyed - let alone appreciated - this routine. Every time I reached down behind the shrub, she would swivel her head around and nip me repeatedly. Like Pretty Boy before her, though, I think she pulled her punches because those bites never hurt. I would grasp Mama around her torso, leaving her wings free. I was always surprised that she didn't flap those wings in an attempt to get away. Rather, she would extend them to their full width, as though she were gliding on an updraft. Those may well have been the only times in her life that she experienced the sensation of flight. When I set her on the ground, she always made a mad dash for the food. I would walk away content with the knowledge that she was getting a decent meal.

It was the fellow that first showed me Mama's nest who contacted me through youtube (where I've posted a number of videos featuring the McKinnon's Pond ducks), and told me the bad news that Mama had been killed. It's a hazard of doing business, of course - there's never a guarantee that those abandoned ducks will live long, healthy lives in the wild. More often than not, they don't. But knowing that never makes it any easier to lose one.

Later the same day that I got the young man's message, I went to see for myself. The body was gone, but there were several piles of duck down that told the story. I picked up one of the feathers to remember her by, and said a prayer to the Gods, asking that they take Mama right up to heaven where she belongs. I sure will miss our routine!

                                   * * *

Meanwhile, there was a shrub of considerable size growing next to the shed in my back yard. One big branch jutted out in such a way that it looked like two very big shrubs were growing right next to each other. It looked messy, and that bothered the aesthete in me: I like things to look neat, balanced, and orderly, and this did not. I asked Fiance John to come over and remove the big jutting branch for me, and since he's one of those Tim the Toolman types who likes man-toys, he happily brought his chainsaw over and did as I requested.

It never occurred to me, until we started removing the chopped-up branch, that a bird might be nesting in it. It didn't occur to me, that is, until a robin jumped out of the fallen foliage and flew off, chirping angrily. The next thing you know, John discovered the nest, and I discovered the broken robin's egg on the ground. The robin herself chastised us at length from a nearby tree.

I felt awful! I'm the Critter Lady, for heaven's sake! This is exactly the sort of thing that's supposed to occur to me! I picked out a decent nest site in the remaining shrub, and replaced the nest, but there's no indication that the robin is using it. I don't blame her for being angry with me. I'm angry with myself. Next time, of course, I'll know better; it's learning the hard way - at someone's expense - that causes me anguish.

                                    * * *

So that's what's been happening in my neck of the woods. It's definitely been a mixed bag of happy success at righting a cruel wrong, and sadness at the loss of one of my duck friends, and at displacing an innocent bystander who had no idea that her home would be felled along with an ugly bit of shrubbery. I try not to dwell on the sorrow, but it's there nonetheless. Hopefully, I will have a more uplifting story to tell you next time around. In the meantime, have a great summer and please be kind to all the critters!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Something Fun To Do!

Hi Folks!

While you're waiting for me to post another blog entry, why not check out McGuffy's Reader blog site? There's a fun critter-themed interview, and also a review of my book, Crazy Critter Lady. Here's the link, just copy and paste it to your search engine:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Little Bit Of Beau

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by!

I want to apologize for taking so long to post a new blog entry. Those of you who are regular readers will recall that the last few months of 2011 were heart-wrenching for me, what with the loss of both my lesson horse, Ruckus, and everyone's favorite cranky donkey, Cricket. That double whammy of deaths really took its toll on me, and I just didn't have the mental energy to write until now.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I had been itching for new challenges out at the barn for some time. Although I loved Ruckus dearly, I felt like I'd gotten pretty much all I was ever going to get out of our lessons. He was great for trail riding, but it became clear that if I wanted to take myself to the next level, it would need to be on a different horse. To mix things up, I started riding Charlie.

Charlie Horse is a challenge because you have to stay out of his mouth and steer him primarily with your legs. My understanding is that Charlie had been treated very roughly before he came to the Harmony Barn, rendering his mouth very sensitive. While it may sound like an easy enough thing to do, steering with your legs, I can tell you that there's definitely an art to it, and it takes time to learn to finesse it. As an example, I've seen a couple of barn urchins give him what they thought was a command to step sideways, while Charlie thought it was the command to lope off. Two inexperienced young 'uns got quite an unexpected ride that day!

Even though there are definite challenges in learning how to ride Charlie Horse properly, I still felt like something significant was missing. In hindsight, I know that that missing element was having a relationship with the horse: Charlie's willing enough to tolerate beginners on his back, but he makes it very clear that he's not interested in bonding with us. My riding instructor will take exception to that comment, but she spends a lot more time around Charlie than we volunteers do. Riding him infrequently doesn't give us enough time to build a friendship.

In the aftermath of Ruckus's death, we all realized that we had lost our go-to horse. A young child stops by who's never ridden a horse? Put her on Ruckus. Take a trail ride out where unpredictable things happen? Ride Ruckus. Reward the urchins for all their hard work on Saturday mornings? Let them get on Ruckus. With Ruckus gone, there was no one to turn to except Charlie, and by the time two or three irritating children had trotted him around the arena numerous times, he'd had enough. It was hard for me to get much out of him at that point.

So barn owner Wendy began casting about for options. There were plenty of horses in residence, but very few actual candidates: rescue Buddy has horrible issues stemming from a yearling halter that was left on too long, so he's never going to let anyone put a bridle on him. Jem has conformation issues that render him unusable as anything other than a pasture pal. Newman's too old, and Magic, too young. Wendy does have an older rescue horse that needs to be ridden regularly, but Angel tends to be shy and skittish, which, as it happens, are the two main reasons I prefer not to ride her! That just leaves Bit.

Little Bit of Beau is an EPM horse. EPM is a disease that affects the central nervous system. Symptoms can include tripping, and loss of coordination - huge problems when you're trying to show or compete on a horse! I'm told that Bit displayed those symptoms before he came to the Harmony Barn, and has been treated for it since coming to the barn. But I don't think that EPM is the reason why he'd never been considered an option for us to ride. I think the reason had more to do with his personality.

I'll be honest here and say that I spent several years not liking Bit. He was much too in-your-face for my tastes. If you stood next to him, he'd push his head against you and knock you off balance. While old Newman ruled the herd with quiet authority, his protege Bit rules with an iron hoof! Where old Newman would only have to walk into the arena for the horses to settle down, Bit feels the need to run around pinning his ears at everyone! He was way too much horse for me, so I didn't give him a second thought until Ruckus died.

I ran the idea by Wendy, asking what she thought about riding instructor Connie giving me lessons on Bit. Much to my considerable surprise, Wendy thought the idea had possibilities. The next thing I knew, Connie and I had scheduled a lesson.

Contrary to his name, there's nothing little about Bit! He's one big horse! Tall, muscular, assertive - he can be quite intimidating. I did my best to act nonchalant as I groomed him that first time, but inwardly, I was thinking about how far down the ground was going to be, should I end up getting tossed out of the saddle. I'd seen a more experienced girl ride him, and there had been a lot of prancing on his part. What chance did I have as a novice who lacked confidence? Connie tried to reassure me, but I was skeptical. For his part, Bit gave me plenty to think about during - and after - that first lesson.

For one thing, if he didn't want to do what I told him to, he'd do something else instead. The "something else" generally involved low-level shenanigans like prancing about (which, for the uninitiated, feels like the horse is about to take off at a gallop and leave you behind), and throwing in the odd buck and rear. These weren't full blown bucks and rears, but rather, just enough to emphasize his point. I lost track of how many times I frantically asked Connie, "What's he doing? What's he doing?" To her credit, Connie managed to stifle whatever chuckling she surely wanted to do. "You're o.k.," she kept saying, "he's not going to hurt you!" And in this, she turned out to be right.

In spite of my trepidation, I was intrigued enough to schedule another lesson on Bit - and another, and another! We've had four lessons together, now, and after every one, Connie expresses her belief that Bit and I are coming together as a team quite nicely. I'm inclined to agree: while he continues to throw his own brand of challenges into every lesson, we are finding ways to communicate together that tell me we're on the right track. Indeed, the most telling communication of all didn't even happen during a lesson. It happened today after we volunteers had finished mucking out stalls.

Being the Critter Lady, I take a lot of pictures at the barn. I take pictures of all the urchins with their favorite horses, and I have them take pictures of me with mine. Anyone who follows me on Facebook already knows that Bit does not stand still for pictures. Don't get me wrong, he stands still just fine - until you aim a camera at him! Then, he's all about swinging his ginormous head around, and trying to use my leg as a scratching post. But not today. Today, he stood still for a number of pictures with me, and even some with the kids, as well. When we were done, I unhooked the lead rope and told him he was free to go boss the herd around. But here's the thing: he didn't leave.

While I took pictures of Lydia and Buddy, and Michaela and Angel, there was Bit, lurking about. While I took pictures of fiance John with old Newman, there was Bit, lurking about. He stood here for a time, then moved a few feet away and stood there for a time, all the while looking over at me to see whether I had a snack for him, or possibly a command or two. The striking thing was that he was looking to me - for direction, for companionship - rather than looking at me, and this was the first time he'd done that on his own, without me on his back. It was a pretty cool moment for me when I figured that out!

There can be a world of difference between what goes on on a horse's back, and what goes on in the mud lot, when he's free to do as he pleases. When Charlie Horse is under saddle, he behaves very well. When he's in the mud lot, he'd just as soon stand off by himself and crib, rather than interact with me or the urchins. And, generally speaking, Bit's usually too busy moving the herd from one side of the poop pile to the other and back again to stop and take notice of what the volunteers are up to. Ordinarily, he would give us all a cursory glance, make sure we weren't doing anything that required his attention, and then go on about his business. To hang around with me for twenty-odd minutes of his own volition was extraordinary. It's something I won't soon forget!

There's definitely a relationship forming between Bit and I, and there's so much more to it than just getting on his back and riding. The time I spend with him on the ground is also an investment in the bond that's developing, and it's just what I've been needing, after suffering the loss of Ruckus. There will never be a replacement horse - there was, and ever will be, only one Ruckus - but as I've said before, eventually, it is necessary to move forward, to form new relationships with other critters, to let yourself love again, even though you know that one day, your heart will be broken by yet another critter death. These wonderful relationships are vital to the well-being of our souls. And, quite possibly, theirs, too.

That's all for now, folks! Thanks so much for hanging in there while I took time to grieve. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

When a Door Closes, a Window Opens

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

As you regular readers know, 2011 ended on a sad note with the untimely death of beloved donkey Cricket. She died mere days before Christmas, casting a pall over everyone's holiday season. No one saw her death coming, which always makes the unacceptable that much harder to accept. So it was with a measure of both optimism and desperation that I read Kenny the Tiger Guy's facebook announcement that he had a donkey in need of a home.

You may recall that Kenny the Tiger Guy is a local fellow who rescues exotic animals. People frequently donate sick or dying horses so that he might feed the lions and tigers in his care. But sometimes, people donate healthy animals that they simply don't want anymore. Kenny's a nice enough guy that he doesn't want to slaughter healthy animals, so he often calls the barn to see if they'd be interested in adopting the critter in need. Such was the case with Cricket: she was originally intended to feed his big cats, but Kenny couldn't bring himself to slaughter her. The barn took her instead.

When I read Kenny's facebook post about that new donkey in need, I immediately sent him a message, urging him to contact barn co-owner Ron. Kenny sent me a message in return, saying that he already had. The barn had agreed to rescue this new donkey! Hooray! This was just what our aching hearts needed!

It's worth noting that the barn took possession of Handsome Harry on New Years Day: it seemed an auspicious start to 2012. He walked willingly into the trailer, and willingly into the barn that was his new home, and seemed to settle in more or less immediately. I went out to the barn twice during his first week, to visit him, to spoil him, to let him know that we strangers were going to take extra good care of him. As I got to know him, I found him to be utterly charming - a complete contrast to cranky old Cricket.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that when a beloved animal dies, there is a tendency to want to fill the void with an animal of similar temperament. In my experience, this is a big mistake: it's better, I think, to grieve the loss of that special pet, and then move on to the next unique personality when you're able.

The fact that Handsome Harry's personality was so divergent from Cricket's helped enormously. Because the two donkeys were as different as night and day, there was no way anyone could think that he was Cricket's replacement; he was merely the next in what would no doubt be a long line of donkeys in need. This made it much easier to accept his presence without feeling guilty: we had all loved Cricket the crabby donkey, and now we would love Harry the charmer.

From my very first contact with him, Harry had this habit of resting his surprisingly heavy head on whatever body part was handy - my chest, my shoulder, etc. He would stand perfectly still this way for some minutes as I - and then, later, the barn urchins - would stagger about, trying not to break the spell by buckling under all that weight. It took me well over a month to figure out that this was a ritual he'd enjoyed with his previous owner.

Kenny the Tiger Guy told me that Harry's owner was in poor health, and could no longer care for the donkey. It must've broken the man's heart, having to give up his buddy to strangers, not knowing how things would work out. Unlike Cricket, whose owners had apparently lost interest in her, Harry had clearly been much-loved by his person. Even so, there was no way for us to know exactly what sort of relationship Harry and his owner had had - until I stumbled upon what was obviously a cherished routine between them.

It finally hit me as Harry once again rested his big shaggy white head on me, and I cast about for ways to respond. Simply standing there holding him up didn't seem to be enough. I started scratching his neck, gently, one hand on either side of his head. Harry has Cushing's Disease, which means that, among other symptoms, he has soft mushy lumps all over his body. Unsure whether those lumps were tender, I scratched him softly, more of a rub than anything else. Suddenly, his eyes closed, and he let out a deep, contented sigh. So that's what this was about! Harry would rest his head on his human, and the man would rub his neck. Given that Harry tried this same thing with just about every person at the barn, it became clear to me that it was a ritual the donkey had treasured, and one he wished to continue.

It's still early days for all of us, and for Harry, too. Barn co-owner Wendy tells me that he's already firm friends with a few of the horses, and enjoys his opportunities to play with them. Now that she has established what she can expect from Harry, she allows him to wander the barn at will while we volunteers work, rather than continue to keep him in his stall. Like the old days with Cricket, Harry seems interested in "helping" us clean, although he never ventures too far from his preferred area. His mild temperament is a welcome change of pace from grumpy old Cricket, even though we all still miss her terribly. Like a balm for a raw wound, though, Harry seems to be the perfect salve to help us with our healing.

My Oxford English Dictionary defines "serendipity" as "the occurrence of events by chance in a fortunate way." That sums up Harry's presence at the barn perfectly. Sometimes, it seems, the Gods do, in fact, open a window where a door has been closed. I hope that this is the end of untimely deaths at the barn. They're bound to happen, of course, but considering that we've lost three beloved residents in less than six months, we're all a little weary, now, and in need of something cheery to sustain us. Little does Harry know that he's that something!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks again for stopping by! Don't forget to take a moment out of your busy days to enjoy the friendships you have with your animal pals. And until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Please feel free to leave a comment so that I know you were here! Thanks!