Monday, December 17, 2012

The Philosophy of Orchard Bees

Blue Orchard Bee. Photo courtesy

I recently finished an article for Urban Farm magazine on the topic of Orchard Mason Bees.
 I’ve been trying to talk K into honeybees, without success. I did like the idea of harvesting honey, but found the idea of my own collection of pollinators to be a bigger part of the appeal.
Mason bees are benign (non-stinging), super-pollinators, native to the United States (honey bees are not), but they don’t produce honey. They are beneficial insects for anyone who has fruit trees and plants that benefit from pollination. One orchard mason bee can do the pollinating work of 100 honey bees. They can increase the cherry or apple yield by two to three times. They’re easy to house, and the more I learned about them, the more impressed I was.
One thing I found interesting was that when the female orchard bee lays her eggs (each with its own little provision pack of pollen) she lines them up and compartmentalizes them in a tube or reed. She may lay about six eggs per tube, lined up with female-to-be eggs in the back, and males-to-be toward the front. The males emerge first in the spring (and are slightly expendable), and hang around waiting for the females to emerge. The males live only long enough to breed, while the female does all the housekeeping and egg-laying for her specific tubes, then dies after about six weeks.
But the new bees’ emergence isn’t a matter of gestation, it’s a matter of temperature and timing. And this is what I think is really crafty of these industrious little insects: They emerge when the temperature is around 55 degrees which, coincidentally, is when the first of the fruit trees begin to bloom and make pollen available.
Sometimes the careful evolutionary engineering of nature is just a little breathtaking. It’s as if you can catch glimpses of the fingerprints of a master plan. Everything is interconnected and fits together.
That web is beautiful, whether spun of the carefully timed emergence of hard working bees, or the practicality of hens who act as natural pest control. This time of year, winter stills the garden and the interconnected threads are a little harder to see. But they are there, below the surface: Those small bees, nestled in a straw-like tube, are tucked away for winter, waiting, just as the fruit trees lie dormant, though it doesn’t appear that anything at all is happening.
This, I think, is a reminder to me to be patient. I am always anxious this time of year for winter to be moving along, seed catalogs to arrive and spring to return. Sometimes, though, when it doesn’t seem like anything is progressing, there is perfection unfolding beneath the surface. The point is to take pleasure in the stillness and steadiness. 
Ah, the philosophy of orchard bees. Monumental and miniscule at the same time.

(Special thanks to Dave Hunter for the information about the bees. You can learn more at his web site,

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Day and Night

As seasons have changed, we've been a little late getting our lights in the coop, and it has really thrown the hens for a loop (hey, a bonus rhyme!).

Is it day or is it night?
With days getting shorter, the chickens have slowed down on egg production, but by extending the hours of light they get we can ramp up their egg laying for summer-like production. Last year, we tried a red heat lamp and thought maybe it would provide enough light for their chicken brains to be tricked into laying more eggs. Some hens produced fairly well last winter, but we had four young pullets who weren’t producing yet anyway, so it wasn’t really a good measure. I did read that a red light won’t provide the stimulation that a white light will.

I liked having that heat lamp up in the coop for really cold days, though most poultry people will tell you that your chickens don’t need the heat. In fact, there is the chance that they won’t be acclimated as well to the cold when you have a heat lamp in the coop, and a power outage during frigid weather could be disastrous for your flock.

So I hemmed and hawed over what kind of light to hang in the coop.

The hens have not been laying much lately. Thelma and Pip have been pretty regular, but one to two eggs a day from seven hens just seemed a bit on the skimpy side. I really hate buying eggs at the store when I’m feeding my own suppliers.

This year we decided to try just putting a white light in the coop, on a timer that would extend the day a few more hours. But we should have hung it earlier in the fall for a more gradual adjustment.  For the last month or so, the hens have been heading for the coop early – sometimes at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon – even though it was light a little longer.

Last week, K tacked up the light and set the timer for it to come on from 5:30 to 9:00 pm. It’s a very bright light. It’s like someone is going to be interrogated. 

I went out to shut the coop the first night the light was on, and realized that the hens were confused. Inside their coop, it was daylight. So they went out into the yard, expecting daylight there as well, but it was dark. They saw me, and crowded around, tentatively looking for treats. But I could sense bewilderment clouding their feathered features. If they had dialogue balloons above their heads, they’d have looked like this:

?  or ?!

“Silly hens,” I said to them. “It’s bedtime.” I shooed them into the coop and they looked uncertain.

The next morning I found eggs scattered around the coop as if they were surprised by this sudden development—“OH my! An egg!” The rest of the week, I found myself feeling like the grand manipulator, because instead of one or two eggs each day, we were suddenly getting five a day. The light was definitely making a difference.

But evenings were still confusing to them. They’d head into the coop as normal, get all roosty and ready for bed, then the light would come on and out they’d go, bleary eyed as if the night had passed really quickly and they hurried out to meet the day. Poor things didn't know what to think.

I’d see them milling around in front of the gate. I could almost hear the conversations:
“I thought you said it was morning?”
“It was—you saw how bright it was.”
“But now it’s dark.”
“I know. It’s the darnedest thing. It’s like someone keeps turning the sun on and off.”
“That’s impossible.”
“I know, I know! Right?!”

And so I go out and shoo their confused and disgruntled selves into the coop, again. Note to self for next year: Be more gradual with our sudden substitute sunshine.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Finding Balance

Simplicity in the midst of complexity.

It has been a long while since I’ve written, but I promise to try to get back on track with a posting once a week. I returned to full-time work in September, and in some ways found it hard to write about the hens. I missed them, and it was difficult for me to think too intently about M&L, the gardens, and the hens at home. Not writing about them was perhaps a form of self-preservation. Or avoidance.

But as time has passed, I realize that though I miss M and L, giving them a little more space for self-reliance and independence is a good thing. I missed being there to pick them up from school, but I really enjoyed heading off to work as well. Was it OK to be happy to have that time away, doing my own thing?

I’m not sure the chickens notice my absence. They still come running when I step outside, which warms my heart, but as usual, they go about their business and ignore me once I scatter scratch or give them treats.

Over the last few months, the pecking order in the flock shifted and changed. Pearl suddenly seems to be the low hen on the totem pole, with Clover hopping on her back and pecking the top of her head from time to time. K says that Clover has had her fill of Pearl’s “Queen of the Fair talk.” She earned a blue ribbon, but it appears that doesn’t carry much weight with the ladies. Clover especially seems intent on being the boss hen.

Luna, the fragile blue orpington pullet we got in July, was still not walking well, and when I found her light body in the coop one morning before work, I wasn’t surprised. Saddened, but in a way relieved. I’d known it was coming and didn’t really want M&L to discover her.

And so we have a flock of seven, of whom only three seem to be laying regularly. Pip, the Ameraucana, started laying her lovely blue-green eggs after I started back to work, and has been very business-like about it. We have a nice steady supply of her pretty eggs. Thelma and Louise, the Australorps, are laying fairly regularly, so we typically get about two eggs daily.

The other hens – Violet, Pearl, Clover, and Oreo – seem to be on sabbatical. They still work industriously in the garden, picking the last bits of green from the beds, taking care of any bugs or worms, and fertilizing the beds, but it’s been months since any of them produced an egg. K says it’s like they are all on chicken social security. I know that in a more serious flock, they’d have been culled for stewing, but I can’t bring myself to do so. They are more than a food source for us.

They are touchstones, and their personalities and quirks fit together. I sometimes get home early enough to visit them in the evening. And on weekends I sit down for a bit and just watch them, and it is a meditative act for me. They go about their usual business. And that calm and continued routine brings me balance. I do love my job, but I can still come home and spend time with M&L, connect with the hens, and putter around the coop.  Chickens are good for grounding, for centering, and they lend richness to life with their simplicity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pickled Pink

Pickled Beets and Cherry Bounce.
My pantry of home-canned goods is decidedly in the pink. A week or so ago I used tart cherries to make jar after jar of cherry preserves (it's one of our favorites) and "Cherry Bounce". Today I put up 10 pints of pickled beets.

My great grandmother used to make pickled beets and they never fail to make me think of summer meals, family gatherings, and, well, eggs. She always used to slip a peeled boiled egg in. It would turn a pretty shade of pinkish purple, and sliced up it looked nice on salads (and tasted great, too).

I'll include her recipe for beets below. I modified it just a bit to fit the number of beets I had, but you can adjust as needed simply by making more or less syrup according to the number of beets you have. Here are the quantities I used:

Great Grandma's Pickled Beets
makes 10 pints
9 lbs. medium to small beets, rinsed clean
5 c. cider vinegar
5 c. sugar
5 c. water
4 tsp. pickling spices
3 tsp. pickling salt

Cut leaves off beets, leaving about an inch of the stems and the root intact. Cover with water, bring to a boil. I let them boil for about 25 minutes. You can check them at about 15-20 minutes and see if they're tender, and go longer if needed. Drain, then soak in cold water until beets are cool enough to handle. Slip peels from beets, and cut off stem end and root. You can leave beets whole, or slice them, depending on your preference.

Mix up the syrup by combining the remaining ingredients in a large pot, and bring it to a boil. I like to add my sliced beets and let them boil in the syrup for a few minutes to heat them through. Fill hot, sterilized jars with beets, add syrup leaving 1/2 inch headspace, add lids, adjust bands, and process in hot water bath 30 minutes (adjust for altitude if needed).

Oh--and in case you're wondering what Cherry Bounce is....  Here's a link to a recipe, though it's slightly different than the one I used, it's a very nice blog from Boulder. Pretty much the same idea, just a variation on the theme.

Cherry Bounce
About 6 cups of fresh tart cherries (best if left unpitted, but will still work if they are already pitted. The pits are said to lend a little bit of an almond flavor.)
3 c. sugar or sucanat
a bottle of vodka (or bourbon or rum, or....).
3 1-quart jars with lids and rings
Place 2 c. cherries in each jar. Add one cup sugar to each jar. Fill each jar the rest of the way with the libation of your choice. (Optional: Add a little almond extract to each jar for a slight almond flavor if your cherries are pitted). Top with lid and rings, tighten well. Shake jars. I shook each jar a few times each day until all the sugar had completely dissolved. Then place in a cool, dark place to age for about three months. We'll plan to keep these jars for Christmas, to open a little taste of summer in the depth of winter. And I've been told you can make a very nice sauce for ice cream out of those tipsy, well-preserved cherries. I'll let you know how that turns out....

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Fair Lady

Today was the first day of judging, so we left the house about 7:15, and made sure we were there in time to clean cages out, top off food and water, and tidy up chickens before judging began at 9. L rubbed some vaseline into Pearl's comb to moisturize it and make it shiny, cleaned up her beak, put olive oil on her legs and feet, rubbed her down with a silk cloth, and fussed over her. Pearl, as usual, took all of this in stride. L swept the aisle and tidied up, then, with Pearl polished, and L's friend's hens ready, we headed out to grab a celebratory breakfast at Panera Bread and waited to see what the judge would think.

We arrived back to see how everyone placed. I think we all held our breath as we headed to Pearl's cage. And there it was:

Pearl placed 1st in Feather Legged Bantams - Old Hens.

That was pretty darn exciting. We milled around, checking out the other chickens we knew, looking for the hens and cockerels that we liked. Pearl was hot (it's in the 90s today) so L stopped periodically to mist her and to try to keep her cool.

Tomorrow morning L has showmanship, and then the awards presentation in the evening, before checking birds out by 9 pm.

I took a picture of a Sebright that I thought was beautiful, along with some fantail doves:

Each day the kids gather eggs from the hens that are there, and write the breed on the egg, then display it so that visitors can see the many colors and sizes of eggs from the wide range of breeds. The pigeon egg was the size of a large marble. The blue egg is from an Ameraucana. I was surprised that some duck eggs were the same size as chicken eggs:

So, one more day... then it will be time to start thinking about next year....

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Clover Comes Home

L with a subdued Clover at fair.
On Friday night, we headed to the fairgrounds with Pearl and Clover for the vet check. Both had been off the antibiotics for two days, with no symptoms.

At the vet check, they talked to L about her birds and explained what they were doing (looking for evidence of mites, lice, and disease), then exclaimed over them ("They're so pretty! I love her color. Oh! This is my favorite little hen so far!") and made a fuss about them, which made L smile. They were checked twice, and both vets thought they looked very healthy.

We got them settled in their cages, and everything seemed fine. Shavings, food, and water, all freshly added. Clover's nearest neighbor was a golden laced cochin bantam pullet. Pearl was next to a fluffy black silkie pullet. All seemed in good order, and we left them for the evening.

We were back early in the morning to check food and water. Pearl was bright-eyed and happy. Clover looked miserable, her eyes closed, her little self hunched up. We added electrolytes to her water, carried her around, visited Pearl. But she simply seemed unhappy. She's normally very vocal and busy, and this withdrawn, dozing little hen was not like her.

I asked one of the poultry superintendents what I should do. She regarded Clover, and said that sometimes, old hens just didn't handle the stress well. Another poultry superintendent came by. They worked at having Clover drink, dipping her beak into the water until she finally started drinking on her own, but she refused her food. Then they had us move Pearl in with her for comfort.

They felt she was just confused and stressed and dehydrated, not sick. We walked around the fair and came back, then spent the rest of the afternoon checking on them both. One of Pearl's neighbors -- a big white meat bird -- reached through the cage and pecked at Pearl's comb, making it bleed. L changed bedding, refilled water and feed cups, swept the aisles, and offered to help wherever she could.

But by evening, it was clear that Clover was just a very unhappy hen. I withdrew her from the fair, and carried her out to the car, put her in the box next to me in the front seat, and headed home. By the time I pulled her out of the box and carried her to the backyard, her eyes were looking brighter, her head higher.

I put her down on the path by the coop and her old friend Oreo came running to meet us. The two Australorps hurried over, and Thelma noticed a piece of shavings on top of Clover's head. She reached over and picked it off, then regarded Clover as if to say, "Well sugar, where have you been?" Clover basked in the welcome, sighed and clucked, then hopped into the coop.

She and I were both glad she was home.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Poultry Grossology

Luna has a stuffed nose.
Chickens are not for sissies. What I mean is, if you're squeamish, don't get chickens. In fact, you may not even want to read this little missive of poultry grossology.

This morning, I noticed that Luna has a plugged nose. It looks as if she crammed her nostril into the dust from her shavings and tried to pack as much in as she could. It now resembles cement.

This reminds me of the time 3-year-old L put a sparkly bead up her nose, and the first word that came out of my mouth was an astounded Why? (to which she answered, "I don't know, Mom. Every bone in my body told me not to").

Then, as now, the next question was, What to do?

In this case, though, I headed over to, the best source for answers I've found, and pondered what to enter in their search engine. Plugged nostril? Shavings in nostril? Stuffed nose? I started with "plugged nostril" and a whole slew of hits appeared on my screen. Glad to know I'm not alone.

And what do you know? There is a name for this condition. Luna has a "plugged nare." Well, that sounds official. So how do we unplug her nare?

Here's the gross part. We get to soften it a little for a few days with some peroxide, then use the pointy end of a dental pick to pry that stinky, foul booger out. At which point her nostril (nare?) will appear huge. But she will be able to breathe through it again.

Yes, we have to pick our chicken's nose. And if you suspect you have an egg-bound hen, you have to explore her vent for a stuck egg. Want to know if a hen is laying? Get out your lipstick (preferably one you don't wish to use again) and use it to color-code her vent, so that it streaks the egg with lipstick. Oh, and they sometimes get a foot condition called bumblefoot that is really gross...

But I'll spare you more details. I have to go look for some peroxide and a dental pick.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cleaning House

Oreo roosts under the lilac while I clean house.
Today, with the hens seeming to do better, I took a break from a project I'm working on, and went out and cleaned the coop and run. This always makes the hens anxious, and they skitter around like the sky is falling.

The way that K built the coop, it's easy to scrape out all the shavings. The linoleum on the floor makes cleaning a simple mater of sweeping out the area, mopping it, and letting it dry, and it felt like I was cleaning out a sickroom and putting new sheets on the bed. I cleaned all the surfaces, put new dusting powder down, and brought clean sweet-smelling pine shavings in.

Violet checked in occasionally like a supervisor.

Outside, I could hear thunder rolling, and the skies were darkening. I closed the coop door and moved to the run where Luna is now a solitary pullet. I'm trying to add a little bulk to her light frame, so she's got a bowl full of homemade yogurt, and some scrambled eggs in addition to her regular ration. I move everything out, rake all of the litter, straw, and debris out of the run, fill water and feed containers, and pile up fresh shavings under the hutch for her. Until she's out of quarantine, we've got her in a bunny hutch at night, but she seems to prefer sheltering under the hutch during the day.

I visit her a bit and see no signs of respiratory issues, and keep my fingers crossed. She was on Tylan for five days, but that's the longest that we're supposed to keep her on it, so today is her first day without meds.

With Thelma on the mend, I fold up the dog crate that I had been using as an extra isolation cage, clean out the bowls that I used, and put everything in a box that I'll disinfect and put away. I glance over and see Luna happily nesting under the hutch. The other hens have settled into the clean coop or are roosting under the lilac bush,  and the first sprinkles of rain are coming down. In Colorado, it may rain for 2 seconds (most likely) or 2 hours (not very often) so I head inside. It feels so good to have the henhouse in order and all of the food, water, and supplements restocked in clean containers.

The rain cleanses the dust from the air, and rinses away the residue of worry that's been nagging me all week. We may not be over the illness, and there will always be something to worry about with hens. But for right now, everyone is tucked in, dry, and well tended.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tentative Green Light

While Thelma definitely had the sniffles, everyone else has seemed to be more or less normal.

Luna, the new hen, had symptoms only for a day (hers were very mild) and Pearl, who had seemed a little sniffly, now seems bright eyed and normal. In fact, none of the three seemed to feel very sick at all.

Uncertain about taking any hens to fair, I called the poultry expert for the county, and she suggested that we see how they are doing Friday (the day when we are to bring the chickens to the fairgrounds), and if they seemed ok, to bring them and have the vet take a look at them then. She didn't think that it sounded like they needed to stay home, and I've been much relieved to see everyone behaving normally.

Which is to say that Thelma and Louise are still chasing Pip around (and Pip is still chasing sparrows in retaliation), Violet is still hanging out with me when I garden, Clover still wanders around making noise all the time, Pearl and Oreo are their usual unassuming, happy-go-lucky selves, and they are all anxious to get out of the coop and get busy scratching and snacking and chasing bugs. 

We have kept Luna and the little one isolated. Sadly, the little one, whom L named Dove, is a casualty this week. After doing a little research, I think she may have had "runting stunting syndrome" -- which is characterized by failure to thrive, malformed feathers, and weakness, all of which fit her to a T. She never did show signs of the sniffles that Luna had shown.

We knew when we brought her home that she wasn't likely to make it--the breeder had warned us the same, and it appeared congenital. She seemed to try very hard to peck at food, but at the same time ended up getting very little into her beak. She simply wasn't getting nourishment--she weighed next to nothing. We gave her vitamins, electrolytes, yogurt, and Avia Charge (a big dose of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and omega fats) but it just seemed to have little impact. I found her this morning.

L was sad. I tried to explain the process of natural selection... and I think she feels comforted that Dove had a pretty comfortable place to end her days.

So, it's been an up and down week in the coop.

If we arrive at fair and find that the vet thinks we need to take her hens home, L plans to still help with set up, and help the other 4Hers feed and water their birds during the fair. She'll work at the dairy bar and help clean up the poultry barn after, then start thinking about next year. And we will chalk up all of it as part of learning about chickens, life, good sportsmanship, and perseverance. Not bad lessons to learn, all in all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Under Quarantine

Two new pullets, Dove and Luna, before they got sick.
We brought two new pullets home about a week ago, and this time we made sure to keep them quarantined from our other hens. But it appears that in spite of our precautions, we have a respiratory disease spreading through the flock.

The new hen, a blue orpington tentatively named Luna, seemed healthy when we brought her home. We also brought one of her flockmates, a sympathetic and totally impulsive decision because the pullet was runty and tiny and L fell in love with her. She's a little lavender orpington L has named Dove. She seemed healthy, just small, and very sweet and attached to L. But two days later, the blue began to show symptoms of a respiratory illness--and it began to look like Coryza, a particularly nasty, common poultry disease. One source told me we should euthanize our entire flock now, and start over in a few months with new healthy hens.

I looked at Pearl, and Clover, and Violet, and knew I really wasn't ready to do that yet. Though the hens are likely to recover, they will be carriers of the disease for life. That means L won't be taking any of them to the Fair to show.

At first I wasn't too worried because I'd kept Luna isolated from my other hens from the beginning. But somehow, the germs made their way to the in-residence ladies. Yesterday, while watering the garden, I noticed Thelma seemed to be sneezing. Or coughing. She was making these odd gurgling sounds. I pulled her out of the main flock and placed her in a run by herself, next to the run where the two new hens are.

I think she feels like little Miss Persecuted, poor thing. I headed to the vet supply store and bought some Tylan (an antibiotic) and some heavy-duty disinfectant. I carefully dosed three waterers, and carried them out to the coop and run. I was beginning to feel like some sort of hospital worker facing a pandemic, wearing gloves and a mask, using disinfectant on my shoes, and feeling paranoid about every little speck of dirt that I saw in the house.

I had a meeting yesterday evening, and K and L left to go clean stalls at the barn. When I returned, Thelma had ramped up her determination, hopped the fence, and found her way into the coop to roost with her flock. I felt terrible when I plucked her sick little self off the perch and put her in isolation again.

Then I stood there full of indecision. The other hens have likely been exposed, so maybe I should just put her back in with them so that she feels a little better with company and we get it all over with at once. I vacillated like a metronome, but in the end, left her in solitary confinement with food and medicated water. She's not really drinking much of the water, so I've added a little mango-peach juice to hers to see if the sweetness will attract her.

I've locked the hens that seem healthy in the coop so that they can't tromp around through the runs and pick up the nasties. They are really not.happy. Violet charges the door every time I go in, and they all seem confused.

I'm feeling terribly guilty for bringing a sick hen into the flock and for completely wrecking L's plans for fair. L has been very gracious and stoic about it, but I can't help but feel just awful. I'm worried about the hens.

Beyond feeling guilty, though, there's not much to do now but wait and see how everyone does. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Finding Focus

L with Butters.
Today was one of those days where I felt like I was crazy busy all day, but running into roadblocks at every turn so that nothing really got done. I need to finish an article and have been waiting for a veterinarian to return my calls so that I can interview him about a horse with bone cancer. I needed to get some work done outside, L needed help with her 4H record book, and I had to run and pick M up from a friend's house. Tybee had an afternoon appointment at the vet for lab work (he's losing hair), I needed to track down a couple of phone numbers for the next article I need to write, and I felt like I was checking my phone constantly for the vet's email, distracted and running in too many directions.

By late afternoon, I wasn't sure I really had time to go out to the barn, but L had a lesson, and we needed to clean stalls. I hadn't done much with Ellie in more than a week. I gulped down dinner with K and the girls, then headed out to the barn still thinking about everything else I needed to get done, and why did I think I'd have time for horses?

L brought Butters in and tacked him up for her lesson, and K started working on stalls and runs. So I went out and got Ellie. She was up to her eyeballs in hay, and not exactly in a big hurry to greet me, but she stopped eating and walked up to me, frisking me for cookies. I pulled some hay from her forelock, slipped on her halter, and walked out of the pasture with her.

I led her past the run where Mosie, a gray Connemara stallion, was peacocking around, all but standing on his head to get Ellie's attention. She paid no attention to his foolish self. In the barn, I put her in crossties, pulled her fly sheet off, and started to curry her, rubbing along that spot on her neck that is always itchy. Over the past few weeks, Ellie and I have become acquainted in measured paces. I've bathed her on hot days and hand grazed her while watching L take lessons, or tacked her up and just done simple circles with her.

She is still dragging her front feet, so we've put down poles to try to get her to work those shoulder muscles stepping up and over the ground poles. I've trotted her here and there, pleased to find that she has a nice, easy trot that is smooth to sit. (I've also learned that while posting was an easy exercise when I was in riding shape, it's definitely not as effortless as it used to be. Going to need to work on that.)

I didn't really have time for a ride tonight, so I sprayed her liberally with fly spray, then walked her over next to the arena where she could hoover up some grass while I watched L's lesson. It was a calm evening without the broiling heat of the day. Ellie contentedly and greedily moved her lips over each green patch of grass, cropping it close with rhythmic intensity.

While I stood there with her, L was learning to canter Butters, and she was earnestly focused on what she was doing. Butters would canter four or five strides, then break back to a trot, but those few strides were pretty exciting. Butters has this funny habit of occasionally giving an exuberant squeal while cantering, and on L's last attempt at a canter, he took a couple of strides, gave a short squeal, then took a few more strides. L praised and patted him. She was proud.

As I stood there with Ellie, I realized that I hadn't once checked my phone, hadn't worried about hearing back from the vet or checking off the next item on my list.

Earlier this week I finished a story for Horse&Rider about Allan Hamilton, M.D., who wrote Zen Mind, Zen Horse. In it, he talks about having focus when you are with your horse, and he says, "We learn from our equine partners how to clear our minds." Standing in the grass with Ellie, with the scents of summer and the sounds of her grazing--with our growing comfort with each other--I realized she had done just that.

And it wasn't just me.

L, who typically flits in 50 different directions and sometimes struggles to focus, was so intent on what she was doing, and so hyper-focused, that watching her made me realize how good riding is for her as an exercise. When riding, you have to be present and focused, and Butters was teaching L how to set her intention and clear her mind of everything except what she was doing.

I watched L a little while longer, then walked Ellie back to the barn, grabbed a few cookies, put her fly sheet back on her, and walked her out to her pasture. We again walked past Mosie as he tried in vain to get her attention. Ellie doesn't give him the time of day. I pulled her halter, gave her the two cookies I'd brought, and let her return to her hay. She was back to what she was doing when I'd pulled her from her pasture. But I was a much calmer person leaving her pasture than I was when I'd first arrived at the barn.

Funny how horses can bring the present into sharper focus.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jumping Jaerhons

Uff-da and Lotte (left) with Pippa. Pippa thinks she's a Jaerhon but can't fly like one.
The Jaerhons are just at point of lay (the bigger one started laying a few weeks ago, and Lotte, the smaller one, doesn't seem too far behind). But they are more like jumping beans than yard hens.

For some reason, Uff-da (M's name for her...I call her Inga), has grass-is-always-greener syndrome. I'll see her hopping impatiently to the top of our tallest fence, then glide down gracefully for a little adventure in the alley. She has explored the roof of the shop, our neighbor's garden, the alley, and our other neighbor's yard. My poor neighbor has come to my door several times because she's worried about our errant hen.

I've tried clipping her wings, but to no avail. The third time I found her wandering around in the neighbor's yard yesterday, I decided to clip both wings. And I clipped all the primary feathers (it's painless--no different than clipping a toenail). She suddenly had these stubby little wings. I felt bad, but figured if it kept her safe, it was a good thing.

Fixed your wagon, I thought to myself as I released her back into the chicken yard.

Less than a minute later, she hopped to the top of the fence, and from the top of the fence to the top of the coop. Then she flew (sort of) from the coop roof to the yard with a slight beak dive, righted herself like a gymnast grimly determined not to fall, rearranged and settled her feathers, then strutted away,  like, "Heh, no sweat. I don't need those feathers."

I groaned, and she headed back to the neighbor's yard. I'm trying not to take her determined defection personally.

I couldn't keep fishing her out of someone else's garden, and I was worried that if she landed in the other neighbor's yard, their dog would get her. Finally, I realized that these little golden hens are the most determined chickens I've ever seen. Stubborn as a... well, as a Norwegian (I do live with three of them).

And so the Norwegian Jaerhons are going to live on K's sister's place, with her nice flock, out in the country where they won't be hemmed in by traffic and clotheslines and neighborhood dogs. We'll still be able to visit them, and I think they will be a little happier. They just aren't meant to be city chickens.

With the loss of Mabel and the Jaerhons, we will suddenly be down to seven hens. Of course, that's likely to change. Chicken math rule #36: There's no such thing as a static number.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

At a Loss

This morning when I opened the coop door, I found Mabel, the Speckled Sussex, lying on her side. I knew immediately that she had died.

I began to think back, wondering what I could have missed, and how she died. Yesterday, I let the hens out to free range for the first time in a long while. They've been in their run most of the time as we allow young plants to establish themselves in the garden.

But yesterday, they happily bustled out into the yard, settled in to their favorite dusting place, and all seemed well.

I noticed Mabel was roosting under the privet bush, in an area where they like to dust themselves. As hot as it was outside, this didn't seem unusual. But when it came time to lock everyone up last night, only nine hens sat perched on their roosts, and Mabel wasn't among them. That was unusual, but a quick search found her walking along the run fence, looking for a way into the yard. I picked her up and carried her into the coop, settling her on a roost next to Pearl. She seemed fine.

I played those moments out over and over in my mind. Thinking back, it seems she'd been a quieter presence these last few days. Normally, she's vocal and bossy and a bit dotty. Still, she didn't seem ill, and I was pretty sure she'd been laying normally. Had I missed something? Was she feeling poorly and hiding it well?

The only other thing I could think of was that she tried to fly down from the roost, and hit the door, injuring herself.

I wandered around the yard a bit aimlessly for a time, checking on the other hens and the garden, trying to come to terms, thinking about what to do, and stalling. I didn't look forward to telling L.

This is the part of chicken ownership that is so hard. Hens are fragile creatures, and they can succumb to illness or injury fairly quickly. Few vets have knowledge of poultry, and the general reaction to chickens and illness or injury is that they don't really matter all that much. Economically speaking, veterinary care for a hen is well over the monetary value of a chicken, and in many cases, chickens die no matter what treatment you offer.

So dealing with the death of a hen is part and parcel of poultry. Few people see hens as companion animals, but to their owners, the connection is real and heartfelt.

Since we aren't sure how Mabel died, I'm checking with CSU to see if they suggest a necropsy. If she was ill, we'd want to know in order to protect the rest of the flock if we can. But my gut feeling is that it was something non-contagious--an impacted crop, an internal egg problem, or an injury.

L is pretty sad, and has gathered up scratch grains, flowers, and some of the dust from Mabel's favorite dusting spot, sending her little feathered spirit off with everything a chicken might need for the journey heavenward.

We will miss her noisy, scattered, dotty self.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Wilson's Haircut

Wilson's summer haircut.
It has been beastly hot and unfit for beasts and man alike. Temps of 105, and poor Wilson sat in his bunny hutch wearing a warm angora sweater. He should blow his coat three to four times/year, but he hadn't seemed ready to shed it yet, and I hated seeing him so terribly hot.

I planned to borrow my sister-in-law's clippers to make a tidy job of it, but when the mercury hovered over 100, I decided time was of the essence and grabbed a pair of scissors instead. I brought Wilson into the air conditioned house, settled him on a towel on my lap, and set to work.

His fur is as light as dandelion fluff, and it took me a long time to get the bulk of it trimmed away. I left the hair on his face and ears, but he suddenly went from looking like a large ball of white fur, to a little rabbit with a somewhat choppy summer haircut.

The best of the fur filled a plastic grocery bag, but weighed next to nothing. I decided I'd try blending it with some alpaca roving I've got, but my spindle has a merino/silk blend on it, and I need to finish spinning it before I start with the angora/alpaca. That means it may be fall before I get to try my hand at turning bunny fur into knittable lengths of yarn.

I set the bag aside and looked at Wilson. He did look a little funny, but infinitely more comfortable. I carried him outside to the segment of the lawn we've fenced off for him, and he hopped back and forth, clearly feeling cooler.

Both of us felt better. And I've got a nice bag of the softest fiber I've ever felt. It might take a few more shearings/sheddings to get much yarn, but I have a feeling he can grow it a lot faster than I can get around to spinning it.

Leaving him to enjoy himself, I headed back in to clean up. I may not have spun any of his fiber for yarn-turned-apparel yet, but I appeared to be wearing more of his fur than he was.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Making (Muscle) Memories


We've learned that the traumatic injury to Ellie's right shoulder didn't cause nerve damage, but that she is having issues with muscle memory. I've been walking her, and could feel and hear her right front foot dragging just a bit.

V, who in addition to being a rider and trainer is also a physical therapist, showed me where you could see that she had some muscle atrophy, and explained that she needs to re-learn how to move that leg without dragging it. It's like she's forgotten how to lift it properly.

Muscle memory doesn't reside in the muscle. It has to do with repeating a specific motor skill until it's performed without conscious effort. Riding a bike illustrates muscle memory well--you learn how to balance and use the muscles you need to ride that bike. At first, you have to focus and concentrate, but with repetition it becomes second nature.

Ellie's injury caused her to move in a certain way to compensate for her injury, and in the process she lost the easy, unconscious movement that she had before the injury.

On Saturday, it was hot and clear when I arrived at the barn at 9 a.m. I pulled her out of her stall to find that she'd applied and rubbed in manure on both sides of her hindquarters. What is it with white/gray horses that they seem to find manure to roll or lay in?

I groomed her, getting as much of the manure off as I could, but planning to bathe her after riding. This time when I put her bridle on, she lowered her head and took the bit--it was a smoother process than it had been a few days earlier.

Tacked up, I took her down to the arena, climbed on, and walked her quietly. V was giving L a lesson, and as I passed by, she encouraged me to just let my legs hang, and to "think Zen" in the saddle, feeling the movement of Ellie's back, letting her move my hips and low back. For me, that's easier said than done.

I tried to relax my shoulders and concentrate on letting everything go, but I found that I needed to push her into corners, or leg her up a bit to keep her walking. As soon as I did that, I'd be tight and rigid again. L lapped us on Butters. 

My legs lengthened as I dropped my stirrups and relaxed. I am a different body in the saddle than I was 15 years ago. Things have, well, rearranged a bit, so I found myself trying to remember how it felt to sit deeply, to hold my back straight but not stiff, to keep my hands relaxed, working the bit correctly, in a straight line, and not all cockeyed. It used to be second nature to use my legs and seat and hands in concert with each other, but I find I have to concentrate hard to pull it altogether.

Clearly, I have muscle memory to rebuild as well.

The concept fascinates me. I remember what it felt like to really be moving with my horse, and maybe that's part of what causes my fear and anxiety. Where I felt rock solid in my movement and reactions, I now feel awkward, and I have to think hard about what I'm doing.

I can remember jumping a horse named Clockwork. He was a big, chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred. His cannon bones had been pinfired--visible tracks of old injuries. He had a rep for stopping at fences--uncertain about his own ability. But we clicked together for some reason. When we cantered or jumped or did lateral work, we seemed of the same mind. I trusted him, he trusted me. My legs, my hands, my seat, transferred my thoughts to him and he moved effortlessly.

It is the memory of that movement that draws me forward with Ellie. I want to help her move effortlessly as she helps me remember and regain that ease in the saddle again. I would like to have that sense of oneness become a memory with her, as it was with my 20-year-old self and Clockwork.

We both have a lot of work to do to get there, but I can already feel some of my confidence returning, thanks to Ellie's kindness and willingness. I'm hoping I can help her, and maybe she's sensing that I need a little help from her, too. We're both walking from different places, but on a similar journey.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Smoke in the Garden

Smoke plumes from the High Park Fire, viewed from Ellie's pasture.

The High Park Fire is not too far away, but not close enough that we have to worry about evacuation. We're south of the fire, and gusts seem to be moving it mostly northward. Right now, it's burned about 37,000 acres, which is around 57 square miles. I cannot imagine what the 400-plus firefighters are facing, but I am grateful that they are there.

As they face life-threatening working conditions, I sit at my computer in a cool, quiet room, sipping on a coffee and prepping to interview an author for an article I'm working on. I cannot keep from checking in at Twitter for fire updates, and find the old Journalism major in me wishing for a scanner to hear what's going on.

In one article I read, a family describes how they moved their horses, llamas, and goats to the evacuation site (The Ranch, in Loveland), but they had to leave their 25 chickens behind. They felt badly about it, but had no way to transport them, and nowhere they felt they could take them. I had been thinking last night, while reading fire updates, that there had to have been chickens left behind.

I know they are chickens. Some 23 million chickens are killed daily for food. So 25 hens lost in a fire that could take out scores of home, may cost residents or firefighters their lives, and has scorched acres of forest and prairie and foothill, are negligible casualties, I know.

Clicking off Twitter, I grab my coffee and go out to water the garden. The smell of smoke has been ever present the last two days, and there has been a regular drone of slurry bombers and other fire-fighting aircraft overhead. But in my garden, peace. Sunshine, cool morning air, and hens.

Before turning the hose on, I let Wilson (the angora rabbit) out into his fenced off portion of the yard, and he hops quickly into the grass and to his favorite shady spot. I brought some leftover veggie scraps out with me, and carry it to where the hens crowd the gate, waiting. I toss the scraps out for them, then walk into the hen yard to get some scratch for them.

Thelma grabs a large piece of lettuce and runs, with Mabel, Violet, and Pip close on her tail feathers in a noisy "gimme gimme" rabble of clucks. The two Jaerhons stop and grab some tomato pieces, and I noted that one of them squatted, wings held out, in a submissive posture meant for a rooster. I knew she was getting close to laying her first egg, and that proves it.

They happily hunt for scratch grains. Pip chases off a dove, Thelma and Louise chase off the Jaerhons, and Clover and Oreo mutter and scratch and eye me for more treats. In the midst of the smoke, all is still well here.

The hens cared for, I water the garden and feel grateful. All of our animals are in their usual places, in their usual routines, and happy. The fire is unlikely to drift in this direction, but its presence makes me think about evacuation plans. I think about what we'd use to transport the hens and the rabbit, something I had never really given a moment's consideration. Family, I'd thought about. Horses, dogs, cats, I'd thought about. But for some reason, the hens and rabbit had seemed like an afterthought--portable enough to carry. But not really, if I stop and think about it.

And I do. I think about emergency measures and plans to talk to the girls about, and items that we might want to keep on hand.

Cool clear water made puddles in the garden, and I let the fire thoughts fade and appreciate this moment of peace and normalcy. It has given me an opportunity to think about what I would do in a moment of chaos, and that planning lessens the worries that I realize have been whirring around since I read about the chickens left behind.

Another plane cut through the blue sky--possibly heading toward the fire. I turn off the hose, pick up my coffee, and turn my thoughts to the day ahead. It's a pretty normal, ho-hum Monday. For which I am abundantly thankful.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Through L's Eyes

It's summertime, and the girls are out of school. That means the chickens have a little more company than usual. I pulled out my iPhone this afternoon to find the picture of Ellie, and came across pictures L had taken of Clover, her little Bantam Cochin. Clover is a very easy going little hen. I had to share them.

Riding Ellie

Ellie. (The iPhone doesn't do her justice.)
When we arrived at the barn last night, the hot day had given way to a breezy, comfortable evening. I had planned to get to know Ellie, the tall, 16-year-old gray Thoroughbred who was new to the barn. My sister-in-law had owned her a few years ago, and said the mare had done everything from eventing to trail riding. Now, several months after a well-placed kick caused a shoulder injury, Ellie was back at my sister-in-law's barn. I'd peeked in on her a few times in that first week, offering her a cookie or a carrot, but hadn't done much beyond that.

Tonight, I pulled Ellie out of her stall, and put her in cross ties. I'll just start with grooming, I told myself, figuring that I didn't have to ride if the mare was acting grumpy or jumpy. Not exactly a bold jump forward on my part, but I've always loved grooming horses, and it feels like a handshake to me. Hopping on a horse without going through the grooming ritual first seems a little impolite.

As I used a rubber curry over her neck and across her chest, I noticed her chest muscles seemed weak and undefined, and her belly a little round. "OK. We both need to get in shape," I said to her with complete understanding. She lifted her head and wiggled her lips as I curried an itchy spot, and I smiled, then worked my way along the side of her neck, rubbed her withers and back, then over her hindquarter and under her belly. Flea-bitten grays have red specks over a field of white, like freckles. From a distance, she looks gray, but close up she's a confetti pattern of color, like a paint-speckled canvas.

She had a few manure stains in back. I wondered how she'd react to bathing and made a mental note to ask my sister-in-law. Then I had a flash of insight: When I was riding a lot, I'd have just planned to bathe her without worrying about how she'd behave. If she acted jumpy, I'd have dealt with it. Nowadays, I do too much worrying up front, causing me to waver instead of stepping up confidently. The thing is, I think that's a snapshot of my nature in general. Hm. I'll have to put that thought under the microscope later.

Funny how horses can help you see yourself more clearly.

After working across both sides with a curry, stiff brush, and soft brush, I picked out her feet, brushed her mane and tail, and doctored up a small graze across her hock. I patted her and smoothed her coat, then felt a little silly as I said to her, "All right, Miss Ellie, I need a little confidence."

As I finished up, V, the barn's trainer, stopped by to let me know that Ellie seemed a little off on her right front, and that she was concerned that the shoulder injury may have caused some nerve damage that hadn't been obvious at first. My heart sunk a little bit. Shoulder injuries can be problematic and nerve damage isn't unusual. It could lead her to stumble, and I wondered how permanent the injury was. V said it would be great if I could walk her for exercise, but she probably shouldn't do much beyond that. She's got great gaits, V said, but she's a little lazy.

I felt some muscles in my shoulders relax just the tiniest bit.

Perfect, I thought. Because walking was just about my speed and lazy was what I wanted. It looked like we were both in rehab mode, with some healing to do. I tacked her up, and headed down to the arena to climb on. She's a tall mare. I'm short and not as flexible as I used to be. My husband saw me standing around hemming and hawing and looking for the mounting block, then came over and gave me a leg up, chivalrous sort that he is. He commented on what a nice mare she is, then went back to helping L get Butters ready for a ride. I adjusted my stirrups, and settled myself before asking her to walk out.

I fiddled around with her for awhile, getting the feel of just sitting in a saddle, remembering. Inside leg, move her over to the rail. Relax your back, use your seat bones, heels down. I felt myself take a deep, easy breath. She responded to my leg, and she felt light on the bit. A couple of horses were tearing around in the neighboring pasture and I tensed as we walked by. She noticed them, but didn't seem inclined to toss me off and go join in their fun. I relaxed a little more. In fact, I got a little bored, which is something I haven't felt on horseback for a long time.

After about 30 minutes where I just gave my body time to remember, making big figure eights, doing the slightest bit of lateral work from the center of the arena to the rail, I halted her, hopped down, and walked her back up to the barn. She stood quietly while I pulled her saddle and took off her bridle. I brushed her down lightly--she hadn't exactly broken a sweat--then gave her a cookie and a pat before putting her back in her stall. She was very ladylike until the door was closed, then she turned, hurried out into the long run, and tore off bucking and kicking.Well, I thought, at least she feels good.

And so, I realized, did I.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

About horses...and beginning again.

Apple's steady gaze.
It has been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable in the saddle. I can remember, during summers when I spent entire days on horseback, that it felt as easy as breathing. But now, I carry with me the anxieties and body aches of 40-plus years, and where I used to feel confident in my seat and hands and legs, I am dubious. And I have a confession to make: While I was a fearless rider as a kid and young adult, I have been wearing fear into the barn every time I go, and I'm not sure why. I think answering that question is part of the journey back.

Trips to the barn over the past few years have been about getting my daughters, 13 and 11, in the saddle, not myself. It’s been about teaching them simple safety rules and the basics of horsemanship. And it's been as a helper as my husband works to get his sister’s big Drum Horse, Addie, going in harness. We’ve gone for drives, but that’s about the extent of my horse time over the past 15 years.

Now that my daughters are older, I find myself itching for that sense of solid ease around horses and in the saddle…that feeling of being able to move a horse this way or that without having to think too much about every little step. I want to brush away the jumpiness that sits on my shoulder and says “what if…” every 10 seconds. I want to enjoy horses again.

I think that part of it is that as an adult, my “what ifs” come with negative, emergency-room consequences. My daughters’ “what ifs” are more about sky's-the-limit possibilities. What is it about adulthood that makes one so serious? How do I approach riding with a childlike heart, a willingness to make mistakes without judgment, and to take joy in small successes?

I watch L, as she sits astride Butters. She loves that horse, an older palomino of unknown past and breeding. (She’s always trying to guess at his parentage. I think last week she was convinced that he was part Akhal Teke. The week before, she imagined he was some exotic Eastern European breed.) I think he may have some Arab in him, and probably some Quarter Horse.

He’s an old-fashioned horse, with a snappy walk, better suited to dressage than Western pleasure. She trots him around, lopes a little, walks a little, stops and chats with her instructor, then heads back out to the rail. There isn’t the slightest hesitation in her manner with Butters, and the two of them braid their intentions together in a solid bond. 

My oldest daughter, M, is riding Apple, a POA gelding as kind as they come. His tail is 1970s-short because his herdmate, Jubilee (a 3-year-old Welsh pony), chewed it with a hairdresser’s precision. M had been riding a Quarter Horse mare named Nilla, but when Nilla ran for the trailers at the end of a trail ride a year or so ago, and tossed M in the process, her confidence was shaken. 

Apple is giving it back to her in the slow and easy manner of a caring teacher. M took that fall in stride and is working well with Apple, but she’s always been my serious child, and anxiety twists a bit at her when things (whether it’s at school, with friends, or at dance class) don’t go perfectly. Apple is teaching her about forgiveness and letting go. He’s patient as she works at balance and lightness. I’m hoping that his reassuring ways will help her to ease up on herself just a little bit.

As a re-beginner, I’ll be riding Apple from time to time, along with a tall, flea-bitten gray Thoroughbred mare named Ellie. I’m just getting to know Ellie, but she has the softest, kindest eye, and in those dark depths, I can see the glimmer of blue-sky what ifs. I can see the part of horses that I fell in love with as a young girl, and it draws me to her. In her eyes, I see my own horse-crazy childhood.

I’m trying to start a list of goals to carry with me for the first month, and I'm beginning with two simple aspirations:
·      I will ride one to two hours each week (doesn’t sound like much as I put that in writing, but with my schedule it’s ambitious when it’s a 25-minute drive to the barn).
·      I will fit in a strength-ball class twice each week to build my core, and add a daily walk to my calendar.

And so, here I am, back at the beginning. All these years, I’ve been watching my daughters learn about horses. Now they are helping me with my own horse lessons—reminding me to take joy in the ride and pleasure in the moment.