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.