A Day in the Life

8:15:

Coffee

It’s after 8:00; I’m still in bed, under covers, and I’ve only REALLY been awake for about 15 minutes.  Over and over, I have to explain this.  I don’t do early mornings unless I have to, and on weekends, I don’t have to.

People who hear about the ranch always assume that I’m up before dawn.  They expect, I suppose, that I am out by the sunrise, scattering chicken feed from the pockets of an apron that I would assumedly be wearing while singing “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music.

No.

My sweet spot is between 7:00 and 8:00.  Which is why I’m still not quite out of bed when John comes back in with coffee.

John is almost always awake first.  His job, as a process engineer for a company about an hour and a half from here, requires that his ass be at his desk by 7 am.  His internal clock is set differently than mine.

 He makes coffee for us on the weekends.

Really good coffee.

I’m keeping him.

He offers me my coffee cup.  I stretch.  Sit up.  Take the cup.

“Good morning, gorgeous.”

This is my wake-up every morning that we wake up in the same space.  It’s less often than we’d like since he still lives and works over 100 miles away.  The distance, which both of us coming off of bad break-ups had initially found so comforting, is starting to get old.

I take a sip of the coffee.  It’s hot and delicious.  Fresh ground.  Just a hint of cream.  No sugar.

The day, we both know, will be long, so coffee is slow.

<<<>>>

9:30:

It’s already hot outside when we finally make it to the barn.  Truthfully, wiser ranchers and farmers start chores earlier than me to beat the heat.  I trade in 5 to 10 degrees of comfort for an extra hour or two in bed.  We all make choices.

I start cleaning stalls while John fills hay nets.  These are the daily chores, along with collecting eggs and feeding chickens, letting the cats out of their room, and making sure the horses have food (either hay or pasture).   Weekends are usually full of stuff that doesn’t make the day-to-day and this one is no exception.

<<<>>>

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10:30:

Cinco is so easy to catch.  Basically, you want up to him and ask politely.  He stands still while you slip a halter on and walks with you maintaining respectable distance.  I bring him into the center of the barn and hand him to John, and head into my feed room to grab my hoof trimming tools.

That’s a thing I do now.   I never budgeted hoof care into the equation when I brought all of these guys home.  That may seem shortsighted, except that I was married to a farrier (a horse shoer/trimmer) at the time, and I hadn’t planned for the marriage to spectacularly fail.  After it did, I was left with the choice of learning how to trim my own horses or getting rid of them, because there was definitely not room in the budget for a good farrier, and the idea of having my ex out to the ranch every six weeks made me feel ill for quite a while..

That brings me here, with Cinco and John.  (On a related note, I’m pretty sure John never saw himself holding horses for trimming either…Life does not always take us where we expect.)

Trimming hooves can be a little bit like performing surgery.  The hoof is complicated, a live piece of their body, and it’s important to understand the anatomy before cutting into it.  Fortunately, I was already fairly well-versed in that before I ever picked up a nipper.  (It’s a side effect of travelling with and listening to a farrier for hundreds and hundreds of hours.)

The actual work though?  All the book knowledge in the world didn’t make it easier to cut into a hoof for the first time.  I knew enough to know just how much I could fuck things up (though my other horsey friends pointed out that one mildly bad trim wasn’t going to do too much damage).

My first trim was of my friend Lauren’s horse with her husband’s supervision.   Then my horses with Lauren’s help and supervision.  Now it’s my horses with my supervision (and an occasional Facetime session with Lauren and her husband).

Since those first few experiences, there have been a lot of “good enough” trims.  Not perfect.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but functional, especially for my herd of horses who are rarely ridden and who are never worked particularly hard.  But this one?  By the time I came to the end of the trim, even I thought it looked pretty damn good.

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Of course, there was blood.  Not Cinco’s.  Mine.  I rarely remember gloves when I first start a trim, and I have a nasty habit of hitting my knuckles with the rasp.  A blood sacrifice to the equine gods, I suppose.

<<<>>>

Noonish: (Trims take me a while)

I wiped the drips of blood off my hands, and lead Cinco down the lane to the backyard.  Typically it’s where I keep the dogs, but the grass is high, and I don’t much feel like mowing.  I watch Cinco as we walk down the drive, and I’m pleased with how he’s moving.   The trim will serve.  

He is nervous at first until we catch and bring the other horses down to join him. Any nervousness at being in a new field is overshadowed by the security of being with the whole herd and the joy of being in a fresh field with more grass than they can eat. 

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I have work to do in the garden.  (Occasionally, while I pull the weeds that I never have quite been able to keep up with, it occurs to me that I can buy groceries…)

I have errands to run.  (There’s a gardening tool at Lowe’s that I feel I must have but that it turns out I will barely use after tomorrow.)

I need to deworm the cat.  The baby llama needs a shot.  The hay nets are empty and need to be refilled.

When was the last time I watered the flowers on the porch?

Before the day is over, I take two showers, sweating through my barn clothes twice.  (My mom wonders sometimes why I have to do so much laundry…this is it.)  We settle down after evening chores just in time to see some friends pull up the driveway.  They meet the new baby llama.

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They pet the critters who come up to greet them.

We settle in for conversation and wine and some fresh popcorn.

There’s one more day in the weekend.  One more slow morning with delicious coffee.  On Monday, mornings speed up.  John will leave just before 5am.  I will do the chores that must be done before heading to work myself.

The rest will wait until the weekend comes around again.

 

 

Plans, Accidents, and a perfect “K”

Kniggett stood perfectly for shearing.

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He always had; every shearing since his first, Kniggett stood rooted more than tied.  He seemed to enjoy having his hot wool stripped off row by row, exposing the skin underneath to the cool breeze.  He made the job easy, which maybe why I chose to shear him in my first group.

He seemed happy with his new haircut when I finished, wandering off to enjoy the pasture with the other llamas immediately afterwords.  I watched him walk away and shook my head.  He had gotten skinny over the winter.  Really skinny.  I knew that he had lost weight, but the depth and breadth of it hadn’t been entirely clear until I removed his wool.

<<<>>>

Kniggett had been a surprise.  His sire decided to jump a fence between himself and the girls, and Kniggett showed up 11 months later with red wool like his mom and an impish face like his dad.  He was named “Kiley’s Kniggett” after his mom, Kiley, and as an homage to Monty Python’s “Silly English Kniggetts” (Knights) from “The Search for the Holy Grail.”  He was one of the sweetest llamas ever born out here: a perpetual favorite, always asking for neck skritches from his people and saying hello to newcomers.

You love them all, of course.  When you do what I do, have creatures like I do, you love them all.  But some, a few, dig their way just a little bit deeper into your heart.  Theirs are the faces you look for in the morning.  The hellos you always say.  The ones you unintentionally spoil just a little bit extra.

Wednesday, when I drove to work, he was in the dust bath in the front pasture, enjoying a good roll.

Wednesday, when I got home from work, he was still there, but now laying at an odd angle, completely unmoving.  I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran into the pasture.  I called for him, even though I could tell that he was already gone.

Sometimes, when those animals who have dug their way just a little bit deeper into your heart leave you, it’s as though they’ve taken a piece of you with them.  

<<<>>>

I don’t cry over all of them at this point.  Maybe it’s just the sheer volume of loss I have felt out here.  Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation that it’s what I do for them while they’re living that matters and that death is just the next part of a life.   Maybe I’m getting hard.

But I don’t cry over all of them.

I cried over Kniggett.

I cried a lot over Kniggett.

<<<>>>

I gave myself a little bit of space the next morning.  My first chore had come at  7AM when I had to meet the companion cremation guy at my barn and load Kniggett into his truck with my skid steer, and it didn’t entirely sit well with me.  I didn’t need the reminder that he was gone before sitting down for coffee. I went back to the house after that; I needed a minute.

When I went back to the barn later to do my usual morning chores, I was feeling a little worn.  All of my llamas were inside, a definite reminder of the one that was not.

Except…

I was cleaning up my main herd’s stall when I realized that I was missing someone.  Not Kniggett, though I missed him terribly, but Reva.

When I first took over the ranch, I was given Reva and her sister, Baby, by some clients of my ex who didn’t want them anymore.   As of Thursday morning, she was still unshorn, and when I realized she was out alone while the entire herd was inside–not normal behavior for most llamas–I panicked.

“No, no, no” I thought, putting down my barn tools and heading out towards the back pastures in search of her.

Visions of her stretched out with heat stress, unable to move and laboring to breathe flashed through me.  I didn’t pause to consider the fact that she was only a medium wooled animal, and that it wasn’t actually that hot out…

I saw her once I walked past the pine trees, she was to my left, munching on some grass and standing in the shade.

I breathed a sigh of relief before doing a double take.

It wasn’t just her.

It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone, that a baby was next to her, alert and watching me back.

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<<<>>>

After making sure that they were both ok, I walked back to the barn to get a halter for Reva so I could bring the pair in.  As best as I could tell, the little one had been born the afternoon before or very early that morning, coming into the world on the heels of Kniggett leaving it.

His surprise entrace reminded me of Kniggett’s.  He wasn’t unplanned, since I did intentional expose Reva and Baby to our stud last year, but I hadn’t thought Reva caught, and, even to the small degree that I considered it, I had the dates all wrong.

I made them a stall.  I gave Reva a bucket full of grain and corn.  I spent my day assuring myself that the baby, a little boy, was healthy, nursing, and strong.  The pair of them joined back in with the herd that evening, and it became clear that this little guy had an attitude.

What he didn’t have was a name.

Nothing was fitting.  I wanted to play on Sky, his sire’s name, which gave me a number of directions to try out, but nothing clicked.

<<<>>>

Two days later, John and I were texting names back and forth, rapid fire. He eventually commented that the names I came up with sounded like something off of Game of Thrones and responded in kind.

img_4227But then the next one.

“Skye’s Starry Knight…”

It was just one more in the list, but it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Of course he’s a Knight.  Like Kniggett.  Of course he is.

Once I saw it, it was just so obvious.

“That one,” I replied.

“With or without the K?”

The “K” had been a typo, one that stopped me cold and brought tears to my eyes.  A reminder that this little life had been ushered in on the tail end of another. A Starry Knight and a silly English Kniggett.

John was surprised by how well the name landed; he’s still riding the “I named the baby llama” high.

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<<<>>>

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I find myself believing more and more that life is just a series of lessons.  That the job of living is to learn and become better.  And this place?  This life I’ve chosen that is so wrapped up in this home I’m living it in?  It seems to be a lesson in planning and unplanning and accidents.

I’ve said before that I’m a planner.  Maybe a little bit of a control freak.  And I chose a life that, maybe even more than others, cannot be controlled.

This life teaches me that plans are fine and so is throwing them out the window. Accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, are sometimes the very best parts of life.

Or, maybe, accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, aren’t really accidents at all, just more of the lesson.

 

 

The Four Ponies of the Apocalypse…

Sunday…

7:29 am.

I’m still curled up in bed, asleep enough to be dreaming, when the phone goes off.  I don’t check it, letting the caller go to voicemail.  I snuggle back into the sheets for a moment before thinking that I should at least look to see who it was.

Bad Pony…

If I’m getting a 7:29 am phone call from the neighbor who I’ve always had in my phone as “bad pony,” it’s probably because I have some bad ponies…

I roll over and begin to sit up.

“I think the ponies got out,” I tell John.

The first time this happened with John, when I got a call that the horses broke loose from their pasture well before dawn in the middle of winter– this was early in our dating life–John moved like molasses, a lot of “what” and “huh” as I shot out of bed.  Now, more than a year and a half in, he beat me to the window.

“Can you see them?” I ask.

“Yeah…” He pauses before replying, “They just ran down the driveway.”

John watches as they run up the hill towards the neighbors, tiny tails bopping joyfully as they trot to freedom.

(98 acres out here, and those tiny monsters just want to eat my neighbor’s front lawn.)

We left them in a temporary pen overnight, letting them graze and enjoy the cool evening, but apparently they got bored at some point and pushed a gate away from the fence.

Guys, letting miniature ponies get bored is like feeding gremlins after midnight.  JUST DON’T FUCKING DO IT.

I pull on the official uniform of “my livestock escaped before I got out of bed”: yesterday’s jeans, a gray tank top with no bra, flip-flops, and a baseball cap.  John, apparently competing for the redneck hall of fame, pulls on dirty jeans and muckboots.  He decides to forgo his shirt entirely, showing off the beginnings of a notable farmer’s tan.

I know it seems unlikely, but the ranch really is part of a very nice neighborhood, probably the nicest one in town.  I am just at the edge of it, but the real estate around me is not the sort that you would expect to host rogue ponies, or horses, or llamas. However, at some point or another, I have chased each species through a neighbor’s yard.  Behind the ranch, I am surrounded by farmers and country people, the sort that just happen to have old horse halters hiding in a barn somewhere that they grab when someone else’s horse (read: mine) shows up in their front yard.  But next to the ranch?  I have genteel city people who moved out-of-town to appreciate the peace and quiet.

Fortunately, these particular city people think I am an amusing novelty and that ponies are cute.

I think that I have four ponies and that there are supposed to be four horsemen of the apocalypse. (Or alpacalypse… maybe llamageddon…)  As I walk up my driveway and see the ponies looking at me wearily from the top of the hill, I think that those apocalyptic horses probably won’t look like people expect.

Immediately across the road, my neighbor rents out his massive colonial-style home as an AirB&B.  This weekend’s renters chatted with my boyfriend as he tried to flank my four tiniest horses.

“We just woke up,” they told him from the driveway, “and there were tiny horses running down the road.  It was so cute!”

Cute…

John’s presence sends Violet, Slash, Gem, and Cody running back into my yard, the temporary neighbors looking on with amusement.  They would have a story to tell about their vacation rental in the country.

“Just don’t let them go back up the road,” I tell him.

“No kidding,” he replies.

Two laps of the front yard, one detour to the big horses’ barn, and an almost-trek through the manure pit in flip-flops to head them off later, the ponies run back into their pasture, seemingly at least a little confused about how they got there.

Such, I suppose, is life with livestock.

<<<>>>

Ponies tucked safely away, John and I walk back to the house together.  He makes coffee–he makes really good coffee–and we sit on the couch until our cups run low and the barn calls us back out to finish morning chores.  The rest of the day will come soon enough, bringing with it more work than either of us woke up with any intention of completing, but for a moment, we sit back and appreciate the momentary, and elusive, peace and quiet of the country.

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I really need to learn my neighbor’s name…

A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary. Continue reading “A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken”

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

DSC_2496NI know.  I know.  That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.

Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze.  March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth.  But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next.  March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.

But April?  In April, things come alive again.  For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass.  Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees.  I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.

Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.

My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now.  I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction.  If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it.  That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.

It doesn’t hurt that it all started one beautiful Spring day… Continue reading “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

 

Let’s be honest.  You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.

They free-range.

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They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.

Each one has her own little personality and habits. Continue reading “Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs”

Dear Hoomans of the Hill

My bipedal servants seem to think that I owe you an apology.

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I think they’re wrong…but they do refill the hay nets on demand, and I believe that they have access to grain, even though they don’t give me any of it, so I do what I can to stay in their good graces when it isn’t too inconvenient.

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I, of course, am Slash.  High King of the Hill, Guardian of Camelot, and First Pony of the Alpacalypse.

I assume you’ve heard of me?  (Of course you have.  It was silly of me to even ask, but I do try to stay humble.)

And you, I believe, are referred to by the bipeds a “Neigh Bores.”  (They worry about us making noise, but you have “Neigh” right there in your name.)  I gather that you are other bipeds who are not indentured to any equines, camelids, or chooks.  That’s sad for you, but I won’t rub it in, as I imagine it is a source of despair and humiliation in your little hooman lives.  (Seriously, what do you even do with your time?  If a hooman wakes up in the morning without a horse to feed, does it even exist?)

Oh, right, apology…

(How does one even do this?) Continue reading “Dear Hoomans of the Hill”

The Trouble with Turkeys

Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year?  The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?

We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect.  We lost another to a predator.

But one of the little peeps survived.

And he isn’t so little anymore.

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Arthur

Meet Arthur of Camelot. Continue reading “The Trouble with Turkeys”

But aren’t llamas mean???

 

It’s almost like there’s a script, a list of exact lines shared with the rest of the world, but not with me.

Every.  Single.  Time.  I say I have llamas.

“Oh…Aren’t they mean?” Continue reading “But aren’t llamas mean???”

Season of Gray

 

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The woods are lovely dark and deep

December 27th, and it’s gray.  The Midwest has a way of graying out during the month of November and staying gray until February.  Days like today, it looks mostly the same outside at 8:00 am that it does at 4:00 in the afternoon.

I’ve been feeling as gray as today’s sky.  I think we all have times like this, times when each day is just a push from morning to night, an effort to get from the start of your day to the finish in one piece.   If I’m being completely honest, 2015 has been one of the most difficult years on record for me.  I’ve felt in chaos more than I’ve felt safe, and more days have proved a struggle than I care to admit.   It’s easy to get lost in that, forget that everything with a beginning eventually has an end.

But, right now, I’m just in the middle of my chaos, and I’m feeling a little lost. Continue reading “Season of Gray”