Falling

 

“Oh, I’ve never fallen off…”

She thinks she’s bragging, but the little girl, or teen, or grown-ass woman (or perhaps man) who utters those words in the horseback riding world has failed to read the room.  We are not impressed.  In fact, the polite among us are trying not to laugh in her face.  She looks with at the other riders with expectation, all of us with muck on our boots, sweat under our helmets and horsehair on our jeans.  We, she implies, have fallen, and she has not; therefore, obviously, her skills are greater.  We should accept the inevitable conclusion that she is the superior rider.

It’s almost cute, really…

But we know something she doesn’t.  We know there are only two types of horseback riders: Those who have fallen off, and those who will. Continue reading “Falling”

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”

Dangerous Cold and a Full Barn

 

 

I was talking with my friend in Maine the other night before evening chores.

“I don’t wanna go outside!” I whined.  We whine together a lot.  If we lived closer, we’d wine together a lot…and that would be better.  “I checked, Lauren.  It’s been consistently colder here than at your place.  Which seems completely unfair given that you’re basically Canadian!”

Lauren laughed, but acknowledged that it’s true.  They live far enough north that she could damn near apply for dual citizenship.  I, however, live in the middle ground of the country.  Illinois.  Home of Chicago at one end and cornfields at the other.  Despite the expectations that it’s more temperate here, we get nearly arctic colds and southern warms.  (Temperate my ass…110 heat index in Summers and -20+ windchill in the winter.)  Last week, my little corner of creation went through a cold snap.  It was colder here than in Bangor, ME.  Actually, as a matter of fact, it was colder here than in Nome, AK.

And it was a problem. Continue reading “Dangerous Cold and a Full Barn”

The Seven Emotional Stages of Hauling Water

For many of us in the Midwest, El Nino has been a kind and benevolent overlord this winter.  Sure, he brought with him some scary-ass storms and some flooding (more towards St. Louis really, but the Illinois River is pretty freaking high for this time of year), but he has also kept the frigid temperatures away…For the bulk of this season, I’ve been reveling in 40-50 degree days.  With the memory of the Polar Vortex  and it’s negative thirty degree windchills of a few years ago still fresh in my mind, that’s basically t-shirt weather.

(Images from the Polar Vortex)

Until this week.

This week kicked off our first round of single digits and negative numbers, and while no one I know likes those sort of numbers, it’s especially vexing for those of us who take care of livestock.  For me, extreme cold means that I spend about twice as much time outside every day.  My aging herd of llamas is locked in to the barn with their heat lamps.  When they’re locked in, they eat more.  They poop more.  They some how dirty their waterers faster.  Plus, I’m pretty sure they get super bored and annoyed with me.  (How dare I shut them in to prevent frostbite and exposure???  I am SO rude!)

All of the creatures, from the 4 lb chickens to the 1200 lb horses, require more care and more clean up when the weather is this wretched.  I feed more.  I clean more.  I go outside more often, and I stay there longer.

Most of the time, I don’t really mind.  It’s part of this gig, and I usually see it as an unfortunate but fair trade for my wonderful spring, summer, and fall days out here.  But there is one event that can turn it from generally unpleasant to downright nasty: Freezing Water Lines.

Continue reading “The Seven Emotional Stages of Hauling Water”

2016 with Blue Skies Ahead

Happy New Year Everyone!

January 1st of 2016 surprised me with a nearly perfect blue sky.  Having spent weeks overwhelmed by my Season of Gray, the blue sky was the perfect antidote to my melancholy, and, in my own humble opinion, barn chores under the blue sky were the perfect was to start the new year.

First thing, I wandered out to one of the back pasture to check on a tree fall that one of my neighbors reported to me.  Their tree; our fence.

It pretty much destroyed that section of fence, but it’s so big that no one is going anywhere over, around, or through it.  I don’t have to worry for a while.  (I told Jeremiah that we should chainsaw it in interesting ways and leave it as fence…easier than hauling it out.)

Continue reading “2016 with Blue Skies Ahead”

With rumors of Spring…

They tell me spring is on its way.  They say it will start on March 20th.  I’m not sure I believe them.

Jeremiah took off around 5:30 this morning for another shoeing conference.  He will be gone for about a week.  Then I’ll be leaving the morning of the day he gets back for a vacation in Costa Rica with my sister.  Thankfully, one of us will be at the ranch the whole time, so we won’t need to call on too much help, but taken together, these next two weeks will probably account for the most time we’ve spent apart since we first started dating in 2010.

Until I leave, things will be cold.  Really cold.  (Like, -7 degrees tonight.)  Right now, outside looks like this.

The woods are lovely dark and deep
The woods are lovely dark and deep

The woods remind me of a Robert Frost poem as I make my nightly trudge out to the barn, but I have hopes that we will at least be above freezing temperatures by the time I get home.  In the meantime, Spring whispers sweet nothings, small promises that give me just a little hope that its closer than we think.

For example, my chickens have started laying a bit more.  A few days ago, Jeremiah collected 5 eggs, up from the 2, 1, or 0 we have been collecting each day this winter.  Of course, all of the eggs were frozen solid.  But hey, it’s a start, right?

Also, we have a bit more daylight each day.  The sun won’t set until 5:40 today.  I am in love with each extra second of daylight.

Spring cannot get here soon enough for my liking.  Everything we do out here on the ranch takes more time and costs more money in the winter, and I’m kind of over it.  Stalls get dirtier.  Chores have to be done in the dark.  We use more electricity for lights and water heaters. We have to feed more hay and more grain.  Not to mention keeping the house heated.

I’m looking forward to warmer weather.  To daylight into late evening.  I’m looking forward to riding my horses again.  And I’m looking forward to being able to go out to the barn without adding layers and layers of bulky clothes.

I think maybe the critters are looking forward to Spring too.

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Has Spring sprung in your neck of the woods, or are you still shivering with me and all the critters out here at Eagle Ridge?

The Strangest Wake-Up Call.

You know that moment just between waking and sleeping? The one where your head is heavy on your pillow and you’re tucked under a pile of blankets that have just become the perfect amount of warm? Out at the ranch, that moment is usually accompanied by perfect silence. No city noises. No cars. Maybe the occasional owl.

A few days ago, that moment came to me in all its glory around 12:40pm. We had gone to bed later than usual already, and so when that moment was spoiled by the cats beating their furious little paws against the bedroom door, I was more than a little irritated. I got up and walked towards the hallway. Opening the door, I expected one or more cats to be standing on the other side looking guilty. I found nothing. Perfect silence. Perfect stillness.

So I went back to bed, but, upon laying back down I heard it again, a rhythmic sound I couldn’t quite place. Maybe the hedgehogs in their wheel? No. That wasn’t it. But the sound was something familiar and out of context. I sat up in bed, trying to isolate the noise. Trying to place it.

Outside the window, a horse screamed in the distance, a panicked whinny that cut through the cold air like a knife.

I froze. Maybe I heard wrong?

But then I heard the whinny again only a moment later.

And suddenly, it clicked. Hoof beats.

Oh God.

Jeremiah sat up in bed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Hoof beats. The horses are screaming.”

And with that, he climbed out of bed and pulled on his barn clothes as quick as a whip. I watched him grab his Glock–God forbid he need it, but you never can tell on a farm–before heading outside to check things out.

For a very brief moment, I considered staying inside. Most of the time, when something is awry, he checks it out on his own, proclaims an all clear, and crawls back under the covers. He usually didn’t need me.

And a horse screamed again. This wasn’t most of the time.

I threw off the covers and, faster than I would have thought possible, I pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans. Boots came on on the way out the door.

Worst case scenarios flashed through my mind rapid fire.  Barn fires. Predators. Oh my God, what if the Mountain Lion we saw earlier this year was back? What if one of the horses was caught in a fence or had broken a limb?

I wanted to run out the door and towards the back barn–the alpacas weren’t alarming, so I knew the problem, whatever it was, was likely isolated to the horses—but our snow had melted that day and refroze with the sunset. The driveway and lane were solid sheets of ice, as smooth as glass in many places. I would be no good sprawled out on the ice with a concussion, so I opened the breezeway door and resigned myself to walking…quickly.

As I rounded the garden beside the house, I heard yet another unexpected sound. A nicker.

Glancing left, I saw the a most glorious sight. Horses.

Three of our horses starred back at me. They looked surprised, but uninjured. A year ago, I might have tried to walk over to them, but I have learned. The last thing I wanted was for them to spook and run off again, this time down the road. I would come back with food. Halters. Besides, I could only account for three of the four full-sized horses on property. Anything could have happened to their companion.

I started walking down the lane, feeling less panicked than before but still uneasy. It was hard to walk with out slipping, but I made it to the horse barn in one piece.

Jeremiah was inside gathering a bucket of corn and a halter.

“Where’s Candi?” I asked.

“In the field being distracted with food.”

“Is she ok?”

“She’s fine. She was standing at the edge of the field screaming. Apparently everyone else jumped the pile of wood at the edge of the barn to take off, and she was afraid to follow.”

I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I had been holding.

“We are so lucky.” I responded.

Jeremiah stopped mid-stride and looked at me, perplexed.

“No. We’re really not. We’re missing all the others.”

It was my turn to be confused.

“They’re all in the front yard…”

“You didn’t think to lead with that?”

“There’s nearly four thousand pounds of horse standing in the front yard. I didn’t think you could have missed them.”

Apparently, he had been about to call the cops and alert them that three horses were loose within a half a mile of a major highway. (Guys, this could have been so bad.) Still, our crisis wasn’t completely over. We still needed to get them back in their field without spooking them and without anyone, human or equine, injuring themselves on the ice.

We walked down the slick lane towards the llama barn. Jeremiah opened the doors and turned on the lights. Then he and I stood in the lane, and he shook his bucket of corn.

Apparently, this was what they had been waiting for.

Hoof beats like thunder roared out of the front yard. Jeremiah, content that they would come, walked into the open barn and began pouring piles of grain onto the floor.

I stood in the lane, thinking that I would make sure they went where they were supposed to. I watched three horses, with a combined weight of around 3500 lbs and one of them a retired racing thoroughbred, careen down an ice covered driveway with all the unbridled power of tornado. I swear to you, in that moment time slowed down.

I watched, standing in the lane, initially worried that one of them would fall and hurt themselves.  I considered my powerlessness, and they picked up more speed.

Then I realized that I had three half-spooked horses coming directly towards me. I was standing on an ice slick. They were running on an ice slick. They weren’t slowing down.

I stepped to the side of the lane. No good. I was still right in their path. I really didn’t want to end this adventure by being body-slammed by my warmblood, but I had no where to go but down a hill to my left. If I leapt sideways down that hill, which I considered, I would tumble directly into a hedge of thorn bushes. I would be briar rabbit; that would hurt, but probably not as much as being trampled.

For about one millisecond, I debated crossing the lane. The barn side of the lane was clearer. I could get out of the way of the horses without being bramble fodder. I almost ran across. Almost. Suddenly I understood how a squirrel feels in their last moments.

Fortunately, as my thundering herd ran past, I found I was just far enough out of the way to avoid the crashing hooves.

I continued to watch as all three horses turned and ran into the barn. I shut the doors behind them, nearly walking in before remembering that we were two halters short. I turned walked down to the horse barn to fetched halters for my geldings.

Here’s what happened when I left:

Vinny and Cinco immediately noticed the large bale of alfalfa and the piles of corn.

Morana, a former bottle-fed foal with an oral fixation, noticed something else.

Jeremiah turned toward the horses, ready to halter Morana and lead her back to her barn.

She was where he had left her, only now his Glock, which he had placed on the hay bale, was held in her mouth, gansta style and pointed right at him.

In those moments, he was apparently thinking that being shot by his own horse with his own gun would be an exceptionally stupid way to die, but that he would more or less be ok with an end that epic. Also, he wondered if Morana had noticed the limp he was sporting after a particularly nasty horse kick, more pronounced since he fell on the ice on his way out, and planned to put him down. (”It’s been a good run buddy, but you’ve been too lame for too long.”)

And my husband, cool in the face of every crisis he has ever faced, including, apparently, being held at gunpoint by his mare, simply shook the bucket of corn again.

She dropped the gun on the bale and nosed into the bucket. Calmly, he haltered her and led her out of the barn. She placidly followed, content with her corn and completely forgetting her recent homicidal episode.

For my part, I watched him walk out of the barn with Morana, and I haltered Cinco. When he came back, he grabbed Vinny, and we walked down to the horse barn with our last two escapees.

We released them into their field, secured the gate, and shuffled down the icy lane back to the house.

I spoke first as we walked back.

“I’m so glad everyone is ok. We are so lucky.”

“Yeah.” He paused, almost unsure of what to say next…

I waited.

”That could have been so much worse.” Another pause. “Also, Morana just tried to shoot me with my own gun.”

So…what was your strangest wake-up call?

The good with the bad and into the New Year

The sky is blue fading black. Snow blankets the ground. Not deep snow, but enough to cover the mud and the muck and the browned out remnants of fall and summer. It’s unmolested, still a perfect shimmering white reflecting the brightest stars, the ones that manage to shine out between the wispy clouds. The light of the moon is mirrored by the snow covered earth, giving the entire outdoors an other-earthly feel. It’s stunning beyond the ability of pictures to capture.

… And it’s so damn cold your boogers will freeze right on your face.

Weather in the Midwest is notoriously unstable. Lately, we’ve had swings of 40 degrees or so several times a week. Most of the animals are handling it fairly well, but the older among them are having some difficultly with the extremes. Couple that with a string of bad luck, and it’s been a weird couple of weeks seemingly living in reaction to the realities of the ranch.

Since just before Christmas, I’ve had three sick llamas (two with infections and one with an upset tummy), one lame llama (who stood up when her foot was asleep and pulled a muscle), two lame horses (stone bruising due to the quick deep freeze), two lame cats, a lacerated dog requiring stitches, and an injured husband.  I just came inside from the barn a few moments ago, sick myself with a nasty cough, after dealing with a llama who somehow managed to choke on crumbled grain…(Don’t ask; I have no idea.)

It was while I was walking toward the barn, mostly preoccupied with helping the choking animal Jeremiah had called to report, that I noticed the wild and untamable winter beauty of the place. It was on the way back from the other barn, with thirty mile an hour winds and a temperature of seven degrees, that I realized, pretty or not, the cold will cut through you like a knife and freeze exposed skin with a chill that somehow burns. (And your boogers, as mentioned, it will also freeze your boogers.)

This ranch is a lot like the cold, beautiful and harsh, sometimes in almost equal measure.

Llamas are usually a pretty hearty bunch, but our herd is aging. Nearly all of them are north of ten years old; several are flirting with twenty. In the past couple of weeks, mostly right around the holidays, we’ve had three vet visits to deal with the issues of various critters (one cat, one dog, one llama).

We sometimes jokingly refer to the ranch as the llama nursing home. It’s one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true. This summer, we had a bout of strange behavior that led both Jeremiah and I to believe that several animals were heading downhill, that they wouldn’t be with us much longer. We watched them closely and changed their diet. We put in a superbly expensive water filtration system (that eliminated the heavy metals that were disturbingly prevalent in the well). And they bounced back, but we continue to watch.

I don’t think it’s the trials themselves that make ranch life harsh, or the work. I am no stranger to hard work, nor is my husband. I think it’s the knowledge that whatever you do, out here you will eventually lose the fight. After all, as often as not, the fight is against time itself.

It’s a common saying amongst ranch people: “If you’re gunna have livestock, you’re gunna have deadstock.” My cousin and uncle who run a dairy farm and have lost far too many calves this year have muttered that adage the same way I do when one of our critters gets sick, the way I did last year when we lost two alpacas to the cold and the damp. I’ve been saying it since I was fourteen years old.

But the saying is just a saying when you watch animals you care about get sick. Last week, the three sick llamas were three of my favorites. Even though I know I will lose animals, that these creatures won’t be around forever, I was ready to raze hell for those three. Fortunately, all but one has fully recovered, and I think the last will be all better in a few days. Still, for a little while there, I felt like Molly Weasley taking on Bellatrix Lastrange in the last Harry Potter book, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Except in my case I wasn’t facing a Death Eater, just time and illness, screaming “Not my pets, you bitch!”

I know for a lot of you it probably seems strange to be so attached to such creatures; even I would have found myself less upset by everything if it had only been one, but three of my favorite animals in as many days was rough even by my standards.

However, for now, all is well. The llamas and alpacas and ponies are tucked in snug in their stalls with blankets and heat lamps as necessary. The barn doors and stall doors are shut tight against the wind and the chill. They have more hay to munch than they probably need for the night. The chickens are likewise warm in their coop, the barn cats in their tack room, even the feral kitty is tucked into the hayloft. The big horses in the back field are fluffed up with their winter coats (all four of them resembling equine Yetis). Jeremiah and I are in the house with the house pets, the dogs curled up in front of the hearth. Most everyone is well, or on the way to being well.

I know that this place with always have the bitter mixed with the sweet, that it will likely always be beautiful and harsh in equal measure, but I also know that it’s worth it. The land is worth it, the house is worth it, and, more than anything else, the animals are worth every bit of heartbreak that I will ever feel on their behalf.

So it is with that thought that I look forward, into next year, into the next stage of things.

In a place like this, in a life like mine, you must learn to take the bad with the good. But guys? There is so much good to go around.

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The bitty babies!
The bitty babies!

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Letting your inner 8 year old give you a pep talk

Sometimes, barn chores suck.

There is nothing fun about hauling individual water buckets down a frozen lane to fill a 100 gallon water trough because your water spigot froze (like it did last winter).  There is nothing fun about going out to the barn with a headache, or head cold, or stomach flu.  (I’ve done all three.)  And there is nothing fun about forgoing potential plans with friends, or trips, or vacations, because you have to take care of the ranch.

Occasionally, taking care of the critters is the last thing I want to do.

Here’s the trick though: sometimes, when hauling my butt to the barn to do what needs to be done, and I’m grumpy and irritated, I let my inner 8-year-old give me a pep talk.

Everyone has that kid who they used to be buried inside somewhere.  Mine just happens to be a horse obsessed little girl in pigtails.

From whatever age I was first self-aware, I was obsessed with horses and ponies, but when I was 8, I started actually riding horses.  I wore pale pink cowboy boots with fringe and glitter; I’m pretty sure they were never intended to see the inside of a barn.    My pint-sized helmet made my head look huge, and my parents had to buy me a ring to wear on one of my fingers because I was still really bad at telling my left from my right.

I still have memories of that first ride, the first time I ever settled into a saddle…and walked around in a circle.  I mean, if we’re being honest, there was nothing at all exciting about those first few rides.  The horses played follow the leader, and I sat there, thinking I was riding but in reality I was only sitting.  Still, I was thrilled!

As a kid, riding lessons were absolutely the highlight of my week.  I adored all of the horses I rode, even the more difficult ones, and I wanted a horse of my own more than anything else on the planet.

So, on the days when barn chores suck and my head hurts and I want to scream for things not going well, I try to channel that eight-year-old who would have given up every last material possession she had to have her own horse.

A few weeks ago, when one of my horses had an absolute hissy fit during our lesson and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to scream or maybe cry (it hadn’t been a great week before the lesson either):

Me: “I hate this.  I hate this.  I hate this.  One easy horse.  I just want one easy horse.”

8 year old self: “You have a horse!”

Me: “Yup.  I have a horse…one who is acting like a complete turd.”

8 year old self: “But you have a horse.”

Me: (With a notable sigh and shrug…) “Actually, I have five…”

8 year old self: *Jaw drops to floor.*

Me:  “…and llamas.”

8 year old self: “You should never, ever be sad.”  (Life is simpler when you’re eight.)

Nothing is ever all good or all bad.  Most of the time, by a landslide, the farm and my critters are good.  Sometimes, they aren’t, but when they’re not, it helps to remember that they are literally my childhood dream come true.

And that I, and my inner eight year old, love them to absolute pieces.

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And of course, my wonderful llamas!

 

 

 

I miss sleep…and other updates from around the farm.

Ever have so much on your plate that even sleep seems to get bumped out of the way?  Not on purpose, mind you, just as an effect of your brain’s constant motion.  For me, sleep has been tenuous for about 2 weeks,.

Maybe it’s the stress of everything–the move, living away from the ranch, buying Jeremiah’s new shoeing trailer (hopefully next week), renovations, caring for all the animals, work…believe it or not the list continues–but sleep has not been my friend of late.

Yesterday, I came home from morning chores and crashed for nearly two hours.  Naps are one of those things that seem like they should help…but then actual sleep time comes around and you’re like, “Eh, I’m good.  I took a nap.”  Then you’re tired the next day, and come midafternoon you probably really feel like taking a nap again.  (Don’t do it.  It’s a trap.)

Usually my solution to temperamental sleep is to make myself busier, but I’m not sure that’s possible at the moment.

For those of you interested in updates, the new floor was put into the master bedroom about a week and a half ago.  That is a huge sigh of relief for me, as it indicates that one room is basically done.  (Hint: If you’re renovating the entire house, like we are, you need at least one room that doesn’t remind you of all the work yet to be done.)

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The old, leaking window in the living room was removed and replaced.  It was super weird to see the giant hole in the house while the contractors worked.  The good news?  Turns out, while the leaking did rot out the floor, and some of the sub-floor, the studs were in perfect shape.  (Meaning we did not have to cut a giant hole in the living room down to the basement.)  The bad news?  According to the contractor, we definitely need to replace the roof ASAP.  That is now on the top of the list of Spring projects.  Luckily, our contractor is awesome and the price is pretty reasonable.

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No window!
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New Window!

We’re also hoping to wrap up the dining room soon.  Two days ago, I worked on pulling up the floor with a claw hammer.  The floor that’s currently installed was popping up in a lot of places, some tiles were water damaged, and there wasn’t any flooring in the center of the room (where an area rug used to go).  We will be putting in bamboo, the same floor we put in the bedroom.  I got about halfway through before I had an ADD moment and started another project.  Jeremiah finished before I came back to it.

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And, on the ranch:

Remember how I wasn’t going to have any roosters but then ended up with one?  Make that two.

Once "Henny Penny," now "Frack."
Once “Henny Penny,” now “Frack.”

Turns out my pullet, “Henny Penny,” wasn’t so Henny.  His name is now “Frack” to match the other rooster “Frick.”  Frick is pretty cool; Frack is kind of a jerk.  All I’m saying is he better shape up; Jeremiah has nearly ended him at least once…

Also, awesome news, I’m riding Cinco!  I’ve been having a trainer come and work with us once a week for a about a month now, and I’m fairly thrilled.  (Of course, yesterday he was pretty much a turd, but we won’t talk about yesterday.)  Now, after all these years of wishing I could keep my horse at home, I’m considering boarding him over the winter at the trainer’s.  Somewhat ironic, I know, but I really would like to be able to keep working with him over the winter, and without an improved riding area at my place, it won’t happen unless I move him.

Cinco!
Cinco!

We’ve done a lot of work together this summer; I would hate to have to start over in the Spring…

Finally, just because it’s cool…

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Albino Clover!  Isn’t it pretty?  I saw it on the way to the horse barn yesterday and had to take a photo…
By the way, my next post will be by a guest blogger.  I will be taking over her blog for a day as well.  Stay tuned.