Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Call for Stories and Pictures

Most Wednesdays are open for other Animal Junkies to share their heartwarming, funny or sad stories around the watercooler. We'd love to hear about your best friend! Send your stories of 300-1200 words or so to phoenixsullivan @ Pictures to accompany the stories are always welcome.

In fact, pictures are also welcome for the roundups of pictures on the other pages of this blog. Send a jpg of your best friend (any species!) -- along with their name (and yours, if you'd like) and I'll post them in the appropriate spot: the Kennel, Cattery, Corral, Birdcage, etc. Let me know specifically if you'd like your name to be mentioned as well, as I won't post your name without your specific permission. Pictures posted there will also rotate in and out of the slideshow in the sidebar on the left.

Rescue and other animal-related orgs may also submit stories. We're happy to see previously published posts and/or articles that have appeared in your newsletter.

Thank you for being a potential guest blogger ;o)

Monday, August 29, 2011


These are not my best photos, but they are what's in the camera this week -- an opportunity caught from my doorway in all its fuzzy glory.

The amount of livestock and ranched fowl lost to coyotes across America is estimated at 10-20%. I haven't seen figures for numbers of pets lost to them.

We have packs of coyotes around us. Their yip-yip-yipping howl is part of the night. They are the primary reason I make sure to lock the chicken coop at dusk and bring the ducks into the backyard. They are the reason I closed up the barn at night until the filly Bonita was old enough and big enough to join the rest of the herd. It's at night the packs hunt.

It's during the day that they'll catch you by surprise. Rogue males, young adults forced out of their pack by the alpha male, roam by day, looking for lunch. Some years there seems to be a lot of rogues, some years hardly any at all. There were a few years when my coworkers got quite used to me shouting "Coyote!" during a conference call and rushing off to chase one away.

Sometimes I'd see the coyote come up nearly to my porch, hunting for the free-ranging chickens that hang out under it. Sometimes I'd hear the loud fussing of the guineas and know there was something afoot that shouldn't be. Sometimes the dogs would see it first and I couldn't hear anything else but their anxious cries.

I used to suspect the coyotes of knowing when I was on a call. Before I joined a conference call (I worked from home), I would ask the dogs into the bedroom and close the door to keep them from disturbing me in my office. The disadvantage to that was when a coyote showed up -- as they invariably seemed to do while I was on a concall -- I had to rush back to the bedroom, open the door and shout, "Coyote!" before the dogs could even begin to race out of the house, hot on the coyote's tail.

I lost a few chickens that way. But I also had a few saved though the dogs' heroic efforts. While I would NEVER send the dogs after more than a single coyote (and I NEVER let them roam at night), when they do chase a coyote, the unencumbered coyote has enough of a headstart to easily outrun the dogs. Occasionally, though, the coyote may need to drop a chicken to be able to run fast enough.

The flock leaders -- the first and second in command -- are quite brave roosters. Both have been carried off by coyotes and lived to tell the tale. I have no doubt Big Red, the standard-size roo, reminds the ladies of his exploits every chance he gets. Scooter, the little bantam roo, is more modest, but even the standard-size hens seemed to admire him a bit more once he showed them the scar left by his encounter.

I snapped the guy you see at the top of the post and below in the early morning as he wandered through before the chickens had been let out and while the outside cat was safe under the porch. The horses were unruffled and even the coyote didn't take my shouts for him to move on very seriously.  He'd trot on a bit, then stop and look back at me. Once he was far enough way, I sent the dogs after him. A warning only because I time it so neither the dogs nor the coyotes will be cornered into any fights.

If I didn't have vulnerable ducks and chickens and guineas, I'd be much more tolerant of having coyotes around. I like coyotes. I don't begrudge the fact they're trying to live just like the rest of us and that it's getting harder and harder for them to eke out a living the more we encroach upon their habitat. When I hear the occasional rifle shot in the pre-dawn hours, though, I realize not everyone feels the same.

A few years ago I lived on the edge of suburbia. I would take my American Pointer, Bailey, and my Doberman, Lance, to the bit of wilderness just beyond where the last houses had been built and let them run off-leash. Three coyotes lived there and if we timed our walks just right, the coyotes would be out and ready to play. They didn't rough-and-tumble with the dogs, but they'd chase the dogs then the dogs would chase them. They didn't seem to mind that I was there watching.

I don't know what the answer is out here on a neighbor-wide scale much less a county-wide or state-wide one. All I know is that we have to all figure out how to live together somehow. And be understanding when nature does as nature will.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tail of Two Kitties

Today's guest post is by Jo-Ann.
Em and me found them in the spare room.
We usually never noticed the spare room. It was just a door we bolted past on our way to the kitchen. Except one day, there was a note taped to the door saying to be careful if we went in. What else would we do? I was expecting a stack of boxes to tumble down when we pulled the door open. But it was just the normal mess.
“Look!” Em squeaked.
Two tiny faces with huge eyes stared at us over the side of a box, before ducking away.
We rushed to them, and took one each. They looked like twins with tabby stripes and white socks. One could fit on my palm. It seemed to be made of air and fur. Its heart tap-tap-tapped under toothpick ribs.
“Awww, little babies!” gushed Em. It looked terrified when she brought her face close to it, and struggled to get out of her hands. She put it on the floor, and it ran for cover. Under her skirt.
“I don’t think they’ve had much to do with people before,” she said, laughing. “This one doesn’t get that my head and legs belong to the same person.”
I reckon we must have looked like giants crossed with skyscrapers to them.
By the time Dad came home we’d tried to feed them milk, but they’d stuck their faces right in the bowl and snorted and spluttered. Em reckoned they were too young to drink proper. “Might drown,” she’d said, and went to look for an eye dropper.
Except when she found one, she changed her mind. Could have been used for medicine, and that might poison them – even if we washed it. By that time I’d got a better idea. I dipped my finger in the milk and let the rough tongue do its job. Talk about keen! Once my fingertip was shiny, it nipped my finger with its tiny teeth, looking for more. The other started to get annoyed – it could probably smell the milk – so I juggled one kitten per hand. Which was fine when they were drinking, but as soon as I took my fingers away to get more milk, they got a wild look, like they was scared the food had vanished.
Dad came home and we rushed to tell him how great it was he’d got us kittens, but he shook his head. He’d found ‘em, abandoned, and dropped them off home first ‘coz he had to rush to his next job. He was gonna take ‘em to a shelter. Sorry, but we weren’t going to keep them.
Em and me agreed on one thing - no way were they going to the shelter. We’d seen stuff on the news, about how most strays got put down because nobody wanted them. That was never gonna happen!
After a few days of solid whining, Dad forgot about the shelter, and after a few more days he forgot about them sleeping in the laundry. Me and Em had one cat each, purring us to sleep.
Once they’d figured out that our heads and legs belonged to the one person each, they climbed up our jeans to let us know they wanted something. One kitten per leg. You’d pick one lot of claws out of your jeans and gently put it down, and the other would be halfway up your other leg.
Em named them Artemis and Apollo. Stupid names, but it seemed to fit the stories of a wild sister and brother who were gods or something. I wanted Itchy and Scratchy, but she won the toss. In the end I called them Artie and Pol.
Every time my friends dropped by, they sounded like those aunties who go on about how much you've grown. Except those kittens really had grown. Heaps. They stopped fitting in your palm. They hurt when they climbed our legs, and they only stopped doing it after we howled and jumped.
Me and my friends liked to play a game with a small mirror. We’d make the reflection jump up and down, all over the wall, and Pol went nuts trying to catch it. He could jump like there were trampolines over the floor. He’d reach half way up the wall before landing back down without catching nothing. His face looked confused, frustrated, wondering why he could never get his paws on that shiny thing. He never got sick of hunting it, and my friends never got sick of watching him.
Pol was bigger than his sister and liked telling her who’s boss. Anything Artie had was his. We had to feed them separately.
“Can’t believe he’s so nice to everybody and so mean to his sister!” I said once, and Em smirked and asked me if that reminded me of anybody. Had no idea who she was talking about.
I wish I had a photo of the times Pol and Artie were sitting together on the window sill, looking outside, and he’d put his paw around her shoulder. It looked real lovey-dovey, but I knew the truth. He wanted her sunny place all to himself, and knew he’d be in troub if he started a fight. So instead, he’d start by sitting real close to her. I could see Artie getting annoyed, by the way her tail flicked. But she put up with it. He’d ramp up the annoyance by putting his paw around her shoulders and start to lick her face. And when I say lick, I mean scrub, real rough. Scrub, scrub, scrub until Artie’d had enough and swiped him. But ‘coz of his paw being where it was, he had the advantage, and the fight was over before it begun. A few r’orws later, and Artie’d stalk off, looking disgusted.
Yeah, Pol  was mean, and I’d tell him off, but I knew he didn’t believe me. Coz I was thinking how clever it was for him to come up with such a sneaky plan. He was smart and cute and he knew it. Smartest cat ever.
Pol was a year old when I came home to find him lying in the gutter, looking as though he was asleep. At first, I couldn’t tell which cat it was, but when I came close, I could tell it was him. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. The guy down the road saw, came over and checked him. “Sorry, kid,” he said.
He offered to take him away, but I couldn’t let him. Instead, he brought a towel and we wrapped him and I took him to the backyard. I dug and dug and dug. It felt good. It was something I could do for him. The last thing I’d ever do for my cat.
Artie came and sniffed the bundle in the towel. I wished it was her instead, but then I felt sorry, coz it was her brother too, and hugged her. Even though he was mean to her, they still curled up together when it got cold and cleaned each other in a nice way.
By the time Em and Dad come home, I’d got the hole deep. We all cried and told each other silly stories about him. Then we put him in and covered him with dirt and that was that.
After a few months, Artie’s personality changed. She became more like him, confident like. She’d talk and play more, like she hadn’t been allowed to when Pol was around. She even figured out how to open doors (I’m sure Pol would’ve too, if he’d been around long enough). I still missed Pol, but got to know Artie better. Artie would always be Em’s cat, but I sometimes gave her a reflection to chase up the wall. She never jumped as high as Pol did, but I’d still have a laugh. Even though it hurt and always would.

(Jo-Ann doesn't have photos of Pol or Artie. The accompanying pics are of Eowyn and Galadriel, Phoenix's dear friends who've long since passed over the Rainbow Bridge)

If you'd like to tell your animal-related story, send it to phoenixsullivan @

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lizard Brain

In times past, I've taken my 9-year-old iguana rescue for walks around the property. Fafnir is not a fan of the cat harness, and when she's not frantically climbing trees trying to get out of it, she's performing alligator death rolls. I've really wanted to make exercising pleasurable for her, but using the cat leash didn't seem to be the way.

So this year I did what every mother reluctantly has to. I decided I loved Fafnir enough to set her free.

OK, I only turned her loose in the backyard. And I supervised her outside activity, checking on her hourly to be sure she didn't make a break over the fence. But it felt like I was setting her free. Trusting a lizard was hard. She could climb into the trees and not come down where I could recapture her. She could climb the fence and disappear into the nearby fields.

Or she could do what she did. Play in the trees for awhile and nap on the low branches. Swim in the ducks' kiddie pool. Wallow in mud. Nosh on the duck food. And, when she got tired, use the doggie door to come back inside.

I found her in the sunroom near her roomy, 6-foot-high cage. I smiled, imagining how she must have been trundling around the backyard and accidentally hit the flap of the doggie door and found her way inside.

The next day I put her outside again. She played, slept, swam, had a picnic lunch, then came back inside through the doggie door when she was done.

In her cage, from her basking shelf, she had watched the dogs and cats come and go through that door every day for six years. I didn't have to teach her how to use the door or what it was for (heck, I never even thought to try to teach her). She had learned on her own.

For nearly two months now, Fafnir has been coming and going, spending time out with the ducks then coming in and hanging out in the sunroom. All on her own terms. I set her free; she returned because she wanted to.

I regret now that I didn't give Fafnir enough credit long ago. I regret that I didn't recognize that lizard brain of hers is a pretty miraculous tool. Most of all, I regret that I assumed trust was something reserved only for those animals in whom the blood runs warm.

Who knew a wise old lizard could have so much to teach?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hope for Hope

Wednesdays here at Animal Junkie will feature guest posts from individuals and organizations, ranging from personal anecdotes about the animals in the writers' lives to rescue work and animal-related professions. On the third Wednesday of every month, we'll hear from Pawsibilities...Are Endless, a small grassroots rescue organization making a big difference one life at a time.

This week's post is by Landra Graf.

I define hope as a feeling associated with longing for something more than what is already provided or present. When an adult female dachshund got delivered to the pound covered in feces, fleas, and filth, I and my fellow rescue directors believed it would take a miracle for us to save this poor soul – thus she was named Hope.
Hope’s original home was a cesspool. In fact the Animal Control Officer at the time commented that when he walked out of the home after picking up the dog he threw up, the first and only time he experienced such a reaction during a pickup call. Our rescue president, Lora, was called to the pound, as our rescue is the only one operating in the immediate area, and the ACO thought Hope was beyond saving. In a split-second decision, Lora decided to admit Hope to our rescue and get her to a vet.
She was absolutely covered in nastiness to the point that her coat was black. The pictures of her in the pound clearly do not demonstrate the severity of her condition, but it was BAD. No one was allowed to touch her with bare hands as Lora couldn’t make heads or tails of it, almost thinking it was the worst case of sarcoptic mange a dog could have. For those who are not aware, sarcoptic mange is an extremely contagious form of mange, and is even contagious to humans. In Homo sapiens, sarcoptic mange is referred to as scabies. 
The next day Lora transported Hope to the vet. Hope remained at the vet for a week. Within 24 hours, we were told by the vet that the black spots covering her coat were fleas. Our hope, pun intended, renewed at the idea she would survive. Lora received the pleasure of taking Hope home and the first night was incredibly rough. Lora found that Hope’s coat was increasingly unappealing in sight and smell. The vet encouraged her to refrain from bathing Hope, as she’d been given Advantix as a treatment against the fleas. Unfortunately the smell over took and bathing became necessary. Lora recounted to me that her bath reduced the water to black, all fleas combined with gunk. Hope’s skin was black and when Lora dried her off with a towel her skin just peeled away. Thankfully and unfortunately (from the learning angle) I don’t have any pictures. The bath didn’t damage the flea treatment luckily and Hope began to flourish within a few weeks. We couldn’t wait to get her to a pet fair and in front of potential loving adopters.
Then another bomb got dropped: Hope was 13 years old. She didn’t act that old, and there were many pictures and stories of her running and playing. The reason this was a bomb is because, let’s face it, who wants a dog that’s near the end of her life? Very few. Adoption events, flyers, and even personal pleas for someone to offer Hope a home went without success. Our group even tried to find another foster willing to care for a senior dog. At the same time, I and the other directors agonized over asking someone to take in a dog and basically turn their humble abode into a nursing home. I wouldn’t wish that heartache on anyone, and neither would anyone in our rescue. We all understood the hardships that would and could come from being a foster in this position. Heck, we’re experiencing it.
Senior rescues were another option, but our rescue coordinator quickly discovered that senior rescues are few and far between. In addition, she discovered other horrifying stats that quickly made me realize how lucky Hope truly was, since we didn’t know her age when we removed her from the pound. To quote the Senior Dogs Project website, “Senior dogs are at the top of the euthanasia list when they are taken into most shelters….a senior dog frequently requires a longer time to find a new home because most people who visit shelters are looking for puppies or young dogs.” 
The end to this story is sad and happy. Hope is still with us, and thriving. She lives with Lora, who gives her oodles of love and care. Due to her previous living circumstances/genetics/fleas/age, Hope now has severe skin allergies and requires daily medication. She’s also been prone to random epileptic seizures, though these are few and far between. Regardless of the challenges her age presents, we still hope that our angel will find a forever home and someone to love her as much as we do. For more information on Hope, you can visit

Pawsibilities…Are Endless is a tiny rescue located in Central-West Missouri not far from Warrensburg, Sedalia and Whiteman AFB. We specialize in helping animals in need find their forever homes. To assist in these efforts, not only do we provide local adoptions, but we work with other rescues to find homes for our furry packages across the United States. In Pawsibilities' mind, nothing compares to helping an animal find their happy-ever-after.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Snake in the Grass

Mondays here on Animal Junkie will be a time to catch you up on all the animal-related goings-on at Rainbow's End. Topics will generally be determined by whatever's in the camera -- we never know what we're going to find!


This pic, spliced together from two taken from my front porch, is actually from last year. I dug it back up because here in my part of North Texas we finally got some measurable rainfall last Thursday -- after several weeks without. Cause to celebrate!

As you know, all isn't always cute and cuddly on a farm. We're forever on the lookout for predators -- from coyotes to hawks and owls to snakes. Last Wednesday at around 2 in the morning the ducks sounded an alarm. My first reaction was to look to see if at least one of the dogs was on guard duty outside. Loki lay snoozing at the foot of the bed but Ginger was gone. I don't know how they divvy up the chore, but when there's trouble at night two of the dogs will go check it out while the third (and it's not always the same third) stays behind to protect me.

With a couple of dogs out in the backyard looking after the ducks I wasn't too worried, especially since the dogs weren't barking. And the duck alarm sounded more like Condition Yellow rather than all-out Red. Still, I slipped on a pair of sandals and grabbed a flashlight. Ginger and Angel seemed unruffled, so I immediately ruled out a coyote or raccoon or skunk. The ducks were all facing one direction and it wasn't up, so I ruled out an owl. Since one of the ducks was off her nest, unusual for that time of night, I figured I knew the culprit.

Sure enough, in the soft glow of the flashlight, I saw the snake curled up in the duck nest.

It was a rat snake, and not a particularly large one at that, looking for an easy meal. Rat snakes are neither venomous nor aggressive, plus they provide the added bonus of a natural way to help keep the mouse and rat populations in check. I often have a rat snake or two take up residence in the chicken coop at odd times during the summer. Since there's usually an abundance of eggs, I don't mind losing a few to the snakes.

Rather than collecting the duck eggs this summer I've allowed the broodier ducks to sit on them. I have a couple of very determined ladies who have built nests under a few pieces of long, sparse grass -- hardly protection against the fierce summer sun and temperatures that have been well above 100 degrees the past couple of months. Faced with temps that have reached 109 to 116, I figure these ladies are actually keeping the eggs cool rather than warm by sitting on them :o). The eggs aren't viable, which is a good thing because 5 ducks are quite enough to look after, thank you very much.

I was ready to encourage the snake out of the nest to make the ducks happy when I noticed the snake was already hard at work trying to swallow one of the eggs. For those of you who have never seen a Pekin duck egg, they are about 1.5 times the size of a large chicken egg.

Pekin duck egg on left - Large chicken egg on right
Before the snake could move, that egg was going to have to go one way or the other. So I did what any rational blogger would do: grabbed up my camera and snapped some pictures.

In the end, I left the snake to its meal and went back to bed. The ducks were still grumpy about it all but they settled down quickly enough. And a few hours later, the mother duck was back on her now snake-free nest, sitting on eggs that were most likely soft-boiling in the sun.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Are You An Animal Junkie Too?

Then this site's for you! It's full of real stories about real animals -- and the lessons we learn by living with them:
  • Many of the stories are heartwarming -- you'll read about rescues who've found their forever homes and animals injured in mind or body who've been rehabilitated through love and perseverance.
  • A few of the stories will invariably be tissue-worthy -- abuse and death are all part of the dance and demand to be discussed too.
  • Most of the stories, though, I hope will leave you smiling and nodding in recognition -- for it's through the mirror that animals turn upon us that we come to more fully understand the human condition.
My name is Phoenix and I live on 27 acres in North Texas. I've named the small farm Rainbow's End, and I've lived here about 6.5 years. In the sidebar on the left you'll find a roster of my beasties.

Before moving here, I was a city girl, though my heart has always been country. I was a registered veterinary technician for 7 years nearly a quarter of a century ago. This site marries up my current life as a gentlewoman farmer with my previous life as a vet tech.
  • On Mondays, I'll update you as to what's going on with the farm and beasties. I'm sure there will be stories about the coyotes, snakes and snapping turtles that roam through, along with plenty of stories and pictures about the horses, dogs, cats, goats and more that live here. 
  • On Wednesdays, I'll have guest bloggers talking about their work, their animals or their organizations -- or I'll fill the time with additional anecdotes or news. If you have a tale you'd like to contribute that's 300-1200 words, contact me at phoenixsullivan @ I'd love to feature stories by other Animal Junkies!
  • On Fridays, I'll post stories from my days as a vet tech.
If you're ready to meet the beasties at Rainbow's End, there's no better introduction to them than through the posts below. These tales originally appeared on Dare To Dream/Be Thrilled, my general writing blog.

So make yourself at home, sign up to follow the blog and to receive the occasional newsletter, and check out the tabs for how to send photos of your companion animal(s) for other Animal Junkies to enjoy too.

Happy tails to all!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Practice Horses

This post was first published June 27, 2010

Confession time. As a kid, I had an infatuation. With horses. Startling, no? I read about them, played with likenesses of them, cut out and saved pictures of them, dreamed of riding them -- even dared to dream of being a jockey. With others, I played at being them. Yes, this quiet, shy girl became one bossy lead mare on the playground.

I knew with the inevitability of moon and stars I would own them one day.

But my family was entrenched in suburbia and we moved around a lot. Plus, while I didn't want for any of the essentials, I had very few nonessentials. And horses were a HUGE nonessential.

Time and childhood passed, horseless. The desire, though, never passed. I took animal husbandry classes in college to get my accreditation as a vet tech and got to be around horses a couple of hours a week for awhile. But I wound up working at a small animal clinic and so missed out on them as a career.

In 1989, I set out to make my dream come true by purchasing 14 acres south of Fort Worth. By then, however, I had left veterinary medicine behind and was working in advertising for a large company headquartered in town. The hours were brutal, the commute long and, though there was a large pole barn on the property and I had built out 6 stalls in it, I never felt I had the time to properly attend to horses. After 5 years, I moved back, defeated, to suburbia.

But I never gave up the dream.

When technology and company policies made it possible a dozen years later to work remotely from just about anywhere, I tried again.

After one failed fiasco of an attempt to get a barn built that landed in court, a second contractor erected a nice, suitable structure, and my dad and I fenced off a couple of pastures. Soon I'd be galloping across the land and, like one or two neighbors, go visiting on horseback.

But I noticed on some of those visits from and to horsy neighbors that my elderly dad -- because of an earlier accident that had left him with a pair of feet that were none too stable -- was intimidated by large, heavy animals. Like Quarter Horses or Arabians or Thoroughbreds.

So I compromised.

The first horses I would get would be "practice horses." They would be smaller versions of the "real" thing and they would be healthy horses that didn't need special care so I could become accustomed to what normal health and behavior looked like before attempting to rehab abused individuals. But I was still determined to get older or younger horses that would be harder to place.

I wound up purchasing a 17-year-old mare and her 4-month-old colt from a breeder who was selling out and moving on.

The brown-and-white paint mare was on the tall side of miniature standards, but still much smaller than a pony. She was a good mother, and rightly so as she'd been having babies yearly since she was 4 or so. I felt good I could at least get THAT cycle broken. And while she hadn't been completely neglected, it was clear she only got cursory attention. Still, except for some minor hoof issues, she was in good health. It also became obvious that aside from her colt, she had only one other motivation in life: she was a food junkie. Her name, as it said on the registration papers that I didn't really care about otherwise, was Alyssa. I shortened it to Lyssa.

Her son was a compact little bay, deep brown with a black mane and tail. It was obvious from the first that he needed to learn some manners -- and fast. He was a little too mischievous and a lot too bull-headed about getting HIS way. His favorite trick was backing up to you as if all he wanted was a good scratch, then kicking. If he wanted more treats and there weren't any more forthcoming, he would kick. He would rear up and lash out with his front hooves, too. And he would nibble and bite and grab and yank at any loose piece of clothing. So I set about teaching him to be more polite with the goal of him not losing his natural curiosity and spirit. I credit time and maturity more than my training that we seem to have succeeded. I let my dad name him, and he chose a good one: Cody.

While Lyssa seemed quite content to simply hang out with Cody and eat all day, Cody was obviously missing a playmate. Plus, I figured having a playmate other than me would help run out his energy and settle him down quicker. The single playmate I decided on quickly became two -- but I'll have more about that, and them, in another post.

My practice horses accomplished everything I hoped they would. I learned hands-on the care I needed to and my dad felt at ease interacting with them. In fact, he became so attached to them in the year before he had his stroke that it was the desire to come back and see them that helped drive his rehabilitation during his 4 months in a nursing home. It wasn't pictures of me or my brother or my brother's children my dad asked to keep in his room to motivate him, but pictures of "his" horses -- most especially Cody, his favorite. His laser focus on the horses helped him relearn to speak and move and think.

Turns out my little practice horses helped us practice something far more important than simple husbandry. They helped us practice how to live again.

The Throw-Away

This post was originally published July 5, 2010.

When I decided to get my 4-month-old colt, Cody, a playmate, I reluctantly turned to a local breeder after not finding an appropriate youngster in any of the local shelters or foster homes.

Now let me explain that a generation ago I haunted dog shows and hung with breeder types. In fact, for a time I wanted to breed Chows and lovely long-tailed, floppy-eared Dobermans. Then I figured out that 1) there was way too much politics going on in the ring and 2) breeding to an arbirtrary standard is like breeding for the writing talent: odds are someone will turn out to be a great author but the majority of offspring will be talentless wastrals forced to live life as doctors or politicians or software engineers instead.

So when I made my reluctant way to the horse breeder's farm, I asked to see the pet-quality foals. The breeder showed me to a pen of just-weaned youngsters in a back pasture out of the way of the casual visitor. A 5-month-old sorrel colt with a creamy mane and tail and white markings caught my eye. He was of questionable parentage, his mother being a miniature and his father quite probably some precocious scoundrel of a pony. Taller than all but one of the dozen or so miniature foals parked in that pen of throw-aways, he was thin and shy, not having been handled much. His ridiculously low price of $150 underscored how eager the breeder was to be done with him and have him off her property.

His beautiful deep brown eyes drew me in as surely as they repelled his owner. Her breeding program revolved around producing horses with blue eyes and any horse with eyes that didn't reflect the sky was an abomination in her pasture.

My dad named the new colt Ricky and he and Cody bonded immediately. All was exceptional for a couple of weeks, until Ricky started throwing his back legs out and swinging them in wide circles when he walked. It looked like some horrible neurological disease, and I got that hit-in-the-gut feeling when I first saw him stumbling about.

It was stifle lock. A horse is able to sleep standing up because it has a trick ligament in its back leg that locks its knee in place while it sleeps. When the horse is ready to move, the muscles around the ligament push it off the knee so the horse can bend his leg and walk or run again. Sometimes, because of a genetic disorder or because the surrounding muscles aren't built up enough, the ligament doesn't slip off the knee when it should and the leg "locks up." It isn't really painful, but it is very uncomfortable for the horse.

I hoped that with Ricky it was simply because he was so thin and not well developed. So we started on an exercise regimen. If I stretched his leg out past a certain point, the ligament would slip off the knee and Ricky could walk a few steps before seizing up again. But not knowing when his leg -- or which leg -- was going to act up made him afraid and reluctant not only to walk on a lead but to walk at all. Still, once warmed up, the more he walked during a session the easier it was. And when I could get him to trot for awhile his knees would usually stay unlocked for a few hours.

Lunging him, or putting him on a long lead and making him run in a circle around me, was impractical because of his fear of leads. So morning and evening I chased him and the other horses around the pasture, forcing him to keep moving. Occasionally, he'd have enough confidence to break from a trot into a real run. His joy in those moments as he streaked along, his legs biddable as they stretched and bent and drove him forward, was palpable. He was as eager as I was for him to be a normal colt again.

Eventually he filled out and muscled up as much as his naturally lean frame would allow. It was enough. The incidences of stifle lock dropped from generally to occasionally to rarely. At last they disappeared altogether. While drugs can be injected into the knee or the ligament can be cut surgically (although the horse is then never able to doze or sleep standing up again), being able to heal it naturally was well worth the time and effort he and I put in.

Only now when I look back the year or so it's been do I realize how much effort it really was. I suppose whenever we love something we put on blinders when it comes to how much work it takes to keep that something in our lives. We simply shoulder the responsibility and do it without much thought to the time and energy suck that it is. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Ricky if he had still been at the breeder's when his symptoms started showing up. She certainly wouldn't have been able to sell him in that condition. Nor would she have invested any effort in him. Would she have literally thrown away this remarkable little throw-away?

I don't generally believe in fate and kismet and things working out for a purpose -- not really. But sometimes, when things go so wonderfully right, I can't quite bring myself to disbelieve.

The Promise-Keeper

This post was originally published July 9, 2010.

While I was at the breeder's two summers ago, scoping out her pen of throw-aways looking for a playmate for Cody, I noticed a roan filly with a pretty trot and a dash of flash. She was half Shetland pony and half Miniature horse and was registered as both. At 6 months, she was the oldest, and biggest, foal in the pen. She was going to be big enough that kids could ride, so I wasn't concerned about her being able to find a home. My dad was talking with the breeder's husband and I noticed he kept looking the filly's way. When I told him I was buying a thin little colt instead and that the breeder would deliver him in a couple of days, Dad seemed happy enough.

The next day my dad and I were sitting on my porch and he asked me why I had chosen Ricky over, say, the big, pretty filly we'd seen. It was clear he'd been smitten. I made a quick and easy decision.

"There's no reason I can't get two horses instead of just one," I told him.

"How much do they want for her?" That was Dad, ever practical.

I shrugged. I saw how much he wanted the horse so, within reason, the price didn't really matter. "I'll find out if she's still available."

She was, for $550, and the breeder would be only too happy to bring her out along with Ricky the next day.

When I told my dad everything was arranged, he shook his head and said, "I want to be the one to buy her."

I didn't understand. "Why? I can afford it and you'll get to see her all the time anyway."

"I want to buy her for you. Your mother and I promised a long time ago that we'd get you a horse. So I want to give you that horse now."

I flashed back to a Christmas 41 years earlier when my big present had been a promise: a handwritten certificate entitling me to "one horse, one saddle and one saddle blanket." I would have to wait a little, though, till the time was right and we had the money to get the horse. I hung on to that certificate with all the faith an 8-year-old has in the world. I memorized it. Kept it in a safe and treasured place. Dreamed about it. And waited.

A year passed and we moved, then a year later moved again. When it looked like we would be in one place more than a year and I dared to start looking at livestock and boarding facilities in the classifieds, Dad was laid off and there was no money for a horse. He eventually found a good job, but it took a handful of years to recover financially and another couple before he and Mom felt comfortable enough to spend beyond the essentials. By then I had graduated. And by the time I moved out on my own at 17, I had put my childish hope away.

I folded the certificate along with its empty promise and threw it into the trash.

I may have resigned myself to letting it go, but my dad had never forgotten. And now, 41 years after he'd made that promise, he was ready to make good on it.

He wanted to name the big-boned filly Beauty. We compromised on Bella. She's an easy-going girl who loves company and will follow you around like a puppy. She'll even carry the 50-pound feed bags when asked, though it's usually too much trouble trying to keep them balanced, even on her broad pony back. And while not every horse can pull off the style, she looks terrific with a mohawk.

Mostly, though, when I look at Bella, I see my father's abiding love. In her trot I see his fierce determination not to disappoint his daughter, and in her eyes I see his delight at being able to fulfill a nearly forgotten promise made 40 years ago.

I'm glad he died knowing he'd made his little girl's dream finally come true.

Birth Day

This post was originally published October 16, 2010.

This little filly was born Friday morning. Right now she's a mousy gray with gray-blue eyes on her way to being who knows what color once she sheds her baby fur. It was a clockwork birth and the as-yet-unnamed little girl and her mama are doing great. Bella, the mare, is half Miniature and half Shetland Pony, and is pony-sized. The baby is sooo tiny compared to her. But she's tough and sturdy and already trotting around like a pro. I kept close watch on them all day yesterday and I never saw the baby lie down; in fact, I caught her drowsing on her feet a couple of times. Talk about growing up fast!

Unfortunately, this was an unplanned pregnancy and what happens when you wait too long to geld young studs. Gelding will be soon on the agenda while the weather is still nice.

This is the filly at a little over an hour old.

First breakfast!

Talking with Mom and looking a lot like a stuffed toy.

Sharing the sun and doing her baby donkey impression.
What she lacks in elegance she makes up for in adorability.

Wondering about her place in the world.

A close up of her blue eyes. They'll likely change to brown, but her brown-eyed mother came from a breeder who specifically bred for blue.

Ricky, the likely daddy, very curious and concerned about what's going on with his girlfriend in the pasture across the driveway. He's been whinnying. A lot.