Friday, December 30, 2011

Worrisome News

Those of you who have been following this blog will remember that Emma's original home was far from wonderful.  One of the many deficiencies of her previous home was that she had never been separated from her father. When I went back to Emma's original farm to work on the older donkeys feet, I realized that she had been bred by the jack.  I discussed it at length with my vet who felt that I shouldn't be concerned, that the chance of Emma conceiving was very remote and if it did happen she would be mature enough to handle it. 

I had been doing my homework on donkeys and had discovered that they are fertile at a much younger age than horses.  I had decided to just play it safe and give Emma the shots that would have aborted an early fetus but, that mysterious fever struck and she was too ill.  By the time she was healthy enough to handle the shots, the window of opportunity had gone by and she would have been too far along to abort safely.  She is too small to do a pelvic exam on her so I had to just wait until enough time had passed for a blood test to be feasible and answer the pregnancy question once and for all.  Well, that time has passed and I got the results of the test today.  You guessed it by now, Emma is absolutely, positively pregnant.

Normally, this would be happy news, I would welcome another donkey and what could be better than a little baby Emma.  But, I am very worried for her.  She is only 17 months old herself.  Her baby will be due about the same time she will be turning two years old.  Whenever Emma feels insecure or stressed, she tries to nurse off of Tessa.  Tess draws the line at nursing but, mothers Emma in every other way. Tessa is only 3 1/2 herself and I see her try to mother Emma and be her playmate at the same time.  It is confusing for her.  They are very sweet and amazing to watch together, they are like two little girls playing house.  All of this is why it is almost unimaginable to think of Emma actually having a baby, she is still very much a baby herself. 

I am going to talk with the vets at Cornell, make sure I have covered everything.  But, I don't think there is anything that can be done other then give her the best care possible and hope that Emma and her baby will be OK.  This is going to be a very high risk pregnancy.  Emma is small and immature, her early growth was stunted by poor nutrition and heavy parasite loads.  The chance of dystocia (an abnormal or difficult birthing) is high.  If all goes well, I will gladly welcome the new arrival.  If it does not go well, I am not sure I will ever forgive myself for not being more insistent about terminating early on.

A response to a question

I got this question after my post about herd dynamics the other day...

"Gosh, what a great blog and especially this post; I'm a new horse owner and I think I've experienced my horse do this to me at various points in the last few months. Any suggestions on how to re-balance the hierarchy after mistakes have been made & the dynamic has been improperly set?"

My best answer to this question is, do groundwork.  If you have a round-pen, start there. Get the horse moving and learn how to move the horse using your body.  For example, if you move toward the horse's hip, he will move forward, away from you.  If you move toward his shoulder, he will stop and/or turn.  If your horse comes straight at you in an aggressive manner, he is totally not respecting you.  You need to get him moving away from you then turning on your signal.  If you have control over where his feet are going than you have the leadership role.  Don't spend too long in the round-pen, two or three sessions are usually enough for most horses.  After that, they start getting bored and frustrated.  Once they are moving well off of your commands, put on a halter and lead and work on leading.

If you don't have a round-pen, work with a halter and lead rope.  Practice leading.  Even if you think your horse leads fairly well, they can usually do better.  Expect your horse to follow at your shoulder and keep pace with you no matter how fast or slow you are moving.  He ha to always respect your space.  If he is crowding you, he is dominating you.  In other words, the horse should always be aware of you and looking to you for guidance, for leadership.

Be especially careful at feeding times.  If your horse is pawing at the gate, banging on the wall, pinning his ears, he is not respecting you.  Never feed him when he is doing any of these things, wait until he is quiet, with ears up then give him his food.  This doesn't take as long as you may think but, you have to be very consistent, especially with a new horse. 

If any of this sounds like gibberish or seems overwhelming, you probably need some help.  Find an instructor who is willing to teach you how to do groundwork not just riding.  There are all sorts of good videos that cover this subject as well although nothin compares to working with the real thing.  People like Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, John Lyons, etc. all have training videos.  If you choose to go this route, I would suggest that you pick just one for now.  They all have similar methods but do vary some.  If you try to cram all of them into your head at once, you are likely to get frozen by indecision when you most need to act.  You can come back to the rest later, you will learn more from all of them that way.

The other suggestion I can offer is, watch horses.  Watch what they do, how they move, how they interact.  It is best if you can watch them while remaining unobserved yourself.  Try to see them without any preconceptions or expectations.  Watch them while they are being boring...sleeping, grazing, standing around with their lip hanging low.  Watch them while they are playing and especially when they are arguing. Watch the interactions between the alpha horse and the subordinates.  Ultimately, the horse is the best teacher you will find but, you have to accept what the horse is before you can teach him something new.

I don't know anything about you, your situation or your horse so it is impossible for me to offer much beyond this.  You are welcome to contact me, if you have specific questions and you think I can help.  Just send me an email.   I hope this helps.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

About me

The other day when the winner of my horse naming contest sent me her address she started her email with something like, "ironically, I cant find your name anywhere".  That got me thinking that I haven't really introduced myself.  So, I will try to tell you a little about me, Kris Maxwell.

Growing up , I always wanted to be a vet and was well on my way to it but got sidetracked by some serious health problems (for example, I had pneumonia 6 times in two years).  Instead of going to vet school I ended up with dual degrees in equine science and agricultural technology and eventually, an associates in Histology.  Don't worry if you have never heard of that one, hardly anyone has.  What is means, is that I work in a hospital lab handling tissue specimens.  Not exactly my dream come true but it pays the bills. 

Along the way, I spent several years working in an animal shelter and I have given riding and horsemanship lessons on and off for many years.  Not so much anymore as there just doesn't seem to be that many people interested in getting started with horses anymore and I don't have the time to devote to it.

For many years, I spent a lot of time working with my best friend on her farm where we raise grassfed beef and lamb.  Along with chickens, pigs and vegetables.  I don't do as much as I used to there but, the farm is still a big part of my life.  One of these days I'll give you a proper introduction.  It is a beautiful farm owned by a remarkably hard-working woman.  I got a start on my carpentry skills by building the windows in the barn....

A couple of years ago I decided to build a house.  This had never really been a goal of mine but, having my own farm that did not include a huge mortgage was.  I decided to do most of the work myself more out of desperation than a desire to become a carpenter.  I just couldn't afford to pay what it would have cost to hire someone to do the work.  Also, finding and dealing with contractors turned into one of the most frustrating and infuriating experiences of my life.  If just one more of them had told me to "have my husband call"....well lets just say it wouldn't have been pretty.  I did finally find someone to put the shell of my building up and I did the rest, from insulation to hardwood floor.  It isn't perfect and there is still some work to be done but, it is cozy, comfortable, mine and it is paid for.
A year or two ago, I met a fellow horsewoman who lives just down the road from me and she has become my other best friend and riding buddy.  There was a time that I almost gave up having horses because a lot of the fun had gone out of it.  Having a friend to ride with who understands about the horses has made all the difference.  We have a great time bushwhacking through the woods and riding in the very rare parade.
A few months ago, I was still grieving over Tessa's life altering injury and unsure what to do next.  Looking for a safe, cheap companion for her, I found a little donkey who needed rescuing.  You all know what that has led to.  Lord only knows where we will all end up next.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Emma gives lessons

I mentioned a while ago that my favorite grooming tool is a vacuum.  And no, nobody is paying me to talk about this thing (although, if the makers of Rapid Groom read this and want to send me some money that would be fine with me:).  It's just that I have bad allergies and asthma and the vacuum makes grooming horses doable rather than a life threatening event.  It also does the most wonderful job of getting them clean and improving their coats.  So, if you are a horse person and you didn't get what you wanted for Christmas, send whatever it was back and get one these. 
Last week, Emma helped me introduce Gabe to the vacuum (it does take most horses a little time to get used to it but, it isn't hard).  Gabe did great, especially since he had an expert right there to provide moral support and supervision...

 Emma: "It's no big deal, someone as big as you and with all those spots can handle it.  You can do this with you eyes closed"....

"I'll keep an eye on things and make sure Mom gets it right"...

"Come on, put some muscle into it!"

 "You missed a spot!"....

 "You're not going to forget ME right?  You DO remember that I like vacuuming too, right, RIGHT?"

 "Ermphhh, that's NOT what I had in mind!"

Herd Dynamics

Getting a  new horse is always a major adjustment for both horses and humans.  The first couple of weeks are always the most critical since the patterns and boundaries established now will impact the herd dynamics for as long as the herd exists.  The herd hierarchy is perhaps the most important thing to a horse.  And, here's the thing, most horses don't really care where they fall in the hierarchy as long as they know.  Their individual personality will generally determine where in the pecking order they wind up.  Some horses are natural born leaders and will be the alpha in any herd  (my old mare Suki is like that, she is the queen and every horse she has ever met acknowledges it) some horses are followers and get really stressed if forced into a leadership role. 

Horses have to work all this out on their own and there isn't much we humans can do about the final hierarchy.  However, regardless of how the horses sort themselves out, the human involved has to be the herd leader.   If you aren't, you are going to get hurt.  Here is where novice horse owners so often get in terrible trouble.  I can't count the number of times I have been contacted by someone who bought a wonderful, sweet, well-trained horse and a few months later the horse is aggressive, pushy and downright scary.  

Here's what happens when a new horse comes home:
  • Days 1-3, the horse is unsure of his new surroundings and is on his best behavior.  He will follow any lead. 
  • Days 4-7, the horse gets more familiar and comfortable in his new home and begins to test his new herd-mates (INCLUDING HUMANS) to figure out where in the herd he will be.  If there is a strong alpha in the group, that horse will establish dominance and may run-off the new horse until she feels the new horse is not a threat to the others
  • Days 7-30, the herd will explore and test each other and will eventually fall into an intricate yet stable dynamic.  (The time involved will depend on the personalities.  Really, this can happen in an hour or take several months but, usually happens in the time-frame I've listed.) 
Here is where trouble can start (and this is assuming that the horse actually is suitable for a novice, so often they aren't).  The initial tests a horse will offer to a new owner are very subtle and often go overlooked.  It usually starts as a very small invasion of space or ears slightly turned back.  The horse will move into the person (maybe just an inch) and the person steps back (just an inch) and the horse has just established that he is dominant.  Every subsequent test is more aggressive and eventually, the horse is treating the person as a subordinate.  At this point, there are two likely scenarios:
  1. The new owner seeks expert help and learns to reestablish her leadership role.  Through hard work and training the horse once again becomes the sweet, obedient horse the new owner was expecting.  They both move forward into the never-ending journey that is horse ownership.  
  2. The horse becomes progressively hard to handle.  He also becomes more unkempt and out of condition as the owner becomes ever more disillusioned and unhappy with horse ownership.  This horse often ends up being shipped to an auction where his unruly temper and poor condition gain him a one-way trip to a meat-packing plant in Canada or Mexico.  The owner may have been lucky enough to have avoided serious injury but no longer wants anything to do with horses.
Fortunately, I was expecting a bit of testing from Gabriel so I was ready for it when it showed up last week (on day five).  I use a little plastic sled to drag hay out into the pasture.  As I was spreading the hay out into many little piles for the horses, Gabe approached me with his ears laid back trying to push me away from the food.  I pushed back.  I made myself very tall, stared hard and walked toward him with intent (my ears would have been back if they could've been).  He veered off to another hay pile but, he did it with ill grace.  I pushed him off that hay pile, he moved but flicked his tail at me and tossed his head on the way to the next pile.  I kept pushing him off until he did it without argument and finally lowered his head, relaxed his ears and worked his jaw on his way to the next pile.  I immediately relaxed my posture, unpinned my ears and moved off to finish my job.  During this exchange, I never moved at anything other than a deliberate walk, did not raise a hand or say a word.

Once I had finished spreading the hay I walked up to Gabe, he politley moved one step out of my way and I scratched his neck and retrieved my sled.  Test over.  I'm in charge, we both win.  

Friday, December 23, 2011

And the winner is....

I don't usually have this much trouble coming up with names for my animals.  Tessa's registered name is Daisy's Irish Jig so, I guess calling her Daisy would have been the thing to do but, she just seemed like "Tessa" from the first.  Emma was "Emma" form the first moment I saw her and everybody just agreed.  It was like she just came with the name even though her previous owner had never given her a name at all.  Maybe donkeys are just born knowing their own names?

I have had the hardest time coming up with the right name for this horse though.  I think it is because I have sort of known him for a while and once someone has a name, it is very hard to change it.  This is why I am not a fan of naming children after their parents.  Not only is it confusing but, it leads to men in their forties still being called things like Junior, Bubbles, Beaver (hi Beaver!).....I think everybody should have a name of their own.

There were a lot of good names submitted that I had to reject for just this reason, Scout is Tanner's Brother's name so, definitely taken already.  Tucker was a fine horse who belonged to an ex-boyfriend and Shiloh was a mare I worked with when I was young. 

There were a few really interesting names and observations here.  I don't think I would ever have noticed the stingray on his right flank if Lindsy F Loyd hadn't pointed it out, I appreciate that one.  I found the name too much of a mouthful and Stinger just doesn't suit his goober personality. 

The musical references provided by EM were interesting but, "hopelessly inept" doesn't even begin to cover my lack of musical comprehension.  The words were intriguing but had no context for me (I am totally unable to hear music in my head).  I couldn't "see" them well enough with my brain.  You can tell just by that last sentence that musical references render me completely incompetent!

There were several names that nearly made it, only to be fatally shot down by one of my friends...Piper was the front runner for a while but my riding buddy (who will hopefully be riding "ole no-name" also) didn't like it at all.  Tinker took the lead for a bit but, "why would you name him after Tinker Bell?" just ruined the image for me.  Tonka, Finley....I liked these names but, they just wouldn't stick to him.  In fact, that is what happened to nearly all of them.  You guys provided quite a list of good names, most of them just didn't attach themselves to this horse. 

So, it has been a long and difficult choice but, say hello to Gabriel...

Thank you everybody for your wonderful suggestions and for reading this blog.  Julie, please send me an email at with your address so that I can send you some Fudge!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's in a name?

Quite a lot actually.  At least I think so, which is why I am trying to find a new name for my new horse.  He came with the name Diablo but, that name has bad associations for me and I would like to find something different.  I am a firm believer that everybody deserves a good name and I don't like re-using names. The only problem is that I am having trouble coming up with a good name for this fellow.  What's a blogger to do?  Have a contest of course.  So, if anybody sends me a suggestion and I decide to use it, I will send you some of my very special, homemade Christmas fudge. 

Here are a few generalities of names I like...
  • I like short names, usually two syllables (ie, Emma, Tessa, Tanner, Tika, Gwenna, Suki, Quinn...all names of animals past and present).
  • I don't like names with negative connotations (ie, Diablo, Devil, Satan, Killer, etc)
  • I don't like excessively cutesy names whose charm wears off too quickly
The above are just generalities, don't let them limit you!  Send me your suggestions.  I don't have any fancy corporate sponsors to provide prizes but my fudge is a special treat. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A profusion of Spots

A friend of mine read my post about maybe being ready to add a new riding animal to my herd since Tessa is officially out of commission.  She sent me an email last week asking if I would like to have a big, young gelding that she had raised, sold and bought back because he wasn't being treated right.  I rode this horse in a big group ride a couple of months ago so I knew that he is sweet natured, kind, willing and level-headed.  We talked about it and, well here he is... 
He even came complete with a red ribbon and bows in his mane.  Now that's what I call a Christmas present!

He had to spend his first night in the round pen because I wanted to make sure everybody would be safe and see how they might get along.  (By the way, he may not have the long ears I was thinking of but, he does have these endearingly cute, mismatched ears.  If you look close you can see that the one on the right is short and round while the one on the left has a nicely curved point.  And no, the short ear wasn't damaged or cut off he was born that way.) 

After he had settled in for a while and there were no signs of aggression from either side, I let him and Tessa out together for a while.  I made Emma stay in the round pen during this introduction for her own safety and boy was she MAD about it.  Safe though, so I told her she was just going to have to cope.  He and Tessa ran around like loons for a few minutes but there was no kicking or fighting (and, of course, my camera choose that moment to freeze up!)....
within a few minutes, they had calmed down and started practicing to be bookends.  It's funny that until I bought Tessa, I had never owned a paint.  In fact, I have always preferred solid colored horses and now I find myself with two super flashy paints whose markings are remarkably similar.  Go figure.

Since they all seemed to be happy together, I let the girls hang out with him so they could all get further acquainted...
This morning, after no signs of fighting, squealing, kicking or other obnoxious behavior, I let them all out together.  My biggest concern was for Emma.  Some horses are mean to donkeys but he has been very nice to her and Tessa is very protective of her.  Emma is very intrigued by him but also wants to stay close to Momma Tess.
Within half an hour, they were all sharing the same food and water and getting along amazingly well.  How many noses can fit at one time?  All three actually...

 They spent the rest of the day doing what horses do, peacefully and happily....

My friend Bill (who was visiting for the weekend) and I, spent the day doing what humans who own horses do....

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Emma Goes to Work

Emma's been practicing for the road crews.  She doesn't think I have been providing enough carrots so she swears she is going to go get a job at the town barn and buy her own damn carrots.  She says she is perfectly willing to spend the day moving cones....

 acting as a warning barrier...
directing traffic....
 working as the "follow-me" car.....
and providing detour signs.....
Maybe I should just go get more carrots.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A missed opportunity????

There is a Mammoth Jackstock jenny for sale about 4 hours from here.  She is 4 1/2 years old, well started under saddle and big enough for me to ride.  It seemed like fate that, just as I am beginning to think about another riding animal, this jenny would show up in place where mammoth donkeys are exceedingly rare and at a price that I could just manage to afford. 

I have never ridden a donkey, but after getting to know Emma, I really like the idea.  I was very excited about this and for a brief time that I thought I would be bringing her home.  But (there is always a "but" isn't there), I have some concerns about her soundness.  There is something not quite right about her knees that I can see in her photos and she is severely cow-hocked.  I know I could probably arrange to have x-rays taken and I might have but....there were just too many red flags.

I managed to track down her original owner who told me that the current owner is unhappy with her because of problems with her legs and that is why she is for sale.  The current owner tells me that there is no problem, it is just that the joints of mammoth donkeys take longer to develop.  She used the phrases "her knees are still filling in", "they just move some because they aren't closed" and "they just have some fluid on them".  It may be true that mammoths take longer to develop but, at four months shy of her fifth birthday, I think they should be as "filled in" as they are going to get. I already have one young, crippled horse, I can't handle another just now either emotionally or financially.  Are there any Mammoth  Jackstock experts out there who care to weigh in here? 

I also started having doubts that a riding donkey would be the right mount for me.  Most of my riding buddies ride gaited horses who cover a lot of ground.  While none of them are the kind of riders who expect their horses to gait all the time or would leave me behind, I don't want to become an anchor to the whole group.  Sill, this donkey would have been for me, not them.  If it wasn't for the doubts about her knees.... Again, any donkey riders out there have an opinion?

I really liked the sound of this jenny and from her photos and videos I think she is a wonderfully sweet and beautiful animal.  I was halfway in love with her without ever meeting her in person.  There were just too many red flags and obstacles in the way and I decided to pass on her.  If it had only been one thing, I'd have gone to see her but, when I added up the bad vibes I was getting plus the distance, the cost, the worries....

Still, I can't get her out of my mind.  I think I did the right thing but, I think this one is also going to haunt me.  Did I pass up a golden opportunity or spare myself a lot of grief? 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tanner's Wintertime Toy

Tanner loves ice.  When he was a puppy and started teething, ice cubes just about saved my sanity.  He would wake, crying in the middle of the night and nothing I did would make him happier until he could go out and eat snow.  This got old very quickly and in a fit of sleep deprived inspiration, I gave him some ice cubes.  After that, every time his teeth started bothering him, I would go down and get him a bowl of ice cubes.  He would happily crunch them up and when he was finished, we could both go back to sleep.  He outgrew the teething but not the love of ice cubes.  Now that the cold weather is here, Tanner is having fun with one of his favorite winter toys - frozen puddles.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sharp Dressed Donkey

I generally don't believe in blanketing horses.  Blankets are a hazard no matter how well constructed or how safe the environment  They are expensive, difficult to clean and are the cause of all sorts of skin irritation for the horse.   A healthy, well nourished equine is almost always better off relying on her own winter coat rather than our inferior replicas.  The best way to keep horses warm is to make sure that they have free choice access to grass hay and good shelter.  Digesting the roughage is what generates body heat (which is why older horses, whose aging teeth make eating enough hay difficult, do benefit from blanketing).  All that being said, there are times when some equines need a blanket.

This past weekend, temperatures really plummeted here.  The sky was blue but, it had that harsh,crystal clarity that is more apt to cut then it is to warm and there was a mean, biting wind.  At night, the temperature fell into the single digits.  And Emma was grumpy and plaintive.  My normally cheerful, happy donkey was in a mood.  She didn't want to be petted or scratched, didn't want to play games, and was even a bit irritable and uncooperative when I took her for a walk.  I was concerned that maybe she was in pain or her mysterious fever was coming back.  I examined every bit of her and took her temperature which was low.  Too low, at 96.8.  I finally stood back and just looked at her.  She was standing slightly hunched and had her tail tucked as far between her legs as it would go.  She was cold.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  Being the obsessive-compulsive researcher that I am, I had read every book and website I could find about donkeys after bringing Emma home.  Several of them had mentioned that donkeys do not regulate their body temperature as efficiently as other animals and care must be taken to make sure they don't get too cold.  In a burst of what I thought at the time was just paranoia, I bought Emma a blanket, just in case.  It has been sitting in the house, unopened and , I thought, unnecessary.

I think that the other reason Emma was so grumpy this weekend was simple sleep deprivation.  Don't ever let anyone ever tell you that horses don't suffer from lack of sleep, they do!  Emma normally takes several long naps throughout the day and night.  You can count on her being stretched out flat every morning between 10-11:30. Since it snowed last week, she hasn't been enjoying her normal napping.  Even with her blanket, she doesn't like laying in the snow.  Tessa is, of course, totally unfazed by the weather or the snow.  In fact, she enjoys it.
 I took pains yesterday to give Emma a nice cozy hay-bed in the barn
This morning, my sweet, happy donkey was back.  I guess we will just have to deal with blankets this year.  Hopefully, next winter, Emma will be grown up enough to stay warm on her own. 

It all does make me wonder how she managed to survive last winter, with inadequate shelter and barely enough hay.  I sure am glad all those donkeys have plenty of food and good barns this year.