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Weekly Column

4/21/19: Cinder Blocks and Dead Shots  

Menesson, Casalae Farms’ champion Arabian stud stallion, is a bright, educated horse who has recently turned 23 years old. He’s quietly absorbed a lot of English along the way. And, he’s a dead shot. Read on... 

Today I walked up to his roomy stall’s window sill and greeted him. He was facing the back wall’s corner munching heaped hay, but turned his beautiful head toward me, recognizing my voice.  
“I brought an apple for you, big guy,” said I, and his perfect ears perked up. He left his breakfast then and came to me, poking his head over the sill. A long strand of hay still dangled from his mouth, giving him a rakish look. Grinning, I pulled it out and proffered the apple. 
“Take a bite while I hold it.”    

He did. He bit down on a reasonable-sized piece of the succulent apple and gently took it in. After contentedly munching its sweet juices he carefully chopped off another bite while I held on tight, and chewed that one with pensive enjoyment. Two more bites disappeared the same way. Then we were down to its long, seeded core. I offered this last bit on my palm and he expertly scooped it up.  
After sniffing my hands one final time, just in case, he continued to munch the last remnants while I admired his face, his large, dark eyes, surrounded by a thick liner of black skin, which emphasizes their beauty ---wait! 
Both eyes harbored large, hard black ‘sleep sand’ at their inner corners.  
Hmmm. Would he allow me to remove them?  

Well, just ask.  

“Menesson, your eyes want cleaning; would you please lower your head so I can?” 

Without hesitation, he did exactly that. Tears welled, mostly from awe.  
Don’t stand there mimicking a gobsmacked codfish. He might change his mind! 
I raised my hands to begin.  

At that, his head came down even lower, toward my chest, and then- he closed his eyes.   

My God.  

Approaching his left eye first I used both hands to cup his face, and gently dislodged, then eased, a big black ‘cinder’ out of its corner and chucked it away. He kept chewing the apple core, still ‘in the dark.’ I switched smoothly to his shuttered right eye. When he felt that one loosen and vanish he opened them again, raised his head, shook it and snorted. I stood there, keeping my face pleasant and calm. “Good boy. All done.” (But I wanted to punch the air, hop around and shout, “We’re communicating!”) 
He turned back toward breakfast, displaying his big, rumpled, buckled coat more fully. He’d been down during the cold night. Clinging straw and sawdust revealed which side he’d favored.   

I began to clean his home in a fog of delight while he ate and amicably shifted position once to allow me room to snatch up a big poop pile huddled against the wall, half-hidden by hay. 
Resistance is futile. Not one escapes my fork. 

Oh, and just for fun, Menesson couldn’t resist demonstrating another self-taught skill. He knew what that bucket was for and got a kick out of demonstrating it once again. 
With a flourish, he backed up to it, and, after measuring twice with his hind hooves to make sure he was centered, raised his tail and pooped into it. Every ‘baseball’ scored a home run. 

I cheered and chuckled and he made a celebratory circle around his stall before returning to his hay. Grinning, I carried on collecting the rest of what gardeners call ‘black gold.’ All of this horse-recycled food residue will be recycled yet again...and again... 

My fork made almost no noise. Good. 
Animals prefer to dine in peace and quiet. 

I walk into the stable knowing I’ll walk out wiser, or laughing, or both...What fun!

4/14/19: Different Strokes  

Horses have, I think, largely given up trying to connect with humans the way they once did. Twenty-first-century humans seem to be hurry-up creatures with considerable visual and auditory blocks in place when mingling with the lower orders, or with children. Our species doesn’t adequately grasp other mammals’ private minds, largely because these ventures take a lot of time, not to mention big doses of patience. One has to be willing to study the subtle cues that aid in interpreting what’s going on in, say, an equine mind. 
There is so much to know.  
We do acknowledge their very considerable physical power, their beauty, and their willingness to serve our needs. But how many of us know their special pleasure spots? Or what they consider fun?  Or what sounds soothe, or annoy? Or when they’re lonely? Happy? Sad? Pleased? Appreciative?  
Different mammals aren’t all that different. 
Take grooming, a regular happening, as an example.   

I used a typical grooming brush on my own arm and leg. I ran it through my hair, too. Brushes must pass those ‘feel’ tests to join my box of grooming goodies. My hands, though, are my primary ambassadors in the Touch Department. 

Blake, the big thoroughbred gelding at Sunshine Farms whom I often ride, saw me coming today and moved toward his stall’s open area to say hello. We bumped noses. I held his head and smoothed his face. (Blake doesn’t mind being face-touched- when he’s given me permission to take that liberty.) 
Speaking quietly to him I shucked my gloves and offered my bare hands, palms up. He lowered his head, signaling that I could move them gently up and down the sides of his face. He issued forth a deep sigh, flapped his nose and stuck his head high and out, a signal that he’d welcome a nose scratch to the area just above his mouth. When I obliged, using my short-nailed fingers very softly, his eyes closed and those sensitive whiskers twitched... (If he’d turned his head away, even slightly, I would have backed off.)   
Now I shook my head from side to side, for fun.  
So, Blake snorted and shook his! 
“How about this?” I queried, nodding vigorously, up and down.  
Blake nodded, too, and whinnied, amused.  
He cocked his head, waay over to one side.  
I grinned, and copied him, singing, “I’m only a cockeyed optimist...” (This song’s from a movie- South Pacific, I think...)  
Whinny-grins rippled through the stable.   

Blake and I have a thing... 

Today, though, I would ride Sunshine Farms’ Ditto, a smaller, sturdy, stocky horse with a stand-up bristle-brush dark mane interwoven with grey. His hair is a lovely deep brown color, decorated with generous splashes of white and grey appaloosa spots sprinkle-scattered lavishly over his hindquarters. Some of these variously sized bubble bath-looking ‘circles’ tumble down his flanks, too. The effect is delightful!  
Appaloosas are gorgeous creatures.   

Ditto always fidgets- I could say- ‘dances’- when cross-tied for grooming, which happens before saddling. I showed him a big brush I’d selected, and after he sniffed it carefully I began to explore ways of quieting his “must we?’ behavior. 

The first rule here, to my way of thinking, is: never bang that big tool down.  
I lowered it gently to his skin and began the long trip from the top of his neck to his behind and then a little way down his back leg, pressing just enough to collect shedding hair, but not hard enough to make him shift away. He shifted anyway. I’d guessed wrong.   

Each horse reaches a point where stepping away from pressure happens. Ditto shifted sideways as soon as he felt the brush. I persisted, repeating the long, gentle strokes, using my left hand to inform him where each beginning place would be. About ten strokes later I’d located some pressure parameters, and so adjusted the pressure to accommodate each one. 
But- when I drew it all the way down his back leg he stopped dancing around and stood still as a leaf on a dead calm afternoon. I slowly repeated the stroke, sliding down to the fetlock. Just under each one is a ‘sweet spot.’ I gently moved the brush back and forth between fetlock and hoof, about a 4-inch indentation perfectly fitted to my tool. While it moved slowly, slowly back and forth, Ditto didn’t move. He was entranced. 
This is always hugely rewarding.   

A while later he blew out a long snort-sigh. I stepped back to check his posture. There he stood, hung low, one hind foot cocked. All in all, a happy horse. In brushing him a little differently I’d begun to change his opinion of the procedure. I’d made the experience pleasant, and almost sensual.  
“Jeez, Dee, You can apply four times as much pressure and get a ton more hair with short brisk strokes...” True. 
I thanked Robin for her advice and carried on, my way. I love to learn their shapes, their most/least sensitive places, and their tolerance levels, while still keeping him  tidy.   

Hmmm. What would happen if I tried to brush his head? Horses are very protective of that area.  
Wow! Lots of indignant, vigorous head flinging happened as he made it clear that the brush was unwelcome anywhere near his ears and eyes.  NO Way.    

So I began again softly, high up on his neck, very near his poll. Three minutes later he’d settled down again, so I carefully inched the brush up to the left side of his temple, employing just the top and side of its medium- soft bristles to trace around his ears and eyes, then down his face. (Near his eye, my hand formed a protective barrier he could feel.) My low, murmured crooning never stopped. He lowered his head just a bit as I brushed gently, murmuring about whatever popped into my head, making the words blurry, soft, toneless, while seamlessly shifting to other spots on his neck, perhaps just under that funny, upstanding mane, before returning to his face for a few more gentle seconds. 
He stood, hung low, half-lidded.  
Ditto was totally relaxed.  
Never push a good thing, thought I, and quietly switched to his mid-back, leading with my hand, touching him where the brush would connect a second later. He never had to wonder where it would land, or how hard the landing would be. Every one was always soft.   

Horses are as sensitive as we are. When a dot-sized spider octi-creeps over our skin, we know. Ditto for horses. Every contact, even from a mosquito’s feet, is registered. 
When I first groom a horse the skin ripples; there is an immediate shift away from that tool’s pressure. Horses anticipate what’s coming, but have been gently taught early in life to submit. It's no big deal, so they do. 
Every animal is different. Most horses don’t mind being groomed in the usual way. Others dislike the procedure, but accept it as an immutable part of life. The three horses I’ve groomed have very definite opinions, so I decided to experiment with the different cleaning tools on offer to achieve a clean body with no inching away, and no flinching.  
I strive for head droops. Cocked hooves. Relaxed postures. Deep sighs. 
When I get it right, skin rippling and shift-fidgeting stop.  

Now a quiet, faintly surprised Ditto stood there, settling into enjoyment.  
I love this. I just love it. It’s my blue ribbon.   

I’ve been very surprised to discover that I like to groom almost as much as I like to ride. I’ve imagined myself grooming horses for 70 years, finding the rhythm of it a nice way to drift into sleep.  
Oh—another thing: I had no idea horses have big cowlicks!    

Is there a particular place that has ‘paralyzed’ the trio?  
Oh, yes.  
All had gone perfectly still when I gently brushed just below their fetlocks horizontally, back and forth, letting the bristles accommodate to that indentation. It’s as though Nature designed the four-inch wide space to exactly fit grooming brushes.    

I should add that there is no rushing, here. Time slows as I explore their vast real estate, test pressure points, feel each muscle group, each tendon, employing hand and brush while humming or murmuring a sort of auditory ‘bath’ of soft sounds that seem to soothe both of us. By the way, I may have to repeat this ritual for a few days before I discern less agitation and more anticipation.  
This sort of grooming takes as long as it takes.  
I work, feel and listen; he feels, signals and trusts. We are ‘learning’ each other in auditory and tactile ways.    

There is the horse,  
There is me,                                      
And finally, if I'm lucky, we join up. 

4/07/19: Lame Brain Syndrome  

During about three hours for four weekday mornings, from around 8:30 to 11 or so I groom the Farm’s stallion, Menesson, which can take me 30 minutes, as I love going over his powerful body with a sort of massage/brushing, and tend to linger over it. Then I tack him up, ride and learn, cool him down, brush him again, get him back into his huge, buckled blanket and lead him back to his stall.  
I am never sore, physically tired, or nervous. Just supremely happy. 

Bryn is always near, watching the fun, or snoozing. She and Menesson enjoy watching each other while I work on technique, balance, natural aids, etc. and relish every minute with my beautiful Arabian friend.   

But, I suddenly realized I might have a big problem. Weekday mornings my teacher is busy with other Farm business, so I’d be responsible for saddling and bridling him. That is no problem.  There are always folks there I can ask to help me heave his heavy saddle up onto his back, and set it down gently. 

But. There were many saddles and bridles in the first tack room! Which two were his? Yeah, this is an odd question. But the reasons for asking it are- reasonable. 

After being broadsided by a truck that slammed into me at 55 mph in October of 2002, my brain’s ‘wiring’ has been jumbled substantially, causing oddities to manifest themselves now and then.  At first, I didn’t know my own family or any of my garden’s flowers. I had to relearn everything. It took a year or two. Gradually, over the last decade or so, other brain changes have revealed themselves. (One neurologist warned I might notice other odd puzzles ‘down the road.’) 
He was right. As time passed, I’ve unexpectedly found myself unable to differentiate individual objects when they are part of a group of the same sort. This phenomenon is extremely selective: it doesn’t appear when dealing with my car in huge mall parking lots, for example.    

The tack room holds many Western (and some English) saddles packed closely together. When presented with this total picture every day I’d skim the room generally as my teacher chose what she needed. I’d see a sea of saddles sometimes covered by saddle pads of different colors. No matter how many times the correct saddle was brought out I perceived just -a saddle, not THE saddle. Unwisely, I ignored these pictorial blurs, anticipating only the end result- to ride.  

I’d been so engrossed in learning how to clean and polish saddles, clean stalls, clean horses, and cram everything about how to be a decent rider into my head for another five hours a day with internet courses, plus The Farm’s excellent teachers- that I neglected to consider that a ‘blur’ might occur. 
I see only the Mane thing...   

It would have been much smarter to set aside time, just in case, to: 

- Memorize the relevant saddle’s position. (But alas, that sometimes changed.) 

- or, Photograph the salient particulars of the correct saddle- but only that one. Screening out the other saddles is a tricky business, though. And standing in the tack room, learning just one, is, well, peculiar for folks coming in and going out.  

The third choice always works.  

- Ask for help.  

While embarrassing, doing this without dithering moves me quicker toward my goal: to ride. But asking someone at the stable to pick out Menesson’s saddle, after eight months of my sitting on it, would certainly have elicited incredulous looks.  
Explanations would be long and awkward; eyebrows would remain in hairlines anyway.  
Heck, mine would. Quirks like this one are— one step beyond. 

So, I texted my teacher that same evening and briefly asked for saddle/bridle identifier clues, offering no details about why. She immediately texted me what I needed, including the relevant saddle’s decorative white stitching and location, and that it had a broken latigo keeper on its left side.  
Wouldn’t you know-- differentiating ‘left’ from ‘right’ is nearly impossible post-accident. So I left out ‘left,’ and simply looked for a broken latigo keeper (a two-inch wide, 4-inch long strip of leather with a rectangular opening where the cinch strap is tucked. (Its profile reminds me of a fat jar lid opener, only softer). 
THAT- plus the stitching details- did the trick. Poof. The black hole vanished. Menesson’s saddle will always be easy to spot. 
That’s the good news. Once the object is firmly identified, the hole is history. In fact, I’ll see ONLY that one saddle. 
Weird. But I’ll take what I can get.   

{I have a similar problem with individual faces. Post-accident, old friends, acquaintances and even neighbors I haven’t seen in a while have come through my secret garden and, seeing me, strike up a cheerful conversation. But I’ll often find myself at a loss to exactly place many of them, especially if previous contact hasn’t happened in the spot we’re in at the moment, but maybe out in the front garden, or downtown, or downstate... 
A few folks do sense, perhaps from my lost look (which comes and goes in a flash, just before my brain shuts down), that it would help to say their names and general location –“Hi! It’s Chloe Cadeedlehopper, from three doors down...” and then, I have her!} 

Anyway- 
I gave up trying to locate Menesson’s bridle, though I’d put it on him more than once, and dealt with its various buckles, etc. There are countless bridles in there, many hanging together, which present as a spaghetti-jumble of strappy, looped, narrow, dark leather strips.  
It’s one thing for me to seek an object, but quite a different thing to SEE it. Bingo. 
Instant shutdown.  
A visual black hole opened.  
I ground my teeth. 
Fortunately, another teacher, Tom, merely smiled when I confessed I couldn’t pick it out, even with my teacher’s texted particulars, which I read out to him. He went straight to one that looked like all the others, plucked it from its hook and said, cheerfully, “This one should work just fine.” 
It did work, and I rode and learned for over an hour, feeling thrilled that I’d had the sense not to bridle-dither. When I speak up here, these problems disappear. 
Oh- and I’ve since studied the correct bridle carefully. I’m 98% sure I’ve got it nailed, too. 

Pound sand, lamebrain!

3/31/19: Low Humor and High Jinks  

Almost everything features poop today---in a roundabout sort of way. 

Humans tend to think of the ‘lower’ animals who share our lives- cats, birds, dogs, etc. -as being ‘dumb’ in the sense that they aren’t capable of reasoning things out. Therefore, they can’t make a plan- can they? 
Well, they’re often physically lower, but certainly not incapable of creating flexible, adjustable mental constructs in order to survive, and thrive, in this complex world.    

Bryn, my labradoodle, shall serve as one example. 
This past winter was particularly tough. Temperatures nestled in the basement, competing successfully with our freezers as they hovered around minus four degrees. Ice and deep snow blanketed the better part of Michigan, forcing me to opt out of walking Bryn each dark morning, for safety reasons. Instead, I regretfully let her out back into the secret garden, where she had been taught never to do her business.    

Puzzled, she sat on the white walk that first time, looking into the kitchen’s big window, head cocked, flanked by very deep snow.  
Are you sure, Boss? ‘The Rule’.... 
I stared back, blinkless, in answer to her silent query, so finally, she looked around, thought about it for a good while, then decided. She would pee only in the Ram’s Head Garden beds and poop as close to its outer edge as possible.  
I more completely appreciated that adjustment to ‘exigent circumstances’ only yesterday, when I took advantage of Traverse City’s heat wave- 42 degrees!- to further collect her winter droppings. (Nearly four feet of snow had gone, making the job easy.)  
When presented with this huge Rule change, Bryn had taken just minutes to sort it out and adapt to suit both of us. The evidence lay before me.    

I predict that, in warm weather, she will NOT use the garden as her WC, having worked out seasonal Rule changes. This can’t be taught. It develops when an animal learns to respond flexibly to the countless novel, often inexplicable situations that Life presents. Bryn’s Alpha had made an exception to the Rule; she would, too, despite her uneasiness.  
There’d be more proof that this former sin was canceled when she came back in.  
“Good girl,” I said, assuming a benign expression as I held the kitchen door open. 
Ahhh
She settled happily into breakfast.    

                                                        *** 

I often help the staff to clean stalls, a daily task. I really enjoy the job. A few days ago I slipped into Menesson’s much larger one to address the mess. (Casalae Farm’s magnificent Arabian stud stallion is ‘my’ horse to learn on, most of the time.) As King, he occupies the biggest stall.  
He greeted me with tossing head, then pushed his nose into my chest, nickering. I slipped him a treat; we canoodled for a bit; I got to work. 

And Then- something awesome, delightful, and really funny, happened.  
Noting the position of my large poop collection bucket, parked in the center of his stall, he faced away from it and began to back very slowly and deliberately toward the thing, feeling his way by extending his hind hooves! I watched, entranced, as one hind hoof felt around in half circles, then the other one. He occasionally turned his head to look behind him, measuring, before backing up a few more inches to extend the left one, then the right, over and over, until both had finally made delicate contact with the bucket in different spots, precisely establishing its position. Backing up one more scant inch to make it perfect  - he pooped into it.  
I burst out laughing. 
Menesson has a quirky sense of humor!   
It’s such an honor to be allowed to experience the nuances of this horse’s gentle, brilliant mind.   

By the way, he has more respect for me as a competent rider now, usually responding smoothly and quickly to my increasingly coordinated riding signals.  
This beautiful soul should never be saddled with a clumsy rider.   

                                                                  *** 

Louie, Casalae Farms’ handsome, elegant stable cat, has, I think, finally concluded that ambushing my dog is beneath him. Bryn is not a threat. Sir Cat comes right up to her, gives her the ‘Eye,’ but keeps his weapons sheathed. Bryn always looks away, disengaging herself mentally. She’s conflicted about cats, wanting to chase- and avoid them- at the same time. So she references me.  As Alpha, I’ll shake my head. Centered then, she settles into ‘ignore.’ 
Louie, a graduate-level interpreter of canine minds, approves of this mental distancing-which, to him, probably infers deference. For now, he’s granted Bryn a (conditional) Visitor’s Pass.   

I finished stall cleaning and brought Bryn into the arena to watch me ride. 
Before I began the lesson, a pleased Menesson recognized Bryn and walked over to her. The two bumped noses. Louie noted the exchange with an inscrutable expression before retiring soundlessly to his snug nest in the main hall to nap.   

I rode around the big arena, working on my posture and hand positions, when Menesson abruptly shied to the right, shocked by something that had whizzed by just over his head. I calmed him quickly; then my teacher and I looked around and then up: a sparrow was busily building a nest in the rafters!  
I couldn’t fault my horse for his spooked lurch; he hadn’t seen or heard a bird for many icy months. Now, they’re popping up everywhere ‘cause spring is nearly here! Equines and avians will adapt quickly to each other as they find themselves living closer together.  
And I’ll be in an excellent position to note how things evolve.  
Live to learn!

3/24/19: Crackzzz!  

Last Sunday Blake was saddled, relaxed and ready to go. I’d arrived thirty minutes early, and, maybe because I’d rehearsed it many times, I had him ready in only thirty minutes. (I’d asked for help twice to meet my goal: Be ready to ride by ten o’clock. And now it was precisely ten. Yay!) 

Robin, my teacher, waited at Blake’s head; I climbed the mounting block, put one foot in the stirrup--- when gunfire ripped the air! Crack! Crack! Another horse being led around the arena for exercise leaped to one side and half-reared: his owner had a hard time holding on to his halter rope. Blake managed to contain himself, but just barely! He stiffened, held his head high and pointed his ears toward the sound, ready to run. That sound was- alien. He knew all the others- the clang of the barn’s metal doors in wind, for example, or hammers banging. This one didn’t fit. 
I immediately stepped away and tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Robin, though, was angry, not fearful. 
Holding firmly to Blake’s bridle she calmed him and then spoke loudly to all of us. 

“Those rifle shots are from the neighbor kid, shooting targets in his yard. He’s supposed to notify us 30 minutes before he shoots, but he hasn’t honored that. This isn’t the first time, either.” 

My God. That irresponsible behavior could have resulted in serious injuries to both horses and riders. Spooked, they can run blindly right through fences and into traffic. 

BTW, Sunshine Farms was established well before the area was this populated. Oddly, there is NO ordinance against target shooting close to the Farm, to date. So apparently the teen was not legally bound to notify Robin by text or phone. But the danger to others posed by this lack of personal discipline is considerable. 

Robin and I agreed that riding would be unwise. Blake was clearly on high alert. The gunfire continued. So I unsaddled him, put everything back in the tack room again, and a bit later, returned to Robin. We were glum, but then she brightened. 

“No one can safely ride right now, but I have another idea.  I’ll bring our two champion cart ponies out here to play. They’re lots of fun to watch: their antics are guaranteed to cheer us up!” 

Robin led an eager black-with-white-stockings pony into the arena; this slim, perky mare has won many awards for Sunshine Farms. She snapped off the rope and Star was free. Though trembling with anticipation, she didn’t move an inch. 
The whites of her eyes shone as she watched Robin disappear around a corner toward another stall while tossing an explanatory comment our way. 
“Star’s waiting for her friend, Missy. I’m getting her, now.” 

A minute later she led a pretty nut-brown pony into the arena and snapped off her lead. Instantly the two friends dashed off from a standing start, using the vast space to play ‘catch me if you can.’ Hooves flashed: there was spontaneous bucking, rearing, whinnying, racing out at full gallop, and much bouncing in place while they thought of new ways to go ‘flashy.’ The ponies ignored the jumps, set up to school the Farm’s big hunter/jumper horses. 
Cart ponies are never ridden. 

The ponies heard the gun’s cracks but were so engrossed in thundering around that they weren’t as bothered. Star showed her stuff, racing around the arena at a fast trot. Holding close to the wall her slim legs rose high as she pranced by in fine style. She’d look elegant in the show ring, her driver, cart and harness gleaming, her eyes flashing, mane and tail flowing, in her element!  Cart ponies love showtime and applause! 

Missy, who has also won ribbons, wasn’t quite as flashy, but flowed along, close to Star, wheeling and charging, whinnying and making playful feints. They rolled on the soft ground together, heads stretched out, hooves waving at the ceiling. Twenty minutes later they stood front-to-back, mutually wither-grooming. (Horses can scratch their own chins, necks, faces, bellies and front legs with a back hoof, but can never reach this spot. Wither-grooming is very pleasurable for both parties, and tends to cement friendships.) 

The gunfire finally ceased, too late for a lesson. Never mind; high school would begin again tomorrow... 

This incident served as another firm reminder: ALWAYS be vigilant when working closely with prey animals, who react instantly, and sometimes violently, to sudden shocks. 

And yet- 
In the barn lives Percy, a very, very fat little goat who likes to enter random stalls to settle underneath the chosen equine’s enormous, four-pillared body. Both peacefully munch lunch from their very different elevations. No resident seems bothered by these unannounced visits. 
Just before the ‘pony show’ I popped into the barn to check how the horses were reacting to the rifle shots. Some heads jerked; there was nervous whinnying and some restless pacing. Workers reassured the more anxious animals. 
And there he stood, legs a bit splayed, just outside a stall, little hooves buried in hay, forehead placed exactly on the V-edge of the stall’s outer corner. 
He was precisely balanced, but...... too still. 
I peered at Percy more carefully. Hmmm. Knees locked, eyes shuttered, hay strands dangling from his slightly opened, goateed mouth, no masticating jaws, almost imperceptible breathing--- 
I grinned. 
He was deeply asleep! 

Some prey animals just don’t give a damn. 

 

3/17/19: Almost, But Not Quite...  

A couple of days ago I had a lesson at ten a.m. I had to ready Blake for saddling, after being taught the Way, and its order, by Robin, my teacher. But she wouldn’t be there until ten. Good. I needed to learn to do this job independently. It’s not rocket science. But it is orderly. (Keep in mind; I’m 60 inches high when I stretch.) 
I felt like a meerkat trying to undress, and then saddle, a patient greyhound. 

Arriving twenty-five minutes early proved far too optimistic. 

I took a deep breath and entered Blake’s personal space. There he was, his enormous thoroughbred body taking up much of his stall. He stopped eating to look carefully at me, but I could tell I was welcome. He lowered his head and we canoodled. Which means I took too long to smooth and admire his face and alert ears, and those big brown, mildly curious, even bemused eyes. I tickled his whiskers; he nibbled my nose. We exchanged air. He knew why I was there. He also knew I was greener than the grass he was eating. Happily, Blake is patient and kindhearted. 

First, I unbuckled his expansive blanket, which covered 80% of his big body, including half his tail. I began below his head, separating the Velcro, undoing the chest buckles and then undoing the four buckles that kept the bodywarmer in place around his belly and tail. I folded the whole fat thing three times, starting at his neck, before moving each two-foot fold toward his tail. Which meant going from one side to the other in front of him, where there were perhaps 8 inches of space between Blake’s head and his grain and water buckets.  He moved close to his water bucket to sip, so, of course, my elbow dipped into it as I squeezed past.  
Rats!   
I pushed to back him up, winning a few inches, keeping my voice easy and soft. 
Finally, reaching up high near his hind end, I slowly pulled the mostly folded blanket down to me. The dangling buckles and ties wound round his hind legs as they came away. He didn’t mind a bit.   

I hoisted the heavy, very bulky thing up to the curved dip of his high, barred stall gate (fashioned so he could stick his head and neck out and look around) and wedged it in. I hadn’t needed to hump it down the aisle to elsewhere, which would mean parts of it dragging through boot-deposited mud (from torrential rain the night before), horse poop and wheelbarrow-dropped straw.  

Anyway-  
There stood Blake, with nothing on. 
First step: done.    

I opened the gate and slipped out; it obligingly closed again (a hint I ignored). I grabbed the halter and lead rope and re-entered. He lowered his head to my waist so I could slip it on, but facing him, I kept missing his nose. (Sometimes, working with one eye is truly irritating.)  
I tried again. The halter went on, but snagged his nostrils. He glanced at me, surprised; I quickly adjusted the wretched thing. But then, for fun, he raised his head just high enough so that I couldn’t slip the halter over his ears.  I hopped and huffed and puffed, but, no joy. 
Embarrassed, I simply asked him to lower his head. He sighed and did, bless him. I reached high over his face, manipulated his ears to ease it over both of them, and then triumphantly secured the throatlatch. 
Blake nickered softly.  
Hmmm.  
I chuckled, too. 
For those with a sense of humor, inexperience is its own comedy.   

Next, I attached the lead rope to the halter. The clock read ten. 
Part two accomplished.  
My wet elbow dripped.    

A worker told me Robin had had to pop over to the bank, so she’d be a bit late.  
Good! I had miles to go...   

I got Blake out into the central aisle, barely avoiding his big body’s rush past me because the gate had thumped his rear, surprising him. I belatedly realized that the blanket’s weight on the gate was causing it to shut...I’d need to find another place for it next time. Fortunately, my feet had escaped his startled, steel-shod hooves.  
Dumb luck.  
Note: the next day I had the wit to ask Nancy, Robin’s daughter, to extract him. She did it beautifully, in seconds, without the benefit of a lead rope. She simply opened his gate and invited him out. He exited quietly, and then backed up to the mat to be cross-tied.  
Lord!  
(They’d been dear friends for simply years, and knew each other’s thoughts.)   

I secured him with crossties, which took time, as the clasps were the more complicated emergency release sort that I wasn’t familiar with. I’d almost have one connected, then not...The more I worked with them, though, the better I got. 

Grooming was next. I found a soft brush (Sensitive Blake hates stiff ones) and polished him nicely, then brought out his saddle, pads, bridle and breastplate, and set to work.   

The first larger saddle pad was easy- raise it up, place it higher than necessary, then pull it down his back a bit to ensure that his hair was smoothed.  The second smaller pad lay over the first one- easy- but the saddle’s placement was a challenge, as Blake’s back was well above my head. Thumping a saddle down isn’t nice; it should be lowered gently. Try doing that on tiptoes. 
I experimented with different lifting positions, He turned his head to watch as I raised and lowered that saddle, which gained a lot of weight as time passed and I got older... 
There was a low, chesty rumble. Blake was amused! I had to laugh, too. Agile meerkats would do it better... 

I finally settled on simply raising it as high as possible before setting it down, half on. After a brief rest, still holding it, I gradually pushed/lifted it into place. But too many adjustments had shifted the pads, which made for much switching back and forth to reset them.  
Done.    

But, I still had the girth to deal with. I found the proper one after conducting a search through a sea of them hanging in the tack room. (It wasn’t where I’d hung it the day before.) 
After buckling it onto the saddle’s right side I moved around to his left side and reached under his belly to grab the dangling girth to buckle it into these straps. After a long, difficult struggle, where I almost had it in the first hole, then not, I pulled up hard one last time—Success!  
Leverage isn’t nearly as helpful when one is too low down. And, Blake can really inflate!  
Leading him around the arena quickly encourages deflation.  
By now it was ten-twenty. And suddenly, Robin appeared. Noticing my weary state she had his bridle on in seconds. That job would have consumed another large slice of time.    

I narrate all this to give a sense of how it is for me. I must always focus on being safe when moving around him to do these straightforward tasks with a minimum of fuss and time.  
Many repetitions are required. Experience is the best teacher. 

I offer one last ‘almost gotcha--- but not:’  
I was seated atop Blake next to the mounting block while Robin moved a little way forward to check my stirrup lengths. Suddenly, she straightened, pointed behind me and spoke loudly.    

“Get Away! NO!” 

Confused, I followed her gaze. A hefty resident cat had hopped atop the mounting block and was poised to spring up onto Blake’s backside!  
Another millisecond... 
But, hearing Robin’s command, the pussy paused...just long enough for us to ease away.    

Imagine how he, a prey animal, would have responded to a clawed cat thumping down onto his hind end!!   

Situational awareness is always wise.   
Always. 

Here’s the good part: I’m totally at home on their horse and Robin says I ride very well!  I save savoring her praise only when I’m down and out the door... and can relax.

3/10/19: Amazing Grace  

A few days ago I was gifted with something brand new to me, a magic time that lasted about 25 minutes and was so enlightening. 
Here’s what happened. 

I live in Saginaw to help my husband, Joe. Three weeks ago he fell on the thick ice that blankets much of Michigan and fractured 4 ribs. His recovery is going slowly but well, and I stay in the Saginaw Bay area to help him manage. So I couldn’t continue to ride in Traverse City. Never mind: we found Sunshine Farms, just outside Bay City, only about 10 miles away from our Saginaw farmhouse, where at least 25 horses live as boarders, or are owned by their owners, Robin Bellor, and Nancy-Smith Bellor, Robin’s daughter.  
This winter the weather has been so incredibly cold that the animals often can’t be let out, because their big field is a sheet of ice. To slip and fall would likely mean disaster. So the horses stay inside, exercising with their riders in the arena, their minds kept busy with schooling for the hunter/jumper competitions all over the state that begin in spring.    

One morning last week I showed up there to ride, garbed in my electric socks, gloves and jacket, my mood at once elevated and apprehensive. -1- degree temps make everyone cross and frustrated.  
But today Robin told me I needed to wait a bit; it was playtime. “Living here, being ridden, fed, housed and loved isn’t enough.  
Horses need to be free to be horses.”  
What? I was puzzled. A little smile crossed her face as she bade me stand behind the mounting block.  
She came back into the arena with my mount, Blake, who stood patiently while Robin disconnected his lead rope and then stepped away. Blake abruptly wheeled, broke into a trot and moved silkily around the large space, exploring the set up jumps, following the erratic flights of the barn sparrows, and generally reveling in his freedom. 

Suddenly he broke into a gallop and dashed around the entire arena, flinging his head up and down. Then, after stopping abruptly, down he went on his back to roll and roll, back and forth, groaning with enjoyment. Blake is a tall thoroughbred, and to see him upside down, his blanket flapping, his hooves flashing toward the roof as he rocked from side to side, was a gasper! Finally, he righted himself, shook vigorously and whinnied loudly, looking around. He needed a playmate.  

And, exactly then, Robin led in a smaller gelding, Ditto, and released him as well. The two rushed to greet each other, and then Ditto dropped, too, and rolled in the deep, soft sawdust with the same enjoyment, his blanket flapping just as enthusiastically. Blake stood very near, watching his antics with great interest. Ditto rose, shook himself, bumped noses with Blake and the two rocketed off, whinnying and rolling their eyes. Blake roared around a turn, and without a thought, effortlessly jumped a fence. Such light-as-air, amazing grace! The two horses charged on as a pair, switching from chaser to chased by some mysterious agreement. Their whinnies were excited and happy as they cut corners and revved up to ‘high gear.’ 

And then, Robin showed up with a third horse, Magoo, and they trotted over to greet him. Magoo immediately lowered himself to the ground and rolled luxuriously. His blanket didn’t seem to mind being saturated in sawdust. The other two stood close, watching, until he finished, righted himself and shook off the dust. Time to join the fun!   

(These three had enjoyed each other’s company for years. She would never set loose a horse that wasn’t in their social group. That would be dangerous to the unlucky horse.)  

Blake moved so beautifully; it was as though his tall, slim 1300-pound body weighed next to nothing. His prancing, wheeling turns were delicate, airy, incredibly graceful and full of mischief. Whinnies expressed delight as the three animals mixed it up. The two smaller horses ran in tandem, or pretended to rush Blake, who stood his ground until the last second before moving to the side and barreling off. It was enchanting! I’d never seen horses play!  

Robin and I retreated to the wood-stove warmed tack room, which has a huge window.  
“I do this every day in severe winters, with various horses, and never get tired of watching how happy it makes them. But when such big animals let go and play hard, hooves flash, and pseudo-kicks are incredibly quick. A careless observer could easily be seriously, unintentionally hurt. So you stay in here. I’m going out there to supervise, and be a physical reminder for them to keep their boisterous behavior within bounds.”  
Out she went, and the horses whinnied hellos as they rushed around, but they kept their steel hooves a respectful distance away. They love Robin.   
Just for fun, she came back into the tack room a few minutes later, grinning. “Watch what happens now...”    

The horses looked around, to make sure she’d gone before sidling to one corner where the really lush bales of special hay were stored. They furtively snatched fat morsels to munch. We laughed so hard! Robin mischievously rattled the tack room door as though she were coming out again; the noise triggered the guilty trio’s dash away from the forbidden corner. They decided she hadn’t noticed their theft.  
Never mind that the evidence of their sin dangled from their mouths in large hay-hunks...   

They trotted to a far corner and turned their backs on the tack room to finish eating what they’d sneaked away, and then raced around the arena in different directions, maximally extending their necks and showing their teeth, daring another to stand his ground. It was rather like a game of chicken! 

Robin called to the more enthusiastic Ditto to take care, and three pairs of ears turned toward her. They were certainly listening.  

About 25 minutes later the trio stood close together, steam rising from their noses, looking relaxed and sated. They were done. Robin stepped forward to catch Blake, who was fine with being led away to be saddled. Magoo and Ditto were collected by staff a few minutes later and settled into their own stalls.  
Confinement during icy, sub-zero winters isn’t so hard on the horses when these regular playtimes allow them to stretch out a bit and simply be themselves.  

Once again, yet another dimension has been added to my understanding of these beautiful creatures.

3/03/19: Electrified!  

A couple of weeks ago Joe drove me to the Farm to ride my assigned stallion, Menessen. I couldn’t get off him properly thirty minutes later. I’d been so focused on learning transitions that I didn’t realize that my toes were in deep trouble. They had very nearly transitioned into Frozen Solid. Fortunately, Joe was close and came to collect me right away. All of me was trembling; I simply hadn’t noticed the incredible cold until I began having trouble holding the reins. Menessen was becoming confused by my uneven signals so I halted the lesson and wobbled out to our car, with assistance. 
Here’s the thing: I’m five feet tall and very slim- not skinny, just slim, and the thermometer read 9 degrees in mid-afternoon.  
But I hadn’t gone riding without sufficient preparation.  
Had I? 
Here’s what covered me:   

Two pair of thick wool socks 
Jeans 
Big insulated boots 
2 long underwear long-sleeved shirts,  
1 flannel shirt,  
1 thick Guernsey woolen sweater,  
1 thick, short insulated coat and  
2 pair of gloves,  
A headband to keep my ears warm under my  
Riding helmet, and finally,  
My long, thick Hogwarts scarf.   

Didn’t matter.  
I still froze. I had to be helped into the kitchen, where I ran cold water into the big sink, sat high up on the counter and placed my flame-red feet into the quite cool water. There they stayed, still in blowtorch-painful mode.  Over a period of an hour, I added tiny amounts of slightly warmer water—soooo painful- and repeated the process until the water turned toasty. My beleaguered toes gradually responded, finally moving from flame-red to a more normal cream color.  
Believe me, thawing hurts
It took another 2 hours for my core to warm sufficiently.    

This was a major warning. I couldn’t ride again until we’d found a creative solution for this winter’s stubborn, rock-bottom temps. 

Two days later this girl was electrified! 
I now wore- 

1 pair of thin knee socks.  
1 Pair of Extreme (#4) long merino wool underwear tights designed for Arctic conditions.  
1 pair of nearly knee-high smooth, thick computer-ordered electric socks with battery pouch located at the outside/top of each sock. These socks slid nicely over the two other sock layers.  
Next, I eased on my slim jeans.  
Then my boots, with their woolen linings. I plugged in the socks and set them to ‘H.’   Ahhhhhh....bliss. 
Next, I donned the merino wool Extreme #4 matching undershirt, then layered two more Extreme conditions ski undershirts over the first one. Then I shrugged on my thick woolen sweater, and finally
My newly acquired electric jacket from Gander Outdoors, whose square-ish flat battery sits snugly in its right-hand pocket, where the built-in cord awaits it.  I married plug to battery, zipped the jacket and pressed the button located on its breast. ‘Bright Red’ is the highest of 3 settings. I left it on that flaming ‘H.’ (The directions warned that I might burn on High, but I shrugged. Lawyer talk. Why install a ‘Hot’ setting if one is advised NOT to use it?) 
I added a thick ski headband that covered my ears, and finally plunked my black riding helmet over the headband and buckled it on. 
THEN- I drew on my electric gloves, with each one equipped with a 2” square battery- flipped the two batteries- to ‘H’- and went riding.  
Oh- I forgot to mention the last thing- my Hogwarts scarf, with its burgundy red and yellow stripes. Everything else listed above is black, because that’s the color offered. My scarf provides a fine splash of ‘other.’   

I wear one more thing over everything else. Joe ordered a special riding vest tailored for me that weighs not quite two pounds, which should mitigate some of the more awful potential injuries. A little canister of CO2 in a front pouch explodes with a soft pop, instantly expanding the secret ‘sausages’ buried inside the vest designed to shield neck and spine from top to bottom, as well as ribs and chest wall, All of this happens as soon as the connection to my saddle is broken. Two very similar motorcycle vests protect us when we ride our big bikes over the countryside.)  
The cool thing: when my riding vest is buckled over the black electric jacket it’s almost invisible.  
Plus, Joe feels less unnerved by my shenanigans, and that’s a good thing.   

So off I went, suitably attired this time for my adventure, which began, funnily enough, well before I climbed aboard Menessen. 

All the horses, blanketed in their warm fleece coats, had been taken outside to various paddocks to graze on the hay laid out there for them.  
Menessen, of course, has his own paddock.  
Anyway, as we left the barn and made our way out to catch him, Laura commented, 
“Menessen isn’t happy about being outside all day. Three hours or so are plenty for him. He wants his big, roomy stall. But he’s also mischievous. When he signals by standing at the gate and I respond and go out to him, he’ll allow me to get just so close before he’ll pull back and gallop off.  This game might go on for a while, so we’ll just have to be patient. When he thinks I’ve gotten the message- that He gets to choose when to come to me, the rest is easy. But the wait can be exasperating, especially in snow or rain. You’ll see....” 
And then, she paused and turned to me with that ‘I’ve just realized...’ look. 
“You know, Menessen loves you. I’ll bet- that when he sees you with me, there will be no games! Let’s see if I’m right!”   

And so it went. Menessen was at the far end of his paddock when we entered. He turned toward us, looked hard, and immediately trotted straight to me! He pushed his beautiful face into my chest and made absolutely no objection to being caught. Laura smiled, snapped the long rope lead to his halter, and handed it to me. Menessen was delighted; he knew I would ride him.  
We three walked inside together and two of us felt honored, and humble.  
I’ve added this gift to so many other horse memories Laura and I have caught- and cherished.   

By the way, I was toasty warm during that lesson, and have remained so.  
Cool!

2/24/19: New Wonders  

Last week I told you about the 8” ice scraper, which, by the way, went up one dollar, to $19.95, right after the column was published- (maybe because they had a sudden flurry of orders?) But still, for just under twenty bucks, it’s a good deal.  

That site again on Google:     
 

SSD7500 8-inch snow and ice scraper with D-grip handle
 

Now, let me frighten you a little. I related that my husband fell on the icy, but snow-covered cement at the bottom of our wooden stairs seconds after he told me to walk very carefully there, and to place each foot straight down so as not to slip. Exactly then, he slipped, fell, and lay flat on his back in the deep snow for about 5 minutes, groaning, in intense pain! Turns out he’d fractured 4 ribs! Four! This should spur folks to eliminate the ice where one walks before disaster happens. Stock up on salt and one of these ice choppers, then park the tools by the door and keep up with weather conditions.  
There is nothing to be done about fractured ribs that aren’t splintered. Simply adapt to the situation, find relief in OTC pain meds, and wait. Doctors have long abandoned rib binding. The body manages just fine without that dubious assistance.  
He’s still working a full schedule, trying not to sneeze, and bearing up fairly well. Ibuprofen has helped. But he’s very careful not to overuse that medication.   

On a more cheery note- I was at the Bay City dog park watching Bryn folic and chatting with a nice fellow who mentioned that his wife “usually takes our dog to this park, but she’s having a riding lesson today, as a slot was open; and so here I am.” 

Riding??? I immediately asked him for details, and he put me onto Sunshine Farms, about ten minutes away. (Ohboyohboy!) Bryn and I made our careful, shivering way to the car to tell Joe. He perked up. “Let’s investigate that place!” (Living away from Traverse City I’ve been unable to ride for the last couple of weeks.  Joe will need my assistance for a while to come, and I’m happy to stay close, but oh, I’ve missed riding.) 

We drove straight there. (This stable, I mused, might offer a good downstate teacher, and maybe even schooled horses. I always welcome a different perspective.) 

The big barn was full of curious equines- at least 25- who poked their heads from their stalls to take us in. The Farm’s owner, operator and seasoned citizen, a petite woman named Robin, who has a wonderful smile, showed us around.  
I took in the special scent of horse barn and leather as we stepped into the connected indoor area, which had fences set at different heights. A teen was practicing her jumping skills atop a handsome mare. Robin, noticing our shivering, led us into the big glass-fronted tack room, where we were enveloped in a blanket of soft, fragrant heat emanating from a very large, glowing bear of a wood stove positioned toward the back of the generous room. Ummmm...!  
Three sleek tabby cats greeted us. I eventually noticed more, nested above very high wooden cupboards in snug, mussed blanket nests. Another oozed out of an overturned box. 
“How many cats live here?” 
She tipped her head to the side, looking pensive. “You know, I actually don’t have any idea.”  
Wow. These sleek mousers were earning their keep, I thought.   

And- in this room, seeing all the tack, I grasped the true measure of this place.  Saddles, bridles, halters, pads, breastplates, martingales, cinches and huge horse blankets were tidily placed just so, and everything was Clean.  
This was the ultimate testimonial to the sort of woman The Boss is.  
I wanted to be part of Sunshine Farms. 

She introduced us to her attractive, cheerful daughter, Nancy, who’s also an expert rider and teacher. (A back room is loaded with award ribbons.) Robin left us to thaw, as she needed to supervise a student, so Nancy took up the conversation. 
“Mom taught me everything I know. She evaluates and teaches the new students and eventually passes them on to me for more advanced training. She’s incredibly knowledgeable and will draw out and polish your best qualities. Plus, we have some darn good hunter-jumpers here- ribbon winners, who are patient with novices!” 

I booked a lesson with Robin for the next day. There’d be 10-degree temps, but I’d never notice-- until I dismounted to discover my feet were frozen. 

Uh-oh... I’d be riding English saddles. Hmmm. Then, that unnerved feeling evolved to ‘Good.’ I must learn to ride with both. English saddles have no pommel or horn to grab, just in case.  
I’ll be ‘in the wind.’  
Yeah, but then I’ll truly learn balance. 

There were more visual delights. A very small, very fat goat stood inside the last stall by the big barn door, where a huge jet-black Percheron lives. (Percherons are enormous, glorious horses that pull heavy carts or beer wagons.) Sir Goat apparently enters any stall he fancies, and the resident horse and he share the hay. (An aside: As I left the stable yesterday that same good-natured Percheron reached out, took my fatly fringed burgundy/gold Harry Potter Hogwarts scarf into his giant mouth and proceed to gather it in! I felt a tug, looked back and realized what was happening. He made small, mischievous noises as he munched, and as I carefully extracted my treasure I found myself laughing so much I could hardly get my breath. 
By the way, the scarf, though a bit damp, still looks splendid after its weird adventure.) 

And then, the next day, another surprise. Frieda, a gorgeous, solidly copper-colored hen with a bright red comb to set it off, also has the run of the place. She’d found herself lowest in the pecking order in the henhouse out back; the other hens had ruthlessly tried to dispatch her, so Robin snatched her up and brought her into the barn. She’s recovered from the attacks and now clucks contentedly while hunting for horse grain, or the remains of chocolate donuts, or tiny bits of sandwich bread that might be sprinkled onto the floor of the central aisle by stable staff during their breaks. 

Chickens are resilient -in every way. For well over half a century I’ve kept a large photo I snipped from Life Magazine in the early 60s of a rooster who had been decapitated- he was to be dinner for the family- but who subsequently ran about for months afterward in the barnyard. The fascinated farmer used an eyedropper to feed him. The photo shows him posing jauntily on a large stump. I’m still full of wonder about that magazine’s most famous photo. 
‘...running about like a chicken with its head cut off...’ has some basis in fact- but for so LONG?  

Anyway, as we led Blake down the big aisle to be saddled we nearly ran over the little copper/red hen. Robin asked Frieda to move aside. She looked up, cocked her head and clucked disapprovingly, before obediently veering away to let us pass.  
Frieda mutters most of the time, maybe to notify these huge horses that she’s underfoot so they won’t inadvertently step on her. She lays eggs (nearly 200 a year!) in the most unlikely places. Staff finds them tucked under horse blankets, or nestled into loose hay, or between a crate’s slats, or plunked between the cleaning crew’s winter coats or boots. 

Yesterday after my lesson, Robin and I unsaddled my ride, a big thoroughbred gelding named Blake. After blanketing him we led him into his stall- and found a perfect light brown egg perched atop his fresh hay ration. Frieda, who’d invited herself in, in his absence, clucked over it, but Blake, not amused, unceremoniously nosed her out. He likes his home to remain unencumbered by bold, brassy visitors. The goat gets his goat, too. (Blake won’t live in any other stall. This particular patch of real estate is all his. And so there.) 
Grinning, Robin slipped the fresh egg into her pocket. 

There is also a quiet, elderly, plump little short-haired dog who sniffs visitors in a desultory way before wandering off. 

Sunshine Farms lives up to its name. Every sort of animal- even the many sparrows who whizz through the barn foraging for grain- is cared about and respected.  
Robin’s unconditionally love for them all is plain to see. She and Nancy have rescued more than a few ‘throwaways’ over the years. Under their tutelage, those grateful horses and ponies have gone on to win important ribbons.   

The special ambience that radiates from their barn will draw me there frequently. And oh, the stories I’ll hear! ...And pass on to you...

2/17/19: Hot Tips  

  

I went to Tractor Supply last week with Bryn (who loves wandering up and down their aisles) to buy more dried co
w lung for her. It’s packed with goodness, and the ingredient is simple- dried cow lung. Period.  She loves this treat. 

Anyway, as we were leaving, the clerk noticed Bryn and said, “Did you know that this Tractor Supply offers a dog groom room- which is going national as we speak? It has everything you’ll need to clean and groom your own dog. 

“Each wash bay has a big steel tub with a tall steel back covering the wall behind it. You can’t mess up when you use the hose. Two sturdy plastic tub shelf trays raise the tub ‘floor’ much higher if your dog is small. 
You never need to bend.”  (Bliss!) 
“A portable ramp allows your pet to walk right up into the tub. Tie-up leashes keep her secure while you work. The hose has a control lever that offers hot and cold water you can adjust to your satisfaction and turn off and on instantly.  
Huge plastic pump bottles full of various favorite shampoos and conditioners sit right next to the wash station. Choose what you like. 
We provide two clean white towels. 
A separate, lower steel table is supplied with a pole with leashes of various lengths to help keep your dog secured while you work. There’s a wall-mounted blow dryer, a very nice metal comb, and even brushes. It’s also a fine place to trim fur and nails. (Bring your own nail clipper, though...) 
There is soft music, too- your choice. 
Finally, we supply a plastic apron to prevent your getting wet.”   

I was amazed. Somebody had thought this out! 
A smiling employee showed me the facility.  
It was spacious, clean and absolutely perfect for the job. Two people can groom their dogs there. And the price per dog?  $9.99!   

But wait! That’s not all! The next morning I was back with grubby Bryn to try it out. She was fine with the ramp, the tub and the whole thing. After two hours of concentrated work clipping her clean, blow-dried fleece (I’d brought my own scissors) I finished, with no sore knees or backache or dirty bathroom. I used the provided broom and dustpan to sweep everything up, tossed the damp towels in the towel bin, cleaned the big wash basin’s drain of hair and was about to leave with my newly minted Bryn when the same man showed up again.  

Get this: He was incredulous that I’d cleaned up the considerable mess I’d made. (Bryn’s snipped fur had been everywhere.) 

“No need to do that: that’s our job!”  

I hadn’t known of this perk! Then the guy asked me to wait for a few seconds... He returned shortly with a $5.00 discount chit and told me to apply it when I paid up front.  

Taken aback, I asked why.  

“Well, you did clean up...”  

Not that this gift is ‘policy’- he was just -generous. 

So. Total price: $4.99!!! 
Ridiculous.  
Wonderful!   

Here’s the thing. What I did in that shining clean room costs at least $100 at a regular groomer facility. NOT including tip. It’s the best deal anywhere

Tractor Supply stores nationwide are being modified to include this service. Watch for this service at a TS near you.  (So far, eleven stores have installed it in Michigan: that number is steadily rising.) 

And another tip:  

Everyone should consider buying this slick winter tool: SSD7500 8-inch snow and ice scraper with D-grip handle, available with next day shipping, for under $20.  

We tried to buy one at the local Home Depot, Lowes and Menard store, but they hadn’t heard of it, or knew of it only vaguely, so we found it on Amazon and ordered it. (Pictures show how it looks.)  

 

It came the next day. 

The shovel-like tool just might save you from a vicious fall on the thick ice that currently blankets much of Michigan. In the last week, ERs are seeing many more broken heads, ribs and limbs from serious tumbles on driveways and walks. Joe fell hard, twice; deep breaths and sneezing are agonies. Dressing is agony. He’ll be walking wounded for weeks. This winter has proved a challenge for all. (So far, I’ve been lucky, but that can change in an instant.)  

Good friends showed up brandishing the ice scraper, and cheerfully demonstrated how it could chop easily right through the inch-thick sheet of solid ice that blankets our very long driveway, the sidewalk and even the first foot of the garage’s interior.  
Bare cement and asphalt were exposed quickly. Dan and Vicki just flipped the ice chunks away. Wow! Now we can walk from our house right up to the garage without risking life and limb. The chopper is sturdy, razor-sharp, and simple to use. We consider it more valuable than snow shovels, which are ineffectual, or useless, for ice removal. 
Owning the ice chopper has lowered our anxiety level considerably. (The only danger is finding a way to chop to a firm surface that first time without falling on the ice you must stand on to begin.) 
We’ve also applied a big bag of chunky salt (available anywhere and kind to pet paws) to the ice-free surfaces. It’s effective down to minus fifteen degrees.   

Joe has a saying; 90% of life is maintenance. But in this sort of tricky winter it can be more like 98%. This useful tool helps to lower that percentage to a more acceptable level.  
Buy one for a friend!