Sometimes the scent of chocolate evokes sweet memories; when I use Cocoa Shell Mulch in my secret garden’s flowerbeds, they surface, summoning a smile.
This most intriguing ‘earth blanket’ adds an ordered, smart look to flowerbeds while emitting, for a brief time, the most wonderful scent of chocolate.
A natural by-product of the cocoa bean, it’s a renewable resource that can be found at most garden centers.
But- one caution- a pet might sample some, and come away with an upset stomach, necessitating a trip to the vet. However, this problem lasts only as long as the scent does. In about a week formerly interested animals will ignore it.
Most, though, ignore it anyway.
O.K. let's get down and dirty. First, remove all the weeds from the bed you’ll be mulching. Water the earth deeply, or wait until a decent rain happens. Loosen the soil a bit with a hoe, THEN add the cocoa shells an inch or so thick, but NOT right up against the plants’ stems. (Take care not to bury a plant’s lower foliage.)
Don’t apply on a windy day, as the light little shells will blow everywhere, and not even chocolate-for-real will cheer you up then.
Now, after you’ve hand-smoothed them evenly, water in with a soft spray. This is important, because the moistening releases natural gums that bind these shells into a porous, rich brown mat that repels weeds, and holds the moisture you’ve already added.
It’s there to stay.
Weeds will happen anyway, but it’s blissfully easy to pull them.
Two other pluses: slugs and cats avoid it.
Gradually it becomes part of the soil, improving its texture and fertility. Each spring simply hoe it in, or just leave it there, and then, after weeding and watering, ‘top up’ any bare spots.
In time- maybe a month or so after application- it will go deep black, an elegant topping, indeed.
When working in your beds, around two weeks after its installation- you may notice a white mold on top of some of the mulch. Don’t worry about it. This is simply a sign of normal decomposition and absolutely won’t affect plants. If the white coating irritates you, gently stir that bit of mulch with your hand or a little stick to keep it aerated. It will, in any case, disappear quickly.
I rarely bother to mess with the mold.
The whole neighborhood will know what you’re doing for about 5-7 days: then that delicious odor dissipates, and it’s just cocoa shells minus the ‘Ummm.’
Have you ever watered the earth, only to notice it just rolls off, not penetrating at all? Cocoa shell mulch allows your beds to drink in every drop.
Another huge plus; previously wormless beds are soon thick with them. I was astounded to see the huge population in there when brushing aside the mulch to plant something. Wow. We’re not talking one or two here, but many fat, happy worms. (One worm eats -(brace yourself)- over a ton of earth every year! One Worm. Next time you see one washed up on a wet sidewalk, rescue it, and think respectful thoughts.)
The bad news? It’s expensive- about $6 or so for a 40-pound bag. If you have a lot of territory to cover, this sort of money could prove a problem. But if your flowerbed is small, you won’t regret using it.
If you order more than 5 bags the price often drops.
For those who dislike chocolate, or balk at the cost, consider another product- twice-ground bark. These are the usual bark chips we all know, but run through the grinder twice, making a finer, more quickly re-absorbed product. Often, one can choose between two colors; slightly more red, or brownish. (If you have lots of sun, though, the shredded bark could bleach out...)
Gasping flowers really appreciate your consideration, no matter which blanket you choose. I love sticking my finger into my flowerbeds on a roasting day to feel dampness an inch deep. (Left bare, that earth would have been dust-dry.)
Remember! WATER FIRST, then apply. As with the shells, lay the twice-ground bark an inch thick in some places; skip it altogether in others. Certain succulent plants want to be dry; mulch will likely rot their roots. Know where NOT to add any blanket.
Mulching always enhances.
Flowerbeds, especially if you give them a crisp edge, will look really good, and so will you.
Casalae Farms’ stable usually has a ‘present’ for me to discover and unwrap. Whether small or big, each one gives me a more complete picture of The Way of Horses.
Here’s last Tuesday’s bright gift.
Bryn-dog and I had spent the morning at home in the garden, weeding, spreading manure, cutting the grass, and generally sprucing it up. Then, after she and I ran up and down Grand Traverse Bay getting g out the kinks I cooked us both a simple meal, settled her for a nap and drove to the Farm for my 1:00 lesson, the first one in a while, as working in the Secret garden has consumed almost every waking hour.
It was about 12:40 p.m.
I drove past the lovely winding fences to the parking area, noting with some surprise that nobody was about. Everyone had popped down the road for pizza. The sun bathed the Farm in light and warmth. There was very little wind. Swallows flew busily back and forth from their nests in the barn’s roof rafters, to the great outdoors, hunting tasty morsels for their chicks. (I’ve learned that barn swallows no sooner finish raising one brood than they often begin a second family. Though surely exhausted, they whizzed over my head, snatching insects on the wing, and still managing to gossip, and cheep the same cheerful songs as they stuffed their catches into their gaping chicks' beaks.)
Lots of horses were outside in their paddocks in small groups, standing or lying quietly, munching hay, or simply dozing in the spring’s gentle sun. I grabbed a large Red Delicious apple from the car seat, stuffed it into my coat pocket and trotted into the barn and straight down the long corridor to Menesson’s roomy stall. I’d offer it, then take him to the crosstie area to brush clean and saddle before my lesson- - But he wasn’t there.
For heaven’s sake, I’d driven right past him! His paddock, close to the long driveway, is lush and large, with a mature tree at its far corner under which he can stand and doze. He wasn’t that easy to pick out amid the white fence and white-bright sunlight. I ran outside, then paused near my car to search for him.
Under the tree, and on the other side of it, he dozed in its leafy shade.
The next thing that happened was strange- a sort of mental linkup?
One second after my eye found him he snapped awake and did a classic double take. His head jerked up; he lightning-scanned the area before suddenly returning to the spot where I stood, close to my car, easy to miss at first glance.
Aha! There she is!
He bolted toward me, neighing. (Had my scent wafted all that way?) Reaching the paddock gate (I was still rooted to the driveway 60 feet away, lost in admiration) he whinnied loudly again and galloped back and forth along the fence’s entire length, tail streaming, neck stretched high, or arching, mane flying...the very picture of power, speed and beauty. He’d stop on a dime, wheel around and take off again, neighing, snorting, dancer-light on his feet, perfectly balanced...
It was the most enchanting greeting I’ve ever had.
We reached the gate at the same time, and he pranced in place while nickering deep and low. Oh, God, he was stunning! I’d never seen Menesson move like that, had never heard him neigh, or make those gentler sounds, until then.
Anyone who has a beloved dog, or cherished children or grandchildren, knows all about joyfully effusive hellos.
I steadied the apple as he carefully bit into its polished perfection and unhurriedly munched each chunk. Not a single bit was dropped. (It was obvious that he’d rolled happily in damp earth at some point; I wouldn’t get him totally clean today, but hay, neither of us would mind.)
Six bites later he’d eaten it all. He foraged through my hair with his flexible lips, then nosed my nose, nibbled my ears and breathed deeply onto my face, smelling sweetly of apple. I stood there, eyes closed, grinning as he playfully rumpled my eyebrows.
Finally, reluctantly, I snapped on his lead rope. Together we walked back to the barn, his shod hooves rhythmically clip-clopping over its cement floor as we strode down the long aisle past the stalls to the crosstie area at the other end. We were a bit lesson-late, but unruffled by the barn clock’s stoic admonishment as it ticked off the time.
A very special box holds my special horse-related memories.
That Greeting is there.
I’m buried in secret garden work now, and so haven’t had the time this week to write about my horse adventures. I would, however, like to offer a few suggestions- and warnings- that will help growing things cope as the warm season develops.
The first two things on this list are the most important.
Never use a string trimmer closer than one foot from tree trunks. Its incredibly powerful lash will be the death of the small one you’ve just planted, and any larger trees, too.
Mowers must never bump bark. It may take a few years, but a tree so wounded will find itself too weak to pump all its sap higher and so will sprout branches near the soil, where the bark was compromised. Insects and alien microbes will also find the break- the gash- and strike.
Just one attack can condemn a young tree to a long, lingering death.
The huge elderly maples, oaks and sycamores up and down the older parts of towns and cities were never faced with this insidious enemy until the latter part of the last century, when push lawnmowers were replaced with gas-powered or electric riding mowers and strimmers.
One famous gardener in England, watching as a man on a riding mower nudged a stately tree, and a young man with a string trimmer followed close behind to ‘clean up’ the high grass around the trunks, looked sadly at me and commented, “This jet-fast whiplash is killing both saplings and giants. People don’t appreciate the wounds they cause to trees, reasoning that the bark prevents injury. It's happening at many great estates and parklands.”
I mourn young and old, towering beauties along streets, in parks-- everywhere.
One only has to look.
I try not to use chemicals in my garden, as they affect hummingbirds, ladybugs, worms and birds. This isn’t an ironclad rule, though. I’ve turned to Bayer spray a few times to kill the plague of Japanese beetles that multiply frantically and decimate an entire garden in just a week or two.
The treatment worked. I saved lots of otherwise doomed flowers and shrubs at my home and around the neighborhood. These voracious, tenacious insects fly or ride on the wind, often long distances to decimate gardens blocks away.
Here are some ideas to consider for pest eradication.
I’ll begin with two simple recipes.
-Add two teaspoons of liquid soap (non-perfumed and not antibacterial), and a few drops of vegetable oil to a gallon of unfiltered water. Shake well and spray over and underleaves of threatened plants. Choose a cool morning to do this.
-In a blender mix a half-cup of hot chili peppers with 2 cups of water: toss in a few drops of vegetable oil. Blend, strain, and spray on plants prone to being eaten.
Whenever you spot an errant bit of grass, or a weed, coming up through a sidewalk seam, whether it’s the public walk fronting your home or your personal one, eliminate it immediately. (Don’t forget the curb along the street!) At my home, weed rogues find themselves in hot water. Literally. I put the kettle on, then take the hot water straight out and tip a cup or two directly onto the soil around them. It’s non-poisonous and always available. Undesirables will shrivel after one or two doses.
That delicate, feeble-looking little green thing has the power to crack, split and heave up big slabs of cement. Replacement of the unsightly hardscape is the only option. But often, the city balks. An upheaved, crumbled public sidewalk in front of your home could remain like that for a long time.
Dandelions are notorious for this rampant behavior. Snap off their bright heads as you pass by, and then do the water cure. Push in little markers (golf tees are good) as you make your rounds, and later, treat each marked area all at once.
About the only thing that might suffer is the worm that chose that bit of ground to snuffle around in.
Empty cardboard toilet paper and paper towel cylinders can be cut shorter and pushed into the ground around emerging infant plants to protect them when light frosts surprise us in June. Just bend in the top to close it off.
The following kitchen leftovers can be valuable for banishing the pests that munch in the night, and they’ll inject new life into most garden plants.
Take cooled coffee grounds outside to spread around the bases of rose bushes, or heuchera (coral bells) or hydrangea shrubs- anything that enjoys an acid jolt occasionally. Loose tea leaves are appreciated, too. I use my fingers to work it into the soil, so as not to break tender plant roots lying inches under the surface.
After breakfast, pop eggshells into a zip-lock bag, expel the air and crush them into tiny pieces to add to the soil. Almost every plant out there appreciates calcium-rich eggshells. Slugs avoid eggshells, which cut and slice their slimy bodies.
Brown shells blend better; birds spot and snatch the white ones away...which isn’t a bad thing...
Take your salt shaker outside to banish slugs, who will devour a small hosta overnight. A quick shake and they’ll dissolve into the great scheme of things.
Don’t discard ammoniated water when cleaning freshwater aquariums; plants love this treat. Dilute with unfiltered tap water and add it to the earth around hostas, roses- any flowering perennial. (Never add to edible plants, like thyme or basil, though.)
When preparing vegetables, save the nutrient-rich water they were cooked in. When it’s cool, offer to annuals, perennials and indoor plants.
Toss the hard ends of banana peels, dice the skins and add the bits to the soil under plants. Peels are rich in potassium. Toss a chopped handful into your potting soil to feed your plants. Chop them up and pop them into the freezer in baggies even in the offseason. In spring, add a handful to any plant’s soil, right out of the bag. Roses love bananas.
Our plants, the general landscape, and Mother Earth can only benefit.
I love to study the minds of these beautiful creatures, to begin to figure out how they think and respond to the world, and especially to humans. I’ll never master their complicated language and code of behavior, but every journey begins with the first step. I’ve started down that road, now, happy to begin this last great adventure.
Here’s the latest fascinating observation:
I brought an apple for Chella, a gorgeous jet-black Friesian gelding who has recently come to Casalae Farms. (Friesians are really huge horses, always deep black, with feathered hooves and thick, incredibly long manes and tails.) When I entered his stall for the first time to clean it I offered my hands, containing two cinnamon horse treats, and then the rake and empty bucket for him to sniff.
He met me at his stall door the next day, hoping for another treat. This time, half a huge apple served in three manageable bites started his day well, I think. I made Chella’s stall fresh and tidy and he moved over almost soundlessly when asked, while looking me over, his perfect ears straight up, indicating interest.
He is a gentle giant, and so quiet.
New horses must be sorted into the correct pecking order. Chella was initially shunned by the other geldings, and so was settled into a separate paddock to enjoy the sun’s weak warmth. The next day the staff decided to introduce him to Bud, a gentle, beautiful white Arabian gelding who is easy to handle, and very kind. The two sniffed each other, separated by a fence just to make sure no problems would rear up. When nothing bad happened they were united. It’s working well. The two graze quietly and companionably on hay laid out in their paddock’s center.
After chores I went outside with a fat apple, and called to Chella. Bud looked my way, too, and, much closer, he walked over to me, curious.
What’s up, Boss? he inquired, ears pointed straight at me, nose nudging my hand. Bud kept looking behind him, knowing I’d come for Chella. But, no. Black Beauty was shy, preferring to watch us from a good distance away to see what might unfold. He didn’t want to ‘horn in.’
I bit off a good-sized bite of apple and extended my arm and palm between the fence slats, happy to switch my focus to Bud. (Every horse always gets my full attention.)
“Hey, there. We haven’t met formally yet. Here’s a treat...”
(Just before this meeting I’d popped back into the barn to check with Karen, the Farm’s owner and Boss, that I could do this. (Chris, Bud’s owner, wasn’t there yet.) I ALWAYS ask before feeding a horse I haven’t officially met, as some animals have special needs. Karen grinned, though, and declared he’d be happy to receive the gift.)
Now comes the fascinating part.
Instead of taking it, Bud stared at it, then me, and wheeled around to trot to the other end of the big paddock! I was truly surprised, but didn’t move. Noting this, he finally decided to trot back to me, but stopped just short of taking the prize. Even stretching his neck, he wouldn’t be able to reach my gift-bearing hand. Why was he so reticent?
He stood there, legs firmly planted, head lowered, eyes fixed on me. His nostrils expanded as he took in the apple’s fresh, juicy promise. His ears pointed at my palm’s generous chunk. Oh, he WANTED it! He yearned for it. But Bud moved not one step closer.
Horses sense the changing emotional states of other animals, including humans. If I’d projected irritation or frustration at this queer behavior, he would have turned around and left. I knew this, somehow.
So, imperceptibly relaxing my whole body inch by inch, limb by limb while holding out my arm and apple-filled palm, which rested on the second rail, I waited. And spoke not a word. My face registered only contentment.
He studied me for a while, then turned to check on Chella, who remained in the distant background. So again, Bud refocused on me. Even his tail was still. But his nose wasn’t. It told him I was no threat. Nevertheless, he didn’t know me. I wasn’t owner-approved. Furthermore, my behavior was novel. Horses, like all animals, prefer routine. The expected thing. This visit was –confusing and Unexpected. What did I want? Humans always ‘want’ something- usually to catch them and put them to work. The bigger question-
Would his Special Human want me here?
How do I know this? Well, he kept looking hopefully toward the distant stable door. Was she here yet? What should he do? He missed her.
Now, let’s pause a bit.
Horses and apples go together. They love its sweet, juicy fruit. I’d never heard of a horse not immediately accepting such a gift and happily scooping up the lot.
But before me stood an Arabian, a horse who forms a deep bond with his human, looking to him/her for everything that makes life good: enough food, fresh water, safety, shelter, and above all, their Person’s unstinting love, which Arabians return in full measure.
Not to say that most horses don’t do this- they DO.
Arabians, though, are justly famous for this trait.
So. Here I was, standing there with arm and palm outstretched, motionless. I decided to speak to him in a low murmur.
“Bud, humans always come out here to take you somewhere- inside for the farrier, or for a bath, or for the vet to look at and perhaps vaccinate or worm, but they rarely come for no reason. I’m here just to say ‘hi,’ and to offer an apple to you and Chella.
That about sums me up.”
Bud looked back once more at Chella, who continued to stay well away, watching. He looked again at me, sighed and stretched his neck toward me- strrrretched it-
Nope. He was still 6 inches too far away.
One hind hoof moved forward a scant 3 inches. I didn’t move. After a long, long pause his front hooves crept- and I mean crept—forward. But he still stood a tiny bit too far, so I moved my arm very, very slowly to meet his snail-slow motion- and, for just an instant, we touched. His tongue gently scooped that first yummy chunk into his mouth.
It had taken 22 minutes.
He stood there, enjoying it, but then stepped back a full pace and anchored his hooves, annoyed with himself for weakening.
It would not happen again.
I bit off another substantial bite, and as before, extended my loaded palm.
No way. He was done, and that was that. He stood facing me, neck hung low, still as a stone.
Minutes passed. He did not move.
He didn’t leave, though.
I didn’t either. I just held to my offer, my mind quiet. I was witnessing, first hand, a stunning demonstration of his allegiance to Chris. He would wait until she came. Then he would know what to do.
But oh, it was hard not to take that apple ...
Suddenly, the air around me was charged! Bud raised his elegant head and began to prance in place and nicker, eyes and ears directed straight toward the distant barn. SHE was coming out to play with him! Chris, a tall, slim, jeaned older woman came to the fence and greeted me cheerfully. I quickly explained that I’d gotten Karen’s permission to offer Bud an apple, but that her horse was very unsure...
Chris met his inquiring eyes and said, with a smile,
“Oh, Dee’s fine, Bud. Munch away!” And she laughed, realizing the truth; her horse had waited for her approval. Because now, he ate that apple with gusto and zero hesitation, waiting like a gentleman for each proffered piece. Chris was fascinated when I related, blow by blow, how he’d behaved before she’d come outside. We both marveled; she hadn’t actually experienced this form of allegiance to her before, but she wasn’t particularly surprised. She’d heard stories...
After a bit, she snapped on his lead and they went into the barn together.
Alone now, with another apple in my pocket, I called out again to Chella.
He came straight to me. He hadn’t wanted to interfere before, but since his new ‘bud’ was elsewhere...
He happily scarfed down every fat chunk I offered. We hung out for a while, and then I bade him goodbye. Chella watched as I strolled back to the barn. I heard a very soft nicker.
I think so.
I remain deeply affected by the entire incident.
He’s settling in well, and, I think, considers himself lucky to be part of this happy, caring place.
I, on the other hand, am distinctly unsettled, undone by these animals’ enormous complexity and sensitivity.
This journey is going to be revelatory!
P.S: The next day I found the two horses together outside. Bud came to me without hesitation and happily split an apple with Chella. There was no hesitation. I’ll bet there never will be again.
Beautiful Casalae Farms, nestled in the gently hilled countryside outside Traverse City, is a large property framed by clean white fences that accommodate over thirty happy horses who enjoy soaking up mid-spring’s mild-mannered sun.
The natural music that surrounds this place, though, is really something special.
Right now, large numbers of busy barn swallows are industriously building nests and raising their young in the big stable’s high rafters. These sparrow-sized beauties- aerial artists who masterfully snatch insects on the wing- create constant, crisply rapid songs and gossipy chirps that echo throughout the big structure, while the horses rhythmically munch their hay down below. The combination is delightful!
The horses contribute their own calls and comments. Their deep, low nickers are reminiscent of muted kettledrums; their quizzical whinnies rise and then descend two or three octaves from these bass drumbles in shimmery glissandos, just right for Nature’s natural symphony. Toss in the low growl of small tractors, the clatter of buckets, the exclamatory bang of a breeze-slammed door the staff’s laughter and cheerful chatter as they work, and you have the best of country music.
There are more subtle sounds, too; the rustle of hay as the horses nudge and shift their piles; the soft roll of thick wooden stall doors opening and closing; the clip-clop of hooves as the animals are led out or inside; the stable cat’s ‘notice me’ meows-
Sometimes I find myself ‘stalled’ in mid-rake, marveling at how it all comes together!
Bryn-dog and I hear birdcalls and songs as we explore the thick, mature forest that lines Silver Lake, a very long, curving body of water very near the Farm. And these are intermingled with the adult robins’ distinctive challenge calls that alert potential trespassers: this territory is taken! Invisible woodpeckers incessantly drill for grubs, and duck parents raucously quack ‘stay together’ reminders as they cruise through the lake’s benign waters trailed by multiple silent babies bobbing behind in long, fluffy lines. The breeze ruffles the long grass and rumples the water, causing it to lick the shore...
I usually hum favorite tunes as Bryn scrambles over brambles, downed trees and tenaciously winding English ivy, heading toward some sun-defined spot that wants checking out. A master of stealth, she makes no sound while moving through the jumbled greenery. She’ll not blend with the foliage in Michigan’s warm season, though; her snow-white coat always betrays her, except around high noon, when she disappears into the sun’s intense white light.
The way she carries her banner tail speaks volumes about her happy state of mind as we explore exciting scents and sounds.
This dear soul is the apple of my eye.
For over seven decades I’ve longed to be part of stable life in a country setting, and now, here I am, loving the little things- like smoothing Menesson’s mane or flicking bits of sawdust off his big body as I work- or feeding him a honey crisp apple, whose sweet juices he loves. He’ll bite into it carefully so as not to include my fingers.
In warm, sun-washed mornings like this one he frequently stops eating hay- literally pauses in mid-chew- and turns slowly to face me. He looks straight into my eyes, unblinking, thinking horse thoughts. I stand absolutely still so as not to disturb the moment, and look back at him...
Within one minute, his sleep-heavy lids droop to exactly half closed. (Prey animals never shut down completely. There is always a measure of vigilance.)
He sleeps, as the birds chatter on, filling the air with their soothing sounds.
I’ve related this behavior before, I know, but every time it happens I’m thrilled all over again, and perfectly, perfectly happy to simply relax into this spot, with this horse, savoring the sunlight, and surrounded by the barn’s unique country music.
Life can be so rich, and right now, so full of peace.
Bryn loves mornings. She rises at about 6, stretches slowly and luxuriously and, after her morning scratch and a grooming session, I often let her decide where we’ll walk, weather permitting. (She references me regularly regarding street crossings, though, even though she’s ‘on line.’)
We may walk/trot four miles. She’ll lead, setting the pace, and I’ll trot to keep up. A favorite route is often along the great U-scoop of land that defines Grand Traverse Bay, and then through the tunnel under the Grand View Parkway into the neighborhoods near the semi-wild area around Oryana Health Food Co-op at Boardman Lake. Its delectable cooking aromas remind her that her own meal would be prepared as soon as we arrived home. No fool, I’ll remind her of this fact. She’ll cock her head and lick her lips, and off we trot, straight back to my kitchen.
By then, I’m always glad. I get quite a lot of exercise from these outings and am ready to roost.
Here’s the thing: I’m in much better physical shape. The improvement is obvious when I find myself able to lift Menesson’s heavy western saddle off the rack and onto the chest-high saddle rack in the crosstie area.
I’d struggled to bring it out of the tack room two months ago.
She loves to go with Joe by car to Sunset Park, with its fine picnic area and sandy beach, when I’m at the stable. She’d run like a crazy thing after Joe’s tossed ball, bring it back and drop it at his feet. Her enthusiasm always lasted for precisely two tosses. The third time was typically a different story. She’d dump the ball far away and absolutely wouldn’t retrieve it. In fact, she actually pretended not to know what Joe was talking about.
So, he’d have to get up from his bench and find it. It made him really grumpy.
Result? Joe, an excellent doggie trainer, popped her into the car and drove her right back home. He’d grown weary of hunting down the toy. If she refused to ‘find’ it, so be it! He could read at home.
Bryn was not pleased about leaving her cool park immediately.
So she thought, hard---
The next time they went she’d formed a training plan, probably not grasping that his training plan was to leave immediately if she wouldn’t play ball. (Joe likes to toss them.) On this day, he threw and she retrieved. He read his book awhile and then threw another- at her invitation. And another. And another! She brought them all straight back to him. This behavior certainly got his attention. So many home runs!
What was happening?
It went on for maybe twenty-five flings and fetches, until both parties were satisfied. Joe was impressed! He enjoyed seeing her exercise, and she bought lots of extra time to sniff around the area and chase gulls, and then keep Joe happy by running run fast and happily after every long toss she'd requested. Best of all, she hadn’t abandoned her ball far away- not even once.
Just who is training whom, hmmm?
Such delicious speculation!
One more really fun, stunning thing:
I was cleaning Menesson’s big stall the other day when he came over to me and gave my knuckles a lick or two.
--And then, he looked at my rake’s vaguely pointed red plastic tines, which I happened to be holding over the big poo-filled bucket-
--And then, after sniffing them carefully, he began to rub his muzzle and cheeks back and forth along their tips, at first very gently and tentatively, then with more confidence and vigor! Those big, dark eyes caught mine. Amazed, I realized what my job was--to steady that rake so he could indulge in a satisfying scratch that he controlled.
It wasn’t easy. Menesson is a powerful horse.
Ahhh-! Half-lidded, he tested different pressures and angles of approach. Scratch, scrrrratch scratch!
His obvious pleasure was my reward.
Maybe he gets a kick out of using familiar things in different ways, just for fun. (Remember when he’d flung a big mouthful of hay at me the other day? He has two fat rubber horse balls in there to fling around, but instead, he’d wisely chosen to hurl hay my way...and I’d cheerfully tossed some right back...)
Had Menesson actually pondered that familiar rake’s usefulness as a face-scratching muckraker?
Do you think??
Joe, Bryn and I enjoy long hikes through lovely forested areas in and near Traverse City. Two weeks ago we hitched her to my bike using the BTL (Bike Tow Leash, a marvelous invention) to traverse the trail that winds part way around Boardman Lake. As the temperature remained firmly in the 50s, with smatterings of rain, not many folks had ventured out, so she was released from the BTL and allowed to run free near us. We generally move at a trot’s pace so she can pause to sniff and still catch up easily.
Somewhere along the way, though, she put a front paw down wrong, resulting in a sprain.
Noticing that she was lagging behind, we stopped. She trotted over to offer the sore paw to Joe, who found no tenderness or obvious injury. Nevertheless, we took our time going home, allowing Bryn to set the pace. She trotted the pretty path, frequently stopping to inspect a spot, showing only her cheerful aspect.
But there was that small limp.
Arriving home we agreed that rest was best; we’d walk everywhere for a week or three to allow her foot to recover. Our sojourns since then have been mostly along Grand View Parkway, following paths that border Grand Traverse Bay and its spectacular views.
Yesterday, though, discovering that no dogs were in the Garfield Recreational Area’s dog park we hiked along a small portion of Silver Lake’s meandering, wild shoreline, then popped up again to walk the .7 mile long paved trail.
But Bryn saw, in the distance, that three dogs were in the dog park now. She bumped my leg to catch my attention, and I followed her gaze.
Ha! Time to socialize!
I was fine with the long walk across the meadow to that place, and she entered the park to gleeful barks from three other canines. They dashed about while I chatted with their owners, laughing when two Australian shepherds and Bryn tried to outrun each other.
It was a draw.
A few minutes later, though, I noticed Bryn sitting by my side watching the fray, but not joining in.
“Hey, girl; why sit it out? Are you tired so soon?’
She looked up at me, raised her paw, held it in a protective position, and kept her eyes locked on mine.
“Oh... it’s bothering you again? Poor Brynnie...Let me look.”
I moved it around and pressed her pads; she gave no sign of distress. But still...
I suggested that we leave and she wagged her tail once. “Yes, Boss; it still hurts a little...”
The other owners were quiet. Bryn had just ‘talked’ with me. One woman said, “THAT was pretty clear! Wow. Did she hurt her paw recently?”
I explained, and we four decided that Bryn’s supercharged rush around the area had probably re-irritated her recent injury.
“Let’s head for the car,” I suggested. Your paw needs more rest, so we’ll take it easy for a few more days...”
Bryn wagged once and followed me toward the gate.
Another owner commented, “I wish my dog was as easy as yours to work with; I took Pirate to a trainer because he’s so boisterous, and the guy worked hard on him for months, but he still doesn’t listen to me.” She shrugged and sighed.
Ahh- I linked her now to the very large, beautiful adolescent golden doodle who had rushed up behind me at the far gate where I was slowly walking to search for and collect Bryn’s poo.
How can I describe this... He’d slammed into my back and completely encircled me from behind, using his front legs like arms. He weighed at least 85-90 pounds. I would have been flattened had he not clasped me tightly. It was shocking, and weird!
After a struggle, I’d managed to dislodge his paw ‘arms’ and steady myself.
This sort of misbehavior is a most serious breach of protocol. That big dog had literally tackled (some would say ‘mounted’) me, not respecting my space, or his place in the hierarchy. (The first rule Bryn learned was never to jump up on any human.) This dog had looked surprised when I’d peeled him off (which wasn’t easy) and firmly reprimanded him. Unaware of his ‘trespass’ he’d cheerfully bounded away, leaving me unnerved and angry. I’d nearly been brought down. I could have been seriously injured. His forever leader hadn’t reinforced the FIRST RULE:
Never overwhelm (jump on, slam into) humans, whether little or large.
All humans are Alphas for dogs. One special human, though, is a dog’s pack leader, as well.
A dog trainer can’t successfully teach important behavioral rules when a dog owner doesn’t consistently enforce them. Trainers are temporary Alphas. Dogs understand this. But. Their personal human, the essential soul who provides a home, regular food and water, and a bed, and lots of affection, is with them forever.
But he/she often doesn’t lead.
Off lead, a dog gets lost.
Here’s the thing: Pirate has quite reasonably decided that He is Alpha. Here we have a two-to-three-year-old (in human intelligence terms) who’s found himself ‘in charge,’ in a largely incomprehensible world.
Pirate, at sea now, innocently thinks:
Cool! I’m the leader!
But he’s barely three years old- a toddler.
Most dogs are at once unnerved and intrigued by the realization that because their Alpha has abdicated, they rule the roost. Loved, secure, but ignorant of, or unimpressed with, rules that have no teeth, they become too bold. Too confident. Often aggressive when their position is challenged.
Without knowledge of, or respect for, normal social ‘fences,’ or of the larger world’s complicated operating manual, they bump into Trouble with a capital T.
The results are predictable.
On a brighter note:
I was cleaning Menesson’s roomy stall yesterday when he quietly came up behind me to nuzzle my hair and neck. We canoodled for a minute before I resumed gathering up some hay that had been scattered by his hooves as he’d walked from his hay pile to his water bucket to dunk a big mouthful into it. (Menesson likes to moisten hay before eating it. Hay is expensive, so I try to retrieve what he drops or inadvertently drags along.)
He watched as I reunited these yummy dribs and drabs with the rest of his hay pile.
Then, another bit of magic happened.
He carefully collected a big, loose mouthful, turned toward me and – I kid you not- flung those dry sheaves straight at me with a firm toss of his beautiful head!
He was playing!
I stood there, openmouthed, dripping hay. Oh, Lord, here’s another mental photograph to treasure forever...
I snatched away some bits clinging crazily to my unruly thatch and tossed them back at him, laughing. Menesson shook out his mane and resumed eating while keeping one eye on me. I saw amusement there.
This wonderful horse lowers his head when I ask, tries to keep his shod feet where they belong, and is so very gentle when little children are placed on his back. He always strives to please. Most stallions, full of testosterone, have to be handled with great care, skill and total attention. They can be unpredictable, and even dangerous, in inattentive hands. Menesson, though, is truly exceptional, the soul of propriety. Aware of his own immense power, he always keeps it in check. He knows the rules, and loves, trusts and respects his human Alphas, who love, trust and respect him, their Alpha horse, right back.
Having consistent, responsible leaders to depend on in a confusing world is immensely reassuring.
It’s a Fine thing when he, and we, measure up.
P.S. There are many ways to stop jumping-on-people behavior. I offer a few inexpensive suggestions:
Buy a $3 hand-held vibrating buzzer, sold at jokester shops or on the web, used to rattle/startle people one shakes hands with (a very popular practical joke item in the ‘50s.) Wind it up, put the looped cord over your middle finger, palm it, and then press it against the dog’s nose or any part of his face while shouting “NO!” when he jumps on you. The gadget’s utterly harmless vibration, along with the sound it makes, is quite disconcerting. Doggie’s horrified. Then, cautious. Once or twice is usually enough. I recommend buying 3 or 4 to pass around to friends, so he doesn’t think it’s only you that he must avoid leaping on. Set up the situation, then solve the problem. (Oh- don’t purchase the one-buck ones. They’ll fall apart almost immediately.)
Or, buy super-cheap teeny-tiny balloons (at party stores); fill with a bit of cold water; hold between your fingers, untied. Make it ‘pee’ on the dog’s nose and face when he jumps on you, or on friends. (Do this trick outside.) The objectionable behavior will quickly extinguish, saving potentially huge lawsuit ‘bites’ to your wallet when your dog eventually knocks down and inadvertently injures a child (or old duffer, like me) who might decide to sue for medical expenses for that broken hip. ‘An ounce of prevention...’
Or, for the more agile, knee the offender in the chest, or step on his toes. Every time. Always shout “NO!” while the behavior is happening.
Or, snap his nose with your thumb and middle finger. A dog’s nose is his whole life. He’s very protective of it.
The objectionable behavior will disappear. Use on any dog, especially YOUNG ones.
Nip the behavior in the bud.
Bryn-dog has decided to shed like there’s no tomorrow. Labradoodles aren’t supposed to shed buckets, but it seems that she excels in this, too. This week alone I’ve extracted great quantities of her white, downy fur. She happily sits on the walk, half-lidded, enjoying my ministrations. Every now and then she’ll give a soft groan of satisfaction.
I love performing this long, leisurely service.
It needs doing once daily, and now I can do it outside. Birds watch from trees as hair floats off, with most of it snatched back and stuffed into the hairnet that dangles from the dogwood tree as an open invitation. The hairnet keeps the soft, airy stuff from misting the garden with white, and it pleasures me to know that her soft down will pad their nests. Sometimes, though, I’ll release wisps into the brisk wind so sparrows can swoop down to gather it in.
There’s SO much!
A few days ago I took her to the beach on a decently warm day and she suddenly exploded into a joyful, flat-out dash up and down its length while snatching small sticks from the golden sand to fling into the air as she raced along. Such exuberance! It was her first visit there in ages. Ice, snow and icy winds over this long, awful winter had made such excursions impossible. Now, these spring ecstasy fits are a joy to watch!
Menesson, the stately stallion who’s helping me learn the finer points of riding, is shedding massive quantities, too. Like Bryn’s hair, it’s pure white. A few days ago, after quietly cleaning his big stall as he ate, I led him down the corridor to the cross-tie place and began grooming him prior to riding. I always love this time.
Great quantities were snared with every swipe of the long, flexible blade. How could so much come away and he not go bald?
Ha! There’s no danger of that happening!
Every bit of his vast real estate needs attention, but no matter how meticulous I am, there’s always more.
I took my time and he stood there quietly, enjoying the attention. Especially when I moved down his powerful legs. They are so very beautiful. I now know his happy places. Just above his hooves are the four best ones. Leg grooming paralyzes him. Not a whisker moves. Now he went half-lidded, like Bryn, and even his ears were quiet as I hummed almost inaudibly and brushed with long strokes from the top of his neck down to his hooves. Time can slow to a crawl, doing this...
A few days ago, after we two worked hard for over an hour in the arena, I groomed him again before walking him back to his clean stall. Sunbeams streamed into the huge open barn doors right next to his roomy home. Ah, that warmth and light felt so good! I buckled his big coat on again, though- it was still only 49 degrees out there- and he resumed eating hay in his favorite corner.
I wasn’t ready to leave just yet, as I love standing there quietly, breathing in this beautiful place in spring.
Suddenly, he stopped chewing, turned to face the stall door, and walked two strides to me to bump my chest gently. I stroked his ears, moved one hand to his cheek and stood there, facing him.
I went still.
Then, something really special happened.
Menesson went absolutely still, too. He stood there, nose just above my head for a very long moment, and then, his eyes blinked, fell to half-mast—
and then, he was sound asleep.
Just like that.
With my raised hand still resting on the side of his face he breathed in and out so slowly, so faintly, standing ankle-deep in fresh hay with the sun’s fresh light enhancing minute dust motes that hung suspended, decorating the air ------
There we were, in the fog of a dream state
I guessed later that this peaceful magic lasted for some five minutes, with Time seeming to slow way down, to pause...
I was, in a word, spellbound.
This spring will be like no other, for I’m moving firmly into my new life with horses. My beloved secret garden will be open only very occasionally, and will look much simpler- because, with laser-beam intensity, I am utterly focused on learning to be a competent, confident rider, a goal that demands large amounts of time and mental and physical strength, not to mention funds. All are in short supply.
I’m on a very short tether any way you look at it.
And, I can’t serve two masters. Not well.
Nine months ago I entered a stable, found I could breathe without blisters, and nothing has been the same since that day. I’m studying hard, trying to stuff more than 70 years without horses into a few months of near-total immersion.
Odd observations keep rearing up, making me smile.
In the beginning, about 8 months ago, I rode instinctively. Now, with expert instruction, I’ve markedly improved. Instinct is in partnership with skill. It’s gonna be a great marriage. Especially as I’m so incredibly motivated to make it work.
Yesterday I bought a pair of western riding boots.
They do look odd. My mother was right to march me back to the cowboy store when I was 12 and make me return the huge (but well-fitted) boots I’d purchased with money I’d earned working odd jobs over two years. I weighed 89 pounds, was 58 inches tall and possessed size 9 feet. I looked absolutely ridiculous and didn’t care, but she did. I’d gone one step too far. She bawled out the baffled clerk after reclaiming my money. “Where’s your common sense? She’s a bug, wallowing in boats!”
So I sent away for a rubber saddle designed to fit over my bike’s seat. My long-suffering mom threw up her hands.
Joe and I went to Tractor Supply to see if ‘duck feet syndrome’ would manifest as powerfully today, but it turned out not to matter. I just wanted to own an honest-to-God pair of cowboy boots. I’m around 100 pounds, 60 inches tall and my feet haven’t shrunk. Not a millimeter. $100 buck square-toed, turquoise-colored cowboy boots are hard to ignore. I flapped happily around the store admiring the things. (Pointy-toed boots look so outrageous on me that it’s hard to stop laughing. At least these square-toed ones offer more room for my flappers.)
The duck is there, but I don’t care.
As for horse heroes, there is one, Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of the twentieth century. He left all those horses in the dust at the Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown with embarrassing ease on June 9, 1973 at 1:35 p.m. I saw it all. His jockey, Ron Turcotte, is a genius.
Another thing deeply puzzles me. Last July I was put on a splendid horse, and I knew immediately what to do. I rode all the gaits, including a sitting trot, with not one twinge of soreness. That first marvelous day I very reluctantly dismounted after only twenty minutes of heaven, partly because I was worried to death that I’d be too sore to ride again for days.
But Nothing happened.
This is weird, any way you look at it. I’ve heard comments that I’m just in denial or won’t admit it, as if it’s something to hide, but I don’t lie. Lying about anything is exhausting. One must keep track of fibs forever...
Being sore goes with the territory. I’d have no problem admitting aching muscles. But why am I NOT aching?
Just for the science of it, I’d love to understand what’s going on.
This –absence – really works for me, though. No muscle pain provides more precious time to laser-concentrate on the finer points of horsemanship.
Is this an example of ‘mind over matter?’
I wonder, because for 70 years I’ve had an incredibly busy nightlife.
Some deep part of me has been working all those decades on balance, posture, reading these animals through the reins, through my saddle, my fingers-
SOMETHING indefinable has been at work. Even when I had no hope whatever of getting anywhere near these beautiful creatures.
My ‘dream Boss,’ for example, would boost me up onto a racehorse and I’d competently ride him, and lots of other steeds, around a track as an experienced exercise girl. In any weather. The sort of riding I practiced was rather like ‘two-point.’ I would hover over the diminutive, short-stirrup saddle and we two would move with such speed and power! Racing is dangerous, exhilarating, and gloriously FAST. I was built for it. I would have been very good at it.
Brains are queer things. They tend to cling to certain (hopeless) hopes, and magnify them. And dreams can be incredibly persistent. Could they somehow affect my muscle memory?
These nights, though, I lie down and immediately fall asleep without dreaming.
For Heaven’s sake, I’m living it.
I’m just too pooped to participate.
In early 2019 my teacher had to remind me more than once not to assume a racing posture. I haven’t tried to explain that it has to do with muscle memory developed and strengthened for decades- in deeply established dreams.
That stance had become a habit.
He’d think me totally weird, and he’d be absolutely right.
As for the inherent risk in all this? I might be dumped PDQ. Or not. All I can do is work hard and learn fast.
Garnering more skill makes for more control of myself, and the horse.
Life's a risk. So is love. But love trumps trepidation. I’m careful out there. I so want this miracle to last.
Sometimes I like to sketch what I see. The Farm is beautiful, especially in spring. Drawing makes me really SEE the details. And appreciate them more.
There’s one thing my pencil and I know for certain: Yeah, crocs, dung beetles, jackals, sawgrass, mosquitoes and people are fascinating to draw. It helps one to see why they are all about armor, balls, fangs, spears, needles and bloat. Not exactly poetry in motion. But they’re out there, everywhere, and therefore interesting and special...
But, in designing even the humblest flowers, and the stunning Equus Caballus, God finally got it exactly right.
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.
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!