Friday, March 2, 2012

magic happens

I am not above internet thrift-store shopping. It's the only way to go, really. I have bought a lot of good clothing off eBay used, perfectly serviceable, for a few dollars. Today after I returned from dropping off Merlin at the riding stable a package was at my front door. It was the gently-used black Irish Fisherman's Wool sweater I had won in some last minute bid for a few bucks. I had forgotten about it. I pulled it out of the box and smiled like a playwright smiles. Was this supposed to happen too? Was today just a series of good luck and random chance, or was it all the magic of Merlin? I decided it was the later, and threw it on over my henley to wear out the door. What could be more appropriate for the inaugural solo ride on my own saddle horse than a wool sweater from the same continent as him? Surely shepherds have been wearing heavy wool sweaters on the back of Fells since time out of mind. And while I wouldn't look as sleek as the sport horses and their riders in fancy synthetic jackets and fleeces fit to their lean bodies, I had no qualms.

Merlin and I were a pair. Both of us a little old fashioned, doughy, and out of shape. We dressed and looked like shepherds, not Olympians. I was going to be tacking him up with a borrowed saddle and girth, an array of tag-sale horse grooming supplies I bought for a dollar a piece, and it would not look very professional in its little red bucket with a bumpersticker slapped on it that says "Ride a Draft, your butt looks smaller..." But a spring of teamwork will find us both in a better place, a transformed one. I know this because I have no doubt in my mind this pony is magic. Not white rabbits and top hats magic, but that old magic still running through the dreamer's heart and out past the forests in clear streams. You find a way to tap into it and anything is possible and this horse, this Merlin, might be a magician of that old sort after all...

When I talk about the magic of Merlin, this is what I am talking about: When I saw the ad in the Albany Craigslist, I posted it on Facebook. I posted it more as a joke than anything else. There was a picture of Merlin and then the huge sticker price and I said something along the lines of "Anyone have 8 grand I could borrow?!" and left it at that. And then a reader told me, "It's a long shot but email them with a lower counter offer. The horse market isn't what it used to be..." And when I saw that comment some sprocket in my heart clicked into place...

So I emailed this impossible horse's owner and told her about me, my Fell Pony dreams, my farm, my plans to ride and drive him. I told her everything and asked if we could work something out? A lower price maybe? A payment plan? A free lease? And she wrote back with charm and grace, introducing herself that the right home was more important than anything. That she loved that pony too, he was her dream pony... And I think she saw a little of her starry-eyed self in me and told me to come see him and we could talk terms. This is when I told you all about him, and when people started the whole conversation that caused such a ruckus.

I saw him. I fell in love with him like I always do, hard and fast and certain - but only when it is dead right. Then as I drove home with Patty, I told her it could maybe happen and after hearing my Big Plans she smiled like a fox and said. "Hell. You only live once..." and if there was a way to sew up my certainty, that was it.

So up to this point all I did was look for the horse, ask for the horse, then went and saw the horse. That night I prayed and thought, and prayed more, and then I decided in my heart and out loud that if I was the right woman for him, and he the right horse for me, then we'd become a team. The next morning I sent his owner a heartfelt and honest letter. I told her what I could afford. I told her I wanted to try a three-month free lease. And I told her if the vet, farrier, trainers, and myself felt he was right I would buy him with a down payment June first and then make small payments for two years till he was legally mine.

And she agreed to all of my terms. Now that's magic...

So we wrote up a contract and set a pickup date and today was it. Patty and I had hitched up her trailer the night before and her Highlander (how appropriate) was ready to haul him to the stables. Two new friends, Elizabeth and Weez, drove up from the Berkshires to meet him and enjoy the frenzy.

He needed some shots first, though. We were already running late for our appointment, but the vet said it was okay when I called (more magic) and So the vet let us pull right up for drive through service and drew blood, gave him his rabies, five-way, and West Nile shots. He didn't even charge for a visit, just the cheap rate of the syringes. I was shocked at the low price (more magic). Then we unloaded him at Hollie McNeil's Riding Right Farm and Andrea, second in command of the grand dressage barn met us at the door. We unloaded him and took him right to his stall (number two, like my lucky crows!) and went through the paperwork. It was like dropping off your kid at his first day of school, the questions and forms. Any allergies? What should we not feed him? How does he get along with others? Any vices? etc. And I wrote the check with a grin because (and here is some more magic) it was unexpected income covering his first month of training and boarding. We got a small surprise bonus at work and it was enough to cover his first month. Which means up to this point I had not spent any of my own planned money but the small vet bill. Earlier this week I found out my royalty check for my three books would cover the second month of boarding! It was all falling into place, almost to the point where none of us thought anything could possibly go wrong. I think Patty was certain if she pushed him off a cliff he's sprout wings and shit rainbows by this point.

When all the paperwork and conversations about training, boarding rules (I can ride him whenever I want in their indoor arena!), and such we turned him out into his own little pasture by the main road. I drove off talking to him through a rolled down window. I told him I would be back soon. I was on his back a few hours later, as promised...

It was magic, this whole thing has literally brought me to my knees crying with awe, luck and grattitude. A few weeks ago he was an ad online, a pipe dream. Now his name is below mine on a stall 2. I just spent an hour brushing, hoof picking, and petting his head. I will hang two wooden crows by his name. No one will know they mean magic, his magic, but I will.

And why is a homesteading blog about a small farmer going into all this pony dream business? Well, because the point I want to get across is this magic is not just mine and Merlin's. It is all of ours. It lives in our prayers, in our churches, in our hopes and secret dreams. You find a way to let it out through hard work and positive thoughts and it doesn't matter if you're a Baptist or a Buddhist, it will manifest for you. Magic isn't about religion at all. It is about hope. It's alive in my grandmother's rosary, a Tibetan Sand Mandala and the Amish benches being unloaded for Sunday Service. It is real. For the taking. Blessed as the day.

Magic is kind desire, without any baneful intentions, coming true. I want those of you reading about a girl and horse to know that whatever your Merlin is, be it a vintage tractor, a mortgage, a new baby, anything, it is possible when you believe it is possible. You follow what you love with all you have to offer it and the world makes a road for you.

I believe in Magic because it is good for my soul. It gave me a horse I only knew in storybooks. It gave me a farm. It gave me you. Someday it'll give me strong arms and a heartbeat to fall asleep against. I'm certain of that, as much as the black mane I brushed and kissed tonight. I'll keep the faith and I'll wait for the man—but I'm riding that pony tomorrow morning in the stall with two black crows and thank the ground we walk on for the gift. No one in that barn will savor it like I will.

Hot dang. Life's one beautiful ride, innit?

photos by pw


countdown to magic: today!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

a winter sleigh ride

The first time you hold a draft horses harness, it feels like such an impossible thing. It is an awkward weight, a rubik's of buckles and straps—pieces and snaps. For a draft like Steele, it easily weighs fifty pounds and there is no one way to hold it. But as you practice, as a mentor explains and guides your clumsy mistakes, it starts to make more sense to you. After a half dozen harnessings you start to realize how simple and to-the-point the design is. How there is nothing extravagant or complicated at all. A month into my driving lessons the harness has become an understandable new world, with a new vocabulary to go with it. It's like a puzzle that makes more sense as you hold the pieces longer, run them around your hands. Today as Patty and I harnessed Steele and got him outfitted to his 1880's sleigh with plush velvet seats I felt for the first time that everything was making sense to me. I knew where to clip the breaking pull-backs attached to the shafts. I remembered to unhook the girth before running my lines through the loops. And the whole time I felt like a friend, not just a student. Makes you feel lucky.

Riding in a light snowfall on the back of a horse drawn sleigh was magical beyond words. In the back Pasture of Livingston Brook Farm we drove through gates and over the snow-covered hay field and worked on turns and I listened as Patty explained the dangers and differences to a sleigh as opposed to a forecart or Meadowbrook. I listen, but I am also still in a bit of a daze. I have only seen horse-drawn sleighs in movies and Grandma Moses paintings. Now I was handed the reins and asked to drive one myself?! I thought about how I could have been at work instead, had I not taken the personal day. There was no reason for it, really. All taking today off did was make a 3-day weekend a 4-day weekend. But after a month of workshops and what very-well could be the last and only true snowfall of winter...I wasn't passing up the chance for a sleigh ride and the extra rest. As I watched Steele's big bum clump in front of me, calm as steady as a river steamboat, I thought about my task list in the office. Of the bad lighting, meetings, and working to make another person's dreams come true and felt emboldened at my choice to stay home and grab the reins. There is nothing wrong with working an office job, it is how I still pay some of my bills. But there is something to be said for knowing when to step away, jump in a sleigh, and head for the hills.

When we were done, the horse turned out, and the sleigh put away...we headed inside for lunch and coffee. Patty served some good pea soup and sandwiches and we talked for a long while. What a blessing, these new friends I have found in her and Mark. What a day. What a cup of coffee....

As we chatted we could look out and see Steele and his companion Ellis, a big black 18-hand dressage horse running through the oncoming snow flakes. They seemed thrilled to be out in the fresh air, blowing and jumping, digging in the snow like children building a fort. I have to laugh when I look at Patty's choice in equine companion and my own. Just like Steele, Patty is tall, fair haired, steady and strong. She's in no weigh hefty, but solid. You look at her and Steele and it makes sense. A lot of sense. And then I think of Merlin and I. Both of us shorter and stouter, dark haired and prone to be overly dramatic. I remember Merlin kicking up into the air just to show off and posture as we walked by his pasture mates on the walk back to his stall. He's a little anxious too. Also, both of us (Merlin and I, that is) need to drop a few pounds. You see the two of us and it makes sense, too. Perhaps the world pairs up women and horses? Or perhaps women just pick horses that suit our natures? Whatever the case, when it comes time to throw the hames over Merlin's back, we will both be better for it. I will tell him, as I move his long black bangs out from his deep brown eyes, of how the harness used to be nothing but an awkward weight—but thanks to two fine mentor's—it has become a labor of love.

how a cat spends a snowday

There he is in all his glory, fat George in front of the Bun Baker...Just a note. I post some videos here, but if you want to see even more you should subscribe to my youtube channel (just search for jwoginrich). I also posted some other videos, like of Jasper digging and rolling in the snow and the view from a warm living room out into the storm. I try not to overload the blog with video so sign up via that service or check my channel there occasionally to see even more videos of this circus.

Enjoy your snow days! I took the day off work and am going for a sleigh ride! And if there isn't enough snow...a scenic cart ride!

countdown to magic: 1 day!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

win this signed print!

Shawn Braley, the talented fellow behind New England Illustrated, is a Cold Antler sponsor and friend of the farm. He's given away original artwork before (and sets of his beautiful note cards) and he recently decided to offer this large dairy cow print! It's a signed 13x19" piece on professional artist-grade paper.

He will also give away two 25-card sets of note cards! (including a color version of the Deer riding a Deere he gave away as an original piece of art here this past fall!) That means there will be three winners of this giveaway and all you need to do to enter is leave a comment. One comment per reader please, unless you share the contest on Facebook, where you may leave a second comment saying SHARED! and you double your chances.

Good luck!

countdown to magic: 2 days

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

your winter goats?

When I hold a workshop here, it always starts with food, coffee, chatting and when everyone has been fed and decaffeinated, a circle in the living room to introduce ourselves. This past weekend women from Maryland, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts had arrived and all of them seemed drawn to homespun the way I was. One woman named Susan from up near Burlington talked about how she wanted to get sheep, how a neighbor had Shetlands lambs she could practically have and she was telling me this at a Wool Workshop she had traveled nearly three hours to attend, and yet she was hesitating. Sheep were a big step.

To me this gal was a shepherd through and through. (We know our own.) Yet she doubted the preparations she had made in her heart? To me it looked like everything was lining up for her, but she was hesitating....and I knew exactly how she felt. Sheep ARE a big step. Heck, for me, chickens were a HUGE step. I'm not sharing her story to egg her into the woolly life, but to explain I was in her shoes not too long ago. I understand that hesitation. And I can best explain it in a memory.

When I lived in Idaho I rented a farmhouse on endless land near the Selkirk mountains. the back fields were used for haying (rented to another farmer), but the farmyard and front barn area I used for gardens, chickens, rabbits and such. Now, as much as I loved my tomatoes and corn in the front yard and waking up to a rooster's crow...what I wanted was a dairy goat. I mean, I really wanted a goat. I used to imagine going outside for walks in the snow with a leather lead and a goat walking alongside me, a bell around her neck. I used to dream of the hoof life, this near-Amish kind of simplicity and peace to caring for livestock that would feed me. It was all romance, all based on images from books and movies, but so what? I wanted that goat and I flirted with the idea, but it was never really possible to me. I might look at ads on Craigslist and visit goat farms but no part of me felt I was really ready and I trusted that. At the time a goat seemed such a big step, bigger than any chicken or garden had ever been. And my gut was right. I only lived in Idaho 13 months. That goat would have been re homed in short order, not moved to Vermont with me when I lost my job.

Big steps feel big for a reason. Maybe Susan is ready for sheep and maybe she isn't. I write about all my crazy goings-on here and it probably seems erratic to some, but I don't do a lot of things I want to do as well. I don't take the free dairy bulls offered for meat because I know I'm not ready for a 1000+ pound (non equine)mouth to feed. I know I won't buy a Meadowbrook cart off the internet because I haven't the funds, even if the perfect cart horse is appearing right under my nose. I don't go to conferences, or vacations, or ditch the office on a sunny day, or do many of my gut desires. And maybe something in Susan is saying "not yet" to her as well. A good reason to hold back on the fence and lambs.

But as I write this I can't help but ask? Have any of you felt that gut reaction to not do something with your farm? Have you felt it was the right or wrong choice? And did you feel the same way about a certainty something was right? Any regrets?

Tell me about your winter goats?

storm on the way

Snow is on the way, possibly a lot of it. For the first time this winter I may have to hunker down and go into farm-preservation mode. A heavy ice storm means raking roofs, preparing for a blackout, stacking wood indoors, and making sure there is plenty of feed on hand for the critters. At lunch I'll head out to the feed store to get some things (non storm related) and grab another sack of chicken feed for good measure. Never hurts to have a spare sack of Chicken feed about.

countdown to magic: 3 days (I hope!)

I'm working out the final details of obtaining Merlin.There are contracts, trainers, vets, tests, farriers, and friends with horse trailers involved. Waiting to hear from the boarding/riding stables to see if everything is ready to launch. If it is, this Friday four of us will head down to pick up Merlin and deliver him to Riding Right Farm here in Cambridge. It's an exciting community event, really! Elizabeth and Weez from the Berkshires are coming up and Patty offered to use her trailer. So the lot of us will all be there to load and unload the black beauty into his new digs and get him settled in. (I hope!) Some form of paperwork or medical test might delay the process, but my heart is still set on this Friday. Fingers crossed, crows in pairs, and heart wide open.

photo from

Monday, February 27, 2012

my old apartment

This photo is from summer of 2005, when it was just Jazz and I in a Victorian home in Knoxville. I was just out of college, new to the South, and my only other living things to worry about besides Jazz was a pair of ferrets and a houseplant. I had no idea, not the foggiest sense, that in five years I would close on a farm in upstate New York. This was before Idaho, Vermont, Orvis, or the words Cold Antler Farm ever crossed my lips. This place is so far away now, in so many ways, I can't return to it.

I was a vegetarian then. I was broken hearted. I was just learning what living alone would be like. Life happens so very fast, sometimes I can't hang on without shaking a bit.

countdown to magic: 4 days

Sunday, February 26, 2012

rabbit for lunch

I know I said I was planning on staying inside and relaxing after the workshop, but a surge of chorenergy shot through me and in the oddly quiet moment of the weekend I was all workboots, axes, pitchforks and wheel barrows. To hell with rest while your body sings. I'll sleep when I'm dead.

I was outside feeling the sun on my back and watching Jasper watching me from his stall. "Do you want some sweat on your shoulder?!" I yelled out, and his ears perked up at my call. I headed down to the barn and grabbed his halter and lead line. I struggled to control him, frantic with the pent-up anxiety of a stalled, barely trained pony. He shot out into the field and lifted his head and tail in a triumphant kind of trot you usually see those high-headed standard bred Amish horses doing as they rocket down the roads. I like seeing that kind of relief, in any animal. The joy of no confinement. He ran around in the melting snow and kicked and farted and had a fine time. I turned around and set to stacking wood into the empty spaces under the side porch.

I stacked and split wood until the side porch looked respectable enough, a pile of dry wood and locust rounds, and space on the far end for a couple or three bales of hay to save me the trip to the barn for the sheep. I hate to sound proud, but that work looked right pretty. All that warmth for cold nights, all that green hay waiting for the rumen, a summer stored up in a couple pieces of twine. I love baling twine, I really do. People look at it wrapped around fence posts and scattered around the beds of pickup trucks and forget that it is a time machine's containment unit. You release the last summer when you set it free.

I set to mucking his stall, hauling him fresh water and loading up his hay bag. I checked his electric fence (sound) and made sure his salt lick was holding up. I did right by the beast. As I moved out barrows of slop and set down some clean bedding I thought about how much I have been writing about Merlin, the magic of him. The excitement of a horse I can finally ride, drive, and learn from. Merlin will be an amazing animal and a sign of growth for me in this life, but as much as I look forward to owning that horse someday, Jasper is my horse right now. He doesn't care about romance or possible roommates, he cares about running up a sweat in the pasture, clean water, good hay and little trouble if he can find a way to cause it.

Rabbits got fed, bottles hauled inside to defrost. The barn got tidied up and the sheep fed. I walked Jasper back to his stall, removed his halter, and hung the black halter and orange lead rope on his pegs inside the barn. I smile and think of the work to get ready for him, the help of Brett and others. I watch him settle in and feel full of good things. His current comfort was a direct result of my previous discomfort. So goes the whole damn world. I smile even wider.

I was about to turn in when I saw my recent hay delivery coming up from Karen Whitman. I forgot she was coming! She drove her blue GMC and helped me unload 20 new green bales. It took a while to haul them all off the truck and then into the barn, but by this time I was beat. I was ready to come inside to a glass of hard cider and a documentary on the iMac and let the days work set in.

So I am inside now. The cider is poured and the stoves are lit and I have a pot of soup or chili waiting for me for dinner. I spent this day sharing coffee with a great new friend. I spent my morning harnessing a draft horse, spending some times on a country road with the lines in my hands as cars passed us and I felt like they were on mopeds and I was in a Rolls Royce. How rich I felt! I ate rabbit for lunch. Every home I went into was heated by wood stoves and surrounded my land and animals. My body aches a little from the work, and my mind is still thumping with ideas for stories and writing and tonight I am just so damn happy I turned around the corners and switchbacks that lead me here. Lead me to this farm on a mountainside with a naughty pony, friends who know what hames and eveners are, and cold cider in a glass pressed with friends a few months prior during that Holy time all the regular people call October and I call Everything.

I'm not sharing this to boast, but to remain a little incredulous that the gal writing you this used to sit in a city apartment a few years ago fresh out of a state college without a single idea what was ahead. I got a bad case of Barnheart (chronic) and now rabbit for lunch is as normal as soup in a can is for other folks. A few random choices like a move to Idaho, a chance meeting with a farming coworker, a book, a blog, and now I am so excited about next weekend I feel like a child before her birthday. I am going to pick up that amazing horse and come hell or high water find a way to make him mine, find a way to house him, find a way to make him work. A blog reader and fellow horse girl emailed me to say horses were all about passion, not logic. I loved her for it. I got passion out the yinyang. I can turn it into a horse because I am too damn stubborn not too.

Crows are flying today. I'm a happy woman.

fattening up the blog

Blog posts have fallen a little thin lately, mostly because of the amount going on in the past few days. I just wrapped up the last workshop in the month of February (4 workshops in the past 5 weeks!), and between the stresses of review week at the office, workshop preparation, and hosting some company—I didn't have the usual writing time set aside. So the blog suffered a bit. I am fattening it up as we speak though. I'm halfway into a new chapter of Birchthorn, working on the next webinar, and just finished sweeping the kitchen floor. That last one has nothing to do with the blog, but it did just happen.Talk about a play-by-play, eh?

Just wrapped up the weekend of wool and fellowship. My last guest left moments ago and I am about to walk the dogs and take in a calm afternoon at home. I have enough leftovers to feed a small militia and the beer we bottled last week should be primed and ready to enjoy proper. Not a bad way to welcome the next few days.

That photo is of some plans Mark Wesner pulled together for the new barn in the woods, he calls it "Merlin's Thatch" and I love that name. A combination sheep shed and horse barn with a run in, hay loft, and area for the sheep on one side of the fence and horses on the other. I think it is grand. A good architect's sketches are a piece of art in themselves, and this one will be framed and put on the wall.

It was a busy last couple of days, but good. I have four days of the office to get through and then Friday we go to pick up Merlin and take him to his new temporary home at Riding Right Farm here in Cambridge. By this time next weekend my new horse will be in his new stall. Just a few days to push through and before you know it I'll be holding a hot mason jar of coffee and riding shotgun with Patty and her blue trailer to pick up the horse of my dreams.

Now, how to figure out how to buy him! A technicality that I'm not worried about in the least.