Saturday, April 28, 2012

unscheduled dismount

unscheduled dismount:Un-Sked-Ooled Dis-Mow-nt. Noun.
At my barn this is when the rider either makes a mistake (or the horse she is riding makes a mistake) and due to either 's misfortune the ride is cut short by an unplanned removal of human being from saddle. Sometimes the horse bucks you off, sometimes you fall off, and sometimes the rushed job you did tacking the horse sends the loose saddle flailing and you slam into a wooden fence like I did today....

Anyway, when this happens at Riding Right Farm it is announced by either a tray of cookies or a bottle of wine, left on the table by the office door where everyone walks in and tacks up their horses. This offering is the rider's penance, and a right of passage. It makes your incidence a public display everyone can relate too, and therefore less tragic. Some months there are a few bottles of wine and bags of cookies by the office when you come in for a lesson, and you just know some people had a rough week. This is the story of one unscheduled dismount and the education of a novice rider. Your novice rider. Me.

It all started with a girth strap. I was talking with Elizabeth, a good friend I met through workshops and farm visits. She was up looking at property in Washington County from the Berkshires and stopped by to say hello. After she helped me with some barn chores she was game to come along to a riding lesson with Merlin. I was excited "show off" what I knew, and looking forward to the ride with Merlin after our great lesson Friday. Riding was becoming fun again. Less drama, problems of confidence and attitude being repaired. I was drunk on this horse, on the whole experience of it.

...Which is why I was rushing through the tacking process, something I have done countless times without a hitch. I was using a new saddle and a new girth. Instead of a dressage saddle I was using a multi-purpose English saddle which requires a different kind of girth. This was my problem: That girth strap, that thing that goes around the belly of the horse. It is what attaches the saddle to the animal. It is supposed to be tight, not clinging to ribs, but tight. I adjusted it on the same holes I would for my old saddle, and that simple mistake would cost me dearly. A lack of focus. The kind of thing that doesn't slip in instructor-approved lessons but on general riding time can.

I didn't notice it was bad at first. I got up on Merlin near our cross ties and rode him from the inside stall area to the outdoor paths. We walked calmly down a path and into the outdoor arena without a single problem. Merlin was fine. I was fine. Elizabeth was talking alongside us. We chatted. Life was good. Friends and horses, and sunshine.

I started off around the outdoor arena at a sitting trot. I like this pace. I learn to ride in a decent seat and he learns to move across the landscape comfortably. We did a few laps around and nothing seemed wrong. Then everything went wrong.

While riding Merlin near the outside fence at a faster trot things got weird. He started to speed up and I didn't know why? He was suddenly cantering and it was then I realized that my body was sliding off to the right. That girth was so loose my leg had gone from his side to almost under his belly. All he knew was pressure, and that meant faster. I was almost 90 degrees off him and gaining on the wooden fence. So in a daft move I reached out to hang on to the side rails and jump off the horse at the same time. This was not wisdom.

I did manage to get off, but my unscheduled dismount was not graceful. I slammed into a fence between the horse and ground, my soft part of my right forearm slamming into the solid wood to break my fall. Merlin dragged be a short distance and if it wasn't for the safety stirrups that had a breakable-super-rubber band sides I would have been dragged along for quite a long and dangerous ride. Instead all my fence trick did was get me hurt, and the saddle slung under him. I was down and he was gone.

So now there was a woman on the ground and an 1100 pound animal who could not understand why the saddle was on his belly and not his back. He was mad with fear, running every which way trying to flee from the metal banging into his back feet and pulling him to the ground. It was like those Discovery Channel specials where the water buffalo tries to shake off the lions clinging to his body. Merlin had gone mad. I could do nothing but watch. I was worried he might jump the fence, or brake into it. For 30 seconds I was frozen in shock, pain, and pure terror.

Elizabeth was standing in the arena, calm and unfazed, but I wanted her OUT of there. I didn't think Merlin would hurt her but I didn't want her to get caught up in the panicked animal's fray. I yelled at her to get out of the ring and she did. With her out, and the gate closed so Merlin couldn't run out, it was down to me and him. He raced all around me, not listening. I had to get his attention. I put my hands up and said "WHOOAAA" in a calming, yet firm tone. The only thing I could think of was Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, trying to make himself look large and calm around the insane animal he rehabilitating in the movie.

I knew this much for certain. I was not going to go running for help. I was going to fix this. Merlin was my horse. The girth being too loose was my mistake. There was chaos and it was my fault and I was going to fix it or break trying. I was just grateful this was happening in a fenced arena, a sterilized area where a beginner Horse Crisis Repair Woman could learn what she and her mount were made of without him tearing off into traffic or a forest. My biggest fear, him running away, was tempered. Time to catch my boy...

I am not a horse trainer, but I know that when a dog or other animal is scared it needs a safe place. I refused to run out of the ring, or run to him. I stood and told him to whoa,and when he came at me at a run I knew he would either stop dead or run me over. I stood firm, and as he came to me he slowed, stopped, his breathing heavy his eyes white. I grabbed the reins, certain and calm, and as fast as possible undid the girth and let the saddle drop to the ground. We walked away from the pile of tack and he kept stomping, blowing hard, but I let him get it out and just walked. I talked to him like Patty talks to Steele when he is going too fast in his cart, "Eaassssy. Walk on. Easy, son..." and it took a while, but he calmed. I think I was the boss mare to him, or in some way the sense in all the panic. And now I had a choice. I could either walk him into his stall or keep the lesson going. I knew what I had to do and it was more for me than for Merlin.

I had to get back on that horse.

I am not a complete fool. I did not want to jump onto a scared and panting animal. We could work up to it. So at first all we did was calmly walk by the pile of tack. It laid in the dirt like a dead body. The saddle was dusty and scratched now, missing a stirrup and the other one broken. My right arm that broke the fall into the fence was really starting to hurt. I knew nothing was broken, but things were bruised up. I tried not to think about any of it. The whole world was now a scared horse, a saddle, and me.

So we walked around the saddle, and when his ears and body seemed calm, I picked up just the saddle pad and let him smell it. I talked calmly to him. I rubbed it near his neck. He seemed okay, still scared but not erratic. With nothing but ease and confidence I threw it up on his back and he let me. This was promising stuff. I walked him around the arena in just the pad. I kept telling him the world was okay now, and he walked with me. He seemed to believe me because I made myself believe it as well.

Over the next fifteen minutes I got the saddle on him and the girth tighter. At one point it started to slide off and he started throwing his head and backing up to panic, but I held him and told him "Whhhoooa" and I grabbed the cantle and set it right on his back again quick as a wisp of hair out of my eye. He was scared, but he trusted me enough to let me handle him. If it wasn't trust, it was herd law or some basic training from his younger days. I didn't care. I just wanted him calm and back into his normal gear.

We walked around the arena, now back to the full tack he was in when the world stopped making sense to him. He wasn't 100% so I told Elizabeth we would lunge him in the indoor arena. Let him get used to it all again. He could move in a controlled circle and see that the thing on his back would hold fast.

I lunged him for a short time. After a while he seemed his normal self again. Back in this safe place and the smells of his horse neighbors and his normal barn all around him. He eased up more. I knew he was okay, but I knew if I walked out of that arena having not gotten back up on the horse that I slammed off of—I would be quitting. I had every excuse not to do it, and a sore body and ripped breeches, but I kept thinking about us being out in the real world. What if a girth had ripped or a bee stung him on the trail and we were ten miles from camp? Would I walk him back? What then? No, we had to solve this problem together. We were going to end this lesson just like we started it. I would get back on.

I took him to the mounting block. He balked. I remained calm and just walked him around it. I moved it closer to him, and told him the same calm words. It took a bit, but eventually he let me stand on the block while I stroked his neck. He let me lean some weight into his back. He allowed me to pull down on the stirrups, like I would if I was going to set a foot into them and mount.

And then I did. See that picture? That is me on the back of a horse that I was flung off of and was freaking out like a black tornado a half-hour earlier. I was up and on him and he walked calmly. I wanted to break down and cry.

He was okay. I was okay. We were riding together, communicating, we were a team. After a short while I jumped off and called it a lesson. Then I hugged him. I hugged him the way football players hug after a championship game, the way best friends hug in foxholes when the sirens stop blaring. I grabbed that big, black, neck and pressed my cheek into it. I was so damn proud of him, proud of us both. The Jenna from just a few weeks ago would not have had the confidence to catch, calm, and get back on a horse she was ejected from. (Certainly not all in the same hour!) But this animal is changing me, forcing me to become a stronger person. Teaching me to keep following a dream even if people called me wrong and foolish. Teaching me to be calm when the world is crazy, to be brave when things are unknown, and to fall hard and get back up even harder. To take life by the reins and ride, damnit.

I'm so damn proud of that bossy, beautiful, majestic, complicated, vulnerable son of a bitch.

video announcement!

The Milk Pail Diaries:
Goat Books

If you come to this farmhouse you will find books everywhere. They are on shelves, in stacks under the coffee table, in the cupboards, the bathroom... books reign supreme. MY collection of farm books keeps growing and when I dove into dairy work, it certainly didn't stop my reading problem. I thought I'd share my new Dairy Goat Owner's Library with you. These are the books I found most helpful in getting started with an animal like Bonita.

Living With Goats:
Written by memoirist Margaret Hathaway, this book is an amazing introduction to all goats, all based on one couple's journey making goats e a part of their everyday lives. While technically a how-to book, it reads more like a conversation between the "I'm-thinking-about-goats" person and the "You-can-do-this-if-we-can" people. This is the woman who wrote "The Year of the Goat" about quest for the perfect cheese. I think this particular book is out of print but you can buy copies online through goat supply stores like Caprine Supply or get it from your library. It's amazingly photographed, full color, conversational, and you don't need to know a damn thing about goats to love every second of it. This would be my pick for anyone considering a herd or a pair, but yet to hold the kids in their arms...

The Backyard Goat:
This book suprised the hell out of me. I thought it would be more general, more of a collection of the information you find online and on blogs. Instead it might be the best purchase anyone who just bought a small dairy, pet, or meat animal could invest in. Written by Sue Weaver, it is an easy and comfortable read covering the basics in comfy strides as well as things other books don't even conciser talking about. things like the history of the goat in America, famous cross-country goat cart trips, and training your goats to pack, cart, and be a part of the family. It's a warm an engaging friend in my new dairy path.

Storey's Guide to Raising Dairy Goats
If you buy just one book on goats, this is it. It is the Bible on caring for goats, far as I am concerned. From kidding to a disease glossary I truly believe this one book gets it all done. It's dryer—more a textbook than a light introduction or memoir—but it will be the book you grab off the shelf when you need to go in after an inverted kid, a fever breaks, or you are worried about mastitis. This book deals with the dairy side of goats alone, and does not go into the meat side of the equation (That's another Storey's Guide), but if milk is your goal, who cares? If you can only buy one book on goats and you want it to have your back along the entire caprine ride, this is your girl.

How about your suggestions? Any great beginner goat books out there? Have you learned just as much from farming memoirs or novels that talk about livestock?

Friday, April 27, 2012

snow on peonies

Snow was falling outside amongst the peony stalks while I finished up the day's chores. What a sight to behold, that. The gently falling snow through the afternoon sunlight, landing on the red shoots that look like a celery stalk left in a Bloody Mary too long. The snow fall did not last long, but it was a good reminder of what the weather forecast called for. They are calling for a night in the mid-twenties and that is a dangerous game Mother Nature is playing with us. Many of the apple trees have blossoms, and if they die to a late-spring frost it will hurt the apple harvest. It will hurt farmers who put in their greens early, egged on by 90 degree days in April and our mild winter. If the frost kills my kitchen garden I can shrug it off and plant new, but this isn't so if you're one of the hundreds of farmers in the north east tonight scrambling to cover your plants with row cloths. The greenhouse at Common Sense Farm has a running guard of people who need to stoke the woodstove all night. There are tomato plants with green fruits already on them there. They will surely die if the fire dies too. This is how I see the weather now, as chapters in the annual story. The protagonist and the villain. Part of me worries the twins will be born and lost to the cold. They are hardier than tomato plants, but I still fret. If the peonies die I lose some pink and white color in May. If the lambs die I lose the future.

good friends and good horses...

double lesson day!

Much to update you all on, things are happening fast around here. Lambing is in full swing, kits and older bunnies are hopping about, and in a few minutes I'll be in full riding apparel and on my way to Patty's farm. Instead of the usual visit where I learn to drive with her and Steele in their beautiful acres, she's got Steele loaded up in the trailer and her breeches on! She's taken the lesson slot after mine at Riding Right, and today a Fell pony and a giant draft horse will share the arena. Patty has been wanting to get back into riding lessons, and I think that is great. But what I am most excited about is seeing our two horses in the cross ties side by side, and such a big powerful horse at my dressage barn. It'll be a hoot!

P.S. Since this photo was taken in March, both horse and rider have lost weight!

photo by jon katz

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

meet flash!

the kilted shepherd

I have fallen in love with modern utility kilts. They are my go-to farm and office clothes of choice, my new jeans. A few companies make these now, and I have been getting mine off ebay. The canvas kilts are made of heavy duty fabric, the same as Carhartts or Dickies and come with big cargo pockets with places for pens, pocket knives, phones, and farm gear. Paired with a pair of muck boots my entire leg is covered, but I have more freedom of movement, more air circulation, cooler in the spring sun, and feel ready to take on anything the farm throws at me. For the office it looks like a regular skirt, paired with Chacos or sandals and a nice top. But when I get home and lace up boots, hook on a sporran full of wire cutters, electrical tape, lambing gear, and more it becomes a feral thing. A working extension of myself.

I am pro kilts. Try them, you'll like them.

make that 16 sheep...

New ram lamb born early this morning, April 25th. He's got little horns and good set of lungs on him. Showed up early this morning to a proud mother. In this video the hours-old boy decides to come and visit his new shepherd. It was a touching surprise. Magical day, this.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

roll call

6.5 acres - pasture and forest
41 chickens - eggs, alarm clocks, and meat
15 sheep - wool and lamb
22 rabbits - meat
5 raised beds - veggies
3 geese - eggs and alarms
3 dogs - herder/retired winter transportation
2 cats - micer and loafer
2 horses - tractor and transportation
2 wood stoves - heat
1 dairy goat - milk
1 hive of bees - honey
1 old apple orchard
1 person, working 4 days a week.

what you got going on at your 'stead?


The first ever litter of silver fox rabbits on this farm was born today!

The Milk Pail Diaries
Northern Spy Farm Is On It

I recently spoke with Dona and Brad from Northern Spy Farms, over in my old stomping grounds in Vermont. I knew them through friends and some Christmas Party conversations, and thought they would be a good place to start looking for a partner for Bonita. Goats should be with other goats, and I am looking for another female to employ as company and be bred (along with Bonita) in the fall down at Common Sense to their new buck.

Keeping Bonita and Jasper together is not going to work out. Jasper is too aggressive when penned up in a smaller space. And Bonita is terrified of him. Their last two "recesses' together were civil in the pasture, but when placed in the indoor/outdoor stall he just bossed her around. And even if they did work it out, they would be separated soon. When Merlin moves here full time he and Jasper will share a new pole barn and paddock. So a goat in need of a home is in the works. Dona is on it.

farm update

Weekday mornings are a bit more hectic than usual these days. The usual chores of feeding sheep, chickens, rabbits and a pony have been compounded with the morning milking routine, lambing checks, tending to the new crop of laying hens and meat birds and the earliest gardening endeveours. It requires getting up a little earlier than usual, but not much. Bonita and I have hit our stride and she seems to be back into steady production and temperature. I think her problem was I wasn't milking her out entirely, and her right udder kept getting overfilled. I now do it properly, and when we are done milking her teats look like lifeless jewlry hanging under her udder, totally empty. No longer the loud and yelling beakons of MILKMILKMILK. You learn as you go.

No more lambs yet, and it is driving me nuts. Three or more sheep look like they are ready to burst and I am certain at least one has twins. I am locked and loaded for their arrival. I have Iodine, tail docking equipment, syringes, lamb paste, and bottles if I need them. All of my sheep have lambed in the night, so I check before bed and again in the middle of the night, and again in the morning for any new arrivals. It's an exciting time here. Three ewes are already promise to Common Sense Farm, and the rest will either stick around or be bartered. I think Brett and some others are interested in them as well.

On the horse front, things are getting better and better. Merlin and I are practicing regularly, our schooling tasks in dressage as well as trail riding and communication outside the arena. On Sunday Patty came along to help me out, walking with us around the riding stable, across grass, through gates, all of Merlin's vices. He did well and I stayed on and I call that a success. Patty even signed up for a lesson with Steele right after mine on Fridays. What a riot: jenna and her black pony followed up by Patty and her white giant. It'll be fantastic seeing a draft horse in the cross ties at Riding Right though! Move over Warmbloods, time for some cold-ass cart horses to move on in!

Ryan Gosling is still limping, but I gave him some medication for his bad leg and seems to be holding fast. I'll keep you posted.

photo by 468photography

Monday, April 23, 2012

Last Chance - Just 3 Shares LEFT!

Shearing Day for the second year of the Wool CSA is underway on Saturday. The wool sheared will be skirted, boxed, and sent off to the mill for the people already paid and signed up for their share of wool. Folks from the very first year have been mailed their shares. Due to just three sheep and a limited number of longwools turned into skeins of yarn the first year's share turned out to offer 2 or 3 skeins of wool and 2 or three sheets of felt. Everyone who signed up has either got their packages or has them in the mail this week. It took longer than I anticipated, and for that I apologize, but not a single investor went without a return. Some farm CSAs aren't so lucky. I am am sorry the mailings took so long but am happy I have product to send. If anyone is frustrated know that I did not end up making a single dollar of profit. The wool, sheep, feed, shearing, shipping costs and milling cost three times what the shares paid. But, thanks to those shares paid I was able to buy the flock to begin with. So I consider that first year breaking even. What I lost in cash I made up for in lessons.

If you signed up for the second season of the wool CSA, your yarn is starting its journey this Saturday. If you could please email me to let me know your current mailing address and involvement in the program I would really appreciate it. I'd like to send out a postcard with some updates and dates you can expect your shares. You can expect it by late summer, and I am hoping everyone gets 2-3 skeins, felt, or roving. We may do a raffle for some extra value products like a wool rug from the pieces of blackface wool not fit for felting and such.

As tradition holds, every shearing season spots open up for the following year's CSA. If you are interested in the 2013 season of wool (meaning your shearing date is NEXT year and your wool is NEXT summer, email me for a spot). I decided to only take 12 members for 2013. My flock is too small to make 25 people content. But I can really make 12 people's year who want to both support this small farm and the entire Cold Antler Dream. It is first come, first served, so email me at if you would like a share in the warmth.

photo by

it's pretty wet around here

Sunday, April 22, 2012

someone save temptation

This is my favorite song. First heard at my first-ever Iron & Wine concert in a small venue in Philadelphia back in the early summer of 2005. I went to the show post college graduation and pre-move to Tennessee. It was an in-between time and I was with my close friend Ajay. I had never heard this song before, and I was lucky to be introduced to it live.

The song was new to a lot of people then, only heard as the end credit tracks for the movie it was written for. I had not seen that movie yet, nor had Ajay, and so we heard this song as the last encore, just Sam and his guitar.

There were hundreds of people in the Trocadero Theatre, and not one person said a single word as the song played. The baby in the arms of the woman next to me did not cry. The hipsters did not check their vibrating phones. The world stood still and it wasn't until it was over that I realized every single person I could see, including myself, was crying.

This is my favorite song.
It will always be.

pulling his weight

The Milk Pail Diaries
A Doctor Visit

My day started by taking the rectal temperature of a goat. We were in the barn, Bonita and I, and she was already in her stanchion chomping into a feeder tray of Dairy Goat Ration drizzled with molasses. I added the molasses at the last minute, hoping its deliciousness would distract her from what I was about to do. I was equal parts nervous and concerned. I braced myself for the big show, thermometer in my left hand and her tail held up by my right. Here we go...

It easily slipped it in without a fuss. Bonita kept chewing, totally focused on her sugared breakfast cereal as the device calibrated her body heat. Cheap date.

The thermometer buzzed and I slid it out. The temperature was a solid 100.3 degrees, good news! Yesterday it was 103 and her udders felt warmer than usual to the touch. Between the heat of her udders and the engorged teats I was worried about these early signs of infection or mastitis. I'm new to goats and wasn't sure if I was playing with fire or over-reacting. My books seemed to suggest many reasons for the weirdness - from congestion in the milk path to a sore on the outside of the teat. I opted on the side of safety and called Common Sense Farm immediately. Yesheva would know what to do.

She's as good as any vet, better even. Around here most vets do not have a lot of experience with sheep or goats since small ruminant farmers can't justify the vet bills for a $200.00 animal. Common Sense can't either, so they have learned nearly everything there is to know about goat care over the decades, absorbing everything they can get their hands on in books, pamphlets, and online. Partner that book learnin' with constant daily experience and you have Yesheva, a 28-year old natural beauty and walking goat encyclopedia and medic. She has been through it all, from diagnosing and curing Floppy Kid Syndrome to Still Born deliveries to extreme cases of mastitis—all of which she has seen the best and worst of. And that is why I called her over to my farm yesterday. It's also why before my first cup of coffee I was inserting technology into goat orifices.

Yesheva came right up to my farm armored with thermometer, a strip cup, and her kind and gentle manner. We got Bonita on the stand for evening milking and with the ease and unabashed technique of an Old Hand, she took Bonita's temperature. After she saw the low-grade fever she milked a few squirts into the strip cup. I watched all this new stuff in awe. The new tools, the eyes on her udder, the way she talked and massaged the calm animal.

If you are confused about what was going on, let me explain. Strip cups are tools used in dairies for observation of the milk. They are 1-cup sized stainless steel containers with a fine mess screen that you milk right into. This screens shows you any strings or clots in the milk. If the milk passed through the screen without any weird residue or color, she was okay. Her milk came out normal as always, no glop on the screen at all. So Yesheva said she didn't think it was mastitis, as much as stress from adapting to the new farm and owner. She went about massaging the udders, feeling for lumps or other signs, and spoke softly to Bonita. Bonita was her goat for years, and they knew each other well. I think the Alpine was just relieved to have someone good milk her for once.

And she did. With skill I can't fathom Yesh milked the doe in 3 minutes flat, and when the udders stopped giving she massaged a bit more and Bonita let down a bit more milk. After that passed through the strip cup again without residue, Yesheva explained what she thought the high temperature was for. On her right udder there was a scab, small but right where the hands milk. She explained what to do to treat it, how important it was to keep her clean and her bedding pristine, and to wait till after milking to give hay. Apparently it takes about 30 minutes for the valves to shut in the udder that block off access to her milk, as well as infection. A just-milked goat that slumped down on dirty bedding after a milking was asking for trouble. So if they are standing up eating from a hay feeder after milking they are more likely to be up and off the ground while the udders close up, stopping foreign dirt and bacteria from getting inside.

I thanked her, and we went inside for tea. There she told me stories, terrible and wonderful about her years with goats. She talked about cheeses, yogurt, desserts and quiches. She talked about her farm, the goats in another Community in Belows Falls. And she talked about her experience with the Bovine vets around here. She felt most just handed over penicilin and were too rough. They were used to different dairy animals, and the techniques needed for 2,000 lbs of animal. She wasn't anti-vet, but she preferred to treat her own goats 90% of the time. When you see her herd, you understand. They are amazingly healthy. Bonita was just adapting, and needed some extra grain to put back on the weight she had loss in the move. Goats are not into change, she explained. But they are into sweet feed, so offer a little more to fatten her up a bit.

This has been the only bump in the road so far, and it wasn't the big deal at all. Onward to the milk pail, friends. Onward with cream on the top and goat nickering in the yard.