Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another Boring Day in Heaven

"What do I write about now?" I find myself thinking. "It's been a boring week," I remark to myself, "all Argus does is eat and poop and wander the pasture. Who wants to hear about that?"

I've been thinking about this for the past few days, the sameness of it all, and how Argus' life has settled into a delicious and predictable routine: Exploring every inch of our six acres of pasture, with its grasses, herbs, and wildflowers, smelling every plant and clump of manure. Scratching his nose on a fence post, spooking at the vineyard workers, rolling in the loose dry dirt of Dancer's grave. Running from a swarm of insects, the evening routine of nosing his way around the strange concoction I place in his familiar black rubber feed tub, playing games with his friends Ridge, Half Pint, and Odie.

In the pasture, Argus ambles around in a happy daze, following Half Pint dutifully in the evening, when the overweight Half Pint is allowed a small window of grazing time. Argus loves Half Pint and trails him around the field, his nose in the draft horse's tail. Half Pint, the dominant gelding since Dancer's death, regards Argus with a kindness not always seen among dominant horses. He is patient with Argus. In turn, Argus quietly mourns Half Pint's return to the dry-lot part of the farm, where he spends most of his time now until the grass turns golden and the threat of founder has subsided. Argus stands outside the paddocks, next to Half Pint, enticing him to play games horses only seem to play over a fence, and calmly waits for morning.

Another day comes, with it the insistent banging of horses' hooves on the metal pipe gates, and the squeaky rolling of the battered green feed cart with its promise of breakfast. It's silly, because nobody is interested in hay ---- it's pasture they're after! It is turnout time for Ridge and Odie, who join Argus in an excited scramble to gallop to the far reaches of Jim's pasture. Odie gives a little mule kick, then runs in his odd way, head up, feet flying, doing what we call "the crazy mule run." Ridge streaks through the pasture at a hair-raising gallop, reminding everyone that he's still a racing Thoroughbred, and still FAST, even if he is 22. Argus follows them at a good-natured canter, not in any hurry, occasionally glancing over his shoulder guiltily at Half Pint, who gives a sad, high-pitched whinny from the confines of the "fatty paddock." Argus, you can tell, is torn between wanting to frolic and graze with Ridge and Odie, and sitting companionably with the benched Half Pint.

He chooses pasture, for now, loping out to meet his friends. They canter a few circles, heels flying, eyes merry, before suddenly settling down to graze seriously. After a while, Argus makes a feeble excuse to return to the waterer, close to where Half Pint stands. After a long drink, Argus stands again with Half Pint, as if to say "I'm sorry, good friend, but I must graze now," then slowly walks back out to the pasture. Half Pint takes a deep, resigned sigh, and settles down to his morning nap.

For most of the day, Argus eats and walks, eats and walks. He looks more and more at what is immediately in front of him, as a horse should do, and less and less at strange things in the distant hills. His head is down more, and up less. He looks more like a regular person than a wild-haired recluse, peering out between the window blinds at the bright world outside. He still swings in and out of his body, but that's okay. His ability to drift in and out of a sort of consciousness is what saved him, over the course of nearly 16 years, from going truly mad. I'll never expect him to be entirely "normal," but that's okay. It still amazes me that this horse can function at all, let alone as well as he does.

I imagine Argus covers some serious ground during the course of his days and nights in pasture. At least 20 times each day, Argus appears at opposite ends of the property. If I could attach a pedometer to his hoof, I like to imagine that he walks a good 3-5 miles every 24 hours. That pleases me and fills me with satisfaction. I watch him through the window and smile, knowing that here in my field, Argus is living what I view as a sedate, boring life as a retired pasture horse, while to Argus, each day is yet another incomparably rich adventure, full of hope and the sweet taste of freedom at long last.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Neighbor Jim Comes Through

Even Neighbor Jim has gotten into the Argus project. He loaned me his pasture.

Neighbor Jim loves FFA (that's Future Farmers of America), the county fair, and anything relating to pigs. He used to raise food animals at his place, and he did it right, with good care and a quick end at home. Neighbor Jim doesn't see much use in horses.

These days, with Neighbor Jim's kids grown and gone, his empty barn echoes with the ghosts of 4-H projects past, and the beautiful pasture is knee high with the last vestiges of grass he so carefully planted and tended over the years. I drive by it every day, on my way down the driveway to our farm. It hurts me just to look at it --- a whole 3 acres gone wild.

One day recently I cornered Neighbor Jim and screwed up the courage to ask a question that I was sure he would answer a resounding NO! to:

"Would you consider," I pleaded, "letting me turn the horses out on your pasture?"

After all, it would be so simple to install a gate between his pasture and mine. It would be like a miracle, all that extra grass. I braced myself for his answer. At least I had tried.

"You gonna put that big white horse out there?" (Neighbor Jim waved his hand at Argus. Everybody knows Argus' story it seems, even Neighbor Jim)

I hestitated, then answered meekly: "Yes?"

Neighbor Jim grunted back, grinning slyly over his shoulder as he trudged toward the house: "Do with it what you want. It's all yours."

After that, the Watermark Farm work crew (that's me and the four children) got to work. There was fencing to repair, hot wire to string. Barbed wire to remove. T-posts to cap. More T-posts to cap. Even more T-posts to remove and hide in a pile far away. Chicken eggs (that's my rent) to deliver. Pony rides (more rent) to give the granddaughter of Neighbor Jim.

Our four acres of pasture plus his three acres = 7 ACRES!! That sounds silly for those of you lucky enough to live someplace where you have acres and acres at your disposal, but here in Sonoma County, and especially the part we live in (a tiny pocket famous for its Pinot Noir grape growing mojo), land either has homes or grapes growing on it, and that which doesn't have either of these has a "For Sale to Big Corporate Winery" sign out front. Heck, billionaire wine guy and racehorse owner (think Curlin) Jess Jackson has a nice 'little' winery just down the road. Seven acres of horse pasture? Heaven!

I finished all the preparations on Saturday, my eyes puffy from Dancer's burial that morning. The horses still in a state of shock. Here's a picture of them, mourning (the black horse and the bay mare were especially affected, both of them part of Dancer's inner circle). They looked so depressed. What else could cheer them up besides a field of green?

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Sunday, my long-suffering husband installed the gate. We led the horses through the new gate (which really blew their minds --- an opening where there once was none) and around the new "annex." It was all a formality, really, because they were so intoxicated by the tall grass (as opposed to our fetlock high grass) that a jet airplane could have landed on the driveway and they wouldn't have looked up.

Argus seems to relish every step he takes out there. He follows Ridge like a puppy dog, observing his movements and mimicking him. Ridge has proven to be a valuable teacher and mentor, taking Argus under his wing (almost literally) when Argus feels insecure and starts his whole-body shaking (yes, he still does it). When my heart is heavy, I need only look at Argus out there to feel that all is right with the world again. It's been a lot of work, saving Argus, but here in the pasture, it all makes sense.

That's Andy the goat, by the way. He is Half Pint's friend. Everyone else pretty much tolerates him. And no, we don't leave the portly Half Pint out there long...

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Goodbye, Dancer

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This picture of Dancer was taken just two days before his death.

It has been a sad few days at Watermark Farm, and twice I've started to write about it, but twice I've closed the computer and walked away.

On Friday evening, as I was finishing the day's chores, our retired boarder "Dancer" galloped in from pasture. I watched him and the rest of "the boys" as I always do. They cantered around the big grassy pasture for a moment, then turned west and headed into the winter pasture, toward home. I turned away for a moment to pick up my wire cutters.

When I turned back, Dancer stood in the middle of the field, his right foot cocked. My intuition told me what my brain would later confirm: something was very wrong. I watched him for a moment, thinking that he'd stepped on a stone and would move on once the sting had subsided, but he stayed glued to the spot, unable to bear weight on his leg.

I've written about these moments before, the reach-for-your-cellphone-to-call-the-vet moments where everything seems suspended in time. I reached for my cell phone, only to find it missing. I screamed for the children. The girls ran out and brought me halters to catch the now alarmed herd, who ran circles around Dancer in a frantic effort to re-start their leader.

I cradled my cell phone in my hand for what seemed like an eternity, but in fact was only a moment, sadly aware that the calls I was about to make would change lives: Dancer's and his owner's.

Dancer stood calmly in his spot, his shoulder swelling rapidly. His pulse and respiration skyrocketed. I called for the girls to bring me a blanket. He was starting to sweat.

You know things are bad when you make the first call to the vet. It's not a "will you come and check this horse?" call, it's a "you need to get over here NOW --- we have a major emergency" kind of call. The vet arrived within 10 minutes.

The next calls were made with my heart in my throat. To Dancer's owner, a kind woman of ordinary means who has kept the 19-year-old Thoroughbred pensioned with us for four years. Dancer came into her life, abandoned at a boarding stable. He never really stayed sound, so after a couple of years of plunking away with him, she sweetly arranged for Dancer to spend the rest of his life boarded with us. For four years, she faithfully made, through rain and sun, sickness and family circumstance, the three-hour roundtrip to visit Dancer and make up his ziplock bags of grain. I grew to look forward to the sight of her little black car pulling into the barnyard on Sunday afternoon.

Dancer's owner left home and drove quickly, but time and circumstance were not on her side. The vet suspected that Dancer had fractured his scapula. Either way, the horse, now drenched with sweat, was in unspeakable pain. I delivered this news to her through tears, a kind of pleading. "Please let us put him down now. He is in so much pain. He cannot wait any longer." She was just 45 minutes away, driving quickly into the night to be with her Dancer.

The vet needed no instruction, he just sadly walked back to his truck when he saw he hold my cell phone to Dancer's ear. In this way, his beloved "mother" spoke her final words to him. He stood quietly and listened while she said her last goodbye.

Through the growing twilight, I saw the vet walk back toward me, two large, pink syringes in his hand. I got that familiar lump in my throat. A friend once described putting a horse down as "the loneliest feeling in the world." I think he is right.

Dancer left this world quickly, and with dignity. The last thing he heard was my voice as he fell to the ground. I quickly slid myself under his head and cradled him in my lap as he slipped away. I will miss him terribly.

People who say that these things do not affect animals are ignorant. That evening, I visited each horse in their paddock. They were restless, calling to one another. As I went to each one, I said "Dancer is gone and he is with the angels now." They sighed, taking a big, deep breath.

Early Saturday morning, a lovely man with a big backhoe arrived early. While he dug a grave on the outskirts of the property, I took each horse to see Dancer's body. Half Pint, his best friend, nuzzled his face and licked around his eyes. They all stared long and hard before investigating the body with a kind of grace and kindness. After a moment, they asked to be taken away.

Argus had watched everything from his paddock, from Dancer's last breaths to my "go see the body" procession. I questioned whether I should lead him out there, finally deciding that he deserved to go. I felt proud of him as he calmly walked out there, the backhoe grumbling nearby, and we stopped just short of Dancer. Argus very carefully approached the body, still wary of the dominant alpha horse. He slowly leaned down to sniff Dancer, exploring his face and neck. Then, like all the other horses had done, he seemed done looking, and wanted to go back to the barn.

Later that morning, once Dancer was laid to rest and his grave smoothed into a comforting mound, the girls decorated it with calla lillies and roses. We turned the horses back out into the pasture, watching them as they negotiated their way over to the freshly-turned earth.

A while later, I looked over to see a curious thing. Odie the mule and Argus had eaten all the roses, and Odie was curled up, sleeping, at the base of the grave. Argus and the other horses stood solemnly nearby, a little lost without their fearless friend.

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Dancer and Ridge enjoyed taking a mid-morning nap in pasture just last week