Is it Time to Retire Your Horse?

I get many calls this time of year from owners who are grappling with the effects of a long winter, and wondering if their beloved equine partner might be ready to retire. In fact, many of my owners contacted me long before they ultimately moved their horse here, and were able to get another season, or more, with their best friend before he began his retirement.

The most asked question I get is: how do I know when it’s time to retire? For you, the owner, it’s difficult to gauge, because you likely only ride your own horse, and sometimes the early signs of aging come on so gradually that you don’t really notice the change in your partner. A winter like this past one can make it seem as though your horse aged overnight. So here are some of the signs that your horse is ready for retirement, or signs that he may just need a fresh start with consideration for his age.

Age is a dominant factor. If your horse is less than 15 and doesn’t have any structural unsoundness issues (poor joint angulation or navicular disease are the two most common reasons for an early retirement), then a change in work may be all he needs to continue his job. If this winter meant that you were only able to ride once or twice a week, and your horse seemed unusually uncomfortable, then I would suggest giving him some time to get back into shape. A young horse gets into shape quickly, after ten it might take twice as long for him to return to the horse you have ridden in past years. Even with good turnout, horses didn’t get much exercise this winter. The snow was deep and they tended to “yard up” around the hay piles, self-restricting their activity to a 50 yard box. If your horse wasn’t ridden regularly or given free turnout in an indoor, then he likely is feeling as stiff as a couch potato would after three months of a sedentary life.

Many horses continue to compete well into their twenties, and most of those share two qualities: great conformational structure and an owner devoted to keeping them fit. As horses age, turnout is just as important to physical soundness as it was when he was young. With six hours or more of turnout on big fields and good slopes, horses can maintain their toplines as though they were working. Free work through turn out will keep your horse consistently mentally and physically sounder than any under saddle regime. However, regular under saddle work is also important, as he uses his body somewhat differently when ridden.

If your horse hasn’t been getting that this winter, then give him a few months to see how he improves before you decide to retire him; he may have many more months or even years to give you. On the other hand, if your horse has had more than two serious lay ups each year for more than a year, he may be telling you he can’t quite hack his workload any more. If he is “off” in a vague but uncomfortable way monthly, then he is likely heading to a change of work as well. Check his schedule, his farrier, his teeth, but consider if his work is really agreeing with him. Many horses simply can’t keep up their demanding work load, but return to complete soundness when they step down to a lower level of work, or a less stressful job. Think grand prix jumper moving to the juniors, or foxhunter becoming a trail horse.

So many times a retiree arrives stiffly moving off the trailer, only to return to complete pasture soundness two months later. The gentle hills at Broad Reach Farm and all day (or all night) turnout lend themselves to restoring soundness. Occasionally a younger retiree has been put back into work by their owner once they are back to looking right, but inevitably, unless the regime is changed, that horse has returned within three months. That horse has told his owner, “I feel great as long as I’m not working, but I’m just not up to the job anymore.”

Let’s hope we equestrians have paid our penance over the past two brutal winters, and we get repaid with a beautiful summer and benign winter next year. Both riders and horses should reap the benefits in being less stiff, and ready to go once again!

The Return of the Bald Eagle

“Look! Is that a Bald Eagle?!?”

Last week I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road as my real estate client swiveled and marveled and almost insisted I pull over to view what has become a not-too-uncommon sight in Columbia County – the magnificent flight of our nation’s symbol. I’m old enough to remember an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom concerning the debate of whether our last remaining bald eagles in the wild should be captured to preserve them before their extinction. I honestly never thought I would see a bald eagle in the wild, and I didn’t think about it again for the next thirty years.

My first sighting was about four years ago while riding across my neighbor’s property, and just like my passenger last week, I was truly incredulous. I cantered my horse faster to keep the giant bird in view just so that I could verify again and again what I was seeing, a white head, white on the legs, and an unbelievably giant wingspan. When I returned to the house I googled the finding, and sure enough, I learned that there was a nesting pair not two miles from Broad Reach Farm.

A sighting is still rare enough to make me take extraordinary notice every time, but I’ve had enough of them now that I can spot them more readily. I haven’t been myself, but apparently there is a place on the Hudson River where you can often see a dozen of the mighty predators fishing in the confluence of a tributary with the river. It would be worth the trip, and I only wish that I could bring Marlin Perkins with me.

Saying Goodbye

“Persistence” named herself. I brought her home the first weekend in February, 2000, a speck of white puppy with the most beautiful black and tan markings on her head that I’d ever seen on a Jack Russell. Brady and Grace were three and five, and the puppy found the white flounce on Brady’s favorite dress entirely irresistible. The only thing equally enticing was the way Grace’s sleeper feet flopped in front of her toes when she came down the stairs each morning. She was just a puppy, so we were patient, removing her to her crate when she attacked the floppy sleeper feet, showing amazing strength for such a scrap of a dog as she pulled three-year old Grace down to the ground one more time. Grace was tough, but everyone has their limits. Brady was more distraught, the flounce on the skirt as it bounced along at Brady’s knees had been attacked by the puppy enough that it was gradually turning brown with puppy spit and in several spots had pulled entirely away from the dress. The puppy was winning, and Persistence was clearly winning out over patience.

It took almost three years for Percy to be released from daily penance in her crate. She jumped from the floor to the kitchen counters to scramble after any food item left on a dish. She “rid” us of the girls’guinea pigs and was proud of her accomplishment. She attacked our older dogs, Champ and Tonto, two huge male dogs, who allowed her to hang from their hairy chests as she growled and torqued her body to try to bring them to the ground. She taught Champ to be her wingman in hunting our chickens, and frequently succeeded in getting them to cross the invisible fence line to their demise. Faith was born a year after Percy arrived, and Percy had to be banned from the car for several years, as any sighting of another dog could turn her into a canine missile, scrambling without regard for anyone’s safety to get to the nearest window and defend her territory. But at night, Percy always redeemed herself for her day’s misdeeds. She curled up with whichever child needed her most, and when we went to search her out before we locked up for the night, she had always nestled herself under the crook of a little arm.

From the time Percy turned five, she was irreproachable. She kept the farm rodent-free, she entertained family and guests with endless ball games, unleashing incredible speed to outmatch the largest competitor, she could leap five feet, hovering in the back door window for a moment before falling back to the earth, and repeating the process until someone noticed she wanted to come in.   And of course she salved the wounds of childhood with nightly ministrations of love and affection.

Last year, when Percy was fourteen, she was diagnosed with small tumors. Arthritis had slowed her down, but she was still game for a long walk every day, she played hard with Brady’s little dog, Mighty, and she was still my favorite companion on long trips. She went with me to Aiken for three months last winter, and I’m pretty sure that she enjoyed the sunshine every bit as much as I did on the wide porch overlooking the piney woods. Cancer didn’t seem to be affecting her at all.

But then came a Monday last week when she didn’t eat her breakfast and just lay there looking at the bowl. Mighty and Max wouldn’t even think of touching her bowl, but she didn’t seem to care. Surely it was just a stomach ache, even if we couldn’t remember a time Percy didn’t want to eat anything and everything. But it didn’t change through the day, and then our long-time vet, Alan Topol, gave us the bad news. For four days we tried pain killers and medications, but Percy didn’t eat. She went to a Hotchkiss hockey game and snuggled with Grace. The third day she played with Mighty, for just a minute, but of course, to win. We held her and cried and watched her leave us in front of the fire in her bed.

Sometimes I wonder why we choose to have pets in our lives. Kittens destroy the furniture, climb up your dresses in the closet, and bring small animals into the house to torture, often letting them go and losing them in the process. Puppies wake you as often as a newborn baby, pee everywhere and continue to chew indiscriminately and jump on unsuspecting guests for at least a year. But then they spend years with us; they never question our motives or achievements; they dole out love as unconditionally as one could ever ask for. Tonight, Max is curled at my feet, and Shady the tortoiseshell is purring deeply as she kneads my lap into a soft space, both of them delivering comfort in the ways they know best. How can I imagine life without them? Surely, one time we will never have to be the one to say goodbye.

The Week of Lazy

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a story about the American Week of Lazy between Christmas and New Years. Apparently across the country, millions spend the week primarily on their devices, eating carryout, and sleeping. Here in Columbia County, the week of lazy is pretty evident too, but it certainly is different than the Journal’s image.

On Broad Reach Farm, I know we are well into the week of lazy when I can start the fires in the morning simply by brushing away a top layer of ash and heaping some paper and kindling on the still red hot coals from the night before. The stones are still hot under my hands, radiating into the cold room. The fires are roaring within minutes, and everyone feeds them all day long, because everyone is home to do it. I know fires are raging in other houses because when we go out for long walks down the country lanes, the air is tangy with woodsmoke and in the low lying areas you can occasionally see a small cloud of smoke hovering amongst the trees like a scene from A Christmas Carol.

The Journal reports that exercise enthusiasts use the week of lazy to exercise more than ever, and perhaps I do see more bicyclists clad in neoprene whizzing along the roads, but mostly I see everyone walking. I try to walk every morning, but its usually jammed into the fifteen minutes between barn chores and real estate appointments or driving the children, and sometimes that fifteen minutes vanishes altogether. I rarely see anyone else on my walk. This week though, all my neighbors are out on the roads, and with them are children, dogs and houseguests, and everyone has the luxury of time to stop and chat about their holiday.

Often those chats lead to a cup of coffee in front of the fireplaces, and those impromptu visits simply augment the social scene of the week of lazy in Columbia County. Where the rest of the world is ordering carryout, here the fabulous kitchens all seem to be in full swing, and there are too many luncheons, open houses, sledding parties, and full scale dinners being hosted to attend all the invitations. If we weren’t all walking so much, we’d be too supersized to get back in our cars at the end of the week.

I’m sorry to see the week coming to an end. Yesterday I took my oldest son back to the airport for his return to LA, and I was sorry to see him fold up the Irish knit sweater he had worn all week and put it back on the shelf in the closet. It will be waiting for his next visit and it will still smell like wood smoke. I hope the week of lazy never changes here.

Reclamation

For the past twenty years, I have witnessed Mother Nature’s inexorable reclamation of pasture and crop fields that took the residents of Columbia County nearly 200 years to clear and maintain as productive agricultural land.  In the 1800’s it was a ten year commitment to tame a field, clear the trees, defeat the undergrowth, and augment the soil with animal waste until it was ready to produce a crop.  It takes Mother Nature far less time to render that acreage unsuitable for anything but the hardiest animals, and in a mere twenty years she can see a productive field turned into a young woodland.

Nature’s most effective and first assault is the burdock plant.  Armed with a thorny shell, the burdock seed adheres like gorilla glue to any passing fur or cloth and was, literally, the inspiration for Velcro.  While the burdock plant thereby spreads its seed as far as its host might suffer the seed pod remaining attached, the plant itself is no less tenacious.  Burdock grows a root like a tentacle into the bowels of the earth, and should some human wish to extricate it by attempting to dig it up, the perennial root will regenerate from only a tiny shred of the massive root.  The only way to defeat burdock is to mow it down, season after season, until it finally dies off without the benefit of producing its prickly seed pods.

One season of a field left fallow is sufficient to allow the burdock to become insidious, and by the second season the second round attack will begin:  wild roses proliferate, and honeysuckle follow not far behind. Both may be shallow rooted but their rapid growth soon makes them nearly impossible to eradicate without a chainsaw, and in the shelter of their massive canopy, the seeds of hardwoods and wild cedars are quick to gain a footing.  By season four, the field left fallow will barely resemble the field once farmed.

This is what I have witnessed over the past twenty years: one field after another turning unrecognizable. When I was a child riding my horses in the suburbs of Washington D.C., I saw my horse pastures also taken over, but they disappeared into subdivisions and malls, without a pause of overgrowth.  Where a pasture gate hung in July, a newly paved road was opened in May.  I confess I preferred the Columbia County method of losing land to that which I witnessed in Virginia.

However, the past year has been a revelation.  I have watched three large pastures being reclaimed over the past year, not by Nature, but by farmers, diligently doing as their predecessors did 150 years ago, mowing, cutting trees and reclaiming the fabulous soils of Columbia County to produce for the tables of New York and beyond once again.  Even more interesting has been the process by which it has been done.  Kinderhook Farm undertook a massive project, cutting down a stand of non-native pines that were planted across Columbia County in the 1970’s as a potential cash crop which proved to be not worth the money to harvest.  Now that these pines are dying off on their own, Kinderhook Farm undertook the clearing project to return those acres to pasture with the help of massive bulldozers.

On Route 217, there is a more primitive process underway.  There a small organic farm took hold on acreage long ago abandoned for farming.  First fencing appeared, seemingly around nothing worth fencing in, but inside the fence were goats and sheep who gradually chewed back the undergrowth until eventually grass reappeared and now there is enough for a few hardy ponies and a cow or two.  Travel further north, and along 203 there is a large pasture that was once planted in corn and hay, but for four years had been rarely visited with any agricultural effort.  Just over the past summer, the field was mowed repeatedly, and even a crop of cattle hay round baled.  Just in the past weeks, fencing was installed and the pasture now looks ready to productively house a small herd of Columbia County’s newest cash crop: grass fed organic beef.

If the economy of food production means that our fertile fields in Columbia County can now support the farmers that would work them, it can only be a good thing for the people and the land of Columbia County.  Come to the county and see what organic farming is doing to help us retain our agricultural heritage.