Thursday, August 30, 2007

Eating Weeds

We have big pasture problems. It turns out the weeds are no laughing matter. The horses have been eating them. Harley and the new pony, Apache, are covered in hives. Apache’s are pretty bad. Some of them are breaking open and I’m watching to make sure he’s breathing okay. Do you give a horse Benadryl for an allergic reaction like you do a child or a dog? I bought a bottle just in case. Maybe I should have bought ten bottles. Horses are big.

The problem is we never mowed the fields. There was no grass to mow. The grass was iffy when we moved in and then with the drought, what was there, turned to dirt. Except for the weeds. I’ve learned that I’ve got every toxic thing that they make in Virginia. Jimson weed, pigweed, hickory nuts, acorns, cherry trees, red maple. We have beggar’s lice. I don’t know if that one is poisonous but it certainly sounds like trouble. Pokeweed is poisonous when it gets higher than a few inches. Ours is about as tall as the barn. I have an assorted variety of plants in the deadly nightshade family. There might be a persimmons out there but we couldn’t be sure from a distance, and the vet, who pointed it all out to me, didn’t volunteer to go out there and investigate.

The vet was here last week to examine Apache, the pony who was too good to be true. He did a lameness exam and a neurological exam as much as a country doctor in the field, literally, could do an exam, and he and his assistant and the neighbors who came over to watch pronounced this to be a perfectly fine pony. The vet took a vial of blood to hold just in case Apache goes berserk in a month and we need to test it for drugs, but he laughed and assured me, “You just bought yourself a nice pony.” Then they went on to chitchat about the brothers Lester, Darryl and Billy-Bob down the road who are grown men that ride four-wheelers with a big Confederate flag flying off the back of one of them and who are having a fish fry on Labor Day weekend. Everyone’s invited.

I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to get the vet out again until it was time to do the horses’ Coggins tests next year but then they got the hives. It’s always something, no matter where you live; either animal, vegetable or mineral. In New Jersey, it was mud and the people who moved down from Staten Island because they liked the country living and then promptly plowed everything over and complained that the horses drew flies and the chickens made noise. In Oklahoma, it was rattlesnakes and coyotes, almost as bad as the New Yorkers and just as cranky. If there were any poisonous weeds on that property, the horses didn’t zero in any because they had 110 acres of World Class Bermuda grass to dine on.

I don’t know if I have any black walnut trees here like I had a forest of in Ferrum. Black walnut shavings will cause a horse to founder but not the leaves or the bark. There are saplings that look similar. They are either trees-of-heaven or black walnuts. I haven’t gotten around to going over and breaking off a piece to smell it—trees-of-heaven stink to high heaven, hence the nickname stink-trees. Either way, I am sure it will be something toxic.

Normally we would have gotten out there with the tractor even though there was no grass and mowed the weeds down just because they’re an eyesore. But we were busy moving in, doing projects, fixing fence. Mowing weeds was low priority. Now the horses are entertaining themselves with them. Basically having a party out there. Even though I give them plenty of hay to keep them busy, they’re not quite busy enough because there’s no grass and being grazing animals, they’re bored. They’re like a bunch a teenagers slouching on the street corner with their hands in their pockets and too much time on their hands looking for trouble. I’ve seen them take a nibble on all sorts of things. Yesterday Bullet and Minnie were munching on something that looked prehistoric. I chased them away and went to pull it out. As soon as I touched it I jumped back and screamed. It was covered with microscopic thorns like fiberglass. Dumb-asses. That’s what Kurt calls the horses; dumb-asses.

Right now I have the pony locked in the barn so he can’t get to whatever he’s been into. He doesn’t like being cooped up inside by himself so I put Bullet in the stall across from him to keep him company and they whinny now and then—“Hey, have you forgotten us in here?” Sometimes there’s a thump. Someone’s kicked a wall. I hear a bucket clanking around. They are playing with it and so I’ll have to go and make sure they didn’t empty all their water out. I don’t like stalling my horses because it isn’t natural for a horse to be confined but until the vet comes back on Monday, the least I can do is keep Apache away from the weeds.

The other day my friend had me so freaked out about having Jimson weed all over the place that I got out there and pulled it all up by hand. There I was, out in the blazing sun, wearing gloves and plastic goggles because I was afraid the stuff was going to give me hallucinations, tugging and pulling and ripping it out by the roots if at all possible. I was paranoid. I kept thinking, am I feeling something funny? Are my eyes burning? Am I getting heat stroke or am I high? Oh no, I just touched my nose!

I pushed wheelbarrows full of it, piled high, down to the manure pile by the back gully where all the brush is waiting to be burned one day. Now and then I hit a rock and a clump fell off. I ran over it and had to stop and pick it all up. It got caught in the wheel like how a carpet fiber gets tangled around the roller in the vacuum cleaner and you have to stop to unravel it. After I dumped it, black seeds were still in the wheelbarrow. This is the bad part dumb teenagers eat to get high and sometimes die. They should know better. They are the real dumb-asses.

I poured out the seeds. What else was I going to do with them? There was no where else to put them. I know we’re going to have an even bigger problem on our hands next spring since we let everything go to seed this year. According to the internet, I’ll have to get an herbicide. That probably means we’ll need to buy a piece of expensive equipment to distribute it. We’re not talking about backyard garden beds here. I have acres.

I made an appointment with someone from the agricultural extension agency to come over and advise us. An expert in weeds and seeds and animal feed. Whenever you call them, they are eager to help, as if they live for educating city slickers like me about pasture management. And best of all, it’s free. Hopefully she’ll get us all straightened out and this won’t happen again.

On Monday, the vet will be back. I hope that this isn’t an indication of things to come. It reminds me of when we moved to Ferrum and I begged the large animal vet, who wasn’t accepting any new clients, to please take me on. I assured him I had healthy animals and I gave my own shots so I would only need to call him in the rare emergency. I had that vet out so many times in the first year that he claimed we purchased his vacation home. He’d leave and I’d have another sick horse so fast that I’d have to call him back before I even got the bill from the first time. Kurt got to the point where he said, “Just give him a blank check.”

Maybe Lester, Darryl and Billy-Bob have the right idea. Four-wheelers don’t eat things that aren’t good for them and they don’t bang their buckets and kick their stall doors when they’re bored. In fact, you don’t have to do a darn thing with them unless you want to go riding. Maybe we’re the dumb-asses.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Praying For Rain

Nothing is in my pasture except pokeweed. Well, there are other kinds of weeds. Morning glories count since they grow wild. There is something I don’t know the name of—purple Velcro pods stick up out of the cracked orange dirt—prehistoric-looking things surely kin (I’m trying to pick up the lingo around here) to Venus fly traps. These are things that look like they should be on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are sticky vines sprawling like spiders and plants with spikes and spines somehow both ugly and beautiful at the same time. There are stickers, thorns, nettles and burrs, thick stems that splash liquid when you chop one (we call it milkweed, though I have no idea what milkweed is), and tangles and knots of something drying up it’s easy to get your foot caught in when pushing a wheelbarrow through the gully looking for manure to pick up.

But there’s no grass. Somehow the weeds flourish in a drought but everything else stops growing. Maybe it’s Mother Nature’s way of evening the score. Weeds get such a bad rap. Everyone hates them. Perhaps they deserve to have gotten an extra dose of hardiness from whoever decides what’s what.

I’ve given up on my petunias. I put all the baskets in the wheelbarrow and dumped them in the manure pile. No matter how much I watered them, they dried up. I don’t know what we did wrong. We did exactly what the guy at the nursery said to do. We bought everything he told us to buy. Little white balls that slowly release nutrients. Special disease-free soil so soft you could lay a baby in it and so expensive I considered panning for gold. Something liquid in a spray bottle and metal wire baskets lined with brown moss. But nope. None of it worked. We’ll never do that again. From now on it’s the $5.99 pots from Wal-Mart that you just hang up and throw away come the fall.

Sometimes I dump tomatoes in the manure pile but I put them in the pile farthest away from the horses so they rot before the horses know they’re there and eat them. I don’t know if they’ll give the horses colic. I have three manure piles. One is by the barnyard right next to the barn. Pokeweed and pigweed is growing all over it. The other one is in the front pasture by the tobacco shed and where you wouldn’t know it’s there because weeds taller than a man cover it. It’s a jungle in that part of the pasture. The third one is down by the gully. When I’m picking up manure, I empty the wheelbarrow into the pile that is the closest. Someday Kurt will scoop them up with the tractor and push it all into the gully in the back. The gully is filled with split, splintered trees from when the old owner bulldozed them all over to make another pasture. It is a skeleton of rotting wood that shifts and moves according to the amount of rain and wind we get. We haven’t gotten any rain in a long time.

We want to burn all that wood. It is dangerous to climb on and it’s an eyesore, plus, it takes up space that could be made into more pasture. Someday, when we get up the nerve, we’re going to light a match. But I’m scared. Even though we had the firemen over here to advise us about doing it. It’ll be a big blaze. It’ll be a ball of fire. People far and wide will exclaim, “Holy smoke!” And my well is iffy. What if a cinder floats innocently over this way and lands on the house? My water is practically worthless. I can turn the hose on for five minutes exactly and then the well is empty. Then what do I do? Wait for it to fill back up again and prime the pump while my house is burning down?

This well might have been fine for the pig farmer who used to live here. There were no dishwashers and no pools. They watered animals like I do but the farm consisted of much more than the eleven acres I own that has no water source—no creeks or ponds—and no doubt included the creeks that are now on the adjoining properties. But someone sold off this piece a while back with no water.

For me, it’s a problem. I have to conserve the water. It works okay if you don’t use it all at one time. You have to spread it out. For example, I water the horses after Kurt takes his shower and I water the garden in the evening. I stick the hose in the pool to refill what has evaporated after Kelly has gone to bed and I put a load of laundry in the washer at midnight. We warn the others when we’re using the hose, “I’m using water, don’t flush the toilet!” and we make plans to wash the car or bathe a horse. It’s an inconvenience. Alright, it’s a pain in the ass. And it’s actually pretty scary because I always worry that the water is going to run out and this time we’re not going to be able to get it back on again. We have five horses who drink ten gallons of water per day each. That’s a lot of water. It would be a hardship if we had to buy fifty gallons of water every day down at the Wal-Mart just for the horses alone if we ran dry and had to wait for the well guys to get over here and dig us a new well.

I keep telling Kurt, let’s schedule it now. Let’s not wait until it goes dry for good and then we’re under the gun. What if the well guys are backed up and we can’t get them right away? But it’s one of those things that’s not fun to buy. It costs a lot of money and you don’t actually see anything for all of your pain. It’s about as satisfying as getting the yearly maintenance done on your furnace. You don’t see anything different but you know it’s got to be done. It’s not even as exciting as putting a new roof on. At least there, you have a couple of choices—black, grey, green, red, the new architectural tiles, metal. Digging a well, you don’t even have a color choice.

And now we’re having a drought. I wonder—will I finally use too much and whatever is down there will dry up hard as a rock like the dirt in the pasture? It can’t be an endless supply. I am praying for rain. I hate rain. I am outside all the time with the animals and rain puts, no pun intended, a damper on things. But this time I am wanting some.

My pasture is not the only one that’s all dried up and filled with weeds. Farmers are using hay they stored away for the winter to feed their cattle now. There may not be a second cutting of hay this season because nothing has grown. Therefore, hay will be in short supply and very expensive, if it can be had at all. We are about finished building our hay shed but I don’t have any faith that I will be able to get anything to fill it up with. It’s always something on the farm. Either I can get plenty of hay and have no where to put it or I have a place to store it but can’t get any.

I don’t know what happens down here when there’s a drought. Is it possible that animals will go hungry? My horses are starting to nibble the weeds even though I give them hay every day. They come up to the barnyard with burrs in their forelocks. They are desperate. They should be knee-deep in grass right now but they’re not and so there’s nothing to do.

If this keeps up, I expect to see tumbleweeds blowing across the pasture. I can pretend I’m back in Oklahoma again. The only good part is I haven’t mowed the lawn a half dozen times this season. But somehow, still, I’ve pulled plenty of weeds.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Good Old Country Pony

We got a pony. He’s too good to be true. This is the one that I’ve been looking for since Kelly outgrew her first pony, Minnie, five years ago. He’s dead quiet which is really surprising since he’s seven-years-old. I looked at his teeth and confirmed that. He’s about seven.

I keep thinking he must be drugged because he’s too good and quiet. I’ve had some quiet horses before but never any this quiet. I got him from a horse trader but that doesn’t mean anything. Kurt and I got three of our best horses from a horse trader. Nothing wrong with being in the horse business. Who wouldn’t want to sell horses for a living? It’s much better than plumbing supplies or insurance. But they do have a reputation for doing bad things like unloading bad horses on unsuspecting buyers. In my defense, I didn’t know he was a horse trader until we got down there. This one was exactly within my traveling range—two hours south into North Carolina.

I asked the horse trader—let’s call him Gus—what he knew about the pony. In the ad, he was described as green but suitable for an advanced beginner. I wouldn’t have necessarily agreed he was green. I could tell he had a lot of handling—nothing bothered him. A tractor trailer that suddenly roared by didn’t make him flick an ear. A dog ran up behind him and he didn’t blink an eye. Gus’s boy (that’s what he called him, “the boy,” though he had a mustache and was old enough to have boys of his own) got on him bareback with only a halter and a lead rope and he was a perfect gentleman. He was handled alright but he had no professional training; that was it. He didn’t turn well and didn’t know how to back or neck rein; that kind of thing. So I asked Gus if he knew what the pony had done in the past and he said, “Nope, he’s just a good old country pony.”

At least we got him on the trailer and were on the way home before Kelly named him. She is calling him Apache. He’s another Paint, but this one is better than the last. This one is a black-and-white Paint and he’s beautiful. He’s perfect for Kelly because he’s 14 hands high, small enough for her to crawl on him by herself but big enough that by all rights, she can ride him into her adulthood. And with him being so well-behaved and quiet, after doing a little training and making sure there’s nothing bad going on under the hood, I could have her riding him in a couple of weeks. He is perfect. And so I started to worry. Is he drugged? Is he lame? Something must be wrong. I got him too cheap.

I was glad John the blacksmith was coming the next morning after we got him because John is also a horse trader and he knows about drugging. Not that he’s ever done it himself. Only the bad guys do that kind of thing—the ones who stand down in the ring at the horse auctions instead of sitting in the bleachers like the rest of us and who call out, “Sells one hundred percent sound!” when a horse goes by who obviously has a big knot on his leg like an egg and who is missing an eye and maybe the other leg.

Plus, the pony needed his feet done. They were short but they were all broken off and ragged. The angle was wrong and I was concerned he might have had a club foot, but thank God, John ruled that out. He told me a couple of the signs of being drugged and the pony may or may not have them. When you start scrutinizing and worrying, you think you’re seeing all kinds of things.

Me: OhmyGod, why is he laying down?

John: They’re all lying down, it’s naptime.

Me: His thing was hanging out last night for a few minutes. (The penis of drugged horse will hang out of its sheath because he is so relaxed.)

John, laughing: They all come out now and then.

Me: What about that lip? Doesn’t it look looser than normal? His lip is drooping!

John: His lip is fine.

John said he didn’t think the pony was drugged but I’d know for sure in a couple of days when it wears off. Or a month if fluphenazine was used. Fluphenazine is an anti-psychotic drug they use for schizophrenic people, but some horsemen give it to horses because it calms them down and makes them focus. It is illegal in the show world and to use on racehorses. John said they don’t use that one very often because it’s expensive and its results are unpredictable, so I shouldn’t worry. Now I’m worrying that he was just trying to get me to stop worrying.

Let me add two really stupid things we did that I believe give me the right to worry. We thought we saw a little mark on the pony’s neck, in the triangle spot where shots are given, but we didn’t say anything. Kurt pointed it out to me and we bugged our eyes at each other when Gus’s back was turned and whispered. But we didn’t ask him about it. We were too polite. Hey, what’s this? Are you drugging this horse? What an insult. Gus probably would have chased us off his property with a shotgun. The last thing we, as Yankees, want to do is offend people. We have a bad enough reputation as it is. And so I think we go overboard in the other direction. We go out of our way to be nice, to prove we are not that kind of Yankee. And therefore, though we also have a reputation for being slick and street-smart, which we are, we sometimes ignore our instincts and our experience and become the ones who get burned. Besides, the pony had lots of little marks on him. It was a balmy evening and the bugs were swarming. We forgot about it.

The other stupid thing we did was we paid cash and didn’t get a receipt. Kurt even asked me if I wanted one! But no, I was so high on the deal we just made for the perfect pony that I said, “Naw, we don’t need one,” shrugged my shoulders and he didn’t press it. I guess he was high on the pony as well. On the ride home, realizing what a serious mistake we might have made, we reprimanded each other—if one of us messes up and does something blatantly stupid, the other one has to catch it!

Our only saving grace is that after we were all loaded up and were ready to pull out with our pony we got no receipt on from a horse trader in another state whose last name we were unsure of, Gus stopped us and said, “Now if there’s any reason you don’t like him, you just don’t get with him or something, you can bring him back and I’ll find you something else.” I keep telling myself, he didn’t have to say that. We were happy and it was a done deal. We were leaving. We were practically out on the highway. If he was trying to rip us off on this pony, he wouldn’t have said anything.

The next day after John the blacksmith did the pony’s feet, I thought I saw him limping but I couldn’t be sure. The day after that, I thought I saw it again, but I still couldn’t be sure. He’s a lazy pony and I don’t know whether that’s because he’s just so mellow or something’s wrong but we couldn’t get him trotting long enough for me to be able to tell whether or not he was really lame. I was about ready to have a heart attack running alongside of him in the blazing sun, dragging him along, trying to look back at the same time to see if his head was bobbing and if it was, which foot it was bobbing on. So on the third day, I threw him in the round pen and I got Kurt to help me watch. It was hard to get him going. I could tell he’d never been in a round pen before and my lunge whip, ten million years old, is missing the long cord on the end that you use to make a popping sound to move the horse forward. But I finally got him trotting long enough to get a good look and he wasn’t limping.

“I told you, you’re seeing things.” Kurt said. “This pony is fine. If he was limping, which I doubt, it was probably because he just got trimmed. But he ain’t limping now.”

“I know. You’re right,” I agreed. “It’s just that he’s so nice! It’s too good to be true! Why would someone sell a nice pony like this?”

“Maybe their kid outgrew him?”

“But why didn’t they sell him to someone they knew? Why didn’t they keep him for the grandkids? We kept Minnie. No one parts with the nice ones.”

“Maybe they didn’t want to feed him till they have grandkids. Maybe they got out of horses. Maybe they needed the money. I don’t know!”

I could tell he was getting mad so I promised to stop worrying.

However, when we took him out and gave him a nice cool bath, I started up again. He was so well-behaved, I couldn’t believe it. The only thing he did was raise his head a half inch when I went up by his face with the hose. Otherwise, he stood stock still and let Kelly scrub him all over. How could he be so nice and he wasn’t double what I paid? Even down here, I would expect to pay more for a pony like this and if I brought him up to Jersey right now without clipping a hair off his nose, I could get four times what I paid!

Kurt asked Kelly if she wanted to sell him. I never saw a dirty look like that before.

The fact is, I will not be able to sleep until I get the vet out here to take a look at him. Being that he’s a good old country pony he probably hasn’t had his teeth floated or his sheath cleaned anyway and so I made an appointment for the vet to come and do a whole bunch of stuff including a lameness exam. I will also ask him about drawing a vial of blood to hold in case the pony suddenly goes crazy in a month and I need to prove he was drugged and that we didn’t do anything to him. That’s a common tactic of dirty dealers—“Oh, you must have messed him up. He was fine when you got him.” So I’ll ask the vet to hold some blood.

In the meantime, I will try not to look a gift horse in the mouth.