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The Horse Lover's Blog

Horse Pasture Weeds and Soil Carbon

My newest passion is soil carbon. Soil is where much of the atmospheric carbon that is causing so many headaches came from in the first place, and the good news is that we can put it back, quickly, using a very old technology called plants.
Plants build humus in soil through a process of feeding the bacteria and fungi that support plant growth, in a mutually beneficial cycle. Grazing can help or hurt that cycle. The good news is that permanent pasture accomplishes one main goal of soil-builders--not plowing. Opening the soil up to wind, rain, and sun leaches carbon out rapidly. So our hay fields and horse pasture are doing that much right.
And I feel pretty good about the hay fields with regard to carbon. Half of the field gets only manure, no chemical fertilizer. Fertilizer damages the carbon cycle--basically, the plants stop feeding their micro-organism buddies because they are getting fuel elsewhere, but as fertilizer is applied as a top-dressing, it encourages shallow roots.
The hay fields get lightly grazed in the spring. Pulses of grazing stress the plants in a good way, allowing even more carbon to build in the soils.
My concern is with my pasture, and whether I can afford to do what I would like to do--build carbon--and still keep my horses in good health. The problem with Morgans and Belgians is that they can't stand too much prosperity. Both breeds are prone to laminitis on rich pasture. Ideally I would be dividing my pasture into paddock and rotationally grazing them. But I don't have quite enough pasture during midsummer for that to work. If I bring up the fertility so the grass grows better, will I create a health problem?
This is something I'm committed to studying. The horses' health must come first, but I'd love a way that the soil could also be improved. The good news, for the horses and the soil, may be the weeds. With their deeper taproots, they access more minerals. If I clip them before they seed, they open up the soil as the roots die, reducing compaction. And horses do graze a number of these weeds, sometimes seasonally, which I believe is beneficial to their health. I just read an account from an English breeder of successful race horses, who never fertilized pasture, and believed that a healthy pasture for horses should support 50 weed species. I'll be out there counting this summer, and meanwhile, I'll go on researching. If you have experience in this area, I'd love to hear about it. Read More 
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Naturally Curious, Day By Day

It's muddy, icy, snowy, wet, and miserable out on the woodland trails right now, here in Vermont. But in a few months it will be trail riding weather.
In the meantime, we can dream and get prepared. One of the nicest ways is to pick up a copy of Naturally Curious, Day By Day, by Mary Holland. This gorgeous book takes you on a day by day tour of the Northeastern woods, fields, and marshes. Holland is a gifted photographer, and lucky. This book is like having your most fortunate day ever out in nature, and then having 351 more of them all in a row. From snow fleas so bobcats, ferns to foxes, Holland reveals the life going on all around us, and the tiny signs of events that are so easy to overlook. I found the book completely absorbing. I have given two copies away to elderly people who can't get out in the woods anymore, and they, too, found it fascinating.
So if that's you, if trail riding is just not happening for you anymore, Naturally Curious makes a very pleasurable substitute. And if you have lived in the woods for 35 years, as I have, I guarantee you'll be saying, about every other page, "I didn't know that."
I understand that was the reaction of the launch committee down at Storey Publishing, when they saw the first copy of The Horse Lover's Encyclopedia. I hope so. I would love to think that my book could also bring readers as much pleasure and education as Naturally Curious, Day By Day, has brought me. Read More 
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New Ancient Horse Discovered

A 700,000 year old horse fossil discovered in the Yukon Territory has yielded the oldest DNA ever decoded, according to Western Dig, a website devoted to the Ancient West. (Who knew there was such a site? I'm almost as excited about that as I am about the horse bones!)
The findings allowed scientists to date the shared ancestor or all equines (horses, donkeys and zebras) back 4 million years. Previously this ancestor had thought to date to 2 million years ago. Comparison between modern horse DNA, the Przewalski Horse, and a previous fossil, allowed them to establish a "molecular clock"--no, I don't understand this, but I appreciate it.
The article contains a link to another, which finds that humans in Oregon lived in the at the same time as a "stocky-legged" horse. Remains of both were found in caves. The paleontologist who examined the bones, Brianna McHorse (really!) believes that further analysis may help us understand if there were many types of horse in North America fourteen thousand years ago, or just a couple.
I'm curious about that, but also about the cave itself, and the Paleo-Indians who may have lived in it. I have always wondered about the meaning of the legend, which I think is widespread among American Indians, that their ancestors came out of a hole in the ground. Is this an ancestral memory of cave-dwelling? Or did the so-called "ice-free corridor" feel like living in a hole? Or what?
Somebody, build a time machine. Please!  Read More 
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Mysteries of Type and Blood

Looking at my two classically bred Morgan mares out eating their hay this morning, I admired for the umpteenth time Robin's beautiful long legs. She is a fourteen-two hand mare with a round barrel--I won't reveal what the weight tape said about her poundage. Let's just say she has well-sprung ribs!
Her elbow isabout level with my waist. The elbow of her companion, the fifteen-hand Woodgate Martha V, comes only up to my hip.
This evening I got out the weight tape to confirm this measurement. Indeed, there is a four inch difference. Robin is 36 inches at the elbow. Martha is 32 inches. Martha declared that in her former life she was only measured with an oak measuring stick with brass ferrule, the hundred-dollar or so kind, not a free grain store weight tape. So I was unable to compare their weights, and we have a little training project for tomorrow.
Both these mares have a lot of Flyhawk and old Government breeding. Martha V is by the tall, athletic stallion, UVM Springfield. Robin is by the small, athletic stallion River Echo Hamilton. At pasture running together, they often look startlingly alike, making the same head motions and flagging their tails in a similar way. Yet standing still, they are very different in type and conformation. It would take a wiser person than me to run through their bloodlines and see just where Martha gets her extreme depth of body, and the characteristic of being rather heavy on the forehand, and where Robin gets her race-horse balance.

Robin bears a startling resemblance to a classic trotting horse broodmare of the 19th century, Green Mountain Maid. She doesn't descend from the Maid, but shares crosses to Henry Clay and Iron's Cadmus, horses in the classic mare's pedigree. Green Mountain Maid has a statue in her honor out in California, and $10,000 was offered for her when she was 20 years old. The offer was turned down. (Thanks to the excellent research of Brenda Tippin for this info, and the photo of Green Mountain Maid which you can see by following the link. Same lovely long legs, same butt, same belly, same white hind feet, and very similar head. They could easily be mistaken for the same horse. I wouldn't take $10,000 for Robin, either.  Read More 
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Book Review: Lead With Your Heart

In Vermont in winter, my horse activities boil down to careful feeding, watering and shoveling, greetings and once-overs, and a lot of reading by the wood stove. I hope some of this reading will stay with me into spring and summer, when it's possible to work horses again.

A book I'm reading this winter is Lead With Your Heart; Lessons From A Life With Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton.

This beautiful small book is not a training manual, not a book of theory, not a story. Instead, 112 short meditations, each titled with a short aphorism, consider categories like Teaching and Learning, Energy and Emotion, and Breaking Through. Hamilton believes in good observation, in becoming still within, in taking the time it takes but not drilling the horse into a state of boredom. But my summaries don't give you the poetry of his writing; this is one to look at for yourself, to enjoy for the design as well as the words, to savor slowly, put down periodically while reading to think about your own horse, and situations you've been in with him.

We aren't all lucky enough to have a wise mentor in our lives, especially atthose crucial training moments. But if you read Lead With Your Heart slowly and thoughtfully, it may be that one of these aphorisms will come to mind at one of those moments. Like, "A windy day can make a horse stupid." Or, "More than four is a bore." (In other words, don't drill a new behavior to death. Three or four repeats, then do something else.) "Find the curve of compromise." That is, approach a horse's shoulder, on a curving line, greet, then turn away.

This paragraph stood out for me. "When the problem starts to seem too complex or stubborn, we need to stop. It means we are close to a new revelation. That is where the turmoil is coming from. There must be a moment of torque before there is traction . . . "

The book is illustrated with beautiful photo-collages by Robert Farkas, and is handsomely designed. Published by Storey in 2016. Read More 
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Your volunteer fire department

The fire department rescues Gale from a snowy ditch. Her legs weren't even touching bottom.
This is a cow story, but it applies to horse lovers and horse owners as well. Sometime in the wee hours, my parents wee cows, very short-legged, barrel-shaped Irish Dexters, went walkabout. They explored the hay barn and the shed where the grain is stored--safely in an old chest freezer. They ate all the bird seed out of the feeder.

Then they trudged a quarter of a mile up the road to the neighbors' house to check on their bird feeder. When my husband and I arrived to help, one cow was being escorted back down the road, one was waiting at home and mooing very loudly, and one was still at the neighbors, thinking about taking a shortcut through my horse fence.

I lured her away from that and we got her headed down the road, but when she came to our parked car she veered off into the ditch, which is especially deep in that spot and full of fresh snow. She floundered, sank, and gave up, apparently ready to wait there till spring. Clearly my husband and I and my 87-year-old dad were not going to shift her.

Enter the Westminster Fire Department. About twelve guys arrived with a Rescue truck and a winch, the sheriff parked at the top of the hill, my large animal vet and next door neighbor appeared on the scene, and after a lot of digging and thinking, they put soft shackles on her hind legs and dragged her out backward. Once they had her on the road they let her lie up on her breast for a few minutes while they spread kitty litter all around her. Then Stephen (the vet) bumped her in the shoulder with his knees while somebody else tailed her up. She got to her feet and headed for home, none the worse for her ordeal.

My takeaway--the volunteer fire department is the best, when you need a lot of muscle in a hurry. I appreciated how thoughtful and quiet they were, and knew they had the cow's health and safety in mind. If you own large animals in a rural area, get to know those guys. Donate, bake for them when they're on a rough call, or volunteer yourself if you are that kind of person. Sometimes large animal veterinarians give classes on rescuing animals. Maybe you could underwrite one for the education of your fire department.
Also, keep kitty litter on hand. I would not have thought of it, but I think a bucket rides around in every fire truck in Vermont, and that's as it should be. Thank you, guys! Read More 
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Bare Foot Police Horses

My beautiful barefoot boy. Still miss him!
I've kept my horses bare foot for most of my life. Not that I'm against shoes. I know they can be essential in certain situations, and they were invented for a reason, to solve the problems of a horseback, horse-drawn society. We are not that society anymore, and my horses are lightly ridden, mostly on grass. Atherton went 18 years never wearing shoes. Robin has never worn them. I've never bought boots for them, either.
I save a lot of money that way, and all other things being equal, I do believe it's best for horses to live as naturally as possible.

That said, it's interesting to see that Houston switched all its police horses over to bare foot several years ago, and has found that the horses' health has greatly improved. They have even seen a reduction in colic cases. It looks to me like there are other variables, like a new facility with turnout continuously available--probably the most important thing you can offer a horse. The switch was done thoughtfully, on an individual basis, and lo and behold, the hoof that evolved for plains and tundra is pretty decent on pavement too. Good to know!  Read More 
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Horses Are Not Human: Or, Why I Don't Blanket

Horses are not human.
Obvious, right? I don't mean they aren't persons, or individuals, or that they don't have feelings, or that I don't love them. I mean that they do not have human bodies, or human needs. They have horse needs, for horse bodies and minds that evolved in different circumstances than ours did.
I keep my horses beside a well-traveled road. That means the general public can see how they live and form opinions, and I'm sure many people would feel much happier to see my three wrapped up in cozy blankets.
But here's the deal. That's not what they evolved for. It's not what they need.
In a fascinating article on the Soul of a Horse blog, Natalja Aleksandrova discusses how horses' winter coats, and the fat they accumulate in the autumn, insulate them from cold. The ability of the hair to fluff up and stand out from the body, and the oil that prevents water from penetrating from the skin, can all be compromised by the tender loving care we give them. Blankets can flatten the coat. Grooming can remove the oils. A cozy winter stable can raise levels of ammonia (from urine, manure, and bedding) and cause lung problems.
So my horses stay unblanketed, with access to turnout 24/7. They generally go ungroomed from November until the hair starts to fly. I'll admit that I didn't know why these were good practices until today. They worked well for my horses for some 50 years, though, and now I know more about why. Read More 
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The Horse Lover's Blog

Another change in name for this far-too-occasional blog. But only yesterday did I realize what it should be called, and what it should focus on. (What can I say? Sometimes I'm a slow learner!)
My new book, coming in March, is the revised and updated Horse Lover's Encyclopedia, published by Storey. I spent months thinking about horses every single day. It was my job. Recently I wrote an article for Muse, the children's science magazine, about the horse blanket study--more on that later. In both cases I had a ball.
And yesterday I was thinking about difficult-to-trailer-alone horses, and found a study showing that horses with a mirror in the trailer travel much more calmly. I love that stuff! And that's what I'm going to do on this blog from now on.
Think of it as an extension to the encyclopedia, because we couldn't make that a bazillion pages long, and because new scitorence and new training methods are popping up every day. I'll try to keep up with it, and I'll try to help you do the same. Let me know if you like it.  Read More 
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Horse Books are All About Family

Horse books mean family for me. My earliest memory of a children's horse book is my father's nightly reading of Little Black, A Pony, or Little Black Goes to the Circus. They are early chapter books, among the easiest horse books for beginning readers at that time. (Now there are others, including the Cowgirl  Read More 
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