Many of you saw the post a few weeks ago about Floating a Horse. Our vet, Dr. Gene Koo Kang, had come to the farm to float (file down) Buck’s teeth. We had planned to float Leah’s teeth that day as well but backed off when we became concerned her arthritic front legs wouldn’t be able to hold her up while she was under sedation. In order to do the procedure, we decided, some kind of support system would have to be rigged.
So Bob, who loves rigging things, went to work. He found an old piece of leather on the farm and cut slits into it so he could thread cargo straps through it to make a sling. Then he hung the sling from the top bars of our vetting stanchion and cushioned the leather with a saddle pad. Finally, he dragged the whole thing into the soft dirt of the arena to eliminate any risk of Leah slipping on the barn’s concrete floor.
Everything was ready and waiting when Dr. Kang returned to the farm this weekend to vaccinate the herd and hopefully float Leah’s teeth. He thought the contraption looked good, so he and Bob carefully walked Leah into the stanchion and secured the sling under her belly. We had no idea how she would react to the sling, but Leah is a very good horse. She remained calm and cooperative the whole time, even while Bob ratcheted up the cargo straps to tighten the sling around her.
Then came the moment of truth. It was time to sedate Leah. Now, I am sure slings of this nature have been used throughout the equine world before, but we had never seen one used or done it ourselves. We wouldn’t know if the sling would work until Leah was sedated. So Dr. Kang gave her the injection. And we waited to see what would happen.
And do you know what? It worked! As we expected, Leah’s arthritic front legs stopped working just as soon as the sedative hit her. If not for the sling, she would have collapsed inside the vetting stanchion. Instead, she just slumped into the padded sling and seemed about as happy as a horse can seem when it’s hanging from a sling. We were all greatly relieved to see the sling working without causing Leah any worry or pain.
With Leah comfortable and secure, Dr, Kang was able to take a good look at her teeth. It had been a while since her last floating and most of her back molars had sharp points on them. Pointy teeth, like the one in the right foreground of her mouth in the photo, can cause painful sores in a horse’s mouth. Bob noticed a calloused spot on Leah’s tongue, likely caused by one of the points.
Leah hung in there (pun intended, just this once) while Dr. Kang floated the points down with power tools. A chin stand and his assistant, Payton, supported Leah’s head while he worked. If you’ve never held up a horse’s head, it’s hard to appreciate just how heavy they can be. The head and neck of a horse make up about 10% of its body weight. Leah weighs in at about 700 pounds, so her head a good 70 pounds! And she’s a pretty small horse. (Buck’s head/neck probably weigh about 110 pounds).
Because Leah’s teeth had been neglected for a while, her front teeth, or incisors, were horribly overgrown. In fact, her teeth had gotten so long they sometimes stuck out further than her lips when she reached for a carrot. When a horse gets this long in the tooth (not a pun, that’s what that means), it can’t chew its food well enough to release the nutrients. So, even if the horse is eating, it’s not being nourished. For Leah, her overgrown teeth have been making it hard for her to put on weight no matter how much we feed her.
To correct the problem, Dr. Kang used a hand file to file down Leah’s incisors, top and bottom. It’s precision work. He had to get each row of teeth even and the two rows filed down to just the right height in relation to each other so that the top teeth and bottom teeth close over each other in a smooth bite. It took a lot of patience and elbow grease, but when he was finished, Leah’s teeth looked beautiful. Not being so long in the tooth anymore, she might even be able to pass for a younger horse, which I am sure will please her, because she has her eye on Twister and he’s just a three-year old.
An hour after Bob and Dr. Kang led Leah into the stanchion, Shella led her out. She emerged relaxed and not at all traumatized by what had just happened. Shella took advantage of Leah’s relaxed state to give her a quick bath, and then Leah was turned her out in her pasture, where she spent the afternoon grazing in the sunshine, finally able to grind all of the important nutrients out of the spring grass with her newly floated teeth.
And so, I am calling it a job well hung (OK, one more pun. Last one, I promise). For those of you tracking the vineyard, no bud break just yet. Our freezing temperatures overnight seem to have slowed down the buds a bit. I haven’t noticed much change over the past few days. But it’s supposed to warm up to 70 degrees tomorrow. So there is still a good chance we will see green leaves before the end of March. More soon.
Most people assume I have horses so I can ride them. And I do. But the truth is, as much as I love riding, I love taking care of horses even more. And so, I thought it would be fun to share a little of what happens when our vet pays a ranch call to the farm. Dr. Gene Koo Kang came by over the weekend to “adjust” and “float” our retired race horse, Buck, and he was kind enough to let me snap a few pictures while he worked. If you haven’t been around horses much, some of what you are about to see might shock you. All of this was news to me when I first got Dart and Joey over ten years ago.
Yes, it is possible to “float” an 11-hundred pound horse. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, the adjustment, which had nothing to do with Buck’s attitude. Buck has a bad stifle or knee joint in his left hind leg from his days on the track. We don’t know much about it because he wasn’t our horse when he got hurt. But we do know that sometimes when Buck steps backwards, his bad knee locks up, leaving his leg stuck in the air. We also believe the injured knee causes him some pain, especially when it rains.
Fortunately for Buck, Dr. Kang is an equine (and canine) chiropractor. We started having him do adjustments on Buck right after we moved here three years ago and we’ve seen Buck’s pain lessen and the atrophied muscles in the hip over his injured knee regenerate themselves. At first Buck was nervous about being adjusted. But now, he seems to understand it helps him feel better and I think he actually enjoys it.
Less fun for Buck, and all concerned, is the dental work. Unlike human teeth which stop growing, a horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life. That’s why old horses (and old people) are sometimes referred to as “long in the tooth.” A horse with overgrown teeth can’t chew its food properly and that interferes with digestion. Over time, you end up with a skinny, malnourished horse even if he is “eating like a horse.”
That’s where the “floating” comes in. “Floating a horse” simply means using a heavy metal file or rasp to grind down its overgrown teeth. And here’s the shocker. Many vets do this with power tools! Dr. Kang’s tool of choice is a reciprocating saw, a tool usually used in demolition. You might know it by its common (brand) name, a Sawzall. This type of saw moves a jagged saw blade back-and-forth with enough force to cut holes through floors and walls.
Relax, there’s not a saw blade gyrating in Buck’s mouth. Instead, Dr. Kang fits the tool with a metal rasp known as a “float.” The name comes from the motion of the rasp moving or “floating” back-and-forth over the surface of the horse’s teeth. Thus the confusing phrase “floating a horse.” (And now you know).
Horses don’t have nerves in their teeth like people do so filing them, even with a power tool, doesn’t hurt. But grinding teeth with a metal rasp makes a heck of a noise! So Buck was given a mild sedative to keep him calm. The metal frame around his gums is there to hold open his mouth so Dr. Kang can see inside and work.
It sounds miserable. But Dr. Kang assures me that when the sedative wears off, the horses have no memory of what happened. And sure enough, Buck returned to the pasture after his float and happily munched grass for the rest of the day, seemingly unconcerned about having just had a power tool reciprocating in his mouth.
After he finished with Buck, Dr. Kang did a wellness exam on Leah, the newest horse in our barn. Leah is a beautiful 29-year old Arabian mare named for Princess Leia in Star Wars. She had been my friend, Shella’s, horse for most of her life and after they parted ways, she always remained in Shella’s heart. When Shella discovered recently that Leah was stuck in a less-than-ideal situation, she worked it out to regain custody of Leah and bring her home!
The years have not been kind of Leah and she now has severe osteoarthritis in both of her front legs. Nothing can be done to reverse the arthritis but Dr. Kang recommends nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and fish oil to slow the progression. And now that Leah is back in Shella’s care, she will get regular hoof trimming from our farrier. The farrier can adjust the angle of her hooves to put Leah into better balance and alleviate some of the pressure on her joints.
We don’t know what caused Leah’s arthritis. But it serves as a good reminder of why regular hoof care is so important to the health of a horse. Dr. Kang says Leah also needs to have her teeth floated, but that’s a project for another day. We have to come up with a way to help her stand while she’s sedated. Her front legs are too weak to do it on their own. Bob is engineering a system involving some straps and a sling. When it’s ready Dr. Kang will come back to float Leah. We’ll show you how it goes here in the blog.
Three years ago, right now, I was spending my last day living in Colorado. It was time to move to the farm. We would leave before dawn the next morning, Bob and I each driving our own car and the dogs split between us. We were embarking on a grand adventure, heading west to start a new vineyard and a new life in Oregon. The photo at the top of this post is from the drive out. That’s our dog, Dodger, reflected in my rearview mirror.
As we loaded up, I was incredibly focused on what I was leaving behind. Top of the list was my career of 25 years and my paycheck. It was my identity, my security and my independence. Along with that there were my co-workers, the people I had become accustomed to seeing everyday. I was close with some, others not, but all were part of my landscape.
There was my home of seventeen years in Evergreen, a place I loved and still love deep in my bones. I think of Colorado the way some people think of their “homeland.” I feel comfortable there. Indigenous. I have no right to feel that way. I was born in DeKalb, Illinois. But Colorado feels hometown to me. I love the cool, crisp, dry air, the smell of pine, the exhilaration of open space and vast horizons, the sense of economic vitality, and the feeling of solid ground under my feet. I hate squishy ground.
There was my hillside, some might say my mountainside, where I hiked my dogs when I got home from work. Over the years, we had scattered the ashes of eight of our dearly departed dogs up there. I felt like I was abandoning them.
There was my hockey team, The Colorado Avalanche. Concerts at Red Rocks. My Pilates studio. My favorite rollerblading path. The steakhouse up the street. My dentist. The girl who did my hair.
And of course, all of my family. We are a complicated bunch but also incredibly close. Especially me and my sisters. And, my friends. People I have known since college. We didn’t see each other often, but I liked knowing we could.
Everyone I knew was excited for me. Who doesn’t dream of quitting their job, moving away, and starting a vineyard? Except I didn’t want to go. I was already “living the dream.” I was happy where I was.
I won’t lie. This has not been an easy transition for me. But three years later, I can honestly say that this is home. The farm. The vineyard. The little town of Elkton. Soggy, grey, wet Oregon and all its squishy ground. This is where I belong.
A lot of my comfort comes from knowing that the important things I feared I was leaving behind are still with me. I have spent more meaningful time with my family here on the farm than when we all lived close in Colorado. This is especially true of my nephews. All kids should get to grow up visiting a farm. I wouldn’t trade their experiences here for anything.
My friends are still my friends. Always have been. Always will be. (Thanks guys). I’m keeping up with my Pilates. I can watch my hockey games on Center Ice. Some TV work still comes my way (Thanks guys). I go back to Colorado to see my dentist.
But the thing that won me over more than anything was a conversation I had with a horse. Yes, a horse. They do talk if you listen. The horse that set me straight is Buck, the retired race horse that “came with the farm.” Both he and Luigi had been on their own for over a year by the time we showed up. They were being fed. But they craved human attention.
I spent my first year living here running back and forth between my old life in Colorado and the farm, trying to be both places at once. One day towards the end of 2011, when I went to the barn to say goodbye to Buck, he gave me a little snort of disgust and said “You know a horse is a relationship and if you keep leaving we’re not going to have one.”
That thought shot through me like a lightning bolt. He was right. By trying to be everywhere, I was no where, and worse, I was nobody to him. And what is true for Buck is also true for all horses. And dogs and cats and ducks and vines and donkeys and husbands, too. Having it all was risking it all.
The farm has been home ever since that conversation with Buck.
A lot happens in three years. It was my intention to start this blog right after we moved here to document and share our story as we lived the dream and started the vineyard. Funny thing though, it’s hard to document when you are learning and doing all at the same time. I feel as though both the vineyard and I are finally in a place where I can observe what is happening and share it in a meaningful way. I know who, what, and where I am now in a way that I didn’t when we arrived.
I hope with this post, and the posts at the top of the blog (Hooves, Paws, Peeps, Vines and Wines) I’ve laid out the back story up to this point so anyone interested can come along from here without feeling as though they’ve missed too much. I promise, there is plenty to come! There’s always something happening on a farm. All of my posts won’t be this long. And no, this won’t be one of those blogs where I go on about my inner struggles. This blog is about horses and dogs and grapes and wine and tractors and rain and mud and rainbows. But in the interest of honesty, I think I had to sort this out to get started.
Dart is the horse that started it all. She was a top performing Thoroughbred destined to compete in Three Day Eventing until she suffered a career ending hoof injury in 2003. A few months later, Bob happened by her boarding facility near our home in Colorado. When he heard Dart could no longer be ridden and needed a new home he called me up at work and asked “do you want a free horse?” Now I must caution, there is no such thing as a free horse! But I had wanted horses all my life and here was a horse that needed a home. We adopted her without me even seeing her and brought her home to our hillside in Colorado, where she lived with us until the move to the farm in 2011. Now, Dart is The Boss Mare of our herd, meaning she’s in charge. Of everything. Which horses can eat what. Who gets through the gate first (her). Even which horses stand by which horses. She is sweet on Buck and has appointed him her second in command. In a way, Dart is in charge of us, too. It was because of her and Joey (below) that we started thinking about moving to a farm. We wanted green grass and flatter ground for her injured hoof. And now, here we are! Which is why I say, while there is no such thing as a “free horse”, or a “free lunch” for that matter, if you are offered one, take it if you can! You never know where it will lead.
Joey was Dart’s pasture mate when we adopted her, and it turned out he was looking for a new home, too. So we ended up taking both and have since come to realize just how lucky we were to have “stumbled” upon him. Joey is a Paso Fino, a breed of horse of Spanish origin that’s prized for its natural, four beat gait. Joey was long retired by the time we found him, but he had been a very successful show horse under the name Blackstone Premier in his younger days and was even the runner-up in a national championship by the age of three! He’s now in his 20s, so we don’t ride him much. But he is our most trusted mount for visitors, especially young kids. He just seems to know where you want to go and he likes to take it easy and slow. Within the herd, Joey is usually on the perimeter spotting for danger. Some people think this makes him low horse in the herd. But the more I observe the horses, the more I see Joey holds a position of great respect, like that of a special forces operative in the military. Joey takes his responsibilities very seriously and all the horses feel safe under his watch.
Buck was left for us by the previous owners of the farm and we were more than happy to adopt him. He is part Quarter Horse and part Thoroughbred, which makes him a Running Quarter. We hear he used to be quite the star on the Quarter Horse racing circuits throughout Washington state, Oregon and California. His track name was Casablanca, and he apparently won somebody so much money, they tattooed a dollar sign on his shoulder. That’s why we started calling him Buck, which he seems to like. Buck is retired from racing and riding due to an injury but he still likes to race the other horses across the pasture. He’ll hang just behind whoever is in the lead (usually Pete) until the final few strides, and then sprint past them to the finish line. Even in retirement, Buck is a true competitor.
Pete is an American Paint Quarter Horse that is everyone’s favorite horse to ride. He is incredibly powerful, but he has an easy-going personality and if he likes you, and Pete likes just about everybody, he will do just about anything you ask. Like most of the horses now in our care, Pete came to the farm as part of a boarding business started by the farm’s caretakers before we moved here. Pete changed hands a few times and needed someone to give him a permanent home, and so he ended up with us. Pete loves to eat! He is what horse people call an “easy keeper.” He also likes to challenge Buck for control of the herd (after Dart, of course). He has gained some respect for being able to Karate chop the pasture gate open with his front hoof to let everyone out. But I don’t think he will be top gelding until he beats Buck in a race.
Chizzy is one of three Paso Finos from California brought to the farm by our former caretakers who happened to be Paso Fino trainers. Chizzy and the other California Pasos are retired show horses and the idea was to re-train them for trail riding and then sell them into good retirement homes. When our caretakers moved back to Colorado, the three Pasos were still here, their re-training was not finished, we had fallen in love with them, and they really seemed to like it here. So we bought them from their owner in California so we’d know they had a good home and they could stay with us forever. Chizzy’s show name was Chispeante, which means “sparkling” or “racy” in Spanish. The name sure fits! Chizzy is a master of the Classic Fino gait, which is performed with short, rapid steps, almost like marching in place. I have no background in riding Paso Finos (correctly) so he’s quite a challenge. But he’s also an incredibly connected and emotional horse that can read my mind, and he really wants to please. So slowly, together, we are working on his transition from high performance show horse to relaxed trail horse. My greatest accomplishment in life, horsemanship wise, has been getting him to go at a walk.
Syboney is the second of the three Paso Finos from California, and truth be told, he is my sister’s horse. But since she lives in Colorado, he feels like he’s our horse too. His name comes from a Cuban love song, which is a perfect fit because Syboney is a full contact horse! He loves to hug and be hugged. He’ll pick your pockets for a carrot or use his lips to open the pasture gate and escape. He frequently makes the kind of faces Mr. Ed makes when he talks just to get attention. His personality gets even bigger when my sister visits. It makes him feel special to have his “own person.” Although he is snow white now, Syboney was grey in color when he was younger. He had just a touch of grey left in his coat when we got here and now that it’s all gone, I like to believe he has fully transformed into a unicorn, and just hasn’t allowed us yet to see his horn yet.
Pisada is the third of the California Pasos. She wasn’t supposed to come to the farm, but she pitched such a fit when Chizzy and Syboney were loaded into the horse trailer in California, they loaded her up, too. Pisada means “footsteps” in Spanish, a reference I assume to the Paso Fino gaits. We were told she had been a brood mare so we’re not sure if she had much of a show career. But she is well trained, if a little shy. Pisada remains strongly bonded to Chizzy and Syboney and the three of them are something of a herd within a herd. But she gets along with all of the other horses, even Dart! It’s rare for a Boss Mare like Dart to tolerate another mare in her herd, but it appears she and Pisada are actually friends. We don’t know how old Pisada is, but we think she is in her late 20s so we’ve retired her from riding. She’s earned it.
Diamond is a little black pony with big energy, attitude and personality! Size wise, he looks like the ideal kids’ horse but he’s actually the most challenging ride on the farm. Mind you, he’s never actually thrown anyone. But he has a spin-o-rama move that can unseat and spill even the most experienced riders. He belonged to a client of our caretakers’ that got fed up with being spun and tossed out of the saddle. Given his history, we were worried he wouldn’t come to a good end if he were sent to an auction, so we agreed to buy him. His name was Wiggy at the time, which I didn’t think helped his temperament. So I changed it to Diamond, as in Diamond in the rough, or a Black Diamond (expert) ski run, or “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” Oh, and there is a white diamond on his forehead under that impressive forelock. We are not sure of Diamond’s breeding, but we were told he is half Mustang and half Peruvian Paso. He is not gaited like a Peruvian Paso but you sure can see the breed in his thick mane and tail.
Twister, A.K.A. Twistie Boo is a very young, green Mustang that is making me learn to be a much better rider. He and Turbo (below) belonged to a local high school student that boarded them here with our caretakers in exchange for helping out in the barn. When it was time for the student to go to college, he needed to do something with his horses, so we agreed to take them. Twister wasn’t even two years old at the time! We had him gelded (some day I will post pics of that) and in the summer of 2013, we sent him off for three-months of training in eastern Oregon. Now, I am in training with a riding instructor so I can be as good as he is! Twister is an agreeable but spirited horse and he responds, good or bad, to the slightest touch. So I must be precise. The biggest challenge though, is his trot. Twister is still growing and filling out, so sometimes his hind end feels taller than his front end, or vise verse, making for a very bumpy ride.
Bo was known as Turbo when he belonged to the high school student. But over time, his name has evolved into Bo to encourage a calmer demeanor. Bo is a BLM Mustang. He was born wild on the eastern plains of Oregon outside of the town of Bend. He was captured when he was just a colt and put up for adoption, which is how the high school student came to have him. Shortly after Bo was left with us, my good friend, Shella, agreed to adopt him and she still keeps him in our barn, which is great fun for all of us. Like Twister, Bo is very young and he hadn’t had much training when Shella got him. Fortunately, she’s been riding wild Mustangs since she was a little girl so she knows what to do. Bo is turning into a sweet and reliable riding horse under her expert hand.
Leah is a 29-year old Davenport Arabian that was Shella’s horse for most of her life. Leah was a gentle and much-loved riding horse for both Shella and her kids. But about ten years ago, Shella had to give her up to move closer to her kids’ school. She thought she had placed Leah in a good home. And for a lot of years, it was. But over time, things change, and Leah’s situation was in decline. Shella always kept an eye on Leah and she was thrilled when she got the opportunity to bring her back home! Leah is retired from riding, but she can still prance like a filly.
Emma and Luigi might be among the smallest equines on the farm, but in a way, they own the place. In fact, Luigi, who is a Miniature Donkey, has been here longer than any of us! According to local legend, he was born around 1981 in Sicily, where he was trained to pull a cart. A few years later, the people that owned the farm had him shipped to America as a gag gift for a birthday party. Luigi has changed hands four times with the farm since then, and like Buck, was left here for us by the previous owners. Don’t worry, we will never give him up! And while we are completely offended at the idea of such a soulful and loving creature as Luigi being a gag gift, we are incredibly glad he is here.
Emma, who is a Miniature Horse, came to the farm shortly after we did. She had been at a horse rescue where she was befriended by a tall, thin Saddlebred Horse named Raja. When Raja was adopted, Emma put up such a fuss (sound familiar), they put her in the trailer, too. Both of them were boarded here for a while, and I’ll never forget seeing Emma standing under Raja in a rainstorm to keep dry! Eventually, Raja and Emma had to be separated so Raja’s new owner could go riding without upsetting them both. That’s when Emma was put in with Luigi, and it was love at first sight. When Raja went home, nobody had the heart to split up Emma and Luigi, so she stayed! They’ve been inseparable ever since, despite a vast age difference. Luigi is in his 30s and Emma is just a few years old, which is why I call Luigi the Hugh Heffner of Mini Donkeys!
Jenny D is the most recent addition to the farm. She is a Miniature Donkey, like Luigi, although we don’t know if she was born in Sicily or somewhere else. In fact we don’t know much about her. Our veterinarian asked us to adopt her because she is incredibly underweight, possibly from having had a series of foals, and her previous owners had done all they could or would do to put more weight on her. As you can see from the photos, all of our other animals are fat! So she’s ended up in the right place. As you also may know from the Blog, we also have a dog named Jenny. To keep them straight, we call this Jenny, Jenny D. The “D” stands for Donkey! (Yes, “D” could also stand for Dog. But in this case, it means Donkey).
A Few Words About Horses, Breeds and Breeding: In this Blog I have included links to websites about various horse breeds and horse breed associations. This is meant only to help you understand the nature of the horses on the farm. It is not meant to encourage breeding or particular breeds of horses. Quite the opposite. I’d like to discourage the breeding of horses, or any animals, outside of a few very specific circumstances. Our barn is full of well-bred, well-trained horses that quite frankly nobody else wants. So too is the world. If you’d like to add a horse, dog, cat, or other animal to your family, please look to a rescue, a shelter, an auction, the give-aways in front of the grocery store on a Sunday morning. Chances are, your perfect match already exists and is desperately waiting for you to show up. Thank you.
Dispatches From Our Farm and Vineyard in Southern Oregon