News From The Farm

Spring is in full swing here at the farm.  The primroses, daffodils, narcissus and hyacinths are all blooming.  It must have been a fairly mild winter compared to the winter before last.  I do remember some bitterly cold weather in December of 2017 before we got snow cover.  The flowers were not so impressive last spring as they are this year.  The bulbs are strong and both the star magnolia and the forsythia are in full flower.  Last year there were only about a dozen flowers on the forsythia.  This year it’s gorgeous.

One of the two baby mountain ash trees I planted last spring survived the winter.  It’s looking pretty happy about its spot on the side of the hill that supports our driveway.  Luckily the voles and field mice did not nibble the mountain ash over the winter.  The same can not be said for the expensive crabapple tree I planted two years ago.  Even though I wound a plastic tree protector around it last fall, after giving it a good covering with white paint, the voles still got at it.  They pushed the plastic out of the way and gnawed off large amounts of bark from the first 2 feet of trunk.  I don’t think the tree will live.

Last year we suffered from an over population of field rodents.  They attacked grown apple trees, killing a couple dozen, and chewed up large regions of grass roots in the hayfield leaving bare patches.  I read that painting the lower parts of the fruit trees with white latex paint will repel rodents.  This past winter the rodent population must have been down.  We’re not seeing grass damage like last year, nor as much tree chewing.  But several apple trees that I sprayed white with paint were chewed.  Looks like the rodents just scratch away the bark until the paint is gone then proceed with devouring the tree.  They sure devoured my crabapple.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained is the old adage, but I spent over $100 on paint for the trees, plus my time and effort to apply it, to no avail.The horses, Vista and Maddie, are happy to see green grass!  Especially since their hay is almost gone.  The weather has been quite chilly, slowing the growth of grass and causing us to use more hay than usual.  It’s great to finally have enough grass to sustain two hungry horses.

Vista (on the left) is now 30 years old.  It is possible this is her last summer.  She is really beginning to show her age.  We may have to put her away in the fall to avoid having to deal with a down horse next winter.  A sad time for me.  Vista has been with me since she was 10 months old.  She has always been a loving, loyal, hardworking and willing animal.  A wonderful saddle horse, we have spent many memorable hours together including two trips to the carriage trails of Acadia National Park.  I will sure miss the old girl.

Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.

Horse Riding at Acadia National Park


This past weekend I was lucky enough to join a group led by my farrier to horseback ride the carriage roads at Acadia National Park.  Such a wonderful experience.  My twenty-seven-year-old Saddlebred horse Vista and I went out on four excursions over the long, three-day weekend.d1  The horses are kept at Wildwood Stables near Seal Harbor on Mt. Desert, right in the national park.  The stables also operate carriage rides with draft horses.  Above is the draft horse barn and pasture.  There are three large, comfortable barns for boarding riding horses, parking for long horse trailers and a small campground.  I shared my six-man tent with a friend.d3The carriage roads of Acadia are famous for their beauty, their extensive network, and the effort that was made to construct them.  These gravel roads run for miles through some of the finest scenery in the country.  Forest and mountain, lake, marsh, field and ocean all are accessed by roads limited to use by bikes, horses, hikers and carriages.  The stone bridges and tunnels are awe inspiring constructions.d4Because Acadia is a place dear to my heart, riding my horse in this park is the ultimate outdoor adventure for me.  Vista enjoyed the company of so many different horses.  She is a very social animal and could not stand to be left behind so we went on all the rides.  d2My bottom is still a bit sore from so much time in the saddle.  Normally I ride bareback.  When I’m enjoying the scenery of Acadia and friendship of like-minded horse people, bodily pain is easily ignored.  I look forward to another trip in a year or so with Maddie, my nine-year-old horse.  She will need some concentrated training to get ready for this ultimate trail ride.  We’ll start working on that in a few days, when my backside has recovered.d6

Morning on the Farm


It’s a beautiful July morning, sunny with a bit of a breeze.  The dew is still on the grass.  Time to do the farm chores.  When I step out the door, snapdragons and a heliotrope greet me.  The blue flowers have a wonderful, sweet fragrance.


Otto and Holly tag along.  They love to follow me everywhere.


The fig tree has four good-sized fruit with many more small ones on the way.  Time to give this tree some fertilizer to help ripen the crop before frost.


My new yard centerpiece, impatiens on a log.  They actually sit on the septic tank clean-out cover, marking it so nothing heavy (like a tractor or horse) goes across it.


Day lilies and bee balm brighten the garden beneath the crabapple tree.


Vista and Maddie, hard at work mowing the orchard.  Cheap laborers who love their job.


Kai and Cary are out enjoying a little morning sun before their major nap of the day.


The black raspberries are ripening!  Time to make some jelly.


Black-eyed Susans make a lovely wildflower accent beside the iris bed.


The recent rain has spurred the garden to exuberant growth, both vegetables and weeds.


Finally made it to the barn!  The first and third chick hatch eat together peacefully.  The second hatch is too busy catching bugs and hasn’t responded to the breakfast call yet.


Little guys and big sisters share the water dish.


Someone else would like to have breakfast with the chickens.  Two chipmunks live in our barn.  They were being pretty decent little guys until one decided to chew the nozzle off a gas can.  Not sure what the attraction was, hydrocarbons?  Maybe it’s time to bring home a Barn Friend cat from the Humane Society to send the chipmunks packing?

With all the distractions, it’s a wonder I ever get the barn chores finished!



Skating on the Farm Pond

a1.jpgSince I was a kid, the farm pond has made for good skating when conditions are just right.  This is the first year in several when decent ice has formed.  The last few winters snow ruined the ice as fast as the pond froze.a2  We’ve had an open, warm winter so far.  Just recently the temperatures dropped enough to make safe ice.  My skating buddies Holly and Otto joined me on an afternoon when the temperature was just above freezing, the sky deep blue and the sun beaming down.  The weather is so mild it’s like no winter at all!

a5The horses, Vista and Maddie, hang around to see what will happen.  Perhaps some hay or grain or an apple will fall from my pocket while I’m skating.  Horses live in a dreamworld of eternal hope.

a3The ice is white, full of air bubbles.  The surface is fairly smooth, except where cattails protrude making skating obstacles.  Some winters when we have sudden very cold, still weather the whole pond freezes with black ice.  The surface seems made of glass.


Black ice and hoar frost on the edge of the pond

Aquatic animals can be viewed as they go about their slow lives beneath the ice.  I’ve watched the resident painted turtles’ sluggish movements and seen water boatmen and other insects eke out a chilly existence.  In very cold years the pond freezes right to the mud.  The water creatures must burrow into the muck to survive.a7.jpgThe pond is about 1/6 acre with a seasonal inlet that flows when the water table is sufficiently high.  The constant slow movement keeps one small area of open water available for the horses to drink.  If the temperatures drop too low or the snow gets too deep, this inlet also freezes.  Then the horses must walk farther for water to a spring below the pond.

The pond holds myriad memories of years gone by:  my brothers and me learning to skate–falling and hitting my head on the ice so hard I literally saw stars, my husband and me when we were young and childless playing on the ice in the moonlight, my daughter as a little girl bundled with padding and a helmet as she learned to skate.  Now my granddaughter Lia takes her turn finding out about the joys of pond ice.  She will soon tie on the skates and start another generation of ice lovers.a8.jpg

Last Day of Hunting Season

aSaw a big buck this morning, walking across our pasture.  He had his head down.  Either he was sneaking away from a hunter or following the scent of a doe.  If he makes it through today, the last day of the main hunting season, there is a good chance the buck will live and breed for another year.  He still has to survive muzzle loading season, much less of a threat to deer.

Most of the month of November in Maine is given to the pursuit of the white tail.  Only Sundays are off-limits to hunting.  Walking in the woods, riding a horse in the fields, working too close to the forest, can all get you shot by a careless hunter.  It is safest to stay in the yard during hunting season.  Even then, you can get shot and people have.

Early November with its warm, biting insect-free days are perfect for horse riding.  It is hard for me to accept not going out on the land I own and pay taxes to keep.  But, there have been too many hunting accidents for me to trust a few scraps of blaze orange to keep me safe.  One year I was horse riding in the woods with a friend on Sunday during bird-hunting season and a couple hunters shot at us.  They thought we were birds.  Sunday hunters, with their disregard for rules, are more dangerous than regular hunters.

This year I decked the horses out in blaze orange safety vests and let them out of the mucky barnyard during the afternoons to exercise and graze in the pasture near the house.  Yes, I was taking a chance they would be mistaken for gigantic deer.  The poor things go stir crazy if they have to spend most of November cooped up in a small barnyard.  By all rights they should be safe near houses and roads without having to wear orange.  I don’t want to risk it.  After today the horses will have freedom to move as they wish and we will all be much happier (including the deer!)

Horse Training


Maddie, full name Platinum Madrigal, is half paint Saddlebred and half Paint (of Quarter Horse blood.)  She is a chocolate palomino, eight year old mare.  Because her breeders wanted a color foal (paint,) and Maddie turned out this odd, but to me, beautiful shade, they sold her for a very reasonable price when she was a yearling.  I always dreamed of having a palomino, so I’m thrilled.

Unfortunately, many people should not be raising horses, including Maddie’s breeders, because she had next to no training when I received her.  She could lead, more than I can say for my other horse, Vista.  I also got her as a yearling and she had zero training.  Other than leading, Maddie was pretty clueless.  Worst of all, she had no respect for people.  She had been raised around a little girl who treated her like a dog, a very mannerless dog.

When I got her, Maddie thought people were just other horses; smaller, less powerful horses that she could bully.  She would even put back her ears and threaten me, like horses do to each other.  It took several sessions of ground training in a round pen for Maddie to understand that the space around a person is to be respected.  Now, she can mostly be trusted to work around.  I never fully trust any horse.

The filly also never had her feet handled.  Horses need their hooves trimmed at least every eight weeks, so a horse that won’t cooperate is a dangerous animal.  It took me many patient hours to teach her to stand with one hoof held up.  She does very well now and the farrier is always happy with her.

Having her hooves handled was just the worst part of Maddie’s lack of experience.  It quickly became apparent that the horse had never been adequately gentled by having her whole body touched by human hands.  This is something that a good breeder does very soon after the foal is born.  The hands are gently run over every inch of the horse.  (I recommend gloves for the stinky parts!)  If begun when they are young, the human touch is always welcomed by a horse.  Maddie did not welcome anything more than scratching her neck.  I am still working with her on this issue.  Luckily, I’ve only been kicked once when I touched her belly. She kicked from surprise, I think, not anger or warning.  She is MUCH better than when we started.

Vet visits were at one time another disaster with Maddie.  She would not tolerate injections.  A thousand pound animal that doesn’t want a shot is a very dangerous beast.  Vista would watch with wonder as her pasture mate freaked out.  The older mare never moves a muscle for shots and has never required a twitch. The only thing that has worked to calm Maddie is a lip twitch.  Now, I know some people don’t like the twitch. They claim it is inhumane.  A properly applied twitch is not inhumane.  It is very effective.

I use only a rope twitch on a wood pole.  The rope is tightened around the upper lip and held for only a short time while the shot is given.  It works by causing the horse’s body to release endorphins that ease pain and bring a happy and relaxed feeling.  Using the twitch has turned Maddie from a threat to the vet into a pliable patient with little effort.  It worked immediately.  Maddie doesn’t mind having the twitch applied, she holds her head down for it because she knows she gets a treat after.  This horse will work for treats.  One day, with experience, she will learn that shots aren’t that awful and the twitch will no longer be necessary.  I am now able to give Maddie all her shots myself, except the rabies, which must be administered by a vet.

The animal has a strong mind of her own.  She is very smart for a horse.  Most are considered to have intelligence comparable to a three year old human.  Maddie is more like a five year old.  Training her to ride has been a challenge.  Things progress pretty well until I want to go in a direction she is not comfortable with. Then she refuses to budge and pins back her ears.  The ear signal is often the only warning that a horse is ready to buck, or even worse, rear.  So far we have not had to experience either of those aside from a little crow-hop once when she first started under saddle.

Maddie responds to treats, kind words and scratching.  She reacts badly, even violently, to a raised voice or the touch of a riding crop.  The lunge whip frightens her, although she has never been hit with it.  Maybe she had some very early bad experience with a whip that scarred her, who knows?  So, when the horse lays her ears back and balks at a request I make when riding, I redirect her.  We turn in a circle, and as we swing around to the way I want to go, I again urge her in that direction.  Usually that is enough to get her cooperating.  If not, we repeat until she behaves.

Horses do best when they are moving forward.  Standing allows them to think about things and work up a really good fit.  Walking, even just to circle, moves their mind away from what is bothering them and they quickly forget.  Usually.  My mare, Vista, who is 26, is still fearful of woodpiles.  She has been so her entire life.  No idea why.  She will never forget that a woodpile is actually a dangerous monster lurking in wait, no matter how old she gets or how many woodpiles she passes safely.  She is the same way about blue tarps.

So far, Maddie has shown great bravery around woodpiles, although the pink kiddie pool is pretty horrific for her.  She has the ability to overcome her fears with exposure, unlike Vista.  This is another indication of superior intelligence in a horse.  I’m not certain that having a really smart horse is a good thing.  She is constantly challenging me.  As time goes by, we will see how useful extra brains are for a riding horse.maddie2

Fancy Lawn Mowers


Here at the farm we have a fancy pair of lawn mowers.  They are grass powered and self-propelled.  They do an excellent job, with a clean, close cut.  Steep hillsides are trimmed with ease.  Edging is a breeze.  They even provide some fresh fertilizer from time to time!

In the spring the horses need fresh grass and we need to keep ahead of the rapidly growing lawn grass.  Horse lawn mowers work out very well for us.  The fence is not even electrified.  The horses are so trained to the fence they stay inside.  Sometimes they get excited and prance around a bit, tearing the ground with their hooves.  The damage is minimal and quickly repaired.  Our four-legged lawn mowers are tireless and always eager for work.h2

Barefoot Trim Horse Hoof Care


Starting the trim

I’ve had horses for most of my life and have found that the healthiest horses are those whose living conditions most closely replicate the wild state.  Allowing the animals complete freedom of movement and choice about how they live when they are not serving humans keeps my horses fit and happy.h6


Right front hoof prior to trim. It has been 8 weeks since a trim and the hoof shows a small amount of growth

They have a run-in shelter just big enough to get them out of the weather when they want to use it.  My horses are never blanketed, they wear shaggy winter hair coats.  Their pasture is about ten acres, expanding to twice that size in summer.  The water comes from a pond in their pasture, or in the deep winter when the pond freezes over, from a small spring in the pasture woods.  They must walk for water every day.  The horses eat their hay off the ground and receive three quarts each of crimped oats per day during the winter, no sweet feed.  In summer my horses subsist entirely on grass grazing, no oats.  I have always had strong animals with lustrous coats, free of the illnesses and problems that can plague stabled horses.  I never shoe my horses.  Wearing shoes is unnatural and unnecessary.  My horses always go barefoot and are never picky about going over rocky or hard terrain because their feet are callused and tough.


Left front hoof trim underside finished, still needs the outside rasped. Note minimal trim to the frog and bars, wide frog, sole has not been pared.

When it comes to trimming their hooves, I look to what nature designed for the horse.  Wild horses with unlimited movement tend to wear their hooves in a certain way.  The heel is low so that the frog makes good contact with the ground.  This provides a surefooted grip on any surface. The hoof itself is short and rolled smooth around the outer edges.  Constant use, especially in dry conditions, causes slow and steady wear to the hoof.  Wild horses do not have a lot of hoof.h9

In recent years more and more farriers have learned to provide a particular hoof cut called a barefoot trim.  It is important to ascertain that a farrier uses this natural hoof care system and doesn’t just trim the hoof and leave it unshod, therefore calling it “barefoot.”  Such a cut can lead to problems with hoof separation, cracking and lameness.

h5A barefoot trim brings the heel low so the frog, particularly at the back, has wide contact with the ground.  The toe is cut to a certain angle and the sides of the hoof at ground contact are allowed to form a natural divot about one-quarter of the way along the length of the hoof from the back so the foot has a little flex as the horse moves.  The sides are all rounded, (something called a mustang roll) leaving no sharp edge to crack.  Much of the trim is done only with a rasp and the feet receive care about every seven weeks. The frog is rarely trimmed.  The bars of the hoof are maintained and not pared back because they help provide support for the hoof. Very little sole needs to be removed once a horse has been on the barefoot trim for awhile.  The sole forms a tough callus, much as human feet do when they go bare.h10

h4When a horse is given this trim for the first time, the difference in gait is noticeable. The animal seems happier, more free in its movement, like it is walking on air.  My horses have had the barefoot trim for years and if they could talk I know they’d say it’s just what their feet need.  h3My younger mare, Maddie has always been given a barefoot trim.  When Vista got her first one, I saw a definite improvement in attitude.  It was as though she suddenly could walk comfortably!

h8In the photos, Vista, a 26 year old three-quarter Saddlebred mare, is demonstrating how to be a good horse for a trim.  The farrier is Liselle Batt, her service is called Western Maine Horseshoeing and Trimming.  She does a great job and the horses love her!

Four feet trimmed

Four feet trimmed

Braiding Leather


Dog leash made with bronze metallic leather


For about thirty years now I’ve been using four-strand braids to create leather goods such as dog leashes, horse reins, hatbands and key fobs.  The four thong braid technique produces a round length of leather cord that is strong, flexible and durable.  I learned to do this braid from an old cowboy.  Braiding leather for use in horse tack is an ancient art.

Braids can be made incorporating up to twelve thin leather strips.  There are so many different types of knots (each with its own colorful name) possible to be tied that whole books are written on this skill alone.  I usually stick to a four-thong braid and a simple Turks Head Terminal knot in my work.  Using thongs of two different colors results in a pretty variegated item that is popular.

The craft of braiding leather has been traced back to at least the Phoenicians though the Moors and then the Spaniards who brought it to the Americas with the men who cared for the horses.  Leather crafting and particularly leather braiding is closely associated with those who keep horses and depend upon them to earn a living.  The tack for controlling a horse is made mostly from leather.  American cowboys and their more southerly counterparts, vaqueros and gauchos, were and still are often skilled in leather braiding.  Therefore, it is not a surprise that an old cowboy should know the craft or that he would want to pass his knowledge on at the end of his life.


Short tab dog lead with bronze snap


Black leather key fob with stainless steel ring

With his patient tutelage, I quickly learned the basics of four thong braiding.  I made my first set of reins for my horse, and never looked back.   Over the years I’ve created hundreds of items, especially dog leashes that I sell in my online stores.  People are always asking for custom braiding and it is gratifying to hear how happy they are with the lead, key fob or hatband I have made them.


Dark brown tan bison hide


Bronze metallic, lipstick pink and medium brown hides

The process of making a dog leash or other hand braided leather piece begins with a superior leather hide.  I am lucky to be near a tannery that has a shop with great deals on whole hides and scrap pieces.  A full cow hide can cost $100 or more depending on the size, finish, thickness and quality.  a1Leather hide is mostly sold by the square foot although scrap can be purchased by the pound.  I have a large inventory of fine leather in many colors and thicknesses.  There is even some lambskin and bison hide in my stash.  Lamb is very thin and fine, great for hatbands and bison is soft, tough leather that I use to form high quality, up-market dog leads.

a5For the metal fittings, I use the best available, solid brass, bronze or stainless steel.  Because braided leather will last for years, the metal wears out before the leather.  For a long-lived dog lead, set of reins or key fob, cheap zinc or chrome plated base metal will not do.

a2To begin the process of making a dog leash, I select a nice piece of hide, preferably from near the back or side of the animal where the skin has less flex, and I cut a circular panel at least a foot in diameter.  Odd-shaped scraps can be used, but getting as close to a circle as possible will result in less waste.  a3a4I use my strap cutting tool to cut a long, thin, continuous thong of leather. The cut should be on a gentle curve, avoiding sharp corners so the strap will be flat and straight.  I trim the thong if there are any rough stringy bits along the edges so it is smooth.  Now I have the basic material to make braids.a6

Four thong braids around a metal fitting are done with two strips of leather, a little more than double the length of the final product.  To make a lead, the leather is passed through the eye of the bolt snap and pulled until the length is even and the ends meet.  The snap is secured to provide a solid anchor for pulling against to create tension.  Now there are four thongs in your hand.
 A four-foot-long dog lead with a braided-in handle requires two thongs about 12 feet long.  One-quarter of the length is lost during the braiding process as the strips wrap around each other.  Extra length must be calculated to form the hand loop, including the ends for braiding in to hold the loop from slipping.

a9Braiding four strips instead of the usual three is not very complicated.  It requires a little concentration and plenty of hand strength to hold the braid and keep each turn tight.  Not enough tension will result in a loose braid.  For each turn of the braid, the loose thong highest on the braid is brought around the back and placed between the second and third thong.  Care is taken to keep the leather finished side out.  The final round braid should be closely woven with no gaps between the thongs.


Short bronze leather braided dog lead ready to roll before the handle is completed

During use, all the thongs work together to hold the strain, effectively quadrupling the strength of the leather.  A 1/2″ diameter braid is more than sufficient to form a rein to control a horse.  Most dog leads are 1/4″ to 3/8″ in diameter.  The diameter of the braid is determined by the width of the thong.  To make 1/2″ diameter braid from a moderately stiff piece of leather 1/16″ thick, with not much stretch, each thong is cut approx. 7/16″ wide.  The thickness of the leather is added to the width to equal 1/2″. For very pliable leather, the thong must be cut wider since some width will be lost as the leather stretches during braiding.a11


Turk’s Head Terminal Knot for round braid

Once the braid is finished, the ends are temporarily secured to hold them. The braid is then rolled under the hands on a hard surface to seat the thongs and make the braid even and smooth.  Then the ends are either knotted or braided in so they do not unravel.

a13To braid the ends in, a fid leatherworking tool that looks like an awl is used to widen the space between the braids.  a12An end is passed through the space and pulled tight, then the process is repeated until the ends are held and can not slip out.a14  The thongs are cut flush with the braid.  I like to secure the ends with a dab of super glue to help hold them.  The finished leash is now ready to take some lucky dog for a walk.  The leash below is bronze leather with a 3/8″ diameter braid and a solid bronze snap.a15