Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Spare?

David always jokes that we have a soccer team of pets between the cats, the dogs, the horses and the goats. Three hours ago this little beauty smacked into our kitchen window and landed with one wing outstretched on our deck. Her neck looked fine and her eyes were bright so I held her in a towel until she stopped panting. When I opened the towel she skittered across the deck, flapped haphazardly down the 10 foot drop, and proceeded to skitter across the lawn and into the horse paddock. I managed to get the towel back over her and now she is in soft-sided dog crate sipping water and snacking on sunflower meats. We'll hold her for observation overnight, so keep your fingers crossed for a safe flight tomorrow.

Horse Days of Summer

We're having another run of warm, sunny weather on the west coast. I have mentioned before that Tonka doesn't lie down very often, but earlier today I caught two corpses basking in the pasture.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Horse History 101

When I was 8 my 15-year-old sister and her friend made a bet on my ability to read and pronounce the word "eohippus". She might have lost her $2 if I had been less horse crazy as child, but she surrendered her winnings to me after I read it, pronounced it and defined it.

Jumping ahead some 44,990,000 years I want to talk about the four forefathers of the modern horse. Tonka's admirers often comment that it seems maladapted for a horse not to be able to eat grass, but it makes sense when you consider their domestic history.

Pony I: Developed in the cool, wet climes of northwestern Europe where vegetation is short, hardy and not accustomed to sunlight. Accordingly, these horses were small, hardy and shaggy. Their closest living relative is the modern Shetland pony.

Pony II: Developed on the cool, arid steppe between Hungary and Mongolia, which is dominated by short, dry grasses and small shrubs. These horses were larger than Pony I and more resistant to extreme cold. Their closest living relative (though endangered) is Przewalski's Horse (and they were the source of today's dun colouration).

Horse III: Developed in the warm, semideserts of central Asia and eastern Europe where the vegetation is sparse and dry. These drought-proof horses were larger and longer than Pony II, and much less hairy. Their closest living relative is the modern Andalusian horse.

Horse IV: Developed in the hot deserts of western Asia where any vegetation is sparse. They were smaller than Horse III -- fine-boned, thin-skinned and fleet-footed. Their closest living relative is the Caspian Pony, rediscovered in northern Iran during the 1960s. Modern Arabians are also descendant from Horse IV.

People may associate horses with the lush grassy plains of North America (the ancestral home of cows), but their diet should be much less rich if evolutionary factors are considered. I am really glad that most modern horses are able to digest what we are able to feed them, but I am not surprised that so many suffer from nutritional regimes so far removed from their historical diets.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Weekend Waning

We slept in yesterday morning and went to a party yesterday evening, but we did manage to get the shelter site prepped for construction today. Things went smoothly until we discovered four 66" braces instead of four 78" braces. Rather than subjecting ourselves to another argument and another delay we forged ahead with a makeshift piece of 2X6 and we finished the frame this afternoon. The weather is supposed to be brilliant again tomorrow, so I will work on the cladding for as long as my professional conscience will bear.

Most days around here include at least one rousing game of fetch in the pasture. The Ball is all-consuming for Tilley, Willow and Watson, and I love this picture because Titan (who is not a high-energy herding dog) looks just as keen. Note the new boots! They are comfortable, warm, rigid in all the right places, and they do not crave socks. (One day I will post a picture of myself in non-farm clothing. I do wear it now and then.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I'd Like to Thank The Academy...

Daun over at The Eventing Percheron was kind enough (strange enough?) to bestow an Arte y Pico award on FFF. Thanks! I'm not much into this kind of thing, but it does provide me with an opportunity to promote five blogs that I enjoy.

1) Bad Astronomy. If I were smarter and more ambitious I would want to be an astronaut because space fascinates me. Although this author is a serious astronomer he does a great job of making a wide range of scientific topics accessible to a general readership.

2) Notes from Kenya. This journal about life in a hyena research group comes from Funder's blogroll. The science is interesting, the pictures are great and the posts are insightful. It is also a reminder of the long months I spent living and working in Uganda, which now go mostly forgotten.

3) The Daily Coyote. If pictures are worth a thousand words, this blog is worth millions. Ever wonder what life might be like if you (1) lived on a ranch in Wyoming and (2) adopted an orphan coyote?

4) The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. Writing decently is important to me, but not so important that I feel superior to folks who are less hung up about it. Many of the grammar blogs strike me as elitist and unkind, but this one is mostly opportunistic, subtle, and darned funny.

5) The Eventing Percheron. My days of serious training and competitive riding are long gone, but I really enjoy reading about Brego's progress as an eventer and a fox hunter. In a world so poised on the brink of disaster (environmental, political, economical) I find it comforting to know that people like me are still out there setting small goals and working hard to achieve them.

There are several others of course. Reading blogs provides my addled brain with much-needed down time when I am doing weird science, and I really appreciate that so many talented people allow me to sneak peeks into their minds and their lives.

Friday, September 26, 2008


On September 4th our Twister shelter was picked up in Alberta by FedEx Freight. At that time I was told that delivery would take about three business days. On Friday September 12th someone called to say that (1) they only deliver in our area on Thursdays and (2) the delivery truck for our area does not have a lift gate. I told them that we paid for lift gate service (Henry does not have a front-end loader) and that's what we expected. Later that day FedEx called back to say that it had all been arranged and that we should expect the delivery on September 18th. On September 17th the driver called to confirm and told David that "we will need a lot of people to get it off the truck" so David reminded him that we had paid for lift gate service. The driver assured him that everything would be OK.

On September 18th a very rude lady from the Vancouver office of FedEx Freight called to tell us that the crate was too big to get off the truck with a pallet jack and a lift gate, and that delivery would be delayed until they could find a solution. Phone calls flew back on forth over the next few days and the rude lady got progressively ruder. On September 22nd she told me flat out that "the only way we will deliver the freight is if you have a forklift onsite to offload it" because "it is impossible to move 1200 lbs with a pallet jack". Would FedEx pay for the forklift and operator rental? No. Why did FedEx accept the shipment if they couldn't deliver? Because they did not understand how big the shipment was when arrangements were made by phone (despite knowing its weight and dimensions).

More phone calls flew back and forth until the very rude lady (feeling heat from all sides, I think) announced that another company would be delivering the shelter on the 24th at no extra charge (beyond the $800 I had already paid). She made it clear that she was doing us a big favour and that we should be grateful to FedEx for this concession. The crate shown above arrived the following day and was offloaded by with....wait for it...a pallet jack and a lift gate. My nasty letter was mailed that afternoon, and the shelter-building process will start tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Growing Pains

Titan is 6 months old today, and last week the vet weighed him in at 74 lbs. That's a lot of struggling puppy to lift into the back of a truck -- like a big bale of hay with attitude.

I took Titan to the vet because he went completely off his food for a couple of days. Tilley, Willow and Watson are on a raw diet, but Titan mostly gets GO! Natural kibble because we didn't want to buy a third freezer for our pets. He has never been really enthusiastic about food, but he learned early that we have an eat-it-or-lose-it policy around here. On the day he stopped eating I had corrected him firmly a couple of times for crashing through gates without permission (he and Raven are birds of a feather) so I didn't think much of it. He is a sensitive dog, and harsh treatment* has always left him feeling low. On the second day we began to worry and on the third day I dropped everything to get him to the vet.

Dr. Fanous checked his mouth, his gut, his eyes, his ears, his temperature and his pulse. Her only concern was a slightly elevated temperature (39.2) and his only concern was eating as much canned food as she was prepared to offer him. That night I mixed a can of salmon with his dinner and he's been hoovering plain kibble ever since. We still don't know what the slowdown was about (blood work revealed nothing), but I'd wager he's gained at least five pounds since he started eating again.

*I am no monster, but I am very black and white with my dogs. Undesired behavior is swiftly and firmly corrected. Any dog that bursts through passages without permission will find its head trapped in the door or gate by a growling crazy woman until they back out. They learn very quickly that sitting and waiting politely will get them what they want.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's Official

Earlier today Patrick Hudon left a voicemail confirming that Tonka is Kellys Mountain. He was obviously choked up, and pleased to hear that his former horse is in a happy home. He also said that Tonka gave him plenty of trouble on the track, but that his wife had been very fond of him. I will call later today to get the details -- I suspect it will be a long conversation. And a photo from the archives, since I'm feeling nostalgic. Look at that neck!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rest In Perturbation

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the hungry boots are dead. Yesterday David pointed out a split behind my right heel, so today I felt completely justified in spending over $100 on a pair of Tack Classics from the Muck Boot Company. A report on their relative appetite to be issued upon their arrival.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

If They Come, You Will Build It

Under the assumption that our horse shelter would arrive this week we promised to wine and dine some friends this weekend in return for their assistance with its assembly. The shelter didn't show due to gross incompetence at FedEx Freight, but friends arrived with tools nonetheless.

Last June a friend from Seattle came to visit with destruction on his mind, so we let him loose on the rusty, dented shed that sat across from our garage (note the old fence, lack of crusher dust, and presence of good 'ol Reuben). Three months later I framed in the side walls for its replacement, which we expected to be the goat barn. Four months later we decided to put the goat paddock out front and to put the horse paddock alongside the house. Thus we found the VW for the goats and agreed to build the shed for horse gear instead (feed, blankets, halters, grooming supplies, manure forks, muck wheelbarrow...). Five months later the skeleton of the shed remained unchanged -- you know how it goes.

This weekend we got the footings anchored, framing finished, rafters on, and most of the sheathing up despite the iffy weather. Our renovation contractor was kind enough to bring an exterior door that was being scrapped by another one of his clients, and we got that hung too. Our very handy friend Neil stayed over last night so that he could help with the sub-roof today, and we could not have done it without his expertise and the third pair of hands. The crazy thing is that people offered to come back to help again next weekend -- I hope we'll be able to return the favour in future.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I Watch in 4/4 Time

Any fans of The Weakerthans out there? They are a sweet little Canadian band that you should check out if you like clever folky rocky music. The lyric "I wait in 4/4 time" from their song "Left and Leaving" has been running through my head for the past two days.

Now that I'm convinced Tonka is an ex-pacer I have new insight into the way he moves. Ideally the walk should be a symmetrical four beat gait with equal intervals between hoof strikes. Rear left, front left, rear right, front right -- the equine equivalent of 4/4 time. This is true of Tonka at a slow walk, but when he speeds up his lateral legs begin to strike in near-unison so that the representation above begins to look like this:

I have been trying to put my finger on this fact for the past three months, but it wasn't until I started to watch lateral pair of legs at the walk that I really understood what's going on. Does he do this to minimize pain as his front toes strike? Is it a habit embedded in his muscle memory, or is he still hurting?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cape Breton Calling

This evening I was chatting with my mom on our home phone when someone called my cell from an unrecognized number. I let it ring through to voicemail, and there were two more calls from the same number before I finished talking to my mom. As I was checking said voicemail the phone rang again -- it was Robert A. Blanchard from beautiful Cape Breton Island.

For those unfamiliar with Canadian geography Cape Breton is the northern tip of Nova Scotia -- one of four provinces on the Atlantic coast. It is 6000 km (3700 miles) and four time zones away from Deroche. Earlier today Robert received word that I was looking for information about his Kilkerran Jake and he called to tell me that I had the wrong horse. I'm not sure whether this level of dedication is specific to maritimers, Canadians and/or harness racers, but we ended up talking for 15 minutes. He wanted to know about Tonka, wanted assurance that I'd keep him posted on my progress, and wanted me to call him back if I ever need another retired standardbred -- he'll ship one out. It was fun, and I got a standing invitation to the Cape Breton races.

Earlier today I posted a letter to Patrick Hudon (shown above driving Constant Craving), once-owner of Kellys Mountain. Let's hope that he's equally responsive!

NB: There is a Kelly's Mountain is on Cape Breton Island, so Tonka will connected either way if that's who he turns out to be.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Tonka came to me with the stable name "Kelly", which I hated. Here's what the standardbred registry comes up with for HR015:

Sardis, BC is just around the corner from here. This horse had one pacing start in 1993, and I can't help but wonder whether he broke down on the track. More time on the registry tonight will give me more information.

Tattoo, Round Two

A fellow user of the on the Horse Council of British Columbia forums has access to the standardbred registry. She pulled a few potential Tonka matches for me last week, but the process is somewhat complicated by the fact he is gray -- he may have been registered as his birth colour. While I understand the genetics underlying the gray modification, the mechanics remain a mystery to me. Tonka is heavily flea-bitten with brown ticks on his body and black ticks down his legs so I have always assumed that he was born bay, but others tell me it's not that simple. Yesterday we hosed him down to check for pink skin, and he has some on the inside of both hind pasterns -- none in the front nor on his face. There is a 1989 gelding named Kilkerran Jake tattooed as H8015, registered as "brown" and having the same white markings. His last known owner is listed as living in Nova Scotia in 2002, and I am trying to get in touch with him via the tracks out there. A quick Google search reveals that he is still in the racing business, so let's hope something comes of it!

Friday, September 12, 2008

No Big Deal

In my head riding is a big deal -- it requires three hours of free time (preferably in good weather) to groom, tack up and go somewhere interesting. On Monday it occurred to me that this mentality is a detriment to (1) the health of my horses, because they don't get ridden enough and (2) my self esteem, because I don't ride my horses enough. What's wrong with a quick groom followed by a 20-minute schooling ride around the pasture? Absolutely nothing. Yesterday I did just that with Raven, working at a walk, trot and canter in both directions. We worked through all the anticipated drama (flies, being contained) to get some really nice focus and movement on a couple of loops. If I commit to riding Tonka or Raven every day that I spend on Farcical Farm (see Desk Jockey) we will all improve, I think.

Plus, here's some profile shots of her from (1) May 2008 and (2) September 2008. She might be fugly, but she's my black beauty.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

U-8-O or 0 or D-1-5

That's what Tonka's tattoo says. It took David, Christina and I to wrangle that lip up for long enough to read it. What do I do now?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Desk Jockey

My office is in Vancouver, about 100km from Deroche. Although I can work from home the folks on campus do appreciate semi-regular proof of my continued existence. Most Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays I take the 07:27 West Coast Express train from Mission (20km eat of here) into the city, followed by the 18:20 train home again. This requires me to feed the troops at 06:00 and 20:00, and we are rapidly reaching the day on which both these times will fall in pitch blackness. Last week I bought myself a very snazzy head lamp! How do you cope with your long list of chores as the daylight hours get shorter?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ins and Outs

If Raven were a dog I would say that she suffers from barrier frustration. She does not like to be contained, and she does not like being stuck in place A when she wants to be in place B. At her worst she will run fence lines with her head over the top and her chest brushing against the posts, and even at her best she is prone to bolting through gates. 

When Raven first arrived I had a stick (or broom or whatever) in-hand whenever I let her through a gate. She soon learned that calm and collected behavior earned her the right pass through while drama queen antics earned her a lot of hard work on the wrong side of the fence (so to speak). But sometime over the course of the summer she perfected the art of bolting from a seemingly-calm-and-collected standstill and gate passages became uncomfortably unpredictable. Over the past week I have been (1) haltering her, (2) doing some ground work, (3) passing respectfully through the gate, (4) doing some more ground work, and (5) unhaltering her. It seems like a ridiculous step backwards, but it also seems to be working -- she is more relaxed each day. Next week I will start surprising her with unassisted passages and, hopefully, we'll get back to where we started.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jumping Up and Down

Not literally because I'm at the office, but I'm tempted. A colleague of Shelagh's at Unifeed just called to say that one of his clients has 800 bales of hay testing at 6% water soluble carbohydrate and 15% crude protein and selling for $6.50/bale. Woot! Jeremy also thought his client would be willing to store 200 bales for me until spring, and he knows a fellow that will load, haul and unload for $1.25/bale. This is one bright spot in an otherwise very stressful day.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Glory Days

On Saturday mornings I go through my normal routine (feeding, turning out, mucking, preparing for evening feeding) and then I clean up wasted hay from around the feeders. Although I'd save myself some work by doing this daily, I prefer to let the hay build up so that Tonka and Raven ingest minimal crusher dust throughout the week. But yesterday the weather looked promising and I skipped the hay-cleaning step so that we could go hiking with some friends. Here is Watson appearing obedient and eager-to-please by some trick of the lens:

Today turned out to be the most beautiful day we've had all summer. While I was getting the hay raked up David was wrestling with a very wet burn pile (we compost manure and burn wasted hay) so that it was smoldering away by the time I finished. Sweaty, smelly and covered in flies I parked my wheelbarrow in the smoke (a trick I learned from an FFF reader) and climbed aboard -- what luxury! Legs up on the handles, bum tucked into the back corner and head resting comfortably on the upslope at the front. David brought me a latte and I enjoyed a fly-free hour in the sun. Then I had a shower and took our Miata to town with the top down to fetch horse and human supplies. I thought about taking Raven for a spin when I got home, but things at work have me tightly wound right now and she doesn't cope well when I'm stressed out. We did some ground work and called it a (glorious) day.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Weed Whackers

Shelagh from Unifeed has ~30 bales of low-sugar hay to sell me. The horse for whom she bought it has Cushing's Disease, but he doesn't like weeds and seems to waste any of the hay that has come in contact with the weeds. Two days of taste testing prove that Tonka and Raven don't like the weeds either, but they pick them out of the good hay and leave them for the ever-greedy goats. Everybody wins! The horses get to eat for the upcoming month, I get to relax a little about finding more hay, and the goats get to appear useful.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Remote Sensing

This catch-all phrase is used to describe any technique that measures the properties of something without actually touching that thing. For example, many of the satellites in orbit around the earth carry instruments that are continuously probing our surface and atmospheric environments. Electromagnetic waves of different frequencies are directed towards the planet and the materials (gases, liquids, solids) with which they interact reflect a unique wave signature back to the sensors. By comparing these unique signatures to the results of in situ (i.e. non-remote) measurements the instruments are calibrated to estimate conditions on and around the planet from hundreds of kilometers above. It really is rocket science! My primary research interest involves using such data to help understand how air pollution affects the health of large human populations.

What does this nerdy lecture have to do with horses? One of the methods by which to measure the nutritional content of hay is near infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS). Core samples from multiple bales are mixed together and loaded into an instrument that (a) subjects them to electromagnetic waves and (b) measures the unique response signature of the hay. Results are then compared to those from hays that have also been tested via wet chemistry and the nutritional value of the forage is statistically inferred. It's not the most accurate method, but given my interest in remote sensing I think it's got the most geek cred. Yesterday the orchard grass hay I was hoping to buy went through the NIRS at Unifeed and was estimated to contain 15% water soluble carbohydrates (WSC, closely related to NSC). Too sweet for Tonka, so the search continues. As a stopgap measure my very helpful acquaintance at Unifeed has offered up some 8% WCS hay that her horses don't like -- people are so fantastic, aren't they?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Yesterday Tonka was using his flehmen response to assess Raven's back end (she's in heat again -- let's hope it's the last of the summer) when I noticed some faded green markings right at the front of his upper lip. It turns out that Tonka is tattooed! Given that he (a) looks like a big 'ol grade horse and (b) was sold to me as a big 'ol grade horse it has never occurred to me to check. Christina is coming to trim the beasts next week, so I will solicit her help in getting a picture -- Tonka tolerates most manhandling without complaint, but he does not like oral poking and prodding.

I know nothing about the administration of horse tattoos. Purebred dogs are often marked and registered by their breeders, but vets will tattoo any old mutt for the purpose of identification. Does the same go for horses, or does the existence of a tattoo define Tonka as the member of some breed registry? And, if so, what registry? He looks like a big 'ol grade horse!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Hay Hunter

The dairy farmer who has supplied all of our hay to date produced mostly round bales this year. According to Martin the unpredictable weather combined with the unpredictable teenage labor force made square bales too dicey a proposition for him. Now that we're down to 15 bales in the garage I am sadly on the hunt for a new source of hay.

Talking on the phone is one of my least favorite activities, and talking to strangers on the phone is far beyond my comfort zone. Professional calls are OK because I know my shit (sorry mom), but hay purchasing seems to require many awkward conversations that leave me feeling like a noob. My dream is to find a local grower who (1) tests for non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) (2) delivers, and (3) is interested in having a long-term customer. This afternoon I spoke with a farmer down the street who has 2000 bales of first-cut orchard grass ready to sell. It was cloudy and mild before it was cut, and it got rained on in the field -- everything I want to hear. If the NSC tests come back under 12% he is willing to sell me 400 bales now, and to store 200 of those bales until the spring. Now all I have to do is phone around to organize the testing...