It was early on a frigid December morning, in what was being called the worst winter in twenty years. It was our first winter on the farm, and our first winter living full-time with the horses.
I made coffee, and decided to check emails before piling on the layers of clothing needed to head outside to toss down feed for the animals.
Wading through the spam and the bills, I found one email that completely shocked me…
It was from our friend, Farmer Sue. She was leaving her farm, and was looking to re-home her mare, Astrid. Effective immediately.
Sue was hopeful that we would take her. That way she knew she’d be going to a home where, most likely, Astrid would live out her days as a loved and pampered trail horse. If we couldn’t take Astrid on, then Farmer Sue hoped we could help network and find either a rescue, or another solid home for her. No matter what, the goal was that Astrid didn’t end up back where she came from… the local meat auction.
Horses going for meat is seen as somewhat taboo. Even though they’re livestock, horse meat, and those who buy and sell for the meat markets, are the unspoken (or angrily spoken of) side of the horse world. The unfortunate truth is that horses are an expensive luxury, there are far more of them than there are good homes, and too many good horses go for meat when a home isn’t available. Astrid had escaped that fate once, and it would have been unfortunate for her to end up back in the same situation.
It was, however, the end of December, in a hard winter. Hay was going to be an issue, and then—should we be able to secure more hay—how were we going to get her from Farmer Sue’s place to ours? After much discussion, more than a few phones calls, and a some tears on my part, Hubby and I were able to secure more hay, and ultimately decided that we would take Astrid in. We figured, if nothing else, this would become a long-term free-board situation while things settled down elsewhere.
I contacted Sue and told her we’d be there, as soon as the weather would let us get there, to pick Astrid up. As a part of taking Astrid, we were given the usage, and opportunity to purchase, Sue’s stock trailer. An offer that any small, just-starting-out, farmer, would jump at.
The weather had other plans for us. We were ready to go for Astrid the first week of January, but between blizzard conditions, and the record breaking cold, we all figured it just wasn’t safe to make the three-hour round-trip journey to bring Astrid to her new home.
Finally, the cold snap broke, the snowing stopped, and on January 12th, we packed our cold-weather gear, thermoses of coffee, a lunch, the emergency kit, and necessaries for Astrid into our truck, setting out bright and early to go get the New Girl.
Once we got her loaded into the trailer… which was a three-hour feat itself, with the stress of losing her bovine herdmates one by one until she was last, Astrid was not happy about this idea of stepping up into this little box on wheels. We said our goodbyes to Farmer Sue, taking the last part of her farm dream away with us.
After an uneventful drive home, Hubby backed the trailer as close to the gate as possible. After he shut the truck off, we looked at each other and he asked, “What did we just do?” We hadn’t planned on a fourth horse any time soon, but, how could we leave Sue with no place for Astrid?
She’s a friend. Friends don’t let a friend’s horse go for meat, if they can help it.
Now came the hard part. With no plan in place for a fourth horse, we had no real way to slowly introduce her to our herd of three. When the original three came home, they all came together from the same place, so they were released together, and all adjusted to the new space together. They had been together in the same pasture at the rescue farm we adopted them from, and had already established a herd hierarchy. We were just about to throw their world into anarchy with a fourth horse.
First, though, we had to get Astrid off the trailer.
With no experience unloading a horse.
What follows is “How Not to Unload a Horse.”
Astrid refused to back out. She kept trying to come out the man-door at the front of the trailer. That wasn’t going to work, simply because there was no way she would fit. The whole time we tried to back her out, our three were at the gate whinnying and snorting at this interloper we were bringing into their midst. Just as Hubby had her back close enough to step out of the trailer, one of the three let out a mighty whinney. That scared Astrid and she shot straight forward, stepping on Hubby’s feet.
This was clearly not working, so I went to shoo away the three trouble-makers, while Hubby turned Astrid around so she could walk out of the trailer, instead of backing out. Now, this is a small two-horse stock trailer, so turning wasn’t the easiest thing for Astrid. Add to that the panic with new sights, sounds, and smells, the poor girl was having a hard time even thinking. She tried to rear, hit her head on the ceiling, ducked down, slipped and fell, and then, finally, with Hubby outside the trailer standing to the side, she shot forward and leaped out of the trailer. This is when we learned to be grateful for horses with a great foundation of training. Even as scared as she was, once Astrid hit the end of the lead rope, and felt pressure on her halter, she stopped. Oh, she swung her rump around, facing Hubby and the trailer, but she stopped. She planted all four hooves, she shook, she honked like a goose. And then, from behind, came the soft knicker of greeting from our Palomino, Sable. I’d like to say it was smooth sailing from that moment on, but that’d be a lie. Astrid’s response to Sable’s greeting was a swift kick in her direction.
Thankfully, they were too far apart, and had a fence between them, for the kick to connect.
Our next lesson is, “How Not to Introduce a New Horse.”
I will wholeheartedly admit, we were not ready to introduce Astrid to our herd. Not even a little bit. Healthwise, everyone was up to date on shots and deworming, but we didn’t have a smaller quarantine-pen where they could get to know each other with a fence in between them. Nope, all we had was a ten-acre pasture that the three—now four—could run in.
So, we turned her loose. The longer we tried to hold onto her, so they could meet over the fence, the more wound-up everyone got. We figured we were prolonging the pains that were sure to come as everyone worked out where in the herd they belonged. With a deep breath, and a small prayer, I opened the gate, shooed the current three back, Hubby walked Astrid in, and unsnapped the lead rope, giving her the freedom to react as she would.
It was quiet and calm for a moment. Long enough for Hubby to make it out the gate and latch it closed. Sable stretched her neck out to sniff Astrid’s rump, and that’s when things exploded in a fury of squeals, whinnies, kicks, bites, and snorts.
In truth, it sounded a lot worse than it actually was.
Astrid was unsure of what was going on and lashed out, while the other three acted like it was a game. Our lead mare, Ruby, only laid one semi-serious bite on Astrid after she aimed a kick at Sable’s belly. Just enough to let Astrid know which horse was actually in charge, and she’d better behave.
After that, they began to run.
The original three have always been respectful of the fences, so we weren’t too worried. We watched them as they galloped from one end of the pasture to the other, mixing in moments of rearing, bucking, and kicking. This went on for a good thirty minutes, until Ruby decided that she was ready to go back to eating. Slowly, they all came to the feeders, where the four of them dropped noses into the hay and began munching together.
We figured for a first meeting, even as tense as it was, it went pretty darn well, meaning it was time for us to let them have some space to sort out what Astrid’s role in the herd was going to be.
Our third lesson that came with Astrid’s arrival was, “Horses Need to Transition Feeds.”
That lesson came three days later, when our poor little new mare colicked.
As it turns out, the hay we were feeding was much too rich, with a higher alfalfa content than she was used to. When we picked her up, none of us considered bringing home some of the hay she was eating at Farmer Sue’s place, to ease the transition from straight grass-hay to hay with alfalfa.
Combine that with the stress of the move, and meeting her new herdmates, it was just too much for her, resulting in a bout of colic.
To make matters worse, we were in the midst of yet another snow storm, and I was home alone.
When I realized what was happening, with Astrid kicking and biting at her belly, while stretching her back legs out behind her and kicking out, I placed a call to the vet.
This was my first hands-on encounter with a colicking horse, so I may not have been as calm, cool, and collected as I should have been. The lady on the phone was patient with me though, asking me all the right questions (what symptoms was she showing, for how long, what was her temperature, gum colour, pulse), giving me advice on what to do (if she lays quietly and doesn’t roll, leave her be; if she’s walking around, leave her be; have a halter on her for when the vet arrives, call back if things get worse), and letting me know when the vet himself would be able to make it to me.
As typically happens, when the vet arrived (plowing his way through our snowed-over driveway with his big 4×4), Astrid was feeling better. The kicking and biting at her belly had subsided, and she was standing relaxed. As he examined her, I explained what had happened, how she had ended up with us, and how long she’d been showing colic symptoms. Thankfully, he pronounced her on the mend, gave her a shot of banamine, and me a lesson on what to have on hand next time (because there will always be a next time) one of the horses colics.
With Astrid came her saddle and bridle. After a period of relaxation, for Astrid to get comfortable, Hubby decided that it was time for her to remember what it was like to be a working (if only a few times a week) horse. It started with him hopping up on her bareback, with a halter and lead rope, being led around the pasture. It then progressed to our teen daughter taking a turn with her around the pasture, and finally, this past summer, we bridled her and Daughter took her for an unescorted ride around the pasture.
Next task ahead, full tack. Knowing how willing and happy Astrid is to work with her people, we’re confident things will go well. She’s green, still has some learning to do, but she’s a happy little horse, who, with clear direction, is happy to do as asked. She is a definite assest to our farm.
When we were first asked to take her, I was unsure. We weren’t ready for a fourth horse, and well, I didn’t want to fall in love with her, only to have to give her back when life settled down for Farmer Sue. At the same time, I couldn’t let Astrid go back to the auction.
Safe to say now, though, that Astrid is here to stay.
She’s Sable’s (our Palomino) best friend, and I don’t think we could separate them, even if we wanted to. We’ve had the pleasure of three years of learning and growing with Astrid as she’s settled into our herd.
Sometimes, against all odds, you have to take a chance… we took a chance on taking Astrid, and it’s worked out for the best. For her, for us, and for our merry little herd of mares.
What once was three, is now happily four.