by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Agriculture comes first among human activities. Without it there would be no merchants, no courtiers, no kings, no poets and no philosophers. – Frederick the Great
So the country at large had a toasty, indeed worrisomely warm winter. Nationwide, February was all set to blow away the all time record — and would have easily done so if not for the Pacific Northwest. Here we were trapped in an ice box, depriving the rest of the country of its chance for the record books. It was definitely the coldest winter I remember since moving here some eleven years ago. In this normally mild maritime climate the winter garden is usually a real treat, featuring Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, kale, and collards. This year the ground froze so hard and for so long that the winter storage carrots turned to a sickening orange mush, the kale hung limp and rotting on woody winter stalks. Cabbages turned first to giant pale green ice balls, then to a sick smelling rotting mess. Even the collards, the ultimate winter champion, fared poorly. Cover crops of oats and peas, which in many years do not die back at all, completely winter killed. This I didn’t mind, since knocking back a live, aggressively growing cover crop of oats or rye in the spring can be a bit of a challenge.
Someone said we only had five sunny days from October 1st to April 1st. I believe them.
For the first time this year I got serious about measuring rainfall here at the farm. I implemented my data collection system beginning April 15, 2016. Using a plumbob on a stretch of cable run through a pulley, I track rainfall in real inches by raising the plumbob marker over a homemade measuring stick with inches marked in sharpie fixed to the side of the garden shed. The rain gauge is close by on a fencepost. I check the gauge, dump the water and raise the marker. If I am to be successful in a data gathering exercise such as this, which goes against my natural inclination, I need a system in place so as not to rely on pencil and any random scrap of paper I may or may not find. With my first year complete, I measured 67 inches, an easy number for me to wrap my head around since that is also my height. That’s more than 5 1/2 feet of rain! Of course that’s nothing compared to the twelve or more feet that regularly falls in some locations due west of here on the Olympic peninsula. Still, it is enough rain to be officially classified as a temperate rain forest, for which classification 55 inches is needed.
Indeed rainforest evidence is abundant this year as bitter grey winter grudgingly gives way to slightly less bitter, but equally grey spring. Some big leaf maple branches are almost completely covered in bright green epiphytic moss, like Tolkien’s Mirkwood in the heart of Middle Earth.
The thick carpet of moss on the stones in the spring below the house belie the fact that they are stones at all. I expect to see fairies dancing on each little mossy knoll.
We are approaching May 1, when ordinarily I would plant corn and set out tomatoes, but the soil is still cold to the touch, more like late March or early April. I can’t imagine having any success with those crops yet. I wait.
Given the Equus Assinus currently occupying the White House, and my extreme aversion to anything resembling his countenance, I’ve decided to latinise the name of our Suffolk stallion. Henceforth Donald of Eagle Ridge shall be known as Donaldus Promunctorii Aquilae. I am confident that, if given a chance, even he would bring more intelligence, honor, compassion and truth to the office of President than the man currently holding that office.
A few weeks ago I started training Stella, our two year old Fjord-Punch (Norwegian-Suffolk). She is of a sweet disposition and has since birth been around harnessed horses jangling in and out of the barn. So it came as no surprise to her when one day I picked up the harness and instead of putting it on her mother, I put it on her. She just stood there — barely flinched. One of the big advantages of raising and training home raised foals is that you know their history first-hand. And provided that you yourself have done nothing stupid to harm the mind of the young horse, the training should go fairly smoothly.
Stella’s training thus far has certainly borne that out. Each step has proceeded in succession without any problem to speak of. I have found that if a horse is trusting and has been regularly handled, the basics will come fairly easily. With Stella, I first harnessed her in the barn for a few days and just let her stand with no further expectation. Then I led her around the barnyard and on out to the round corral to begin the work of ground driving: Whoa, Go, Back, Gee and Haw (these last two at first communicated only through the lines, not verbally until I have hitched to a vehicle and can swing right or left).
Horse training at its most basic level is largely a matter of pressure and release. You apply pressure to the horse: to the right or left side of the mouth for gee and haw, both sides for whoa, and even, steady pressure on both sides for back. The reward is the release of the pressure felt through the bit on the mouth. In order for this to be effective, especially in the early going, the release must happen instantly. Timing is everything. For example, if I want Stella to turn right (gee) I will apply pressure through the lines to the right side of the mouth. At first just a movement of the head in the right direction is enough. In fairly short order she should come all the way around. Similarly, when teaching a horse to back, one step is enough at first. When a horse consistently gives you one step — ask for two, then three. Pretty soon, if you have patiently laid the groundwork, she’ll keep walking backwards all the way to the barn for you.
Teach whoa in like manner. Verbalize “whoa” and apply pressure to both sides of the bit, not with a jerk and not any harder than necessary. In the beginning the horse will likely have no idea what what you are asking. But the moment, the very instant she stops — you release. Ask the horse to step out again fairly soon so that she understands that resuming forward motion is your idea, not hers. Repeat — again and again until her equine mind starts to recognize a predictable and consistent pattern to the new language you are teaching.
A bit more about pressure/release: Keep in mind that the reward is the release. It may not seem like much of a reward, especially when compared to a carrot or a scoop of oats, but imagine you are sitting on a couch and someone plops down next to you and sticks their elbow into your side, not hard, but steady and firm. Chances are you won’t be comfortable like that for long and will scoot over in short order. You will feel a decided sense of relief when you no longer have a strangers elbow in your side. It’s the same thing with the horse. They just want to be comfortable.
The training process should progress from a basic desire to be free of pressure, to true communication in equine language, a vocabulary that the horse recognizes and takes action upon. For this reason we should strive to be ever lighter in our touch as the training process moves from teaching, through pressure and release, to communication through the lines and with the voice. Hopefully this distinction makes sense. To illustrate: if you are coming around the corner of a field with a team, say pulling a hay rake, you shouldn’t have the feeling of pulling the horses around the corner with the lines, i.e. forcing them with pressure, but rather of informing the animals of your intention to go around the corner, i.e. communicating your wishes.
As we move from applying pressure as a means of teaching a horse, to applying pressure as a means of signaling a horse, you should be working toward that place of stasis that Lynn Miller calls perfect tension, that critical point where the working relationship between man and beast comes into a place of mutual awareness, perfect harmony. Though easy to say, it is one of the most difficult things to master when learning to drive horses and must be learned over time and from long experience. Often I have accompanied an inexperienced teamster driving a fast-stepping team, and by a well-intentioned effort not to be hard on the mouth, the beginner will allow the horses to go faster and faster and until, if left unchecked the unfortunate logical outcome will be at best an uncontrolled trot-away, and at worst a full on runaway. I have actually had to take the lines in hand and slow horses back down, bringing them back to an awareness of my presence, my confident, authoritative presence. Not authoritarian, authoritative. There is a difference. While driving, you must maintain control at all times. Perfect tension does not simply mean being light on the mouth at all times. Perfect tension is an elusive target which will change depending on multiple factors: How long has it been since the team last worked? Is it early in the morning or late in the day? Are you plowing heavy clay or drawing an empty wagon along a gravel road? Going toward the barn or away? Is the wind screaming in their faces? Etc. Know your horses; consider the conditions. Perfect tension. Find it.
I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I hitched Stella to a real implement for the first time. We had been up and down the lane on the forecart for many days and doing quite well when I finally decided it was time to do some real work. I hitched her up to the Pioneer riding lawnmower (a swell machine) and headed for the house. When I dropped the gangs and the sudden whirring of the three reel mowers came up behind her she was, as I expected, startled, but true to form she quickly settled down. Once again she trusted that I was not going to send anything harmful her way. She passed the whirring lawnmower test with flying colors.
The tougher test came after I had completed the first round of mowing and attempted to cut back in for another pass. Stella wanted to go back to the barn and stand next to her mother in the tie stall, which was not at all what I had in mind. She stood there in the driveway and threw a two year-old tantrum. Our minds were met on a battlefield of the intellect with only one acceptable outcome.
Horses are herd animals and very much want to be with their stablemates. This is the first fundamental of horse psychology. The mind of a horse is guided by strong instinct built upon eons of behavior governed principally by both the flight mechanism and the desire to maintain safety by staying with the herd. Both of these powerful equine tendencies must be overcome in order for humans to enter into a useful working relationship. It is no easy task and there are no shortcuts. There is no substitute for time and repetition when it comes to reprogramming the ancestral mind of a horse. Of course some horses are more independent minded than others, and I expect that training a farm bred horse like Stella, with her mother standing in the stall at the barn, makes this task a bit more difficult. A horse that has traveled to another farm and left his mother will at least not have that maternal attraction (distraction) to overcome. That said, a horse is still a herd animal and is most at ease when around other horses. Sometimes when you find yourself at odds with the natural inclination of a horse to head home, especially in the early going, a little creativity may be required to avoid getting you and your horse into a pickle.
So it was that I found myself sitting at the proverbial fork in the road, Stella wanting to take the right-hand fork and go down to the barn, me wanting to take the left hand fork back onto the lawn. There she was prancing and dancing and tossing her head and absolutely refusing to swing haw and proceed onto the lawn. Make no mistake these situations are dicey and can turn ugly. In this case I cautiously stepped off of the mower and, with lines firmly in hand, walked up to her head speaking softly. Taking her by the halter, I led her back onto the lawn, where a barrier of rhododendrons in the front yard naturally blocked her way to the barn. On the next pass she protested some but went back for another round on her own.
Similarly, you will likely notice upon leaving the barn either horseback or driving, a young horse often will resist walking in a straight line, but instead zigzag, continually trying to thwart your intentions and turn back toward the barn. Of course when you finally do allow her to head for home you will be faced with the inevitable quickening of pace. This too can become dangerous in a hurry if you allow it.
The conditions described above are specific to training a single horse. When training a young horse with an older experienced one there are of course other considerations. There is much to say about the pros and cons of hitching a young horse single versus hitching as a part of a team, a subject I will return to in a future column.
Only moments ago, indeed as I was sweating out the very words for this column, the two peacocks at the barn let out a shrill series of alarm cries. I knew in an instant something was wrong. I flew out the front door in my slippers just in time to see a big shaggy coyote ambling through the barnyard. I clapped and shouted and he tore off across the lower field scattering a bewildered milk cow and calf and several Canada geese in his wake. I am grateful to the peacocks for so reliably alerting me when trouble is nigh. Had they not sounded the alarm, I would likely have gone down in an hour to a barnyard scene of chicken carnage. I am careful to lock up the chickens at night, but for the last several months I have felt fairly confident in letting them run free in the daytime since the coyotes normally only frequent the area just at daylight and generally stay away during broad daylight hours. I suppose they are made bold by the need to find extra food to raise litters of pups this time of year. I wish that if they insist on frequenting the barnyard they would eat a few more rats and pass on my chickens.
Farming always has been a delicate game of give and take with the wild inhabitants of surrounding fields and woods. This Human business of making a living from the land inevitably finds itself sometimes at odds with other creatures also trying to make a living from the same patch of land. For the most part it is not that difficult to strike a harmonious balance. Sometimes this boundary sharing works to our great benefit, as when swallows nest in the barn keeping the fly population down, or when ladybugs go to work in the garden eating aphids. Other relationships are decidedly un-beneficial, and not infrequently, lines are crossed, and boundaries must be drawn and redrawn, relationships reestablished. A recent example illustrates my point.
We have experienced a robust rat population on the farm for the last year or so. I have trapped a few here and there but haven’t gotten too serious about it until recently when they forced my hand. I was shutting the chicken yard door one evening just after dark a couple of weeks ago when I heard a distinct splashing sound coming from inside the coop. “That’s not the sound of chickens roosting,” I said to myself, and quickly shut the little chicken door to the coop. Entering and turning on the light, I was horrified to see the place crawling with rats: gray rats, brown rats, big fat rats, little skinny rats, all hurrying and scurrying for cover, their long hairless tails poking out from under the feed bunk or behind the water trough, frantic in their sudden knowledge that the way out had been shut. It was the kind of scene that you hope to only encounter in nightmares from the safety of your own bed, with the sure, comforting knowledge that when you awaken it will have been only a dream. I felt like Jean Valjean in the depths of the sewers of 19th century Paris, unable to take a step without fear that one of the unsavory creatures might be underfoot, or worse, dash up my leg in a frantic hurry to find cover. No wonder I had noticed the chicken food disappearing at an alarming rate and eggs broken open, the contents spilled and spread over the unbroken ones in the nesting box leaving an unsavory mess.
I briefly took in the scene and then set about the grizzly, but necessary task of dispatching, i.e. killing them. I got the pellet gun which I keep at the barn for such purposes and shot every last one.
I can’t say I enjoyed this. Indeed there should be something at least slightly troubling to any well-adjusted human soul who knowingly and deliberately takes the life of another creature, even a rat. In the modern world we routinely sanitize and outsource our killing, whether it be pest or food animal. Chickens come from the grocery store cooler, their life snuffed out by an anonymous mechanism in an unknown location such that it is easy for the average consumer to forget that the animal was ever alive at all. Rats and mice are controlled by exterminators or poisons without ever having to face the reality that they too are living creatures who have no less interest in living than you or me. Even in my own life, it is somehow less troubling to to set a trap at bedtime and return in the morning to a dead rat than it is to set my sights on the living animal and pull the trigger. Yet in the end the result is the same. I am no less culpable for having set the trap than having pulled the trigger.
In the end, despite any misgivings we may have about killing, we must keep own meager lives in proper context of the world writ large. Living begets dying, dying begets living. Rats are a prey species in the grand scheme of things, with incredible rates of reproduction. By living in such close proximity to human activities they are by and large sheltered from predation by local predators — raptors and coyotes. These rats are imported and not native to this place — the noxious weeds of the animal world, with no long established evolutionary place in the natural ecosystem. They spread disease. They eat my eggs and chicken feed. They even managed to get into my potato storage bin and, in yet another horrific scene, turned the top few inches of my stored crop into a mix of watery, rotten, half eaten potatoes mixed with rat excrement. Disgusting. Utterly disgusting.
And so I put gun to shoulder and drew a bead on one furry little creature after another. I pulled the trigger, again and again until, except for the nervous rustling of roosting chickens, all movement ceased in the midnight coop. This is after all, my domain. I’m trying to eek out a living from this little patch of earth the same as everyone else, doing what farmers have done for generations, stewarding this bit of land where my livelihood and that of wild creatures intersect. And I try not to lose sight of the fact that it is a stroke of enormous luck to be born at the top of the food chain, with opposable thumbs and enormous brain. But I don’t let that go to my head either, for even I, the mighty warrior-farmer cannot escape the inevitability of my own dies mortui.