A couple of years ago, I was given the Stamp of Authenticity as a horseman when a non-horseman told me “you horse people are weird”. (See “Wierd at last”, 12/12/2011).
I was told this when the non-horseman discovered me mucking out the stalls of two horses that did not belong to me. For free. For no reason other than, they needed cleaning, I was there alone, and…let me confess: I kind of like mucking out a stall.
Non-horsemen see mucking as an onerous task- working with heavy, smelly, and voluminous amounts of shit and equally heavy, urine soaked shavings stinking of ammonia. We do this EVERY DAY, without fail. Horses produce enormous amounts of manure that is worthless even as fertilizer. Horse manure takes forever to break down in the outdoors. Because it hasn’t been fermented in a gut (like cows, sheep, even rabbits), it takes forever for it to compost. You don’t dare put it in your garden, because the same drugs that kill intestinal parasites (i.e. Strongid C, especially), also go right through the horse, unbroken, and will readily kill the beneficial earthworms in your garden bed.
If you DO insist on putting it in your garden bed, you will be rewarded with weeds, weeds, and weeds.
But, in keeping with my ‘weird’ status, I find cleaning a stall to be an oddly comforting, meditative task. Mucking out a stall is as ancient a rite as is building barns and keeping animals in them, but is made far easier with such modern tools as plastic muck rakes and powered manure spreaders. It’s one of the few actions left that don’t require an electric or gas powered tool. I gain satisfaction when I look at the results of my labor: a nice, clean, stall: a bed all fluffed and clean, the manger spic and span, the buckets scrubbed of scum and slime, full of fresh, clean water. While I know he doesn’t (indeed, he is incapable) of appreciating my work, I feel as if I’m nurturing my horse. I feel like Earth Mother, but without the stupid dress.
We don’t even mind when the moment we bring a horse into her clean, neat stall, the first thing she does is straddle and pee in it.
There is a far more practical side of mucking, one that we seldom consider until the situation turns dire. That is, knowing how much is ‘normal’.
I am an auntie to a lovely gelding named Raven. His owner, Sue, has allowed me to ride, play with, groom and treat Raven as mine, without a lease or any sort of monetary exchange.
It is wonderful.
Because I live less than a mile from the barn (and Sue lives about 20 miles from it), I usually stop at the barn daily. Raven is, by that time, loafing in his paddock. Before I go and meet him, I will clean his stall (and sometimes, those of my friends who board there.)
For this, the barn crew, perennially shorthanded, are so very grateful. Jorge told me “you save me an hour’s work when you clean Raven’s stall”.
It paid off last week.
Sue is an ER nurse, meaning her hours are crazy at times and she’s always busy.
Last weekend, she trailered Raven to her friend’s large farm, about three hours’ drive north of here. They spent a three day weekend doing Girls Night Out and Girls Riding on the Beach during the day.
When Raven wasn’t actively working, he spent his entire time making googoo eyes at the friend’s new Friesian filly. Lovesick, he didn’t drink, he ignored his hay. He had eyes only for this lovely young thing. He may be a gelding but he still likes to chat up the ladies..especially nubile young fillies.
Monday morning, Sue called me from work. She’d hacked Raven in the arena. She’d noticed he was a bit off, but then she’d worked him ‘pretty hard” over the weekend. He also hadn’t finished his last night’s grain, and was ‘pawing’. Would I go check on him, and call her with my opinion?
This is where mucking out his stall paid off. This is where my years of reading books, along with hands on experience with horses in general, paid off.
This is where Sue’s trust in me, in believing that I know my stuff, paid off.
Raven was in his paddock. I checked his stall, which the barn hands hadn’t reached yet.
Raven had hardly touched his grain. He’d eaten most of his hay. His water bucket was full.
Most telling of all, screaming in neon silence at me, was his manure. Rather than his normal, overnight production of a large wheelbarrow’s worth of hay and urine soaked shavings, there were two scant piles of dry manure. There was a very small spot of urine soaked shavings. It took a mere three forkfuls to completely clean his stall.
“This is not good” I said aloud.
My mind began to race. I went out to the paddock and brought Raven in. His eye and his demeanor were his normal, gentle self, but there was something just a bit odd. He wasn’t begging for treats. He wasn’t digging in my pockets despite the fact that I had carrots in them.
His nostrils were very lightly pinched.
I took his temp. My old fashioned thermometer said he was 99.5. This could have been from the fact that it was VERY cold (which also, may have been his salvation). His feet were cold, thank goodness. His gut was ominously quiet, with only a squeak now and then. I didn’t take his pulse or listen to his heart, because try as I might (and I know where it is), I have never been able to find a horse’s heartbeat. He pawed a little as I examined him. I forgot to check his gums. I pinched him for dehydration, but didn’t see much change. That may because he has a ton of winter coat on his neck.
All the signs screamed COLIC to me.
Sue has told me in the past, don’t try calling her at work, as she’s very busy, and usually her calls must go through a receptionist, who then decides if it’s important enough to interrupt Sue.
I identified myself to the receptionist, and asked to speak to Sue. She asked, what is this in reference to? I said, “Her horse”.
‘Open Sez Me’ never worked faster. “Oh, yes, ma’am, she told me to expect your call. I’ll put you right through.”
Wow. I felt so important, so…so honored.
Sue said, “Yes?”
I told her the signs I’d found.
I said, “If he were my horse, I’d be calling the vet.”
“I’m calling her now.”
“Do you want me to stay with him?”
“You don’t need to, because Doc knows him, but I would like that, please.”
“Thank you for calling me, Sue. I’m no vet, but I’ve seen horses die from colic, and Raven’s not even close to that bad. Yet. We still have time.”
“Thank you so much”, she said, “I owe you. Again.”
“No, you don’t, Sue. I love that horse. You have been so generous with sharing him with me, how could I not be here for him?”
Two hours later, the vet called me. I told her I would have Raven waiting.
I had put him back in his paddock after calling Sue. I brought him into his stall, unblanketed him, and began grooming him, just to keep him-and my mind-occupied. He was still, mentally, fine. He insisted on playing “our game”. I groom him, he inspects the contents of my grooming kit. Every tool is picked up, mouthed, licked or chewed on, then dropped. When it’s empty, he turns the wooden box upside down, but I usually keep replacing the tools to give him something to remove.
The vet drove up about the same time I’d finished with Raven’s touchup.
I met her outside and began telling her what I’d found (i.e. manure, temp, etc.). She’s such a nice person, she didn’t treat me like an idiot. She listened. She was giving me face, granting me the respect of knowing what I was doing. Once again, I was glowing, slightly, with the treatment of being accepted as a horseman, if a horseless one.
She examined him. Within a short amount of time, she’d sedated him (lightly), pumped a bucket full of warm water into his tum along with some mineral oil, scraped out some dry manure from the other end, gave him something for pain, and took a blood sample.
“Give him half his normal hay for tonight. Soak half of that. He needs to get more water in him. He can be back on normal rations tomorrow.” she prescribed.
Then she said, “You and Sue were smart. I commend you both for jumping right on this. He’s got a slight impaction and his right gut is almost silent. This could have gotten very bad very quickly.”
She patted his lovely, hanging neck. He was snoring very softly, with his eyes half shut.
“You’re very lucky, pretty boy. You have two women doting on you.”
I laughed. “I’m the lucky one, Doc. Sue is so very good to me, letting me be his auntie.”
Jorge, came in after “La Doctor” left. He’s the lead barn hand, and leads all the horses to and from their paddocks. He has never, to my knowledge, ever ridden one.
He petted the drowsing Raven. “He is a good horse. He no es problemo like the others. I will watch him.”
I stayed with Raven until he came out of the sedation. I stroked his neck and sang to him, telling him how much I loved him, how good he is to me.
Sue called me that night from the barn.
Raven wasn’t out of the woods yet, she said, but she thought he’d be okay in a day or two.
“We’ll keep eyes on him for the next couple of days.” she said, and thanked me, again.
For the next three days, I was almost willing to bring in a scale and weigh his manure. It took another two days before his production could be called ‘normal’.
Raven is fine, now. We rode him yesterday. After a week of no work, he was fully charged with a load of energetic wahoo! and I’m glad Sue insisted on lunging it out of him before getting on his back. He was his gentle, patient, babysitter self with me.
I cleaned his stall this morning. There was a small mountain of manure in it, all strewn about in a circle that guaranteed that the only shavings that weren’t contaminated by manure had been contaminated with urine. His bucket was half empty.
This morning, he was his normal, gentle, and starving to death until you give me a treat Raven.
He is normal, all systems go.
It all came to the best because, despite his not being “my” horse, I knew what his normal manure output is.
It may be simple, smelly and worthless, but sometimes, horse manure-like knowledge-is priceless.