Knightsbridge Farm
Knightsbridge Farm

December 30, 2007 — Promises Made and Promises Broken

When the 89 mares arrived on the farm in Alberta back in 2005, they were initially hard to identify as individuals. It was an overwhelming blur of colors and shapes and sizes, with a few exceptions. One such exception was the only buttermilk buckskin mare of the group. Her ashen face protruded from a sack of skin and bones stretched over a bloated belly. In very poor shape and infested with ticks, it was a surprise to find her pregnant as she looked so old. Her paperwork identified her only as #87 and indicated she was 11 years old. (We now know that was a mistake in the paperwork and she is much older.) At the time, we thought she looked like she was 111 years old!

The pregnant mares foaled out in a large pasture here on the farm and it was an exciting, if sleepless, number of weeks going out to check them each night. Eventually most of the mares grew accustomed to people with flashlights wandering through the field in the dead of night, although there were a few who would hide in the darkness, especially when their time to give birth grew near. One or two were particularly offended by the presence of people and would charge through the dark to chase me away, so I learned quickly who to avoid!

I was particularly concerned about the old buckskin mare, as we referred to her then (her name is Annie now). Finally, late one warm night at the end of May, she started showing signs of labor and I stayed out in the field to keep an eye on her. Initially all appeared to be going as it should, but with her foal halfway out, she was tired and stopped most of her efforts. I carefully went in and assisted her, delivering one wet and slippery filly into the straw pile Annie had laid down on. With the foal breathing and somewhat alert, I moved away to watch and let them bond. Having been present for quite a few foalings, I was familiar with the regular timeline and this filly was a little slow. It was three hours before she stood on her own and that was after I provided some assistance. Her legs would not cooperate but finally she was up and an hour or so later she was nursing. Thankfully Annie didn’t have any trouble post-foaling and she had plenty of milk for her new filly, whom we named Shawnee.

At this time our plan was to wean our foals when appropriate, put some ground handling on them and find loving homes for most of the group. As we watched the 52 mare-foal pairs in those first few months after the mares had given birth, we noticed Annie seemed particularly smitten with her filly, Shawnee. Annie was demonstrably affectionate towards Shawnee and could often be seen nuzzling the filly, wrapping her neck around Shawnee while pulling her foal in close. Every so often, Annie would gaze off in the distance, her face awash with worry, as though she were looking into the future towards some ominous event drawing ever closer. We felt we knew what she was thinking. You see, Annie served on the PMU lines all of her life and had probably delivered over 20 foals. Every year, as the end of September approached, she had experienced the trauma of having her babies taken from her when they were just a few weeks or months old. We decided to make Annie a promise. We told Annie we would make certain she and Shawnee, her last foal, stayed together for the rest of their lives.

As Shawnee grew, it became more and more difficult for Annie to maintain a healthy weight. We established what we called a “TLC” pasture for several of our mares in need of special care. Each morning the mares were brought in to receive a variety of treatments and their little foals were taught to remain outside the gate until their moms returned. The foals would stand watching at the fence for a few moments as their mothers sauntered over to the feed buckets. Eventually reassured all was well, the foals would scamper off to play with each other. All except one. Shawnee would remain at her post for hours, waiting patiently until Annie returned to her.

Shawnee grew along with the other foals and enjoyed playing with the group while Annie kept a close eye on her. Last winter, it grew more and more difficult to keep weight on Annie. After a colic scare, some strange blood work and multiple vet visits and consultations, we discovered one side of Annie’s tongue is paralyzed. In order to help her gain weight and get back to health, we weaned Shawnee as a long yearling. After a period of adjustment Annie and Shawnee seemed to settle in to life across the yard from one another. By relieving her old body of the burden of nursing a large filly and supplementing her diet with a specially designed high calorie “potion”, Annie was able to gain some weight and regain her strength. Meanwhile, Shawnee grew friendlier each day and was quite amenable to halter training. It was our intention to reunite the pair of them once Annie’s health improved and her weight stabilized. We promised Annie she would get her baby back.

On December 22, 2007 I noticed Shawnee lying in the straw bed in her pasture. Not unusual but when I walked by an hour or so later she was still there. Later that afternoon, I went out to check on Shawnee and she was not feeling well so I brought her into the barn and took her vitals, consulted with the vet and medicated her. I had the vet out the next day to look at her and we adjusted her medication and waited for some improvement. Unfortunately, despite all of our efforts over the next four days, nothing we tried including IV fluids and a blood transfusion seemed to help and Shawnee continued to decline until she was in obvious distress. On December 27, with a heavy heart, we made the decision to euthanize Shawnee and relieve her suffering. Post mortem results were inconclusive but indicated some infection in her lungs that the lab analysts thought entered into her bloodstream and traveled to her brain.

Part of caring for animals is knowing when it’s time to let them go. Understanding that responsibility doesn’t make it any easier, and especially in the case of a young horse with no history of illness that you work day and night to save, it’s disheartening. Seeing Shawnee’s friends with their heads hanging over the fence waiting for her to come out of the barn or Annie looking at me confused and obviously wondering what just happened make for some difficult times. For several days after Shawnee’s death, Annie would not eat nor would she walk through the paddock where we euthanized Shawnee. I’ve apologized to Annie for not being able to save her baby and I hope she understands.

Although this post has a sad ending, I do want to include some thank yous. To the vets from the Clearwater clinic who came out whenever I needed them, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; to Don Allan, our hay supplier, who invited me to have Christmas dinner with his family because I had to miss my own family gathering, and to my family who came up to the farm to visit me and assisted in caring for Shawnee while they were here, I extend my deepest gratitude. Despite our best intentions we learned that much in this world is out of our hands and no matter how much we try, we can not always keep our promises.

November 24, 2007 — Scars are Beautiful

We have a radio in the barn and it’s always tuned to the local country station. One of my favorite country artists is a fellow Albertan named Paul Brandt. His latest album came out fairly recently and the whole thing is great but there is one song in particular that really made me stop and think about “the Girls”, as I refer to our mares here. Here’s an excerpt:

The pain won’t always be there
and someday after the fall
These scrapes and scratches will remind you
of the hurt you left behind and you'll see that
Scars are beautiful

He’s not singing about scarred up horses, or anything to do with horses actually, but the title is ‘Scars are Beautiful’ and that’s what got me thinking. Quite a few of our mares have scars of varying degrees and descriptions, and as we went through deworming the whole herd over the last couple of days, I was able to see each of them up close again, and was reminded of the scars and their mysteries.

Paloma is a sweet palomino and white mare who had one of our cutest babies in 2005 — Picasso Blue. She has a winding mass of lumps and scars running down the side of her neck, across her chest, and down one front leg. I can’t even imagine the wreck she must have gotten into to cause such extensive damage. The fact that she made it and today is so strong is a testament to her will to live.

April is a mare that you folks who visit the website won’t be familiar with. She wasn’t pregnant when she arrived, but was not young enough to consider for training under saddle, so she and the other older girls have lived under the radar for the most part. One of our heaviest mares, she looks like a full Percheron and moves like a black freight train coming across the pasture. Both of her knees show large scars where much of the hair is gone and what has grown back has come in white, from what was probably severe rope burn at some point in her life. Handling her can be a challenge at times, but she tries really hard to be good, even when she’s obviously had some bad experiences with people in the past.

Melena is one of our cute “curly” girls, her mane and tail are always in crinkly ringlets. She’s very friendly and one of my shadows when I wander through the pasture. The scar on her neck is very noticeable on her black coat; a white line going almost all the way around her neck, again likely caused by a rope. What isn’t so noticeable at first are the scars around her mouth and lips. One lip is wrinkled from scar tissue, and inside her mouth even her tongue has been damaged. Amazingly, she’s not a problem to handle, even around her head and muzzle.

Tammy is one of the best moms on the farm, and her filly Kara is a cute little thing who was super easy to halter break. Without getting too close, you’d probably think Tammy was a bit flighty, she’s always cocking her head and dashing off if approached from the wrong angle. But she has a good reason — she’s blind in one eye. The eye itself is still there, but is visibly filled with scar tissue and she has no sight on that side. As long as we talk to her when handling her, she’s not too much trouble; her evasive movements are strictly self preservation, not aggression. Her comfort with us improves each time we handle her, and that’s all I can ask for.

There are other horses here with various scars too, both physical and psychological. We’ll never know all of the details on any of them, and maybe that’s best. They came to us branded, scarred, and the victims of some less than humane handling practices. But they know, or I surely hope they do, that they are not defined by their scars, that we love them for all of their imperfections, maybe even more so.

Most importantly, no one here is ever going to treat them with less than the respect and care they deserve, and the words of the song will come true and allow them to leave all the hurt behind.

October 17, 2007 — Intruders in the Night

I sleep with my window open at night, for the fresh air but more importantly so I can hear what’s going on out in the yard. Most nights it’s pretty quiet — horses eating and moving around, the occasional coyote serenade or hooting owl. But last night, or I should say early this morning about 3 a.m., it was most definitely not quiet. I awoke to the sound of about 40 horses snorting, blowing, and thundering up and down the hill in the trees near the waterer. Translation: “Mom there’s a big bad boogey man out here, come out and SAVE US, QUICK!” The commotion from the horses woke up the dogs, who immediately started barking in the porch. All three cats figured it was breakfast and began their morning meowing and scratching at my door. Even the fish were splashing around in their tank. So much for quiet life in the country.

I couldn’t see a thing out the window, so shoved on some sneakers in case I had to run around, and grabbed a coat as Alberta autumn nights are most definitely frosty. I decided to leave the dogs in as dogs have this unfortunate habit of chasing down whatever you are looking for, irritating it, then running back to mom with a grumpy animal on their tail. Halfway down the sidewalk I came back for my trusty Mag light. We have two yard lights, but wouldn't you know the spot the horses were staring and snorting at was pitch black. They all crowded up to the fence as I crawled through, clamoring to be the first to tell me what was happening.

I scratched a couple and tried to settle them enough to hear what exactly they were looking at. No such luck, forty horses make a lot of noise even when they’re just standing there. So I headed for the next fence, behind which was supposedly the boogeyman, turning to the horses and saying, “Alright, I’ll go look, but you better hope I don’t get eaten, because unless one of you learned to drive the tractor while I wasn't looking, it’s going to be a LONG time until breakfast.”

Just before the fence I paused and could finally hear something out in the dark. Last time the horses were acting foolish in the dark it was a bear, the time before that was a skunk, so I was hoping for neither of those critters to have made a repeat appearance, for different reasons. The good news was I could hear chewing, not the snarling tearing apart flesh chewing, but peacefully munching on grass kind of chewing.

Leaning over the fence I shone the light down low, moved it around, and finally the beam came to rest on a big brown lump. Moving up a little, the lump turned its head to reveal a rather enormous set of antlers. Moose antlers to be precise. A few feet away was another brown lump, this revealed itself as a moose cow. It was obviously hard to see very well but I think it may have been the cow that spent most of the early spring here. Neither of them were bothered in the least by my presence, so I kept watching awhile longer, moving the light around. About five minutes later, a third smaller lump got up from the long grass. It was a moose calf.

The little threesome kept munching on the grass, slowly moving further into the bush, then ambling off until my flashlight couldn’t spot them anymore.

Through all of this, the horses stayed back on the farthest fence line. Even when I told them it was fine, they were just moose and not horse eating monsters they wouldn't budge. I’m not sure if it was the presence of the bull that had them so riled, or if they were just startled in the dark, because they have certainly seen moose before.

Either way, there was no convincing them to head back out into the trees, even with me leading the way. There were still a few horses in the yard later this morning when I went back out at 7:30 a.m. and it took a bucket of grain to get them out the gate.

Despite the horses being upset, I was happy to see the moose back on the farm. I was just thinking of them the other day in fact, wondering if the cow would be back with her calf this year. They are fun to watch, especially the young ones. Plus if they hang out here for the next few weeks, no one can shoot at them. There’s a lot of feed back there so I imagine they'll stick around awhile.

So welcome back moose family, now would you mind not waking me up at 3 a.m.?

September 23, 2007 — It’s All Relative

Eighty nine spotted draft mares arrived in Alberta in February of 2005, saved from an uncertain fate. They were a blur of color, hooves thundering as they charged around their new space, unsure where their long journey had brought them. Identified only by unattractive freeze brands on their hips, nameless solid and spotted mares all moved together, shaggy with winter hair, and blowing clouds of frost.

Two and a half years later, they still like to charge around on occasion. Especially this week with a bear in the neighborhood! But they are no longer a blur, each of them has a name, and we don't even notice the brands anymore. More than fifty of them foaled and their kids live here too. Hours of investigation, paperwork, and observation have revealed just how connected they are. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters, half sisters, cousins twice removed — just about every horse on this farm is related to another in some way. Coming from a fairly small uncomplicated family, I can now truly appreciate the people who have huge extended families to keep track of.

One of the many examples: Ladyhawke and Penny. Penny was the mystery horse upon arriving in Alberta. She had no paperwork, there was no manifest matching her description, and I think I clipped half of her body hair looking for a brand that wasn’t there. Obviously quite young, she was pretty wild, but stayed close to the herd. Later it was discovered that she is Ladyhawke’s daughter. They look nothing alike, but can most often be found grazing or eating hay not too far from each other. I guess Penny saw her mom get on the trailer and figured she was coming too, paperwork or not.

Another little family within a family is centered around Jasmine. Jasmine was born in the spring to a mare named Francine. Another similar looking mare called Delilah foaled the same night but unfortunately her colt didn't make it, dying just moments after birth. Delilah soon adopted Jasmine as well, with none of the usual protest we would have expected from Francine, so the fancy black and white filly has grown up with two moms. Nursing from two moms in fact, no wonder she’s so tall! Turns out the mares are half sisters and have been together their whole lives.

There are enough stories to fill a book, maybe two. Don't think the family has stopped at horses either. The farm is also home to countless deer who never venture too far from home, a moose cow who lives in the back meadow for most of the spring before going further into the bush to calve out of sight, and most recently a young coyote, who can be seen most afternoons chasing mice and playing in the front pasture in and around the horses. The mares don’t bat an eyelash.

After countless months spent with this rather large family, it’s become pretty obvious that they need to stay together. They are a force to be reckoned with, and usually get their own way, this won’t be any different. ‘Blood is thicker than water’, ‘the ties that bind’, ‘runs in the family’, ‘tied to mom’s apron strings’ — all of them apply, and more.



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