Sunday, November 30, 2008

Images From Spring on the Last Day of November

Left to right: Altamiro, Belina, Fada, Bella and Animado

For the past two days I've been sorting through my iPhoto library looking for suitable images to send along with hair root samples I've collected for the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of California, Davis. UCDavis has been researching equine hair coat colors and has not yet been able to identify the specific mutation responsible for the dun color. The scientists as UCDavis are looking at Iberian breeds to help unravel this puzzle, and have requested samples from Altamiro, Animado, Fada and Interessado to assist them in their efforts.

Between the early winter weather (with snow falling just about every day--a barn sure would be handy at times!) and my desire to make the hair plucking experience as non-invasive as possible, it has taken me several weeks to acquire the 20-30 hairs per horse that the researchers are looking for. At first, my task was compounded as I tried to select hair from manes and tails with a pair of tweezers. This worked well enough on Altamiro's mature hair, but not so easy a thing for the finer and more slippery foal hair. I found that if I simply gathered about five or ten hairs together while I was itching the tail dock, I could easily tug out the selected amount with my fingers with no irritation to my wee equine companion. Fada, especially seemed to enjoy these rather vigorous itches and it was very easy to get hair samples from her as she would just lean into the feel, arch her neck and wriggle her lip. The boys, though, while enjoying getting their tails itched, also wanted to nibble on my clothes or shoulder basket, making it a little trickier to get the job done.

At any rate, I came across some photos which I don't believe I have yet shared in this blog. With it very wintery outside, I thought it might be nice to smell the green of spring through the viewing of these photos.

This is Fada's first day of life and she is exploring her new world with the careful protection of first time mother, Belina. When I viewed this photo again the other day, I had tears in my eyes it seemed so tender a scene, with Belina looking especially beautiful.

Belina and Fada

This next one shows Belina about three weeks before delivering Fada. She is harassing Altamiro about some thing as they and Bella wander through the Hidden Meadow.
Belina, Altamiro and Bella

This next one shows Ciente looking at the camera with Belina and Altamiro in the back, with Belina still looking a bit peeved about something.
Altamiro, Belina and Ciente

Here is another photo from Fada's first day. I had forgotten just how tiny she was then!
Belina, Fada and Altamiro

A bit later in the season, we have a tranquil moment with Fada laying down, Belina dozing while standing and Animado (all shed out and looking sleek!) hanging out with them in a field of wildflowers.Fada, Belina and Animado

Here's one with Altamiro and Ciente grazing together.
Altamiro and Ciente

This one is probably from summer, but I like this matched pose and the view we get of the toplines of Animado and Bella.Animado and Bella

It's difficult to believe that we've gone through the month of November already. When I look at these photos from earlier in the year, it doesn't seem possible so much time has passed. And when I look out the window now and see all our snow, I think it will be a long, long time before I see spring green again!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Winter Routine in November

The purebred Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, looking content and handsome as he comes into his third winter on Manitoulin Island.

How curious it feels to be experiencing the essence of January while it is yet November! I find though my mind is willing to experience the snow and cold already, my body is a bit resistant to the heaviness of insulated boots and the wearing of double mittens. Those folks in the far north have likely been wearing such winter clothing for a month already, so I ought not to seem like I am complaining.

At least for the past two days there has been little to no wind.

Little to no wind means the herd comes up before dawn and waits by the shed for breakfast. I cannot see them, but I can feel them, and it spurs me to bundle up and amble out to feed them while Ravenseyrie is still shrouded in darkness.

We have a mercury vapor light atop Kevin's workshop/shed--virtually unused except for mornings like this. We don't find it necessary to have a light perpetually on, disrupting the quiet of the color of nighttime and taking away from viewing the starlit sky. Unfortunately, many other folks feel differently, perhaps taking comfort in the ever-glow of these yard lights, and never give consideration of the light pollution created by their illumination. One home, up the road from us has this type of light which is left on all the time, even though no one lives there now, and the hunters who own the land come up only rarely. I guess they just don't think about the waste of electricity and the unnecessary lighting of a vacant dwelling. We prefer to keep ours off, unless a brief period of use is necessary.

Because of the quiet darkness, the herd is mellow at this time of morning (shortly past 6am) making it a pleasure to go about readying each pan of oats at my own rushing and no sense of being overrun by a mule or horse when I do get out among them to distribute the pans.

And also, after oats are distributed, I can meditatively put out the many separate piles of hay nearby, sometimes arranging them in parallel rows, or in a spiral, ever-widening, or maybe in a curvaceous wave or just randomly dropped where there is a favorable looking section of unsullied snow. When the moon is out, even the least little bit, no auxiliary light is necessary and the arrangement of hay piles takes on a transportive, zen quality.

Such simple, slow pleasures can be had, when there is no wind.

But we do live up on the bluff and these mellow days are rare in winter. Yet, the wickedly-windy days have their own excitement, and I am happy to be a part of that as well, even if (or because of) there is extra effort involved with pulling the toboggan out to the forest. I'll surely be sharing photos of such days, and you will be thankful to be viewing them from the warmth of your homes (yet maybe with a bit of excitement too, and a desire to strap on snowshoes and smell the Ravenseyrie winter air, if only vicariously).

It has been a week of restricted hikes with the pups, because last Monday through sundown today is the "hallowed" annual firearms deer hunt on Manitoulin Island. Statistics show that typically around 3000 Whitetail Deer are "harvested", with many of them being taken by off-island folks that come specifically to Manitoulin because of its abundance of deer. It's safe to say that the human population swells immensely during this week and the landscape is often dotted with fluorescent orange and the frightful sounds of gunshot echo through the air. Large pickup trucks, pulling trailers with those obnoxious "four wheelers", (quad ATV, all terrain vehicles) add their own "ambient" qualities to things.

No longer our usual nearly-deserted bluff, the upper regions of Gore Bay's East Bluff takes on an entirely different personality. Ravenseyrie represents a sort of buffer zone because Kevin and I don't have the blood-lust for such things as killing animals for food or sport. We've heard some of the guys refer to us as "those tree-hugging vegans", but mostly such commentary is delivered in a playful manner. We do our thing and they do theirs.

During the third week of November, the wilderness surrounding Ravenseyrie swells with hunters, many of whom have "camps" tucked back in the "bush", some more elaborate than others. Since guys with guns surround us, we must refrain from our usual walks, lest the dogs catch the scent of blood on the wind and they run off onto unsafe territory. We trust in the idea of goodness prevailing and expect that these camouflaged gentlemen never aim their weapons towards our property, knowing our horses and mules have free roam of the territory. There was one time when I found an arrow on our side, apparently shot over from the group to the west that are bow-hunter types. I was surprised how angry I became, and marched the dreadful thing over to their cabin with strong, admonishing words--a story which Kevin never tires of telling. I can seem rather imposing, in my woolen split skirt, layers of sweaters, large boots, Mad-Bomber hat and stout walking stick. I'm guessing you can form your own mental picture!

The dogs, this year, seem to know and accept the hunt season routine, as we make a truncated circuit of the open grassland just to the north of the house, and they haven't once run off to investigate their usual favorite spots in the woods. During the week of the big hunt, we have to wait until full daylight before we head out for the walk, and instead of sharing leadership in a big way and allowing them to chose which sector of the property we'll go to visit, the best I can do during hunt season is make the large circle beginning from the left or from the right. This morning Tobacco said we should make it beginning from the right.

When we came back, I took some photos of the horses while they were finishing up breakfast hay.
Ganja has taken the lead as we head back to the house.

After an hour or so into breakfast it's nice to see there is still plenty of hay for everyone.

This one is for the little one Fada or Interessado?

A closer look reveals the answer with out a doubt. Her mother, Belina shares breakfast with her.

Dark clouds to the northwest, a ribbon of the evergreen tree line and the white form of Mistral vertically uniting it all to the horizontal lines of the snow and his hay...what a striking natural composition, don't you think?

This photo didn't turn out as well as I had hoped it would, but I wanted to show how thick Interessado's hair me it is like that of an arctic buffalo!

I have heard that things are going to warm up here in the next few days, with rain predicted. Perhaps it will seem more like November and less like January--either way, whatever the weather, we think its just the way it ought to be here at Ravenseyrie.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dashing Through the Snow

Yesterday, Manitoulin Island participated in an early snowstorm which swept through sections of Ontario, and what began as light flurries in the morning, intensified and lasted all the day long. We've over 20cm on the ground...not something many folks (us included) were fully prepared for at this time of the year.

Scotland Road, which is the only road weaving its precarious way up the East Bluff here in Gore Bay was in extremely poor condition when it was time to close up shop down at the studio on the bay in the village and head back up to Ravenseyrie. Thankfully, Kevin had dropped me off in the morning because he needed the Jeep for some errands...this meant he came back to fetch me and so I didn't have to cope with the tricky situations that soon faced us. Our little red Jeep Wrangler is a perfect vehicle for this rugged landscape, unfortunately other folks drive less robust machines. Before we could get to the wood-fired warmth of our little home, we had to help a large truck stuck in the middle of the road at a non-ordinary angle and also a van that couldn't make it all the way up the first steep hill. Kevin and his trusty tow strap, along with the 4-wheel traction of the Jeep righted things and we managed assist these people and yet make it home before night fall. It was snowing heavily again, and in the early evening dimness neither of us could spot the herd. Likely they were deep in the bush, insulated from the snowy madness.

Of course, my mind had been on the horses, especially the foals all day.

Animado was born in the day after an early April snowstorm...some of you will remember...for others here are a few photos from then:
Animado, shortly after being born on April 12, 2008...attemping to stand, with his mother and father giving lots of encouragement.

The next day, Altamiro and Bella keep themselves separate from the herd and Animado pretends that he might like to eat hay, too.

The April snow was quickly melting, and Animado was fascinated by the water's reflection.

But for Interessado and Fada, other than the light skiff of snow we'd had last week, this incredibly altered landscape must be rather startling. I wasn't worried about them (okay a wee bit!)...but I would have liked to have known where the herd had holed up for the evening.

This morning, Kevin and I were out just before 6am in the chill darkness with our shovels, clearing paths, digging out doors to sheds, and making it possible for gates to once again be serviceable. Slowly, dawn came as we completed the shoveling chores, and I set about putting the herd's typical oat breakfast together. On a normal day, there would be hooves knocking on the side of the shed and the snorting sounds of horses prompting me to move a little faster in my preparations. This morning, not one mule was near...not one horse was in sight. But, I knew...they'd emerge from the forest at some point.

I went out to the gate and make loud clanging noises on the metal cross pieces. And then I saw, not too far off the Zen Elm trail...movement just near the tree-line. The herd! Wanting to capture some images of the youngsters in the first big snow of the year, I had brought the camera out. Here we have some video footage of the energetic herd, "dashing through the snow" as the horses and mules came up for breakfast:

What a sight! Look at the puffs of snow kicked up, like dust from a speeding truck! And, before you know it, the distance is covered and they are upon you. How wonderful it must feel to gallop like that!

The camera was quickly set safely aside, while breakfast was distributed to eager customers. The snow was deep out there, and the grass well covered. We hadn't yet set up the wee shed (remember we have no barn, yet) to keep a large round bale of hay handy to peel off meals providing extra forage during the deep snow times, so when the horses and mules were just about finished with oats, I went around to each pan and put in heaping scoops of compressed alfalfa hay cubes, which we keep handy as "treats". Then, I went back to retrieve the camera and take a few photos.

When I got home from work later today, Kevin had arranged things so that there was now hay in the shed, and I had just enough daylight to bring a tobaggon-load of mixed grass hay out to the herd in the wind break near the tree line to the center-north of the property. I almost needed snowshoes, it was so deep out that way! I was not able to manage the camera, which is a pity, because Zorita and the foals all found my extended form to be a fearful image plodding its way towards them. But the others knew what my angled body, with a long strange tail trailing behind meant--food! Soon, I was surrounded and, taking off the bungie-cord straps holding my mound of hay tight, I began to set out piles for everyone. Interessado and Fada didn't hesitate one bit, and were soon munching the coarse hay as if they'd been doing it for weeks already. Everyone looked to be in good form and taking the change in weather well in stride.

It's hard to believe that just a few days ago, the landscape looked like this:
Dee, grazes late in the day, off to herself, near the Red Osier Dogwood shrubs, with shades of lavender clouds over head.

Just a few days ago, Altamiro, looks thoughtfully off into the distance...perhaps sensing a change in the weather is soon at hand?

Who would have imagined we'd have this much snow so early? I'll close now, and go mark on the calender that we've begun feeding hay...on November 20...several weeks earlier than usual.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Easing Into The Cold Season

A November view from the "top of the world" at Ravenseyrie

Slowly but surely, Manitoulin Island is readying itself for the mantle of winter. Things are still a bit changeable, and the rather mild, rainy weather is followed by a dip in the thermometer, the firming up of muddied earth and the first dusting of snow. We've not yet had a sustained freeze, but we are getting nearer to that possibility. And eventually the winter will settle in for its long visit and we will begin feeding hay to the herd. Typically, the horses and mules have yet ample grazing until deep snow arrives in December. They always let us know when they are ready for dried summer to be laid out for them. If we begin feeding hay too soon, they just munch it briefly, defecate on it and head back out to the prairie and forest for grazing and browsing.
Another few images from the "top of the world"

A bit of a rough sea, captured from my vantage point at the "top of the world" with the new "teleconverter" lens Kevin gave me for our 15th wedding anniversary on November 8th.

Zorita appears to be ready for her first Canadian winter.

I'm happy to report that like Zorita and the other grown-ups each of the foals are well cloaked in heavy fur and are nicely rounded with weight to keep them well protected from the effects of those days when winter is expressed with stormy wrath.

Herd life in our semi-wild setting had been progressing in a manner that seemed to me to be "just right", until last week...

Bella came into an unseasonable heat and Altamiro readily revisited his duties as breeding stallion. I have noted on my calendar that Animado was born on April 12 and Bella had her "foal heat" on April the 20th. Bella came into heat again on May 10th. Both of these heats were well attended to by a very vigorous Altamiro. Bella had a third heat on May 28th, a fifth on June 21st and a sixth on July the 10th, which seemed to be the one that "caught", after which Bella appeared well settled, with no further heat cycles and accepted no further amorous overtures from Altamiro.

It would seem somewhere between July and November, Bella either aborted or absorbed her pregnancy. If she took a year off from birthing, I'd be quite alright with this...but if she becomes pregnant from this November breeding, that would mean she'd foal out in October, which is much later in the season than I'd prefer, making me prone to worry the foal won't be strong enough for the approaching winter. My preferences apparently aren't in agreement with how Nature sees the situation, and since part of the "Way of Ravenseyrie" is to encourage Nature to be the composer of the poetry expressed through the horses, I have to once again refrain from clinging to conventional wisdom and let the rhythm and rhyme of things fall into line as they are meant to be and not in the way I would wish them to be. This is not to say that I won't step in and help at times, rather that I will wait before acting, because often times things work out just fine (or better) than if I had come in and manipulated things to suit my human sensibilities. (There's a topic for a blog entry all its own!)

All the other mares still appear well settled and haven't had any further heat cycles. Both Belina and Ciente caught soon after they had their foals. And, it seems maybe Zorita caught from her first cycle in Altamiro's presence shortly after her arrival here.

Even though Zorita still is content with the general dynamics of the herd and isn't fighting her way up the ladder of the "hierarchy", she has definitely decided it is her job to monitor the behavior and actions of Zeus. I have for you a video clip, in which we see Zeus playing a bit with Interessado--nothing rough and tumble, but something about the game disturbed Zorita and she once again intervened and put a stop to Zeus's activities. What's curious here, is that Interessado's dam, Ciente, was well aware Zeus and her foal were engaged in this type of game, but she didn't find anything about it that required her intervention, which, like any good mother Ciente doesn't hesitate to act upon when she is feeling concerned.

And here are a few still scenes from the video clip:

Maybe, in addition to being an extremely good protector (which Bonnie has told me Zorita excels at) Zorita is also missing her colt left behind in Oregon, and coming to the rescue of Ciente's colt helps Zorita feel good. She hasn't tried to "steal" any of the other mares' foals, and she often will glare at them and chase them away, but at times, she is very sweet to them and I think she appreciates having them around.

One day we had squalls again, and the precipitation was frequently alternating between rain and snow. I had walked out in the thick of one snow squall to be with the horses and see how they were coping with the weather. I found them on the lee side of a small copse of Cedar trees, well sheltered from the wind, where they were slack-hipped and dozy while the snow drifted down, magically catching the sunlight which shone brightly between passing clouds. I took up a post inside an opposite thicket of Cedar trees and took some photos. Mistral was almost obscured by the falling snow, which soon lightened up and eventually stopped altogether, and melted away almost immediately. After the squall passed, the horses each began to yawn and then drifted off to graze.

Belina, Fada, Bella and Jerry

Ciente and Interessado

Ciente yawning

Zorita yawning

Rain squalls over the North Channel

And over the land

My last little "story" is from Friday morning. I had been out with the herd, mingling among them and working at removing burrs from manes and tails. Altamiro decided to come over and spend a little time with me. After giving him some itches, and making sure he was free of burrs, I stepped aside to look to see who my next grooming challenge would be. Altamiro stepped back in front me, and when I reach out to touch him (I had put my mittens back on to warm up my hands) he carefully grabbed a hold of the tip of my mitten and pulled it off! He stood there long enough for me to take his photo, and then he wandered off with it, brought it over to Animado, and left it with him...which you can see in the accompanying video.

It is my great joy to be able to have the opportunity to document the variety of occurrences that we get to experience here at Ravenseyrie. I appreciate those of you who diligently visit this blog and allow yourself to be transported to our fair island, for a glimpse of the changing seasons and the curious ways of the horses.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

She Defends Her Lover

During my time among the herd earlier today, I noticed that on several occasions Zeus (a teenage Thoroughbred gelding) was not so much requesting his usual rough-n-tumble game with Altamiro--rather, he was engaging in a bit of bullying (something Zeus is exceptionally good at). Most of the time, Altamiro (and the others) will not carry on much of a conversation with Zeus when he is in such a state of mind, and will make haste to leave for a less rancorous part of the area. Perhaps because Altamiro has been feeling the heady surging of maturing stallion hormones, today he is no longer so ready to yield his space to the copper "thunder god".

There had been quite a discussion between Zeus and Altamiro regarding who should yield to whom earlier, happening just feet away from where I was standing. I had my camera at the ready but hadn't yet used it today, so I was utterly dismayed when I turned the thing on and the screen remained dark with the caption "change batteries" showing. Grrr. Of course by the time I changed the batteries, the heated debate was finished and I didn't even get to see who won!

When a similar debate between Zeus and Altamiro erupted, I had been grooming one of the mares so was a little slow to get the camera turned on and focused on the scene. What I captured was very brief, but utterly fascinating.

Here, let's have a look at the short clip:

What is especially interesting here is not only has diminutive Zorita decided to intercede on her lover's behalf, she has gone after a 16h notorious bully! I'm here to tell you that there is not one herd member (other than Mistral) who has ever so much as looked side-ways at Zeus. Zeus takes orders from Mistral and no one else--until today, and didn't Zorita just seize the opportunity.

Now Bonnie has relayed to me numerous times that Zorita is an alpha mare and quite capable of asserting herself within a group of horses. So far, Zorita has been serenely content to let the other mares have the greater say in matters, only imposing her will over the mules and the foals.

I don't like to box in horses with notions of hierarchy, because throughout the day, I so often see frequent examples of shared leadership and "lower status" horses obtaining a yieldings from "higher status" horses. Whatever hierarchy is in place here has a lot of fluidity depending on different situations. But each herd member is keenly aware of where each of them feel they rightfully line up when called to hierarchy is configured thusly: Mistral first, Zeus second. Then Bella and the other grullas and then the mules. With the exception of Mistral and Zeus, all the others shuffle each other from pan to pan, some days more-so than others. But no one pushes Mistral off his pan, and Mistral is the only one capable of pushing Zeus off his pan (which he only does if he happens to finish his own breakfast first--a rare thing).

Obviously Zorita saw something in Zeus that she felt she could triumph over in that moment, and likely she felt that if Zeus didn't back off, Altamiro and her together could change his mind about things. Perhaps Zorita felt there was something ungentlemanly about Zeus's conversation with Altamiro, and like a school mistress decided to remind the gelding of his better manners. We must wonder too, what did Altamiro make of this--having a female defend his honor?

It will be curious to see how this show of force alters the relationship between Zorita and Zeus.

To close, I'm sharing some still photos I've extracted from the moving footage. Very impressive mare, this Zorita, eh?

Setting the scene: Altamiro has just been roughed up from behind by Zeus

Mistral and Altamiro

In this first journal entry for November, I want to share with readers some photos of Mistral and Altamiro--two very powerful forces in my journey with equines. You might recall that Mistral (a Polish Arabian gelding) was the first horse to come into my life some twenty-four years ago. Mistral and I have evolved over the years and experienced a lot together--he has been an amazing teacher, and very generous in forgiving me my human arrogance and ignorance, all the while never allowing me to be less than he expects me to be.

Altamiro came to me as a yearling, and is the first stallion I have ever shared my life with. This autumn, I am seeing definite changes in him, now that he is a 3 1/2 year old with three foals to his credit. His formerly scrawny ewe neck has come up out of his withers now with an impressive arching of testosterone-swelled muscling. He is beginning to move with a lot of arrogant presence. I can tell he likes his more mature physical form and he enjoys expressing himself through movement. I wonder if he is aware how much I enjoy watching him show off? He sure seems to be doing a lot of animated exhibitions lately, much to my pleasure!

Here are two scenes from an earlier video when Mistral was suggesting to Altamiro that even a young stallion must "hop-to" when the Emperor God gestures he should move off--"right now and how!"
What magnificent athletes these boys are! The still photos allow us to see the amazing collection and lateral reach they are capable of.

The other day I shared a video clip of Altamiro and Mistral engaged in some friendly big boy sparring. Today, I'm sharing a handful of still images I've gleaned from that moving footage. Notice how one of the foals watches this sparring game with rapt attention.
I'm so thankful that I am able to get fairly decent still scenes from the moving footage my camera takes. I'd like to be able to get these action shots while in photo mode, but I haven't had much luck with it. There is a feature that you can select for rapid succession action shots, but I haven't been able to get any better quality of image than what I can extract from the digital videos. (That's why I'm the novice, and Leslie is the pro!)

I have several still images from various moving clips I took of Altamiro, which I'd like to share, simply because I am so captivated by the form of this young Sorraia stallion.

I may put in another journal entry later today, because I have a surprising, and impressive scene involving Zeus, Altamiro and Zorita to share. For now, before you leave the blog, look one more time at these handsome fellows. I'm so fortunate to be able to be a part of their lives!