Saturday, December 28, 2013

How Beautiful Bleakness Can Be!

I'm layered in wool - head to foot - and can feel the sting of the elements only on my face, only when walking into the wind.  The blessed fur-lined "Mad Bomber" hat buffers the bitter wind making that fierce winter element almost a friend.  Around my waist I wear the rope attaching me to the toboggan, a walking stick provides additional stability and traction as needed.  I advance, like a mule in harness and the load slides along behind me.   I'm leading, breaking trail in the deep snow, Kevin follows in my path.  Soon we will need snowshoes for a task such as this.

Your author, in a photo from a previous winter at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

The horses knew we would come...there they are!  At the edge of the forest, shapely equine shadows move, anticipating the delivery of dried summer.  How beautiful the snow! much gentler on the lee side of this particular wooded region of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve.

Kevin gathers up the empty toboggans

One last cookie delivered to the young Sorraia stallion, Sedutor, and Kevin turns to head back to the house in the wind and snow

The horses often move from pile to pile...if the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, maybe the next hay pile is, too!

Sorraia stallion Altamiro, showing striping made of snow and skin folds...I daresay seal skin isn't any warmer a pelt than Sorraia fur must be!

The light in the window of our little home in the welcoming in a storm!

Through the trees, Kevin follows the trail back to the house
Hay distributed, muzzles deep into it, on this morning, I ask Kevin to take my toboggan back with him and leave me to this place for a while.  Under my cape, I unzip my bag and bring the camera out, taking photos while mindfully protecting it from the snow filtering down.

In no time, my hands grow numb...but I have a simple, reliable remedy.  I gather my cape around me and sit in the snow, leaning against a tree trunk.  I fold my arms over my chest and slide hands up sleeves, left to right, right to left, skin on skin, under knitted warmth.  Some of the horses look at me, quizzically.  The sounds of wind gusting in the open seem far away.  Snow melts on my nose, undisturbed.  Somewhere deeper in the forest a Chickadee song rides over the masticating sounds of dried grasses being consumed by our bachelors.  In one sense the world shrinks down to this and nothing more, with a blue shimmer one feels more than sees...yet at the same time my body expands as if it has assumed the width of the entire bluff and beyond.  And my hands tingle with heat.

How beautiful bleakness can be!

 Look there!  What a fantastic composition that is!  The camera and I return to the pleasure of documenting how beautiful bleakness can be.

Not everyday has a wicked winter wind.  On calmer days the horses prefer their hay in the open regions.  And they continue to graze and browse.  No matter how deep the snow, these elemental Sorraia horses (and Jerry the mule and Zeus the Thoroughbred) find extra things to eat.  If no fences existed and the entire bluff were available to them...they would have no need of hay at all.  The landscape provides for all their needs, and while wintertime is not lush with green edibles, it does not leave its wild inhabitants without resources for survival.

When not eating hay, the horses dig for forage beneath the snow

Snow, but no wind, breakfast in the open

Ousado and his herd mates are perfectly outfitted to enjoy breakfast with the snow falling

Some winter days yield up the kind of beauty that can only be found because of the brittle cold, the bleak austerity and challenges of the season.  Yesterday, as the dawn touched the bluff, my camera sought out more scenes of life at Ravenseyrie to share with you...a desire to shift the perception of those readers who feel little but fear and loathing when winter comes.  I want you to see what I see, feel what I feel...winter is a fabulous time of year!

It is -23°C as dawn comes to Ravenseryie

All the colts know Kevin keeps cookies in his pockets for them

Four Ravens in the Zen Elm seem to wait, just as I am, for the sun to come up over the east tree line


And just then, the Ravens take flight!

Frost, yet untouched by the fingers of the sun

Then the sun reaches out, like a burning fire!

Hawberry bushes covered in frost become something "other" when touched by the winter sunrise

Morning sun casts a warm glow on the horses

Zeus, the twenty-something domestic Thoroughbred wintering well alongside his wild herd mates

Legado, on the move to steal someone else's pile of hay

The amazing Altamiro, glowing golden in the morning sun


What a place to be!

And if you are still not convinced that winter is not just a time of challenging elements, but is filled with joy and a sublime lightness of being, have a look at a video clip of Interessado, Silvestre and Legado bursting with the pleasure of being young and free!

Silvestre and Fidalgo

Altamiro erupts in animation too!

Altamiro showing off among his many sons

Altamiro conversing with Interessado

Blow, blow, thou winter wind.      Thou art not so unkind --William Shakespeare

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Life is Not a Machine

The Sorraia Mustang Mares of Ravenseyrie on the Twinravens range, Tehkummah, Manitoulin Island, Ontario

Manitoulin Island has kissed goodbye the embrace of a long and glorious Autumn and turned its face to receive the quickening freshness of Winter full on the brow.  After a slight resistance, (missing the feeling of the easy step out of the screen door, free from the burden of layers of clothing) I smoothly roll into the sensations that come with frigid temperatures, early nightfall, treacherous roads and the extra work heavy snow brings.   It doesn't take long for me to remember that when appropriately outfitted - mentally and physically - I am Winter's Lover

Having my studio and art gallery closed now on not just Monday, but Sunday as well provides me the option to make my weekly visit to Twinravens to visit with our Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang mares on which ever day provides the better weather for the hour's drive to the more southerly sector of the island.

Sunday, November the 24th, dawned clear and sunny with a thermometer reading of -12°C, and very little wind...this after we had rain followed by our first bona fide "snow and blow" on Saturday.  With the roads ploughed and in pretty good condition, Kevin wanted to use this window of opportunity to employ his Kubota tractor's front end loader and sink another huge round bale of dried summer into the back of our old pickup truck allowing us to add to our larder of feed to support the winter forage the Twinravens range provides the virtually wild mares.  I made us some avocado sandwiches and hot tea and we were soon on our way.

Once we reached Twinravens, we went right to the back sector to (groan and grunt and...) roll the bale of hay off the truck and into the more protected area of the range, near where we had run a fence line into the forest to offer the mares shelter from the elements when they so desired.  Then we drove into Mark and Michelle's yard (the lovely couple who provides their wilderness range for the mares' use) and put together portions of whole oats and alfalfa cubes to offer the mares a nutritious treat.  

The mares coming up for treats on a fresh, frozen morning

The mares were keeping off toward the back-centre of their range and rather than expect them to come all the way up, we carried their buckets of treats out to the upper flat region where they used to like to congregate during the summer.  From there I put out my call to them.  Of course Bella (who has assumed the leadership role) had already seen us coming and was trotting our way with her head held high for better vision and with nostrils widely dilated, scented the air to gain feedback on who we were and what our intentions might be.  It didn't take her long to recognize it was her friends, Kevin and Lynne so she moved into a canter with the mares now close on her heels, all knowing a feeding of treats was being offered.  Belina was uncharacteristically coming in lastly, and as she came closer in view we could see why:  Belina had a foal running alongside her!

We were stunned!  

We were elated!

We were also dreadfully concerned...a foal born at the beginning of a Northern Ontario winter is most unusual, and potentially deadly.  

Elation won over, for there she was...this perfect filly dancing over the landscape looking as astonished as we humans!

A perfect new Sorraia filly!

In the spring of 2012, still believing we could provide an autonomous living experience for a family band of wild horses, but recognizing that the offspring were approaching a number the limited available range could not ideally support, we enrolled in the unique fertility control program established by the Science and Conservation Center of Zoo Montana, which was reported to work so well for wild mustang herds in the United States.  

Along with the other Ravenseyrie mares and of-age fillies, Belina received the primer dose, and follow-up booster of PZP which we were confident had been effective in preventing pregnancy as throughout the rest of that year she did not show any signs of carrying a foal, nor did she deliver one in the spring of 2013.  

Photo credit:  Kevin Droski

At the time when we would have been called upon to extend the fertility coverage with an annual booster shot delivered by remote dart, it became apparent with so many young stallions soon to "come of age", the Ravenseyrie preserve could not provide the physical or the mental space for more than one stallion when mares continued to be among them.  The acceleration of aggression among herd dynamics and our discomfort with certain aspects of the PZP fertility control program provoked our decision to separate the sexes.  The females were relocated to the Twinravens range in the spring of this year.  

Belina and her three day old filly and the Twinravens canine, Akina
photo by Kevin Droski

Belina has always been an "easy-keeper" tending towards obesity.    After looking almost slender when first moved to Twinravens I had noted she looked particularly "robust" on my last two visits.  Of course I did remark to Kevin and to Michelle that Belina looked like she could be pregnant, but she did not act the part, and knowing she had been on fertility control for a full year and removed from Altamiro's presence before breeding took place during the 2013 season, it was easy to assume she had simply put on good weight during the summer and autumn on the ample grazing and foraging available at Twinravens.

Photo credit:  Kevin Droski

To deliver a foal at the end of November meant that Altamiro had managed to get Belina pregnant in December of 2012...well out of the usual estrus season for wild living horses in Canada!  Checking in with my calendar, where I chart observances of the activities of the horses, the last heat cycle and breeding by Altamiro I noted were in June of 2012.  Whatever type of off-season estrus Belina experienced, it was much more subtle than what is typical for her and went undetected by me, but obviously was taken advantage of by the amazing Altamiro.

When I sent in my report to the Science and Conservation Centre letting them know that one of our mares failed to receive the full year of protection against pregnancy resulting in an out-of-season birth, I received a reply from Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, one of the creators of the PZP immune-contraceptive.  I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick if I could quote his response here in the Journal of Ravenseyrie, but have received no follow up reply, so I will synopsis his thoughts on this situation with Belina instead.  

Photo credit:  Kevin Droski

Dr. Kirkpatrick pointed out that out-of-season pregnancies have been observed in North American wild horses even among mares that had not been treated with the immuno-contraceptive, however it is not something that occurs frequently and therefore they do not worry about it.  According to Dr. Kirkpatrick, wild horses that are left to themselves develop compressed breeding seasons in response to the "function of light (photoperiod)" but that there also is a genetic component that is carried forward because foals that are born out of season do not have the same chances of survival that in season foals receive.  Human intervention that supports out of season births therefore creates a genetic trait that extends estrus periods.  It was then suggested if "out of season estrus and ovulation is common" among the Ravenseyrie mares, we should provide "a booster in the fall as well as the spring."  Being a busy man, I'm sure it slipped Dr. Kirkpatrick's memory that I had already informed him  we had separated the mares in the spring and no extra boosters of PZP were needed as we had opted out of the program.

Photo credit:  Kevin Droski

While I appreciate the work Dr. Kirkpatrick and his associates are doing to alleviate the deplorable manmade crisis among the free range North American Mustang horses in the United States, I did not find his response to the situation with our Ravenseyrie mares adequate.  I sent a reply to Dr. Kirkpatrick alerting him to the fact that while what he had relayed may be true for some horses, it was not necessarily true for our horses.  In the case of Belina, all five of her prior foals had been conceived in the spring and delivered in the spring.  The only difference for her in 2012 was that she had been dosed with the immuno-contraceptive, which successfully prevented pregnancy during the usual spring/summer estrus cycles, but failed to carry that protection for the full year.  Had she not been given the immuno-contraceptive, Altamiro would have settled her in the normal breeding period the Ravenseyrie group had established for themselves.  Prior to our participation in the fertility control program, our mares conceived and delivered foals between the months of March and September.  

To my knowledge, the female predecessors in Belina's lineage were all free range wild horses roaming public lands in Washington state, more likely suffering from persecution by humans than supportive efforts that aimed at extending breeding seasons.  If Belina's unseasonal estrus cycle has a human stimulus, it is more likely the PZP's interference and not an inherited genetic component.   I feel it is important for those involved with the PZP fertility control to have the information of how its use played out in the events with Belina.

One week old and doing fabulously well!

That "business" finished, let me take readers back to the situation with Belina and her excellently made filly...

Mark does a head count of the mares each morning through field glasses and relayed that there were not eight horses when he did his check that day.  While the new filly had a dry coat, was steady on her legs and well aware of where to find a warm meal, Belina had frozen blood still clinging to her rear legs.  Michelle reported that the dogs had been out in the field most of the morning...she thought they were playing with the horses (something they do frequently).  Later I saw Nishin pulling on the afterbirth off in a different sector of the range.  It soon became apparent that Belina must have delivered this filly just a handful of hours before Kevin and I arrived.  Marvel of marvels!   How cool is that!?  Belina (whom we affectionally call "Popo") happened to pick a day to deliver her baby that was not only bright with hope, but synchronistically also one that Kevin and I would be coming to visit with her and her herd mates!

With Mark and Michelle stepping in and going out to the field (often twice a day) in the first week to check on the status of that new filly for me, my worries that the wintry weather might prove too much for her to cope with melted away.  Each report Michelle and Mark emailed to me relayed observations that were all completely normal and made it easier for me to be at work when all I really wanted to do was be around that filly and make sure that her environment, her mother and her aunt and cousins would be able to support her as she adjusted to life out of the womb at a less than optimum time of year for newborn foals.  

The Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses are amazingly capable survivors!  And why wouldn't they be?  Their inheritance are genetics and instincts that developed in wilderness environments and has (obviously as demonstrated here in Canada) not been weakened by whatever influence mankind has imposed upon them over the centuries.    

Sorraia stallion Altamiro on a frosty winter's morning at Ravenseyrie

Kevin went down to Twinravens midweek to make some fencing adjustments and check in on the newbie, taking photos as well to share with me when he got back home.

When I got to see the mares and new filly myself the following Sunday, I was delighted with how the thick winter coat she was born with appeared even more serviceable than the week before, as if it had grown more lush now that mother's milk and physical activity were daily features of life, as opposed to being folded up in an amniotic cloister.

While your author gives Belina a rump itch, Belina does the same for her credit:  Kevin Droski

photo credit:  Kevin Droski

Kevin and I will be heading down to Twinravens tomorrow morning and I am looking forward to perhaps trying out a few potential names on the new filly to see if she finds one acceptable.  

As for the bachelors here at can see they have adjusted seamlessly to the ways of winter.  And take note how much more snow the East Bluff had during that week than what Mark and Michelle experienced an hour's drive south of us at Tehkummah on our fair island of Manitoulin.

Young Sorraia stallions Destemido and Legado playing boy games at
the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

Young Sorraia stallion, Fidalgo at Ravenseyrie

Late day hay at Ravenseyrie

Our smart new filly gets extra warmth in such a position as this!

So it seems fate has determined that there should be two foals born from Altamiro and his mares in the year 2013.  Just looking at the way the year types out: futuristic in appearance...and a time when we humans are ever increasing our attempts to manipulate Nature to suit our gives one pause to admire that we actually do not control everything..."life itself is not a machine".  There are processes and urgings that manage to find their way around our belief that we are the superior life forms.  This filly's surprise presence among us has me exploring how I can be less manipulative and more cooperative with the natural dance of the five elements that make all we see in this world possible.

"It becomes ever more obvious that the Earth and life itself is not a machine, a steam engine or a computer; that competition is not the primary ordering principle in Nature, and that co-operation is a far more stable and successful solution."  --Adele Getty from the book, GODDESS / Mother of Living Nature