Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: Lessons to Take into the New Year

This past year has been challenging.  From the challenge of taming Tex, to injuries, to wrestling with the demands of my job... its given me a lot to think about.

We went from deciding to sell Tex about a year ago, to me working with him, and then falling in love with the steady kindness I see beneath his flickering fear.  He went from "project for sale" to "project for me."  Brett gave him to me, at my request, for my birthday.  I changed his barn name to Tex, (since he was bred in Texas to be a roping horse), from the barn name he came with (Mufasa).  The two most popular posts of the year dealt with Tex.  And Now for the Other Foot and Wednesdays with Tex: Meltdown both chronicled episodes in the long training of Tex to accept a fly mask.

When the weather warms and I'm able to work with him more, I'll start up the Wednesdays with Tex series again -- or something like it -- since it was popular with you, and a helpful journaling exercise for me.

At the time I started working with Tex in earnest, I didn't think I would ever ride him.  But, I was wrong and I did ride him a few times in the fall.  

Hopefully, we can build on our partnership in 2017.

It feels like I spent most of the year injured, and on the sidelines.  I hurt my back riding Lucy in April and then crushed my foot, under a donkey foot, in May.  My back has healed and my foot is 90% there -- I should be fine for riding when the weather thaws.  Last April I was ready to throw in the towel and stop riding.  My post, What if I Never Rode Again, received by far the most comments of any post last year.  And every single comment was supportive.  You guys are the best.

Yesterday morning, after mucking the girls' pasture, I walked up to the dressage court to check the footing.  The sun was out, the weather was relatively mild, and I was itching to ride Lucy.

 The sand was mushy and slid from under my feet when I walked across it to look at all the animal tracks criss-crossing the arena.  Mixed in with rabbit, skunk and raccoon, there were bobcat tracks so our friend the chicken killer is still around.  He'll have to go somewhere else to satisfy his chicken craving; ours are safe and secure now.

Now, all I have to do is come up with my word for 2017.  Acceptance was my word in 2016 and it served me well; from accepting my injuries, to accepting Tex's phobias, to accepting my middle-aged body -- grey hairs and all.

The lesson that I will carry with me into the new year is that no matter how difficult things seem at a given moment, over time things improve -- injuries heal, horses learn to trust, plumbing leaks and siding holes can be fixed or replaced, bobcats can be locked out - and the important things, like the love of our friends and family, endure and sustain us through it all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Birds of Oak Creek Ranch

One of the first things I noticed, when we moved here, was the abundance of birds.  My knowledge of birds is pretty elementary -- I can identify hummingbirds and hawks and crows.  I noticed that the blue jays here are different than in Southern California, as are the bluebirds.  And then there were tons of these interesting spotted sparrow sized birds -- I looked them up: spotted towhee.  So, I learned a very few.
California Towhee

We had a pair of old binoculars; a freebie gift from somewhere.  They were more trouble and hindrance than help, so I gave up on them pretty quickly.  I enjoyed the birds, but stopped trying to identify them, for the most part, because I couldn't get a close enough look to identify anything more than size and general color.
Black Phoebe

When Brett and I were in Mendocino in November, there were a pair of binoculars in our room.  The morning before we left, we walked down to the bench sitting at the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean.  I grabbed the binoculars on our way out the door.  We traded them back and forth, looking at the waves breaking over the rocks and the rip tides colliding.  I noticed a bird flying overhead.  It was some kind of raptor and I pointed the binoculars in its direction.  It was an epiphany for me -- the bird was clear, with its colors and markings visible.  I was enthralled and amazed.  I had no idea that a decent pair of binoculars could be so helpful.

Back home, I researched binoculars for birding.  I found a pair with excellent reviews and highly rated by the Audubon Society.  Brett said he would get them for me for Christmas.

Sure enough, Christmas morning there were binoculars for me under the tree.  We celebrated Christmas with Kyle and Camille on Wednesday and, after opening the binoculars,  I promptly ordered a bird journal so I can write down the birds I identify.  This morning, as I was mucking, I heard Canada geese flying overhead.  I thought to myelf; "Aha!  My first entry."

Then, I came back inside and tried to identify the birds in the pictures that Steve took when he and Heather were visiting.  (He took the photos in this post)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Chickens' Christmas Gift

After the bobcat killed  many of our chickens, we kept them locked up in their hen house while Brett secured their enclosure.

Fortunately, the hen house is large -- a converted shed -- and with just four hens and two roosters, there was plenty of space.  But, still, even with windows, its a dark and dreary place to spend days on end.  They were warm and sheltered, but we still felt badly for them.

Brett bought wood and panels of wire fencing so he could extend the cover.  He put in posts, wood framing, and the painstakingly cut the wire panels to fit around the tree and under the hen house eaves.  He worked on it everyday last week, that it wasn't raining -- so, maybe half the days.  Christmas Eve day was icy cold and cloudy, but it didn't snow.  Brett hauled out his tools and finished up the cover while I prepped food for our open house that afternoon.

When he finished, we opened the door and the chickens came scurrying out into their yard.  They happily pecked and scratched, stretching their legs, before returning to the shelter and warmth of their house.

It was a great gift for both the chickens and for me.  The cover looks great and the hens are safe and happy.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve at Oak Creek Ranch

As I set out plates of Christmas cookies, warmed dinner rolls, muscled the ham onto its serving plate, and started the cider simmering...

I looked at Kersey, and thought...Twas the day before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even...

Of course, she woke right up when the house began to fill with our friends and neighbors.  As far as she is concerned, people only come to Oak Creek Ranch for one reason -- to rub her belly and scratch her ears.

After the feasting was over; after the ham was carved,

And the cider drunk (even better with a splash of bourbon);

and the plates of other goodies enjoyed...

Everyone left.

We bundled up (the promise of a white Christmas didn't materialize, but it was definitely frosty cold outside) and did the evening chores.  While Brett was busy turning of the water in the barn and getting everything ready for tonight's deep freeze, I cleaned up the kitchen.  Kersey... well, she was back to her usual.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

From Thirteen to Four

Four hens -- that's all we have left.  Out of our flock of 13 hens and two roosters, we now have four hens and two roosters.
One of the victims. 
We lost some of them to some mystery disease or the cold; but not all of them.  Some of the chickens became lethargic and, after a few days, they died.  Some of them had bloody necks and you may remember that I found drops of blood on Calvin's comb a few times -- and accused him of playing a part in the hens' death.  It seems he did play a part; but not the one I thought.

He was trying to protect the hens, is my guess.

Today was very cold.  Last night we had a hard frost (temperatures below 28F for more than five hours).  This morning, the frost was so thick that it looked like snow.  I used a big piece of wood to smash the ice that had formed on the horses' water troughs.  We did the chores quickly and then scurried back into the warmth of the house.

I spent the afternoon baking Christmas cookies.  My kitchen window looks out over my garden, to the chicken area, and the dressage court further out.  As I was baking, I heard the chickens squawking and looked out the window.  I called to Brett, who was watching football and eating peanut butter toast, in the other room.

"I think the chicken who was ailing must have died.  The rest of the chickens are huddled in the corner, squawking like mad -- just like they did when the first chicken died."

Brett went out and, sure enough, the chicken was dead.  But she wasn't in the hen house, in the corner where she has huddled for the past week.  She was laying outside, and her neck was bloody.  We hoped that the other chickens hadn't pecked her much; since if the chickens are getting sick, we don't know if it is contagious.

I continued with my cookies. Brett continued with his football.  Kersey slept by the wood-stove on her bed.

Not even an hour later, I heard more squawking.  Looking up I could see grey furry ears and chickens flying around their area.  I slipped on my clogs and went out the door.  There was a bobcat in the chicken area, and it had one of the chickens.  When it saw me in the garden, it turned and went up and over the fence -- by the gate, where it isn't covered.  I came back inside the house and got Brett.

Meanwhile, the bobcat jumped back into the chicken area and went back to the chicken it was planning on having for dinner.  It gave me a dirty look as it climbed back out and walked towards the girls' pasture.  It wasn't a large bobcat; about as tall as Kersey.  It looked like a large domestic cat; with a bobbed tail, spots, and very long legs.  Just past the bridge, it paused and looked over its shoulder at me.  Brett came around the corner, by the hen house, with his gun.  The bobcat took one look, and disappeared into the pasture, and then under the fence into the blackberry bushes.

The chicken was almost dead - we thought it was dead at first.  Brett killed it and then removed it from the area.  It had the same bloody neck that two of the other chickens have had.  So, it seems that Calvin has been attacking the bobcat and running it off.  Maybe he's a good rooster after all.

Meanwhile, the remaining chickens are closed up in the hen house.  Brett has his thinking hat on; the one that figures out the details of projects on the property.  We will replace the flock in the spring, but need a way to cover the chicken area completely and keep them safe.  Three quarters of the run is covered now, leaving the area right around the oak tree open.  Clearly, that needs to be covered somehow as well.

I have to admit that despite being a very self-sufficient girl, who isn't overly sentimental, and isn't in the least bit girly --- my heart went all fluttery watching Brett stalk that bobcat.  After he took care of the second dead chicken, and put his gun away, I gave him a hug.  "What was that about?" he asked.

"You were so manly out there." I said.
Words cannot express how much I love this man.

All photos by Steve Neely

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Wild Horses in the Wind

What is it about the wind that makes horses lose their minds?

Another ginormous storm moved into our area today.  We are on a high wind watch and a flood watch with the potential of receiving 4 inches of rain in less than 24 hours.  The ground is already soggy and the water from the last storm is still making its way down the streams, into the lakes, and down to the delta.

Brett keeps clearing oak leaves off of the driveway and the porch, but they stick and refuse to move.  He shovels sand and rocks, that tumble and then stick in the drain pipes, blocking the flow of water and creating ponds where no ponds should be.  There has been a large pond, ankle deep, stretching from our front gate to the road.  Brett sloshes around in his rubber boots, fishing out shovel-fuls of sand and leaves and rocks, between downpours.

I helped Brett bring the horses into the barn this morning before leaving for work.  It was still dark when I let myself out the back door and walked toward the warm light coming from the barn, where Brett was getting the stalls set up with fragrant flakes of hay and buckets of vitamins topped with carrots.

We walked to the boys' pasture first, careful not to trip in the dark.  After putting a safe distance between himself and Flash, Tex stood quietly for me while I slipped on the halter.  Flash has been feeling good lately -- and when he feels good, he is a pill.  Brett will defend him, of course, but Flash nips at Tex, nips the goats, and pins his ears at me.  Ever since we put shoes back on his front feet, he's been a new horse -- back to his old feisty self.

We brought the horses into their stalls through the back of their run-outs.  Tex is still uncomfortable in the stall -- jittery and tense with the four walls closing him in.  He's fine in the run-out though, and I was able to walk him to the run-out gate on a loopy lead.  He stood quietly, with his head low, while I slipped off the halter.  He waited for his cookie, took it politely, turned and walked into his stall for breakfast.

The sky was starting to turn from black to grey as we approached the girls' pasture, leaves blowing around our feet.  They were both waiting at the gate.  Pistol took a cookie from Brett and then turned to me.  She ignored Brett initially, hoping to snag a cookie from me.  Eventually, she gave up and went to Brett.  I buckled Lucy's halter without incident.  Then, halfway out of the gate, a gust of wind came up and she jumped forward and tried to spin.

Honestly, Lucy.  You aren't a princess pony anymore; you are a ranch horse.  Get a grip.

It took awhile to get to the barn; lots of corrections for Lucy along the way as she tried to levitate with each gust of wind.  She did eventually settle, sort of.  I could feel her energy surge before she reacted and was able to administer reminders (via tugs on the lead line), that I expected her to behave.  Once in her run-out, she ducked her head, just long enough for me to remove the halter, then spun and headed into her stall.  I gave her cookie to Tex.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Location Location Location: ASSFS Blog Hop

I'm joining the blog hop started by A Soft Spot for Stars.  I'm enjoying reading about life with horses across the country and in Canada -- costs, challenges, and culture.
The gate to the Girls Pasture, the chicken run, my garden and the back of the house; photo by Steve Neely

Oak Creek Ranch is located in Northern California.  We live in El Dorado County which spreads from about 30 miles east of Sacramento all the way up and over the Sierras, and ending in the middle of Lake Tahoe (which is the Nevada border).  Our ranch is about 10 miles outside of Placerville, a small town founded during the California Gold Rush, in the Sierra foothills.  We are high enough that we don't get the blazing summer heat of Sacramento, but we are low enough that we don't get more than a few inches of snow in the winter.
Photo by Steve Neely; looking out over the boys pasture towards the neighbors

We bought this ranch a little more than three years ago for $560,000.  We have eight acres, an average size home (that was in serious disrepair), and a large barn with an attached, covered round pen.  There are two arenas -- a traditional fenced arena (smallish) and a competition size dressage court.  The property had been vacant for two years when we bought it and the appraised price varied from $530K to $610K.  It's unique -- with more out buildings than are typical for our area -- so appraisal was challenging, to say the least.  
Photo by Steve Neely

When I bought Lucy, she was boarded and I think I paid around $500 per month which included feeding and stall cleaning.  There were extra charges for turn out and blanketing.  Needless to say, as soon as I felt confident riding her, we moved Lucy here to the ranch.
Pistol and Lucy in the Girl's Pasture; Photo by Steve Neely

Feed is expensive in California.  Our feed bill is around $1,100 per month for hay (orchard at $23 per square bale), a pelleted vitamin supplement, chicken feed and shavings.  Our horses are out on pasture 24/7 (except in foul weather) so we don't bed their stalls with shavings.  We use the shavings for the horse trailer and the chickens.  We also buy straw for goat bedding.  When the hay truck arrives each month, it is full.  We go through about a bale of hay each day -- for the five horses, two donkeys and the goats.  The bales are 100 lbs.  The donkeys and goats live mostly on their pasture but we give them a little bit of hay so they don't feel left out.
A very muddy Flash and Tex; Photo by Steve Neely
We are fortunate to live about an hour from Rancho Murietta which is a big equestrian show venue.  As a result, there are many good trainers in the area.  I pay $75 for a lesson with my trainer if I trailer to her.  There is also generally a $20 fee for trailering into the facility where she works.
20 minutes away; Jenkinson Lake

Most riders in our area are trail riders.  This isn't surprising given the beautiful mountain trails that are available all around us.  There is also a small dressage community.  Our property was a dressage riding school at one point in its past.  We added pylons, letters and lots of sand to the existing arena -- and voila! we had a perfect dressage court.  I don't take lessons very often anymore since I'm not riding nearly as often as I did when I was competing.
Photo by Steve Neely

We ride primarily in the spring and the fall.  In the summer, we have temperatures in the 90s and that is just too dang hot for me.  On those days, you'll find us on one of our mountain lakes in a kayak.  In the winter, it rains and freezes and rains and freezes some more.  The arenas alternate between being frozen and mush.  We typically do not ride December through February -- our wettest months.  Snow can fall as late as April, but in the spring, there are enough sunny, warm and pleasant days in between storms to allow for riding.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Knocked Down

Our farrier came on Tuesday so I helped Brett bring the horses into the barn before leaving for work.  Brett put them back out in their pastures (except Jackson) afterwards.  Then, on Wednesday afternoon a storm moved into the area so Brett brought them all back in before feeding.

As I was driving home from work, he sent me a text (which I didn't read until I was parked in the garage.  I'm a good girl.  I don't text - or read texts - while driving).

<Sitting in my chair.  Got run over by Tex.>

I gathered my computer bag and walked into the house.  Brett was sitting in his chair, with bandaids on both knees.  I realized he wasn't joking.

Brett told me that Tex was easy to catch and stood quietly while Brett haltered him, and then walked calmly into the barn.  As Brett turned him in the stall before taking off Tex' halter, Tex spooked.  Tex spun and bolted out of the stall.  Brett was knocked off balance, his feet got twisted up, and he fell hard.  His head missed the side of the stall, but he landed hard on his knees.  Thank goodness we have stall mats.  I can't imagine what damage would have been done if he had landed on cement.

Brett pulled himself to his feet, and hobbled outside, to the run in area, where Tex was standing.  The halter was still on, and the lead rope was twisted around Tex' feet.  Tex was worried.  Brett told Tex that he was fine, there was nothing to be afraid of, and removed the halter.  Next Brett went to the feed room where he grabbed a carrot.  He went back in the stall and fed it to Tex in the stall.  Tex was still nervous, but took the carrot and ate it.

Tex is a big horse; a solid horse.  Being knocked by 1200 pounds of spinning horse is not fun.  Brett is okay; just a bit sore.

Meanwhile, we lost another chicken.  Two gone and a couple more that are struggling. We're not out of the woods yet.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sorry Calvin

It seems I have accused Calvin, the rooster, of a crime he did not commit.

You may remember that Calvin and four or five hens were huddled outside, in the dark and cold, on Saturday when we found a dead hen in the hen house.  All the chickens outside were very subdued; lethargic even.  Calvin was quiet and not his usual blustery self.  There were a few drops of blood on his comb and wattles.  I immediately accused him of murder.

Wrongly, it seems.

It is not unusual for Calvin to be a bit beat up.  He gets into it with Lord Byron, our other rooster, on a regular basis.  Usually, Calvin immediately retreats when confronted, but not always.  And then he gets a bit bloody.  He is a good rooster in the sense that he is protective of his hens -- Lord Byron has most of the hens in his flock, but Calvin watches over the hens who have the lowest standing in the flock.

Sunday morning, when we opened up the hen house there were no more fatalities.  But, there were two hens inside who showed no interest in moving.  Another hen drooped in a corner of the chicken run; not running, not eating, not moving when I prodded her with my finger.

I was concerned.  I researched chicken diseases since I am convinced that there is some kind of virus moving through the flock.  Most chicken diseases are respiratory in nature.  None of our hens are coughing, or have drippy beaks.  From a respiratory standpoint, they seem fine.  I checked them for spots on their combs (there is virus related to the chicken pox that poultry get) but didn't see anything conclusive.  Over the course of the day, they perked up and all of them were scratching and pecking by Sunday evening.

Monday was similar.  No more chickens have died.  If it is the poultry pox, most of the flock will survive and then they will be immune for the rest of their lives.  Most virus' are carried by wild birds -- and there are wild birds in and out of the chicken run constantly.  Free food -- why would they pass that up?

Today, Brett said there were three hens who wouldn't come outside when he fed a big bucket of scraps.  I'm afraid we are going to lose more chickens before this is over.

Treatment is non-existent for poultry pox; either they make it or they don't.  So, we will wait and see what happens.  Hopefully, we won't have a significantly smaller flock when this is over.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Chasing Chickens in the Dark

Every evening, when the sun disappears behind the hills and dusk settles heavy in our valley, the chickens make their way into the hen house for the night.  Then we close their door and they sleep, snug and safe, until the morning when we re-open the door.

Tonight, Brett and I finished up chores before dark.  Brett jumped in his truck and headed to the feed store to get me a bale of straw.  Next week is going to be very, very cold and I want to deeply bed the goat shelter.  When he returned, it was dark.  I heard the truck pull in, and a few minutes later Brett opened the back door and called to me.

"The chickens are outside the hen house, in a corner of the chicken run, and they won't go inside."

That was very strange chicken behavior.  It wasn't dusk, or barely dark, -- it was dark, dark.  Chickens don't like to be outside in the dark.  I put on my boots, gloves and jacket, and handed the flashlight to Brett.  We walked to the chicken area, with Kersey trailing behind.

Sure enough, four or five hens were huddled with Calvin in the far corner of the chicken run.  We could hear some clucking coming from the hen house as well.  Brett stepped into the hen house, and then said, "There's a hen on the floor.  I think she's dead."  Stepping behind Brett, I could see one of the two Cuckoo Maran hens on the floor.  She was clearly gone.  I carried her to the barn where I could see in the light that she had some blood on her neck.  Brett wondered if she had fallen, I wondered if there had been a fight.

Back in the chicken run, I picked up a couple of the hens and carried them into the hen house.  I was surprised at how docile they were.  We haven't handled the chickens in this flock, unlike the chickens we had when the kids were at home.  Camille, in particular, used to pick them up all the time.
One of the docile hens (photo by Steve)

We were left with two flighty hens and Calvin.  He wasn't moving much, or trying to protect them (despite them huddling behind him, against the fence).  There was blood on his comb and his wattles.  Calvin tends to be very rough with the hens so I suspect he was too aggressive with the dead hen, or she resisted, or both.
Calvin (photo by Steve)

The cuckoo marans are the only hens that are laying eggs right now.  We have been getting three or four eggs a week.  I love these hens; they are good layers, they are docile, and their eggs are a deep chocolate brown.  The hens, themselves are a dark grey with black stripes.
One of the Cuckoo Marans is on the right, in front of Calvin, in this picture

I'm more than a bit irritated with Calvin at the moment.  We've tried banishing him from the chicken run and hen house, leaving him to roam the property at liberty.  But he crows all night long.  I'm not kidding.  All night long.  We need to figure something out, though.  We can't keep losing hens.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Walking in a Wicked Wind

This week I turned a corner with my foot.  For the first time in seven months, I can walk without a limp, at a normal speed, and I can go up stairs.

I can't go down too many stairs yet and I can't wear cute shoes or boots that lack support -- but, I feel like I have my body back.

Well, a chunkier version of my body.  Despite my best efforts to eat like a bird, the months of inactivity, rest and healing have resulted in the expansion of my hips and waist.  So, I've charged up my FitBit and I'm walking again.

This week has been overcast and cold.  Today, it was 28F when I pointed my car down the driveway and headed to work.  Thankfully, it is warmer at work by ten degrees or so, and the sun made an appearance.

I took a break mid-morning and walked around the building, with my head down, my hands jammed in my pockets and my hair blowing.  "This is a wicked wind," I said to myself -- and then grinned and walked a little faster.

(all photos by Steve -- the last of the flowers in my garden and around the ranch)