Children lead us to things that we may never otherwise see or experience in our ‘responsible’ adulthood.  They see flowers we walk past, they see butterflies that we miss.  They find leaves that we may not have noticed, and they see birds on branches that we rush past.

Children also cherish the joy of play, unplanned , unbridled play.  Children laugh – sometimes at the bird in the tree, sometimes because they tripped on that funny-shaped stone, sometimes for no reason at all but because it feels good.

Foals are alot like children.  Have you ever watched a young foal with a mare in the field?  The mare, head down and munching on grass, and the foal nosing around – discovering those new things that the mare has grown to tune out. 

The foal sees the fly buzzing about and first stares, then plays with the bug, head bobbing up and down trying to follow the fast moving fly.  The foal sees a muddy patch in the field and noses the mud,  then stomps the mud, rolls in the mud, and then scampers off with the excitement of the new feeling of wet and muddy fur.  The foal sees a flower in the paddock.  The foal fully extends her neck to touch the flower they quickly pulls away.  She engages in this approach-avoidance with this new flower for a while before running back to the mare. 

At times, the mare has been eating all the while, head down, occasionally looking to ensure that her foal has not wandered too far away.  Othertimes, the mare follows her foal.  When she does, she sees the flowers, birds and buzzing flies.

It has been my experience that children show us so many things that we might otherwise miss —  in plain sight.  Children also open us up to joys, laughter, and play that we oftentimes foolishly believe we have outgrown.

For many of us, the beauty of nature, being present with nature, walking in the woods, following a stream, spending quiet time with a horse, can all be so peaceful.  At these times, we feel connected to something fundamental and lasting, yet changing and growing.  I think this is why we gravitate to nature and images of nature which can, even in small doses, relieve the stress and noise of life – quickly and profoundly.

Just yesterday, I was struck by how people are drawn to nature and the hope that it offers.  I was headed up to class in East Baltimore where bricks, asphalt and concrete make up the landscape.   It is a harsh visual environment.   But what I saw there made me smile.  In one particular neighborhood, the entire cement wall behind a tightly packed set of row houses was painted in bright beautiful hues to depict a mural of nature.  There were rich tall pine trees, breathtaking mountains, and soft wild flowers.  A few blocks up the road on the same street, there were two more brick walls painted with the image of the soft blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  How beautiful.  How hopeful.

Once you have seen and internalized the true beauty of nature, images painted on the side of a concrete building or images recalled from the storehouse of your memory can stimulate many of the same feelings of peace and joy as that first spring walk in the woods, following that gentle stream.

In the pre-dawn hours on a spring morning, there is a beautiful symphony of sounds that I hear when my mind is quiet enough to listen.

Even before the sun comes up, nature has begun to speak.  So many birds are singing on these crisp spring mornings.  There are the high-pitched tones, the slow deeper rythmic calls, the intermittant chirps and buzzes.  The horses join in the music with their footsteps, their snorts and their soft munching on the grass or hay.

The wind often plays a part in the music  – causing the tree branches to creak or new spring leaves to rustle.   A cat will occasionally walk by and the pack of dogs in the house will contribute to nature’s peaceful song with their own barks and howls.

Some days, I hear the symphony in every detail, every phrase and transition.  Other days, I am deaf to it all, my mind racing with the pressures of the day ahead and with loud thoughts that drown out the music.  Thankfully, this morning I was present in nature and heard the beautiful pieces of music.

This week, Wramona Q’s filly Quadrinity (barn name: Nina) was born. 

The most magnificent and moving experience for me on the farm is the birth of a foal.  In truth, the most precious time is the moment just after the foal has emerged from the mare.  It is at this time that all that is beautiful and essential about this earth is revealed.  As soon as the mare can see her foal’s head behind her, she will bend herself around and nicker deeply to her foal, in a low measured voice.  The mare will stretch her neck to reach her foal and brush her foal gently with her muzzle.  This first touching of mare and foal is so beautiful, so primitive and so moving.  Sometimes the foal, not fully born, will nicker back to the mare in a high-pitched plaintive squeal.  Other times,  the newborn will respond to the mare’s call by struggling mightily with minute-old legs to move closer to the mare. 

Once the mare and foal have found a way to reach one another, the mare begins the intense bonding process.  She smells the foal vigorously as if she cannot get enough of her foal’s scent.  She then licks and licks her foal from nose to tail, drying the baby and marking her new striving life.  This is the time, when if you watch closely and quietly, you can see the bonds of life forming.  It takes only minutes but makes a lasting impression.  After a few moments, the mare and foal quiet down and the two relax together, exhausted from the miracle of birth.  The mare is peaceful and quiet, and the foal is sleeping, twitching and melting into the crevice under the mare’s neck.

For the next several days after the foal is born, the bond between mare and foal is at its strongest.  The mare stands over her foal, touching the foal rythmically with her muzzle, wagging her head with authority as only mares do, and warning all to keep a safe distance from her newest treasure.  Like a metronome, the mare checks back in with the foal, touching the foal’s head, neck, and back. 

As the first week of the foal’s life comes to a close, the mare relaxes, the foal gains strength, unfolds and begins to assert some independence.    It is a beautiful process to watch.  Not all mares and foals engage in the dramatic bonding process that I describe here.  After foaling, some mares struggle with confusion, anxiety and nursing woes – but the mystery of each relationship and the process of discovery for each mare and foal is remarkable to witness no matter how the two struggle or glide through their first days together.

Today, we said good bye to our dear sweet Oaka – our 25 year old blind former PMU mare who lived a hard life before coming to us but emerged from the PMU lines with a courageous, gentle and kind spirit.

This morning started out beautifully.  After weeks of bone chilling cold, and after a violent night of thunder and lightening, the day awakened with a warm spring breeze and the promise of sun and temperatures finally reaching the 80s.  This would mark the first true spring day of the year.  The horses could sense the pleasure of the day ahead as they danced about a bit more than usual at morning feed time.

All except Oaka.  This morning, Oaka was laying in sternum position in her stall, alert and waiting for her breakfast.  This was a warning sign as, in the six years that we had owned Oaka, other than foaling time, she never went down in her stall.  Oaka was hungry though and quickly gobbled all her hay and grain – but she would not stand up.  Two vigorous tries to pull her to her feet failed and I quickly called the vet.

The next several hours involved attempts to get Oaka to her feet.  She was not able to stand.  She was weakened to the point that her hind end failed her.  Her spirit and her mind remained very much alive as she continued to eat all the grain offered to her.  But attempts to stand exhausted her and she frequently layed back down breathless and grunting.

It is so hard to know when it is time to say good bye – so hard when the mind serves but the body fails.  Oaka’s eyes, clouded in blindness, looked  tired.  I could not read her intentions well, but saw that she was so tired, so lame, her spirit confined to a body that could not see, stand or move as I am sure her indomitable spirit wanted to.

Finally, after waiting patiently for us to “know when,” our vet set Oaka’s spirit free.  Her cloudy eyes remained open when she passed – but they softened when, as I can only hope, her pain, anxiety and fear slipped away with her last breath.

After leaving the stall, I saw that the morning had morphed into the most beautiful day of the year, to date.  I was very sad that Oaka did not have the opportunity to experience this first true day of spring. 

When it came time for Oaka to be taken off the farm, I watched as the two horses and donkey in the front paddock stood solemnly, quietly and watched Oaka leave with a new spring daffodil tucked into her halter.  The horses and donkey stood perfectly still, shoulder to shoulder, in full calm attention – a solemn farewell to their couragous friend.  When Oaka was finally gone – the three, all together began grazing, quietly, in unison.  Living in the moment, these three accepted the rythms of the farm – where life goes on.

From the last week of March into the first week of April in Maryland, the flowering trees bloom.  It is so glorious as the white, elegant flowers start to peek out of the greed buds.  Each day, a little more of the flowers begin to show until one day all of the trees on the street are adorned with spring blossoms. 

You have to savor the beautiful trees when they bloom.  Stop, look up from the daily grind and see this gift from nature.  It is so fleeting.  In a few days after blooming, a determined wind will blow by and send all the petals flying from the trees like a February snow. 

So when those beautiful flowering trees that frame the front paddock bloom, I stop, I look up from my work, my phone, my blackberry and I enjoy the view.  I snap a mental picture to keep at the ready when the dog days of August are upon us and the dust is swirling about and the trees are a mix of green and brown.  Quick catch a glimpse while you can.

On the breeding farm, the February freeze, cold and snow melts and gives way to the hope of March.  March is the turning point in the season when horse blankets are put away for another year, tank heaters pulled in, and the clocks changed to give more light to our days.  March is also the month when we put the foal monitors back on the mares’ stalls and stack the sweet smelling straw in preparation for bedding down the eagerly anticipated newborn foals. 

There is hope in the air for the joy of new foals.  New sweet, soft muzzles and the natural beauty of broodmares nuzzling, deeply calling to and protecting their newborns.  There is a hint of caution mixed with the hope – some concern that the foals be born safely and thrive through that critical two week post-foaling time.

At no other time is the change in the seasons so poignant, so complete, and so hopeful as the transition from winter to spring on the breeding farm.  There is a clear shift from surviving the biting cold, dark nights of chores and endless freeze to the joy and warmth of spring with the budding flowers, warm breeze, foaling mares and new striving lives gracing our paddocks.  A welcome change indeed.

I have always believed that life with horses brings so sharply into focus the “Circle of Life” as so beautifully composed by Elton John.  Life with horses is a “wheel of fortune,” “leap of faith,” and “band of hope.”  Life with horses is about beginnings and endings, about extreme highs and sinking lows.

This past month at Shepherd Farm has been the most intense month of our decade-long operation.  This month brought the birth of three beautiful healthy fillies, bookended by the tragic and untimely loss of two magnificent mares.  This past week began with the birth of a stunning leggy Hanoverian filly.  The excitement, joy and adrenaline rush of seeing that little head in a white sac poking out of the back of our mare cannot be described but only experienced. 

By contrast, a mere 48 hours later, we stood in the dark of night under a tree with our beautiful Percheron mare.  We stood there after spending the day trying to save her life by dislodging her displacement.  Exhausted and sorrowful, we made the decision to end her life.  We felt a sinking low – the kind that overtakes you completely and ends in tears and a sense of blankness.

That living beings are born and die is a fact that we know.  Birth and mortality are stages of life that we celebrate and then mourn at different times with our families and in our lives.  Life with horses can routinely bring miracles and tragedies close together – separated by hours.  It is true that in life with horses you can “soar to the stars” and also have to “live with the scars.” 

After this week and many stolen moments of reflection, I can say that I still choose life with horses and I still have yet untapped reserves of “faith” and “hope.”

Below is Elton John’s “Circle of Life” on which this blog entry is based:

From the day we arrive on the planet

And blinking, step into the sun

There’s more to be seen than can ever be seen

More to do than can ever be done

Some say eat or be eaten

Some say live and let live

But all are agreed as they join the stampede

You should never take more than you give

In the circle of life

It’s  the wheel of fortune

It’s the leap of faith

It’s the band of hope

Till we find our place

On the path unwinding

In the circle of life, the circle of life

Some of us fall by the wayside

And some of us soar to the stars

And some of us sail through our troubles

And some have to live with the scars

There’s far too much to take in here

More to find than can ever be found

But the sun rolling high through the sapphire sky

Keeps great and small on the endless round

Early May is when the barn swallows return to the barn.  The mother birds swoop in and out of the barn aisle busily building their nests in the beams in the barn ceiling and in the barn loft by the sliding doors.  This past Saturday was a gorgeous spring morning.  The morning sun was blanketing the barn and the surrounding trees and flowers.  We decided that it was a good morning to take some farm pictures so we closed the upper barn doors in the loft and took several nice photos.

Later that Saturday, we had a few families at the barn for Youth Ranch activites.  As we were riding Peggy in the round pen behind the barn, one of the children said that he heard birds chirping on the ground behind the barn.  That certainly seemed odd so we all hushed and listened.  We could hear faint, high-pitched sounds coming from the ground behind the barn.  I reached down to the area where the sounds were coming from.  After digging through some straw that had fallen to the ground, I saw seven tiny birds with their beaks open and necks stretched, calling for their mother.  The birds were the size of my thumb and were covered in fuzz.

Apparently, their nest had fallen from the barn loft when we closed the loft doors to take pictures earlier that morning.  When the baby birds fell from the barn loft at least 30 feet up, their fall was broken by a glorious hanging geranium plant that we had purchased the week before to celebrate the life of our foundation mare Treveri.  The birds lay just to the right of the hanging plant.  The plant was covered in straw from the fallen nest.

We took the baby birds immediately to Second Chance Wildlife Center where we were assured that all seven little barn swallows were healthy and would survive to be returned to nature in a few weeks.  Awesome!

Tribute to TreviAt some time during the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, April 24th, the horse who was the heart and soul of our farm and our breeding program quietly left this world and passed forever out of our lives.  We came down to the barn early Saturday morning to find our beloved Treveri (“Trevi”) laying on her side – motionless in her stall.  Thankfully, it appeared that she did not struggle before passing, as she lay in a soft bed of shavings that were undisturbed. 

Remarkably, the day before Trevi passed, we decided to leave work early on a beautiful spring Friday to spend some extra time in the barn before nightfall.   This Friday, we decided to give Trevi some extra attention and her second shedding session of the season.  It had been a few weeks since her spring mane pull and shed out, and she looked like she needed more grooming time.  I made a mental note that this year, Trevi did not shed out as well as she had in past years.  Trevi enjoyed grooming – to a point.  If you curried her in her special spot right below her withers and did not require her to step too far from her hay pile, you could get away with grooming sweet Trevi for a good long time.   She would let you know that she was enjoying her grooming session by taking a break from her hay pile to nuzzle you energetically with her pursed lips and to lick your hand over and over. 

As we brushed Trevi that Friday, I grew concerned.  Trevi seemed thinner than she had just a few short weeks ago.  She seemed more angled up in the flank and her ribs were beginning to show.  I stepped back a bit and just watched Trevi move around her stall.  It struck me after watching her for a few moments that she was a bit off.  She had eaten all her grain and her hay, but she was off.  The only way that I can describe it is to say that she was “imperceptably diminished.”   She moved slower, was less robust, less vivid, less colorful.   She did not whinney in her bold deep voice, but quietly, yet earnestly ate from her hay pile.  I rubbed her head and curried her withers.  I brushed her beautiful tail and wavy mane.  I hugged her huge neck and kissed her over her eye.  I was distracted with concern.  I then decided that she needed an apple.  So I left the barn, walked up the hill to the house, cut her an apple and brought it down to her.  I had not fed Trevi an apple since Christmas.  I left the barn later that night and decided to check on Trevi very early the next morning before I left for my race.

I never made it to the race that next morning because when I checked on Trevi, she was already gone.  I remarked on how amazing it was that we shared that last beautiful spring night with her – where she was the center of our attention.  Remarkable. 

Trevi came to us in March of 2002 as our foundation Hanoverian mare.  She was fifteen years old.  At that time, she was in foal with Dartmouth.  Trevi has given us four beautiful fillies who are our next generation of broodmares.  Trevi stamped each of these fillies with her three magnificent traits: a loving maternal instinct; a strong desire to bond with her human companions; and the unflappable character and indomitable spirit of a true herd leader.

Trevi was a loving and nurturing mare.  From the moment that her foals were born, her intense bond with her foals was evident.  She nickered to her newborns in her deep passionate voice, smothering the baby foals with kisses.  She cradled her foals under her neck, encouraging them to nurse with a gentle nuzzle.  She stood tirelessly over her foals for the first 5 days of their lives, rarely even taking time to drink or eat, not wanting to leave their side in those vulnerable first days.

Trevi’s bond with her offspring continued throughout their lives.  One of the most beautiful bonds that Trevi had was with her daughter Farethewel.

Trevi and Farethewel were turned out together each day.  Trevi was in charge in a kind, calm assertive way.  Trevi and Farethewel grazed side by side, parallel, like a reflection.  Trevi would always come to the gate first for dinner, pushing ahead to assert her seniority.  The funny thing is that if Farethewel took too long to get to the barn, then Trevi would grumble and nicker, showing that she already missed her companion even after just leaving Farethewel in the pasture to rush in for dinner.  Trevi and Farethewel shared a stall wall with boards that left just enough space between the boards for Trevi and Farethewel to stretch their lips and nuzzle eachother through the boards.  They did this often.  At night, the two friends would press up against their shared stall wall and rest standing next to eachother.  At other times, they would rest by the stall wall in their relaxed sternum positions.  Farethewel misses Trevi tremendously now – day and night.

Trevi was so bonded with her human companions.  Trevi loved to be groomed and to nuzzle and kiss.  If you sat in the stall with Trevi, she would welcome your companionship and acknowledge your presence with occasional nuzzles from her soft muzzle.  She would move rythmically from her hay to your head, munching and nuzzling away.  If Trevi was laying in the pasture, you could cuddle up against her and be confident that she would be gentle around you.   I spent many a warm fall afternoon over the years leaning up against Trevi’s shoulder or neck, enjoying the afternoon sun.  Trevi would call to us each night when we came down to the barn, welcoming us and “encouraging” us to get on with the feeding.  If we were particularly late getting home at night, Trevi would call to us when we pulled up in the driveway.  I miss her words of “encouragement.”

Trevi was unflappable and a true herd leader.  She was always dignified and calm.  In all the years that Trevi was with us, and through all her foalings and the challenges of old age, Trevi never showed fear or insecurity.  She was calm and strong.  She was not upset by lightening, wind or rain.  She accepted blankets, leg wraps, shots, baths, and wormers.  She loaded on a dime.  Trevi never met another horse that she could not handle and never saw a meal that she could not finish off.

Up to her very last day, Trevi was a herd leader, a gentle affectionate mare, and a devoted companion.   We were privileged to spend so many years with such a special horse and grateful for the many daughters that she has given us and through whom her beauty, spirit and essence will continue to grace our lives.  We love and miss you Trevi.