(20 minute read…relax it’s country time)
I look out in the pasture and I can see the large red clay dirt mound where Smoke was buried last summer. Nearby is the spot where a few weeks before we laid to rest one of our chickens that died in the night. How did I get here? Inside this farmhouse, crying tears of sadness for Smoke, a twenty-four year old rodeo reining horse from Texas with a “G” brand on his left hip, and for Chicken #16, who we raised since she was a two-day old chick who arrived to the post office with 15 other tiny peeps in a cardboard box with holes. Smoke and #16 were with us about the same amount of time (2 years), both brought us joy and left us with loss. That is part of living on a farm. Life. Death. All the days in between…then the cycle repeats. I suppose I am keenly aware of this circle of life looking out the window at Smoke’s resting place as we eagerly await the news of our kids (four baby goats) dropping any day now.
Farm life is not for the faint of heart. A certain amount of grit is essential. Passion and purpose need to be behind your decisions. Otherwise just go see animals at the county fair or watch Youtube videos. It is a dirty job. It is not easy, especially in the freezing cold or the sweltering heat. “Stuff” will happen. Power goes out. Horses get abscessed. Setbacks and losses will challenge your metal. Some days you will need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I have stood over icy cold water buckets with frozen fingers and tears of frustration as I fumbled with stuck plastic parts. I’ve bumped my sticky sweaty head hard on the chicken coop opening as I stood scooping out poopy shavings in 90 degrees. My heart has raced with fear, alone in the barn, when a gate left ajar became the easy escape route for a 16 hand tall horse. Do not panic. Be calm.
Raising chickens, horses, and kids (goats and humans) requires sustained interest and attention. Teamwork is vital, as I cannot imagine going at this alone. When my husband and I were first married we tossed around dreams of raising animals in the country with land. He knew from the start of our relationship that I was not afraid to get dirty. We camped out in the wilderness in those early days, and I showed my endurance for roughing it. We loved the outdoors so much that is where he proposed to me, at our secluded campsite between the fire pit and the pop up tent after eating a romantic meal of bbq ribs and baked beans. I also proved my toughness to him through performing hard physical labor. The two of us poured a whole patio of cement in one of our first backyards (on a scorching hot day in July). We planted gardens together, in areas where the soil barely moved at the touch of the spade shovel. Working side by side on those projects instilled a real sense of teamwork. I also felt proud of myself for hanging in there through a lot of discomfort and keeping up with my hardworking partner. There is something so gratifying about working together, both of us pitching in to build the chicken coop, cut the pastures, or simply walk the dogs. I love when we are taking a water break and he says, “We’re burning daylight!” Meaning, back to work.
Enjoying the fruits of your labor are what make it all worthwhile. I smile when I look out across the pasture. The far one has the large heart that I cut on the Bad Boy zero turn and continued to keep shaped every cutting thereafter. I look in the direction of the barn and I can see Kip grazing near the chickens, and can hear loud clucking every so often. Someone’s laying an egg. Then my eyes pass over the place where Smoke is buried. Big sigh. My mind returns to Smoke’s time here at Liberty Hill Farm. After we had been living here for almost one year with just Kip (the horse that came with the sale of the house), I began to wonder if he needed company. He was all by himself day in and out. Horses are herd animals. I noticed that Kip would hang close to the fence and our dogs would run around and bark at him. It almost looked like Kip was wanting to be near them the way he would taunt them at the edge. Kip also visited the neighbor’s horses over at the fences separating our two pastures. It was decided, Kip could really use a friend.
I started looking at postings of horses who needed homes. My husband and I began talking about adding to our herd. We had two dogs, two cats and one lonely horse. We discussed chickens, donkeys, goats, horses, even cattle. Then one day in early March a friend sent me a link about a beautiful horse. I inquired and was slightly discouraged. After the discussion with the rescue representative, the fit might not be the best, as the mare was characterized as “the Paris Hilton” of a barn. Say no more. Kip was so low maintenance that the idea of an uppity horse in the stall next to him did not sound ideal. Then the rescue representative told me about Smoke. She sent me the link to consider.
Smoke was tall, handsome, and most importantly, a kind and smart horse. He had lost his pasture mate not long before. His owners were an older couple who had enjoyed years with him and his pasture mate. They were making a change in their lives and wanted to see Smoke find a happier less lonely life for the rest of his days. He had been a reining horse from Texas, which I was told was like being an NFL player who’d pushed his athletic skills and his body to the limit. His owners lived about an hour away. We decided a visit was in order, but first I had to fill out an application with the rescue center. They wanted to make sure Smoke would be taken care of in a good environment by good people. I put my husband down as experienced, as he was in 4H, and had raised a chicken, a rabbit and a horse. Mine was more limited.
I must confess, I have been afraid of horses most of my whole life. Yet, my attraction to them has always been strong. As an adult while we lived in Texas, I wanted to conquer my fear so I signed up for western riding lessons at Ride With Pride. I got assigned to Cupcake, the oldest, blind-in-one-eye, sweet horse. My favorite part was the grooming. I loved to brush Cupcake, I remember his horse smell and the warm velvety feel. Always with trepidation, I saddled and mounted Cupcake (bargaining in his ear for a good ride). I learned to walk, turn, stop, and trot around the ring, but that is where it ended. My horsemanship waned when we moved north and life got busy.
Back in 2020 when we looked at the listing of the house on Liberty Hill Road, one of the pictures showed a beautiful dark brown horse in the middle of a grassy field surrounded by split rail fencing. The quintessential picture of farm life. Then we came to find out the horse conveyed. If the buyers were willing to take in this beautiful sweet old horse then he came with the house and property. Kip, a twenty-something gelding quarter horse, had been grazing happily day after day at this empty house (after the previous owners moved to the city). The teenager who lived next door was his “keeper” visiting daily to feed, water, groom and give him attention. Not only did we love the farmhouse, but the sweet old horse sealed the deal.
After our application to adopt Smoke was approved, the rescue representative came out to visit. I remember being nervous that she would see my lack of confidence with Kip. After all, who would want a second horse if they had not even built a relationship with the first horse? I decided it was important to come clean when she was here and to tell her about my fears and my desires. I am glad that I started this rescue process with full disclosure. Her knowing my sincere desire to grow in my horsemanship and my honest lack of confidence helped her to meet me where I was. She could then recommend one horse over another. She also was able to break things down and explain the transitional steps of rescuing in a much more clear manner for me. All that said, she recommended Smoke as a good fit for us, and us as a good fit for Smoke. So all we had to do next was to go visit him out in Farmville.
I remember feeling a bit of “imposter syndrome” as I held Smoke’s lead. It was not like going to pick out a puppy from a litter, or even an older cat from a rescue center. You pick up a cat and pet them, you snuggle a puppy, and watch them romp around. So with an old rescue horse, what do you do? Lead him around? Ask questions? Look at his teeth? I felt self-conscious about my lack of horse knowledge or experience. Again, I went the honest route and did not try to fake it. They reassured me by admitting their own inexperience years ago when they first got Smoke. I remember thinking how huge he was (he is a lot bigger than Kip) and how well behaved he was standing there. Then they turned him out in the paddock. No crazy bucking, no wild behavior, he seemed sweet. It was March and he had a thick coat. I cannot remember much about what we asked the owners. I wish now we had asked more questions about his health. Specifically, his legs and hooves. The overriding feeling I had was that Smoke was a good match for Kip, for me, and vice versa. We could offer this horse a beautiful setting of green pastures and the companionship of a lonely kind horse who would also benefit from his presence. Kevin and I went into this knowing full well that he was an older horse who was simply here to happily live out the rest of his days. We joked that we were running a retirement home called “Greener Pastures.” In my case my life was more like “Green Acres” with my lack of country knowledge. But it is exactly what I have wanted, even with all the lessons I would learn sometimes the hard way.
The plan was to keep Kip and Smoke separated for the first 24 hours by a fence. We were warned that sometimes horses can bite or kick at first meetings. Time and separate space would allow for gradual acceptance. This did not appear to be the case with Kip and Smoke. I have a picture of them leaning over the fence almost in an air kiss. They ran along the fence side by side, eager to share the same space. We let more time pass. I don’t think we waited as long as advised but I cannot remember if we waited over night. What is clear as day was when we finally opened the gate to the big pasture. Smoke ran out and Kip by his side, they galloped out into the field. No kicking, no biting. They ran together like two wild horses on the open prairie. Then they peacefully grazed side by side. I knew right then that Kip was happy to have Smoke here. In the 10 months that I had watched Kip before Smoke’s arrival, I had never seen him so energized. It made all of us so happy.
In the early days I tried to keep each horse in his own stall. After much stall swapping I finally gave up and just let them be in the one they happened to be in when I fed grain and changed water. I am not sure why I ever even bothered to keep them in their own stall. Kip is a skilled escape artist and would let himself out and even could open Smoke’s stall door. There were mornings I laughed so hard at their shenanigans. My favorite part of going to the barn was that wherever they happened to be when they saw me they came charging towards the barn. Like school kids racing to be first in line. They snickered with delight and eagerness for grain and treats. My confidence around the horses was growing. Smoke had been with us for a little over a month. I wanted to assert myself with Smoke, so taking him around the corral by a lead rope was suggested. Walking, stopping, backing up. I was getting the hang of it. One beautiful crisp clear morning I went out to the barn, and opened up the large sliding doors. I put Smoke’s halter on (which I forgot to mention took me forever to learn how to do) and led him out into the pasture. I was feeling pretty at ease as I walked, stopped, and backed him up. Kip watched from his closed stall, frustrated he couldn’t follow as he wanted to so he kept nosing at his lock. I made my way through the open barn and into Smoke’s stall. I unclasped the lead rope from his halter. All of a sudden Smoke turned around and bolted out of the open stall door and out through the large open sliding barn door, out into the UNFENCED grassy area under the apple tree. I panicked and ran after him and froze with my arms wide saying, “Whoa!” It is crazy that I stood there thinking I could stop this giant horse if he wanted to charge past me to escape even further off of our property to the neighbors. Smoke just calmly started eating the grass under the apple tree. I took a step forward and he jumped a few steps to the side. I froze. What to do? I had to think…My predicament was that my cell phone was back inside the barn on a bench. Nobody was in ear shot. Kevin was asleep inside the house. I made the decision to quickly dash back into the barn to grab my phone with the plan of coming back out to my same spot. As I ran for the open barn door, Smoke darted past me and flew across the grass and behind our neighbor’s house. With my cellphone on my ear I speed dialed My neighbor. “Emergency! Emergency! Smoke escaped! help, I am out behind Benny’s house!” With a little treat in her hand and calm confidence, she easily put his halter and lead back on.
The Smoke-escape was a bit of a set-back for me. I felt like from then on he really had my number. If he bristled when I went to brush his curly coat then I backed off. I read in my horse books about the importance of grooming. I kept trying. Then I decided to buy a downloaded tutorial called, “My Horse Doesn’t Respect Me.” I earnestly read and watched all of the tips. I worked in the barn to touch Smoke with my hand, and bond. I remember calling my mom in California one morning about my frustrations. “Smoke won’t do what I say. Why am I so bad at this?” I told her how hard it was to be failing at something that others made look so easy. Why can’t my wanting to master this be enough? My mom was supportive and a good listener. She advised me to breathe. Relax. And not to take so much on. Maybe go take lessons or get some help from a horse trainer. Just venting about it helped. Then something nice started to change.
I began to discover I was not so bad at horse care with Kip. He loved when I brushed him. My confidence grew as I worked with Kip. Then we added 16 chickens to the herd. Between the chores for chickens and horses, I was stretched but I liked the rhythm. My time out in the barn and by the coop became my peaceful part of my day that helped me balance out the stress of wedding planning and life. Smoke and Kip were happy and healthy enough. Off and on we had to deal with abscesses and soaking and wrapping. Luckily they never abscessed at the same time. We went through the frigid cold of winter and the stifling humid heat of summer. We opened up the back pasture and let them graze around the chickens. It was always a sight to see when I would look out and there in the center of the heart pasture would be Kip and Smoke.
Without going into too much of the sad details, the toll on Smoke’s legs from a life of skidding to a stop and turning on a dime in the rodeos became too much for him. He was in a lot of pain, neither our ferrier nor our vet could find solutions to resolve his lameness and provide him relief from pain. It is heartbreaking to watch an animal suffer. And even more heart-wrenching to make the decisions to end the suffering.
Smoke’s full name on his official papers was “See Me Smoke Em.” I can only imagine seeing that big beautiful fast horse smoke the competition at the Texas rodeos. Smoke is buried out near the place in the fields where I am told a pony and maybe a second horse were buried years ago. Tears were shed for them by previous owners (the ones who rescued Kip). Sadly, this is not the first pasture friend for Kip to lose. Kip is one tough old guy. He will stand in the middle of the field on the stormiest of nights, and has lived through the hottest of Virginia heat waves. I wish his time with Smoke had lasted longer. But seeing how happy having a buddy made him, perhaps Kip will get a new friend one day soon. Until we find the right horse, Kip will have to settle with chickens and goats for company. And dogs at the fence. And us.
After writing this piece I will push the cat of my lap, throw on my muck boots and my Carhardt, and head to the barn. Kip and the chickens are waiting. More than just food and water, our herd eagerly awaits some attention. The dogs will bark and watch me from the fenced in yard, hoping I will return with enough energy to take them on a long walk. This is life in the country! Just think, in a couple months we will have four little Nigerian dwarf goats also out there! I can hardly wait!
So first “How to talk Chicken” & then “My horse doesn’t respect me”? ! Smoke’s story at Liberty Hill Farm was beautiful and made me cry❤️.
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Beautiful, heartfelt and inspirational! I can’t wait to read about the baby goats.
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