Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “stable management”

Cone of Shame

cubicleSo much to tell you, gentle readers.  So little time and energy available to do so.  So, short version.  Possibly to be expanded on at some future (relatively soon) date.  

I’m employed.

I know, right?  Like, real employment.  The kind with a T4 (that’s the standard tax form reporting your yearly income, non-Canuck visitors).  Can’t remember the last time I had a T4.

After eight years (ish … if I’m honest, it was probably more) of marginal employment of various kinds, strangely and suddenly I’m in demand.  A bit, anyway.

What I’m doing is teaching, at the college level.  I’ve been given the title of professor (which no doubt my father the Ph.D. finds insulting, but just go with it, Dad, cuz tenure isn’t a thing anymore).  It’s a two-year diploma program run under the auspices of the great and terrible machine that is the University of Guelph.  Though it’s actually in tiny Clinton, which teeters on the edge of the Ontario map somewhere near the Lake Huron shore.  We’re a subset of the subset of Ridgetown College (the old Ontario Agricultural College, down relatively close to my ancestral stomping grounds of Essex County), which is itself a subset of the University.  Not at all confusing.  Nuh-uh.

Anyway, it’s weird and wonderful to realize that I know when I’m going to get paid.  Andflabbergasted-cat-270x300 also to realize that, as a result of that, I can for the first time in years indulge myself in one or two tiny things that I’ve been putting off buying pretty much forever.  Nothing big — just stuff like a pot of Clinique moisturizer for my increasingly crinkly face.  A new external hard drive (two terrabytes and it’s smaller than my phone … whoa).  A couple of CDs that have been on my Amazon wish list (it’s a live link, feel free to indulge me) since Stephen Harper was in office.  A second Kiva loan, and a donation to a friend who did the Toronto Walk to Conquer CancerGawd it feels decadent.  But given that it’s still gonna be six or seven decades (conservatively) before I dig myself out financially, I am not exactly getting unhinged.   It’s just nice to have slightly less complex knots coiling in my digestive tract whenever I click on my bank balance.  

So this post isn’t really about that.  Instead, it’s about the other job opportunity that came up almost at the same time that I was interviewing for the U of Guelph gig.

The posting was for a gubbermint job — federal, thankfully, rather than provincial.  (Given that Ontario has inexplicably elected a noxious, tantruming Trump wannabe as Premier, ain’t nobody feeling terribly secure in provincial positions these days.)  A small equine research farm affiliated with the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency was looking for a ‘farm operations manager’.  Could I look after 12 retired Standardbreds who occasionally have to give a blood or a urine sample, and could I do it for $30-$35 an hour?  Why, yes, I believe I could manage that, especially given my fabulous experience as a Test Inspector (I Stare At Dicks).  The job didn’t even require competence in French (unusual for any government position).  I mean, sign me the fuck up, right?

Now, I rarely expect to actually get called in for interviews anymore.  Suffice to say I have learned to keep my expectations subterranean.  But of course no sooner had I accepted the Guelph position, than I got contacted about the farm manager position, too.

Except that the invitation to interview read rather more like a summons to a parole hearing.  I mean, I expect federal communications to be a smidge on the officious side, but fuck me.  I thought at first I must be misinterpreting it, but I sent a copy to a couple of friends and they both thought the tone was a bit NQR too.  So, not just me then.

Here it is, verbatim:

Selection process number: AGR18J-016947-000353

Position title:                          Farm Operations Manager
Group, sub-group and level: GL-MAN-10

 

Dear Karen Briggs:

I am pleased to inform you that your application has been assessed and that you are invited to an interview on:

        Date:                  July xx, 2018
        Interview time:    TBA upon confirmation

        Location:            Jerseyville, Ontario 
        Language of Assessment:  English

*It is your responsibility to confirm your availability.  You must reply to this email by July xx, 2018 to confirm participation.  All travel expenses will be your responsibility.

 The interview is designed to assess the following merit criteria: 

  • Ability to supervise
  • Concern for safety
  • Initiative
  • Interactive communication
  • Planning and organizing
  • Problem solving
  • Team Leadership
  • Written communication/Attention to detail

Knowledge of administrative procedures and human resources practices related to the operation of a horse farm.

Knowledge of the general operation and maintenance of farm equipment

Knowledge of the mandate of the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency’s Equine Drug Control Program.

Please bring the following information: 

1.         Names and telephone numbers of 3 references, indicating what type of reference, i.e. Previous Supervisors, Co-workers, Clients or others) as reference checks will be part of the assessment process. 
2.         The original of the Personnel Screening, Consent and Authorization Form completed (Level required: Reliability Status) (form attached).
3.         Proof of Education and Certification.
4.         Proof of Canadian citizenship.
5.         Your valid Driver’s Licence.

6.  Others (First Aid Certification, if applicable).

hitlerFailure to attend without advance notification and sufficient justification will constitute withdrawal from this appointment process.   Acceptable reasons include:

– Medical reasons with doctor’s certificate; 
– Death in the immediate family;
– Confirmation of pre-approved travel plans;
– Religious reasons.

Should you require accommodation during the assessment, you are strongly encouraged to contact Joyce Adam atJxxx.xxxx@agr.gc.ca (preferred) or by phone at 613-xxx-xxxx as soon as possible.

Should any situations arise on July xx affecting your ability to attend the interview, please inform Cxxxxx.Cxxxxx@canada.ca or phone 905-xxx-xxxx.

Joyce Adam

Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency / Government of Canada
Agence canadienne du pari mutuel / Gouvernement du Canada

I was a bit put off, frankly.  Where were the warm fuzzies?  But I figured maybe that was just the sort of passive-aggressive language that multiple layers of bureaucracy generate, so I decided not to take it personally.  It was probably spit out by an automatic interview-invite-generator bot.  Not having had a death in the family, I went to the interview, basically for shits and giggles since I hadn’t officially started my job with the U of Guelph yet, and because I figured I shouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face.  

The actual interview was also a little strange, though not as off-putting as the language of my engraved invitation.  There were two real women who asked me questions, and mercifully refrained from trotting out those cliché HR phrases (“Where do you see yourself in five years?  What do you consider your greatest flaw?  Tell us about a poster_Show_CFA_2018.jpgsituation where your boss royally fucked you over and how you handled that?”), for which I was grateful.  I got the nickel tour of the farm — which incidentally is very clandestine, tucked away in a suburb the other side of Hamilton with no signs or indications of any kind that it is a government facility — and then I went back into the city and took myself to see Come From Away (since I was dressed for an interview and all).  Go see it.  It’s good.

They’d told me they weren’t going to make any decisions till mid-October, which I figured was par for the course for the Feds.  No worries.  I had a curriculum to pull out of my ass together and really didn’t give it much more thought.  Until I got the following in my inbox today:

18-AGR-ON-EA-CM-35 (GL-MAN-10) Farm Operations Manager

Inbox x

Harris, Lisa (AAFC/AAC) <xxx.xxxx@canada.ca>

6:06 PM (3 hours ago)
to karen@kxxxxxx.ca, Ryckenboer

Subject

Selection process number:                18-AGR-ON-EA-CM-35
Position title:                                      Farm Operations Manager
Group, sub-group and level:             GL-MAN-10

Dear Ms. Briggs,

Following your interview, we regret to inform you that your application will not be given further consideration as you do not meet the following requirement:

  • Ability to Supervise
  • Attention to Detail
  • Interactive Communication
  • Written Communication
  • Planning and Organizing
  • Problem Solving
  • Team Leadership

Should you require additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at carol.ryckenboerbarsalou@canada.ca

Yours sincerely,

 

Carol Ryckenboer Barsalou 

Staffing Operations

Corporate Management Branch
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada / Government of Canada
E-mail Address / Tel: 204-259-5564 / TTY: 613-773-2600

Opérations de dotation

Direction générale de la gestion intégrée
Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada / Gouvernement du Canada
Adresse de courriel / Tél. : 204-259-5564 / ATS : 613-773-2600

[Message clipped]  amount of stupidity

Well, I could have gotten insulted.  My squeeze certainly was — incensed, actually — when I read it out loud to him.  But honestly, I’m pretty committed to my new teaching responsibilities (read:  I am treading water as fast and creatively as I can), so Ag Canada and the CPMA are not breaking my wee fragile heart here.  I suspect, actually, that someone fired this form letter off without remembering to further personalize it beyond my name at the top, and that they didn’t actually intend to malign basically every job skill I’ve got.  

But I did figure it merited some sort of response.  And since I enjoy a nice bit of fuckery, when aimed towards those who deserve it, this is what I sent:

9:37 PM (0 minutes ago)
to lisa.harris, carol.ryckenboerbarsalou 

Dear Ms. Ryckenboer Barsalou (and, presumably, Ms. Harris),

Thank you for your correspondence.  That is QUITE a list of personal failings, and I appreciate you bringing them to my attention.  I’m particularly embarrassed by my inadequate written communication skills:  six published books and some 5000 published magazine and newspaper articles are, really, too humiliating a total to mention on a curriculum vitae, and obviously indicate that the demands of the position would have had me floundering.  Please accept my gratitude for the narrow escape.

All is not lost, however.  I recently accepted a position as a college professor with the University of Guelph’s diploma program in Equine Care and Management, where I’m confident my multiple deficiencies in communication and leadership will go largely unnoticed.

All the best to your successful candidate.  

Cordially,

Karen Briggs.

 

buttercupI can pretty much guarantee you I will never be considered for another government job.

 

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Groundhog Day Grumblings

Not gonna lie.  karma fairy.jpgWe had it easy here in Ontario last winter:  no significant amount of snowfall until after Christmas, and temperatures that dropped below -15 C only for a couple of days, really.  We didn’t even have what I dread the most, which is freezing rain (one of the few weather scenarios from which I rescue my True Canadian-bred beasties from the nasty, foul outdoors).  And we had quite a few scattered thaws throughout the season to beat back the accumulated snow to a (mostly) manageable level.

But karma, as they say, is a bitch.  And she is slapping us repeatedly, upside the head.  So I beg your indulgence, gentle readers:  forgive me the following rant.  By the first week of January — barely a quarter of the way through this year’s edition of the seventh circle of hell — I was fucking exhausted.  And vitamin D-deprived, which, you know, doesn’t exactly make you a sunbeam for Jesus.

We had three significant snowfalls in November.  That’s just not fair.  Anything after December 1st is fair game, but November??  No-one in Ontario is cognitively prepared for that, and it leads to a lot of bad driving and really bad decisions, among other things.  Coming home from Toronto one evening mid-November, I drove straight into a wall o’ snow, the likes of which I have not encountered in years.  It was a total white-out on a stretch of highway that runs 17 km between exits — so basically, there’s no escape.  My tires were sketchy, my windshield wipers were crusted over and barely managing, the visibility was essentially zero, and if I hadn’t had four-wheel drive and the tail-lights of a Purolator truck to follow, my odds of staying on the actual road would not have been worth calculating.  (May all the deities favour you and bring you salted caramel brownies, Purolator person.)  By the time I did reach my exit, I was vibrating.  Had to pull over at the first gas station and quietly hyperventilate for about 15 minutes.   The gas station attendant, ensconced as he was in his little oasis of calm, looked at me like I had lost the plot.  Which I totally had.

groundhog winter

So then that little episode of joy was immediately followed by about three years of absolutely-fucking-inhuman temperatures in December.  I mean, I’m Canadian.  I get that it gets cold in winter, and I have the gear to deal with it, but (honestly) two and a half weeks of temperatures unrelentingly below -22 Celsius, without respite … it’s a lot.  Water hydrants which have never frozen before, did.  The barn doors froze shut.  My truck refused to start even though it had had the block heater plugged in all night.  My slow-feeder nets for the round bales froze in interesting sculptural free-form shapes, but couldn’t be removed from the ground.  The air hurt my face.  And I couldn’t do much about mucking the stalls because pretty much everything had welded itself to the floors.  The horses toughed it out (remarkably well, considering they are Thoroughbreds), but zero riding happened during the Christmas break — it was too freaking cold to even contemplate it.  

horses are fedAnd then there was the Night of the Freezing Rain, which, see above.  That meant bedding down stalls, running hoses all over hell’s half-acre in order to fill water buckets (because all the convenient ones are uncooperatively seized by ice) and angsting over whether I had enough small bales of hay to see them through the night and following day, being as those bales are in short supply this year.  I did get everyone (headcount is currently seven, btw) cosily inside for the night, and the freezing rain turned out to me mostly the non-freezing kind, and thus not full-scale Ice Storm (though trust me, we’ve had those too), but naturally everything seized up again — gate fastenings, every single fucking leadshank snap and halter snap on the property, my windshield wipers, my truck’s door locks, the automatic windows, the lock on my front door — when the temps dropped again 24 hours later.  Plus, my horses don’t deal especially well with incarceration, and were absolutely psycho to turn out again when I decided it was safe to do so. These are the days when you think wistfully about how super-awfully nice it would be to have a little help around here…

But hey, it’s February now, so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  Wiarton Willie this

wiarton willie

Wiarton mayor Janice Jackson with Wiarton Willie, earlier. Photo credit: Hannah Yoon, Canadian Press. (Because I always acknowledge the work of my fellow journos.)

morning predicted six more weeks of winter, but really, that’s a given for Ontario.  When have we not had six more weeks of winter after February 2nd?  Six weeks would be a bloody miracle around here.  I’d sacrifice a goat with a stapler if I thought it would guarantee us signs of spring by mid-March.Some people find February the most depressing month, but for me it at least means this wretchedness is more than half over.  It’s a short month, as well, so there’s that.  Plus I usually get a little cash infusion in February, from the Public Lending Rights Commission, which gives authors a little something-something if their books are found (on a random sampling) in Canadian libraries.  It’s nice to be Canadian.  Even if you fucking hate the weather.

love my horse

 

The Yearling Whisperer

The search phrase that apparently brought someone to this blog last week was, “What is Karen Briggs doing now?”cheshire-cat-300x240

I can take a hint.

It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni.  Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s.  All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages.  If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.

2014-yearling-saleLast week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale.  It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds.  By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.

This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady.  Teach me to say nice things about people.  Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway.  Terrible colours on me.

This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners.  Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session.  (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)

The drill with working a yearling sale is this:  the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction.  Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like.  Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage.  The job description includes:

* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners

* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)

* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade

* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)

* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight

* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated

* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)

* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it

* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.

The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so.  (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.)  Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths.  Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands.  Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price.  Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth).  This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for.  But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.

One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension.  I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses.  Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones.  I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit.  Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank.  But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story).  And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker.  So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit.  Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses?  But hey.  For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out.  Again.  Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them.  There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way.  A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere.  Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning.  Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s yearlings2Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing).  Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction.  They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest:  girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.

I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry.  I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them.  Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete.  If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.

But still.  For a yearling, it’s a lot.

Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid.  The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day.  Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn.  What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery.  It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished.  Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre:  viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL.  Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.

Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well.  Some, not so much.  The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them.  Par for the course.  One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was.   Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.

The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too.  There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point.  Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins.  On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up.  He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”.  He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle.  Others get, well, fried.  By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring.  I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy.  I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …

In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all.  Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program.  Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …

As for me?  Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave names yet).  Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half.  And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth:  if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory.  It’s possible.

 

 

 

 

Survival of the Stupidest

sleighGIFLast winter, we here in Ontario got off comparatively lightly.  It didn’t snow in any sort of serious way until after Xmas.

I knew we were gonna pay for that.

This year, my farm got hit with the first big snowstorm — completely un-forecast by The Weather Network and similar geniuses (just sayin’) — in mid-November.  Which is simply not kosher.  And I’m talking an honest-to-gawd 50 cm worth — over the tops of my boots and up to my knees in spots.  A week later, another 30 cm.

I’m sensing a trend.

As much as it’s part of the Canadian identity to pride oneself on one’s hardiness (and ability to steer out of a skid on black ice without ever having to put one’s double-double back in the cup holder) — and as much as we can’t help sniggering uncontrollably whenever we see news footage of civilization grinding to a halt as soon as there’s a dusting of white stuff on some American road (because pfffffttt, amateurs!) — the truth is that all the riders I know ’round here who can afford to, pack up house, horses, and hounds, and head to Aiken or Ocala for the winter months.

The rest of us poor sods? We tough it out.  And kvetch.  A lot.

four seasons 2Hey, it’s only four (cough) months of hellish horsekeeping.  How bad could it get?

(Truth be told, politics and religion have gotten so polarized and just plain creepy in the States that I wouldn’t set up shop there even if I could.  Fundamentalism weirds me out.  But I digress.)

Eight short weeks ago, Spike and I were competing at the fall Grandview Horse Trials, where we successfully upgraded to Pre-Training (go on, admit it, you’re impressed).  Considering it was accomplished in a biblical deluge, I was actually pretty impressed with us, especially Spike, who had never had to do a dressage test or jump in conditions like that.   The warm-up rings were literally under water, the competition areas no better, the heavens were just relentless, and while the cross-country course footing at Grandview is superlative, even it can only take so much.  Young Master Spike squelched around in his usual unflappable, good-natured way (my previous partner, Toddy, hated heavy rain with a passion and probably would have flattened his ears to his head jumpallthethingsand said, ‘Hell no, you crazy woman’), jumped clean in both stadium and cross-country despite the fences being a bit bigger than he’d been used to, and brought home a seventh-place ribbon, which under the circumstances was nothing to sneeze at.

He also demonstrated to me some hitherto-undiscovered scope — otherwise known as HOLY SHIT! fences.  There were two obstacles on cross-country where he clearly didn’t much like the look of the chopped-up footing at the base, so he simply left out a stride (or, um, five) and launched himself skyward.  Now, while my cardiovascular system could do without that kind of excitement, it did indicate that Spike’s been hiding his light under a bushel to some extent, and that’s useful information for the future, when the fences actually begin to require that sort of power.  Spike’s the type of horse who always seems to be at the limit of his athletic abilities, and then surprises you by kicking it up a notch … my personal little Stealth Bomber.  So there was that.  Overall, it was as positive an experience as I could have asked for considering the rain never let up for two fricking minutes, and I’m feeling good about going out at Pre-Training in the spring and upgrading to Training before the end of the season.

So that was eight weeks ago.  Eight weeks.  And now my semi-sleek event horse looks like a yak, Parker has already shredded three blankets (not on himself, but on his filly friend, two-year-old Trixie, because he appears to get off on the sound of ripping fabric), my metabolism has bottomed out and is packing on the pounds just in case this is the next Ice Age, and it’s abundantly clear that this is going to be one long sunuvabitch of a winter.

There are some tricks of the trade, when it comes to winter horsekeeping in Ontario.  (Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to hear the fingerfrom some folks in Edmonton, or Yellowknife, telling me I’ve got it ridiculously easy.  Winter one-upmanship is also part and parcel of the Canadian identity.)  I’ve actually been compiling ideas about winter stable management for about a decade now, because there’s a half-formed idea in my head to write a book called Northern Horsekeeping.  If you gentle readers think you’d actually purchase such a book, leave me a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll get motivated to get off my ass and finally pull that proposal and sample chapters together and send it off to some publishers …

Given that this nebulous book concept is still floating around my cranium, I probably shouldn’t give away all the best ideas in a blog post, but here are some random survival strategies for getting through four (or more) months of frost-bitten misery:

1. Designate your biggest, ugliest, heaviest winter coat the Barn Coat.  By the middle of the season it will completely reek, so designate another the Being Seen in Public Coat and keep it away from the barn.

2. The layering thing:  pretty obvious.  The tricky part:  finding layers you can still move well enough in to a) muck stalls, drag hoses, schlep hay, and b) actually ride.  These two requirements are vastly different.  The boots and gloves you wear for chores will be way too bulky to ride in, and probably so will the coat, so have stuff to transition into when you get on a horse.  At which point it becomes a race to see whether your toes give out first, or  your fingers.

3.  Frozen leadshanks.  Leave ’em out hanging on the gate and you will inevitably have to deal with this.  You can thaw the snaps by sacrificing precious hand warmth, but ain’t nothing to be done about the fact that it’s going to be like leading your horse with a broom handle instead of a rope.

4.  Hot Shots:  those little chemical packets which are supposed to heat up when you shake them, and can be tucked inside your mitts and boots and pockets.  Buy many.  They’re useful — when they actually work (which is something of a crapshoot).

5. Snowmobile sleds are your friend.  These are like toboggans on steroids, with high sides, and they’re heavy and rather expensive, but sturdy and can hold a couple of bales of hay per trip.  Beats the hell out of trying to push a wheelbarrow through the drifts.  Canadian Tire puts them on sale at the beginning of the season.

6.  Absolutely no Canadian barn should be without a hot water heater.  They’re not that expensive to install, people, and you can’t even imagine the ways in which even a little hot water is useful from December to March (and often beyond).

7.  There has to be some fitness benefit to slogging through snowdrifts in 15 kg Frankenstein boots.  There just has to be.

8. Why doesn’t anyone sell (women’s) Frankenstein boots that are actually tall enough to slog through those snowdrifts in?

9.  As confirmed on another blog recently:  when filling troughs and buckets, you need at least three pairs of gloves on the go.  One waterproof pair for wrassling the hoses, a second pair to switch to when the first pair gets soaked and freezes solid, and a third pair of regular gloves to resort to after all that nastiness is (temporarily) taken care of.

10.  Four wheel drive.  Not optional.

11.  Ways to keep from freezing while in the saddle:  a) forego the metal stirrups and put cheap wooden Western ones on your leathers, or just ride a lot without stirrups (good for the circulation).  Thaw fingers by tucking them between nice fuzzy horse and saddlepad on a regular basis.  What’s a 1200 lb. beast good for if not sharing body heat?

12.  Also:  ride bareback.

13.  Beware the dismount.  OMFG it hurts when your feet are frozen.

hosers14.  Designate a cheap, washable scarf the barn scarf.  Its purpose is two-fold:  to keep your face from freezing as you bring horses in out of the latest blizzard, and to breathe through when you’re mucking stalls.  Frozen manure makes for simplified mucking, in a way (you can easily find the shitballs you’ve missed because they feel like hockey pucks under your feet, even through the Frankenstein boots and three pairs of socks), but also makes for very dusty bedding.  Scarf warning:  make sure the ends tuck safely into your jacket when riding or working around the beasties.  Parker tried to throttle me last year.

15.  You know you’re Canadian when you’ve mastered leading a horse while wearing snowshoes.  Bonus points if you can lead two.

16.  Hoses are from hell.  Frozen hoses, ninth circle of hell.

17.  Options for dealing with frozen water hydrants:  a) hair dryer; b) the hot water dump (see #6, above); c) the boiling water dump (best to have two working kettles on hand at all times);  and d) the little propane torch that once lived in your kitchen and had only one function, to caramelize the sugar on your creme brulee.   Like that’s ever gonna happen again.  Try not to set the barn on fire.

18.  Horses do not feel the cold as acutely as we do.  Duh.  They’re not nekkid.  And they originated on the frozen steppes, not in the desert.  So don’t judge their discomfort by your own.  And don’t get stupid about the number of blankets you pile on them.  They really would rather not be trussed up like the Christmas goose.

19.  Serving warm beet pulp makes you feel like Mother Teresa.

20.  Sometimes the only way to thaw out properly is to throw yourself into a scalding hot bath.  Though red wine and dark chocolate are also forces for good.

And here are a few of the notions that keep me in Ontario when it’s bleakest:

1. Frozen everything means no worms, and no need to deworm, for at least four months.

shaving2. Ditto mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.  We don’t have to vaccinate for West Nile or EEE year-round.

3. No fire ants.

4. Virtually no sand colic.

5. No anhydrosis.

6.  Lots of good grazing (well, for six months of the year, anyway) and good hay the rest of the time.  Some places would kill for our hay.

7.  Fuzzy horses are kinda cute and Gund-like and pettable.

8.  Sometimes, it’s actually really nice and soul-restorative to go for a boogie in the snow.  Sometimes.

9. Is it bad that that’s all I can come up with?

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the upcoming winter solstice, after which the days start getting longer and I might start to enjoy enough daylight again to actually complete all the bloody barn chores that take six times as long to do in winter.  So in that spirit: Happy Solstice.  And cheers.

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