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  • Today was a big day around the farm.

    First, it was the first full day of Spring.

    Second, Cody adopted two adorable, fluffy yellow baby ducks, one of which has the prettiest pastel pink beak you could ever imagine a duckling might have (and we named her Spring).

    And finally, I moved the foals into separate stalls.

    I have probably violated every single horsemanship, horse keeping, and horse raising rule there is on weaning/managing the transition between foal and yearling, specifically the one about not having foals in their own separate stalls by now – at almost a year old.

    Even the horse whisperers would likely yell over this, but contrary to the books and the rules and probably all the way up to even, George Morris, himself, the foals just weren’t ready, which has always been just fine with me, because I wasn’t ready, either.

    A few months ago, I thought I was really wrong for this because Diesel kept getting stuck in his stall at night, and he’d grown so, I wasn’t strong enough to simply lift him back up anymore, like I used to be able to do when he was small. Everyone kept insisting that he was getting stuck because, with Huck in the stall with him, there wasn’t enough room for him to lay down, except for against the wall. Horses can die from getting cast (stuck against a wall), especially if no one finds them for hours, and so, I felt terrible I’d let that risk build to where it was.

    But separating Diesel and Huck still didn’t feel right. Diesel’s personality has done a complete 180 from a year ago – he started out as a timid, shy, scared, mushy little foal and completely transformed into this lightning-fast, mischievous, spitfire, long-and-lanky, chocolate-colored wildebeest. The older he gets, the more he looks as though he may have some Rocky Mountain horse in him, and that must be where he gets his wild mountain behavior.

    I used to wonder why Paradise – who has, from the start, always been spunky and enthusiastic and independent and friendly – picked such a timid, blah-foal among all the other foals to buddy up with at Last Chance Corral. Now I know. She was the first one to see how wonderful Diesel truly was, and of course, I’m pretty sure I only exasperated the handful he’s turned out to be by naming him Diesel.

    But despite Diesel’s newfound independence, he hasn’t been ready to be alone yet. He’s only become his true wild self without winding up stuck upside down in a fence or loose on I-96 (he jumps fences) because he’s had the best sidekick the world could offer him. He’s had Huck. Huck, named after the ornery, but gallant orphan, Huckleberry Finn, has also been true to his name. Huck is as tough as nails. He loves to play, and he loves to play dirty, but he rarely shows emotion any other time, and he has a terrible habit of biting people (which is actually pretty funny if you’re not the one being bit), but I’ve always been able to count on him to look after Diesel, and that’s exactly what he’s always done, just as true as could be. He’s been Diesel’s protector and fellow trouble-maker. They’re best friends.

    And secretly, I’ve always been the most concerned about what separation would mean to Courage. His original buddy was Clover, and she died during her first month, late last spring. Her death still stings inside all of us. Courage was always quiet and gentle and brave – an old soul, as they exist in horses – but there was a seriousness in him that didn’t come about until the day Clover died. He was with me when she did. He stood before her, when I couldn’t, and though he was still a little unsure of me at the time, he put his head on my shoulder, and he was strong for the both of us while Clover died in my arms. It’s the most helpless I’ve ever felt in my life.

    There’s something really special about Courage. I can’t say what it is exactly because I don’t know it yet myself. But you can see it in the way he walks. He’s so careful but very sure. You can feel it in his thick silky wintery fur. You can hear it in the way he breathes and blinks back at you and thinks so softly – a silence I’d never heard before, one that naturally stirs nothing around him but what’s inside of you.

    You can even smell it on him – he always smells like sweet grass and sun and pink clover flowers, even in winter, when there’s nothing but hopeless amounts of snow and cold.

    But he’s so sensitive, and it felt like ages before he actually grew. He prefers Paradise by his side, right there in his stall, to take the lead in eating and exploring and snorting at the noise and the action down the aisle, so that he might stay aback and bedded down in the sawdust, silently absorbing all the noises and smells and spectacles as they come together behind the safety of his friend. Paradise is the yin to his yang, and he’s needed that peaceful balance at night in order to face the rowdiness of Huck and Diesel in the field by day.

    Some mornings, when it’s very early and still very dark, Courage will still be sleeping when I toss in a few flakes of hay, and Paradise will gently nudge them towards him, so that he might eat his breakfast without having to get up, or even open his eyes. Paradise understands him, his very essence.

    So, the foals, grazing together during the day and sleeping together at night, have taken care of each other. I’m just as responsible for their rescuing and survival as they’ve been for the rescuing and survival of each other.

    I will admit that as often as I wish they were still small and tiny and cuddly again, I do not miss how fragile they once were. They were so fragile when my mom and I first picked them up, and I used to be so afraid they would break. So I like them a lot better now, if only because I can breathe – not a lot – but a bit – easier because I’m not so terribly afraid they’re going to break in half or run out of milk or do something I wouldn’t know how to handle because they were just SO unbelievably small.

    They’ve had almost a whole year, here, on the farm, and I think they’re happy. Most importantly, I think they know what being horses means and I think they’re happy they were born horses, even if why they were born will always come with dark shadows. And to this day, my heart swells with pride when I see them drink water (the first six months I had them, they drank nothing but milk) or I hear them nicker hello to each other or I feel their upper lips ramble across my arm while I scratch their withers.

    I had absolutely nothing to do with any of that—that horse behavior was innate—but those are VERY horsey things to do, and they’ve figured those things out without a mother and just me. It’s all truly a miracle, I think.

    So the idea of splitting them up just seemed absurd because they’ve always been together, and we’ve made it this far. Together.

    But after almost exactly a year, on the first full day of a new, fresh season, I had a change of heart.

    Brian spent last week fixing up the stall Le had so badly damaged from his bad cast earlier this year (Le, thankfully, managed to get up and walk away unscathed), so I no longer had the excuse of not having enough stalls to separate the foals into.

    It was such a beautiful afternoon at the farm today. The spring sun was undeniable – and the foals ran and played for hours, ruthlessly and mercilessly stampeding each other with abundant energy and ever-growing spirits. Cody was blissfully on her way home with her new brood of ducklings, and I felt happy I’d helped her accomplish that, simply because we’re sisters, and we’re crazy about animals, and I knew what having those ducklings meant to her simply because I knew what adopting the foals last year meant to me. It was the same thing, the same frame of mind, the same desperate need for a change and a good deed no one else would understand, and I’d happily risk the Sulkowski dungeon and my parents wrath if she needed a scapegoat…because as God as my witness, those were going to be her ducklings. It’s time together with her I won’t ever forget.

    And when warm weather returns to a farm, as it did today, the meagerest eases in work feel like the most extravagant of luxuries. For example, temperatures above freezing mean that the hose can stay connected to the spicket and does not need to be re-wound and drug to and from the heated feed room each time the horses need to be watered (which can be up to several times a day). It also means that the bigger pastures can be opened up again and water can be left outside in water troughs, so that horses can stay out for the duration of the day. Even though it was work that did not have to be done, and not all the pastures are used at the same time, I proceeded to fill every water trough in every pasture using the barn hose that I never had to disconnect, and I took a ridiculous amount of delight in every second of it.

    And that’s when, as carefully and surely as Courage’s stride, and just shy of a year with the foals whom most of this new pasture and water work would benefit, I knew it was time.

    Time to put them in separate stalls. Time to let them be yearlings. Time to let them grow into individual horses instead of coupled-up, dependent, orphaned foals.

    So I got four fresh stalls ready, and then I led the foals inside, each to their own new individual horse stall.

    For an eternity of approximately five minutes, the foals anxiously circled in unison in their new spaces, each of whom was right next to the other. They called to each other, mostly out of confusion. They have the ability to see each other through the mid-sections of bars, but with the inability to cross the very threshold that separates them, which they found to be both stupid and frustrating. They all threatened to rear over their half-doors, which took my imagination and the potential risks involved with that to very alarming places. The foals were not handling this as well as I thought they would. I was not handling this as well as I thought I would. I had been so confident that today was the day, but now I wasn’t so sure.

    So I wondered what was easier: putting them back together in the same stall again, two by two, or knocking down the entire row of stall partitions, so that they could just grow into big horses in unlimited space for the rest of their lives because no one would ever be able to handle them being as upset and/or separated as they were at this moment, specifically me.

    I sat down on the cold cement across from their stalls and anxiously watched them for a few more moments.

    All of a sudden, Huck bent down to eat his hay. Then Paradise. Diesel figured out that Rivaldo, one of the big horses, was next to him, and then dually attempted to show him who was boss until Rivaldo sneezed in his face and made him jump significantly enough that he landed a foot in his water trough, which embarrassed him greatly. Diesel waited for Rivaldo to lean into his hay before casually removing his foot from the water, and then intently watched how Rivaldo ate his hay, which he then tried to mimic. A few more moments passed and Paradise, Huck, and Diesel were all surprisingly calm.

    Courage was calm, too, but he wasn’t eating like the others. He peered through the bars, down the line of fellow foals and horses, and he just stood there, rather desolate, solemnly accepting this new way of being.

    Which was alone.

    I could hear him blink and think and fight hard not to nicker for the others, not to stir, not to be upset. But I sensed the grief building up inside him. It felt confused, like when he was taken away from his mother, and hurt, when Clover was taken away from him. I sensed his knees quiver and muzzle give, a third separation like this might be too much and indefinitely too soon.

    I got up and went to him, and he gently leaned into me for comfort. His lips quivered over my fingers, and I knew he was hungry, but he didn’t want to put his head down to eat and lose sight of the other horses. I grabbed a flake of his hay and wove it between the bars, so he and Paradise could reach it without losing sight of each other. That seemed to stir his appetite. He licked his lips, seemingly understanding of the fact that he wasn’t truly alone, just separate, which was something he could ultimately live with, and so he settled in with the others.

    I checked on the foals several times after that, and although they were all noticeably shaken from the change and very aware of their separateness, they’re already enjoying their independence, specifically at dinner time, when there’s no one to push out of the way for a fair share of grain. And again at night check, where there’s a whole person there completely focused on grooming just you. They seem as happy to shake their winter coats as I am to shake mine.

    As usual, it was the foals who led me through this new transition, and although a little sad and in a little disbelief that I’ve almost had these foals a whole year, and they were so small and all I did was mix milk formula and carry it to their stalls and only sleep when I was too tired to worry about them for months and months, I don’t do those things anymore. I can’t believe they’re almost real horses, each with their own stall, fully capable of taking care of themselves. And now I have to worry about all the horse things that can happen to them living in separate stalls and carrying out separate lives. And now everything is different again, and I don't have little foals anymore, almost as if nothing happened over the last year at all.

    So, at this point, if you’re still reading (thank you, by the way), you might be thinking I spend way too much time by myself, alone with the animals, or that I have way too many emotions invested in these foals, or that I’m just crazy, in general (which might actually be true), to be making this big of a deal out of things, but the story isn’t quite over (but it almost is, I promise).

    As Brian perfectly wrote, Gabriel is a pretty good dog, but it can be pretty hard to tell sometimes. However, Gabriel HAS been - from day one - looking after these foals, right along with me. And I kind of forgot that until today. I forgot that these foals are his foals, too.

    Gabriel was there when I brought them home.

    He was there for every milk feeding, trudging down to the barn with me in every kind of weather at every hour of the day and night.

    He was there when Clover died.

    He was there when I cried myself to sleep afterwards.

    He was there when I buried her.

    He was there when I cried myself to sleep afterwards. Again.

    He was there every time I was scared I was going to lose another one.

    He was there with the foals when I had to leave on a trip and someone else was looking after the farm.

    He was there with the foals when I went off to ride the big horses or walk with Brian around the track or chat with the farrier or forget where he was, altogether.

    Whenever Gabriel is in the barn, he goes and he sits by the foal stalls and he watches over them.

    Even today, when there weren’t any foals to be watched over.

    So he just laid in their empty stall today for a long time. He didn't even come up to the farmhouse with me for dinner.

    He’s been there for those foals for collectively longer than I have, and so maybe, that’s why he’s taking this so hard.

    He does know they are just across the aisle now, but he also knows things are different. He’s not needed as he once was, and that sort of realization can break a dog’s heart.

    He acts as though his job was taken away from him, and I can only hope he’ll come to understand that it’s BECAUSE he did his job that those yearlings are yearlings and exactly where they’re supposed to be.

    I told him that contrary to my daily grumblings over his bad dog habits, he IS a good dog.

    A very good dog.

    (Which leads me to this shameless plug: If you’d like a copy of the new book “Good Dog: A Legend” which features Gabriel, all proceeds go to Raine’s Diabetic Alert Dog fund, which will help her achieve not just a good, but a LIFE-SAVING, dog of her own! Just email me at jensulkowski@rocketmail.com or check out www.farmfairytales.com for more information. To donate directly to her fund, please visit:

    http://www.gofundme.com/DiabeticAlertDogForRaine

    Thank you, Friends.)
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