Married with Horses: Chicken Scratch

Jeremy gets detailed instructions from his new foal, Justin, on just where to scratch.
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Jeremy gets detailed instructions from his new foal, Justin, on just where to scratch.
| © Andy Myer

| © Andy Myer

It was early evening, and I was attempting to cook, freeze, pickle or jam the mountain of vegetables we'd brought in from the garden during the week.

"I'd like to lodge a complaint," meowed Macy, staring up at me from the kitchen floor.

"About what?" I asked.

"I don't like the kibble in the barn. It's not fresh."

"We just refilled your feeder," I replied.

"In this humidity it's already lost its crunch," said Macy. "And the kibble here in the house is tart and tasteless."

"That's because it's a special food for Jack."

"Ta da!" exclaimed Jack as he flopped over on his side in an attempt to be adorable. "That's me!"

Macy rolled her eyes at Jack as I pulled another ear of corn from the pile and ran my chef's knife down it to remove the kernels. Macy and Jack sat hypnotized, their heads following each ear from the pile, to the cutting board, and then each bare cob from the cutting board to a large freezer bag. I figured the cobs could be used for corn stock, or to enrich the chicken stock I make from the ever-growing collection of frozen chicken bones and trimmings.

A bare cob fell to the ground at the cats' feet.

"Chicken," Macy said quietly, entranced by the cob.

"Chicken," parroted Jack, also staring at the cob.

"Corn," I replied as I picked it up and added it to the compost container. "The chicken you smell is in the pot. I'll use the stock to turn the summer squash into soup."

"Chicken," repeated Macy and Jack in unison, their eyes glazed over with memories of chickens past.

I stirred around in the simmering stock pot with tongs, and pulled out a few chunks of meat. I shredded the meat and gave a little to Macy and Jack. Macy and Jack were purring with their mouths full of chicken and didn't notice when Kimberly came in.

"You want to help me turn the ponies out?" she asked.

"Definitely," I said, covering the stock pot before leaving the kitchen.

The kitchen and the barn are my favorite places on our farm. If I'm not cooking, I love turning on the old radio in the barn and mucking stalls. Even on the hottest days, the barn aisle catches a light breeze, and I've fallen asleep many a time, laying on a pile of hay or with my head on a folded stable blanket. Naturally, I leave my cell phone in the house.

Our weeks-old foal, Justin, was growing bigger every day. And despite our worries about our ability to raise him well, he was only getting friendlier and more affectionate.

It took just a few pointers from Jack and Claudia, and with a little time Justin was halter-broke and leading like a big boy. He liked it when we visited him in his and Mandy's stall pasture or stall.

As we approached their stall, I could see a tiny muzzle, sticking up just above the door.

"Over here!" Justin nickered. "Hi! I'm over here!"

Mandy stuck her head out and nodded enthusiastically. Vander, Ellie and Madison did the same. Everyone was ready to go out.

Kimberly placed a halter on Mandy as I tried to do the same with Justin. It took me longer as Justin wanted to chew on the halter. I tried to get his muzzle through the noseband and chinstrap, but he kept taking the chinstrap in his mouth. When he switched to nibbling on the lead line, I pulled the tiny halter the rest of the way over his head and secured the snap.

As we walked to the pasture, Justin stayed at my side, but walked with short, choppy, excited steps, his head jerking from side to side with everything he saw.

"What's that?" he asked, wide-eyed.

"That's a cat," I replied.

"What's that?"

"A butterfly."

"What's that?"

"A dog."

"He'll do this all day," Mandy said, glancing back at us over her shoulder. "You can take him for the evening if you'd like. Sometimes it's all I can to not sit on him just to shut him up."

"What's that?" Justin asked.

"That's the same dog you just saw a moment ago," I answered.

"See what I mean?" added Mandy. "I think you should sit on him."

"Yeah!" exclaimed Justin. "Sit on me!"

"There'll be plenty of time for that later," I said.

We let Mandy and Justin out of their halters.

"Spend some time with your son," Kimberly said to me, latching the gate from the outside. "I'll bring out the other guys."

Mandy walked away towards the pasture's deepest, greenest grass. Mandy ate and ate and ate and was barely keeping her weight on. She was getting the maximum amount of grain, and we gave her all the hay she could eat. Once turned out, Mandy never lifted her head. She just ate and ate and ate. Justin must be going through a growth spurt.

Though Mandy was walking away, Justin didn't move.

"My neck itches," he said, scooting sideways towards me.

I scratched his neck. Justin lifted his little head to the sky, with his eyes closed and his muzzle wrinkled in ecstasy.

"Now scratch my butt," he said as he leaned into me.

"What?"

"It really, really, really itches," Justin said, putting on his cutest face.

I started just above his tail. Again, he lifted his head and wrinkled his muzzle. For all the horse training shows and videos I'd seen, I couldn't remember one that demonstrated--or even mentioned--how to scratch a foal, or if it was even good to do. Was I overindulging Justin? Would it be my fault if he turned into a completely spoiled brat?

"A little higher...now back...now over," Justin leaned into me again.

"I can see who's training whom here," Kimberly commented as she walked past with Vander. Vander looked at me and shook his head.

"Yeah," I said to Justin, brushing my hands off, "that's probably enough scratching."

"Aw," Justin said, gently kicking at the ground. "Come on, Dad."

"Dad?" I asked, surprised.

"Aren't you my Dad?" Justin asked, looking a little sad.

"Of course that's me!" I exclaimed. "So...neck or butt?"

Justin's face lit up. "Belly!" he nickered.

"Belly it is then!"

I could hear Mandy snort from across the pasture.

"What's that?" Justin asked.

"A cat," I answered, still scratching his belly.

Sascha perched on a nearby fence post, watching as Kimberly led Madison into the adjacent pasture she now shared with Vander and Ellie.

"Are you going to stay out there all night?" Kimberly asked me as she walked back to the barn.

"Maybe. We're bonding."

I left a well-scratched Justin with Mandy and let myself out through the gate.

"Don't tell me you fell for the 'dad' routine," Vander commented as I secured the gate latch. "If so, I'd love some treats...Dad." Vander raised his eyebrows and batted his eyelashes.

"Let's not overdo it," I replied.

"It was worth a try," Vander added, lowering his head and taking several large bites of grass.

I walked to the barn, and then back to the large pasture's gate. Vander stood beside the gate eyeing me with suspicion. I opened my hand and offered him an apple and molasses cookie. He sniffed it and gave me another look before grabbing it with his lips.

"Thanks, Dad," he said with a smile.

I just smiled at him and walked back to the barn.

The chicken stock had a while more to simmer, so Kimberly and I sat on the bench by the barn and watched Justin run around the pasture. Even after a few short weeks, he had become a beautiful, sweet young horse. It gave us some encouragement; we were thinking of breeding Mandy again in the next week or two.

We had a lot more work to do with Justin, but there might be hope for us new parents after all.

Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina.

Read Jeremy's other columns in EquiSearch.com's Humor section.