Married with Horses: Shavings, Manure, Mutiny

A horsewoman's husband threatens mutiny when his crazed landlord adds an extra 10 hours of shaving-shoveling to his workload.
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A horsewoman's husband threatens mutiny when his crazed landlord adds an extra 10 hours of shaving-shoveling to his workload.
| © Andy Myer

| © Andy Myer

There are always ups and downs when you bring your heart to the farm. Honestly, there's no other way to do it. If you live with farm animals--or any animals--there's no way to reap the benefits of the relationship if you insulate yourself emotionally. So, the true farm life is immensely rewarding and, at times, totally heartbreaking.

The day's rollercoaster ride started out at the top. Our AWOL barn cat, Macy, returned, acting as if she'd never been gone. After four days of her being gone, Kimberly and I had stopped talking about it. Macy's absence was still on our minds, but we figured discussing it could jinx any remaining chances of a return. It's a variant of Murphy's Law. If you act too interested or dependent on a particular outcome, it seems to encourage the opposite result. So, we acted mildly indifferent, and fate found someone else more excitable to play with.

Macy had a scratch on her nose, but seemed no worse for wear. She came inside looking for food, though it took her a while to get to her bowl. Kimberly and I passed her back and forth, petting and hugging her. After our unbridled display of affection, she may run away for good.

The rollercoaster passed through a low spot every time we watched our 14-year-old border collie mix, Kit, try to walk. She seems to be losing control of the muscles in her hind end. It started out with her peeing uncontrollably on the floor, or in her bed. We started taking her out a lot during the day and putting diapers on her at night. It sounds funny, but the diapers work and Kit doesn't even seem to notice them. The diapers, however, fail to fix Kit's new trouble with walking.

She walks with little hops, and sometimes her hind legs fully extend or simply fold beneath her. Kit ends up on the floor, a crumpled heap of confused dog. She's on medication for this, though we're not sure how quickly it's supposed to kick in or how effective it will be. And dogs won't say anything--they'll just keep going until they no longer can. It's tough. We'll never be ready to lose her, but there's a fine line between administering smart medical care and denying mercy. (One could see this applying to human health care, too; but I digress.)

It was a cold and wet Sunday, which matched the cold and wet Saturday. I thought there might be a reprieve from the storms. The rains let up, but only long enough for me to blanket and turn out all the horses, and clean the stalls. Then the downpour resumed. With the horses back in and the morning barn work done, I snuck off to the nearby pine grove with my thermos of coffee and a cheap cigar. I don't really have to sneak off to smoke. Kimberly doesn't like me to stink of cigars, but since I only have about two per year, she doesn't give me too hard of a time.

I grabbed an empty supplement bucket from the hay barn, flipped it over and had a seat underneath the canopy of pine trees. It was peaceful, listening to the rain, sipping steaming-hot black coffee and puffing on my cigar. There would always be essential barn work that needed to be done, regardless of the weather. Rain succeeded in stripping away the other chores, giving one a chance to sit and ponder. In this case it was dangerous pondering. I was thinking about something that first occurred to me a few days ago: moving.

On an afternoon early in the week, I was directing the driver of a dump truck carrying a delivery of fresh shavings. I guided him around the rear of the main barn where I had two large tarps laid out. He had just finished dumping the load when a woman's loud shrieking nearly gave both of us heart attacks. I immediately recognized the shriek and seriously considered burrowing into the shavings pile to avoid the person.

"NONONONONO!" shouted our deranged landlady, Rachael. "OH NO! OH NO! MY GOD, NOT ON THE GRASS YOU'LL KILL THE GRASS! THE TRUCK! MOVE THE TRUCK. OHMYGOD, OHMYGOD, NOT THE GRASS!"

The driver looked at me, wide-eyed and visibly frightened. He'd obviously never met Rachael before. He was grinding gears trying to get away as quickly as possible.

"I'll bill you!" He shouted as he accelerated away from the barn and down the driveway.

"OH MY GOD!" Rachael was shouting "GET A BARROW! GET A BUCKET! WE'VE GOT TO MOVE THIS PILE IMMEDIATELY!"

I'd discussed the location of the shavings pile with her twice. "Good, sure...good" was her response both times. Rachael never listened to anyone but herself, so it came as a complete shock to her when I carried things out according to an agreement we'd made.

With Rachael, you really needed everything in writing, no matter how trivial or obvious it seemed. I had emailed her my plan to pile the shavings behind the barn and cover it with a tarp. "As long as you stay clear of the heirloom fig tree," she had written in her response. Her response was mostly a rant about how Candy's gelding, Tully, was wearing a path along the fence in his pasture and that we needed to stop using that pasture immediately. I had printed out the thread of emails, which I presented to her as she stood at the base of the shavings pile, fuming.

"Anybody could have written that!" Rachael shouted.

"Sure," I responded calmly. "Anybody who has access to your email account."

"THIS PILE HAS GOT TO GO!" she screamed.

The shavings were on the ground, so I figured there was a limit to the trouble Rachael could cause. I was grossly mistaken. The next day, a flatbed semi-trailer carrying a giant, wooden shed spent an hour navigating the tree-lined drive to the barn. Two guys rode on the roof and guided large branches up and over the shed. Rachael was there, shouting commands, directions and obscenities at everyone. On the upside, she ran off a few of our boarders who had stopped by for no good reason.

The truck and trailer turned wide toward the woods, barely squeaking past the barn and around the riding ring. The truck headed down a path behind an old tobacco barn and a grove of pines. An hour later, the 10 by 30-foot shed was on the ground. I walked back up the path to the barn with Rachael, who looked unusually pleased with herself.

"That'll keep the shavings drier than that stupid tarp," Rachael said, smugly. "And it won't kill the grass, either."

"Er, um, I, I--come again?" I stammered.

"The shavings will go nicely in the shed."

"You mean the shavings that are already piled up by the barn?" I asked.

Rachael wasn't listening. She was too busy watching the truck attempt its return trip past the barn. "NONONO, MY GOD! WATCH THE FENCE, YOU MORON!"

It took me 10 hours to move the pile using a tiny, rusty trailer belonging to Rachael. I shoveled the shavings into the trailer, pulled it to the new shed using our truck, and then shoveled the shavings out. Rachael insisted the shavings would have killed the grass and been a supreme eyesore. It was her idea to fill the rusty trailer with shavings and park it beside the barn covered with a tarp. Don't bother searching for logic in her reasoning, there isn't any.

I thought the rusted, tarp-covered trailer was a far more embarrassing eyesore than a pile of shavings. It was, however, a fine symbol of the farm's dysfunction. Another fine symbol of the farm's dysfunction was the rusty manure spreader Rachael parked beside the rusty shavings trailer. After two days, the grass beneath both trailers had turned brown.

I thought I had a handle on the worst of the arrangement until I filled the manure spreader and headed out to spread some manure. There are some assumptions we should be allowed to make. For example: I thought my assuming the spreader worked was both logical and reasonable. Again, I was grossly mistaken.

"Of course that thing doesn't work," Rachael said when I called her on my cell phone. "Why do you think I gave it to you?"

Forty-five minutes later, I silently shoveled the last few spadefuls of manure from the spreader. I was only silent because I had run out of swear words. I know nearly all the swear words in Swedish and several in Spanish, and I'd used those up, too.

This is what I pondered as I sat beneath the trees, watching the rain come down. I was thinking that Kimberly and I might have gotten over our dream of running a horse farm. I loved, loved, loved the horses. I could tolerate the boarders. I couldn't stand Rachael. I know, I know, it's unhealthy and pointless to hate or dislike someone, but I'm human. I figured while I might not be able to change my feelings about her, I could choose to end the relationship.

Additionally, the horse farm was not exactly a money maker. Granted, the income covered the cost of our horses and our rent, which Kimberly and I recognized as a major victory. If you run a horse barn and have your own horses, you can forget having a lucrative business. A friend likened it to being a drug dealer with a habit: If you sell and you use, you'll go broke. This friend had just kicked his horse farm habit cold turkey.

These were dangerous rumblings of mutiny I was having. Perhaps I was being hasty. I decided to mull it over for a few more days before dropping the "maybe-we-should-leave-the-farm" bomb on Kimberly. Besides, it was time for summer clothing. Filling and emptying the two trailers was getting me in great physical shape. I wonder if Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda would ever use manure to get fit. What could we call our new fitness craze? You're right. "Poop Away the Pounds" just sounds bad. What about "Sling Yourself Slender" or "Muck Yourself Thin?" Hey, maybe you should write this stuff down. I think we may be onto something.

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

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