Animal People - Down on the Farm

Animal People - Down on the Farm

By: Kerrin Winter-Churchill  Date: 02/11/2007

A cold, November rain washes over the barn, pelting the slate roof, splashing down into the muddy paddocks below. Welsh ponies in their thick "Winter woolies" seem impervious to the weather. They walk the fence line, searching out the last tendrils of summer's past, browsing as they walk along as if it were a bright, spring afternoon. It is dry from my vantage point. I am three stories up in the old barn, throwing hay down through the chute.  "Heads up," I yell and my twelve year old nephew stands clear.  As I heave another bale of Timothy, my diminutive, nine year old niece jumps off the tightly stacked bales of hay, dragging a single one towards me. The bale and the girl are roughly the same size but the pigtailed imp is determined. As she tugs the bale across the floor she chatters endlessly about "Blondie" (her favorite pony) and the plans she is making for a future career in horses. "Aunt Kerrin, I'm going to teach her how to drive so I'll never have to outgrow her and sell her. Then, when I grow up, I'll raise Miniature Horses and teach them all how to drive." I smile at her, giving a thumbs up but yell down to my nephew instead.  "Okay, Clay, that's twelve. We'll be right down to help you stack."

Resting for a minute before we make our descent, we look down through the chute.  Beyond the pile of hay bales, we see our black roan Welsh stallion looking up, watching us. Anyone who's spent a lot of time around stallions will tell you of their uncanny intelligence.  We speak to him and he flicks his ears back and forth and nickers a throaty reply. "I think he wants us to come down," says the nine year old chatterbox. "No, he's asking if we'll turn him out with the mares," is my reply. "Aunt Kerrin, how come you always know what they're saying?" asks my niece. I smile as my hand falls to her shoulder, guiding her towards the old, wooden door to the stairs that will take us down to the first floor. "I've just been listening to them longer than you," is my reply. "All you have to do is stop the words in your head and listen to what they're trying to say.  Animals will tell you a lot if you'll just listen to them."  Revved with enthusiasm, my niece bubbles with questions of technique and while we drag and heave twelve bales of hay over to the staging area, my nephew chimes in with his own unique experiences talking with Airedales, Schnauzers, Fox Terriers and of course the Welsh Ponies. "I always know when Spicy wants to play" says Clay. "And Jazzy tells me when she's hungry." "Well, Blondie is always hungry. She doesn't have to even tell me that," retorts my niece and we all laugh. At 38 inches tall and fifty inches wide, my niece's Miniature Horse looks like she was bred for the impending Ice Age.  A silver dapple pony with a thick, frost colored mane and tail, the pudgy pony peacefully munches hay as her large, dark eyes watch our every move -  her tiny, fuzzy ears switch back and forth, listening to all that we are saying. "I think you just insulted her," I jokingly say with a smile. "Poor Blondie," now we've hurt her feelings.  You'll have to make it up to her with a carrot.  Don't worry Blondie, you'll get more exercise in the springtime," I croon. "You'll be beautiful again."  Suddenly filled with emotion for her beloved pony, my niece flings her arms around Blondie's neck and kisses her, talking sweetly all the while. Just then we hear a squeal and we turn around to see two beautiful mares poking their heads over the webbed barrier to the outdoors. Their big, liquid eyes are bright with curiosity and their ears are forward with great interest. "They want carrots too" says my nephew and he takes two out of the bag and walks them over to "Bitsy" and "Jemi." While our elegant gray mare snatches the carrot and quickly steps out of "catching range" the cute Bay stands sweetly, letting the boy stroke her neck while she crunches on the carrot. Leaning down, my nephew puts his ear to her mouth and listens to her chewing and begins to laugh. I smile knowing this is one of the things I've taught him to enjoy. The sound of a horse chewing is one of my favorite things. Now, like talking to the animals and expecting an answer, these curiosities have been handed down to the next generation and with a little luck, they will one day pass these traits down beyond themselves.

Though I never had children of my own, I am blessed with the friendship of my sister's kids. To their willing and ready minds I pass down my knowledge and experiences. Growing up on "the only farm for fifty miles," these kids know how lucky they are too. Their friends live in housing developments, condominiums and apartments.  They can not wait to visit "Ivy Hill Farm" and gladly put down their Gameboys, Ipods and cell phones to help brush a pony. More than once, Blondie has stood in cross ties and my heart has gone a fluttering when I've overheard my niece say to one of her little friends, "Go ahead and talk to her. She'll understand what you're saying." For many of them, it's the first time they've talked to a pony and most of them walk away from the experience with the certain knowledge that the pony talked back - albeit without the wasted use of words.  For my niece and nephew the ponies are a constant source of pride but since there are daily chores, mucking stalls, watering, feeding, turning out, throwing hay; their egos are kept in check and their pride has grown into a solid sense of responsibility.

As the rain falls steadily on the outside of our barn, I am filled with the warm glow of my surroundings. The air is pungent with the mixture of hay and horses. Barn cats with their tails straight up are eating their evening bowl of chow. My niece is braiding Blondie's forelock and my nephew tops off the water in each of the horses stalls. "Spinner" the stallion drinks deeply, finally bringing his head up,lipping the water as it drips from his mouth making that beautiful, silverly sound as it pools back into his bucket. Nothing short of bliss am I feeling. We are very lucky. We are animal people. Real animal people. Not the kind that write or act on behalf of animals with no real knowledge of them to back up their philosophical beliefs. Today, many "Armchair animal lovers" equate farm life with a lack of intelligence. What these critics are missing is the hands on experience we have gained by just being around animals every single day. Clinicians working on their animal behavior PhDs and editors that live and work from tall buildings in major cities can not gain real animal knowledge through controlled experiments, mountains of research or chatting in newsgroups. Why then, should we allow those with the least hands on animal experience create society's structure towards animals? Do we trust the Animal Rights leaders to guide the populous in creating laws which will govern our relationship with animals? I think of these issues and shudder as we set up the grain for the morning feed. Closing the bin, I pick up a broom and begin sweeping the floor of the barn. The kids join me in the last bit of tidying, rolling up the hose, stacking all the rakes. The barn is warm and full of contentment and as we turn out the lights a pony whinnies "Good night."

Rolling down the big barn door, we step out into the night. Pulling up our hoodies, we three walk arm and arm through the rain to the hot supper that's waiting for us inside the rambling, old house. I glow with the knowledge that animals make us more human. We can laugh with them and make fools of ourselves and share our love for them with others. With animals we can make up silly stories or try and guess what they are thinking. Of course, any real animal person knows that if you practice this long enough, your accuracy will improve and over the course of time, you  really will begin to understand what they are saying. It's not make believe but it takes experience to hear their voices and you have to live among them to gain this knowledge. Real animal knowledge is not born in the halls of higher education. It does not spring to life with the tap of a keyboard. Those that have an intricate understanding of animals - a knowledge born of years of three feedings a day, mucking stalls, scooping poop, throwing hay, vet calls, training and farrier bills, these are the people to lead animal lovers into the new age and I know this. Maybe you do too.  As I watch the kids hanging up their coats, kicking off their boots and greeting the terriers that jump for joy at the return of their bipedal friends, I smile knowing that the farm has made the children more human. They are animal people, equipped with wisdom beyond their years. The future is in their capable hands.

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