Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fall Foliage and an Oktoberfest

                    Dolly                                                        Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

     It's almost over.  Today has been a sunny, breezy day, the air filled with  red, yellow, and orange leaves.  I know I griped about this very time of year in my last blog entry, but I'm determined to be like our dog Clem and live in the "now."  I will banish all thoughts of sleet, dark days, muddy and unwieldy horse blankets and will pray for another snowless winter, that is, except for the one week before and the one week after Christmas.

     Dolly heads up this entry since the color of her coat is in keeping with the season.  She is what is termed a "red" mare.  And there is an axiom about red mares:  they are temperamental and oppositional.  But that's not the case with Dolly, who is sweet and eager to please.  That's why our local vet declared her not red but "pumpkin," an even more seasonal appellation!

Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue

       This past Saturday I took a break from the farm and drove down to Haddam, a charming town in southern Connecticut, to attend the Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue's Octoberfest.  Some of you will remember that I bought Dolly for sixty dollars over the phone with a credit car from a wholesale auction house in order to prevent her from going to slaughter.  I didn't want to drive down to New Jersey to pick her up.  An equestrian magazine was interviewing me that afternoon so I wouldn't have arrived in Jersey until well after dark.  A more compelling reason was I didn't want to drive down there with a four-horse trailer:  if there were other horses about to be shipped out to slaughter I didn't trust myself not to plunk down $180 and take three more.  Fortunately, I was put in touch with Debbie and Jeff Blaschke of the Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue.  They were going down that morning to pick up a little Haflinger mare.      

         The Blaschkes immediately discovered that Dolly was semi-feral:  she'd had never been handled other than to be corralled into a stock trailer along with her emaciated herd mates.  It took Debbie and Jeff over three hours to get the terrified Dolly into their trailer.  The original plan was for me to meet them at their place in Connecticut, but they decided it would be in Dolly's best interest (and mine)  to drive her all they way up to Windflower Farm.  This added five more hours to what had already been a long and difficult day.  So, when I saw on their Facebook page that they were having an Oktoberfest I jumped at the opportunity to re-connect with these wonderful people and to get an up-close and personal look at some draft horses. 

       Haddam and its sister town of East Haddam are charming but complicated little towns.  Cell phone reception is sketchy, and my Garmin GPS navigator decided that this was the place to totally pack it in.  Add to this mix a Map Quest printout that not only baffled me but also every person in Haddam and East Haddam who had it thrust in front of his or her face by an increasingly desperate me.  I was in trouble.  I stopped at a service station whose only attendant waved me off with a disinterested dismissal:  "I have no idea.  I can tell you where you are but not where you should go."  I stifled an impulse to tell her where she should go.

     I  pulled over when I saw two teenage girls wearing t-shirts, shorts, and walking along the road in bedroom slippers.  Haddam is not only complicated but apparently quite informal as well.  They said they could help and the one in lambskin slippers dialed her mother.  Here are snippets of what I heard:

      "Mom, how do you get to Moodus Road.  I'm near Sharon's house."

     "No, we're not going to Moodus Road.  There's someone here who's asking directions."

     "Mom, it's a lady."  Pause.  "I said we aren't going down to Moodus."

     "No, we're nowhere near her car!  She just needs some help."

     "Mom, she's nice--she's got a puppy with her!"

      Gender, their lack of proximity to my car, as well as Clem's presence, finally put Mom at ease and directions were relayed via her daughter.  I was to turn around, go straight until I came to a 7-Eleven, then turn left.  That would be Moodus Road.

      But that was not to be.  I ran into a road block and a detour!  I stopped (despite a number of cars behind me) and told the policeman there that my final destination was Rock Landing Road and the Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue.

       "Never heard of either.  And I've lived here twenty-six years.  You're in the wrong town." 

      Argghhh!  After I insisted that I was in the right town, he did give me directions to Moodus Road.  However, following his directions to the letter I soon found myself right back at the service station with the disinterested attendant.

      As a last resort I managed to place my cell phone in a spot that received slight reception and called Juliane back in Acton.  After multiple, crackled repetitions I had some sort of number.  I dialed but no answer, just Debbie's friendly recorded voice promising to get right back to me.

      Actually there were even more twists to my crazy search--but I'll spare you.  I was just about ready to surrender and return to Acton when I saw a couple walking a Golden Retriever.  Between Clem's excited barks--he'd been in the car way too long and wanted to play with their dog--they told me I was in East Haddam and that I wanted to  cross the bridge to get to Haddam.  Been there, done that about ten times I declared.  But then came this interesting bit:  there was piece of Haddam, like a kind of island, that was actually encircled by East Haddam, and there were a couple of horse farms there.  All right, one more time.  A horse farm would likely have heard of the Draft Horse Rescue.  And after the husband and wife settled their argument whether I was to turn right at the second light or just after the second light, I reversed course and gave it one more try.  I turned onto Haddam Neck Road, a name unbeknownst to me and Map Quest.

     Settled in 1712?  Well, you'd think that the inhabitants would have had ample time to become familiar with their own roads.

      As Pope said, "hope springs eternal" and after a half mile or so I saw white fencing, a barn, and lots of parked cars.  My hope was springing!

And then this--yay!!!

       That policeman who redirected (or misdirected) me hadn't lived in Haddam long enough!  

       Meet Jeff and Debbie Blaschke holding the picture of Dolly I brought them.

              Jeff and Debbie Blaschke                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       And now amazing Grace!

          Grace                                                        Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

           Grace is a ten-year-old Percheron mare that the CDHR rescued, along with her four-month-old foal, from the New Holland auction house in Pennsylvania.  Those of you who have read The Eighty Dollar Horse already know about this place.  It is run by the Amish, who along with the "killers" constitute the greater part of the bidding audience.  "Killers," who buy the bulk of the horses, mules, and donkeys, cram them into stock trailers and drive them to slaughter houses, the majority of which are in Canada (miserable death) and Mexico (horrific death!) 

        As was the case with Grace, many of the horses who go through New Holland are skin and bones, aged, lame, or have open sores from the ill-fitting harnesses they have worn doing years of farm work.  When people hear the word "Amish" many conjure up bucolic images of a simple, God-fearing people who eschew modern conveniences and serve up great traditional fare at their numerous restaurants that cater to tourists.  They are pacifists who believe it wrong to hurt a fellow human even if they hurt you.

       But many Amish are cruel to their animals.  After years, often decades of hard work, when the animals are either too old or too lame to pull farm equipment or buggies, it's off to New Holland or some other like-minded enterprise.  I myself have seen a number of lame horses--mostly Standardbred track discards--trotting down unforgiving pavement driven by unforgiving Amish drivers.  Why does it count as a sin to have a telephone or a freezer in your house but it's just fine to mistreat your animals?

      Fortunately for Grace and her foal, Debbie and two other founders of the rescue, Stacey and Elyse, were there and able to outbid the killers.  Had they not been in attendance, mother and daughter would have been sold individually and ruthlessly pulled apart before being loaded onto the trucks.  Rescued and in  Connecticut, they lived happily together until the filly was old enough to be adopted into a loving home.  Here are two more shots of the majestic Grace.  The first I took from the seat of the carriage when it was my turn for a ride:

                   Grace                                             Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

                       Grace                                        Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

Another Draft Pick

                    Lacey                                       Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       This is Lacey, a twenty-one-year-old Percheron cross mare saved from the killers.  I haven't spent much time with draft horses, and when I did, they were either being exhibited or in harness working or about to work.  This was the first time I was in their company when they were at home and at rest.  They are so gentle, so kind, and there is such a nobility about them.  I hope the above photo of this magnificent mare conveys these qualities.

More Draft Picks

                      Sally and Belle                                Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

         Meet Sally and Belle, affectionately known by the rescue volunteers as the "Goldie Girls."  They are both Belgians and in their mid-twenties.  They were pulled from two different auctions but, as you can see, they seem to have been friends from way back.

       Both mares were amenable to being photographed, though I had to wave them back or you'd just be seeing photos of an ear, an eye, or a few whiskers.  When I tried for a more "artsy" shot and lay down on my back, they both hastily repaired to the inner sanctum of their run-in shed.  Sally and Belle had obviously not come across many supine humans.  And they were not about to come back out.  Debbie could not stop laughing when a couple of volunteers tried and failed to coax them forward by calling them their names.  No dice. 

                 Sally and Belle                              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

                                                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

        At first I thought I'd just walk in and get behind them.  On second thought, no.  I'd be putting myself between two enormous hindquarters and the back wall of their shelter.  Of course, they were friendly and sweet but they had already declared me a person of potentially malevolent interest.  And I'd broken more than my quota of bones this year, so I left it to their good friend Joe to come to the rescue:

          Joe and the Goldie Girls                          Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

Still shy but not fleeing:

             Shy Goldie                                      Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

Better, but the retreat option is still on the table:

                                                                                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       I'm sorry to have caused Sally and Belle even the slightest distress.  After what they have been through they deserve nothing but days filled with hay, oats, security, and kindness  as well that occasional extra streak of purple in the mane that a volunteer  lovingly applied (see the photo above, "Shy Goldie").

Final Draft Pick

     Faith                                                                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       Last and least--in size only--is Faith.  She came to the rescue by way of a local auction that usually limits itself to cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.  She is part draft and part something else, perhaps paint.  She is five, just beginning her training, and, as you can see, a lovely mover.  Her canter is a lofty three beat, so she is going to make  a wonderful sport horse.  


       There is seldom a horse lover who isn't a dog lover as well.  So, when you meet a horse rescuer chances are you're meeting a dog rescuer, too.

         Brindle Greyhound Girl                                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       This girl is an off-the-track rescue I met at the Fest.  Those elegant and gentle eyes should never have had to focus on "Swifty" the mechanical rabbit, nor be kept in a cage for twenty plus hours a day--for years.  At last she has what she needs:  food, freedom, and a family who loves her, not for how fast she runs, but for who she is.

                Civil Disobedience from Clem!          Ainslie  Sheridan copyright 2012

       Those of you who regularly follow my blog will recognize the above pup.  Yep, it's our own little rescue Clem who I brought along for company.  He and I obviously hail from the same family since he, too, believes lying on one's back is the thing to do when in the company of draft horses.

               Passive Resistance                            Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

            In his patient non-violent refusals, Clem must be a disciple of the dog world's version of Ghandi!   Despite verbal encouragement and commands, coupled with gentle tugs on his leash, Clem demonstrated--passively, of course--that he had no intention of following me into the barn to see the draft horses.  The last time he entered a building--other than his own house, that is--it had been an animal hospital where he experienced unpleasantness in the form of two shots.  But civilly disobedient Clem got lucky.  He found a wonderful friend in Hayley, who happily dog-sat while I got a barn tour from Debbie:

       Clem and Hayley                                                                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       After the tour I lingered with Clem and his new best friend.  Hayley informed me that she herself had a dog like Clem except he was dark brown.  She asked me to guess his name.  Not surprisingly I struck out three times.

       "His name is Cocoa, and guess what he's going to be on Halloween?"  After my having failed to guess her dog's name, Hayley excitedly supplied the answer without so much as a pause: "A cocoa bean!!"

CDHR Trips to New Holland

     The New Holland Auction takes place weekly, so thousands of horses do not get rescued.  Surprisingly the horse that the killers prefer is the Quarter Horse.  That breed has a better meat to bone ratio than all the other breeds that come through, including the drafts.  Quarter Horses are often backed at the ridiculously young age of two when their bones, ligaments, and tendons are not yet developed enough to sustain the sliding stops and spins, the constant rocking back on their hocks in reining and cutting,  nor the bursts of speed required in racing.  And when their young bodies give out, off they go!  There is no shortage of them at the auctions.  If you look at the lists they are often only five or six years old.  

       Rescue groups attend these auctions but only when they have the money and space to bid.  The Amish are the principal buyers and sellers.   On a good day they can purchase the replacement for the animal they have just brought in, to use their term, to be "beefed."

        The Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue can only return to New Holland when they have placed enough horses in homes that adopt them and as a consequence have more available stalls of their own.  They make the trip down to Pennsylvania with an eight-horse gooseneck trailer several times a year.   (On occasion they have squeezed ten draft horses in the trailer in order to save two extra.)   The average bid they must make to beat the killers is three hundred dollars though on one occasion there was one horse so sick and so skinny the killers didn't want him.  The Draft Rescue bought poor Curly for $25.  The rescue intended to make him comfortable for a few days before humanely euthanizing him.  But damn, if that old boy didn't rally! He has since been adopted as the contented pasture-mate to another horse.  He does have cancer and will have to be euthanized when it incapacitates him, but right now he is enjoying a wonderful life. 

        At any one time the Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue houses eleven to fourteen horses.  Each consumes between a bale and a bale and a half of hay a day, plus grain and vet expenses.  The monthly costs of the Draft Horse Rescue average six to seven thousand dollars, so they are always in need of donations and volunteers.   If you have time, money, or would just like to see some beautiful creatures click on here:

Note:  Of course, not all Amish are cruel to their animals.  I know of two who are excellent Natural Horsemanship trainers and very kind.  I'm sure there are many more.  Unfortunately, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.  Additionally, I must add that none of the information contained in this entry about New Holland or the Amish was provided by the New England Draft Horse Rescue.  I have known about Amish cruelty to their animals for decades.  I have, however, recently learned something new:  The Amish are now known for maintaining hideous puppy mills.  They are found in barns and kept out of sight.  Many of these dogs don't see the light of day until they are sold to some pet shop or an Internet buyer who thinks he is getting a deal  And though their religion prohibits them from using the Internet the Amish happily engage the "English," i.e., us, to post these pups online.  They employ the same third party hypocrisy with a number of horses they breed for sale, particularly Haflingers.

      I will close with another fall foliage girl.  This is Firefly on a crisp morning:

        Firefly                                                              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

         Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly.  See you soon--

Links you might like or find useful: 







Friday, October 12, 2012



      Basilica de Notre Dame, Montreal                                                              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       Three weeks ago Jim and I drove up to Montreal for the weekend.  It's an easy five and a half hour drive through Vermont.  The green leaves, back lit by a low autumn sun, were edged in reds, oranges, and yellows.   Early fall is my favorite time of the season.  Of course, I love seeing brilliant foliage--still a week or two away--but that arrival foreshadows the next transition of which I'm less fond.  Though T. S. Eliot, along with many of you, believe April is the cruelest month, I think it runs but a close second to  November.  Bare branches, leaves that rattle like paper skeletons as they're blown across streets and sidewalks, and the inevitable cold rain make me a candidate--if just a 3-4 weeks duration--for SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Sure, it rains a lot in April yet here in Massachusetts, at least, November is actually the wettest month of the year.  And then you who have horses know all about this; having to change your horse or horses, (I have six) from blanket to sheet to nothing, then back again all in one day.  And, of course, to clip or not to clip, that is the question.  To do a trace or full body clip?  That is still another question.  And when to do it is yet another question.  So, as I watched leaf colors dancing in the breeze, I knew that another, still more spectacular show was waiting in the wings.  November labors, rain, and chill were still a ways away.

       Then, in Quebec, the green-leaf light show was soon dimmed by a gray blanket of clouds.  Mother Nature was not about to offer the expected Canadian greeting.  And neither was the Canadian Border Service  agent.  We were met with rapid-fire French followed, without pause, by rapid-fire English:
       "Ou habitez-vous?  Where do you live?"
       "The U.S.," offered Jim politely.  After all, lots of nationalities drive through here, many of which are Canadians.

       "The United States is a very big country," his voice now edged with testy forbearance.

       "Acton, Massachusetts."

       "Why have you come to Canada?"

       "Academic conference and sight-seeing."

       After examining our passports as if we were potential latter-day revolutionaries bent on fomenting another French-Indian war, he handed them back.  And with complete indifference laced with ennui simply said:

      "Go ahead."

       So, where was  the characteristic Canadian friendliness?   He might at least have given us that welcome on all those metal highway signs: "Bienvenue au Canada."  Nope, not this guy.  He puts the  French--by way of Paris--in French Canadian.

       En route again, Jim said he'd been tempted to say, "Aren't you going to ask us where we're going?  It's a very big country."

       Glad he didn't, though:  that agent would surely have commanded us to pull over.  And this would be followed by a time- consuming, punitive search. 

(By the way, I did a little research when I got home:  The process of crossing into and out of Canada is reputed to be the friendliest in the world.  Au contraire,  Google!)

        Liberated from this petulant little man, we soon found ourselves driving through flat cornfield plains interrupted only by the occasional dairy farm.  I felt like Dorothy in  odd-reverse:  I had dropped down from the Green Mountains of Vermont and found myself in Kansas, though a bit colder.  The leaden skies were misting; I took the following on the way home.  Just substitute unending blankets of gray for the blue sky.

   Quebec corn fields                                               Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

    Quebec cows                                                       Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       We crossed the St. Lawrence River and managed to negotiate our way to the Montreal Delta hotel just next to McGill University, where Jim had his evening academic affair.  Behind the check-in desk of the Delta hotel, the names of various famous Canadians decorated the back wall in huge black letters--William Shatner, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion and many others whose names I neither knew nor was able to pronounce.  But I did see that there were quite a few among the missing--Lorne Greene, Michael J. Fox, Buffy St. Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, and perhaps the greatest modern poet-songwriter (in my opinion), Joni Mitchell.  Oh, and no Wayne Gretzky, either.  At first I thought those who moved to the US to seek their fame had been left off, but then what was Captain Kirk doing there?  There seemed neither rhyme nor reason about who made the cut.

       Our room was comfortable and clean but the artwork on the walls was too out-there for my taste.  The canvases that hung above the beds and in the bathroom were reproductions consisting of blurry bright circles against a dark background.  They reminded me of some images I'd seen on the television program "UFO Files," except these UFO lights were not only yellowish-white, but purple and pink as well. 

       That night Jim was off to his meeting, so I read a novel on my Kindle, worked out at the hotel health club, then went out and purchased the worst croissant I'd ever had in my life.  I'd expected better of Quebec.  But I later learned that this Tim Horton's is a nationwide chain known for its coffee and doughnuts.  Croissants didn't make this famous list either.  But, at least, hI found out why.   It was started by an Ontario hockey player.  However, you'd think by dint of his being an athlete, he could have at least instructed his employees to insert one or two pats of butter in the dough.  No matter:  That evening I was on a mission to find a store--any store--that sold a candy called "Cherry Blossoms."  A purchase of one or two of those would immediately wipe out all memories of that stale and flavorless Anglo-Canadian croissant.

       I struck it rich in a little convenience store a few blocks away  from Mr. Horton's shop.  Rows and rows of "Cherry Blossoms," and they were on sale!  Each little yellow box contained a single cherry encased in nut-studded chocolate.  One bite, one mini-explosion of flavor, and I was transported back to age twenty-four when I was returning home from Japan. 

        After studying Japanese and teaching English for nearly three years in Japan, I'd  boarded a Yugoslav freighter, the Korotan, in Yokohama.  My destination--my first destination, anyway--Vancouver, British Columbia.  After a thirteen-day voyage, during which I apparently married the Captain (way, way too much plum brandy that night!), we arrived.  I bought myself a sleeper ticket to Montreal aboard the Trans Canada railroad.  We had a twenty-five minute stop when the train reached Jasper, Alberta, so some of us got off to stretch our legs.  My leg stretching took me right to the station's little convenience store where I discovered "Cherry Blossoms." 

        Back in my sleeper,  I remember savoring that cherry-chocolate sweetness as I watched the train cars ahead--there had to be at least twenty of them--curve around and through the stunning Canadian Rockies.  The scale of those mountains so dwarfed the cars that I felt like I was riding in a marvelously created model railroad.  I thought about the ship I'd just gotten off and the evening Captain Vlado Smuc and I stood on the teak deck looking at the stars.  (Here I must tell you that while his name may sound exotic, in Croatian it is simply "Bill Smith.")  This man made only sixty dollars a month, was unmarried, and had been at sea thirteen years.  Out in the middle of the Pacific, with no industrial degradation, the stars that spangled the black night sky felt close, intimately close.   I felt oddly sheltered by this boundless canopy.  I spoke mundanely to the captain:

       "You are lucky--this is so beautiful."
       "Ye-es, eez beautiful," the captain replied ruefully, sweeping his arm across the diamond dark.  "But for thurteen years eez too much beautiful!" 

      A lonely man and heavy drinker, we said our final good-byes in the dining car of my train.  Later, during my early years in the Navy I occasionally asked my friends in intelligence to tell me where the Korotan was.  After all, with our satellites didn't we know where everything was?  Of course we did.  The Korotan was back in Split, then Naples,  Bombay, followed by Vera Cruz, its course determined by the telexes it received from the Yugoslav shipping office.   I don't know what the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, the four-star admiral I worked for, would have said had he learned that his ensign was asking N2 for periodic reports on the whereabouts of a communist ship.  I know he wouldn't have liked it.  At best, points would be deducted from the"judgement" box of my yearly fitness report.  But my friends knew my reasons and never called my patriotism into question.  Sadly, near the end of my Pearl Harbor tour,  there came a time when there no longer was a ship by that name for the satellites to report.  From my next assignment in Boston, I wrote Mrs. Turk, the wife of the Yugoslav shipping agent.  She had been an English student of mine at the Tokyo Berlitz, and her husband had arranged my passage.  I asked if she knew anything of Captain Smuc.

        A few months later I received a letter stating that Vlado was still at sea but no longer working for Yugoslavia.  A few years after that Yugoslavia itself dissolved into ethnic chaos.   Concerned about her safety, I sent several letters to Mrs. Turk at her address in the port city of Split but never received a reply.  "Cherry Blossom" reverie over, and with no Jim back yet, I went to bed.

       After a good night's sleep, Jim and I had a lovely little breakfast in a coffee shop.  The croissants were terrific, flaky, layered, buttery and fresh.   Because it was still raining, Jim and I narrowed our options down to  two choices--check out the museums or a take a two-hour bus tour.  It had been a few decades since either of us was in Montreal, so we opted for the bus.

       Montreal is a city of churches, well over two thousand.  Our coach stopped on a street in Old Montreal that led to one of the most famous, the great Basilica of Notre Dame.  (Celine Dion had been married there as all Canada watched on live television.)  Jim paid the five dollars to observe its extraordinary interior but it had stopped raining and I wanted to stay outside.  I approached one of the several carriage horses standing across from the church waiting for a fare.  In our travel guide their presence is touted as increasing the old city atmosphere.  But on that cool, gray day there seemed to be no takers.  I held out my hand to the muzzle of this handsome draft horse.  He gave it an amiable sniff followed by a few licks:

                Montreal carriage horse              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       There is not a single animal welfare group, from the SPCA to PETA, that does not oppose the use of carriage horses.  The animals are often out in terrible weather conditions, and much of the time find themselves nose-to-exhaust in traffic jams and at stop lights.  In the U.S. they are often procured from slaughter auctions, already suffering from arthritis or an injury rendering them unserviceable for farm work by their former owners, in most cases, the largely uncaring and cruel Amish.  In the end, whether in Canada or the U.S., the majority of carriage horses meet their mortal end in slaughter houses.  

      So, my visit with this great fellow was tinged with sadness since I knew where he'd likely end up when lungs or legs, or both, gave up.   At least he was well fed and his harness well-oiled and comfortable.  (But why was a nylon halter left on under his bridle?  They don't  break if they get hooked onto something and have caused many equine deaths.)  He'd been groomed and didn't bear any sign of injury or soreness.  He pressed back against my massaging fingers, enjoying my attention.  He was healthy, bright-eyed, friendly and, with the exception of the job he was put to, apparently well-cared for.  

        True to French heritage, horse meat is frequently on the table in French Canadian homes and restaurants.  Curiously, Italians beat out the French as the primary consumers of horse meat--despite a centuries-old Vatican prohibition against eating horses.  Now why would the Catholic Church count eating horse meat as a sin?

       Well, it seems that in 8th-century Europe there were competing religious interests.  Many in northern Europe subscribed to the Norse pantheon of gods, the most powerful being Odin.  These adherents who saw Valhalla, rather than Heaven, as their final destination, ate horse meat as a staple.  To draw an even clearer cultural line between the two belief systems, the Vatican issued an edict prohibiting Catholics from eating horse.  Though still officially on the books, the church is far more interested in getting after its followers for advocating a right to choose, birth control, and married priests. 

      Despite the near-constant rain, Montreal provided a much-needed--if brief--respite from work.  And trips away with Jim, time together just to talk, walk, eat, and sleep always underscore the reasons we had become a pair.


         In the winter of 2009 Jim and I traveled to the Mexican island of Cozumel for a week's reprieve from New England's icy grip.  Jim had experienced a painful foot operation and needed some warm weather and easy exercise.  In advance of our trip, I  called the Cozumel Humane Society to ask if there were some things I might be able to bring to them from the U.S.  And, no surprise, there were, so I set about soliciting donations from our equine and small animal vets.  While I was packing the night before our departure, Jim walked into the bedroom and saw the array of vials and pills I had laid out next to my bag.  He had visions of his wife getting carted off to some small, unfriendly room by Mexican immigration, ending our vacation before it had started.  Technically I suppose he was right to worry.  I had no documentation for what I was bringing in and was a little concerned myself.  Yet the customs official at Cancun Airport waved me through with a smile when I told him that what he was examining in those plastic bags were just "medicinas para perros y gatos pobrecitos" (medicines for poor dogs and cats).

         Upon arrival at Cozumel I contacted Andrea Sekula of the Humane Society, who, in addition to collecting my pharmaceuticals, filled me in on their organization's struggle to improve the lot of carriage horses there.  While I don't think perceived quaintness and the interests of tourism should ever be at the expense of animals, at least the Montreal carriage horses appeared healthy and well-fed.  Not so the carriage horses of Cozumel:  their harnesses were ill-fitting, the condition of their hooves abominable, and though slight of build, they were made to transport tourists (big fat tourists!) from cruise ships to the capital city of San Miguel and back again.  When there were no fares to be had they had to stand, sweat dripping down their dull coats, under an unrelenting tropic sun which in summer frequently exceeds 110F/43C. 

       On a morning walk with Jim, I saw a distressed horse in San Miguel and just had to help.  As I approached, the driver asked if I wanted a ride.  I shook my head and asked if I could pat his horse.  Unlike his Canadian counterpart, this slight horse seem totally oblivious to my attention, looked miserable, his eyes flat and expressionless.  I told the driver that I thought his horse lovely, and that I, too, had horses.  I then said that I thought his horse was in need of water.  He replied that he was not.  I asked the driver to watch as I pinched together a fold of his horse's skin then released it.  If this horse had been properly hydrated its skin would have snapped right back.  Instead, the fold remained for a number of seconds.  I reasserted that this horse desperately needed water.  (And it was just ten o'clock in the morning!).  Without intervention this horse would have an entire day to slog through without water.

      The driver, increasingly uneasy, took out a water bottle which  obviously was his own.  He was hoping the miniscule four ounces at the bottom would convince me that he did indeed water his horse.  I just shrugged away his pitiful attempt to placate me, and told him he must get water for his horse.  And when he said he couldn't leave his carriage, I said I would watch it for him.  He acquiesced and then disappeared into the crowd.  While I waited I peeked to see whether this poor thing was a gelding or mare and was astonished to see that this tired broken-down thing was a stallion.  A stallion usually exhibits some form of life force, but not this fellow.  His spirit had been flattened by years of abuse and malnutrition.

       It was a full ten minutes before the driver returned with a filthy  plastic bucket filled with water.  The poor horse  instantly came alive, ingesting that water as if he'd just crossed the Sahara and come upon an oasis spring.  

       Cozumel Carriage Horse                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

             Most of the hotels in Cozumel are located outside San Miguel along the long road bordering the sea and lengthy esplanade.  Ours was about a mile out.  With Jim recovering from his foot operation we had agreed that this vacation would be car-less.  Unfortunately, this was also the route that all the carriages took.  From about nine a.m until late in the evening I heard the  clip-clopping of these poor beasts.  Occasionally, the rhythmic sound of the hooves turned distressingly a-rhythmic when the horse was lame.

       After returning from an early evening slow walk with Jim, I saw a carriage approaching with some speed and stopped in my tracks.  Jim went ahead through the concierge office to our room.  A pretty little brown and white pinto was being made to pull four grossly overweight passengers at a canter.   The pinto was in obvious distress, his ear flattened as his body labored to keep up with the inhumane demands of the driver.  The horse's flared nostrils struggled to pull in air.

       I yelled, "You are killing that horse!"

       The drunken response, "We want to kill him!" followed by loutish American laughter.  The driver smiled happily:  his passengers were obviously having a terrific time.

        I re-joined Jim back in our room.  He told me that when the concierge politely inquired where I was he simply informed him that his wife was outside destabilizing the tourist economy.
        When I returned to the U.S. I sent a letter to the man who owned the majority of the Cozumel carriages.  He was rich and made lots of money taking tourists out deep sea fishing on his new and expensive boats.  My letter was courteous, detailed, and businesslike.  It listed the economic benefits of taking reasonable care of his horses.  He did not answer, but I did get an e-mail from his girlfriend who had the temerity to ask if I could get some American equestrians to donate a better class of harness for her boyfriend's horses.  I e-mailed back that her boyfriend should sell one of his boats.

       The only way to improve the plight of these beleaguered creatures, whether in Cozumel or other resort beaches, is to hit the city fathers, the carriage owners and those who support them, economically.  Cruise ships present port briefs to their passengers.  Numerous animal welfare groups have informed them about the conditions of the horses, and have asked that they suggest to their passengers that it would be good not to engage them.  But the cruise ship owners and their commanders remain silent.  Only when tourists are made aware of the suffering involved in lending their holiday what seems like a little quaint atmosphere, that they will boycott the carriage horses and force these abuses stop. 

       A month or so after I got home, I received an e-mail from Andrea at the Cozumel Humane Society.  She attached this photo:

       Carriage horse down                                 Courtesy of Cozumel Humane Society

       The poor little brown and white pinto I'd seen struggling a few weeks ago had finally succumbed.

        I tried to get an update on the conditions of the Cozumel horses before I wrote this.  I believe there have been some improvements, but I it's hard to believe that they are of any great significance.  When the parents of one of my riding students returned from a cruise that stopped there, they described exactly what I had seen, horses either carrying heavy loads or standing out in the hot sun waiting for them.  When tourists vacation to such destinations as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Central America, they need to be aware of the plight of these horses.  Urge anyone you know planning a vacation not to engage animals who give rides along the beach or draw carriages.  The majority of these horses are forced to labor for hours without so much as a rest, a drink of water, or anything to eat.  

               As some of you may know, there are many stray dogs and cats throughout Mexico.  The population is controlled by periodic poisonings.  In Cozumel they are announced in the local papers the day before, instructing people to keep their pets at home so they don't ingest the strychnine-laced meat that is set out throughout the island.  The Cozumel Humane Society works tirelessly to find homes for the hundreds of homeless animals on the island.  If you are planning a trip to Cozumel, please contact them at and ask if there's anything they need.
They send lots of animals out of the country.  Please consider bringing one of these dogs or kitties back with you.  Or, see if they have an adopted dog in need an escort back to your area.  If you can, make a donation on their website via paypal.  It's easy.

       Here is a moving article and YouTube about three indigent men in Cozumel who eke out a living at the island's  dump, all the while trying to help the dogs who share their unfortunate address:

       There is a nasty underbelly to what initially appears at first, and even at second glance, as paradise.  Unfortunately, tourists away from their own work and daily stresses are disinclined to see the suffering of those compelled to stoke the paradise machinery.


        Little Finnegan                                              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

        As you can see from this recent photo, Master Finnegan has grown into quite the teenager.  And it was time for him to move on to a rehabilitator who could offer him a large outdoor cage, the company of fellow squirrels and ultimately what is referred to as a "soft release."  When they are old enough, the cage is opened and the inhabitants are free to come and go as they please, or just to go.  So I snugly seat-belted his cage in my car and drove him two towns over to the home of a woman named Paula.  She must surely be regarded by Massachusetts squirrels as their patron saint.

       Upon our arrival Paula transferred Finnegan into one of her small cages, which she then placed on the dirt floor of one of her large outdoor cages.  She had a female squirrel--older than the other babies she had at present--in need of a companion.  Here she is:

   Young female grey squirrel                                        Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       As it turned out, Finnegan was considerably smaller than this lady, but we opened the door of his small cage to see if they might be a match.

     They weren't.  She was not at all happy to have little Finnegan in residence.   She chased him relentlessly, and being older and having lived in this large cage, she was much fitter than my little man.   Here is an out-of-breath Finnegan wanting out.

               Fleeing Finnegan                      Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       So we corralled the frightened little fellow back into his small cage and took him into Paula's house, where he would soon join the five smaller squirrels she kept indoors.  In a few short weeks he and his cohorts would be nearly the same size as that tough, larger girl.  They would then move into her cage and she would just have to learn to share.

       I will miss him, of course.  I loved watching how his little paws clung to the eyedropper as he drank his formula.  And again, how deftly he was able to turn a walnut in them when he was only a couple of weeks older.  I loved to watch him groom, and how his little front legs reached over his head to stroke his face and ears.

Introducing Ping, Pang, and Pong 

    Ping, Pang, and Pong                                      Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

           Every few years I buy 2-3 ducklings from the feed store that supplies my horses with hay and grain.  Kept in a large cage under a heat lamp until baby fluff is exchanged for feathers,  three to four weeks later I move them into the chicken coop, but sectioned off from my three hens who would otherwise chase and peck them.  Not until then do they get an opportunity to  swim.  Why must they wait do long?  We all have seen ducklings a day or two old tooling about in lakes and rivers with their mother.  In fact, many in the U.S., and especially here in New England, know this from the illustrations in the picture book Make Way For Ducklings. 

       In the wild, ducklings are coated by an oil from their mothers' feathers when she sits on them to keep them warm.  This oil waterproofs their down so they remain buoyant.  My ducks were hatched in an incubator so they needed to wait until their own feathers came in.  Then their first encounter with water is great to watch.   Their sheer joy is obvious in continual quackings, flappings, and splashings.

       But what about migrating?  Will Ping, Pang, and Pong fly south or does nurture trump nature and doom them to enduring a cold New England winter and to a caretaker--me--who will then need to bring them warm water twice daily and make sure they are kept in a temperate indoor coop?  

      Two years ago years I had three ducks that turned out to be two drakes and a hen.  In mid-October I noticed an ever  increasing number of flights above my property.  These daily flights increased in duration and altitude until one day they were but a speck in the sky.  And then they were gone.   

       One day the following April I was in the yard when I suddenly heard the whoosh of feathers.   I turned and saw a mallard standing right at the coop door.  This had to be one of the two boys from the previous year.  I let him in (he was not afraid of me) but kept the door open so he could come and go.  And after a few hours he went, perhaps because there was no pool set up yet, or because he saw that he'd outgrown his childhood digs, or because there were no other ducks present.  Our property abuts a reservoir which offers a splendid duck habitat.  How did this fellow, who when he was little could not negotiate his way around a wire fence to get back to his pen, now manage, after thousands of miles, to land not only at Windflower Farm but right at the gate of the pen where he'd grown up.

      Navigation is apparently programmed by genetics.  Ducks, as well as many other migratory birds and apparently whales and all other cetaceans,  guide their journeys via earth's magnetic fields as well as the sun.  However, the ability of our mallard to land right at the door of his coop was apparently learned from the ever great circle flights he'd made around the farm the previous year.  So it seems that long-distance navigation is genetic, local navigation is accomplished by geographic nurture.

       Sadly, I don't know what became of his two incubator sibs.  Perhaps they fell prey to duck hunters.  (They kill more ducks than do foxes, coyotes, or raptors.)  Hopefully,  they'd attached themselves to another group who directed themselves elsewhere.

       I have lost ducks to the occasional fox or coyote.  (If you find the victim headless it was a fox.)  Every night I shut their pen; most predator visits take place during the night or early morning hours.  However, one morning I'd seen that I'd forgotten to do that the previous night.  A quick head count revealed three chickens, one rabbit, but only two ducks.  I walked about the fence line to see if he was outside of it trying to get in.  No luck, I'd lost one.

       Later the next afternoon I heard a whoosh above me.  I looked up at the sky.  It wasn't a bird (not just any bird, that is), or a plane, it was our missing mallard hen!  And she landed--you guessed it--right at the coop gate.  I ran over and opened it.  What ensued was something I'd never seen.  As soon as the prodigal duck entered, her sisters began an excited quacking the intensity of which I'd never heard.  The three of them occasionally touched beaks as they faced inward during these loud and rapid  vocalizations.  This went on for a number of minutes.  They then came out of the  pen and set themselves down on the grass closer together than I'd ever seen them. 

       When will these girls push off for southern climes?  We're now heading into mid-October and there've been no flight ops of any significance.  They've wheeled about the farm but not high enough to see the reservoir over the pine trees.  Perhaps their vagabond sister will jump-start their migratory impulse.  If she does, I hope it's soon.  I  relish neither the thought of lugging buckets of water to their pen nor having to change their indoor bedding.  I will keep you posted on Windflower's great winged migration--or the lack of it.

         Ping, Pang, and Pong                                Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012

       Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly.  See you soon.

                -- Ainslie