Sunday, January 31, 2010

Learning Something New

I always felt it was important for our children to try new things. When they were little, Mojácar had very little to offer so I tried to provide experience in as many aspects of life as I could here at home, usually with a group of their friends. We had riding, trampoline, art, cooking, swimming, dance and a petting zoo, where they all had their responsibilities. When they were a little older we even sent them to boarding school, much against my wishes, but there were no opportunities here to learn and experience new things like art, music or mountain climbing. We chose a school not just on its academic record but on extracurricular activities. Until a child tries something they have no idea whether it might become a passion or even a future career. I took advantage of the abilities and hobbies of just about everyone in Mojácar. One seemingly useless sport we took up was roping. A German girl here had worked in the American rodeo in Germany and was kind enough to come teach us how to rope. There were no cows here so it seemed rather futile but I thought you never know when it might come in handy. We used to go out in the back field and lasso beach balls and chairs. It was a lot of fun but not very practical until the girls had to leave Spain and moved to live in a Midwestern state in America. They started riding with a woman who was a roper and had four horses. The locals were quite shocked, and I think, so were the girls, when they knew how to handle a rope and swing it properly over their heads. They may have been a bit out of practice but the skill was still there. So you see no matter how mundane or silly something seems it is worth trying to learn it. You never know when it might come in handy. I know the girls enjoyed riding but I was not a teacher and just rode bareback which is the way the girls learned. They even did jumping and dressage bareback. Later when they went to school and joined the riding team there wasn’t a pony that could throw them, they both went on to be Three-Day-Event champions and now still enjoy riding for pleasure and relaxation.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Foaling with the Army

When we all started having horses around here, after buying it, you either had to ride your animal home or it went into a big flat-bed truck with sides, where they were just thrown from side to side and dumped off on a hill, somewhere near enough that you could ride it home from there. When I bought Honda, the mule, she was driven to Vera and I had almost a day’s ride to get her home, but it was the closest hill they could find to put the tail gate on. I even brought some of the smaller donkeys home in my Nissan Vanette. Most of us had campo horses without papers or breeding, it wasn’t until later that things started to move up-market. Once a year, the Spanish military would bring some stallions to Albox and farmers could take their mares there to be bred to a pure-bed stallion giving the foal half papers and so on. The trouble was getting to Albox which is at least 40 kms away from where we live. The mares were put into a pigsty that had been cleaned for the purpose and the stallions were kept well locked away on the other side. They of course had the poor old teaser (an unfortunate and ultimately frustrated second-rate stallion) that had to see if the mare was receptive to the idea and then he was put away while the real stallion came out to take his place. The mares couldn’t wear hind-shoes and their legs were tied so they couldn’t kick the valuable stallion. The unlucky teaser had to go back unsatisfied only to come out and repeat his performance. It all seemed a bit awkward, with all the help they received and the lack of nature taking its place, but to protect the valuable stallions that is the way it worked.
One year a group of us decided to try this government service and found a German girl with an old clapped out trailer. With my horse having never seen a trailer and Casi suffering from claustrophobia, it was not an easy task to get them in. It took hours. We finally got my old Spanish mare called Mora in but there was no way Casi would go near it. Every one tried their trick but no-go. Because Casi was so spoilt and hand- raised - I didn’t ride her until she was nine - I finally got her in by having her shake hands all the way up the ramp. Well, it worked. When we arrived I told them Mora would be easy but that Casi was a special case and very sweet and innocent. Please be kind to her. It turned out to be the other way around, Casi was uncontrollable and Mora was so horney that she actually jumped through three pigsties with horses in them to go straight to the stallions, much to the amazement and ribald amusement of the military. Casi on the other hand broke people’s fingers and wouldn’t go near the stallions; she was a ‘right pain’ for the military. After a few weeks we were allowed to take our mares home. With all the military, farmers, gypsies and horse people they thought getting Casi in the trailer would be a breeze. With all the know-how and tricks and me in floods of tears at the horrible things they were doing to my little baby they had no luck. When I finally got a word in I said let me show you and I had her shake hands all the way up the ramp. That was a first for all of them. Mora had a beautiful foal and Casi was still a virgin. I know there is a much simpler way and more natural to accomplish this and it happened right here. Our daughters were riding in the ring when a man came up on a beautiful black stallion, to see if I wanted to buy him, although it turned out later that he was stolen.
I told the man to let me bring my girls in and their horses and he could show me what the stallion could do, even though I wasn’t in the market for another horse, but it never hurts to look. The man didn’t wait very long and came up the hill just as Amber and Mora were entering the corral. With Amber still riding and tacked up, Mora backed up, lifted her tail and the stallion mounted her right then and there with a very frightened little girl on top and there was no pulling the two horses apart. After thanking the man and telling him we weren’t interested we were blessed with another black foal eleven months later. So you see it can be done in a much easier way if you have a horney horse.
Then there is conception without a stallion or at least that is how it seemed. Our horse Nata was bought home by Lenox one day, having sworn that he could never be talked into buying a horse, but who had got drunk in a bar and came home with an albino mare for the girls. Thus we acquired Nata. After a year or so she seemed to be changing shape and losing weight and I was afraid she was very ill. The vet could find nothing wrong with her so we thought we would just watch her closely for a while. One morning I went to feed the horses and standing in the driveway was a new-born, peach coloured palomino with a long curly mane. I didn’t know where she had come from as we had no pregnant mares and no near-by stallions. When I checked Nata it turned out to be her foal whom she had rejected, so for a week we had to restrain Nata, both front and rear, put the foal between our legs and milk her ourselves. After a week she took to mothering. I think the whole thing was as much of a shock to her as it was to us. It turned out that the kids had ridden over to Manolo Coronado, a very famous painter, in Vera and they tied the horses up to go inside for some refreshment. When they returned all seemed fine, everyone was where they were supposed to be, we just never saw what happened when the kids were inside. Manolo had one of the few pure-bred stallions in the area, Galión, and it seem he jumped the fence for a quick-one while the kids weren’t looking and then returned to his stall. Eleven months later that is how Salsa, shown in this painting came about. Later as our horses got more up-market people started getting trailers and taking them for breeding and to shows or courses.
Vets were few and far between in those days so you had to depend on old remedies and common-sense plus experience. My mule had cataracts so a gypsy told me to grind up cod-bones and take a piece of bamboo and blow it into her eye and the cataracts would disappear. For colic, a bottle of lemonade down the throat. I actually found that ‘gripe water’ (a popular British mothers’ remedy for colic made from dill water) was very effective so always had some on hand. For hoof-rot an old man came out and put agua fuerte (nitric acid) in rags, flooded them and then nailed an open tin can to the horse’s foot. I have to say it was a bit off the wall but it worked. After we got a few vets in the area things didn’t change all that much. Two of my horses hated vets - they could smell them for miles, even I couldn’t catch them. We even built a ‘box’ to lock them in while eating so no one could get kicked and the horse couldn’t move. Javier the Vet was clever. To get near to my two cranky mares, he took riding lessons on them and did a lot of grooming, then when it came time for injections and inspections he would just get them out and start brushing and do what needed doing and the horse was none the wiser.
I have some great pictures for this story but you will have to be patient until I find them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Identity Crisis

Are you my mother? A few cute pictures that show how things were here on the ranch.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Who Makes the Rules?

What makes the perfect dog? That depends on who you are talking to. If it is someone who is into showing and pure bred dogs, then they will have a totally different idea than someone who wants companionship. The Kennel Club sets strict rules about how each breed of dog should look. Should it have a tail? How long should the muzzle be? What and where is the correct coloring? I have no idea who comes up with all theses rules but it has led to terrible over-breeding causing lots of problems in certain dogs. Too narrow a head on Collies and Dobermans, hip problems on almost all big dogs and so on. I have been very lucky in having a lot of pure-bred dogs but they were all rejects and not suitable for showing or breeding. My best friend when I was young joined 4H-Dog and got a Dalmatian to breed and show but when her parents spent a fortune on this dog they didn’t know all the rules. The dog was fabulous in character and body-build, she had a beautiful shiny coat and lots of spots. When my friend went to her first show she was immediately disqualified and told not to bother trying to show her or breed her. It turned out that a few hairs on a spot on her ear touched a spot on her eye.
This is apparently a no-no. So all her time and money for a show dog were wasted but she still had a fabulous friend. My Bearded Collie had a similar problem and was donated to me. His name was Wilberforce: we called him Wilbur. He was brown and white and his ears were half brown and half white matching perfectly with his head but ears are only allowed to be of a solid color to make the dog have any value.
Who decides these things? Wilbur turned out to be my demonstration dog for service-dogs. He appeared in many international events and fairs on disabilities and even participated in a commercial for Telefonica. He was a fabulous dog all the way around, but because of his ears being of two colors he was considered useless and to be put down. Again I ask who decides these things? I had four Belgian Shepherd pups given to ANIMO for training as service dogs because a black male had mated with a salt and pepper bitch making them not saleable and not breed-able. My children each took one and trained them to do different tasks to help disabled people. One was very good at getting horses out of their stalls and leading them to the ring for people in wheel-chairs and so on. We were never able to finish training the Belgian Shepherds due to my children growing up and going away to school and lack of funding. But they went to a fabulous home where they were easily trained to totally different tasks as work dogs on a farm, protecting and taking care of the property, animals and children.

The town hall had a dog show during fiesta and we decided to enter these five dogs, not knowing it was an official kennel-club show. One of the shepherds, a salt and pepper won best of breed and I never saw a judge so embarrassed, as when our black one went in to find out it was the brother of the one she just awarded best of breed to. When it was Wilbur’s turn we were just sent straight out of the ring, after the judge had reached between his back legs only to discover that he was castrated and, then of course, his ears were two different colors. How many fabulous dogs go to waste just because of their coloring or some other invented flaw? A lot of rules are changing now about cutting ears and tails and they are trying to solve the over-breeding problem but really don’t you think a good dog is a good dog no matter how it looks? One of our best dogs was a tiny mutt, we had for twenty-one years, and her name was Freetxua. It started as Free To A Good Home but the longer she stayed with us it just became Freetxua. I have mentioned her in several of my earlier stories because of some of the spectacular things she did even though every one would have to admit she looked like two different dogs glued together. Not so cute but a family favorite.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Animal Expressions and Actions

If you live around animals long enough you learn to interpret their facial expressions, body language and the amazing tasks they perform. The reason I thought of this is because yesterday I walked into our bedroom and our dog Charlie, a greyhound lab cross, was sitting on the floor and by her expression I immediately knew she had done something wrong so I started to look around the room to see what she had done all the while she was lying closer and closer to the ground, her eyes down and her ears pulled way back, then I spotted it. She had been lying on the bed, which is a definite no-no. I could see the mark on the bed and felt it and it was still warm. When she heard me open the door she jumped down in the hope not to get caught. On asking her “did you do that?” she couldn’t get any closer to the ground. I told her nicely not to do it again but to her it meant don’t get caught next time. As a family we always raised Great Danes and they love to put their posterior on chairs and beds while their feet remain on the floor, it is a trait that runs in a few breeds other than Danes. The reason I bring this up is because my father showed me a cartoon once that showed a man arriving at the door with his brief case and a Great Dane blowing on the sofa where he had been sitting. It captured their personality with one little drawing.
Two examples of heroic deeds by animals happened here in this house. There are millions of other stories out there but these happened here. We had a ginger cat that decided to move in with our neighbor because the food was better and he got a lot more attention. They made a great pair. The only time he would come over to visit was when she was away. One day he came to the window and began to cry and would not stop. I went out to see if he was alright and he just kept crying and moving towards the lady’s house looking back to make sure I was following him. He never stopped crying or looking back until we got to the house the gate was locked but he kept insisting so I climbed the gate and sure enough our neighbor was very ill and in need of help, which we were able to get her but we would not have known if the cat hadn’t of been so persistent. The other pertains to one of our daughters, who was exercising our neighbors horse. She had not ridden the horse many times and was in our ring not theirs. After a hard work-out she was cooling the horse off in a walk with the reins loose when a dog jumped out of the bushes and bit the horse in the heel. Scared and hurting the horse began to buck and run throwing our daughter off. The horse left at full speed after the dog leaving our daughter out of hearing range and with a totaled knee. She couldn’t get up and was in terrible pain. To her surprise a few minutes later the horse returned to where she was, lowered her head and let my daughter grab the mane and pulled her to her feet then supporting her so she could hop all the way home where we then had to take her to the hospital for a new knee. All our daughter kept saying amongst the floods of tears was, “well it was so kind of her to come back for me”. We really couldn’t believe it ourselves because it wasn’t even one of our horses. There are so many stories of animals saving families from fire or accidents that it makes you wonder. That is one of the reasons I went into Animal Assisted Therapy because once you know how to interpret an animal’s body language it is amazing the bond you can make and the benefit you can receive. That is why service dogs for veterans and riding therapy are becoming so popular and even being studied scientifically. So if you have a pet be sure to take good care of it because it may just be your best friend.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Worst Dog in Town

When Win Wells the famous playwright and artist became ill he asked me if I could come take care of his house and animals while he was in England in hospital. He had two cats and two dogs. I didn’t mind as it was almost next door to my house and he said I could bring my small animals which consisted at that time of a strange abandoned dog that was nursing an interesting mixture of two baby bunnies and two new-born kittens. Plus I had my Great Dane, Nisha, who had come from the USA with me a couple of years previously. Who was, I freely admit, rather large. What Win had neglected to tell me was that all of his animals were pregnant and within a week of moving in, I had no less than 27 animals to deal with. The only male was a small brindle mutt named Elmer, who enjoyed a reputation for being quite the worst dog in town. I couldn’t believe that he was that bad and thought a little socialization was all he needed. I was wrong. I took him to the plaza on a lead and he attacked every dog he saw no matter the size, and Elmer was very small; he humped everyone and peed on everything. He was completely unmanageable. I ended up having to shut him in the phone booth so I could finish my coffee. I tried a few more times and the same thing happened so I started to leave him at home.
In another story on this blog I talk about Foxy the abandoned dog that nursed the two kittens and two rabbits so I won’t go into that here. About a year later Foxy was returned to her rightful owner whom we bumped into one day quite by chance on the beach. It turned out it was a custody battle in a broken relationship, so the man had thrown out the dog and it somehow had ended up at my house. We were sad to see her go but you could see how thrilled the lady was to have found her dog she thought was long gone.
I luckily found good homes for all of Win’s baby animals and I kept my two bunnies and kittens, one of which was called Cookie who I loved and she was very special and I have written about her too.
As time went on it was clear that Win’s health would not allow him to return to Spain, so he and his partner sold or rented the house, I don’t remember which, but I told the new people that the house came with two dogs and two cats one of which was Elmer the brindle mutt. Every day on my way home the people would be on the balcony and they would call down to me to say they couldn’t deal with Elmer and would have to put him down. I knew I couldn’t have him, I already had too many animals, and the last thing I needed was the worst dog in town. After a few weeks as I was walking home one evening they told me it was his last day so I broke down and said open the door and I will take him. He ran out the door and down the stairs like a jack rabbit and was at my side in a flash. When I arrived home with Elmer my father was furious because that was the last thing we needed. My father said he was my responsibility and one wrong step and he was gone. Well, I think Elmer listened to this very carefully because from that moment on he became a dream dog. The kind everyone wants. I don’t know what made the instant change in his personality, maybe he realized that this was his last chance but Elmer became the perfect dog. I remember once, around the same time, my mother had a horrible cat called Nando who was about as bad as Elmer and one day she picked him up by the scruff of the neck and said next time I will throw you over the cliff. At that moment too, Nando became cat perfect and never looked back. It is funny how we had the two worst animals in town and just like that they became the kind of animal every one wants around. They both lived a long and happy life with us.

Monday, January 04, 2010

My Animal Family

When I was about four year old I had lots and lots of stuffed animals. I never wanted to hurt their feelings so at night I would put my animals all in my big double bed. Lots of times there were so many that I had to sleep on the mat beside the bed. One night my father came in to kiss me good night and found me sleeping on the floor. After thinking the problem over with me he thought the animals would be very sad if I had to sleep on the floor so we had to devise a plan. My father’s plan was that the animals took equal turns in the bed leaving room for me. That way no one’s feeling would be hurt and every one would get their turn in bed. I agreed with his plan and that is how I got to sleep back in my bed. I must say that there were so many animals that sometimes I didn’t always get the turns right. I had a few favorites and they seemed to get a little extra bed time than the others. My favorite was Chubby Cubby. I think he actually got a turn every night. I remember the Christmas I got him. I always told my mother I wanted a polar bear and if she bought me one I would never ask for anything else. She told me that after a long talk with the man at the zoo she was told that polar bears had very bad dispositions so we couldn’t have one. I believed her but when I looked under the tree that year there he was, bigger than me. I cried with joy and my parents couldn’t understand why I was upset, they didn’t know they were tears of joy... He was a big, white, soft cuddly polar bear and about my height just a little fatter.

Each one of my companions had its own character and likes and dislikes. Chubby Cubby liked honey in his tea while my large Siamese cat, which cleverly held my pajamas behind a zipper in her stomach, preferred milk. My father made me a table as big as my bed and low to the ground to put my farm on. I had been collecting for many years, at least it seemed to me, until I had the whole farm, with barns, a water wheel, pastures, fences and every kind of farm animal and their babies. They all seemed to prefer rice over tea.
My father traveled a lot with his business and so did we, so I had a collection of dolls from most countries in the world hanging on my wall. They were all decorative and not to play with but the Spanish donkey had baskets on it and I used to hide my money in the basket against the wall. Even years later I would have a dream and say that is where I hid it and in the morning go to look for my money but there was never any there; it had gone a long time ago.

My sister and I shared a wing of our giant house and we had a bathroom in the middle. My room was very large and light with big bay-windows all around for sitting in and there was more than enough room for all my stuffed animals. I had a large canopy bed and a desk, a table for tea parties, a vanity and so many drawers and closets that you could never fill them. One of the closets was built over a small staircase and had a door just where I could reach the handle because it didn’t come to the ground. It was my secret hiding-place and because it was built over stairs it had a nice wooden slide inside. I loved my room. My sister’s room, she being older than me, was more mature: she had two single beds and a desk but other than that quite stark. She hated stuffed animals and dolls so there were none in her room. There were only four years between us but we had nothing in common. The house had about twenty rooms and 2,000 acres for us to play on and ride horses. Our house was so big it even had a ballroom. It was one of my favorite houses, and we lived in a lot. In the huge basement was a large cooking pot hanging from the ceiling, it was big enough for three children to get into. We used to make up scary stories and tell our friends that in other times it was used for boiling children. Some of the stories we told even scared us. It was in this house and at this age that I began my life-time habit of collecting animal both stuffed and alive. I brought home every animal I found in the countryside, even on one occasion a skunk. It was around then when I got my first horse, Peaches. I also got my first lamb. My mother was at a friend’s house and a sheep had given birth to triplets and couldn’t care for them. These people had thousands of sheep so had no time for hand-raising. My mother volunteered that she had three children and would give one to each of us to raise. It wasn’t as much fun as you might think because in the cold and rain and dark before school we had to go out and bottle feed them then again after school and again before bed. I got the runt, a little girl and my brother and sister got the two males. Mine was so cute and followed me everywhere. As they grew, my brother and sister's sheep went out to join the herd, but mine was so little and friendly that we kept her around the house. I even took her to school for show-and-tell one day. She rode with me on the bus and stayed in the classroom and played with all the children at recess. I don’t think the teacher was all that pleased.

There were terrible electrical storms there and we used to sit in the window and watch lightning hit a neighbors barn or a tree; we were allowed to go out and play in the warm rain unless there was lightening. I saw several terrible things that the lightning did. On one occasion, a ray hit a neighbor boy bringing the tractor back in, killing him and the other was when we were on the bus coming home from school one day we stopped at this one girl’s house. The firemen were there but the house was gone: only a piano was sitting on the lawn in front.
We had our land rented out to cattle so there were over two hundred head of cattle roaming the pastures where we used to ride. Our closest neighbor also had 2,000 acres and ran a riding school where my mother and I volunteered in the summer at a camp for riding for the disabled. That is where I first got my interest in working with animals and the disabled. At this farm they were all Down Syndrome teenagers making them perfect for me because they functioned at about my level so I was able to teach them about grooming and leading and basic care of a horse. I have never stopped collecting animals both stuffed and real and have continued my work with animals and the disabled to this day.