Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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When I was 12, I wanted a horse more than anything. By a twist of fate, a kind 4-H leader gave me the opportunity to ride one, at no cost, for an entire summer. If I liked her, I could adopt her from a rescue society, or return her and she'd have a better chance of being adopted, having had being ridden more often. My parents tentatively agreed, but warned me not to get too attached, as we had no room to keep a horse, and no money in the family budget for boarding one.
Her name was Sara. Coincidentally, my own middle name, but she came to me with that name. I figured it was just meant to be. She was not registered, but she had a fancy, though not official pedigree. Her forefathers were government cavalry horses, Morgans who were renown for their endurance, loyalty to their riders, and hardiness. The first time I got on her, she threw me on my head. She was 6 and had been ridden only a few months before I, a complete novice got on her back. She was bad. (I later learned she'd already been returned to the humane society once!) She was stubborn. She liked trail rides, but hated practicing in the ring. On practice days, she'd try and run away with me. I wasn't strong enough to stop her, so I had to turn her in tight circles until she stopped. But I was stubborn and determined to ride. She threw me, I'd just get back on. Sara respected that. At the end of summer, she threw me and I hurt my hand. My parents were wavering on keeping her, so I didn't mention the fact that I fractured my hand until I was about 18 or so (really- no medical treatment either). But I got to keep the pony!
Sara and I, early summer 1992. The first picture I have of me riding her.
By the end of that summer, we were already incredibly close. I loved my pony with all my heart, and she loved me so much that she even seemed jealous at times. If I patted or said hello to one of the other horses in the barn before her, she would pin her ears and turn so her tail was against the stall door, making it extremely obvious that she wasn't “speaking” to me. But she was quick to forgive...all it took was walking in the stall and giving her neck a hug, or giving her a treat.
We logged literally thousands of miles on trail rides. Plenty of times with friends, lots of just her and I out in the wilderness, too. We showed in the 4-H shows, competing at the District level, and placing in classes full of professionally trained horses with fancy pedigrees. It gave me great pride to do well against the riders who spent their summers at one show or another competing. Mostly, Sara and I spent our time in the woods, but when it was time to shine in the ring, we did well there, too. While I took riding lessons, no one ever got on her back but I. I spent so much time on her back, I could tell what she was going to do before she did it- I was that in tune with her. She was in tune with me as well, and smart too...she quickly learned that the games in our fun shows ended with running across the arena and stopping at the gate. If I had to get off for a game like bobbing apples, I could jump on her, laying with my stomach across the saddle, clinging to her mane, and she'd run back at full speed and stop where she was supposed to, whether I had any control of the reins or not. I think she understood it was a race, and she wanted to win, too.
She was gentle, too. My younger sisters (one was actually born after I met Sara!) would often come with me to the barn. While I did chores for other horses, I always knew my sister was safe, because I would boost her up on Sara's back and hand her a brush. Sara would stand calmly and soak up the attention. I would lock the stall door and go about carrying water and hay. Never once did Sara let me down. She always took care of the kids, starting when they were preschool-aged, never startling even if they yelled while they were astride.
Of course though, as the years went by, I rode less, was too old for 4-H, got busy with high school activities and friends, and eventually went away to college. My family took care of her, and on my sporadic returns home, I cared for her as well. We would camp out on the property by her pasture, and I can remember many nights where she'd walk over and stand in the glow of the campfire. We'd pet her and feed her marshmallows and anything else we had to snack on. She LOVED people food; pizza and Doritos and cookies.
After college, I returned here to Tionesta to help care for my dying father. After he passed, I stayed for my sisters and my horse too, because I had to find her a new place to live after his piece of land was sold. Some kind farm boys, Matt and Dan, helped me get her moved to a new home, moving a chest freezer we used for feed storage and setting up the electric fence for the new pasture.
You could say Dan and my first date was a trail ride, with me riding Sara, of course. I felt like moving her to the farm was a huge commitment and step forward in our relationship when the time came. Dan loved Sara too, and worked with her in harness. He loved how she had spunk, even in her 20's, and would really dig in to pull her weight. We bought a sleigh; my dream of a Christmas Eve tradition of romantic sleigh rides lasted exactly one year- the year she took off, kicked the shafts apart, and pulled me through the front boards. Still bad, after all these years. But she was good too- Dan would ride Dolly, and I Sara, and we would trail ride. We took the horses camping out in the woods, carrying food & tents in our saddlebags and falling asleep to the sounds of the forest and our contented steeds. The last few years, we haven't ridden much, and she lived in semi-retirement, other than helping me to herd sheep, a job she figured out and liked.
A month before she passed, she was the picture of health- glossy coat, graceful movement, just a touch of grey. In the last couple weeks, she had started to lose a little weight. I made a mental note to get someone out to look at her teeth. Then she just didn't seem herself. Standing alone, not moving around a whole lot. The weather had turned suddenly from hot, humid days to cooler, rainy ones, so I chalked it up to arthritis acting up. Then, Sunday morning, she was off by herself, away from the barn and very stiff when she moved. I checked on her, and she wouldn't eat a cookie for the first time in her life. By the time I got in touch with a vet, she was laying down in her stall. When the vet arrived, she was colicky (also for the first time in her life) and in obvious pain. The vet gave her a painkiller. Her eyes brightened and my fighter of a girl tried to get on her feet again. She didn't quite make it. At first I thought she was struggling to get up again, her hooves clattering on the stall floor, but it was a seizure. I knew these were going to be her last moments with me. I dropped to the floor, my arms around her neck, soothing her with voice and touch. The vet lost the heartbeat, and told us so, but I could still feel her faint pulse in her neck. I held on as she took two last, ragged breaths. The vet offered her condolences and left the barn. Dan was in the doorway, and at that moment Sara's pulse came to a halt. I think she knew I was there, and that she needed me to be there for her. Maybe she'd come to a darkened path, and needed me to guide her like I had so many times on the trails. To let her know it was all right to leave and take the road that we can't see down until our own time comes. And through it all, she held on until the barn was still, and just us. As incredibly painful as it was to have her die in my arms, it is also an incredible comfort. I was there for her, we took her pain away, and she wasn't alone.
I walked the pasture until I found a spot that seemed right to lay her to rest. You can see the house and barn, but it's back far enough to have the peaceful and solemn feeling that so many old cemeteries do. Dan and I dug the hole by hand. As we were digging, my back was to the house and most of the farm. “Look at the sun coming down,” he said to me. I turned, and there were holes in the clouds, and broad rays of sunshine sparkled down as though heaven itself were looking out over our farm. Maybe it was.
Sara was a huge part of my life. That horse knows every secret thought I've had in the past 20 years. Many were the times I stood with my arms around her neck, pouring out my heart about first crushes, the bumps along the way to growing up, and all the things that were too painful or embarrassing to tell your high school best friend or your mother. I feel like I literally grew up upon her back. I sobbed in her mane when my high school sweetheart went overseas and when my father died. My husband asked me to marry him while I was sitting on her back. I think she knew that was a special moment too, because she stood perfectly still instead of pawing and walking off as she normally did. I have wedding pictures that include her. Part of my heart has always remained 12 years old, convinced that ponies are magical creatures who love unconditionally and live forever.
The first may be true, but unfortunately, the second part isn't. I would say that she was a once-in-a-lifetime animal, but I don't think she was. I think she was a once-in-many-lifetimes animal. We shared a bond deeper than I can explain. There will always be horses in my life, I hope, but there will never be another Sara. Sweet, gentle, spunky, mischievous, charismatic, loyal, healthy, strong and completely irreplacable. She was a magnificent creature with a personality bigger than her physical presence. She charmed nearly everyone, even folks who were usually afraid of horses. I was blessed with a little over 20 years with her. She lived a good long life, just 5 days shy of her 27th birthday. It's still hard to believe she won't be there when I flick the barn lights on. But perhaps a part of her spirit is still here with me, racing gracefully across the fields, just for the sheer glory of it.
Sara and I chasing sheep, taken last year. The last picture of me riding her.
Goodbye, Dear Friend. Our trail together was a long one. Whatever life brings me, you will not be forgotten, and when my time comes, I have faith that you'll be waiting on the other side to greet me.
Posted by Emily
@ 03:02 PM EDT
A new season is here at our farm! Yes, it's officially summer now, although it's been pretty hot with lots of thunderstorms for some time now. As I mentioned in my last post, we're transitioning to a new season in our lives as well. Tomorrow is my official last day of off-farm work. I'm excited, optimistic, and yes, a little nervous about where this will lead. I'm walking away from what I've known for the past five years, but during the "test run" of a 3-month layoff last fall, I came to know, without a doubt, that this is really where my heart lies. Will I have to find another day job or will the farm be enough? I don't know. I do know I have a vision of what I'd like the farm to be someday. A teaching place. A place where anyone can learn about how food is grown. How it is possible to build up the soil rather than destroy it while producing your crops. How to raise animals in a way that is humane, sustainable and healthy for the creatures, the people and the environment. How to partner with horses to work the land like Americans have done for generations, before our dependence on oil put a tractor in nearly every field (and why this part of our lives doesn't have anything to do with being Amish). What an heirloom plant or heritage livestock breed looks like, what it tastes like, why it's valuable and how we can save them. I'm not sure exactly how this will work or what it will look like. I am excited to take a small step in that direction July 24th by being part of the PA Buy Fresh Buy Local farm tour. I'll be showcasing the poultry on a short walking tour, letting people see our birds and letting them know more about what we raise and why. We'll see where it goes from there!
The garden is thriving in this weather. My heirloom lettuces, Grandpa Admire's and Crisp Mint Romaine, have taken the heat well so far and didn't bitter like some of the other varieties. Peas are here, both sugar and shelling. The borage (a beautiful herb that tastes like a cucumber) is in bloom already. The green onions are rapidly growing into big onions. Tiny zucchini and summer squash are appearing with the promise of being plentiful as always. Little green tomatoes have appeared, and so far no reports of the blight that plagued farms in our area last year. More treasures appear every day. I swear you can see the corn stalks' growth between morning and night! The hay fields are also more than ready, and with a break in the predicted thunderstorms we'll be mowing hay Friday with any luck. A great time to be in the fields.
All the animals are thriving on pasture. We recently got a couple more beef cows that have joined the herd without incident. This weekend we're anticipating the loan of a Dexter bull along with a Dexter cow to milk and a calf to raise. One of my doe rabbits just had 6 healthy babies. The spring lambs are growing so fast on the lush pasture, some of the boys are nearly as tall as their mothers. The turkeys are growing by leaps and bounds, with the males attempting some hilarious-sounding teenage gobbles. While the peafowl are finished laying eggs for the year, the eggs are in the incubator and I'm anxious to see if we have a successful hatch. A wonderful time to have animals.
I've begun canning garden excess, so far I've made 2 rhubarb jams- one with oranges, the other with ginger and oriental spices. I have new batches of homemade vinegars fermenting, and I'm excited to try some herbal or fruit infusions with them when they are ready. There are new mustard recipes to try, including my quest to master a good champagne-dill one. I was trying to use Google to find an alternate recipe last night, and I had to laugh when my blog entry about my utter failure with this earlier in the year was the #4 result when I typed "champagne dill mustard recipe"! A superb time to use up the bounty of the garden, to try new recipes, to create my own.
Tomorrow, I'll come home and put the khaki slacks away. (ok, I'll wash them first.) I'll put on my jeans and barn boots, and begin a new day, a new season. I don't know how long it will last or what storms lay on the horizon, but I'm excited. I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be, and I can't wait to have more time to put my hands in the dirt.
Posted by Emily
@ 04:46 PM EDT
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