Saturday, March 28, 2009

Equine Research Texas Style

I recently returned from visiting my daughter in College Station, Texas where she is a graduate student at Texas A & M in Equine Exercise Physiology. She is in the last few weeks of the actual fifteen-week test period of studying the role of magnesium in the phenomenon of tying up in horses. I’ve often commented that conducting this kind of research on horses is not like studying rats or mice in the laboratory. Prior to the start of the test period Cassidy had to break six horses to drive and pull a sled which would eventually be loaded to create particular levels of stress on each horse.

She fondly refers to the two groups of three horses as Team A and Team B. Team A, including Frenchy, Daisy, Sahara, are the well-minded cooperative mares who don’t mind their life as research horses: fed twice a day with custom grain and hay rations, allowed outside for a short time each day, and then exercised lightly in the evenings. The B Team consists of three mares that don’t particularly care for their job as research horses. They include Pizzaz, Chance, and Juno. Pizzaz has never warmed up to her job and Chance was frightened one day when the hitch came unhooked and banged against her hind legs until Cassidy and her assistants could get her stopped. Only recently did she begin to calm down while pulling the sled.

Her project consists of exercising each horse three days a week by driving the horse as it pulls a weighted sled. Each horse wears a heart rate monitor during the 15 minutes of warm-up, actual pulling of the sled, and warm-down. During the active phase Cassidy wears a watch that receives the monitor’s information and allows her to drive at a pace that maintains a specific heart rate for each horse. Depending upon the size of the horse, various buckets of weights are added to the sled. With the A Team Cassidy will actually make herself a part of the weight and sit on a bucket on the sled. With the B Team, she will weight the sled with buckets and walk and, or run behind to keep the exercise period safe with the horses that aren’t consistently comfortable pulling the sled.

Once every four weeks, the horses are stressed on a treadmill for thirty minutes and monitored for fatigue. Typically fatigue occurs at or around 220 heartbeats per minute (bpm) in horses. She is also monitoring heart rates every five minutes to look at levels of conditioning over the entire test period of three months as well as any differences due to other factors, including diet. Most importantly, the horses are monitored for signs of tying up, which include rapid increase in heart rate, excessive sweating, reluctance to move, stiffness, and firm or hardened muscle groups.

Blood samples are drawn before, immediately after, 1 hour post, 6 hours post, and 24 hours post the treadmill test. Blood serum is assessed for levels of muscle enzymes and serum levels of magnesium. Previous research has suggested that an increase in muscle enzymes is indicative of muscle breakdown or damage as a result of exercise. Cassidy is also looking at how a diet deficient in magnesium (Mg) or supplemented with Mg may affect these levels.

Cassidy looks forward to the end of the test period when she can begin to analyze her data. When I asked her what she’d learned so far, she replied, “Research on live animals is unpredictable and impossible to completely control. However, it’s (obviously) beneficial because it applies to real life experiences of the performance horse.” She also offered these words of wisdom about her research experience, “Do not use unbroken horses. It’s difficult to set up the perfect project with live animals. Outside factors are hard to control, harder to predict” Although she looks forward to the day she defends her research and thesis, her own fatigue from the demands of her work led her to offer one last tongue in cheek suggestion that perhaps one should never “freely choose or volunteer to do research” in the first place.

I know in August she will have a different perspective on her research experience. As the horses have been conditioned and strengthened, so has Cassidy. For often it’s in the doing that we discover elements we didn’t know we were searching for. Perhaps, an uncontrolled, unforeseen element of the practical side of the research, like an illness or lameness; or an unpredicted physiological phenomenon; or in Cassidy’s case, a new awareness of her ability to survive the physical demands of managing and handling her research horses, accurately collecting data, and carrying out her roles as teaching assistant and student from 5:30 AM until the wee hours of the next morning every twenty-four hours for three months.

As with Lena and Candy, this story too will be continued when the final research project is given birth on the day she defends her work late this summer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spring Expectations

As the spring solstice arrives in the heavens, the foaling season arrives in our daily thoughts. We have two mares due in the next month, the first one around April 4th. Lena, the first mare due, looks as though the arrival of her baby won’t come a day too soon. She moves with great deliberation and discomfort, she places her feet cautiously and with effort as she heads to the hay feeder. Her belly is large and low with parallel ridges forming underneath as though they’re a pair of steel girders preventing the mare’s belly from dropping all the way to the ground.

Lena’s baby will have an athlete’s pedigree. Lena is a half-sister to the famous Shining Spark, a palomino stallion owned by Carol Rose, who in 2008, sired or grand-sired 40% of the NRHA Futurity Finalists. Bred to our stallion, Dudley, the bloodlines of Zan Parr Bar and Colonel Freckles add to the foal’s pedigree.

Candy, our second mare due, is a double-bred Poco Pine, a stallion who competed successfully in both halter and performance arenas. She’s bred to one of Dudley’s offspring, Baron, who has become a superlative performance horse. Candy’s off-spring have consistently been impressive specimens with beautiful heads. We believe this will be true again this spring.

Most spring foaling seasons we expect six or seven foals. However, this breeding season we wanted to breed several of our mares to our new stallion, Riggs. Because he was in Texas preparing for the show season, it was necessary to artificially inseminate these mares. Since Riggs was only two-years old when he was collected, we knew it would be a gamble. Unfortunately, none of the mares became pregnant and spent the year regaining their girlish figures.

As I write, a spring storm blows in from the west and the forecast says we’ll have old man winter with us for most of the week. That’s how March acts in North Routt County. One day you can work in a long sleeve shirt and the next you want to sit by the fire and simply witness the cold through the kitchen window. When it’s like this I feel sorry for the pregnant mares. They have enough to manage. They don’t need inclement weather to further stress their coping with the final days before their foals arrive.

At night now, Pete brings Lena in to a foaling stall in the barn. Some mares like Lena like the idea of having a cozy place to spend the night, but others like Candy try to avoid being caught and brought in. They’d rather be alone and unfettered, free to wander where they wish. Lena though, seems to feel settled in the stall and comforted somehow by being isolated and away from the elements. Pete’s preference for all his broodmares would be a mild spring so they could be out on their own to foal in the green meadows as they wish.

Once a mare begins her labor, the birthing process usually lasts only 45 minutes unless there are complications. The most frequent complications include a foal upside down or with one leg forward and the other back. A foal, just like a human infant, normally comes out like a diver with head down and legs out in front of it. Sometimes though, the foal can present backwards and the help of our veterinarian is needed. Over time though, our mares have foaled with relative ease.

To be continued…on or around April 4th!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Deep Roots

I attended the bi-monthly meeting of the Routt County Cattlewomen last night, a local organization I’ve enjoyed being a member for a number of years. The women exercise a kind of “can-do” spirit reminiscent of the old West in their education and promotion of the cattle industry. I appreciate the opportunity to be actively be involved in the RCCW on a scale where individuals are known and find meaning in their efforts to contribute to their community.

One of the items on our meeting’s agenda was the introduction of a new local organization called, Deep Roots, whose purpose is to promote partnerships between community members and organizations who wish to purchase, grow, and support local agricultural products; and to encourage respect for healthy, sustainable ecosystems in the production of food sources in northwest Colorado.

This grassroots effort glimmers with hope. At a time when our modern society’s complexity is buckling under the strain of size and demand to support all its members, the idea that a small group of people can come together and nourish promise in growing gardens in a northern climate with a growing season of sixty to ninety days, is indeed filled with optimism. Armed with a greenhouse, some Routt County residents can extend their growing seasons by four to six weeks depending upon where they live in the county. So, for those four to six months locals can plant, nurture, and harvest what, over a half-century ago, reminds one of a Victory Garden. Those gardens planted by approximately twenty million Americans during World War II produced 40% of the produce consumed nationwide.

Perhaps today, the meaning of a Victory Garden can be transformed into a spirit of hope and optimism over the increasing pressures of a failing financial system, a concerning environmental future, and a society filled with the challenge of providing a sense of community to its members, a sense of autonomy in self-sufficiency, and a sense of the practical need to look in our backyards for sustainability.

I have plans to put up my first greenhouse this spring. It was a promise I made to myself when I returned from Chile and felt the satisfaction of those Chileans who live isolated sustainable lives, producing their produce, meat, eggs, and occasionally cheese and canned goods. Their pace of life allowed for a finer focus on life’s daily rituals and that which nourishes, whether it be a Jerusalem artichoke salad, an afternoon walk, or a visit from far away neighbors. While my life will never resemble theirs, their life reminded me to take notice and to make choices daily about how I choose to go about my day. While their life appeared idyllic, it had its hardships which made the smallest of things sweeter and the smallest of moments more tender.

I hope the efforts of Deep Roots take hold for they have the promise of propagating the same optimism one feels when planting the smallest of seeds in spring. As the group taps into the ingenuity and diverse strengths of individuals and organizations, it will set into motion not only the potential for healthy and economic production of food, but the nourishment and growth of the individual and the ties that bind him or her to the rich soil of a garden bed and the nourishment of a larger community.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Art of Western Cinch Making

The quiet of the winter season leaves ranchers with time to pursue other endeavors. After the feeding chores are taken care of morning and night, ranchers may turn to their shops to complete maintenance projects; they may take to their computers to oversee ranch operation records and tax work; or they may pursue artwork, leather making, writing, or other areas of interest.

This winter Pete has taken up western cinch making. The cinch has been in use for nearly 3000 years. Although saddles, made of simple animal hide or cloth, made their appearance sometime between 2000 and 4000 B.C., the cinch didn’t make an appearance until around 700 B.C. in the Middle East when Assyrian warriors added straps to their decorative saddle cloths. While many contemporary western cinches are made of polyester, nylon, or neo-prene, Pete makes his with mohair.

Mohair is grown by the Angora goat, a breed thought to originate from the mountains of Tibet. Today, South Africa is the largest producer of mohair and the United States the second largest, with Texas producing the majority of that mohair. Its texture resembles human hair and is used for carpet, clothing, wigs, and even climbing skins for the skis of back-country skiers. Unlike nylon or neo-prene cinches, mohair cinches have the advantage of being flexible, durable, and more comfortable for the horse because they are breathable.

The cinches can be either braided or woven, or both in a variety of styles and widths and include either brass or silver buckles and d-rings. The designs can be simple or elaborate and while the traditional color is a natural tan, today it’s possible to buy dyed mohair in a wide variety of colors. Cinches come in a variety of styles including a standard 17 strand all-round cinch, a 27 strand roper cinch, a 29 strand double-layer cutting cinch, and a 21 strand vaquero style cinch. They can be made with different styles and shapes of buckles. Depending on the size of the horse, the cinch will also come in various lengths to suit size and build of the horse.

Pete has drawn on the traditional designs of old-time cowboys and California vaqueros to create his cinches. They include diamond shapes and the influence of Native American symbols. While many of the designs are decorative, some of them are integral in providing strength, helping keep the cinch flat, or attaching hardware. This winter he also custom designed a cinch for our son. He included our son's brand, the spear quarter circle on both ends of the cinch with a contrasting center band in the center.

During coming periods of quiet on the ranch whether that’s next winter season or a warm quiet night when the chores are done and he isn’t drawn to the roping arena or round pen, Pete looks forward to more cinch making. He anticipates making and selling a few custom cinches for those who appreciate the art and quality of the western mohair cinch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Winter Breaks

As I crossed the bridge on my way home from running errands in town, I noticed the Elk River had broken open. In late winter, when the sun strengthens and high pressure builds, the air warms and the snow pack weakens, the ice gives up its grip, and the water beneath glimpses spring's first light.

Warmer days like these usually arrive later in March: our driveway softens, rots out, and our tires meet mud instead of snow pack; the meadows set up so securely you can glide across them on cross country skis; and the roof begins its late winter slide. At that moment the black roof has warmed the insulating snow enough to give it a push, the pieces falling like shedding ice floes from a glacier. The house shudders under the crack at the point of release, and then seems to breathe freely once its burden has broken away.

In town while picking out potatoes, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in while and I inquired, “How are things at your place?”

“Well, we’ve got our first calf.” She laughs, “It’s a mistake, but it doesn’t hurt to think spring’s on its way, does it?”

I tell her, “No, it’s starting to feel that way. Everything’s starting to feel early.”

Once home, I put Emma’s coat on and step into my snowshoes. I had been bemoaning the fact that my favorite days of snowshoeing may be over, the days of pristine fresh powder on the trail and snowstorms sharpening my sense of the physical world. But out we went.

As I followed, Emma trotted ahead, the snow settled and firm. When I work mid-winter to break through fresh powder, my head’s down in a meditation rooted in physical exertion. Today, I’m upright, the packed out trail making my trudging more of a casual hike. Now in a rhythm, I look up high on the hillside and see a group of elk in the oak brush. At first, six, then eight, and then finally I count nine head. They see me and stay still. I move and they move a bit further up and away, judging my distance and direction before determining a path for retreat.

Emma and I went on to the top and once there, I decided we’d go down the back side of the mountain and extend our afternoon adventure. In mid-winter that side of the mountain sequesters a wonderful cache of powder which is too deep for Emma to negotiate. But today Emma and I stride over the surface, meandering through the aspen grove and oak brush forest reminiscent of fairy tales and she can’t believe her good fortune. She follows fox tracks and once near the hillside where I spotted the elk, Emma sees them quietly moving away from us below.

At the same time I see the grip of ice soften and the river begin its spring time rise; I regret winter's retreat. I wrestle with the shift. Through explorations with Emma today and casual conversations though, I will cross that divide. The UPS man tells me his mother has daffodils peaking out in a milder locale and I look over to my garden beds beneath the kitchen and know mine too are on their way, perhaps earlier this year than other years. Pete and I talked about the day on the calendar when the meadows will be completely clear, perhaps as early as March 26th this year.

I know my grip will soften on my love of winter’s solitude and quiet just as the ice and snow on the Elk have let go: I will move from winter’s depth to the rising energy of spring’s renewal and warmth knowing life comes to us both from within and from without, both from retreat and rebirth.