Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Orchard Dash

Our personal interpretation of Keystone Cops mixed it up at Leaping Lamb Farm the other day. Arms waving wildly, livestock running away, more arms waving wildly, whistles, calls, livestock running the opposite direction, dogs barking, finally a pause while we all gathered ourselves for another go round.

The horses and the donkey had broken into the apple orchard and were eating all the apples I wanted to collect for cider making. This was so not cool on the animals' part! They needed to leave off and get back out to the hay field. Silly donkey. What was he thinking following the horses in.

The apple orchard behind our house is fenced for livestock control (aka horse, sheep, and a donkey). In the spring I often will put the ewes and their young lambs into the orchard so I can keep an eye on things. Come fall, when the trees are dropping their apples to the ground at a prodigious rate, I latch the gates shut. This gives me a chance to harvest some of what is on the ground. It also keeps the horses from picking apples off the trees, often within easy reach for both them and me.

Every now and again, I will open the gates, first to the sheep for some ground clean-up and then for the horses to finish the sweep. It's a mad dash for all and nothing goes to waste. I just have to keep an eye on things so the horses don't over eat and end up colicking. We don't need any vet calls.

The day began peacably enough. Allen was helping me with "honey-do's" and the task was pretty straight forward in terms of apple pick-up. Drive the Gator into the orchard, fill the large buckets in the back, drive back out of the orchard and move on to the next task. The next thing I know, Allen is yelling into the house for me to come quickly. The horses are in the orchard and they are eating the apples as fast as they can manage. I stopped what I was doing, pulled on my boots, and went out to see if we could use some herding techniques to push three horses and a donkey back out the gate. Luckily the sheep hadn't picked up the scent of an open gate.

We tried our most successful shepherding approach, with big arms and yells. Our horses looked like they thought we were idiots. "What the hell are those people yelling at?!" Herding horses from the ground isn't really herding at all.

Tater ran from us, but with his head down, sweeping up apples at his feet as he ducked away. Moralecia followed suit. Chaco didn't move at all since I don't think he saw us clearly anyway. Paco, the donkey, stayed the farthest away, watching (and learning from) the commotion. Pretty soon, we were all running in circles. The horses were bucking and mashing the apples as they ran over and through them. I cringed every time I saw more apples under hoof. Tater jumped in the air, lost his footing, and fell to the ground in the slippery grass. It barely slowed him down.

This was going nowhere and we needed to break the momentum. Allen, having learned much more about shepherding on our place than chasing after crazed horses, looked relieved when I suggested he stop for a moment while I went in search of baling twine. If I could catch Moralecia and walk her towards the orchard gate, I suspected the boys would follow.

Apple in hand, because it seemed the going bribe at the time, I walked up and tossed the twine around her neck. Lucky she's a good horse and responds to the lightest of rope as if it were made of steel. We headed toward the open gate and a beckoning hay field.

Chaco looked up, finished the apple in his mouth, and moved after us. This made Tater nervous as he bore down on us at a fast trot. Which made me nervous. I told Allen to keep an eye on the big quarter horse so he didn't get plowed over. Paco brought up the rear in his funny all-four-legs-off-the-ground-at-the-same-time gait.

I suppose the worst part of the story is that Tater opened the gate to the orchard as Allen watched. And, it wasn't just any latch he opened. It was our safe, secure U-Latch gate latch that is supposed to be 'Houdini' proof. I know after three years, with lots of nighttime trial and error, Tater has had plenty of time to perfect his technique, but there may be another explanation. We humans go in and out of that gate all the time and we never said they were people-proof. Always the challenge for humans; always the opportunity for our animals.

So the animals had a brief escape into the garden of delights. Not enough to make any of them sick and certainly not enough to ruin our chances for a good apple cider pressing. Seen from afar, the two of us, Allen and I, trying to convince 3 1/2 large animals that the green grass on the other side of the fence was better than apples, was likely a funny sight. Just glad there were no passers-by. At least none we knew about! And, Tater won't tell, because getting in (or out) is half the fun.

Photo: (top) Horses in the hayfield, (bottom) Paco putting on an 'eyeore' face

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