Ironwood Maine Barn Update

Whether the world is blanketed with pure white snow, like today, knee deep in mud, like the end of January, or glazed in sparkling ice, like last week, the horses are busy and the residents busier with all things equine. Riding lessons continue, except in deepest cold, with all our horses participating (but not at once). EAPs engage residents with horses without the restraint of tack or gear. Daily care routines provide ample opportunities for connection and mutual emotional support between horse and teen. 

As of this moment, the FH barn has seven horses—Ace, Frankie, Justin, Homer, Sunbeam, Secret, and Amigo. We also have two guests—Penelope and Lacey, the mini donkeys, who are on vacation from Frye.  Frye has, besides the mini donkeys, two mini horses—Nappy and Lacey, who had a FH mini vacation before Christmas. All the horses are in good physical health.  Ace, our oldest, turns 31-years-old this spring. He is strong and active, participating in weekly EAPs and acting as the foundation of our riding program, which is steeped in three disciplines—Dressage (his first choice), English, and western.  He even keeps young Homer’s ego in-check and is actively teaching him boundaries, manners, and respect for elders. Frankie is doing well (turning 28-years-old soon). He is the go-to partner for EAP participants or riders who have no horse experience or are fearful, as well as the shy or very kind soul who sees themselves mirrored in his gentle demeanor. Don’t let that fool you, however. He can walk-trot-canter with the rest, and makes gait changes lightly and smoothly when the rider asks (and not until).  Justin has recovered from several health concerns. He is no longer on any medications, nor special feed practices (like soaked hay). He is the most agile and eager horse under saddle, both English and western, and delights students with patterns and the fastest western game times.  The nutrition, care, and handling regimens that result in these three horses continuing to be such a vital core of the Ironwood equine program are learned and implemented daily by residents, who see the connection with their own nutrition, exercise, sleep patterns, schooling, and recreation. 

Sunbeam, who turns 18-years-old this month, is in robust health, as are Homer (9), Secret (12), and Amigo (20).  Sunbeam continues to be reluctant when ridden inside, but is lithe and confident on the roads and trails, and was delighted with the recent unseasonably warm weather that provided lots of those experiences. He is a favorite of residents for EAP, as he is easily approachable and very expressive. Homer and Secret, our newest additions, are both new to EAP, so not so cuddly in the process as some others, but have revealed remarkable truths for some residents. They both go English (hunt set) and western. Homer is learning dressage and Secret is quite accomplished through level 2, which means he’s got some fancy moves and enjoys a confident rider. But his western trail work is just as good and he neck reins, as do several others here. Homer does well western and pre-training dressage with both beginner and intermediate riders. He needs an experienced English rider, as he is very forward and eager. Amigo helps residents develop confidence and makes deep bonds with a few people at a time. He is in long term reconditioning from riding discipline misuse when he was young, and-thanks to consistent and compassionate care by students-enjoys bareback and western riding. This diversity of personalities and skill sets provide a range of challenge and opportunity for our students.

The winter conditions have been very erratic with warm spells great for riding (even out on the campus roads), horseplay, and extremes of cold in which temperatures have sometimes dropped thirty degrees in a day. The impact of these changes on riding has included trail rides mid-winter (usually a rarity in Maine) and trying out new patterns and some mounted games. Recently, Justin and Secret showed a desire for pairs riding-moving together side-by-side, applying directions from the instructor for stops, turns, and patterns. Frankie, who was carrying a first-time rider, “begged” to join in by copying what they were doing and trying to be near them. Once his rider had found her seat, we let him join, and he introduced his person to smooth and fluid command equitation walk-trot.

The mini horses and donkeys have all enjoyed vacations at the “big barn” this winter. They have frolicked in the roadside pasture and enjoyed some actual grazing, which would be too rich and abundant in spring or summer, but is “just right” in the portions that foraging through snow allows. Nappy and Fancy enjoyed JoinUp with Secret, Frankie, and Amigo (one at a time).  Penelope and Lacey would have no part of socializing with the larger horses. This makes sense if you know that donkeys, by nature, are defenders of the herd. Their “go to” response to curious horses was to alternate between hiding behind the benches or running in circles with them, bucking and kicking out with their hind feet if the larger horses got too close. They did not at any time give the signals of JoinUp that they do sometimes give with residents or with the mini horses. They are a herd of two, and separation anxiety is so great for Penelope that she risks self-harm and her heartbeat races when she cannot see Lacey.  Residents are able to observe, reflect upon, and step into and out of trying to impact these dynamics with nearly infinite learning opportunities about themselves, their relationships, and their own growth and coping options.

For all the horses, deep cold means heavy blankets are needed and adjustments to shelter spaces and feed levels must sometimes be made as well.  Residents have to apply contingency protocols daily to adapt for varying conditions. The “reward,” or natural consequence of this vigilance is settling in on a warm couch (maybe with cocoa or tea) and enjoying some horsemanship learning videos or a post-Deep Clean, heartwarming horse movie or maybe some artwork, creative writing time or reminiscing about their Ironwood equine experiences.