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Still Mucking After All These Years

Tigger Montague

It occurred to me the other day as I lifted yet another fork full of manure and dumped it in the wheelbarrow, that I have been mucking stalls for many of my 61 years. I muck in the evening, after the horses are turned out. It’s just me, the pitchfork, and the wheelbarrow. Sometimes the dogs will join me, but usually it is a solitary endeavor, what I have come to call the zen of stall mucking.

Before enlightenment: feed horses, muck stalls.
After enlightenment: feed horses, muck stalls.

One of the less recognized values of stall mucking is that it is humbling, basic work: no frills, no ribbons, no bonuses or accolades. Mucking a stall can get me off my high horse pretty darn quickly. It is difficult to carry too much arrogance when you are cleaning up after another being’s biological waste.

I bed in straw because it is better for composting, and the farm depends on our yearly compost to refresh and invigorate our soils.  Straw bedding gives me a good upper body workout, as wet straw and manure-laden straw is much heavier than shavings or sawdust. Who needs weights when you’ve got a pitchfork?

When I muck, I tend to think more clearly.  I push the wheelbarrow past the vegetable garden, and on to the compost pile. The sun is setting, a few swallows dart over-head, night insects whirr and dip, the deer move out of the tree line and into the pastures.  The bats and fireflies will be arriving soon.  It is a time in the day I really connect with the beauty and complexity of the “natural world.” It is also the time when I am more acutely aware of the pain and suffering of mother earth.

Before you think I’ve fallen out of my tree-hugging, hippie rocking chair, and given myself a concussion, I will tell you that it is the horses that have taught me to listen, to pay attention, to be mindful. It is why I am ever perplexed with the disconnection I see among us horse owners on problems such as: the dwindling amount of plant biodiversity,  the rise in GMOs and lack of labeling, pesticide and herbicide residue and toxicity, monoculture farming practices, Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs)….the list goes on and on.

I kept asking myself: why are we not all standing up en masse to decry what is being done to the soil, the plants, the food? Our horses, our dogs, our cats, our families depend on healthy soil, healthy air, healthy plants, authentic food. Why do I feel like one of the lone cowgirls battling it out in our industry?

Then I read a book called Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter. At the very end of the book, the author, David Buchanan, wrote a one-line ah-ha:

“We protect what we understand and value.”

I think many of us horse and dog and cat owners protect our animals because we value them, not in a monetary sense, but in their contributions to our life, for our relationships with them.   What I see is the missing piece. We are not protecting what the animals are connected to: the soil, the plants, the food sources, the air.    We may not be protecting the elements our animals are connected to because we only see our role with our animals as they relate to us; not how they relate to the natural world.

And the animals are telling us, in no uncertain terms:  Houston, we have a problem.

Cancer is the number one killer of dogs in the U.S.  Nearly one in four dogs is overweight or obese.  According to a study in 2013, overweight dogs have become 37% more prevalent compared to five years ago.  What that means is that 52.6% of US dogs are overweight or obese. In cats the number is 90% more prevalent compared to five years ago.  An estimated 57.6% of cats are overweight or obese.  Diabetes in dogs rose 32% between 2006 and 2010; cat diabetes rose 16% in that same time period.

Up to 80% of performance horses have or are recovering from gastric ulcers. According to a study in 2005, of 545 horses nearly half (44%) of the non-performance horses had colonic ulcers, and 65% of performance horses had colonic ulcers.

In research conducted by Virginia Tech, 2007, 51% of the horses evaluated during the research were determined to be overweight or obese.  “Obesity over the past decade has become a major health concern in horses”, said Dr. Scott Pleasant, an associate professor in DLACS and diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

The last study done on horses and obesity, prior to 2007, was a study done in 1998 by the National Animal Health Monitoring System through the USDA. This study reported the prevalence of overweight or obese horses to be 5%.

We need to value the land, the plants, the soil, the water, the air, the food as much as we value our animals. They are all depending on us — for more than just stall mucking.

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