Complaining about the weather is a favourite Canadian pastime, but it’s starting to grow stale. Cold. Warm. Rain. Really cold. Snow. Ice. I want to think about cheerier things. With their chirping and fluttering, the flock of sparrows that live inside Larry’s barn remind me of warmer days and the wild critters I’ve run across while spending time with my horses.
There have always been wild critters to see while hacking. I’ve watched red-tailed hawks sizing me up from their favourite perch high in a tree, and seen pretty garter snakes sunning themselves in the wagon ruts. Frogs have filled the darkness with their chirping in the spring, and in summer, skunks have marched past us in the hay fields, their black and white tails swaying like lazy flags above the grass.
One summer evening, something small and quick darted across the lane in my corner vision. For weeks I wondered if I’d seen an alien escapee from some UFO, until I saw it again and realized it was a chipmunk.
As I was setting out one day on Gandalf, a wild turkey hen erupted from the bushes just ahead of us; her chicks flew up into a nearby tree and the hen bolted along the trail, trying to lure me away from her babies.
There have been plenty of wild critters visiting the barn as well. A skunk once started coming in on a regular basis to eat the cat food. It didn’t smell and never sprayed, even when the kittens played with its tail.
Toads have lurked in the damp corner of a washstall, giving me the evil eye; maybe I was scaring the flies away and ruining their dinner plans.
One quiet evening while I was tacking Gandalf up, I heard a humming buzz overhead that suddenly went quiet. When I looked up, a hummingbird was caught in the cobwebs, is pretty wings spread open like a crucifix. I climbed on to a stool and managed to free it, and watched it dart out into the gathering dusk. Another time, a hummingbird found its way into the barn through the open half-door but got disoriented, bumping repeatedly into the overhead fluorescents. When we turned out the lights, it arrowed toward the daylight and disappeared out the door.
Once a baby raccoon got lost and ended up in the arena. It climbed as high as it could and wedged itself between the wall trusses, crying pitifully as I rode Gandalf below. The next day it was gone, so hopefully it found its mom.
A friend once told me that her most perfect riding memory was of hacking her mare through a field of tall grass. A white-tailed buck ran across the field ahead of her, only its antlers showing above the swaying greenery. I’ve never seen a buck, but I’ve seen white-tailed does aplenty. I saw one jump a five-foot fence from a standing start. Another watched me ride around and around the outdoor ring, her soft eyes wide with curiosity as she tried to figure out what kind of animal this strange centaur was. One day, a doe limped across the hay field in front of me, dragging an injured hind leg; it made me sad, for surely she’d be targeted by the coyotes before long.
I’ve seen coyotes, too, although more often I’ve heard them wailing in the dark. Many a snowy evening at the barn, they sounded like they were just outside the door. One summer day while I was hacking Gandalf, a coyote erupted from some shrubs ahead of us. It may actually have been a wolf cross, its legs were so tall. The poor thing had mange; its lean body showed nothing but a thin fuzz of hair over pink skin. It loped away, seeming to be in no hurry but covering ground with breathtaking swiftness. Just once, it glanced over its shoulder at me, a flick of slanted eyes. Then it disappeared into the woods.
There. I feel better, thinking about all the wild critters that have graced me with their presence during the slow, quiet times I’ve spent time with my horses. For now, I’ll have to make do with the sparrows in Larry’s barn. But soon, just a few weeks from now, the sun will grow warm again, and the wild critters will welcome horse and human alike back into a kinder, gentler world…