Friday, February 20, 2009

A new game for Fiddle: you're gonna put a MARBLE in my WHAT????

Several months ago, while searching for a solution to PMS* ("Pissy Mare Syndrome") I stumbled across some well-hidden articles about veterinary Marbles.

"Marbles", thought I, "a term for a new medical device that controls estrus cycles in mares."
Well, yes, sorta.

Except that the medical device really is a marble.

Not a device shaped like a marble, or the size of a marble. Its...a marble.

It's a STERILE marble, meaning that the 30mm clear glass shooter was run through an autoclave and then industrially packaged to preserve the non-germiness.

But no matter how much medical research and technology is involved, the device remains a $.99 glass marble.
Of course, it takes a $100 vet appointment to insert the marble. So it's a really expensive marble.
But it is, still, a marble.

I began my search for a solution for Fiddle last summer, when it became apparent that she was extremely uncomfortable during her heat cycles. The advantage to having ears nearly 12inches long is that Fiddle can communicate her feelings VERY CLEARLY. She is very vocal in her opinions about being ridden or even worked on a longe line when she is cycling. For an endurance horse, discomfort of this magnitude can lead to metabolic distress--or worse--at an event. To avoid all that, I wanted to find a way to control her estrus cycles...which seems a straightforward goal, but isn't.

Traditionally, American vets have prescribed a hormone supplement for "marish" mares called Regumate, which effectively shuts down the mare's reproductive cycle. The hormones can be administered via shot or through an oral supplement added to the evening feed. It is expensive, and not without risk to the human handler: If a pregnant woman accidently touches Regumate, the contact can cause spontaneous miscarriage. In non-pregnant females, contact with the hormone can bring on immediate and painful menses. It seemed like a powerful bomb to be squirting into Fiddle's food, especially since I'm already prone to painful menstrual cycles.

What are the alternatives, then?

There is a longer-acting, time-released hormone injection available to horses, similar to the Depo Provera (DMPA) injections given to human females. It's expensive, but the risks to the human handlers are lessened; however, if the mare has an adverse reaction to the injection, there is no way to reverse it until it has run the course of 3 months or more.

That didn't sound good either. Fiddle is a challenging horse, but I like her. 3 months of potential adverse effects doesn't appeal to me.

Then I heard about this marble thing.

NOTE TO THE SENSITIVE READER: I am really trying to be tactful here about the marble and where it is inserted. If you think you're going to have a problem with the process, STOP READING NOW, because the next pictures will leave no tactful doubt in your mind about where the marble is placed...or how....

We began the process two weeks ago, to establish what Fiddle's behavior is like when she is "in heat" and when she is "not in heat." Assisting us in this assessment was the stallion-in-residence, Dancer.

Dancer likes mares.
Remember about those clearly-communicating ears? If Fiddle likes somebody (human, equine, or whatever), the ears make the affection obvious. She is equally obvious when she dislikes somebody.

Fortunately, Fiddle likes Dancer. If she didn't like him, those big ears would be flat against her skull.
Every day or so for 2 weeks, I took Fiddle over to Dancer's window, to let them exchange opinions. Last week, her attitude towards him changed dramatically: from "gosh, he's very kind to say those nice things," to "If you let go of this rope, I will climb over his fence to be with him!

Needless to say, I held on tightly to the rope. Having a half-standardbred, half appaloosa foal is NOT in my plans for next year.
As of today, she was no longer "in heat" but was still receptive to the marble. It was time for a vet visit.

Dr. Elizabeth Edmunds from Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital brought her equipment out for the insertion.

We began with a light dose of sedative--it turns out that my big mare is a cheap drunk. Ha! Lucky for me.

Then came the really good stuff:

First a manual rectal exam, followed by a manual reproductive system exam, to clear any obstructions that would impede the ultrasound pictures.
Yes, "manual". The latex glove goes clear up to the vet's shoulder.

(I did warn you about this.)
After the manual exam, Dr. Edmunds lubed up an ultrasound probe that looked a lot like the cheap microphones we use at the radio station, and stuck it into my mare.

She studied the ultrasound images very carefully, and actually convinced me that the weird blobs and splorks on the screen were significant.

(I saw a ducky and a sailboat and a racecar, but I didn't want to tell her that, because she seemed so pleased with the images she saw.)

After the ultrasound images assured her that there were no abnormal growths or cysts, she got out The Marble.
I took a picture.

It's sterile, so I didn't get to touch it. But it really is a marble.

Then she took the marble.
And. She. Put. It. Into. My. Mare.

At this point, the sedative was wearing off.

Fortunately for everyone involved, my mare did not turn into the explosive, cussing, kicking Pirate Horse that she certainly had a right to become, having just been Violated in a Very Personal Way.
Instead, Fiddle turned that gigantic head towards me to indicate that her bottom felt funny, and also that she would really enjoy a cookie if I happened to have one conveniently available.

Have I mentioned that I really, really like Standardbreds?
So there it is: the Marble.

Inserted into a mare's uterus, a marble can, in many instances, cause a cessation of estrus cycles for anywhere from a week to several years. Apparently the addition of a glass body often (but not always) fools the mare's body into thinking that she is pregnant--and thus, estrus cycles halt until she expels the marble (do I really need to explain that?) or until it just stops working for whatever reason. Since nobody really understands why a marble simulates an equine pregnancy, nobody can explain why it stops working sometimes.

The important point is: sometimes, it works. Without hormones or drugs, or anything else, a simple glass ball can sometimes "end the nightMare."

Only time will tell if it will work for Fiddle.

Meanwhile, I'm left with the question to ponder:

How drunk were they???
What caused the first people to look at grouchy mares and a stack of fruit pits (apparently, glass marbles were not immediately available in ancient nomadic Arabia), to think that this crazy scheme might work.

I leave the question as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

All I need is seventeen syllables and a few giggles each day

Truthfully: if Rubbermaid had a BARN, I'd order one of those, too.
Of this I am sure: Chickens have poetic hearts, prosaic bodies.

Without mentioning names (FIDDLE!!!), this cartoon reminds me of someone.

I'm pretty sure that we don't need to suggest this to Jim's dog Mimsy....

Tee hee. Not every day that I find a funny Star Trek/Farm cartoon!

See? This is why I think we should stick with LAYING hens on our small farm....

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Will they mow the lawn, too?" Vision of farm with a Chicken Tractor

We are now less than two weeks now from the scheduled closing date for our farm! WAHOOOO!

Jim and I are taking different approaches to the farming life.

I am pretty much focused on the horse part: where the fences will go, where we'll store hay before the barn is built, how soon I can move the horses onto our property, where the trail access points on the mountain are located, how I can build more access points and more trails. I'm wondering how many fence posts I can pound in an hour before work, and how much field fencing I can string in the time between arriving home from work and completely and utter darkness.

Jim is more of a generalist. He really wants a tractor, and he really wants chickens. Not coincidentally, he really wants a Chicken Tractor, which I originally thought had a lot to do with tractors and less to do with chickens.
Turns out that it's just the opposite: a Chicken Tractor is bottomless, movable chicken pen. It's also an extremely low-tech way to clear ground for the garden and it's mostly all about feeding and entertaining a small flock of hens.

The size and design of Chicken Tractors is widely varied--they are mostly made from found or extremely cheap materials which are nailed, screwed, or stapled together to form a basic shelter for chickens.

Chickens living inside the Chicken Tractor do what chickens do best: they eat grubs, bugs, slugs, grass and weeds, they scratch up the ground as they search for food, and they produce a high-nitrogen fertilizer (chicken poop) that garden plants love.

After a day or two of clearing, cleaning, and fertilizing a small patch of the future garden, the Chicken Tractor is dragged a few feet away and the chickens proceed to clear the next small patch. All this is accomplished without noise, pollution, or the danger of running over an inattentive gardener's foot with a tiller blade. Genius!

As the hens get older, they will begin laying eggs. I love this part. Drag the tractor, collect the eggs, plant the garden. It's all in a day's work, and coming really soon to Haiku Farm.

Here's some photos of Chicken Tractors.

If you want to know more about them, and how you can build a Chicken Tractor and raise chickens even in the city, I recommend the book Chicken Tractors by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman, available at your local public library. You can also read parts of the book on the Chicken Tractor page of