The Joys—And Surprises—Of Night Check

Last week Horse Journal contributor Beth Benard wrote an article about the importance, and joy, of doing night check, and her words have provoked me to relate a few of my own experiences doing night check.

It always brought a smile to my face to open the door and hear my fabulous partner Merlin call to me.

The main reason for heading out to the barn before you go to bed is to make sure your stabled horses aren’t colicking or have cleverly become cast, and I’ll admit I’ve been fortunate to have not experienced either of those incidents in the last 30 years. (Knock wood.) Many times I’ve checked on horses who had been colicking or who had suffered other injuries, and numerous times I’ve had to do more than just throw them a flake of hay, usually re-wrapping a bandage. I count myself lucky.

During the summer of the nearly 25 years I lived in Virginia, I didn’t really have nighttime barn check to do, because my horses were outside at night and inside during the hot and muggy days. But during the night checks from mid-October to early April, it always brought a smile to my face to open the door and hear my fabulous partner Merlin call to me in recognition, with the deep sort of hum that he had. I’d give him his flake of hay and scoop of grain, check his legs, give him an affectionate pat on the neck, and tell him what we were doing tomorrow.

It was our special moment—I’d miss it in the summer, and I still miss it now. But on summer mornings, he’d be standing by the gate waiting for me when I arrived.

Since we moved to our Phoenix Farm eight years ago, night check has been every night, since the seasons don’t change like in Virginia. We have horses that live outside, horses that are out at night, and horses that are in at night. And the seasons don’t determine who’s in or who’s out—individual needs of and other factors relating to particular horses decide that. We’ve had as few as one or two horses in the barn at night, but right now there are six horses in at night, because of needing additional feeding or because another horse or two needs their daytime paddock at night.

In Virginia, I was fascinated by the night sky, and I’d sometimes turn off the outside lights or walk farther away from the house to gaze at the moon or the stars. For some reason, I always found it comforting to see Orion’s Belt. I sort of felt grounded by its permanence out there in the endlessness of space.

I always found it comforting to see Orion’s Belt.

But, while I still always note the phase of the moon, the night stars have held less fascination to me since I moved to California. Perhaps it’s because their orientation is so different than it was in the sky I looked at for the first 46 years of my life. I couldn’t even find Orion for months after we moved here.

Perhaps it’s because I can see so many thousands of stars in the sky here in Northern California, as I now live farther away from the lights of humans than I ever have before and because, in the summer, there are rarely any clouds in the sky before midnight. Perhaps it’s because, like anything, when you can see thousands and thousands, why is it special to see one or a few? And perhaps it’s a little because night check is part of my job now —I have to check on our clients’ horses. It’s no longer just a privilege to say good night to my one or two horses.

But night check could be special when we had foals, even though with the two orphans, Amani and Bella, night check wasn’t really “good night.” During their first three months, when we’d have to nurse them every two or three hours because their nurse mares hadn’t accepted them yet, my wife, Heather, and I took turns during the night: She would do midnight (my soundest sleeping time) and I’d do 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. (her soundest sleeping time).

Admittedly, at 3 a.m. you don’t feel lucky to be in the barn, especially when it involves pouring Foal-Lac into a bunch of bottles, as we had to for Amani because we had to chemically induce the nurse mare to lactate. With Amani, I quickly developed a unique closeness during nursing. You can’t help it: There I was, holding six to eight bottles in her mouth, my head next to hers as she slurped them down, looking into those big brown eyes. I was, literally, giving her life, and I told myself that somehow she understood that too.

With Bella the process wasn’t at all intimate. The nurse mare we got for her had been taken off a 10-month-old foal and brought straight to us. She produced milk like a Holstein cow, but she knew that Bella wasn’t hers and was disinclined to allow her to nurse. So I was on the other end, holding the mare’s halter and feeding her cookies to convince her to allow Bella to nurse. Blessedly, it finally worked.

After they were both able to nurse unaided, night check was decidedly more fun, especially since both fillies grew up with another mare and foal born shortly before or after them. Not much can beat the cuteness and wonder of watching a mare and foal interact—the body guard attitude of the mare, the wonder of the foal experiencing himself and life, and the interaction between the two of them, especially when the foal wants to nurse.

I would particularly enjoy watching Amani and Bella and wondering what they’d grow up to be. We’d bred both to sell, but we quickly decided that wouldn’t be possible after nursing them, and they’re both growing up to be as wonderful as I dreamed they’d be.

We turned Amani and Bella out full-time as soon as they were weaned, to grow up as horses, not as cosseted pets. Ever since, they’ve both been out at night, in the fields farthest from the barn, so I don’t see them when I do night check.

I haven’t seen as many different animals as Beth has, but I’ve seen my share. Here in California I’ve opened the garage door to find deer standing next to the car, and I often encounter raccoons in the garage, eating the cat food. (That’s worrisome—western raccoons are big and nasty.)

I’ve never seen a coyote at night check (they’re far too stealthy for that), although I often hear them calling in the nearby hills, and I have many times wondered if one wasn’t just off in the darkness, watching me. I have once or twice heard a mountain lion in the distance, and three years ago we had a male feral pig who liked to come to visit. He was foraging right outside the barn when I drove down on three successive nights. Fortunately, my noisy arrival would convince him to leave, and about a week later a car hit him along our road frontage, and he then came to die on our manure pile.

My most exciting animal encounters have been with snakes, though. In the late ‘90s, we lived on a Virginia farm nestled into the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a classic bank barn that dated from 1903, so it was full of tunnels dug by rodents and snakes.

Each spring, the female barn swallows would arrive to make their nests in the huge rafters that ran along the roof, holding up the floor above it. We also always had black snakes, called eastern racers, living around the barn. They were often huge, 4 to 6 feet or longer, which Heather (the snake lover and expert among us) would assure me was good news, as eastern racers are harmless to us but deadly to rattlesnakes, of which Virginia has many more than you might think.

Well, one late spring night, I turned on the barn lights, and there above me was a gigantic snake (had to be 6 or 7 feet long) wrapped around the first rafter, eating a nest of baby swallows after, I presume, it had already consumed the mother. I was too frightened to move at first, but then, when I realized what the snake was doing, I hurried back to the house to get Heather. For 15 or 20 minutes, we watched our very own nature show during night check.

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