Sunday, I drove over 100 miles, paid $150 dollars and spent 7 hours of my day off to hang out in a gym in Houston with a bunch of spandex-wearing, muscle-bulging men and women, learning how to ski and row better.

Me!

I’m 43 years old.

My belly wobbles.

I love to eat.

My biceps are less Popeye and more pea-like.

And I don’t plan to ski down a mountain or row on a lake, so what was I doing there?

The answer is simple. I LOVE TO WORK OUT!

More than that, I love to learn why working out is good for me, how I can do it better and how I can encourage and support other people to do it better too.

I didn’t used to be like this. Two years ago I was overweight, sluggish and my back hurt when I bent over. I was out of breath easily, my clothes dug in to me and I couldn’t stop eating ‘treats’.

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I ate most of that cake a few days before I joined The Forge

Then a friend gave me a pep talk over lunch one day and told me about a gym she had started working out at (and working for). She told me if I really wanted it that badly, I would drive 25 miles each way to go and work out.

So I did. And she was right.

From the moment I walked into The Forge in Columbus, TX, I was hooked. The exercises were interesting. There was variety in the workouts. You got to use barbells and look like a weight lifter! There was a coach on hand at every session to show you how to do it properly. And people cheered you on as you dragged yourself up off the floor from yet another burpee.

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I was hooked from day one!

Within a few months, I was working out regularly and my flabby thighs started getting firmer.

Next step was to tackle my diet. Coach Ryan Walla told me if I didn’t get the eating part right, I wouldn’t lose any weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, followed the program, was careful about what I ate, and that, combined with the regular exercise, saw the pounds gradually melt off.

Now I am strong, not skinny.

I can lift 80lb bags of concrete off the floor without hurting myself.

I have pushed my (temporarily wheelchair bound) husband up ramps and lifted him over thresholds without a twinge.

I can clean a 50lb bag of dog food from the floor to my shoulder. Sometimes just for fun!

My energy levels are off the charts.

My legs finally look good in shorts, at least to my eyes.

Endorphins make me happier than a sugar rush ever could.

And the best bit? I have made new friends and can workout alongside old friends in a community of camaraderie I’ve never found in a traditional gym environment.

I work out alongside young mums, high-school athletes, muscly male police officers, people older than me who are much stronger than me, and each one of them pushes me to be better than I think I am capable.

And I get to do the same to them.

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Deadlifts for days!

As I drove to Houston yesterday morning, I thought, why am I doing this? It’s a lot of money and I am missing church, let alone leaving my (still wheelchair bound) husband for the day, and I going to be surrounded by people much fitter than me.

Thankfully, within just a few minutes, I realised it was worth the effort. Our teacher, Jane Erbacher, is a genius on the rower and ski machine. And she’s more than happy to share her knowledge. I learned so much and I can’t wait to take the knowledge back to the gym and apply it, to myself and to my fellow Forgers.

Jane Erbacher

That’s what it’s all about for me. I want to improve, I want others to improve and I want to help them improve if I can. I don’t want to be a fitness model or a body builder or a skinny size zero. But I do want to be able to have the physical strength to make my life easier, the flexibility to be able to reach for something without pulling a muscle, and the mental strength to push myself to attain things I would have been too scared to try in the past. Like walking into a gym full of buff strangers and feeling like I belonged there too.

The sun was bright but not yet hot and the dew sparkled on the sodden grass. I strolled around our pasture as the dogs roamed loose, sniffing, chasing each other, hurtling towards each other at breakneck speed and then dodging each other at the last seconds with agile changes of direction.

As I walked behind them, I looked down at the green grass dotted with patches of colour; wildflowers in crimson and gold broke up the monotony of the sea of green with their splashes of bright beauty. Some grew in dense clusters, where flowers of varying stages of life stood together, displaying their progression from beauty to decay.

The pear tree bubbled with the nubs of young fruit. It was laden from top to bottom with what looked like the first stages of blown green glass, a dense ball of green, gradually being stretched to a rounded point. The glossy dark green leaves of the tree protected the growing fruit. I made a mental note to keep an eye on their progress so I could pick as much as possible this year and not lose so many to the wasps that, each summer, burrowed into the pears and sucked them dry from the inside out.

Past the pear tree, on a gnarled oak, whose bark had formed into deep vertical grooves, a flutter of butterflies feasted on the insects running up and down the valleys of the bark like cars on a motorway. I counted ten cardinals in the feeding frenzy. Some ate with their wings outstretched, showing off their glorious designs. Others carefully folded their wings, all the better to camouflage themselves against the dull brown hues of the bark. Around the showy beauties fluttered small, plain moths, like an unattractive entourage around a supermodel.

The beauty of nature struck deep in my heart as I stared, like a child, open mouthed and wide eyed at all I had seen. I spotted a young blackberry bush hidden among the grass by the fence line. One deep black and three deep pink berries were already formed on the bush. I wondered if I would get a chance to eat them before the birds, or the dogs, got there first.

Remembering the dogs, I clapped my hands and looked around for them. Spotting them on the other side of the pasture, I strolled over to meet them. I found Penny standing stock still, transfixed, and followed her gaze to see Marley, soft, sweet, cuddly Marley, tearing apart a young fawn with her teeth. She had caught and killed it a few days before. We had found the carcass and tossed it to the top of the burn pile, where it lay, putrefying in the heat like a body atop a funeral pyre. She must have knocked the pile until the fawn fell to the floor. Or did she climb up it to reach her prize?

I contemplated these things as I watched her devour her catch. The rose-pink flesh came away easily in her teeth once she had broken through the tough hide. She sucked up pale organs and pink flesh, only pausing to pounce on Penny when she dared get a little too close to the catch. After a few minutes of watching her in curious detachment, I decided to leave her to her natural instincts. Leading Penny away by the collar, I left my cuddly pet to her breakfast.

Everywhere you go in my new home town of La Grange, Texas, you will find leopards. Not real ones, thankfully (although there have been unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions down by the river). No, these are mascots in support of our local school’s sports teams.

The La Grange High School, according to the sign at the entrance to the building, is the home of the Fighting Leopards. Banners fly from the lampposts around the school entrance heralding the news that ‘You are now entering leopard country.’ The school colours are purple and gold, and you will find all manner of merchandise in the local shops, from cups to hoodies, all emblazoned with some sort of Leopard theme.

During certain sports seasons, our town goes Leopard mad. One day I was driving by the middle school when I saw police cars and a fire truck parked outside and all these kids out on the field in front of the school with their hands up. My first thought? School shooting! How sad, but how true. Then I saw the cheerleaders and the pom poms and saw the Leopard banners flying. I wasn’t really sure what was happening but I knew it wasn’t something tragic. Turns out it was a pep rally (still not quite sure what that is) for one of the sports teams, heading out for an important game.

In the run up to play-off games such as these, the windows of the local businesses are scrawled with graffiti – permitted graffiti, if that’s not a contradiction in terms – listing the names of all the players on the team and wishing them crushing victory over their adversaries. It’s all very patriotic, and a smidgen aggressive for my English Rose sensibilities. After all, it’s just a bunch of school children playing sports, isn’t it?

And then I went to a game.

And things changed.

Our friends, the Tuckers, have a daughter, Becca, who plays basketball for the High School Varsity team (the Lady Leps – how genteel). One day I said I’d go along and watch her play.

I ambled in, late, and having had to borrow some money to pay the entrance fee (they charge you to watch kids play sports?!) and sat in the bleachers with a bunch of friends watching Becca and her team mates charging up and down the court.

I can’t remember who won.

I can’t remember who they played.

I can remember enjoying the camaraderie of chatting with friends, and cheering intermittently when the team scored a point.

So I decided to go again.

This time there were fewer friends, just Mom and Dad Tucker, and me.

What a different experience!

I focused on the game and was hooked in just a few minutes. Becca scored a three-pointer in the dying seconds of the second period (see, I even know some of the terminology now) and I was out of my seat, cheering and screaming like a mad woman.

Since that first game, I’ve seen about four more and each one gets better and better. I’m picking up the rules (and there are many rules!), which means my cries of encouragement are getting a little better informed than a general, “Well done” and “Keep going”.

I still don’t understand all of it and they play so fast that I miss much of the nuances, but I know who is winning by the points on the board, and by the shouts of Dad Tucker and the whispered explanations from Mom Tucker.

Last night, we watched the Lady Leps play at home. It was not just a sports game, it was more of an event. The team came on the court to the beat of pounding rap music. The cheerleaders led a cheer every time one of the Leps did a free throw (ie tried to get the ball in the basket after a foul). They even did a couple of leaps and flips during half time. And the Leopard mascot appeared.

I was wearing my purple shirt in support of my team. At one point, as the cheerleaders took to the court and we clapped along with them, I turned to Mom and Dad Tucker and grinned: “I think I am turning into an American!” Go Leps!

I’m a journalist by trade and have been for more than 20 years. These days, though, I am struggling to stay in love with the craft I have been practicing since I was a child.

Why?

Because I feel an essential element is missing in journalism these days: the facts.

The skill of journalism, which makes it an art, is to convey key information in an appealing, evocative, entertaining and attention-holding way. It could be a road accident, or a summer fete or a political scandal but whatever the story, however mundane or salacious, a good journalist has the ability to weave those key facts into a rich tapestry of text.

Sadly, the more I read and hear in today’s ‘news arena’, the fewer facts I see and the more opinion I hear.

Ironic, isn’t it, that I am writing a blog, from my personal opinion, about the lack of facts in journalism… So here are some facts.

Fact: we don’t receive TV at our house in Texas.
We have a television set that we use to watch films.

Fact: we do have a radio.
It is set most often to a local talk radio station which plays hours of shows where people call up and spout off to a radio host who knows just what subjects to cover to guarantee a well-lit switchboard.

Fact: if we go to a hotel or a friend’s house, we might watch a bit of TV.
Whatever channel you turn to, though, the ‘news’ is often presented via a panel discussion of talking heads or a presenter who is there to give their own opinions on the topic of the day.

Fact: each channel has a clear political bias, whether it’s from the left or the right, and all fervently promote their agenda.

Fact: I get most of my news from the internet, from online versions of newspapers that I used to read in the UK.

I always knew those newspapers were heavily slanted politically but I find the coverage in their online mediums leans at an angle which would make the famous tower of Pisa proud.

It’s got the point now where I scan a few headlines, maybe dig deeper into a few paragraphs and then groan and click away as the information starts to get hidden behind layers of bias. It may be subtly hidden, even unnoticeable to those who share the same views, but it is there nonetheless.

And that is my problem. I’m a journalist. I was trained to relay facts and to credit opinions to those I was interviewing but not to put myself or my views into the story.

That is why I am struggling to motivate myself to find more work as a journalist here in the US. It seems every freelance job I look for wants me to blog about my opinions or their opinions or tell the readers about someone else’s opinions, not share someone else’s knowledge.

And that goes against all I have been taught.

That’s why I even hesitated to start a blog about my experiences in Texas. Why would anyone, beyond my mum, my dad and my sister, really want to read about what I have to say about my life over here?

I have been trained to take myself out of the story. The idea that I would make myself the centre of the story went against the grain.

Recently I interviewed an expert on textiles for an article I was writing for The English Home, a beautiful interiors title published in the UK. The expert asked me, slightly incredulously, why I was writing an article on a subject I didn’t know much about.

I explained to her that my job was to take her knowledge and turn it into a well-written, informative article, fully crediting her quotes. She was a delightful woman but her sentences were jumbled and her thoughts scattered. It was my job to relay all she knew in a coherent and interesting manner.

I wasn’t supposed to be an expert in textiles, I was supposed to be an expert in conveying information.

So there you have it – I am standing on my soapbox and declaring that things aren’t what they used to be. I’ve just turned 40 – I’m allowed to rant and to moan about the ‘good old days’ of journalism, when we all used shorthand and understood where to put an apostrophe and knew that the best thing a journalist could do was keep their opinions to themselves.

Now I’m living in the era of social media, when everyone with internet access has a platform to share their views with the world.

Looks like I’m learning to embrace it…

This blog is becoming a little prophetic. I write about wanting a dog and get a dog. I write about encountering snakes and then, guess what, I have a much too close-for-comfort encounter with a copperhead.

Let me explain…

Monday 30th June, Jerry and I decide to go out on ‘date night’ (I love this expression, it seems so quaint, like a hangover from the 50s). In honour of the evening, I get smartened up in a dress, leggings and wedge sandals. We put Marley in her outdoor dog pen for a few hours and head off to the cinema. As soon as we get home, after dark, I head to the dog pen to release the hound.

I flick on the porch light and see Marley sitting patiently by the pen door, head cocked to one side, big brown eyes begging me to let her out. As per usual, as soon as the door is open wide enough for her to squeeze by, she pushes past me to freedom, knocking a plastic porch table into my path as she does so.

As I kick the table back into place…wham! I feel a sharp pain in my foot. First thought: it’s a wasp. Second thought, as the pain gets worse: it’s a scorpion. I reach down to brush off whatever was on my foot and see the head and a few inches of body of a snake hiding under the table. I know instantly it is a copperhead and this isn’t a good thing.

Leaving Marley to fend for herself, I run into the house screaming: “Jerry, I’ve been bitten by a snake.” He is out by the car and all I hear back is, “Oh no.” But it’s the kind of ‘oh no’ that makes me realise this is a big deal. Jerry is unflappable usually – very sanguine, doesn’t panic. I can tell by his tone that this is something to be concerned about.

The next few minutes is a bit of a blur: I run upstairs to take some Benadryl as I had heard of someone locally doing the same thing when they were bitten. [Medical advice says don’t take any medication by the way – wait for the hospital to give it to you.] As I knock back the antihistamine I hear a loud bang: Jerry has shot the snake which had wedged itself just under the siding of the house.

Crackshot Carr took revenge on the copperhead.

Crackshot Carr took revenge on the copperhead.

As he comes in the house with the dead snake in a bucket he seems me up on my feet and orders me to sit down and stay still. [Medical advice also says stay calm and still to stop the venom for circulating around your body.] He asks me to contact our friend Bobby who is an outdoorsy kind of guy and works for Texas Parks and Wildlife. If anyone is going to positively identify the snake, it will be him. Only one problem – my iphone is broken and I don’t have his number written down. So I Facebook message his wife Angie: “Is Bobby still up? I just got bitten by a snake and jerry wants me to come over with him for Bobby to take a look. Jerry killed the snake.”

While we wait for a reply, Jerry looks in his Texas Book of Snakes for a copperhead. I then remember I had downloaded a poster once that identified all the venomous snakes in Texas (may have been a little paranoid at the time but it paid off!). That poster also advised to call Poison Control, so I do.

It’s 10.30 at night and I speak to the operator in my best British accent. “Hi, I’ve just been bitten by a copperhead and I wondered what I should do?” There’s a fraction of a pause of incredulous silence followed by a lady telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I should get to a hospital…

I am still protesting as Jerry loads me into the car. My foot is a little swollen where it bit me but no more so then when I scratch a mosquito bite. And yes it hurts but no more so than a wasp sting. As we drive to St Mark’s, our local emergency room, all I can think of is the hospital bill. I have medical insurance but even so. All those horror stories I have heard from people who have run up huge bills after being given expensive anti-venom…

By the time we get to the hospital my foot is too sore to walk on so I hop through the doors. There’s no-one at reception to check me in. I wait a few minutes, cough politely to get someone’s attention, but nothing. I am just about to start getting agitated and shout for someone when a lady sitting in the waiting room shows me where the button is to call for help. Then Jerry arrives after parking the car. He deals with the paperwork while I show the granddaughter of the lady in the waiting room my snake bite. I am a little hysterical by this point, I think. Hyper, laughing at things and generally finding it all quite amusing. Funny how the body reacts.

After filling in the necessary paperwork I hop to a bed and a couple of nurses start working on me, checking blood pressure, fitting heart monitors and inserting an IV. I am impressed when I look down and see four vials of my blood sitting on my bed: I didn’t even feel it being drawn by the expert nurse.

Then it’s a game of hurry up and wait. Angie arrives, having seen my message, (what a special friend, to come out in the middle of the night!) and she and Jerry keep me occupied with jokes and chatter. Angie takes photos of my foot to send to her husband, and laughs when I say I guess I won’t be in work the next day. She also keeps a watchful eye on me. Every now and again, as I wince in pain or can’t quite catch my breath, I see her staring at me, ready to grab a nurse at any moment.

Angie photographs my foot for posterity.

Angie photographs my foot for posterity.

I don’t know how long it took but in the end I cave in and asked for some pain medication, as well as something for the nausea. Whatever it was they shot in my arm, it felt like I had drunk a bottle of whisky. I can’t see straight and the room starts to spin. I close my eyes and listen to my husband and my friend just chatting away. It was a comforting sound.

Once I start to drift off, Angie leaves and Jerry starts to drop off in the chair. I send him home to check on Marley, who we had left inside in a bit of a hurry, and I slip again into a woozy doze. About 3am the doctor comes to check on my foot which has started to bruise and swell. My toes are numb and I can’t move them at all. But he seems reassured I am not going to have an allergic reaction and discharges me as soon as Jerry returns, with orders to rest, keep the leg elevated and with a prescription for pain killers.

Five days later, I am no longer in agonizing pain but my foot is still too swollen to walk on. I am getting about the house through a combination of hopping, hobbling on crutches and shuffling up and down stairs on my bum. The swelling has spread to my knee; my foot and leg are a delicate shade of yellow. But it could have been worse. No anti-venom required; no hospital admittance necessary. My friends have rallied round, bringing cooked dinners and cake and generally being wonderful. My family are offering lots of support via regular emails and my husband is being extraordinary by fetching, carrying, putting a chair in the bath so I can take a shower sitting down and generally just being fab.

And me? Well, after passing the first couple of days in a codeine blur, I am off the pain killers and now am having to find things to occupy my mind while my body gets back on its feet. Hence the rather long blog.

I have also been shopping online for snake-proof boots. Believe me, that’s the last time I step outside on our property in a pair of open-toed shoes. As my sister so wittily puts it, this is no country for sandals.

So there I was, walking the dog (yes, we became the proud owners of a yellow Labrador a few months ago!) down the quiet country road when I saw an object lying on the tarmac. It looked like a thin piece of multi-coloured string, all curled up and ragged. As we got closer, I saw the distinctive bands of yellow, black and red… My mind raced as I tried to remember the rhyme… Was it black on yellow, kill a fellow or red on yellow, kill a fellow? You see, this wasn’t a piece of string but a (thankfully dead) poisonous Coral snake.
Life in Texas, even three years after moving here, is still full of surprises. I am glad of this – better to be wide eyed with wonder than jaded and nonchalant when I find a turtle mooching along by the garden fence, or a newborn deer, its back speckled with white spots, nestled in the long grass in the fields around our house.
Snakes, though, are one surprise I would rather not have to experience.
In my adopted neck of the woods we have three venomous snakes that are best avoided. There’s the aforementioned Coral snake, with its rings of red, yellow and black. This is often mistaken for a harmless milk snake, so there are many a ditty to remind you which one to avoid: The one I was couldn’t remember at the crucial moment is, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, put it back.” This little critter may be spindly and have a small mouth but its bite is formidable. Here’s the dead one we found on our walk.
coral snake
Then there’s the Copperhead, so called because of the colour of its diamond-shaped head, I imagine. I’ve never seen one but our local paper ran a story last year of a man who was cutting down some old trees and found himself standing in a nest of them. That’s why real cowboys wear cowboy boots out here!
(The Copperhead photo below comes from here: http://www.texaspoison.com/snakes.asp)
copperhead
And finally, there’s the Cottonmouth – so called because the inside of its mouth is white. I’d not seen one of these, either, until I was driving home last night and nearly ran over one. Not that I knew what it was at the time. But being wide-eyed with wonder still, I pulled over and took a photo on my iPhone of it coiled up in the road (hence the grainy quality), then posted it on Facebook for my friends to identify. I was quite shocked to realise I had seen yet another venomous snake not too far from my house.
cottonmouth
Of course, being Texas, we don’t just have dangerous snakes slithering around in the grass, or on the road. There are plenty of others that do you no harm but can give you a bit of a fright. When I first moved here, I found a lovely bright green one curled up on our doorstep one Spring afternoon. Naturally I freaked out, slammed the door and ran to grab my Texas Book of Snakes to find out if it was going to kill me! But no, it was just a grass snake and by the time I had identified it (and photographed it for Facebook), the thing had slipped quietly away.
green snake full
Thankfully I wasn’t here when Jerry stepped out into the front yard one evening, wandered about for a bit and then turned to walk back in the house to find a four-foot-long black racer lying along the edge of the house. It startled even him, for a second, just because it was so long.

So now I have seen not one, but two, of our deadly trio, I will be a little more cautious on my daily walks with our dog. Back to wearing walking boots and long trousers, I think. And no longer will I be trudging through the long grass in our pasture as she and I explore the far-flung and overgrown corners of our property. I went wild-flower picking just a few weeks ago, wading through knee-high grass searching for the perfect specimens. I wonder now what might have been lurking beneath!

Yesterday I drove by a woman walking two big dogs, a black lab and a long-coated German Shepherd. Without even thinking, I pulled over to the side of the road, jumped out of the car and walked towards her. I wanted to know how her two dogs coped with Texan summers which can be brutally hot. Instead of being alarmed, she was eager to share her advice and her two beautiful dogs just sat there patiently panting while we talked.

That’s what happens when you are a dog lover.

No shame, no barriers.

No hesitation at flagging some fellow dog-lover down in the street to share tips.

Now note I said I am a dog lover. I have yet to graduate to being a dog owner. But that time is coming, I am sure…

I grew up with dogs. My best childhood friend was a black German Shepherd/Lab mix called Polly. She was feisty, strong, cuddly and loyal. She was also a bit naughty. One day she chased a donkey around a paddock at some kind of public event. She slipped her choke chain (don’t moan at me about choke chains, this was the 80s, we all had ’em!), slipped under the fence and chased that poor donkey around the field. I was only little at the time but the story I recall is that my mum’s mother, my nan, was with us at the time and was grumbling about irresponsible dog owners when my dad suddenly realised the errant dog was ours and looked down to see he was holding an empty lead…

The next dog to come along was a Jack Russell puppy called Toby. Poor little guy was loved by my mum but to the rest of us he had a lot to live up to, as Polly was just adored. It didn’t help that he had a tendency to pee on everything: school work, clothes, my dad’s leg… He also was a little bit snappy. He chased a neighbour up the road one day and bit him on his backside. That neighbour used to scare him senseless every day by leaning over the garden gate to say hello. That day, when Toby found the gate fortuitously unlocked, he told the neighbour in no uncertain terms that he was not to do it again.

So being a dog lover is in my genes.

What I don’t know about is raising dogs in Texas.

When I moved to our little plot, surrounded by farms and cattle, I would regularly find puppies and older dogs wandering around our land. Every time I would stop and check on them, look for signs of distress or injury and worry about them being lost. Every time they would look at me bewildered, quizzically questioning why I was fussing over them, before they bounded off in search of further fun.

You see, everything is out to get dogs in Texas. Snakes can bite them. Cars can kill them. Hawks can fly the smaller ones away, so I am told. Mosquitoes can pass on some evil-sounding parasite that gets in their blood stream and grows in their heart and lungs. And let’s not mention the coyotes. I recall one conversation with a friend who grew up with dogs. She mentioned hearing neighbours talking about their small dogs going missing and never being found again. “I didn’t want to tell ’em the coyotes had probably got ’em,” she confided grimly.

That is why, one night I lay awake late into the small hours worrying about a Chihuahua that had been yapping on the porch of an outbuilding on our land for the last few hours. Too terrified to come to us, it had retreated to a back corner, growling and snarling like a very mini lion. In the end, after a Facebook consultation with my Texan country friends, it was decided to leave the dog to its own devices as it would eventually find its way home. I went to bed that night convinced it would be eaten by coyotes and in the morning there would be nothing left of the pup but a pile of tiny bones. Thankfully it proved me wrong.

And that is why, last week, when I came home after dark one night and found a little dog running around in our car port, she ended up staying for three days. When we finally found her owner, she thanked me for keeping her dog inside at night. She was convinced the coyotes had got her.

The coyotes had not got her but she had certainly got to us. We tried hard not to bond but it’s pretty hard not to love a dog. I blame the smell of their paws. That stale, musty smell reminds me of snuggling on the sofa with Polly, falling asleep with her front paw draped over me. It brings back wonderful memories.

And that is why we are keeping the lead and the dog bed we bought for our temporary house guest. The hunt is now on for a dog to grace our home and brighten our lives. We have already checked out some at the local animal shelter and will be making our decision soon. We have one hope – that it is as happy running around our land as the ones we see crossing our pasture on a regular basis. And that it loves us as much as we are going to love it.