The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back. The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe, trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow, balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack the ice so horses could drink. With each blow I feared she would fall, but she never slipped. Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say? The time we have’s still too short to master love, and then, the hollow that comes after. ~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”
Vigil at my mother’s bedside
Lying still, your mouth gapes open as I wonder if you breathe your last. Your hair a white cloud Your skin baby soft No washing, digging, planting gardens Or raising children Anymore. Hollowed.
Where do your dreams take you? At times you wake in your childhood home of Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom. Other naps take you to your student and teaching days Grammar and drama, speech and essays. Yesterday you were a young mother again Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.
Today you looked about your empty nest Disguised as hospital bed, Wondering aloud about Children grown, flown. You still control through worry and tell me: Travel safely Get a good night’s sleep Take time to eat Call me when you get there
I dress you as you dressed me I clean you as you cleaned me I love you as you loved me You try my patience as I tried yours. I wonder if I have the strength to Mother my mother For as long as she needs.
When I tell you the truth Your brow furrows as it used to do When I disappointed you~ This cannot be A bed in a room in a sterile place Waiting for death Waiting for heaven Waiting
And I tell you: Travel safely Eat, please eat Sleep well Call me when you get there.
Ten more miles, it is South Dakota. Somehow, the roads there turn blue, When no one walks down them. One more night of walking, and I could have become A horse, a blue horse, dancing Down a road, alone.
I have got this far. It is almost noon. But never mind time: That is all over. It is still Minnesota. Among a few dead cornstalks, the starving shadow Of a crow leaps to his death. At least, it is green here, Although between my body and the elder trees A savage hornet strains at the wire screen. He can’t get in yet.
It is so still now, I hear the horse Clear his nostrils. He has crept out of the green places behind me. Patient and affectionate, he reads over my shoulder These words I have written. He has lived a long time, and he loves to pretend No one can see him. Last night I paused at the edge of darkness, And slept with green dew, alone. I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow To the shadow of a horse. ~James Wright “Sitting in a small screenhouse on a summer morning”
I have a sense of someone reading over my shoulder as I write. It keeps me honest to feel that breath on my hair, that green smell reminding me who I am.
I should not try to be anyone else.
When my words don’t say exactly what I hope, I feel forgiveness from the shadow beside me.
It’s all softness. It’s all okay even when it’s not.
When we reach the field she is still eating the heads of yellow flowers and pollen has turned her whiskers gold. Lady, her stomach bulges out, the ribs have grown wide. We wait, our bare feet dangling in the horse trough, warm water where goldfish brush our smooth ankles. We wait while the liquid breaks down Lady’s dark legs and that slick wet colt like a black tadpole darts out beginning at once to sprout legs. She licks it to its feet, the membrane still there, red, transparent the sun coming up shines through, the sky turns bright with morning and the land with pollen blowing off the corn, land that will always own us, everywhere it is red. ~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.
First, her fluid flows in subtle stream then gushes in sudden drench. Soaking, saturating, precipitating inevitability. No longer cushioned slick sliding forward following the rich river downstream to freedom.
The smell of birth clings to shoes, clothes, hands as soaked in soupy brine I reach to embrace new life sliding toward me.
I too was caught once; three times emptied into other hands, my babies wet on my chest their slippery skin under my lips so salty sweet
In a moment’s scent the rush of life returns; now only barn or field birthings yet still as sweet and rich. I carry the smell of damp foal fur with me all day to recall from whence I came. I floated once and will float free someday again.
The mares go down for their evening feed into the meadow grass. Two pine trees sway the invisible wind some sway, some don’t sway. The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight For just a minute or so. The mares have their heads on the ground, the trees have their heads on the blue sky. Two ravens circle and twist. On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer. ~Charles Wright “Miles Away”
It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture. The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.
But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard. The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.
There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar. We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.
Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar. They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.
One early spring some years ago, as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them. Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying. There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.
They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up. I approached, quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed, spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass. Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.
We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.
I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road. As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster, they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled: our stallion. He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.
So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives. Guys can do that to a gal. You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.
Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer, for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats. All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machineclacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres, gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack, and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn, three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns. Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze, one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond, and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear, and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave, shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost. ~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”
As a child, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.
She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.
At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.
When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.
Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.
Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. ~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor
When I pull open the barn doors, every morning and each evening, as my grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears.
I do my chores faithfully as my grandparents once did– draw fresh water into buckets, wheel away the pungent mess underfoot, release an armful of summer from the bale, reach under heavy manes to stroke silken necks.
I don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry me to town or move the logs or till the soil as my grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm two or three long decades ago, are simply grateful for my constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
I depend on them to depend on me to be there to open the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, as if today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn Black chimney builds into the quiet sky Its curling pile to crumble silently. Far out to the westward on the edge of morn, The slender misty city towers up-borne Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue; And yonder on those northern hills, the hue Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.
And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain, Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze, Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team, With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam. ~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.
Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.
We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.
We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.
For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.
And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.
No fossil fuel necessary back then. No exhaust other than steaming nostrils and a pile of manure here or there.
We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
I stop the car along the pasture edge, gather up bags of corncobs from the back, and get out. Two whistles, one for each, and familiar sounds draw close in darkness— cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland, twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared. They come deepened and muscular movements conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent heavy with earth, simple beyond communion, beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly take corncobs, pulling away as I hold until the mid-points snap. They are careful of my fingers, offering that animal-knowledge, the respect which is due to strangers; and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars, the entire, outer light of the world here. ~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.
I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.
I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.
When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.
It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.
The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.
There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.
What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?
Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.
We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.