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.
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.
Like waves of fire, they flared forward and to my eyes filled the whole world, empty till then. Perfect, ablaze, they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs, with manes like a dream of salt.
Their rumps were worlds and oranges.
Their color was honey, amber, fire.
There, in silence, at mid-day, in that dirty, disordered winter, those intense horses were the blood the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.
I looked. I looked and was reborn: for there, unknowing, was the fountain, the dance of gold, heaven and the fire that lives in beauty.
I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.
I will not forget the light of the horses. ~Pablo Neruda from “Horses”
The Haflingers have been here more than half my life. They are now mostly retired as I soon will be.
They belong on this farm even more than I do: they were born to graze on steep hillsides, to find the tenderest of clover leafs hiding among the bulrushes and thistles. They laze about under the branches, swishing flies with those abundant tails.
Most of all, they are the copper and gold so badly needed in the gray light of fall and winter. When my eyes and heart feel empty and in need of filling up, I go out into the fields to absorb the riches of their honey coats, their deep brown eyes, their stark white mane and tails.
They won’t be here forever, nor will I. We will someday be dust – no longer glinting of gold nor burning with the fire of life on this earth. But the memory of our light is forever as nothing can extinguish a beauty that is heaven-sent, whether horse or human.
There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse… ~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders
Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.
It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.
After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.
This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.
Mostly, I want to be kind. And nobody, of course, is kind, or mean, for a simple reason. ~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. ~Plato
Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.
I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.
In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.
Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.
Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.
At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.
The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.
She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.
I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.
She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.
And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.
Hard to reach, so you yank your clothes getting at it—the button at your neck, the knotted shoe. You snake your fingers in until your nails possess the patch of skin that’s eating you. And now you’re in the throes of ecstasy, eyes lolling in your skull, as if sensing the first time the joy one takes in being purely animal.
It’s so good to have a scratch, though isn’t it a drag living like this, jounced on a high wire of impulses, every wish the same programmed response to another signal passed from cell to cell, amounting in the end to a distraction— if truth be told—from rarer things, thoughts free from the anchor-chain of self? ~David Yezzi from “Itchy”
There is almost nothing more frustrating than having an itch you can’t reach. It is hard to think of anything else; you become entirely immersed in that sensation and the need to relieve it. It’s almost as difficult as stifling a yawn or trying to prevent a sneeze. It becomes literally painful: some things simply can’t be stopped.
So scratching an itch becomes the most important thing in the moment. And having done finally done it, you can move on to other things in your day and not think about it again.
So when the itch is hard to reach, it is surely a blessing to have a mama or close buddy who will scratch it for you. In fact, there is hardly anything as wonderful as someone who will be on the look out for your moments of distraction and discomfort and without even being asked, take care of it for you.
And to be really in sync, you’ll find their itch to scratch at the same time. I knew “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” must have come from somewhere — just out in my back field. Quid pro quo.
Because I have come to the fence at night, the horses arrive also from their ancient stable. They let me stroke their long faces, and I note in the light of the now-merging moon
how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been by shake-guttered raindrops spotted around their rumps and thus made Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.
Maybe because it is night, they are nervous, or maybe because they too sense what they have become, they seem to be waiting for me to say something
to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here, that they might awaken from this strange dream, in which there are fences and stables and a man who doesn’t know a single word they understand. ~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm”from Beautiful Country
Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.
I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.
They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.
Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.
Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.
Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.
But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.
It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
We have a water bucket graveyard on our farm. Buckets, tubs, barrels, you name it – if it once had water in it, it is no longer functional and therefore is not only merely dead, it is really most sincerely dead.
Over the decades, we have bought various styles of buckets and tubs with which to water our Haflinger horses. None have survived more than a few weeks, all thanks to one Haflinger in particular who sees anything rubber, plastic or steel-coated as his personal ninja playground.
We discovered early on that Haflingers do have a variety of creative techniques for attracting attention to themselves when someone walks in the barn, especially around feeding time. Over the years, we’ve had the gamut: the noisy neigher, the mane tosser, the foot stomper, the stall door striker, the play with your lips in the water and splash everything, and most irritating of all, the teeth raked across the woven wire front of the stall. A few Haflingers do wait patiently for their turn for attention, without fussing or furor, sometimes nickering a low “huhuhuhuhuh” of greeting. That is truly blissful in comparison.
We raised one filly whose chosen method of bringing attention to herself was to bump her belly up against her rubber water buckets that hang in the stall, making them bounce wildly about, spraying water everywhere, drenching her, and her stall in the process. She loved it. It was sport for her to see if she could tip the buckets to the point of emptying them and then knock them off their hooks so she could boot them around the stall, destroying a few in the process. Nothing made this mare happier. When she had occasion to share a big stall space with one of her half-siblings, she found that the bucket bouncing technique was very effective at keeping her brothers away, as they had no desire to be drenched and they didn’t find noisy bucket bumping very attractive. So her hay pile was hers alone–very clever thinking.
This is not unlike a wild chimpanzee that I knew at Gombe in Tanzania, named “Mike” by Jane Goodall, who found an ingenious way of rising to alpha male status by incorporating empty oil drums in his “displays” of aggression, pounding on them and rolling them down hills to take advantage of their noise and completely intimidating effect on the other male chimpanzees. Mike was on the small side, and a bit old to be alpha male, but assumed the position in spite of his limitations through use of his oil drum displays. So my noisy and water splashing mare, became alpha over her peers.
Our current bucket destroyer is intent on making the kill rather than making noise for attention. During this gelding’s fifteen years of life, I estimate he has gone through over a hundred buckets. Ironically some buckets bite him back, causing such significant lower lip tears that on two occasions a vet made an emergency call to perform a laceration repair (also known as plastic surgery in the barn aisle) so this Haflinger bears scars for his bad bucket habit. Unfortunately, expensive lip repairs have not discouraged him from ongoing bucket battles. His latest victim was found this morning, its steel handle broken, the bucket itself half-buried in a hole my gelding had dug in the dirt floor of the stall. He isn’t even waiting for me to issue last rites anymore; he’s taking care of that himself.
We humans aren’t much different in our destructive tendencies and our need for attracting attention. Some of us talk too much, even if we have nothing much to say, some of us strut our physical beauty and toss our hair, some of us are pushy to the point of obnoxiousness. Some of us are real bluffers, making a whole lot more noise and fuss than is warranted, but enjoying the chaos that ensues. Sometimes we even tear down what is important to our own survival and nurture (everyone needs water, right?) and leave a wake of destruction behind us – all done to make sure someone notices.
Well, now I notice each time I buy a new bucket and am reminded:
I need to quit stomping and knocking doors in my impatience, as well as quit hollering when a quiet greeting is far more welcome and appropriate. I need to quit soaking everyone else with my splashing drama – after all, it yields me nothing more than empty broken buckets that sometimes bite me back. Eventually, when I destroy every bucket in the place, I will get very thirsty and wish I hadn’t been so foolish and brash.
So if my horses are potentially trainable to have better manners, so am I.
And then I realize: over the years, my horses have been busy training me.