I Wanted a Horse

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.

at twenty

Make Our Feast Ourselves

The adults we call our children will not be arriving
with their children in tow for Thanksgiving.
We must make our feast ourselves,

slice our half-ham, indulge, fill our plates,
potatoes and green beans
carried to our table near the window.

We are the feast, plenty of years,
arguments. I’m thinking the whole bundle of it
rolls out like a white tablecloth. We wanted

to be good company for one another.
Little did we know that first picnic
how this would go. Your hair was thick,

mine long and easy; we climbed a bluff
to look over a storybook plain. We chose
our spot as high as we could, to see

the river and the checkerboard fields.
What we didn’t see was this day, in
our pajamas if we want to,

wrinkled hands strong, wine
in juice glasses, toasting
whatever’s next,

the decades of side-by-side,
our great good luck.
~Marjorie Saiser “Thanksgiving for Two”

Even without family gathered around us this day,
we do have each other and that is a blessing in and of itself.
May we revel in our thanksgiving feast for two because,
through thick and thin and COVID,
we are still together.

Facing Forward to November

The wild November come at last
Beneath a veil of rain;
The night wind blows its folds aside –
Her face is full of pain.

The latest of her race, she takes
The Autumn’s vacant throne:
She has but one short moon to live,
And she must live alone.

A barren realm of withered fields,
Bleak woods, and falling leaves,
The palest morns that ever dawned;
The dreariest of eves.

It is no wonder that she comes,
Poor month! With tears of pain;
For what can one so hopeless do
But weep, and weep again?
~Richard Henry Stoddard “November”

Leaves wait as the reversal of wind
comes to a stop. The stopped woods
are seized of quiet; waiting for rain
bird & bug conversations stutter to a
stop.

…the rain begins to fall. Rain-strands,
thin slips of vertical rivers, roll
the shredded waters out of the cloud
and dump them puddling to the ground.

Whatever crosses over
through the wall of rain
changes; old leaves are
now gold. The wall is
continuous, doorless. True,
to get past this wall
there’s no need for a door
since it closes around me
as I go through.
~Marie Ponsot from “End of October”

I reluctantly bid October good-bye to face forward
into a darkening November.

Summer is mere memory now;
all color drained from
leaves fallen, dissolving
in frost and rain.

There’s no turning around now
that the clock has fallen back.
We commit our stumbling feet to the path
that trudges toward winter,
silenced and seized
by the relentless momentum of doorless darkness.
There appears no escape hatch.

Yet when the light rises on the hills, even briefly,
I feel a veil lift enough
that I am able to see
far beyond my reach.
The horizon extends on and on forever
and I only then I know
I will endure another winter.

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

Great Expanses

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Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.
~Jane Hoogestraat “At the Edge of a Time Zone” from Border States.

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We have spent long hours in the past week traveling on the great expanses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho plains. It is a marvel to see so far in every direction yet to feel you are barely moving at 80 miles an hour. The extra hour gained at the edge of a time zone is pure gravy of gifted time.

This is challenging land on which people eke out a living. We have seen a cowboy and herding dog flanking a few dozen Angus cattle alongside the freeway. We’ve seen huge combines kicking up dust clouds as they thresh fields of grain. There are 150 year old remnants of barns and buildings, barely standing against the constant winds and harsh weather.

While we now cross the plains in a day or two, native people and wagon train pioneers spent months by foot or horse, many never managing to reach their destination.

These expanses echo with those lost lives of previous centuries, not to forget hundreds of thousands of bison that also once grazed these basins.

We’ll return to the land of rain and green and ubiquitous trees today. But the great expanses of the plains always enlarge my vision of who lives and works within this vast country.

My heart swells in gratitude with the view of such an endless horizon.

abandoned schoolhouse (now collapsed) near Rapalje, Montana

Fighting a Harder Battle

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.

 

Pounding the Earth

Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard
gallop, hard chest – hooves and mane and flicking
tail. My love: I apprehend each flower,
each winged body, saturated in a light
that burnishes. I would make a burnishing 
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which i mean, a breaching – my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest of sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love, 
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth. 

~Donika Kelly (2017) “Love Poem: The Centaur” from Bestiary

When Haflingers gallop in the field, it sounds like thunder as their hooves pound the earth. It can be a particularly ominous sound, especially in the middle of the night when the pounding hooves are going past our bedroom window which means only one thing: their field gate or the barn door has been breached. Haflingers are also Houdinis.

Their hooves may hug the ground, treading clover blossoms and blades of grass but I can see invisible wings as I watch them run. Their manes and tails float free even when the rest of their bodies are entirely earth-bound.

I know most of the time I move ponderously over the earth as well leaving my footprints behind. Some days I feel literally tethered to the ground, with no lightness of being whatsoever.

But once I breach the gate, I grow wings. The ground cannot hold me any longer and it rises to meet me as I fly.

Staying Brave Enough

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

Our daughter and her new husband started their married life yesterday with a ceremony on the farm. God invites them into the orchard and yard where His garden is blooming. It is here where His light illuminates the darkness, and where, each day for the rest of their lives, their covenant with one another mirrors their covenant with God as His children.

Even on the dark days, the light pursues them.
Even on the dark days, their brave love will bloom.

A Barn Revival

Just down the road… around the bend,
Stands an old empty barn; nearing the end.
It has sheltered no animals for many years;
No dairy cows, no horses, no sheep, no steers.
The neigh of a horse; the low of a cow;
Those sounds have been absent for some time now.
There was a time when the loft was full of hay,
And the resounding echoes of children at play.
At one time the paint was a bold shade of red;
Gradually faded by weather and the sun overhead.
The doors swing in the wind… the hinges are loose,
Windows and siding have taken a lot of abuse.
The fork, rope and pulleys lifted hay to the mow,
A task that always brought sweat to the brow.
But those good days are gone; forever it seems,
And that old barn now stands with sagging beams.
It is now home to pigeons, rats and mice;

The interior is tattered and doesn’t look very nice.
Old, abandoned barns have become a trend,
Just down the road… around the bend.

~Vance Oliphant “Old Barn”

photo by Nate Gibson

There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Our old barn has stood empty for several years; we and our neighbors who have used it for years to house a winter hay supply have found other more convenient places to put our hay. The winter winds have worn away its majesty: missing shingles have torn away holes in the roof, the mighty beams providing foundational support were sinking and rotting in the ground, a gap opened in the sagging roof crest, and most devastating of all, two walls collapsed in a particularly harsh blow.

The old barn was in death throes after over one hundred years of history.
Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.
Dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight,
seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There was no heart beat left in this dying barn. It was in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I could hardly bear to go inside much less take pictures of its deteriorating shell.

We had people show up at our front door offering to demolish it for the lumber, now all the fad for expensive modern “vintage” look in new house construction. A photo of our barn showed up in local media declaring “another grand old barn in the county has met its end.” That stung. Meanwhile we were saving our money, waiting until we could afford to bring our old red barn back to life.

It started with one strong young man digging out the support posts to locate the rot. Then another remarkable young man was able to jack up the posts one by one, putting in reinforcing steel and concrete and straightening the gaping sagging roof line, providing the old barn its first ever foundation.

And over the last two weeks a crew of two men have replaced the damaged roof and absent walls with metal siding. The barn is looking whole again.

There is a lot of clean up left to do inside: decades of old hay build up and damaged lumber and untold numbers of abandoned mouse nests and scattered barn owl pellets.

Soon, the barn will be shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. It will go on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity.

It will once again serve as the back up sanctuary on Easter morning when we are rained out up on the hill for Sunrise Service.

Now vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another 100 years.

Another old barn is resuscitated back to life when so many are left to die. It is revived and breathing on its own again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales and walls will groan with the pressure of stacks.

I must remember there is always hope for the shattered and weary among us. If an old barn can be saved, then so can we.

So can we.

photo by Nate Gibson

Casting All Your Cares

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1Peter 5:7

In late May, on our farm,  there is only a brief period of utter silence during the dark of the night.  Up until about 2 AM, the spring peepers are croaking and chorusing vigorously in our ponds and wetlands, and around 4 AM the diverse bird song begins in the many tall trees surrounding the house and barnyard.

In between those bookend symphonies is stillness–usually.

I woke too early this morning aware of something being unstill.  It was an intermittent banging, coming from the barn.  I lay in bed, trying to discern the middle of the night noise that could be a sign of a major problem, like a horse stuck up against a stall wall or “cast” in horseman’s parlance,  or simply one of my water-bucket-banging geldings who enjoys nocturnal percussion.

This was not sounding like a bucket drum set.  It was emphatic hooves frantically banging against metal walls.

Throwing on sweats and boots, I head out the back door into the mere light of pre-dawn, dewy, with the birds just starting to rouse from sleep, the floral perfume of lingering apple blossoms heavy in the air.  Entering the barn, I throw on the lights and start to count the noses I can see in the stalls as I walk down the aisle~all present and accounted for until I get to the very end of the row.  No nose.   Down in the corner is one of our older mares on her side, too close to the wall, her feet askew up against the boards and metal siding.  She nickered low to me, and my entering the stall sent her into a renewed effort to right herself, but all she could do was scrabble against the wall, digging an even bigger hole beneath her body.

This has happened infrequently over our 35 years of owning horses, usually when a horse is rolling to scratch their back and rolls too close to the wall, and becomes lodged there.  Haflingers, who have a fairly round conformation, are a bit prone to being cast.  Our older barn,  with dirt floors, is particularly likely to having this happen, as depressions in the floor where horses have been digging end up becoming deeper and trap a hapless horse that was nonchalantly rolling.  The horse literally is trapped like a turtle on its back.

Righting a 1000 lb. horse that is frantically flailing and struggling is not a particularly easy or safe task.  Thankfully Haflingers tend to be pretty sensible in this situation and will calm when spoken to and be reassured we’re trying to help.  Carefully, I threw and looped a rope around each lower leg, and with help from the man of the house, we were able to pull her back over, and then jump out of her way quickly.  She got up, shook herself off and immediately asked for breakfast–a good sign this was not a horse in distress or colicking with abdominal pain.

So our day started early.

I hope when I find myself trapped in a hole of my own making, when I’ve been careless about watching where I’m heading and find myself helpless and hopeless with no where and no way to turn, someone will hear my struggles and come rescue me.  I promise not to kick out or bite,  but to wait patiently, in gratitude, for such gracious liberation.  

My cares will be cast upon my rescuer.

And then please, offer me breakfast.

John 21: 12 – Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”