it rained in my sleep and in the morning the fields were wet I dreamed of artillery of the thunder of horses in the morning the fields were strewn with twigs and leaves as if after a battle or a sudden journey I went to sleep in the summer I dreamed of rain in the morning the fields were wet and it was autumn ~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening
The dogs eat hoof slivers and lie under the porch. A strand of human hair hangs strangely from a fruit tree like a cry in the throat. The sky is clay for the child who is past being tired, who wanders in waist-deep grasses. Gnats rise in a vapor, in a long mounting whine around her forehead and ears.
The sun is an indistinct moon. Frail sticks of grass poke her ankles, and a wet froth of spiders touches her legs like wet fingers. The musk and smell of air are as hot as the savory terrible exhales from a tired horse.
At evening a breeze dries and crumbles the sky and the clouds float like undershirts and cotton dresses on a clothesline. Horses rock to their feet and race or graze. Parents open their shutters and call the lonely, happy child home. The child who hates silences talks and talks of cicadas and the manes of horses. ~Carol Frost – lines from “All Summer Long” from Love and Scorn: New and Collected Poems.
I was one of those lonely but happy youngsters who dreamt of horses all summer long, immersed in my own made-up stories of forest rides on hidden trails, of spending hours decorating long manes and tails of golden horses, of performing daring rescues and races, of battles and bravery I didn’t experience in real life. The imaginings took me beyond the mundane into the fanciful where I could be completely lost until I was called to come in for dinner or return to the confines of a school classroom.
Some dreams do come true when you want them badly enough: I’ve now had decades gazing out at fields of grass with those thundering hooves, back-dropped by endless skies of ever-changing clouds. I’ve also found that fairy tales can have broken fences and growing manure piles.
It has been worth it for a kid whose own story bloomed when I became a wife, a mother, a physician and a horse farmer. As this summer yet again has transitioned to autumn, so does my story: it is full of aging horses and tired fields, yet still I find myself dreaming like a kid as I comb out those long flowing manes.
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I’m deep into my sixties now and some days I’m reminded how deep more than others. Though I’m well past the hot flashes of my fifties, I now deal with the typical aches and pains of my seventh decade on earth. Every once in awhile, I compare notes with our aging Haflinger mares (now all well into their twenties) on our farm and watch how well they too are coping with their advancing years.
These mares still have a lot of life left. They sometimes run like the wind when turned loose, their manes and tails flying in the wind. They can buck, kick and fart with the best of them. And then limp around for the rest of the day, regretting their momentary indiscretion.
These mares know who they are. There is no identity crisis here. They are mothers who have finished their mothering years, and are well into the grandmothering years. Even so, they still like to flirt – although they aren’t sure they remember why they want to attract attention from a certain fella in the neighboring field.
These mares aren’t thrilled about work anymore. They are a bit out of shape with a tendency toward the fluffy side of fitness, so require a moment to catch their breath once in awhile. Their muscles hurt the next day. They break out in sweat easily. They appreciate a break for a mid-day nap – or two – or three.
These mares are opinionated. There is no question they know their own minds, what they want and how they are going to get it and they keep no one around them guessing. They want to make sure everyone else knows how right they are even if they (so very rarely) are wrong.
These mares are stubborn. Once they’ve decided something, it takes more than soft sweet persuasion, like a whack on the behind, to change course. Once they’ve decided they don’t like another horse, the only way to change that opinion is for the other horse to adopt an attitude of complete servitude and submission, giving way whenever approached and grooming the boss mare whenever asked.
These mares are hungry. Always. See “fluffy” above although chewing isn’t as easy as it used to be. Grazing is now classified as “work.”
These mares don’t sleep all that much, but wish they could sleep more. Even though they might look like they are napping (see “mid-day naps” above), they are actually meditating, with their eyes closed, on the next plan of action.
These mares’ feet and joints hurt at times – sometimes dealing with broken and cracked nails, trouble walking over uneven surfaces, and being impatient and touchy about manicures.
These mares are not as fussy about their appearance as they used to be. Their fur coats are no longer as sleek and smooth – their hair can stick out at weird angles, their beards grow long and their eyes aren’t quite as clear. Their four foot manes have been rubbed down to two foot manes and have a few more tangles in them. Their tails have stains (don’t ask why). They stride through mud puddles without a second thought, whereas when they were younger, there was no way one hoof was going to set foot in such mucky stuff.
These mares don’t keep as tidy a bedroom as they used to. Why bother? Life is too short for making neat piles in pristine surroundings.
These mares know how to be the best of friends. If their best forever friend is not turned out with them in the field, they will stand at the gate, and call nonstop for an hour asking where she is. And when they are reunited, they mutually groom for a long time, until their mouths are so full of hair they can’t stand each other – until tomorrow, that is.
These mares know how to give great kisses and hugs. Especially if you are hiding a carrot on your person, you’ll be mugged.
Yes, we “deep-in-the-middle ages” gals, human and equine, do seem to have a lot in common.
I do appreciate knowing we can always stick together, through thick and …well, thick.
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The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden is underway this week and for the ninth year in a row, our Haflinger horses aren’t there on display. I feel wistful as I wake up too early on a foggy summer morning, remembering the twenty years where I would gather up our sleepy children and their friends and head into the fairgrounds to clean stalls, walk the ponies and prepare for the day. We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, and I’m still a little bit sad about that.
Our farm, BriarCroft, had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well-decorated outdoor display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late 1980s to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.
But now that our children are all grown up and moved away, we lack their help to “man” the horse stalls. I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, most of them now with children of their own.
Every year between 1992 and 2012, we were there, sometimes sharing space and duties with other Haflinger farms (Rodenbergers and McKees), along with several brave young women (Kelsy Smith, Chesna Klimek and Emily Vander Haak) who did Haflinger “trick riding” as part of the daily Grandstand show. The older kids watched the younger kids, the in-between kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and we adults sat and shot the breeze.
Our display created good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes. Our horses came to represent what dreams are made of.
Countless times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.
Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some 10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.
Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.
By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.
Gary was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.
When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a 4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.
This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback. Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.
I have lost track of Gary over the years and I hope he is faring well. I hope his connection with our horses left him with a legacy of love for animals he’ll pass onto his children someday.
So on this misty late summer morning, instead of heading to the fairgrounds to clean stalls, I’m going to turn our dusty, unbathed Haflingers out in the field as usual. They don’t even know all the excitement they are missing.
I do hope the fair-goers still miss the friendly golden horses, with the big brown eyes, who helped make dreams come true.
Thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano, Emily Vander Haak, Kelsy Smith, and Chesna Klimek for their photos in this collection.
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One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. ~Dale Carnegie
When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; ~William Shakespeare from Henry V
We all should have a buddy who is along for the ride and blesses us with their company.
There is always a need for a precious friend who has our back – helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them.
It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.
Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these birds do leave “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, having to clean up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.
We’re buds after all – best forever friends.
And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast and the other provides the wings.
We’re fully fed and we’re fully free – together.
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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.
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.
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.
And came the horses. There, still they stood, But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound. Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons, High over valleys, in the red leveling rays
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces, May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews, Hearing the horizons endure. ~Ted Hughes from “The Horses”
Five years ago this week, Marlee went to her forever home, far sooner than we planned. She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.
But something dire was happening to her over the previous two weeks — not eating much, an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.
Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off. But the time had clearly come.
Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver, but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis. She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she learned people’s behavior, understood their nonverbal language, and discerned human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we were tasked with teaching her the proper social cues.
When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scattered when they saw her face change. The irony of it all is that when she was “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.
She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.
The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.
She was the first among North American Haflingers to not only become regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.
With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor, she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s. She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.
She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond (aka “Mondo”), and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.
This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said: “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.” Marlee was, to put it simply, trained to train her riders.
I miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. I miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night. I miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was always on.
What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan. What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years. Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me all those years, as the surrogate mom who loved and fed her. May I meet her in my memories, whenever I feel lonesome for her, still unable to resist those bright eyes forever now closed in peace.
Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.
They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…
We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.
But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.
These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.
You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.
I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.
Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.
I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.
I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.