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Monday, September 5, 2016

Plow Horses

When I was very small, uncles Clarence and Verle still had draft horses. The tractor had already taken on most of what had been draft-horse work. It was a hard tradition to give up, of course, for men who had come of age learning to handle and care for these beautiful animals. Clarence gave up his horses first. I have just the vaguest memory of having seen them. I believe Dad told me that they were Belgians. That's, at least, what we call them in the USA. (For the sake of my Belgian grandchildren: there you can call them Cheval de trait belge, in French or, in Flemish, Belgisch Trekpaard or Brabants Trekpaard or Brabander.) Their description on Wikipedia also fits my faint memory: brown (chestnut) with a contrasting (“flaxen”) mane and tail.

Verle's horses were big, black Percherons. From a child's perspective, he kept them for what seemed like much longer. When not outside, their home was two stalls near the far end of the barn--between the milking cows' stanchions and the calf pen. Three brief memories come clearly to mind. I must guess at their chronological order.

Mom Sat Me On the Wide-Flat Back of a Plow Horse

I believe by this time I was walking, perhaps toddling. On a visit up to the farms ("Up Home", as Mom used to say). Mom took me out to the wide, dirt drive that ran between Verle and Irene Pratt's house and barn. It was wide because it also lead to multiple bays of the nearby machine shed which marked the end of the drive. Also, the drive was a center of activity during threshing and silo filling—operations I saw a few times. What I remember is Verle walking one of his horses out of the barnyard and holding it while Mom lifted me up and put me on its back. I had not yet seen a cowboy movie, had yet to see a television, but I had a clear image of what it was supposed to be like to straddle a horse and ride it. I'm sure I had pictures of it in my mind both from books and from seeing a few people ride horse's in fields or at a park. I remember the event. Because, as I came down in Mom's hands onto the horse's back, I felt as if she sat me on a huge table. I had trouble sensing I was on the horse I had just seen. Even with my legs spread they didn't come close to anything that seemed to round into the horse's sides. It was one broad, soft-but-muscular table.

Kick to the Ceiling

This was spectacular. Everything at the dairy farm revolved around the two-times-a-day milking. Conversation didn't stop, it just moved from the kitchen, or the shed, or the field into the barn. As Verle and Irene milked the cows the socializing continued. Mom and Dad and I were there. (My sisters were probably in the house playing with cousins.) If more visitors showed up they knew where to find the folks. I remember being in the barn on one such occasion. Two other people showed up. They joined the milking conversation. I believe they were neighbors and young. One was a girl or young woman dressed in bluejeans. As they all jabbered on, I presume I was mostly fascinated with the milking machines and the whole process.

Now the clear image. I could not see the horses in their stall. However, in a lighting quick instant, I saw the black leg of one horse jab out from its stall and catch the young woman square in her butt. I may be the only person who actually saw it. She shot into the air, struck the low ceiling, and landed on her butt on the floor. That caught everybody's attention. She got up, smiled, brushed herself off, claimed to be unhurt, and joined everybody in the laughter. I don't remember for sure, but I believe I was too much in awe to laugh. The milking and the conversation continued.

Tractor Rescue

Verle defended keeping his horses because there were somethings they still did better than a tractor. We went to the farm one spring. It must have been an exceptionally wet spring. Uncle Verle was anxious to get out and work his corn field so he could get it planted. He took the tractor out into a field that he knew might be too wet. That, as I recall happened before we got there. When we arrived he was back at the barn hooking up his horses to go out into the field to rescue the tractor. I could see the effort but it was near the center of the field—too far for me, and Dad, (and others of us, I presume) to see the details of how well the horses worked. In any case, before long, horses, tractor, and Verle were back to the barnyard. The cornfield had to wait a couple more days. Verle had one more argument in his favor as to why he should continue to be one of the last in the area to keep horses.

The Fourth of Three Plow Horse Stories

I know I said I only have three, but this is more of a footnote to the Kick-To-The-Ceiling story. Much later, perhaps 1975, we visited the horse barn at the Minnesota State Fair. It must have been the peak day for horse events because the giant barn with its wide aisles, ample stalls, and everywhere-grooming were full. As we enjoyed what we saw we wandered out a corner of the west end of the large-permanent barn to an also-large shed that seemed new and perhaps temporary. It ran along the west end of the big barn and was chock full of draft horses. There were narrow stalls on each side of a narrow aisle. The aisle could not have been more than eight feet wide--I like to remember it as closer to six feet. The butt ends and powerful hind legs of the draft horses were not only close they were almost a foot above reality. The stalls had a raised floor of straw that was hard-packed and deep. As we entered the aisle from its north end and proceeded south we had to maneuver among busy folks tending the horses as well as a few buckets and such. Quickly came my vivid flashback of the kick-to-the-ceiling incident I had witnessed as a young child. I saw in stark clarity that Kristin and Karlyn were in danger. At five and three years old, their heads seemed to me to be at kicking height. As we walked slowly I could not rid myself of fear for their safety among these beasts of beauty. As far as I know, neither Kristin nor Karlyn were scared. Marney, leading the way, was not scared. None of those who weaved their way among the horses to tend to their needs seemed at all worried about provoking one to kick. Feeling tiny and vulnerable myself, I did my best to act and comment with calm while herding the family single-file in front of me—trying to keep them in the center of aisle when we had to pass people and obstacles. I'm sure I tried to act knowledgeable, and interested. Well, I was interested—in awe really of the muscular beauty in our proximity. Fortunately, no horses were brought out into the aisle during our passage. If one had been lead toward us, I think I would have turned the family around rather than try to sneak by to be sandwiched between that horse and the powerful rear quarters of a horse in a stall. Our progress seemed dreadfully slow through the aisle to where it connected with the main road/aisle into the barn. That main entry and exit was wide enough for tucks to drive the length of the barn. I breathed a hidden sigh of great relief when we finally got there. Though the narrow aisle og the shed continued from this midpoint for a similar distance to the south, my suggestion that we return to the ample main barn met no objections. I am not sure that I ever, until now, confessed these moments of anxiety to Marney, Kristin, and Karlyn.

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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