Saturday, December 20, 2008

Back to basics ... draft horses

I have always been intrigued by draft horses. One of my earliest memories, when we were still living in a small town, is of watching coal being unloaded at the neighbor's from a wagon pulled by a team of big black draft horses.

When we moved out to the ranch, most of the ranch work was still being done with a team of draft horses. We raised all of our own hay for 80 to 100 head of cattle and since there was no irrigation, all of the hay meadows were along the creek that ran through the home place. My grandfather did all of the mowing as there were lots of little bends of the creek and banks to watch for and he knew every foot of the ground like the back of his hand. Once the mowing was done, the hay was raked into winrows and it was ready to start stacking. It was my grandmother that drove the team to the buckrake while my father and grandfather stacked, not an easy task, as the seat for the buckrake was over a single wheel in the rear, the horses were separated by the running gear of the buckrake and the sweep was ahead of the horses, the hay pushed ahead of them, so it could be loaded onto the overshot stacker to be thrown up onto the haystack.

Then all winter that same team hauled the bobsled with a hayrack from the stackyard to the feed ground to feed cattle, sometimes in blizzards and 3-foot snowdrifts and at temperatures that could reach well below zero. I loved to go feed, as once we were on the feedground, I got to hold the reins and "drive" while Dad and Grandpa pitched hay off to the cattle. I held those reins in a death grip and listened for every word from my grandfather, thinking I was really helping, but of course the horses knew exactly where to go and what to do and were reacting to my grandfather's directions, not to anything I was doing.

When my children were young, we had a small black pony that was trained to drive to the cart and we drove quite often. For several years the kids' birthday parties were quite the neighborhood attraction because we always had pony cart rides for everyone.

That was my last real experience with a driving horse or pony until recently. After the move to Kentucky, it was obvious that a lot could be done on this small, hilly, wooded acreage with a draft horse that absolutely could not be done any other way. I didn't feel I'd had enough experience with driving horses to be able to train a draft horse but there are several Amish communities in the area where all of the field work is done with horses ... and the search was on.

I first "met" Dolly when she was responsible for taking the owner's daughter to the church to be married. She was trained to ride and to drive single and double and had done just about everything that can be done with a small draft horse. She was exactly what I'd been looking for.

That winter was particularly difficult, unusually wet and warm, so the mud just got deeper and deeper around the barn, corrals and up in the pastures. We were tearing up the pastures trying to get in with hay for the horses, so we made what we term the "mud toboggan" for Dolly and started feeding with her. It isn't nearly as fancy as her buggy was but she seems not to mind the come-down in status.

She is invaluable for snaking logs from the "tree pastures" down through timber to the area where we cut our winter wood supply. When we start haying the horses in the fall, she comes in on a full time basis, is hitched to the mud toboggan morning and evening and hauls loads of hay to the pasture horses. She has been used to harrow the pastures and this coming year I plan to design a packsaddle arrangement that will hold weed sprayers so I can get back along the fences and keep the briars and weeds down. With so much rain and such heavy vegetation, on the rough ground you cannot get into those areas with a tractor and it is just getting too much for my 60-plus year old body to carry the sprayers and fight through the briars to do it on foot.

She puts up with being driven by a very inexperienced "teamster" ... handling being driven without blinders with perfect aplomb. If I turn too sharp and she ends up stepping over one of the traces she stops and waits for me to sort things out, though the look she gives me is definitely one of long-suffering patience. I'm sure she thinks I am very difficult to train!

She is placidly willing to give visiting non-riders a taste of what it is like to ride a horse and she is gentle and careful with any visiting child. She is always the one who poses for pictures for everyone, though as a model, she does expect payment ... grain is best but a handful of green grass will be accepted.

She can be picketed out on a line and is a wonderful lawnmower and edge trimmer so saves many hours of lawnmowing, which I hate. I have a definte aversion to loud, noisy machinery which may explain some of my attraction to draft animals. From Dolly's point of view, she obviously much prefers her summer work schedule to the winter schedule.

In other words, Dolly is the ideal small farm draft horse for the inexperienced teamster, quiet, patient, willing, very well trained and not inclined to take advantage of inexperience. We very often tell visitors that she will be the absolute last horse or pony to leave this farm ... and will go only when we are no longer able to be here. The farm wouldn't run without her.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Requiem for Black Jack

I have been blessed to have had a life filled with wonderful dog companions, from my first ... an Australian Shepherd that played hide and seek with me as a child, many outstanding Rottweilers that were wonderful show dogs and working dogs, to my current "little brown terrierist" who runs the household with an iron paw and consents to be a lapdog in the evenings in front of the wood fire.

But one I will always remember with tremendous affection and gratitude was Black Jack ... a true poster child for the abandoned, difficult to adopt "big black mutt". He was sitting in a snowbank by the side of the road on my way home to the ranch in the middle of a Montana winter, maybe 6 or 8 weeks old. I could not drive past.

A year later, he moved with me from Montana to Kentucky and settled in with great delight ... a born redneck at heart. He rode on the tractor up to the fields, was fascinated by the crawdad holes around the springs and never met a stranger. He learned who was supposed to be where and while he would do the usual "farm guarding" barking at strange vehicles, wandering coons and possums and the occasional stray dog or cat, he also had a "something's wrong out here" bark. It was very distinctive and he would not stop. On several occasions this announced horses that had gone through fences and were out and on at least 4 occasions his alert probably saved a horse from serious injury or death. We have portable panels for corrals and stalls and several times he alerted us that there was a horse tangled in a panel. The "unadoptable mutt" saved us losses of thousands of dollars.

You could believe he knew he had been rescued from a certain, unpleasant early death and was grateful for every day of his life after that. He was always delighted to see you in the morning. He was overjoyed at every little treat or "extra". Dinner leftovers were greeted with bounces and whirling, with the tail practically wagging the dog. Fresh hay in the house was tossed and pawed, with quick trips back out to wag and bounce, to make sure you knew he was just delighted with it. He greeted every little treat with an attitude that seemed to say "Mine? All mine? Really? I was a good dog?"

His big introduction to Kentucky was at a wedding held here at the farm, where he discovered a local product, Red Dog beer. We weren't even aware that Jack was quietly retrieving empty beer cans until fairly late in the afternoon. One of the boys suddenly noticed the half empty beer can beside his chair was no longer there to hand and was now completely empty. Sprawled beside the now-empty beer can, chin on the porch deck, Jack was the epitome of "Oops, maybe that wasn't such a good idea" with the Red Dog can beside his paw. For the rest of my life, that is going to be the first image in my mind's eye when I think of Jack.

On his last day he been delighted to be able to announce the UPS truck and the meter reader both with his "company coming" bark and "tail wagging the dog" wags. There was leftover spaghetti that evening, which he loved, so I walked out with the "Jack snack" and frowned when I realized he wasn't already in front of his house, waiting, as he normally was when he heard the house door open.


He was lying on his side in his house, as if he'd just fallen asleep, only it was the sleep from which he would never wake. He departed this life quietly and peacefully, as easily as you could hope for, no long debilitating illness, no visits to the vet. He did his job efficiently and ebulliently as always that day, as he had for 10 years, and then crossed the Rainbow Bridge as he fell asleep, knowing he had once again been helpful and earned his keep.

Jack, your memory will always remain bright and when we meet over the Rainbow Bridge, I won't scold if you jump up with muddy feet again.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Earliest memories

My earliest memories nearly all involve animals and that affinity has never diminished. Growing up on a ranch, I was surrounded by animals and as an only child, most of my playmates were animals. My first dog was an Australian Shepherd who would play "hide and seek" with me, though I don't remember ever figuring out why she always found me!

The first snapshot I remember in the family photo album was of me sitting on my mother's cowpony, complete with a pink bonnet, when I was about 18 months old. When we moved to the ranch when I was 5 years old, that was the mare I learned to ride on. When we were temporarily living on another farm and my grandparents retired from the ranch, it was that same mare's daughter that went on with my riding education, a tutor that instructed me from the age of 10 until I was in my early teens.

There were dogs, cats, chickens, horses, cattle, pigs, one pet goat ... a baby magpie that fell out of a nest and was hand-raised ... and I spent hours riding and looking for hawk nests, hoping to figure out how to "catch" a young hawk to raise.

During the long Montana winters when outside time had to be kept to a minimum, I learned early in life that whining "I'm bored!" resulted in work being found, usually things like washing dishes or cupboards or dusting. It didn't take me long to realize that if I was reading a book, that was considered "educational" and with a great-uncle that was an artist, if I was busy "drawing" that was considered important as well. The books I read were usually about horses or dogs ... and my first artwork generally featured one of my animals but it helped establish a lifetime of good reading habits and provided the basis of a part-time art career.

Of course, some things change in 60 years. My reading preferences have expanded to include mystery and science fiction/fantasy ... and my favorite mysteries are the racehorse mysteries by Dick Francis. My artwork is still primarily focused on animals and though it has expanded to include old buildings and still life studies, old barns and horse drawn equipment tend to be featured prominently.

I am still surrounded by animals and they are still providing me with new experiences but during the long evenings in front of the wood stove, it is comforting to remember all of the faithful companions that have enriched my life.