by Brandon Marshall of Fulton, MO
The following is an account of an accident with draft horses I was involved in while apprenticing on a small organic farm in 2006. I recently came to the writing while looking through old emails. I have changed the names to safeguard privacy. It reminds me that the romanticism that surrounds draft animal farming must be balanced with the real concerns of working with living, breathing animals. Here is that account; perhaps it will come in handy to some future teamster out there…
Jim and Judy, the farm family had been farming with Belgian draft horses for over fifteen years by that time and took on several apprentices each season to share their knowledge. This farm was the second draft horse farm I had apprenticed on. Upon arriving, it didn’t take long for me to realize that it would be the immersive experience I had been searching for.
Jim and I were planting fence posts for the new and improved garden as we had been for several days and I had the wagon backed up to the ditch across the road with Laura and Nelson, Jim’s veteran team, in waiting. Several relevant things had recently happened. I was feeling pretty confident, even complacent, given recent accomplishments behind the team and Jim was bestowing more trust and responsibility upon me.
Feeling pretty proud in my new role, I had just sent off an email to several folks extolling the craft. To boot, I had finished a couple of books about working horses and was starting to feel like I knew a thing or two. “This stuff wasn’t that hard.” I’ve had driving time at another farm and several weeks here. “Heck, I’m practically an expert by now, right?”
On a nice, sunny day in late spring I received a wake-up call. It was one of those details where the devil resides. In my complacency, I had neglected to thoroughly check over harness and horses before starting off. Jim had even instructed me several times, “Always clear the lines before you start your horses.”
I didn’t do that. Nelson is a head-scratcher. He likes to rub the neck yoke when he gets an itch on his forehead. He had been rubbing his head while we were working. Only after I had turned the horses down the hill did I notice that Nelson had dislodged his bridle.
A horse is a prey animal and they instinctively flee from a confusing situation. When I wasn’t there, through the lines, to reassure and guide him, he was left to his own instincts on how to deal with a wagon bearing down on him under the grade of that hill. The result: runaway horses.
Funny, I had just read Lynn Miller’s description of dealing with runaways in the Training Workhorses text and had discussed it with Jim in passing. That knowledge was nowhere to be found as we accelerated to a gallop. I had tension on one line as Nelson’s bridle fell around his neck. The faster the wagon went, the faster the horses galloped to get out of the way. Was this really happening? How could confidence and a nice easy sunny morning turn so suddenly into a completely uncontrolled, raging race down the hill and what was sure to be a humongous crash and ensuing mess.
Confidence bailed out, pride waved bye-bye. The thought looking me right in the face was that this was going to hurt, bad. And honestly it wasn’t my hurt that I was concerned about. In the little time that I had to think, I saw injured horses. We were flying away with all sorts of unkind, big, immovable, hurtful looking things in our path.
By Laura’s grace we missed the big Ford Bronco parked next to the machine shed and the sled next to the barn. But inertia was too much for us to miss the big combine tire lying around the outside of our leftward swing. The bounce off of that cushioned us a bit before the veering wagon rammed into another parked wagon, turning it suddenly and sending me airborne momentarily.
By the time I regained my balance I could see what big ugly thing lay next.
Laura and Nelson had chosen; they wanted to go home. We were headed toward the dry pen where we led them after unhitching each day. I know it was they who had chosen because I was at an utter loss. Data was coming too fast and my neophyte brain was in overload.
I’m not sure if it was a good or bad thing but the round pen would not allow us to get the horses home at that speed. Laura and Nelson split the difference on the gate post of the round pen and wrapped the heavy metal neck yoke around it while Nelson’s wooden singletree gave way to the jolt.
Things in motion tend to stay in motion and I did. From my butt I was launched into the back of the wagon railing post, dental work first. I’ve never been hit that hard in the face, sober. It at once rudely jolted me and put me in a stupor. Did this really just happen?
I looked at the horses in a daze and in my state of shock decided that I needed my ball cap. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it was a grasp at some measure of control over the situation. I walked back about 50 feet to where my cap lay on the ground and bent over to pick it up. That’s when I noticed the crimson flow from my nose. I looked up the hill from behind the barn to see Jim walking towards me.
“Jim!” I yelled, but he knew better than me what had just happened. Laura and Nelson were facing each other from opposite sides of the round pen’s thick metal wall and I could tell they too were dazed. I began to unharness Laura from the twisted, broken harness and in the process proceeded to make the matter worse. By the time Jim arrived Laura had slipped in the thick mud and was now upside down and backwards lodged under the wagon.
I felt like a complete jerk. I, from neglect and stupidity had nearly run over the neighbor’s dog. But the dog in this case was a prized pair of horses and one of them was now moaning and contorted, helpless and bleeding from her nose underneath that wagon. I couldn’t blame the wagon nor the horses, it was all me.
Laura wheezed, head turned back double next to the wagon’s front tire while Jim and I worked as calmly but quickly as possible to release any and all harness from the two animals. I tried to console Laura in the process but wasn’t sure how to do it. Horses are smart animals. They may not understand your words but they know where those words are coming from and mine were coming from fear.
We managed to remove most of the restraining network of leather and buckles and moved the wagon just enough to allow Laura to flail back to her feet again. Jim led her to the stable while I held Nelson’s halter, not sure what to feel.
He then directed me between Laura and Nelson at the manger in the stable with my left hand on Laura’s shoulder and my right on Nelson’s. In the kindest voice he could muster he instructed, “Don’t think about the accident. Don’t think about what you did. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He was visibly upset as were all involved, but I could hear love and compassion in his voice.
Laura and I stood there shaky and bleeding for several minutes while the sun shown throughout that box stall stable. Nelson, seemingly unfazed went to munching hay almost immediately in his stoic sort of way. I stared up to the parting clouds and Laura stared at me and I did a very poor job of not thinking about what I was not supposed to be thinking about.
For the next several minutes gratitude and guilt and embarrassment and assorted other emotions took their turns. A lesson earned is a lesson learned.
We took the second team out later on that day to feed the herd and give Laura and Nelson a break. Jim drove. Jim is an old pro and he and Judy are two of the most genuine human beings I have met. I see it in how they treat other people, in their values, and what they have done.
They both later described to me the runaways and accidents and near misses both of them have been involved with over the last 15 plus years in an effort to help me feel better. Judy recommended I take one of her homeopathic remedies saying, “You’re probably going to be sore tomorrow.” I did, and I was.
They and I both knew that the sooner I was back driving the better and I have since driven Laura and Nelson in our various doings under a watchful eye. I know Jim was watching not for physical discomfort but for emotional. That happened over a week ago. I can now open my mouth all the way without it hurting and it almost doesn’t hurt when I blow my nose. More importantly Laura and Nelson are doing well and Laura is no longer looking at me funny.