Better a Rose for the Living
by Brandt Ainsworth of Franklinville, NY
In the corner of my living room is what some would call folk art. Of course, one man’s art is another’s trash. I’m not big on metaphors, so it’s neither trash nor treasure to me. It simply reminds me of all the years I made my living logging with horses. Evidently some long ago horse logger was having a bad day and broke a drive grab. Breakdowns happen. You fix them; you keep on keepin’ on. As was the fashion around here, this drive grab came as a pair. Each one has about a foot of chain with a ring in the middle about the size of a neck yoke ring. On a big log, (as most logs were in those days), one grab was driven in the 3 o’clock position and the other at 9 o’clock allowing the front of the log to lift when pulled. Smaller logs had a single grab driven on top, often two smaller logs were skidded at once. After both grabs broke off from this chain the logger hung it on a tree limb where it spent enough years for the tree to grow into the chain between the grabs.
One of the loggers, who sells his logs to me cut this section out of the limb and gave it to me, knowing I would appreciate it. It kicked around in the back of my pickup for a few months before I decided to give it a spot in the house. Lately every time I walk by the broken grab art I am reminded of how I used to make my living logging with horses and oxen for most of my life until eight years ago, I gave up my independent career for a secure position with a big sawmill as a log buyer.
Besides the grab, I’ve kept most of my logging equipment, including the horses. It all serves about the same purpose as the folk art grown into the tree in my living room. The cart, chokers, peaveys, and chainsaws take up space in the garage. The horses take up space in the pasture and cost me a lot of hay. I love it all, especially the team. I tell myself someday, but I know better.
I walk past the grab and think of Roy. I’ve had him for two and half decades. I raised his dam and his grandmother and my dad raised his grandfather. Roy turned a lot of furrows, skidded a lot of logs, and won a lot of horse pull trophies. But, alas Roy’s working days are gone. It’s sad, but it’s farming, and seasons come and go. Tough choices were made, and I was left with only one draft horse.
Only a few days passed, and a friend stopped out of the blue with a buyer for Roy’s teammate. Libby is eleven years Roy’s junior and the last foal raised of our foundation stud. Everyone has the same impression of Libby; “old school.” She stands 16 hands 1 inch and weighs just a bit under a ton even when working hard. Sweet attitude, cooperative, stylish, alert but relaxed, durable and dependable. She can work on the farm all day, but damn will she draw. I mean pull, whether its logs, pulling sled, buckeye sled dynonometer, stuck wagons, hooked on the near side, off side, single, hooked with a colt or a counterfeit, she will draw.
The fact is I didn’t really need another mouth to feed, or a single horse. Sad about Roy and with a good offer on the table, I decided it would be practical to not own a draft horse for the first time in my life. “Better a rose for the living, than a wreath for the dead”.
I pulled into the buyers dooryard on a dreary Thursday afternoon. I stepped Libby off the trailer as jaws dropped and and men winked at each other. This is the kind of horse Grandpa talked about. The big mare hadn’t been out of the pasture in over a year, she hadn’t been hooked in probably two years. No matter, she behaved as if she never missed a day in the harness. I was thinking it would be nice to haul the empty trailer home, and have a little “mad money” after the sale.
Libby was a little reluctant to walk into the barn. After a scratch on the withers she trusted my judgment, and into her new home we went. She walked down the barn floor behind the cow platforms and drop and to the “horse” end of the barn. “Let’s hook her.” I said. Knowing this would impress them and allow me to negotiate a better price. As I tied her to the wall I eyed the harness and collars for one that might fit. The collar and hames fit okay but the quarter straps and belly band, (I always use a saddle girth on her), lacked a lot for going around her. We made it work with twine and duct tape (I’m a wrap things in tape kinda guy).
Often something happens to a horse when you harness them, but nothing happened to Libby, a day in the harness is just another day to her. Something did happen to me, as I snapped snaps, buckled hame straps, hauled the breeching in place and loosened conways so it could fit somewhere near where it should. I started to feel like a horseman again. I felt a bit like Libby and I were a team again, I was part of something that I had been away from for too long.
I did the sensible thing and stepped back. I let the buyer get his gelding out and hook the horses together. His gelding was a good horse, well put up and well broke. Though he had the attitude most modern horses do; not quite as cooperative as the old stock. That’s why some of the boys like Jason Rutledge are going to Suffolks. The lines were hooked on and the team was ready to go with Libby on the near side, (she’ll hook on either side). They snapped on butt lines, and handed me the lines, or ropes as it were. I’m not a fan of butt lines anyway, but driving a team with ropes was really odd to me. At least they weren’t nylon lines, I thought as I tightened the line and chirped.
We headed out of the barn and onto a wagon. Darn, it felt good. As I stepped the team over the tongue and backed the neckyoke onto the ring, I unhooked the heel chain from the off horse and held onto the tug to stop him from swinging his rear out. Hooking the last heel chain and climbing onto the wagon to drive I thought it might be nice to keep the big girl. “What the heck.” I said to myself, before regaining my sensibilities.
Driving a team on a wagon is one thing, but a team on a load is quite another, as many have found out the hard way. I spent a good share of my life hauling big logs, and chasing horse pull trophies. So I found their stone-boat, put a big load on it and hooked Libby. She was on the lines, or ropes as it was, but not hard bitted. She kept the tugs tight, then leaned into the load on my chirp. It was then I knew my plans had changed. Libby did what Libby does. She made the heavy load look light, while she behaved the way a horse should.
We unhooked and unharnessed and talked money. As you may have guessed, your economically challenged correspondent turned down a nice little pile of cash. It’s said that a cynic knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. With that I mind, I gave the interested buyer a passive aggressive, “I’ll think it over”. Dropped the pin in the trailer door and headed for home.
“What next?” I thought. I’ve got a single horse that’s nearly impossible to match, an unnecessary feed bill, and a more than full time job away from the farm. That night on my way to the kitchen for another drink, I stopped and looked at the decorative drive grab piece. Just above the grab hangs a picture of Roy and Libby crossing a big load in the lightweight class at my favorite local horse pull. The grab grown into the limb, the framed photos, the feel of the lines in my hands that day, and the hard cider in my glass all sorta came together and helped me decide to get back into horses one way or another.
I thought about getting a 2 year old to break with Libby over the winter, knowing that whatever I find is not going to be quite what I want. Then I decided to try once more to raise a colt out of Libby. I knew the stud I liked. He’s an old school cut with an attitude conducive to work. When I stopped to talk to the stud owner, I saw a 6 month old stud colt that I knew right away was my next horse. He was out of stock bred for work on the top and bottom side of his pedigree. He was put up the way a work horse should be. The kind of prospect you seldom find in this era. The kind of colt that cost too much, but was coming home with me anyway.
In just a week, we lost an old friend, recommitted to another old friend, bought a weanling that has loads of “it” factor. Libby will get bred in the spring. And so, I’m back into the horse business for the same reason I keep the decorative grab in my house… I don’t really know, perhaps it’s the idea that maybe someday…