by Kim Peavey of Westmoreland, NH
On the very last day of January we moved onto our new farm: fifty-three New Hampshire acres of hilly and rocky soil, a mix of pasture, hayfield, woods, small wetlands, a pond, a small house, a small barn, a beautiful view from the highest hill, and an enormous amount of snow. We were excited, and a bit daunted.
The place had not been farmed in thirty years; at least the drifts of snow made a restful cover over all the work ahead of us. Winter would also give us time to finish hauling horse equipment and perennial herbs and greenhouse parts and irrigation. It would give us time to unpack our bed sheets and our bowls and our nearly two-year-old daughter. And it would give us time to plan the Community Supported Agriculture Garden we would launch here in our new community.
Not long before, we had said an appreciative goodbye back in central New York State to our rented land, and a very reluctant goodbye, due to chronic lameness problems, to our first team of draft horses. Now we were figuring out our next step with horses; now we were investigating every nook and cranny of our farmhouse; now we were falling in love with our snowy new farm.
Though most of the fields on the new place were overgrown, with white pine and “popples” twenty-five feet or more high, we were fortunate that the previous owners kept a pony and a few goats, so that we had a ready-to-use fenced pasture and a corner of the barn clear for a run-in shed. We also had a steady (if distant) supply of hay from my parents’ dairy farm in New York State. We had all the horse machinery, harness, feed buckets, water trough, and the outdoor hay manger. So we felt perfectly ready, on our nice new farm, for our nice new team of horses.
Well, almost perfectly ready. There was one small detail that worried us.
One Small Detail
The horse dealer answered from his cell phone in Iowa. It was early in March, and he was at the big horse auction. “Hey, I just bought a horse for ya’,” he said, “about a half a minute ago!”
“Oh,” said my spouse, “We kind of changed our minds. We were kind of thinking of a team now. But that’s fine, a single horse is fine.” He didn’t say much else, except goodbye.
I was disappointed. “But we don’t want a single horse. We want a team. It’s too hard to match up two single horses.” I spoke from painful experience: we had gone through three potential and unsuccessful team mates the last summer, trying to match up our remaining horse, who was now herself debilitated. We had had hopes of getting her through one more season, but now realized it was wiser to start afresh.
I looked glumly at my spouse.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said, brightly, breezily, as is his wont, “I know this guy. He’ll get to thinking dollar signs. He’ll make more money selling a team to us than just one horse.”
Sure enough, ten minutes later, the phone rang. Bright and Breezy winked at me, picked up the phone. “I’ll tell you what I can do for you,” the horse dealer said. Breezy nodded knowingly, holding the phone out so I could hear too.
“Got a real nice team of Percheron mares back home in New York. Black Percherons, sisters or half sisters, from Amish country in Ohio. Been farmin’ all their lives.”
“Oh, yeah?” Bright and Breezy said, looking excitedly at me.
“Plus one’s due to foal in a week or so. That’ll give you two for the price of one! Heh-heh-heh,” The dealer laughed at his joke.
“Oh, brother,” I rolled my eyes, shaking my head. A foal was definitely not part of the Let’s-Start-a-New-CSA-Garden-on-a-New-Farm-in-a-New-State-Where-We-Know-No-One, Especially-No-One-Who-Knows-About-Foals plan.
“Shh,” whispered Bright and Breezy, “What do you think? Huh? Let’s!”
The dealer talked on and on about the single horse and the team of horses and how we’d have to decide right away, etc, etc. Auctiony sounds rumbled in the background.
“What do you think?” Bright and Breezy whispered urgently to me again, his face lit up with anticipation, no doubt already picturing himself behind this perfectly matched, highly experienced team, and with a third horse thrown in for the bargain, in case one or the other went lame at a crucial farming moment.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” I was whispering now too, and flapping nervously around the room, my daughter attached to my leg. I like a good century or so to make a decision, to agonize over every dreadful possibility, to plumb the depths of what might go terribly wrong. (‘You’re deep,’ my spouse has bolstered me on more than one occasion. ‘It’s good. You like to think deeply about things.’)
Oh-oh, I thought, Deep all right, in deep. We will be in deep.
Bright and Breezy, without sufficient time to bolster, or to let me stew for my century, was wiggling now too, holding the phone, nodding, nodding, waving his other hand frantically around in the air, raising his eyebrows up and down, up and down at me, Yes? No? Yes? No?
“Yes!” I squawked finally. “Yes!”
“All right,” said Bright and Breezy in to the phone. He hung up. We both collapsed on the floor. Our little daughter liked this game, and collapsed on top of us.
A Little Time
But we still have a little time, for me to plumb the depths, even if it is after the fact, and for Bright and Breezy to get another load of equipment from the old place, and to pick up some more hay from my parents on the way. The horse dealer has to get back from Iowa, it’ll be next week sometime before he can get the team to us, he’ll let us know.
But only a day or two later, the phone rings again.
“So,” the horse dealer says, “Where’d you say that turn was?”
Bright and Breezy makes big eyes at me over the phone. “You sound like you’re almost here. Are you almost here?”
“Sure am,” the horse dealer says cheerfully.
Eek! Ack! Where’s our week’s notice? Where’s our time to ponder and panic? We run out to the barn, our daughter bouncing along on Bright and Breezy’s shoulders and hollering happily with the general excitement, to make sure the barn is really ready, to bring a bale of hay out, to fill the water trough. Soon enough we hear a big roaring noise, a truck and trailer trying to make it up our steep and snowy hill.
The dealer arrives, chewing his ever present toothpick. More to the point, they have arrived, two short stocky almost identical black horses, with white stars and thick fuzzy winter coats and round winter bellies. We watch, thinking about getting some toothpicks to chew ourselves, nervously, hopefully, while the dealer backs the mares off the trailer, and ties them to the front of the barn. They both put their heads down immediately to the bale, such sensible good calm horses, occasionally looking around with mouthfuls of hay. One has a green halter, the other is in red.
“So you can tell ‘em apart,” the dealer says. They do look a lot alike; we are glad for the halters. After a minute, Bright and Breezy leads Red Betsey around, while I cautiously feel all around Green Belle’s head and ears and legs. She keeps eating, even as I am persuading her to lift up her feet. Our daughter looks on from just inside the barn, her eyes bright with excitement and longing. “Oooo,” she whispers to herself, “Oooo,” about these beautiful black horses.
I take a deep breath, feeling excited myself, “Oooo,” I think too: maybe this will work out, maybe these are good horses for us.
Belle is especially round. I pat her, smell her nice horsey neck; she chews her hay comfortably. Gosh, I think, she sure does have a big belly. Somehow the foal seemed a little more distant, a little more abstract, perhaps, during the horse buying negotiation stage, those three long days ago.
“I had to get her here quick so she didn’t pop on the road,” says the dealer conversationally.
“Right,” I reply, with confidence. “When will that be, do you think?”
“Oh, any day,” he shrugs.
“Oh, any day,” I repeat back, trying for his casual tone. “Any day,” I say again to Bright and Breezy, who is returning with Betsey, and he nods, oh so casually, oh so confidently too. He and I switch horses, going through the same routine with the other color.
We officially accept. The horse dealer drives off with his check, and our single horse in trade, and now Bright and Breezy and I make big eyes at each other and at our daughter, who giggles. We all giggle, looking at our two nice fuzzy new black round horses, knowing how very soon there will be three.
They are a good team, Betsey and Belle. At twelve and thirteen years old they are an ideal pair for us: experienced, with significant working years left. We spend the next ten days getting to know them, finding their sweet scratchy spots when we’re grooming, observing how they react to each other, to us, to the electric fence, to new noises and smells. We also harness, ground drive, and finally hitch to the forecart. Betsey is a snorter, a head lifter, a pawer, a get up and goer. Belle is the boss, calm, steady, smart.
“Belle’s acting kind of funny,” Bright and Breezy says on the tenth day, just back from an afternoon jaunt around the neighborhood with the team and fore- cart.
“Funny how?” I say, jumping to my feet, ready to think deeply and worriedly, if nothing else.
“Cross, kind of. Not herself, come see,” he says.
Belle is still harnessed; she looks around at her side, lifts a hind foot uncomfortably towards herself. We’ve been checking her udder daily, it has gotten tighter and tighter, sooty black and cold to the touch, with lately tiny waxen white drops on the tips of the teats.
“I hope you didn’t work her too hard,” I say. “Did you work her too hard?” looking askance at my Occasionally-Enthusiasm-Overrides-Good-Sense spouse.
“No, no,” he answers. “Do you think…?”
“Yes,” I say firmly. “Today.”
Belle spends the evening restless and pacing, tossing her head, leaking milk.
At eight-thirty the mares have more hay; Bright and Breezy reports that he doesn’t think Belle will have the foal quite yet. This report might be slightly influenced by the fact that he is not looking forward to a night of foal checks.
“She’s just standing there eating hay now. She acts like normal.”
“It would be better to check her. Every hour,” I say, patting my nursing daughter significantly, and reminding my spouse of all those years I had growing up on a dairy farm, with cows freshening left and right.
“You could check her; you’re up anyway, nursing,” he-who-never-hears-the-baby-peep-at-night suggests. “Plus you’re so knowledgeable and all.”
“Hardy har har,” I answer. “Don’t wake us up when you go.”
But Bright and Breezy can’t resist nudging me at 1:30 a.m. “Hey, Deep?” he whispers.
“Yes?” I sit up immediately in bed.
“She had it.”
“You’re kidding. She had it?”
“Yes, She had it!”
I bundle in my coat and snow pants, check that our daughter is sound asleep, and we run out. She had it! A big black colt.
We iodine the naval and exclaim over him, rub him all over, brush him, tap tap tap on his feet with a hoof pick. We’re working already with this new horse that has come to us, imprinting him, getting him used to us and our human activities, at the same time we are marveling over him, and welcoming him. Belle stands calmly by, watching, a hoof cocked in rest, making little whickering noises to her colt.
“Shall we harness him too?” Bright and Breezy jokes.
“What a great idea! And if we were really good, we would buzz the clippers around his ears.”
“But we’ve never clipped our horses. We don’t even have clippers.”
“Still,” I say, pleased to be using my vast equestrian knowledge, this particular tidbit gleaned through an ag college course.
I am even more pleased about this successful birth, this healthy mare, and yes, this healthy foal. It seems such a good omen: a new being come into the world, born right here on our very own new farm, imprinting us too, and imprinting the farm itself, with all our new life here, all our hopes and plans, and all that we had never imagined as well.
It turns out that the hourly checks were the easy part. Now everything gets tricky.
Our lovely daily grooming and working routine with the horses is thrown into a tumult. Belle is hostile to her beloved sister; Betsey is morose at the treatment. We try several variations of the routine: one results in Auntie Betsey galloping up and down in the barnyard screaming and periodically crashing into the barn doors, which gets Belle and the foal, inside the barn, in a tizzy. Another results in my spouse being knocked down in the field by the Frantic Morose Auntie.
He rolls right over and gets up again, giving me the bright and breezy I’m-perfectly-all-right-and-how-about-these-rascally-horses! wave, but it is not much fun to witness. We get mightily discouraged; geez, we never wanted a foal in the first place, he’s not all that cute anyway, is he, long eared and floppy and kind of dopey, and how are we ever going to plow our garden with two horses biting and kicking at each other?
As the snow gradually melts off the fields, giving a hopeful glimpse or two of ground underneath, we buck up, and find a method that works. I tie Betsey outside, distracting her from her misery with delicious oats, and giving her a thorough, really good feeling all over massage grooming. It gives her a chance to bond with someone else besides Belle, which is important, and every day our Head-Tossing Snorter relaxes a little more into my company.
Inside the barn Bright and Breezy grooms Belle and the foal, while our daughter looks on from her perch on the hay wagon. The foal likes the thorough, really good feeling all over massage grooming too. In a week or so Belle is less aggressive towards Betsey, and we reflect that we were probably trying to rush everybody too much.
“We were trying to blame all the trouble on one of the horses, Betsey or Belle or the foal, but it wasn’t them being bad at all. They were just being horses,” I say to Bright and Breezy.
“Yeah,” he nods. “Blame it on us, on our ignorance.”
“We could blame it on the horse dealer instead,” I suggest, and the foal pricks his ears at our goofy guffaws.
Now he and Belle are thoroughly bonded, and Betsey has gotten more used to being separated, and look, the foal is cute after all! Wiggling his lip and arching his neck to the brush. We like him so much we even give him a name. We consider Peter and Dell and Liberty, thinking of the bell, and Belle, and then we settle on Ben, Big Ben.
One day, after haltering Belle in the pasture, and haltering Cute Big Ben, on his teeny tiny new halter, Bright and Breezy heads back to the barn, with Ben docilely following. I come a bit after, leading Betsey on one side, and holding our daughter’s hand on the other. Our just-turned-two girl, working hard, puffing, hefts an extra halter and lead rope, just in case she needs to catch a horse. She is a Strong and Clever Daughter, I am thinking, and I am also enjoying Cute Ben walking nicely ahead in the sunshine, and the red winged blackbirds calling.
But suddenly Ben, who is almost a month old now, and certainly Cute but also a little Dopey, and who has hardly left his mother’s side, turns around. He turns around purposefully, leaving Belle, and heads straight back towards Betsey. And towards me, and towards our little girl.
Both mothers get into an immediate flap, Belle nickering in distress and me outright hollering in distress. “Help! Help!” I plumb the depths in mere seconds, imagining all sorts of kicking, biting, rearing, stampeding and the like in the immediate vicinity of my Strong, Clever, and Very Little Daughter.
“Take your horse back out!” Bright and Breezy calls from ahead, and we turn around, quickly, back to the pasture.
Then we all watch dumbfounded as Ben, Ben the Slow, Ben the Dopey, Ben the Not Quite Here in This World, abruptly stops short, kicks, bucks, and proceeds to gallop gleefully in enormous circles, around Betsey and company, under the electric fence, among the apple trees. We are all openmouthed, astonished, including Betsey and Belle, their heads high and alert. Who is this lively and vigorous being? Where had he come from? Where will he go?
Ben keeps running and running and kicking and bucking in sheer foal joy until he finally tangles himself up in the fortunately un-electrified electric fence. We let both mares go; the show over, Betsey moves immediately to the hay feeder, and Belle goes to Ben, nuzzling him, while Bright and Breezy untangles the sheer foal joy from the fence. I nuzzle my little daughter, and all we parents relax again, back into a blissful doting.