by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont. Photos by Carla Kimball.
“There must be some way out of here said the Joker to the Thief. There’s just too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. The business man drinks my wine, the plow man digs my earth. And none of them along the line knows what any of it is worth.” – Bob Dylan
Once when I was fourteen years old my best buddy and I got the idea to go over to a local riding stable and ride ourselves a horse. The night before we had been to the theatre and seen a film called “Winterhawk” which featured some fantastic scenes of Native American warriors galloping their war ponies through the snow fields of the Dakotas. When we arrived at the stable there was fresh snow from a late winter storm blanketing the landscape. We had a peaceful ride up the forested trail into the gentle hill country and as we rode we transported ourselves back to pioneer days. We were two adventurous mountain men heading out from Fort Laramie to do some trapping and escape the choking confines of civilization.
As we headed the horses back towards the stable the situation went downhill too. It started when, all of their own accord, our horses quit off walking and broke into a canter. I guess they could “smell the barn” and were anxious for oats and rest. The fast riding was fun enough at first, the trouble was that the cagey nag I was riding began to try and peel me off her back by heading straight for every low branch that extended over the pathway and I swear she had memorized where each potential guillotine was positioned and she aimed for every one of them. I somehow managed to dodge and duck all those branches so my untrustworthy mount pulled out a new tactic to do me in. We were charging down the path at breakneck speed when she suddenly banked a sharp right turn onto an intersecting trail. She took that turn so hard that I remained airborne on the main trail while she tore off down that side trail back to the barn. There is nothing much worse in the horse world than showing back up at the stable on foot.
A few years later I took a road trip up to Vermont. I stopped in to visit friends at the Farm & Wilderness Camp and I happened to see the farm manager driving his team of draft horses up to the barn on their way back in from the fields. He was a robust bearded fellow in a broad-brimmed hat and big black boots tromping behind his well behaved team of feathered-footed giants. All my attention was suddenly caught up by the sight of those working horses; the smell of their sweat, the jangling of the trace chains upon their heavy leather harness. And standing there contemplating that scene there was planted in my mind the improbable seed that someday I should have a team of horses and a farm of my own.
The accident happened fast, as most accidents do, and like most accidents, while it was happening time seemed to come to a standstill. We had been working our young mares, Mari and Cassima, together in harness since the previous summer. After moving to a farm in New Hampshire in the fall of 1996, we began driving the mares in earnest, but still all ground driving; no carts, or sleds or farm implements involved. In the late fall we skidded out some small blow-downs from the wooded edge of a pasture and the mares did quite well. I was beginning to feel confident that we could have them team working in the market garden by the following summer. Meanwhile, I built a new stone boat with steel runners.
The snow came early that year — a full foot of it the week before Thanksgiving — and then it turned cold and the snow cover held. After that though, there wasn’t much more snow. I was anxious for some deep powder to try the horses out on the sled for the first time. I figured some deep fresh snow would slow them down and dissuade them from running if they should get nervous with all the new sensations of being hitched to an implement with a tongue.
Cassima had done a limited amount of team driving with a tongue hitch when we were in Idaho. I had driven her on a dump rake with Becky the mule and also on the stone boat a few times. However, she was still very new to the experience. During those early training sessions if it hadn’t been for the tempering presence of the old molly mule the young horse might have panicked. Mari, on the other hand, had not yet been introduced to the tongue hitch at all — this was to be her inaugural drive.
Two weeks into January we still hadn’t received any more significant snow fall. In fact, the “January thaw” had left what snow there was granular. I grew impatient and broke my vow to wait for a foot of powder before hitching up the mares. Kerry came along to assist me. I towed the sled by tractor to a 2 acre paddock that was surrounded with a double plank fence. This field had a level bench and then sloped steeply up to the forested ridge. I left the sled parked at an angle to the fence and then went up to the barn to harness up the horses. As I was driving the horses down to the field my apprehension grew about the condition of the snow. A part of me wanted to turn around and keep my original resolve to wait, but having come this far, I obstinately pushed on.
It took a bit of coaxing to get Cassima to step over the tongue, but finally she nervously skipped into her spot and we hitched up the yoke and traces to the sled and Kerry asked me; “Are you ready?” and I took a deep breath and nodded “Yes.” We started out going up a slight grade and for about 50 paces or so it seemed like everything was going to be fine. Then as we approached the head of the field and I said “Gee” and began to give them line pressure to begin the turn, Cassima stepped a back leg over the tongue and began to panic and speed up. Within seconds both mares broke into a gallop and I had a full scale runaway on my hands. We banked a sharp turn and started heading on a downhill trajectory in the center of the field. The granular snow offered little resistance to the steel runners and we picked up speed. What was worse, at that speed the sled began to shimmy back and forth. I hauled back on the lines as hard as I could and then tried see-sawing but to no avail — there was no stopping them.
When we reached the middle of the field the mares turned right and then we were heading straight towards the fence. I considered jumping off then but before I had a chance they banked so hard to the left that I was hurled forward off the sled. I landed hard on one knee and then rolled and got back to my feet just in time to look up in horror at the sight of Kerry further down the fence line scrambling to climb through the planks of the fence. She must have thought she wasn’t going to get through in time so she turned and stood to face them, believing they would swerve and not hit her. But they did not swerve. Frozen in time I watched transfixed as the horizontal pipe of the hitch struck her ankles and she crumpled into the headboard of the sled. She was just outside of the off-horse and she was carried that way ten feet or more before falling off to the right as the mares turned left and headed up the hill again still at a gallop.
Witnessing her being struck by the sled was like falling off a cliff into a nightmare dream. I screamed but my voice sounded weirdly distant to my own ears. As I tried to run to her my legs felt leaden. At that point, I didn’t know if she was alive or dead. When I got to her and found her conscious and breathing I was still scared sick but I felt gratefulness and love well-up from the depths of my soul. I didn’t have much time to bask in it though, because those horses were still running wild in that field and there was the awful chance that they might run right at us again.
Our housemate Mary had come up to watch us working the horses and she shouted that she was going back to the house to call 911. The horses ran into the far south end of the field which was overgrown with brush. As they charged through the scrub the sled started to bust up. They turned up hill and back down hill again towards the wooden gate — which was closed.
The horses seemed to have decided that there was no way to out run the thing that was chasing them and the only thing left to do was to get back to the barn. They ran into the wooden gate at full speed. Boards cracked and splintered as horses plowed on through, but the gate did not give way entirely and their harness got hung up in the broken boards and this finally stopped them. They stood wild-eyed and gasping for air — but they stood.
After a short eternity the EMT’s arrived and began to assess the damage. Kerry was incredibly stoical throughout all this. By now she could feel that the pain was in her lower legs. One of her snow boots had been torn clean off. The rescue workers removed the other boot and quickly determined that both legs were broken at the ankle. The workers were great at attending her, but one of them commented; “Whose idea was it to hitch up those horses anyway?” That cut me to the core. I guess those words stung me so much because they were partly true; I had no business driving those horses on that day. I tried to push the river by asking them to do something that neither they nor I was ready to do.
The ambulance finally arrived and they carried Kerry away in a stretcher and drove off. That left me alone in the field with my horses. I’d already assessed that they appeared to have no broken bones. Horses are tough as nails but even so we were lucky that day. They had just slammed full speed through a wooden gate and I could hardly find a scratch on them. I got them unhitched from what was left of the sled and then untangled from the gate and drove them down the road and up the lane to their barn. I was operating on pure adrenaline.
I had to drive myself the twelve miles to the hospital — not knowing the extent of Kerry’s injuries; not knowing if she’d be crippled for life or suffered internal injury. When I reached the emergency room the Doctor had already had time to revise her case — both fibulas broken in both legs. He laid out the choices of full leg casts or surgery with pins. He said casts would take longer but would be far less invasive. We chose casts — big mistake. The casts didn’t work and a year later Kerry had to have pins put in and then later removed — all in all eighteen months to heal her legs. The important part though, is that her legs did heal; so well that fifteen years later she walks with no trace of a limp.
I grew up watching Westerns on television and in the movies so I was well acquainted with the notion that when a cowboy is thrown off a horse he had best climb right back on or he might lose his nerve and never be able to ride again. I drove the horses again (on the ground) within a few days after the accident and I never let up on the training program I’d set out to accomplish with them. It would be another half year before I would try them on a tongue-hitch again. It took me about four or five years to get over my jitters. It wasn’t so bad with ground driven implements, but for those several years after the accident, every time I hitched to a riding implement my stomach would be all a flutter and I could feel the adrenaline coursing in my veins. I had pause then to remember something my father had told me about his years as a Marine Corps pilot. He said that every single time before he had to go up in a jet he’d feel so scared he’d have to run to the bathroom to vomit. Now, he worries at some level that this makes him some sort of a coward, but I consider it a mark of bravery (and maybe a touch of hard-headedness) that being that scared he flew as much as he did.
What I most feared was that I might be failing in my quest to become a horse-powered farmer. I knew myself to be capable of farming organically with a tractor or two, but my heart was no longer in doing only that, I’d gone too far down this road and paid such heavy dues that there was just know way I could quit on being a horse farmer. But the way forward was not at all clear. More than once I wished I still had that old Becky mule who had worked so well for me years ago.
Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. The point of telling this story is not to present a cautionary tale for other idealistic greenhorns and so perhaps discourage them from taking up the reigns of a draft horse team. To the contrary, I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.
However, anyone reading this account might justly come to the conclusion that working with draft horses is inherently a dangerous undertaking. It isn’t so. It is probably true that I have had more than my share of mishaps and wrecks, but this is due to the fact that my early relationship to working with horses was a case study of the worst possible combination; a green teamster with an over-abundance of impetuous courage working unsupervised with green horses.
In the old days, and still today in places where the culture of working horses yet thrives, old timers teach the youngsters how to drive and old horses help train young horses to harness — all in an unbroken chain of tradition. Under such circumstances accidents are undoubtedly rarer than on modern machine powered farms. The greatest danger presented to those who still rely on the horse for transportation is from the reckless conduct of people behind the wheel of automobiles.
The current batch of back-to-the-land teamsters like myself, who have learned to drive horses by surviving the school of hard knocks and reinventing the wheel, are just preparing the way for the next generation of horse-powered loggers and farmers who will be skilled and innovative teamsters beyond our measure.
My intent in relating this account of our near fatal wreck is to declare that we survived this disaster, picked ourselves up, took stock, harnessed our horses and started up again. And the horses and the humans, wizened and tempered by surviving the accident, persevered and ultimately prevailed in their quest to farm with horse-drawn power.
After the accident we sought out the help of skilled trainers and teamsters in our region to do some remedial training with our mares and to increase our own skill set. This was time and money well spent. I think that if I had quit working with horses at that moment I might have wound up feeling as my Dad did about flying jets after he had to bail out at ten-thousand feet and then chose to give up flying — always wondering if it was a rational decision or if he had simply lost his nerve. And I would have taken Kerry’s grievous injury and long recovery as even more of a blow if our dream of working with horses had been smashed as well.