by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
This is a true story. I think I can recommend it to you, unless you are looking for something deep, abiding and provocative. Then I can’t help you. You see, the news is so snarling and hellbent that I need a break. So I’ve gone to the well, gone to my bag full of early adventures. And as I picked through them I realized, as my long life journey slows, that I have come a very great distance without arrivals worth much genuine note. And then there is the question of style, or manner. This writing, I insisted to myself, had to be done at a full gallop, as though I spotted the gate open and hoped to beat the others in my herd through to greener and more restive pastures…
Josh is our stalwart, tough, enthusiastic, part-time farm hand and carpenter. In my view he is a young man. We enjoy working together, he and I. At least I think we do. We have come to understand it is, in some small part, because most of my stories are new and fresh to him. We old men do repeat ourselves – ad nauseam. It is sometimes as bad for us as it is for immediate family and friends. That’s why new open ears are so refreshing. Especially those attached to brains and mouths ready, willing and able to return the serves. Such is most definitely Josh. We have lively volleys. Certain turns in our conversations have had me recalling to him early farming adventures of mine. I excuse myself with these by saying it is a way to explain working habits or procedures. But truth is the stories want to come out. It is time for them. And Josh is regularly encouraging me to talk. When I preface another story with “I can’t remember if I told you this one…” he’s quick to say “I don’t care, I want to hear it because every time you tell a story it’s different.” I’m going to take that as a compliment.
Recalling the craziness of my impoverished, rock bottom, beginnings I see now how graced I was that more calamities did not result; how lucky it was that I had survived.
This is not the beginning of the story, that comes much later.
It was the second half of the nineteen-seventies, this journal was in its infancy and I, at 32, was in my third year on my first farm in Junction City, OR. It was a loveless, developmentally threatened, seventy-seven flat-acred, former dairy farm on the city limits. I had been able to afford it because no one else wanted it, so the seller let me contract the down payment; sort of a lease option with the option exercised right from the get go. I had converted the place into an organic mixed crop and livestock operation powered by draft horses. The work herd was motley; they were old Bud & Dick (Shire crosses), Goldie, Queen and Flash (Belgians) pulling the implements for grain, hay and a seven acre market garden. In the very beginning it had been just me and the horses doing the field work; eight hours a day, six days a week. Soon though I had something like regular help. Now, in retrospect, I realize it was definitely outstanding help.
Farming was shared on my place and his, in Harrisburg, with my mentor, surrogate uncle and best friend, cigar chewing, work horse wizard, Nebraska Dane Ray Drongesen. And another new friend had entered that world, Herman Daniel. Wonderful Herman and his wife Mary were great fans of this Journal, volunteering to sell subscriptions at fairs and events. Herman was retired and had expressed his passion for working horses and spoke often of an earlier personal history. I quickly found that Herman’s serious, quiet, assured manner and skill with the driving lines were excellent additions to Ray and I during the intense spring work schedules. His demeanor grew more content with each day. Mr. Daniels was happiest when plowing, discing and harrowing a field to perfection, whether that meant with two horses or six.
We also had a couple of summer months when an interesting hobo showed up, camped in our old dairy loafing shed and volunteered to spread massive amounts of manure with my Goldie and Queen hitched to the 1913 International manure spreader. His name was Ira Brown, he was an older wiry, grey-eyed, grizzled, strong little man who preferred not to speak. He took great pains to keep to himself. Herman assured me Ira was a most competent teamster and had only one wish in life; he wanted to work horses again. Ira refused meals, money, or company. He had one possession, a little rust bucket pickup. Disciplined, Ira apparently came from a rigid structured working background. He had lost most everything and was only interested in spending as much of his last years as possible with a team of horses and a clear assignment. It was Ira’s way that while he was working that one team no one else should touch them. Once he took to working them, those mares were his responsibility and his alone. Herman, Ray and I came to respect that because Ira made it pay. Every single day he would bring in those horses, then feed, curry and harness them. While they ate, he would go to the loafing shed and hand pitchfork manure and bedding until the spreader was full. Then he would lead them to either side of the spreader tongue and take his time, quietly making sure those mares never moved an inch until all was ready. I learned from him the trick of insisting on using an unattached ring-style neck yoke and unhooking the tugs as the team stood while he filled the second third and fourth loads. He would only hook the traces when he was ready to go to the field. He knew that if the mares walked or ran off while he was pitching manure he was too old to get to the lines quick enough. With this setup, should the mares move, the neck yoke would slide off the tongue and the manure spreader would stay put as they left. I could tell this was something he did by the ethical force of good work habit. End of that summer Ira was gone. Just left one day. We felt diminished.
Then accidents and nature diminished our work herd. End of fall it was apparent that to me that, if this farm was to continue developing as full horsepower, I needed to replenish the working stock. Through that winter notions had hatched.
The fledgling Small Farmer’s Journal had brought the farm some attention and a regular stream of folks reaching out trying to find sources for equipment and horses. As a member of the regional draft horse clubs I had learned of individuals traveling back east to Iowa and Indiana to purchase horses and equipment from large, regular auction events. Young as I was, my methodical if hasty conclusions defied the sensible and seemed to bust through realities like a chemical solvent. I figured since I had an old beater 3/4 ton four wheel drive pickup and a rusty gooseneck stock trailer I ought to just head east in snowy March, over the Cascades and the Rockies, to one of those sales and see if I couldn’t purchase some inexpensive work horses to add to the farm stable. Brains and caution may have been in short supply but gas was cheap and I had plenty of stupidity-laced courage to set me off, alone, on a 7,000 mile round trip to Iowa regions and back. I remember Ray saying to me, “Well, if you’re gonna do it, do it. Enough yabberin’.”
I made arrangements with Herman to take care of the farm, knowing that Ray could join in should something bad happen. And I stepped off the proverbial cliff, took my little bit of money, carefully budgeted, and set off across Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa through wind and snow.
On the top side of Wyoming, through 20 below zero snow drifts, I worried. On the interstate in Lincoln Nebraska, doing 20 mph on glass-slick pavement I weaved my way, frightened, through a graveyard of semi trucks jack-knifed for lack of traction. When I finally rolled into Cedar Rapids, Iowa for the Tri- State Breeders sale it was freezing rain and I couldn’t find a vacant motel room anywhere. I would spend the next three nights sleeping in my cold truck. At least that was a little bit of money I saved to apply to the possible purchase of horses.
It was at this sales event that I met Jiggs Kinney, a living legend in midwestern work horse circles. Clothes and manner, he looked as if he’d be far happier doing chores on his farm. But his dancing eyes and almost imperceptible twitch smile said he was thrilled to be temporary guide to the underground deceits of a livestock auction ring, especially this one. We hit it off straight away as I needed guiding and was willing to accept the ‘dressing up’ of his barbs and jabs. And he was alright with my naivete. We spent one long day, off and on, together side by side attending as prospective buyers. He introduced me to several important people, one man who would also become a mentor of sorts, Colonel Arnold Hexom – the foremost draft horse auctioneer for the age.
Jiggs Kinney and I spoke off and on all day long of my desire to someday purchase an excellent Belgian stud colt, one that could be a corner stone for my future breeding. He pointed to a strawberry roan colt consigned by a noted Canadian breeder. “What do you think?” I smiled big as I could, nodded and pointed to the hocks and front legs, “awfully nice.” “He’ll do,” offered Jiggs, then added, “but today you make a mistake buying him to breed to because he hasn’t got the color what’s wanted – not today. Who can say what it will be ten years from now. ‘course, that don’t matter if you aren’t serious about selling foals” Then he introduced me to Doug Palmer, a Canadian Belgian breeder who maintained a Brewery hitch of eight sorrel Belgians. Mr. Palmer spoke in intense, and deliberate whispers to Jiggs. He was trying to negotiate the purchase of one of Jigg’s colts.
“I’ll think about it Doug, ask me a little later today.” And he turned back to me with a knowing twinkle.
Jiggs Kinney set the stage artfully to demonstrate to me how some of the big shots in the draft horse community manipulated the sales to their own advantage. He called it ‘rigged’ appraisals. “You see that three year old Belgian filly with that white haired Amish handler, that’s Andy? He’s not the owner. And over there, across the way, do you see that tall old Dutchman and that beautiful four year old Belgian mare? He is the owner and trainer. Well, watch them closely. Strings are being pulled to make sure that the three year old filly tops the sale. Three people are involved, those guys over in the corner. It’s all set, that filly will go for over 20,000.”
I was incredulous, first because I couldn’t imagine, for what were, in my innocent view, work horses, that anyone would pay 20,000. And second that Jiggs seemed so confident of the outcome. I said nothing, but waited, and the next couple of hours I watched those two horses and the people coming and going around them. There were to be 150 plus animals to sell and the event would prove to take all day long.
It was dusty and the ammonia in the building was like sandpaper to the lungs. In those days it seemed everybody smoked and quite a few of the old bibbed farmer’s had flasks. The women in my life today would be more than a little disgusted to look down and see so many tobacco juice stains on overall knees. Faces went from stern to laughing smiles and back again in quivering overlap, and here and there lips would gather as preample to aimless dark, sticky spits some of which would hit the front or back of someone else’s unsuspecting knees. And the accompanying lubed chatter blended together like a swarm of bees voting in a new queen while punctuated by coyote yips and the rattling singsong jabber of the auctioneer. We were all standing for hours, shoulder to shoulder, struggling to pretend disinterest lest our slightest nod be taken as an errant bid. And the pros in our midst, they were constantly teaching the staring ring men and auctioneer as to what tick, or wink, or finger curl they might use to bid while no one else saw them. Impossible to imagine such events and ceremonies during this time of pandemic.
Jiggs nudged me, “Watch that fellow, he’ll move around getting in behind active bidders. See, he’s wearing one hat and carrying two others.” First I saw nothing, then slowly it was clear. There was a creepy pattern. It became obvious that this man was communicating in nods and winks with other people in the crowd and even bidding occasionally only to disappear immediately afterwards. Sometimes his bid seemed to cause the original bidder to go one further. Sometimes, the original bidder would drop out altogether and the auctioneer would call out “I had a man in back there – in a big black hat, back behind. Where are you sir? Anyone see where he went? Sir, you have the last bid, holler out now so’s we can see you.” Then awkward silence and the auctioneer would apologize and say “I don’t know where that other bidder went. You were at $…, do you still want the mare? Yes? Sold!” Sometimes the bidder would get angry and refuse, then the auctioneer would be forced to start the bidding all over again. I was always amused when one of two things resulted: either the original bidder ending up buying the horse for less then the first argued bid, or far more. There seemed to be invisible forces at work. It was instances such as these, in real time, that my young naive self began to grasp that the auction process, especially in down to earth agricultural venues, was all impromptu theater, oftimes with ruffians and bid fluffers in the wings.
When the moment came, the three year old filly Jiggs had pointed out started at a modestly high opening bid and the crowd went silent and wide eyed watching while the price steadily climbed and the bidding was winnowed down to three men, each recognized as significant in draft horse circles. Even the ring men, usually prone to antics, seemed to go silent and back off as the pace settled in and the final price rose, in a regular rhythm of nods and bid call, to $20,000 plus. When the gavel fell to the shout of ‘sold,’ the crowd sighed and fell to mumbles.
I probably faced Jiggs with mouth open as if to say, ‘I still don’t get it.’
As I recall, he whispered, “You’ll have to follow me with this, it’s a complicated braid. No real dough changes hands here, ‘cept for the commission to the auction house. Paper is being swapped. It’s all agreed before hand. Those three bidders each had something to give and something to gain but the owner of the champion filly, let’s call him Joe, was is charge, he was willing to set this up so it would appear his filly now has a significant market value. Could be he wanted to pump up the value of the sire. Could be he has other breeding stock for sale on his farm and he needed this as an appraisal of sorts for future private sales. I suspect part of the motivation is to get some vengeance somewhere. That second bidder, call him Don; what he wanted was the Dutchman’s outstanding four year filly. As you recall Joe bought the Dutchman’s filly; he’ll be giving her to Don as payment for him pretending to purchase the champion filly. And the third man, in cahoots with the ringleader, he was an empty shell, moving the bid forward.
“It’s like a game of Pea in the Shell. This can’t be right?”
“Whether or not its right has nothing to do with whether or not it is so.”
“I have to ask. How do you know all of this?”
“Both of those mares, they’re from my herd. They are out of my ‘Nick’ horse. Most people won’t look that deep into the papers. Whether it’s people or livestock, money don’t make ‘em great. You could of bought either of those fillies from me as weanlings for a few hundred dollars.”
“I have a friend back in Oregon, Monte Rumgay. He says you will always be able to purchase outstanding draft horses foals for a few hundred dollars because most horsemen don’t trust their own judgement, they follow the action.”
“The circles overlap. Good luck with your bidding.” And with that Jiggs disappeared into the crowd. I thought that was the last of him I would see. I was wrong.
I had found, in the consignments, a big pair of red Belgian mares. Their bloodlines were amazing. They were seven and eight year olds supposedly broke to work. The team was from Minnesota, the owner wasn’t around, just a hired Amish handler who couldn’t offer much background. He said there wasn’t any harness so he had no way to drive them around for buyers to see how broke they were. The one mare, Bobbie, was quiet and easy. Her flaw was that she had a broken nose healed into a big lump. Her teammate Carol was beautiful and antsy. Both mares were being sold as open.
I looked everywhere for Jiggs. I wanted him to give me some guidance on the mares. But I was on my own. Standing not too far away from where they were tied, I watched as prospective buyers passed them by without much notice. Maybe I should have taken that as a caution but I took it instead as a good sign. I was hoping I could end up with the last bid. And, when the time came, I did. I was thrilled beyond belief, thrilled and frightened. But I still had more to do. Ray had asked me to keep an eye out for an affordable Percheron stud colt. And I wanted to pick up a couple or three weanlings for myself. Monte was right. I ended up with two excellent six month old colts for five hundred each. And then came a black Percheron stud colt that looked a little down but had excellent confirmation. Nobody wanted him so I took him for an opening bid of two hundred. Sale was over and my gooseneck trailer would be full.
Then, as people were doing paperwork loading horses, Jiggs came up to say goodbye. “I enjoyed visiting with you. Saw you bought those big mares. My guess is they got lucky, they’ll be a darn sight better off with you.”
“I think I might be coming back in the fall, would I be able to pay you a visit down at Columbus Junction? I may never be able to afford it but I would love to think about one day owning one of your stud colts.”
“Right now people are jockeying to get their names on next year’s crop.”
Just then Doug Palmer walked up. “Whaddaya say Jiggs?”
“Sorry Doug. I just made a bargain with this young man. If she has another colt it’ll be going with him.”
Mr. Palmer left a lot of mussed air in his wake.
Then came the journey home. I had budgeted myself five days to make the trip, with winter weather still on the mountain passes. But I desperately wanted to get home sooner for the sake of the animals. I had never done a cross continent road trip with trailered horses. Jiggs had suggested that I find out what small towns had county fairgrounds and plan to let the horses out in a corral pen for the night. He cautioned me to sleep next to them in my truck.
At Sioux Falls, stopping for fuel I found that the Percheron colt was looking much worse. It was a Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t find a veterinarian. That and the forecasts were talking about a storm headed east across Nebraska. I pushed on and drove through the night, it was slow going. In the morning I was coming into Cozad, if I remember correctly, a small farm town on the plains. The radio was warning of a coming blizzard and I could see, far off west, a thick black line hugging the horizon. At the service station I was told that I should get a room right away because of the storm and that there was a vet up the hill on the edge of town. Wish I could remember the Doc’s name now so I could thank him in print. He insisted I unload my horses in stalls in his barn and told me the colt had a case of shipping fever. He’d do what he could. Meanwhile he said “don’t worry about them, get back to your motel room right away, the blizzard’s about here.” The blizzard shut everything down for a day and a half. No power, no phones. The cold motel room was next to the gas station and diner where the waitress was making coffee on three coleman stoves by melting snow. When I could finally get my pickup to climb the hill to the vet’s place I found my horses comfortable and fed. The colt was feeling better. The Doc gave me some meds for the rest of the trip. Refusing any pay he said, “I recommend you stay at least one more day, let them finish clearing the interstate.” But I was determined.
Fueled up, bellies full and the sun warming the prairie we headed out. The winds had blown most of the snow off the road but I would learn what that meant very soon. The first underpass looked like a giant mound with a ten by ten hole drilled through the center where the snow plow had pushed through. I went in very slow, not sure what my long rig would encounter. Inside the dark and frosty underpass, on the right, I could make out where a car had parked during the storm. The snow plow had scraped the door and taken off the mirror. Later, on the radio, I heard where travelers had parked there to escape the blizzard and had froze to death. The next two long days and nights I worried myself sick, but I knew I just had to keep going. Middle of each day I pulled off and let the horses out, tied them to the trailer, curried – fed and watered them and walked each for a little bit. At night I left the horses in the trailer and I slept as much as I could in my truck, careful to keep a full tank of fuel and to stay warm. Into Idaho the weather improved dramatically. I found a fairgrounds, got permission, and let the horses into pens for the night. The sick colt was holding steady but still not quite right. All the others were doing ok but looking a little haggard. Can’t imagine what I looked like.
When I got to the Oregon border at daybreak, still a day’s drive from home, I called and spoke with Herman. When I told him what horses I was bringing to the farm he was giddy. “We’ll be ready boss, we’ll be ready.” He had a plan of which I knew nothing.
Remembering back now and asking myself if I could make such a trip today the answer is a resounding ‘no way.’ That’s unfortunate because we need, again, to add a couple of good big mares like Bobbie and Carol, to our farming and restart our breeding program. People out west are looking for good work horses and they have, once again, fallen to short supply. It’s not just that I am older and have health issues that make it unsafe to make such trips, it is this day and age we find ourselves in. With the economy, the unrest and the pandemic, not many could make such a trip now. From the seventies on, for over thirty years, I made more such buying trips than I can count. Hauled over 140 head of draft horses and mules back to the western states. These days such adventures call for physical and emotional reserves.
When I pulled into the farmyard Ray and Herman were there. After the initial warm conversation, and as we were unloading the horses, Ray pulled me aside and said, “Herman has an idea, and I think it is a good one. Please just let him do what he plans with the mares.” I was confused and a little anxious, but I had no real hesitation saying ok because I trusted these gentlemen completely. So, as Ray and I got the colts comfortable, Herman, straightaway, took the mares in to a double tie stall and proceeded to harness them. Within 20 minutes of being unloaded from a cross country road trip he had them hitched to two sections of spike tooth harrow trodding freshly disced soil. Ray and I walked out to the field. It was a grand sight, those two big beautiful mares walking so steady and Herman beaming. I managed to snap a picture of him in that moment from which I did a portrait drawing later.
Herman’s idea was this: those mares would be feeling unsure on their feet after all that time in a moving trailer. If there was any problem with their attitudes or training, taking them out immediately to a light turn of work would set the tone of their new home and give us a chance to make sure they were safe. Turns out the mares never gave a lick of trouble in their entire lives with us. It was a year later I would learn from their previous owner that they had run away with him most everytime he had hitched them. Jiggs had been right, they were better off at their new home.
Ray was thrilled with the black colt and certain he could use some of his herbal magic to bring him back to full throttle. He named him Andy right then and there and went for his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
“It’s me that owes you Ray. Without help from men like you, Howard, Herman, Ira, and Charlie, I wouldn’t still have this farm. Please accept Andy as a thank you.”
“Well ok, but you ain’t paying the bills that’a way.”
So that is an encapsulated, abbreviated telling of my first sojourn cross country for horses. I had to trim a great deal out to make it fit these pages. I hope that I told enough to make this point: young people believing in what they can only imagine and then applying courage and risk taking – they are what the world needs now.
Though still working every day, I’m tired now. It goes with my age. Back then I had the strength and stamina to match my horses and the rigors of desperate farming. Desperate because success with the farming was the only way I would be able to continue making the land payments.
Back at the beginning of this story I spoke of horses coming through the gate. The title isn’t a typo. I don’t mean gaited horses, I mean gated horses. On our ranch, when it’s time to move the herd from one pasture to another, whether it’s ten acres or eighty, we first open the gates then we holler – and they come a running. We’ve trained them and our cattle herd to be ‘gated’ in just this manner. Truth be told, we don’t actually train all the animals. We identify the leaders in the bunch and make sure they know that when we holler, something is going to happen, something that they will enjoy, feed usually. We get the leaders heading in the right direction and the others follow. The leaders are the ones, human and animal, who first believe in what they can only imagine – and second, have the courage and spirit to go make it so.
In these dark days, I figure that’s what we need, a whole bunch of young, courageous, gutsy, imaginative ‘gated’ leaders, and an imaginative old guide or two.