Home & Shop Companion #0029
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
At the start of my horse career when I was in my late twenties, I volunteered on a horse powered farm. I went one day each week, and sometimes more often when there was a lot of work, particularly at harvest time. The deal was that I would go and work there so I could learn about working with horses, but I would do anything else depending on what was happening that day. Particularly in the beginning, I would be sent with a pair of horses to chain harrow some grass that probably didn’t really need to be chain harrowed, but other times I would be rolling arable land before it was drilled, or harrowing in the seed with light seed harrows, work that did need to be done. On other days, however, especially in autumn when the pressure was on to get the autumn sown cereals in the ground, I might spend the day on the tractor with a heavy cultivator, and on many days throughout the cooler three quarters of the year, there was wheat, oats and rye, still in the sheaf and stacked in the Dutch barns, gradually drying and all to be threshed. So, except for feeding the horses and cattle, those days were devoted to the insatiable demands of the threshing machine, forking the sheaves across the stack, forking them to the man feeding the threshing drum, stacking straw, or removing the ‘pulls,’ the leaves and broken straw which on British machines came out separately from the straw, which we dragged in sheets [tarps] into the fold yard for the horses to eat. I wasn’t particularly keen on the all-day tractor days, but I didn’t mind any of it because it was all filling in the picture of the whole farm, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, observation by observation.
Every week when I arrived at the farm I would be told what to do, which at first was often followed by a detailed explanation of how to do it, but during the day, I would also ask what had happened since I was last there. On one occasion, the response was ‘well, not a lot really.’ It wasn’t because they had been idle, it was just a week of no great excitements, and which didn’t contain any of the set-piece events which mark the farming year – hay time, harvest or shearing, nor the ongoing activities of winter ploughing or spring time cultivations. And this week has been that sort of week for me, though for anyone interested in detail, not without a couple of surprises.
The most recent one happened this morning, while I was out spreading some more manure. I had nearly finished, except I want to hold some back to put on the fallow patch where the potatoes will be next year, when, near the edge of the heap, I put my fork into a wasp’s nest. Immediately, I swung the fork back into the sledge, ‘Lucy,’ I said to wake her up, ‘G’UP,’ as I picked up the cords and within three steps we were at the trot, getting away from those wasps. Luckily, perhaps because it was still the cool of the morning, I don’t think those insects were properly awake, and none followed us, so we slowed to a walk, I spread the half load and then I called it a day. A few years ago, I had a similar experience. I was clearing under an electric fence with a scythe in a field I rented some distance away, when I cut through a wasp’s nest. On that occasion a swarm of them came up and wasted no time in coming after me; I just dropped my scythe and legged it! Since I had come by car, I ran past it, clicking the automatic key until the car made the opening noise, turned round, jumped in and raced off. The only problem was that some wasps had got in the car with me, so after a couple of hundred yards I stopped, let them follow me out, hared down the road, rushed back and jumped in again. Anyone who had seen me must have thought I had gone mad! Luckily, I only got a few stings.
It can be worse though, I remember being told a story by my horse mentor, Geoff Morton, who one day was mowing dyke banks [the sides of ditches] with two horses, when he cut through a wasp nest. Straight away he lifted the cutter bar, took the mower out of gear and turned the horses towards home and put them into a run. Despite the speed, he said he had never seen horses try to run and rub their bellies on the ground at the same time, trying to dislodge the wasps. Both Geoff and the horses received a lot of stings, and one horse, in spite of antihistamine injections, was not well for some time.
Luckily for me, my story by comparison is an anti-climax; after turning Lucy out to graze I went back to collect my pullover, but instead of a broken cardboard-like sphere of a wasps’ nest, it looked more like a colony of wild bees, so perhaps I over-reacted. But sometimes there is no time to ask questions, sometimes you just need to react, fast.
Earlier in the week I had another situation which took me by surprise. I had just returned to the field with the horses and the full water bowser, which I backed into position near the old iron bath [without taps] that serves as a water trough. Before unhitching, I thought I would just go and move the hay tedder nearer the barn so I could put it under cover. I drove to where I had left the thin drawbar pin, looped the cords on the hame ball on the guard rail of the hitch cart and got down to retrieve it; I turned round and Lucy had her back leg over the tongue.
Those of you who work horses will be thinking, ‘yup, that can happen,’ but in about thirty years, it is the first time it has happened to me. Admittedly, for about half that time I had only one horse so I wasn’t using a tongue, but one reason it hasn’t happened before is that the tongue on my hitch cart is parallel with the ground, the same height at the back as it is at the neck yoke, which means it is harder for a horse to get a leg over it, but on the downside, it also means it is harder for the horse to get its leg back over to its own side again. For those of you new to horses, you may now be thinking, ‘What the heck do you do now?’, and I remember thinking the same when early in my first year at Geoff Morton’s, I saw a three year old Clyde called Tweed get his foot tangled in his lead rope, as he was standing at the edge of the strawed fold yard, securely tied to a ring in the wall. My immediate thought was to rush to his assistance, but Geoff was not concerned, saying, ‘it’s better he does it now than in the middle of a six-horse hitch.’ Tweed continued to move around a bit, to half jump, head down, until he overbalanced and landed on the straw. After a minute or so he got up again and stood quietly, and I think I then went and undid the rope from his leg.
When a horse is hitched to a vehicle and gets entangled, the situation I found myself in this week, the situation is more pressing and potentially dangerous, but it all depends on the horse’s reaction to being in an uncomfortable position, whether this is something he has experienced before, how well it turned out last time, and what the teamster does next. My reaction was to start talking, first in a firm voice, ‘whoa, stand still,’ as I picked up the lines and got on the hitch cart, keeping a bit of pressure on the lines so they knew I was there but not enough to communicate any concern. Lucy made a few half-hearted attempts at a kick, but not the sort of get-me-out-of-here kicks. Her kicks were to no avail, as the trace on the outside of her leg also restricted her movement. Meanwhile, I quietened and softened my voice to reassurance combined with ‘you will still listen to me and do exactly what I say.’ It is times like this when seconds seem like minutes, probably because you have to take it all in and make a decision about what to do. Really, there were only two good outcomes, the first was that she would manage to get her leg back, but once she stopped really trying and was just holding her leg up uncomfortably, the alternative became a better option. That option was for me to sort it out. So I got down, still talking, lines in hand and unhooked her outside trace. Keeping a very keen eye on that leg, I unhooked her inside trace, then went round and unhooked Molly’s traces, watching that back leg particularly when undoing the inside one. Then I walked up the lines, gathering them, I looped them over the top of the hame, went round the front and lowered the neck yoke to the ground. Lucy soon moved her foot back over, so I reattached the neck yoke and traces, we drove off and moved the tedder.
Another short anticlimactic story, I am pleased to say, but in truth, this story goes back eight or nine years, to when Lucy was started in harness, and it is times like this week that you are thankful for the effort you put in years ago. Lucy, as a learner, was very quick; she’d pick up what you wanted her to do, often the first time and she’d do it near perfectly, she’d do it again the second time, and then perhaps the third time, she’d think she’d try to do it her way, until with gentle persistence I would get her to do it right and then when she was OK with that and calm, we’d stop. This is one reason I liked to do three or four training sessions, one each day, then leave it for a few days for the horse to process it somehow, and when we started again we’d start with easier stuff to make sure she hadn’t come up with a ‘better idea,’ before we progressed to something new. And an important part of that process was the initial ‘roping out’ as described in Lynn’s ‘Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters’ book, to get her used to mild discomfort, to stuff being in the wrong place. Then, once she was used to harness in the round pen, I got her to drag a tyre, first with the traces in place, and then with a trace purposely on the inside of a leg, until she learnt that it was not scary, even though it wasn’t very pleasant. And we would go around like that, and after she had settled with it and stood quietly, I would praise her, give her a rub, and sometimes I would sort it out and make life comfortable again, and sometimes I would make her go again with her leg on the wrong side. But for the end of the session, we’d finish up with everything in place, everything working well, and ideally, a gentle effective whoa with no pressure on the lines.
Although that was when Lucy’s story started, my story started a lot earlier, to around the time Tweed toppled himself to the ground; when I got to see what happened, to see what Geoff didn’t do, and why, and, before I had my own seemingly inconsequential stories to tell, to listen to other people’s experiences and lodge them in my mind for future reference.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.