Home & Shop Companion #0051
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
At this time of year it is dark by the time I come in from doing the horses each afternoon, and one day last week before starting to cook the tea, I sat down and, to stop my mind from continuing to work, I turned on the television. I switched to an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, the story of the Yorkshire veterinary surgeon, James Herriot, and his life as a farm vet in the 1930s and 40s. For me, ‘All Creatures’ is a bit of a nostalgia trip, because Herriot’s practise was the next one from the practise we used when I was a child, and the way of life, the way of farming, was probably more similar to my experience in the 1970s than today’s agriculture. The other attraction is the scenery, especially today when due to Corona virus restrictions we can’t travel, a virtual revisiting of beautiful farmed landscapes in the area I grew up. But besides recognising some of the settings, this episode had a closer connection because as the actors descended a steep farm road and went through a wooden gate between the dry stone walls, there was a big harnessed work horse, standing stock still while the actors did their stuff around him. Behind the horse there was a plough sitting on a sledge, the top of the sledge being made of a type of steel mesh they use for overhead walkways, exactly like the one used on Geoff Morton’s farm where I learnt to work with horses. This was not really a surprise, because by the 1980s when this TV series was made there were few horses that were working, and fewer that would stand so well as this one, so the Morton’s often supplied reliable horses for film work. The action round the horse was all focused on the actors, so it was only at the end of the scene that a stripe and patch of white hair up the horse’s near hind leg confirmed to me that this horse was Swale.
Swale, named after a river like all the geldings on the farm, was the horse I first drove with a chain harrow, first put in cart, first pulled logs with, and later on, when I ploughed for the first time and drove a pair in the binder, he was there too. He also was the care-taker horse for many other novice horsemen, and the horse of choice when starting many young horses in harness, because he would just plod along, pulling all the weight when necessary and acting as an anchor should a youngster dash forward, held back by the extra halter shank [lead rope] tied back to his britchen. Swale was your right-hand man, often quite literally when seen from the horseman’s point of view, as the offside wheeler on the gang plough or next to the corn when bindering, the sort of horse you are lucky to come across, lucky to work with. But it wasn’t all luck, because although I am sure Swale was an easy horse to train, his innate qualities were preserved by skilful handling, enhanced by consistent work, his trust and capabilities increasing as he learnt to rely on the comfort of his own experiences and the dependability of the people who worked with him.
I remember one damp August morning, as the sun started to burn off the overnight showers and began to warm the top of the Dutch barn where we were working, we sat down for a few minutes on top of the stack of wheat sheaves while someone down below pulled another load up to the elevator. There were three of us, Geoff, in his late sixties, me, and a lad of about fourteen, who, as we looked out over the paddock full of horses, asked how much they were worth. ‘You can buy any of those horses for two thousand pounds,’ was Geoff’s reply.
‘What, even Swale?’ I asked.
‘Well, he’s not in that field, is he?’ Unbeknownst to me, someone had already brought three of them into the stable for a feed in preparation for going to load more sheaves. How much Swale was actually worth, I don’t know, but his value as a reliable farm horse and a training horse was much more than any monetary compensation he might have achieved. He did, however, have a couple of faults, if you could call them that. The first was his size, as the biggest horse on the farm, standing 17.2 and weighing eighteen hundred weights [2000lbs] in good working condition, Geoff noticed when working him alongside the others on soft ground, his weight meant that he needed to work harder just to move himself along. His other fault was that being a gelding he couldn’t pass on any of his excellent characteristics to another generation. In a way it was a shame, because as a Clydesdale with a good depth of body, of excellent conformation and temperament, he could have done much to put back some middle, never mind his calm demeanour, into the breed. But there was another horse on the farm whose contribution was perhaps as great, a Shire mare called Queen. She was sharper than Swale but still good to do with; although a regular worker she just was not as experienced as Swale because nearly every year she did double duty as a breeding mare; in fact I can only remember a couple of years when she wasn’t on light duties during the summer with a foal at foot, before being added back to the main string of horses in the autumn.
Both horses were still on the farm when we moved to a different part of the country six years later, but on a visit to help out the following harvest time, Swale was lame. I asked what had happened, and they said that a young man who was keen to gain experience had been using him to pull trees out of the wood, a chance to give him some horse work on a day when it was too wet to work in the fields. The wood was dead flat and the trees weren’t big, having been felled to make space for others to grow on, and there was plenty of space between the trees so there was little to go wrong. This chap was not a raw beginner either, he had been to the farm before while I was there, and he had some ability with horses. But he also had a chip on his shoulder which manifested itself as arrogance and a hardness directed both at himself and the rest of the world. They never did discover for sure what happened to Swale, but this man had previously said how he liked the idea of using a horse to stack the logs, not just by turning the horse at an angle at the end of the stack to get the butt end to ride up over the others before lifting the thin end by hand, but by driving the horse right on top of the stack. Despite having been told not to do it, with the knowledge of the previous conversation and other little incidents, a stack piled high on the edge of the wood and a lame horse, they presumed that in the process of surmounting the stack Swale had got his foot stuck down between the logs and in his strenuous effort to release himself, had pulled some tendon or ligament in his foot.
Concluding the story, his voice tinged with sadness and understanding combined with profound disapproval, Geoff added, ‘no, he’s not kind to horses, William.’
Despite veterinary treatment and continuous rest, Swale gradually lost weight and his foot didn’t heal, so after several months they made the decision to put him down.
So, be kind to your horses, and be kind to yourself too.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.