Old Man

Old Man

by James L. Michael of Morgantown, WV

The “Old Man” had finally bred his Belgian mares enough times that he was out of barn space. This was what I had been waiting for, to work the charm. You see, I had been wanting to have my own team for a long time; but I couldn’t hardly bring in my own horses when Dad was getting new foals out of his mares every spring. I had grown up on horses and broken several saddle horses, but Grandpa and Dad had always been justifiably particular about “just everyone” driving their teams. That meant, for Dad as well as me, that “the boy” got to help but he didn’t get to drive. We both took our turn, but with Grandpa gone and Dad with six young horses on his side of the farm to train and me with an empty barn, I figured it was about my time.

I’d scouted around for some equipment, figuring that Dad would need a place for some horses that winter; and had my game plan worked out when he mentioned one day that he needed some place to keep “Mitzy” and “Nell,” the old mares, for the winter, because he was out of barn space. I told him that I could probably find barn space for them if he sent harness along for them. He wanted to know what I wanted harness for when I didn’t have anything to drive them in and didn’t know how to drive anyway?

I told him not to worry about that so much, just send the horses or turn them out on pasture. Didn’t matter to me one way or the other. I think he’d out figured me a little on this one. He accepted the deal a little too readily to have not been thinking along those same lines beforehand. He told me to come over in a few days after I got my barn ready and we’d see what we could rig up.

I drove the mile and a half to my house on the other end of the farm in a cloud. I was gonna get a team! My wife was less than enthusiastic when I gave her the news.

“You aren’t getting enough done as it is! How are you going to work in the mines, farm, and get MY house done with you and your dad both playing with horses?”

Some folks have some funny ideas about priorities. I’d sold my saddle horses for the benefit of “her” house. The sour taste of that still lingered in my mouth and I was darned if I was giving up this time! (Five years down the road this “city woman,” who wanted nothing but a fancy house and yard, and I agreed that we couldn’t agree and “divided the seed corn.”) I started getting ready for a team.

A friend of mine, named Bill Jones, sold me his grandfather’s wagon, sled, and mower for a modest price. He wanted to see them used, rather than peddled off to an antique dealer. The wagon needed rebuilding from the axles up. A new reach, hounds, bolsters, and bed that I made in my shop gave me new respect for the old craftsman whose work I was trying to duplicate. I worked long hours to get it ready, so I could get those horses home and start using them. My four children were nearly as excited as I was. They spent most of their time in the basement shop helping (?) me. Four kids and a sixteen-foot high-wheeled wagon in a twenty-foot work area made things a little crowded, but kids don’t learn anything sitting in a chair upstairs. My children all started following me around before they could talk plain and they all started talking early. Like to have a nickel for every time I’ve heard the word “why.”

I got the wagon ready to roll; complete with several coats of bright red paint and an, I thought, improved round bale loading rig. I called Dad and told him I’d be over to get the mares the next morning after we got in from the mines. Walking over the hill to Dad’s the next morning gave me time for some second thoughts. “You’re thirty-one years old and you haven’t driven a pair of horses three hundred feet in your life,” I told myself, “let alone worked them. What-in-heck makes you think you can? Dreams are fine but on the other side of this hill is reality. You take the “Old Man’s” favorite horses home and mess up and you’ll be lucky if all he does is kill you! Are you really ready to take this on? Guess you’ll have to be. You’ve already made your brags. You’ll just have to back them. Grandpa spent a lot of time teaching you what he could, just pretend that he’s still there behind you and do everything as much like he and Dad would as you can. Go cautious and THINK!”

Dad and Grandpa were particular about other people driving their horses; said that strange hands on the lines made the horses nervous, and I agree; but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t spend a lot of time teaching my sister and me all they could about horse handling and farming. I had the good fortune to be with Grandpa almost all of the time for the seventeen years before he died. Dad was working as a carpenter during that time and only had evenings and weekends to farm. Grandpa kept up the day-to-day work with a team and the help(?) of my younger sister and me. He was a normally patient man with a knack for training horses, dogs, and grandchildren. This isn’t to be construed as being slighting of my father; I simply don’t have the time, right now, to write the novel it would take to give him the credit and respect that he deserves.

Wanting to get the ribbons in my hands and not being able to was probably a benefit. I read whatever I could find about driving a team and I watched. I watched closely the subtle way Grandpa and Dad handled reins and the quiet way they had with the big horses in anticipation of the day I would have my own team to drive. To my knowledge, neither of these masters ever made a cold-mouthed horse. I figure I have paid for a first-class ticket to hell if I ever do.

Grandpa was very much on my mind as Dad and I finished fitting harness to Mitzy and Nell and I swung them away from the barn. Reins tight, but not dragging on them, I strode up the road behind them. That’s right; I STRODE! How the heck could you do anything else when you’re going up the road by yourself for the first time behind a fine pair of blonde sorrel BELGIANS? Strode? HECK! My feet were hardly touching the ground, I was so proud! Re-enter second thoughts:

“Watch over me, Grandpa… am I doing this right? Walk through that mud puddle, Mitz! I’m driving you, not being led! Easy, Nell! Hold her off a little, you DUMMY! You know she gets up in the bit when she first starts out. Keep them together! Dad’s still in sight. Don’t mess up now, Dad will never let you have a team again!”


“Should I do this? What about that? Oh, Lord! What if I mess up? Look over my shoulder, Grandpa. If we make this work, we’re headed in the right direction.” The right direction? You bet! Grandpa had a hundred fifteen acres. He worked it with horses. Dad bought twenty that adjoined when he got married. He and Grandpa got a tractor to do some of the work. Horses were still the mainstay. My sister and I came along and Dad bought another hundred adjoining acres and a square baler. Grandpa still mowed the hay and fed the cattle with a team. Grandpa died and a year later, Grandma. Dad bought out his brother and sisters, who didn’t live on the farm. With me in college and Sis in school and Grandpa’s team’s age against them, Dad sold the team. I went to the mines, got married, and bought a second tractor. Sis and I still had saddle horses, but we had nothing to negotiate soft ground with to feed cattle. Dad took a job in the mines and bought a team of Belgian mares. We started working toward a mixed-power farm and Dad started getting the mares bred at Orndorf’s in Waynesburgh, Pennsylvania; about thirty-five miles away. By the time what I started telling about occurred, we only had one remaining major problem. There was only one teamster on the place. It was my intention to correct that problem.

When I turned into my driveway my two oldest daughters, Billie, 7 and Jamie, 6, were waiting to open the gate and go the quarter mile to the barn with me to help put them away. My Aussie/Border Collie, Bounce, thought that this was a pretty good deal, too. The weather was too cold for JoClair, 4 and Paul, 1 to be outside. They watched from the window, all excited. The Speaker of the House didn’t interrupt her “busy” schedule to observe ‘some more of my foolishness.’

Mitz and Nell were all spring legs, perked ears, wide open nostrils, and up in the bits. I could almost hear them talking to each other, “We got to put up with that fool behind us and this, too?”

Fed well and bedded down for the night, they probably slept well. I didn’t. Visions of a team in my barn danced through my head. Back to the barn first thing the next morning. Feed, curry, water. Clean out the manure. This is actually not a dream! Dream horses don’t need curried or leave manure. Curry the dog; she feels neglected if I don’t, ecstatic if I do. Time to harness up…

“Grandpa, I hope you’re not looking! Did this set go on Mitz or Nell? I didn’t pay enough attention when I unharnessed yesterday. Oh, shoot! Those straps never get tangled around Dad’s feet when he’s harnessing. If he saw you right now and didn’t kill you on the spot, he’d at least take his horses home and laugh all the way.”

Break time:

“Sit down, fool, and relax! Do you suppose that Dad or Grandpa did it all right the first time? You know darned well they didn’t. Remember Grandpa telling about getting kicked out of the barn trying to milk a dry cow…or how ‘bout Dad getting dragged nearly to death by a draft horse? That’s why they were so strict about doing things the “right” way. Their mistakes left a lasting impression. They could have been killed when they made one and they tried to shield you from the same learning process because they cared. You’ve read stories in magazines by people who started in this draft horse business with nothing more behind them than the desire to drive horses. Are you any less than them?…Of course not! Then get with it! Grandpa told you that a man had a bigger brain than a horse. That was why it was up to the man to think ahead and keep him and the horse out of trouble. You have a good (?) brain, and a lot of good training behind you. USE IT!”

It’s amazing, the small details you miss when you’re just watching someone do something, no matter how closely you watch. I knew most of the words but it took a while to get the music right. Everything got easier with practice.

I spent a couple of days currying pasture fields with a drag, getting used to the mares and letting them get used to me, before I tried hitching to the wagon. Boy! That wagon driving turned out to be something else. My heart goes out to the greenhorns who get into this horse driving business with a less than well broke team. The good training Dad had given those old gals paid me dividends as I felt my way along. Foremost in my mind was looking ahead for what could go wrong before it did. Keeping me and the horses out of harm’s way was the object of the game. We spent a week hauling stone out of a thirty-acre pasture field before we tried doing any wagon work in close quarters. Seasoned drivers are probably laughing by now, but I couldn’t see risking injuring a horse or damaging my wagon when I had an open field to practice in. Trying to match Dad and Grandpa’s smoothness and grace in handling a team and wagon brought the sweat out on me. Dad showed remarkably good judgment by not coming around and adding to my nervousness as I made and corrected my initial mistakes. Don’t know how many times he may have slipped up on the ridge and watched from a distance.

I had learned a lot more over the years from Dad and Grandpa than I had realized. Those subtle lessons came back as I handled the team every day. I felt Grandpa’s presence as though he was actually there beside me. I brought back teaching that had ended fifteen years ago by talking with his spirit.

“…Am I doing this the way you showed me, Grandpa? Should I go with the load I have, or will they pull a little more? …Nell’s up in the bit this morning and fretting. Is it her mood or are my hands making a mistake?” I could feel the old gentleman smile when I got things right, frown when I made a mistake.

Dad and Grandpa always disparaged folks that didn’t gather their lines up and drive their horses. Working a pair with a daydreamer on the near side and a fretter on the off was a good hands on lesson in what they meant. I knew how they performed with Dad on the ribbons. Getting them to work with the same grace and harmony for me took some practice. Holding Nell off too much caused her to fret. Too little rein and she worked ahead of Mitzy. Mitzy was a willing worker, but she had a tendency to get to thinking about something else and start goofing off. The tip on a line butt just under the breeching was sometimes needed to get her mind back on the job at hand. If I was too obvious with it, Nell got cranked up, thinking the swat was directed at her.

Day by day we became a smoother three-part working unit. Those old gals showed remarkable patience while teaching me. They also had a sometimes less than subtle way of humbling me when they sensed me becoming complacent. They showed a genuine sense of humor as they conspired to keep me on my toes.

“Hey, Nell, let’s mess with the kid this morning. When he swings us into the wagon tongue let’s turn face to face or pull the neckyoke off the tongue when he walks back to hook up the traces.”

“No, Mitz, let’s let him get everything but your outside trace and then I’ll step up a step or two. When he can’t get the trace chain hooked, we both play deaf and ignorant. That usually pops his blood pressure up a few points.”

“Ha! Ha! Looky-here! He’s going to unhook the wagon in this slimy old mud and he’s wearing those old slick-soled rubber boots again. Let’s use the reins for a tow rope and ski him back to the barn when he gets us unhooked.”

“Mitzy… when he leads you out of the barn this morning and comes back in to get me take a little jog around the barn lot and buck a little bit. Maybe his “Old Man” will drop by while he’s yelling and you’re making the mud fly. If that doesn’t wind his crank, nothing will. He always wants everything so perfect when he thinks his Daddy might be watching. We can always nuzzle his cheek a little later today and make up with him.”

They were right about my apprehension of Dad. He hadn’t been around once to check on me since I brought the team home. That was almost as nerve-wracking as having him looking over my shoulder and criticizing every mistake I made. I was certain he would pop in just when I had goofed the worst. To his credit, he never showed once. He may have slipped up on the ridge from time to time to watch but he never made his presence known.

Christmas Eve came round and still no appearance by Dad. I knew he had to be concerned over the treatment his babies might be getting, so I went over to wish he and Mom a Merry Christmas and set his mind at rest.

We passed the usual amenities for a while and then, as I was leaving, I turned and said, “Dad, I’m going to take good care of your mares. If I find that I can’t handle them in a manner you and Grandpa would approve of, I’ll still winter them for you, but I’ll bring the leather back. If I can’t drive them right, I’ll just not drive.”

Dad glanced up at me in the doorway from his favorite chair in the living room and said kind of gruffly, “You’ll do all right.”

I was glad I was already headed out the door. He or no one else could see the tears brimming in my eyes. My father had just given me the best Christmas present I could be given. His stamp of approval, a very hard-won thing.

A couple days after Christmas the weather turned bad enough that we had to start feeding hay. The weather had stayed mild enough that winter that we had been able to pasture in the hay meadows until that time. I could now try out my new round bale loading rig. Dad and I had developed a similar rig for his low to the ground, rubber tired wagon that had worked well for several winters.

I built my high-wheeled road wagon in as near the traditional road wagon pattern of our area as I could with the exception of seat springs. I had no seat springs. “Riding like a road wagon” was not just a figure of speech! Enthusiasm and insulated overalls absorb a lot of jolts. Besides… when you are handling the ribbons on your first team, riding the first wagon you have built up with your own hands, you don’t hardly touch down too often.

Now, backing a sixteen-foot wagon up perfectly square to a four foot wide round bale is no great accomplishment; just ask any experienced teamster. Piece of cake!

What’s that? The missus and kids are pestering you to take them to the circus! They want to see the clowns? Save your money, pilgrim, and have a good time yourself, to boot! Just take them to watch a novice accomplishing the same feat for the first time. Take along some earmuffs for the kiddies, though. You don’t really want them learning that kind of barn talk from a stranger!

The first day out to feed hay, Mitz, Nell, and I got the wagon into position at about the same time we had reached the end of our collective patience. The forks under the bale, I hooked a set of cable come-alongs to the top frame of the forks and a ring I had bolted to the front end of the wagon bed. Then, so I could watch everything, I got on the ground alongside the front of the wagon and started cranking the come-alongs. As the wagon frame and rigging started absorbing the weight of a thousand pound round bale, strange creakings and groanings emanated from the entire structure. Loose line butts in one hand, the come-along handle in the other, my eyes stayed ferret-busy; looking for any visible sign of trouble these noises might impart.

Mitzy picked this time to start daydreaming. She shifted hip-shot onto one hind foot and the wagon rolled forward a dozen inches accompanied by a cacophony of new screeches and groanings. My heart bumping my tonsils, I contemplated horse-murder! Counting to ten doesn’t help. Maybe one hundred? Take the line butts and beat heck out of Mitzy? Pleasing thought, but no, just ease up. Get on with the job and keep on watching. The bale is half-way up to bed level and everything seems to be okay. A few more cranks on the come-along handle and the bale is almost high enough to roll on the wagon bed.


Those old Kramer wagons were made to carry a considerable load on the axles. Levering a load up over the back end of a bed that is held down between the bolster stakes by gravity is, as I just found out, another matter. A thousand pound round bale hanging off the back and tethered to the front defies gravity!

Mitzy is no longer daydreaming, Nell is hyper-alert but still standing. The unconscious “whoa!” and gathering of the lines had been correct on my part, but unnecessary.

My pretty red wagon towers sixteen feet above me in the air. The round bale is back on the ground.

Time to contemplate.

Silently I thank my Dad and Grandpa for teaching me to always stay in the clear and hang on to the lines when not certain of a situation. At the same time I thank the Lord that Daddy isn’t here to see this mess!

Boy! Would I ever catch heck for this!

“Boy, you’re a half mile from any help and fouled about right. How’re you going to get out of this mess?

Everything is still in one piece, just a bit out of place. Mitz and Nell are being pretty stoic about the whole deal. Thanks, again, Daddy, for doing such a good job of training these gals. Well… what goes up should come down, shouldn’t it?”

Gingerly, reins in hand, reassuring the mares, I climbed on the front, or is it the top, of the wagon. Slowly, notch by notch, by notch, I eased off the come-alongs. The wagon bed settled back in place.

Second-guessers will undoubtedly wonder why I didn’t unhitch. I trusted the mares to hold everything steady as long as I asked them to. There was no way to keep everything steady while unhitching. The entire works could have overturned while I was half unhitched. I chose the lesser of two evils. Providence had left a chain under the seat. It was long enough to tie the bed to the front axle. That and me lending my weight by standing in the wagon box on the second try at loading a bale, got a bale loaded that day.

“Grandpa, if you could load and move steam boilers on wagons like this, surely I can get a piddling round bale on and out to feed the cattle without killing myself or the horses.”

“Probably, boy. Remember, though, that I used a Kramer when that was the best that could be had. When a better rig came along, that’s what I went to. The last wagon I used is the low, rubber tired wagon your Dad is using right now.”

Case closed. I bought a low, rubber tired, tractor-drawn running gear not long afterward. I converted it to horse use and built a bed on it to fit my needs. In the meantime, I weighted and tied down that old Kramer to do the job I had to get done, just like Grandpa would have done. Dad was feeding in half the time that it took me.

It amazed me just how much those mares and the wagon learned in a month. Got so they backed into a bale just right the first time. The mares even began driving for me almost as well as they did for Dad. Dad asked from time to time how I was getting along, but he never came over to interfere. Kind of wanted him to, yet didn’t wish to have my bubble bursted, either. The cows were getting fed every day and the mares were being treated well. That was what was most important.

With February came silage feeding time. That meant that I had to make a trip to Dad’s side of the farm every day to load silage out of the pit silo for the cows on my side of the farm.

I took extra care with the brushing and currying that first morning. Decided to feed hay before I went to Dad’s. Fresh out of the barn they were up in the bits and didn’t drive quite as well as they did after the edge was worn off. We were going to be on parade that day so we had to be as near perfect as possible. Before we rounded the last end of the mile and a half of county road between Dad’s house and mine, I stopped. One last walk-around. Every strap is straight, no stray mane under the collar, trace chains straight, the wagon all in order. A little pat on each gal’s nose to reassure them. Back on the seat and rattling down the road, my mind clicked at triple the rhythm of the clattering iron-shod wheels. I tried to anticipate and counter everything that might possibly mar this first appearance in front of Dad.

Rounding the last bend we could see Dad’s house and barn, about a quarter mile away. The mares surged into the bits when they saw what had been their home for many years. Nell began to prance just a bit.

I could see Dad moving about around the barn. He kept moving doing his morning work, but I knew without a doubt, that he was observing me as I came down the road at the same time.

Lightly communicating to the mares with the reins, I spoke to them at the same time.

“Mitzy, keep your mind on the job. Easy, Nell. Settle down, girl. You’ve both been doing so well; don’t embarrass us now. That’s it, settle down. Dad’s watching. We don’t want him to be ashamed of us.”

They relaxed and continued on for me as they would have for Dad. Gave my flagging confidence a boost. The break in tension was short lived.

Since the pit silo opened into the road on my side of Dad’s yard, I had to turn the team and wagon someplace. I could back the wagon between a car and truck in the narrow parking lot opposite Dad’s house, where he always turned, or I could opt for the easy way out. Drive past the barn and drive a circle in the field beyond the barn. I was sure that if I did that I would have to answer the embarrassing question, “Why did you drive clear down there to turn?”

If I started to turn at the house, I was also sure that I’d be informed that I better be careful; there wasn’t much room there.

Dad timed his walk from the barn to the house to my arrival at the edge of the parking lot. Safe option cancelled on account of pride. I wasn’t about to tell him I was afraid to turn a team and wagon in a place that he turned in every day. Let him tell me I couldn’t turn there. Besides, it was his car and truck that were going to get banged up when I messed up.

I said a quick silent prayer to the gods that watch over foolish sons and unoffending automobiles and swung the team to set up for a backing turn between the car and truck. Last chance to tell me not to do this, Dad.

Dad wasn’t saying a word. He just stood in the edge of the yard on the house side of the road in a place that allowed me the option of passing by, but afforded him a perfect view of the entire process if I decided to turn there. His noncommittal stance gave me no indication of what his desires in the matter were. I knew his casual gaze was not missing a single detail of my horses, equipment, and handling. Ball in my court!

“Whoa”… I paused when the mares stopped so they would listen for my commands rather than anticipating me and taking control themselves.

Mitz and Nell took that instant for a brief nose-touch conversation, “What do you think, Nell?”

“Well, the ‘Old Man’s watching. We mess up, this is our last trip with this rattling old wagon.”

“True, but do you want to winter in a nice barn and be curried every day or stay in a shed in a turnout pasture?”

“You’ve thought about this…”


When I tightened the reins a bit and asked them to back they gave me their full attention as they went to work. As I gently climbed one line and slipped the other with Gee, Back and Haw commands they backed and side passed first right then left in one of the smoothest 90 degree backing turns that has ever been done.

Perfectly centered between the two vehicles and lined out to go back up the road to the silo without a stop or hesitation.


“Mornin’,” I spoke to Daddy for the first time.

“Mornin’, you need some help loading silage?”

“Guess not. Appreciate the offer, though.”

“Looks like you got things under control. Mares are looking good.”

“Well, they’re good mares.”

“Yes… and they’re getting good care. Be seein’ ya. I got breakfast waitin’.”

“See ya later on. Gitup, Mitz.”

Like I said earlier, that part of my life changed five years later. My brother-in-law and my sister are the mainstay of the farm now. Dad’s 75 and breaking in a new young team with their help. I help when I can, but that’s limited because I spend most of my life sitting behind 460 horses driving over America.

Home time for me is spent in the woodshop and the blacksmith shop I’m setting up. Road time is spent dreaming of being able to come home and make enough of a living with a couple of different hammers and a pair of leather reins in my hands instead of a steering wheel.

My winter project is to build a hitch wagon for Daddy. We are working on the plans now.

I’ll keep you posted.