Jim. Photograph by Chris Howell – The Herald Times. Copyright same.


by Sue Wunder of Bloomington, IN

Doc and Jim were a named team when we purchased them at auction in 1993, and they worked in tandem for the next seven years in support of our small dairy operation, answering to those very same names. Why would we change them? The two Belgians, already up in years, didn’t shoulder the full burden of what we needed in terms of horsepower. We used our tractors to harvest hay from all but the smallest of the fields we mowed, raked and baled each summer. Still, we regularly harnessed the team to mow that 5-acre field just west of the farmhouse, and to haul manure from the barn, firewood to the house and storm-felled trees up from the steep slopes of forested ravines.

Working with the honey-colored pair was always about more than getting a job done. We drew a bone-deep pleasure from their benign strength and from the perfectly synchronous way they applied it in response to simple, single-syllable commands – the gees, haws, whoas and tongue clicks of our overlapping vocabularies.

When Doc passed away in 2002, we buried him in the pasture east of the barn – where the horses had become a fluid part of the landscape in their ever-increasing hours of leisure. Doc’s going is inextricably linked in my memory with the soundtrack from “Zorba the Greek” which Charlie and I had been enjoying that week on our old LP record player. Besides the marvelous music by Mikis Theodorakis, the album included sound bites from the movie’s dialogue – Anthony Quinn’s famous admonition, “A man needs a little madness or he never dares cut the rope and be free!” has always been one of our favorites. It was hardly applicable to Doc, who like most Belgians, enjoyed his domesticity just fine, never protested a rope, and lived out his life under a solid work ethic with no hint of that rebellious streak of madness that Zorba embodied and endorsed. But the poignancy and powerful grace of the instrumental “Life Goes On” was the perfect tribute to the horse’s gentle demise. And the joyous, rhythmic release of “Zorba’s Dance” took the edge off our grief.

We began to pasture Jim with Ben, our black Percheron, who had recently lost the love of his life, Julie, a big mare of a workhorse we’d kept for a friend until he moved her to his own newly established farm. Ben and Jim forged a close alliance, despite their wholly different temperaments – Jim has always been unflappable, the very picture of draft horse placidity. Ben, skittish and headstrong, makes emotional waves just by breathing. He seems to charge the atmosphere when he walks. At a gallop he is a force of nature. But, despite their odd couple incongruities, the two became inseparable. Jim reached the grand old age of 40 before passing away peacefully this year on the eve of August. Out came the Zorba album as our good neighbor John came with his backhoe to dig the big hole in the hayfield west of the farmhouse. The east pasture where Doc lays has grown long and lush since we closed our milking operation, and we didn’t want to disturb the wildlife by having John dig a second grave there. So now the house sits between the two Belgians at rest. We live in what I can only call a state of grace in their embrace. I listened again to the sound bites from the album, one of which stood apart as the perfect tribute to both Jim and Doc. The exchange is between Zorba/Quinn and the counterpart character of a young intellectual, played brilliantly by Alan Bates in the film.

“You think too much, that is your trouble,” Zorba proclaims (I can see Jim’s corroborating wink). “Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything.”

“What work do you do?” inquires the young man.

Zorba scoffs, “Listen to him.” Then he answers, “I got hands, feet, head – they do the jobs… who the hell am I to choose?”

Just as Jim or Doc might have answered, had they had the words, and hands and feet instead of hooves.

Ben is a good ten years younger than the Belgians were. He misses his buddies, but as the song says, life goes on – in Ben’s case, complete with a dash of Zorbian madness.