HELPING HOOVES

Harness on horse

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#1, Box 63, Avoca, Iowa 51521

This story is about a man who farmed with horses all his life, and his horses and family. My father lost practically everything in the Crash of 1929. He did manage to keep his horses. He moved my mother and older brothers and sisters onto the home place to live with and care for his mother. I was born on this eighty-acre farm. I recall, as a very small boy, carrying a fresh drink of water out to the field to my dad. Often times when I reached him he would stop to rest the horses while he told a short story and had his drink of water.

He would always check the harness on each horse. He loved his horses very dearly. He would always tell me, 'If horses are cared for, they will care for us.'

I recall the trees in the fencerow between our farm and a neighbor's meadow. Dad always tried to stop his horses in the shade. He would comment that a tree was a valuable thing to have. He said that not only did they share their shade with men and horses, but they also kept the wind from blowing away the topsoil, as it had during the Dust Bowl days. He said that many farmers would do away with the trees, because they thought they lost too much of the crop from their shade. This wasn't true, he would remark, because the soil they kept from blowing away was of more value than the minor loss of a bushel or so of grain.

The horses would stand with their heads under the trees switching flies and nibbling the leaves from the lower limbs. Dad once told me that the hackberry seed skins acted like a laxative to the horses. This may have been so, I don't know. However, all four head of horses would deposit fertilizer while standing under the shade of the trees!

My father would not allow a tractor on the farm except to run the threshing machine. He said, no matter what they said, tractors packed the earth.

I recall he would be plowing with a one bottom plow. I don't remember what brand the plow was, but I do recall it had no tongue and was three-wheeled, with one front wheel at an angle instead of standing up straight. Often times he would use only three horses. When I would take him a drink of water, we would pick up earthworms out of the row. The closest river to fish in was six miles away.

When noon came, Dad would come in walking behind his team. Our hand pump well was right in front of the house. Beside the pump was a large stock tank. Often times I would run out to help pump fresh water for the horses. When they got close to the tank, Dad made them wait until he removed the bridle from their heads. They would make a soft 'Hum, hum, hum!' sound. They could smell the fresh cool water. They were allowed to go on their own through the gate and into the barn when finished drinking. Dad would hang the bridle over one hame and unhook all the lines so they could all be separated.

Often times I would run around behind the barn to where the sweet-smelling prairie hay was stacked. Our barn was the old homestead house converted to a barn. Since there was no hayloft, the hay had to be stacked outside. Dad had removed part of the old windows and boarded some up. The open windows were where we put in the hay. He had made a manger out of poles, just inside and all along that wall. There was ample room for eight head of horses. Always we were advised to be careful not to poke a horse's nose with the fork.

Dad would walk in beside each horse with a measure of grain. Each horse had its own feedbox at the side of its stall. The horses would smell the grain and make that same call they had made at the trough, 'Hum, hum, hum! Hum, hum, hum!'; anyone who has ever been around horses will know the sound. For those who have never had the pleasure, the animal's nostrils will quiver, and their upper lip will sometimes curl up to show the teeth. It's almost as though the horse is talking to you. It's definitely a sound of delight.

Each horse would step over to the side to be sure my dad had plenty of room to walk through. He would always walk on the left side. The second horse would talk but knew that it was not their turn yet.

After all were cared for, we then were allowed to go to our dinner. After dinner Dad would come out of the house and, putting on his old felt hat, would call, 'Come on, let's go!' Each horse would arrange himself in the proper position to be reattached to the reins. Then came the walk back to the field.

My dad had been in poor health long before we were aware of it. First he would request one of us children to come out and walk along behind his implement. This became a chore, as we wanted to stay home and play. Nevertheless we would take turns going out with Dad. Then he later started hauling the implement in from the field, so that he could ride in.

As I grew older, he and I could not agree and I left home to find work. Eventually I was asked to return. He could no longer farm the land. Even though he owned one-half of the farm, the relatives wanted to have us move. They were selling their half and asked us to move. This was a blow to Dad, Mother, and myself.

We made an arrangement with a lady from the county seat, that we might live in her house a half mile away. For this privilege, I would care for her pasture and her herd of Hereford cattle. Needless to say, I returned to live at home.

I began to build my love for my father's horses. The old team was retired to pasture. Often times they would stand at the barnyard fence and whinny when they saw Dad hobble out to the porch to sit in his straight back rocker. He would raise his voice to them and say, 'Yes, I know, we ain't going to the field for a while.'

I spent most of my time with a quarter horse mare he had. She was a beautiful animal, coal black with three white feet. She also had a large white stripe that started in the center of her forehead and followed the bridge of her nose down to her one nostril and upper lip. My brother had named her Lightning. When I would ride her out each day to check fences and the windmill and cement tank down in the valley, I would take my big black and white dog along. It would take me about two hours in the morning and evening. It was a pleasure to sit in the saddle and just let her walk along. For this effort I received my room and board and, now and again, a nickel to buy a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. I learned to love this beautiful horse; I even developed a liking for the smell of her sweat. People have laughed when I have said this. In the spring when the horses would shed their winter coat, she would shine like a well-polished black shoe.

When I had to round up the cattle and bring them home, all I had to do was hang on. The mare knew what to do. She and my dog would bring the herd up to the road, under the bridge, and into the barnyard where the loading chute was. The lady who owned the cattle would take them home every fall. Her two sons would bring two semi-trailer trucks and a straight truck each spring and fall.

I recall my father had always told me to leave the calves alone. He would say I had plenty to do just repairing the fences. However, my older brother brought me a new lariat. First I practiced on a fence post, then riding by a fence post. I got so I could catch a fence post pretty well! One spring day, while riding down in the valley, I decided to rope a calf. I threw a loop on the calf. The mare slid on her haunches to a stop. The calf went end over end with a 'blaaatt!', and jumped to his feet. I got off the mare and tried to release him. It then occurred to me to look toward the house. My dad was sitting in his rocking chair on the porch. Uh-oh! I realized I was in trouble two ways. First I knew that, although Dad was in poor health, he had excellent eyesight. The second problem was that I couldn't get the rope off the calf. Each time I would manage to get a little slack, the mare would back up and tighten the rope. I had thrown a half-hitch over the pommel on the saddle when I dismounted. Finally, I had the intelligence to drop the rope from the saddle. Then, with the help of the dog, I got the rope off the calf's neck. The dog kept the cow occupied, as she had become disenchanted with my playing with her baby.

When I arrived back at the house, I rode right up to the front porch and dismounted. 'Well, Mister Sonny,' Dad said as I stood with my head down, holding onto the bridle reins, 'What do you have to say for yourself? I told you to leave the calves alone.' I had nothing to say. Finally I happened to look up at his face. I noticed the twinkle in his eyes, and the corners of his mouth were twitching. Although he was trying to be real mad and scold me, he was having a terrible time not laughing.

Later we moved my mother and dad to town six miles away. I remained on the farm to finish out the season. Eventually, one by one, his faithful horses passed away. Only one was left-Lightning. She was allowed to remain in the big pasture. There was a valley of green grass both winter and summer, and plenty of water also. I too moved away.

Two years later, when my brother came to take Lightning to his home, she had become quite wild. He told of how he saw her in the valley as he drove into the yard. He parked his pickup and trailer, then walked back down the road. He whistled as he reached the old gate where the passage went under the road. She raised her head and pricked up her ears. He whistled again and she came running. He opened the gate to the road and she walked beside him the half mile to the house. She had not forgotten him. When they reached the horse trailer, he talked her right in. Closing the trailer end gate, the man who lived there asked, 'How in hell did you do that? I can't get within fifty feet of her.'

My brother replied, 'Boy, I broke that mare when I was sixteen; we grew up together.' If I'm not mistaken, Lightning lived in retirement until she was twenty-one years old. Brother wrote us when she passed away.

My father never gave up talking of 'gettin' better and going back to the farm,' until he got word that the last one of his horses had died. When Brother told us of the incident of getting the mare loaded he remarked with a twinkle in his eye that, 'It didn't hurt to have an apple in my coat pocket, but that old boy who lived there didn't know that.'