The Wonderful World of Horses


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R1, Box 63, Avoca, Iowa 51521. 

After my last story about farming with horses was published, several people inquired if I had any more horse stories. A friend once told me that 'in the early days' one out of every family was a story teller. I suppose my dad could fit into that category. He told me many stories when I was very little. From these we will try to construct another horse story or two.

When we figure farming with horses was pretty well going out by the time I came along, I didn't have much of a chance to get in on much of the fun.

In the 1880's and 1890's the main source of power was horses. I'm sure anyone who has been to a threshing bee has seen 'horse power'. This was a circular device securely fastened to the earth. It had, in the center, an assembly of gears that were turned by a pole or 'beam' which was pulled round and around, often by four head of horses. In turn, a shaft was attached to the gears and ran along the ground to the implement which needed power. When running a threshing machine, the horses would be tired from walking around and around. They were replaced by another team. This was done quite often.

The most interesting source of power derived from horses, for me, was transportation. Let's take the old family doctor. Often he would own his own team of trotters. Usually a well matched pair. He would be known to travel 40 miles to deliver a baby. On trips like this it would become very boring. I don't recall how many miles per hour horses would travel. However, if I, as a boy, walked into the neighboring town 6 miles away, I usually could make the trip in good weather in two and one half hours. We might consider, babies are most generally born in bad weather. Old Doc would take along a gentleman to visit with, to help pass the time. Sometimes the two men would chew tobacco and make a small wager on how far they could squirt the tobacco juice. I once heard a tale of this old fellow coming into the local barber shop flashing a nice roll of bills. 'Where did you come across all that money?' all the onlookers asked. 'Well, by golly fellers,' he replied, 'it seems I rode along with old Doc to Topeka and back. He bet on the right horse and I bet on the left.' 'What do you mean you bet on the team?' was asked. 'Well sir, we was bettin' on which one would go to the bathroom first. I reckon my horse had a touch of the scours.'

My father had a smaller breed of horses. I'm sure most people are acquainted with the gigantic Budweiser team on TV. These are Clydesdales. There are several very large horses, others are Percheron and Belgian. I am told that the hoof of a Clydesdale can be 12' across. Some friends of ours raise Belgian horses. They are a medium build. However, the horses my dad had were Morgan. I recall as a small boy we still had Nancy and Jane. Both of these fine horses died before I was 10 years old. I asked Dad what breed they were and he told me he thought they were Morgan.

The horse I was more familiar with was 'Ginger', an American saddle mare. She was indeed the color of the spice ginger, also slender with long legs, mane and tail. She was a' gaited' pony. I can't recall how many gaits she had. I do know she loved kids and was a very smooth riding saddle mare. Another saddle mare my dad had was a black quarter horse mare, that I have written about in previous stories. Her name was Lightning.

My dad was a strange man, on one hand he had told me he didn't want me to be a farmer, as he thought I was too smart. He wanted me to be a civil engineer. He would discourage me from being around the machinery or horses. A brother had been kicked in the head. Dad didn't want that to happen again. He would repeatedly scold me to stay away from his horses.

On the other hand he would ridicule me-why wasn't I like the other boys? Why didn't I ride horses like they? This inconsistency disturbed me very deeply.

My dad would take his team and single seat buggy to town once a month for groceries. I knew that although he left early in the 'forenoon' it would be dusk before he returned. I had made my mind up that I would learn to ride a horse, the very next time he ventured into town. Lightning was in the lot by herself. I went to the barn to get a bridle. All we had were the sort used with a harness. These had large eye shields on each side so the horse could not see what transpired behind or to the side. I had contemplated this plan of action several days ahead. I had no 'bridle reins' with which to steer the horse, once I assumed a position on her back. I had braided three strands of what is now called baler twine to make each rein. Also I had confiscated two snaps from my dad's harness repair box. Everything went so well in my plans, but not in real life. I couldn't catch the mare. She would always turn away and lay back her ears. This was a warning sign, Dad had always said. I tried and tried. We covered every inch of the lot. Just as I thought I had her, she would break away. I suppose I may have been seven or eight years old at the time. I was so exasperated, I began to cry. She ran to the gate to the lane and out to the pasture. I hung the bridle on a post and ran to the house crying. Mother was sewing, with a mouth full of pins. She looked up and asked what the matter was. I related the complete incident in a rush of tears. 'Can you help me, Momma?' 'My goodness,' she replied, 'the world isn't coming to an end, stop crying!' With that she stuck the pins in her cushion, gathered up the excess cloth, and proceeded to get up. 'Go fetch me a small ear of corn.' she said.

She stood at the gate with the ear of corn and called the mare, who came nickering towards her. The mare was tempted with the corn but pulled away. It was useless to play that game with Mother, she had a handful of the horse's mane, just behind the ears. 'Give me the bridle,' she said. Mother then proceeded to show me how to stand by the horse's left side, to grasp the lower lip, and insert the bit into the horse's mouth, all in one quick motion. There is a strap that goes under the jaw of the horse and the bridle is placed over the ears. 'Now, Sonny, do you think you can handle it from here?' I hoped so. Mother returned to the house and her sewing. I led the mare up to the house yard. Surely on level ground I could jump up on her back. It looked so easy. I had seen Brother do it once. Each time I would try, the mare would side-step, on the ground I would fall! Eventually, .1 raised my voice to her and led her to the front porch. There I was up high enough to jump up on her back. I had done it-finally!! We were off! I was so proud.

The mare had different ideas about going for a ride. I urged her on, up the hill across the field, we went. When we reached the top of the hill she politely said that was enough. She took the smooth harness bit in her mouth and turned toward home.

Another problem I had was the fact that when she didn't wish to be ridden, she would stomp her feet. I was getting pretty well shook up. I must have done something correct because I got her turned away from home again. Then, with disgust, she threw up her head, turned and began to buck. Not having a saddle I fell off promptly. Then she stopped to wait because I had dropped the reins. She was taught to stand when the reins were dropped. To say I was mad would be a gross understatement. I jumped with all my might and again regained my seat on her shoulders. Leaning forward I grasped one rein. This immediately caused her to go around in that direction. Eventually I grasped the other rein, dug my heels in behind her front legs and we flew home. I would ride her every time Dad would go away for a few hours. Eventually we became the best of friends. I will say, I was never a good rider. On the other hand, my brother who had broke her to ride, rides like he is part of the horse.

I have been to several rodeos. It always seemed so inhumane the way the bucking broncs were caused to buck. A leather strap is placed around the horse's flank, which is just ahead of the hind legs. Then I noticed, after the rider has his seat, just as the chute gate is opened, a cowboy jabs the horse in the rear with an electric prod. I really can't condone such treatment.

In olden days, the single man would attend church socials and dances, either on horseback or if it could be afforded, in a shiny red wheeled, 'top buggy'. Boys will be boys, then the same as now. Let us picture a strapping young gent. The dress of that day was a black or dark grey single breasted suit. Of course, complete with vest. The Sunday shirt was always a wonder to me. I've seen' those my dad had stored away in his 'arched back trunk'. The shirt was grey, a striped material oftentimes that I would have thought better to make a cover to hold in feathers in a pillow! In my opinion, not a pretty stripe at all. This shirt had virtually no collar. There was a ridge of the shirt material where a collar should be. The style of that day was to wear a stiff celluloid collar that had a clip to hold it together in front. This appeared to me something that would be quite uncomfortable. That aforementioned ridge of cloth slipped inside the collar. Then, a black bow tie with short tails was affixed to the front of this celluloid collar. The so-called dress shirt had large cuffs that would show completely outside the cuffs of the jacket. On these shirt cuffs were slots in which to clip one's cufflinks. My father's cufflinks were about ? inch square and probably pure silver. The legs of the trousers were of the 'pipe stem' variety as some western jeans are today. The shoes were black, very soft glove leather. To top our young gentleman off was a Derby hat. Dad's was very hard and black. If it became dented it would make a popping sound when popped back out.

Now, let us imagine this handsome young blade astride a beautiful bay horse with a fine saddle. My! How he would impress the young ladies of the pie festival! Of course he had the new 'schoolmarm's' welfare in mind, as all the other young blades of that day. Rivalry was to abound. Should one young man find favor in the new teacher's eye, surely mischief would ensue.

One of the things of great entertainment in that day was to place a 'cocklebur' under the saddle blanket of such a fine chap's steed. Nothing would happen until the well dressed young hero would untie his mount, bid the young lady adieu and mount to return to the humdrum life of the farm. The weight of the man on the saddle pressing the thorns down against the horse's back could be quite painful to both. Usually the horse would seemingly explode under the lad, with loud squeals and severe bucking. This taking our young rider by surprise, he most generally would leave the saddle for a most uncomfortable seat in the dust. Possibly with his celluloid collar above one ear, and no sign of the Derby hat!

For those not acquainted with a cocklebur, in Kansas they were seed pods grown on a noxious weed. The pod would be about the size of a large peanut hull. This in turn would have thorns on all sides and ends. These thorns would become lodged in horse's tails and manes, and on the neck, and also in a tuft of hair just above the hoof on some horses. This tuft of hair is called a fetlock. Since the advent of sprays, I've not seen a cocklebur in years.

Should a pulling contest come up such as at the County Fair, possibly one evil contestant would fear being beaten by a neighbor's fine team of horses. It would happen that the dishonest person would slip into the barn and tie a short piece of smooth wire just under the tuft of hair above his opponent's horse's hoof, just under the fetlock. This wouldn't show until later. However, the horse would come up lame at the pull, when extra stress was placed on the leg. Oftentimes it was not discovered until after the contest.

Although no great harm would come to the horse, providing the wire was removed immediately, the big money was gone.

It became necessary to sleep beside one's team. Men have been shot for just such an offense. Over the years people haven't changed to any great extent, it would seem.