Gas Engine Magazine

HELPING HOOVES

By Staff

#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.’

  • Published on Feb 1, 1988
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