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The horses of winter

By A. Hallett Stromholt / January 16, 1984



The other morning I was on my way down to check hive entrances to make sure the colonies had ventilation in their winter clusters. They sit in the shelter of bold cottonwoods, which break the day-on-end winds here that beat everything but the trees and adobe brick into the ground or off of it. Crossing the snowy pasture, I noticed how handsome the horses looked in their thickening hairiness. It was especially noticeable in Tim and Bud, the two Belgians, which during the summer, in their decorative harnesses, look as though their coats were made out of silk, skin-tight, and made smoother after a brushing down.

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All the animals now in the pasture below our adobe homestead, in the snow and grass between the house and the cottonwoods on the river, have that winter look about them: They stand still, a seemingly instinctive resignation to the cold and wind and the off-work months, for it seems theirs is a life of dedication to work which alternates between heat and cold at 7,200 feet on this high desert plateau in the Rockies.

Tim and Bud now seem strange and powerful in a different way, standing so still in the wind with their new fur hanging off them everywhere. After working with them all summer as the personal energy of the hay wagon and loader, I am able to draw their faces and outline in my dreams, from soft nose to tip of majestic, long skirt of a tail, Tim being a foot taller than Bud, and Bud being pretty much Mr. Skyscraper himself. You learn a lot about the anatomy of a horse when you have to lift 50 pounds of harness, rein, buckles, straps, toggles, and hames onto their noble backs . . . and gently done. ''Glory be to God for dappled things - /. . . And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim./All things counter, original, spare, strange; . . .'' These lines from Hopkins always seem to ring in my ears when I harness or unharness these great pals.

Now, at first I felt a bit estranged from them, ''the boys,'' as I call them, as one might feel shy of an intimate friend who has gone off somewhere and changed his appearance with a beard. You can't help but wonder if he is the same somehow. Or if the hair really covers up the idiosyncrasies, the personal weaknesses, you have learned to love them for. All that hair makes them look a bit on the mythological side at first, larger than life, and not as easy to relate to empathically. It takes time to get used to it.

After I finished with the bees, sweeping blown snow away from their hive entrances, disturbing a half-sleeping (or half-frozen) guard on the tiny beeway I've left them for the winter, I meditated a bit on how Apis mellifera is an Italian breed and it's probaby too warm in Italy for bees to grow hair just for the cold months, or some such foolish thing. But they were friends I recognized and could minister to.

Later that evening, just after sundown, I put a few Christmas apples in my pocket and went down in the semidark to look for Tim and Bud. Alert, ears pricking forward, they stood their ground as I walked up to them. Well, Bud took his apple and tried to nip his old pal, Timmy, to get his apple, too; and Timmy, Mr. Double Skyscraper, backed off gently, forgiving and unsurprised at his old work-friend's avarice for apples, but then nibbled on the coat of my jacket. In the twilight, I knew the beings of Tim and Bud out there, masked by their hair, up to their old selves and still good-heartedly full of sweet tricks.