The rural equine equivalent of a "man about town," our black Percheron draft horse is very conversant with the countryside beyond the borders of his home farm. Not that he wanders. He is invited elsewhere. Big, dark, and wickedly handsome, Ben can be counted on to liven and dress up a place. Even standing still he's stunning. When he moves, his riveting good looks luminesce with spirited vitality, and his brilliant black coat tosses off hypnotic highlights.
I often find myself staring at him on a sunny day, as hints of red and roan flash along his mobile flanks. Catching me looking his way, Ben stops and stares right back, wondering if some grain is coming his way. Then, if none does, he tosses his head and trots off, having better things to do than be admired.
But it seems to be his destiny. Friends love to visit our gentle, honey-colored Belgians, but if Ben is not around, they ask after the "big black." He might be at Beverly's, with Lisa's quarter horses across the road, or in Robin's small fenced yard, which backs onto Beverly's land. Ben's paths to and fro on visits have become a part of the lay of the land.
Ben's horizons began to expand years ago when Charlie asked a neighbor if his horse could spend a few days grazing in her lush and empty paddock. While the previous owners had owned horses, Beverly did not, and the grass had taken off. Moving Ben there temporarily would leave more at home for our cows to eat, for he has a prodigious appetite. And the overgrown field would satisfy that for quite some time.
As Charlie tells it, Beverly readily agreed to pasture beautiful Ben, but there was a catch. The big horse had to be paddocked there whenever she hosted a party.
To grasp the significance of this request, you need only turn up the gravel drive to her home and watch Ben ripple into action. His big head lifts, his nostrils flare, and with a toss of his luxuriant mane he half-floats, half-prances along the other side of the fence, ushering visitors right up to the circular loop around the house. You couldn't hire a more impressive greeter.
Wherever Ben is invited, he only need serve two functions: to graze and to suffer admiration. It is all our neighbors ask of him, and we don't require much more. Transportation around the farm, yes, but Ben is rarely harnessed these days. The Belgians have filled in for him.
Before the local roads became so busy, we maintained an annual tradition of riding Ben two or three miles up and down Bethel Lane just before Christmas. Charlie dressed up as Santa, and Ben sported sleigh bells, the sound of which brought local children streaming outside to claim their bags of candy. Lately, traffic has grown too congested for this, and we no longer venture very far along the tarmac with Ben. Nowadays, it is the kids who bring treats to the erstwhile ebony reindeer.
"You'll have to walk across the pasture to Beverly's," we tell them, and sometimes we walk along. Ben catches wind of the apple or carrots, and stands at the fence quivering and stamping his feet. He is focused on the food, oblivious as ever to the adoration and awe he inspires.
So far as Ben's concerned, he's just one of the cows.
Sometimes he gets lonely for his mates and whinnies from neighboring pastures to come home. Once back, he seems truly glad to be in the fold and fellowship of the dairy herd again. He has none of the airs of a local celebrity, no inkling that he looks for all the world like an ageless swan among ducklings. To his way of thinking, he's among his own, and the grass is sweetest right here at home.