Our black Percheron draft horse, Ben, hasn't aged a whit over the past 12 years. He is every bit as stunning as he was when I first climbed aboard his broad ebony back behind Charlie, and he carried us both uphill at a bucking gallop to collect the cows from the back pasture.
I was new to the farm Ben had had Charlie all to himself up until then, which was clearly the way he liked things. But I was smitten by him from the get-go and I made it one of my missions in life to win him over. Ours was a relationship built little by little on apples, curry combings, and flattened horseflies an hors d'oeuvre he relishes. Once Charlie showed me how the horse enjoyed having them slapped off his rump and sacrificed to his discriminating and revengeful palate, Ben and I got along famously. I was even able to ride him solo about the farm, though my command of his fiery nature was never complete. But then, neither was Charlie's.
The horse was too high-spirited and unpredictable to make a comfortable mount. The sudden movement of a bird in the periphery of his vision could send him leaping sideways, suddenly riderless. In harness he could be downright explosive. A tiny, almost teasing whinny and a certain glint in his eye was the only warning he ever provided.
One perfectly calm, sunlit, and windless winter's day, Ben was pulling us in a cedar-runnered sled across the snowy back pasture. I couldn't take my eyes off the horse; his fluid, black movement against the unbroken white expanse seemed to epitomize some radiant force, a raw, preindustrial power. All at once, Ben felt his advantage as the sled skimmed along, accelerating oh! so easily across the frozen ground. I couldn't see his eyes, but I heard that whinny.
The next thing I knew, Charlie was yelling for me to bail out, and I was flailing in the lap of winter as our conveyance careened along on one runner. Ben was a blur of dark joy, growing small in the distance as I picked myself up. When he finally tired, and Charlie was able to rein him in, no harm had been done but that was the last time we hitched him to anything so light on friction. In fact, he was retired from harness almost completely once we purchased two staid and steady Belgians to do the grunt work he had always done alone another change of status the Percheron initially protested and eventually came to terms with.
With the passage of a decade, you would think Ben would have changed. Not at all. He is still the wicked black beauty he always was, massive in the shoulders, well-rounded in the hindquarters, his legs thickly muscled and his eyes belying that stolid, dependable-looking build.
He has never stopped springing at the sudden flights of birds, or adapted to the hissing hot air balloon that sometimes launches from the schoolyard across the road from his pasture but he can kick his heels as high and mightily at its overhead passage as ever. He still enjoys swallowing a horsefly flattened by a well-timed slap, especially if it had managed to bite him before its demise and presentation for inspection.
The other day I offered him another of his favorite summer treats. As the temperature crept into the mid-90s, and the sun beat down on his black absorbent coat, I lifted the hose from the water tank I was filling and turned it his way. Tossing his mane, Ben did what he always does at this invitation: He turned his mane as his eyes narrowed at the deep pleasure of this mid-day cooling. Then he ambled up and matter-of-factly took the hose-end from my hands into his mouth for a long, slobbering drink. We passed it back and forth for a good 10 minutes, as I showered him and he alternately played with and directed the stream himself. He's the only one of our horses who uses a hose as we do to slake thirst. It's one of the things that bond us.
You never know what will work between a human and a horse. With the Belgians, it was always our mutual solid work ethics, and hours of shared, steady effort. Ben, quirky and volatile, provides better entertainment, more excitement, and unbeatable visuals as he gallops about, tossing his mane and blowing off steam. He is the only one we've been able to ride the Belgians never considered themselves anything but harness horses. You could sit and sun on them, but you wouldn't go fast or far.
On Ben, you have to be wary of that whinny, and prepare in a split second for his cannonball accelerations but you can go places if you manage to stick with him. I haven't gotten up on Ben for a few years now. If he hasn't changed, I have, and I've come to prefer sunning on a Belgian. My bond to Ben rests now on memories, horseflies, and the hose. Which is more than enough.