A horse is a horse, of course

A jet-black Percheron, Ben was the farm's only draft horse when I arrived here in 1990. He seemed to enjoy throwing his weight around, in harness, hauling firewood, loads of hay, and logs for a sugarhouse we built among the maples. He also liked giving us an occasional sleigh ride. Even when he was difficult for Charlie to control, he always started - unlike the tractors, which sometimes didn't.

Moreover, he was right at home among the dairy cows - grazing, sleeping, and wandering the farm with the herd. He even tended to the calves, hovering over the newborns like a doting but overbearing uncle. Occasionally he helped us transport a calf to the barn after a birthing in a back pasture.

Twice a day, after we rode him to bring the cows in for milking, he stood nearby, as if wondering why he, too, wasn't admitted to the parlor.

Ben may not have even recognized his status as an equine until we purchased two Belgians, Doc and Jim. When they stepped from the trailer, they put him straight.

Something reverberated among the horses from the first, and if it was high tension, it was also a wake-up call for Ben: He learned that he was not a cow, but something bigger and bolder - and with rivals.

Younger than the Belgians, Ben had good reason to resent their coming. They shouldered him aside as we began to depend on the more mature and perfectly paired team for horsepower. Doc and Jim were placid and unperturbed by fluttering leaves and birds - the very things that sent Ben lunging to and fro, ripping his harness and lending a dangerous edge to working with him.

As he watched the newcomers' stolid progress up and down the fields pulling the hay mower, the rake, the manure spreader, or the drag, Ben would shriek his protests from the barn. Putting him in harness again - between Doc and Jim - was a gesture we felt we finally had to make.

Together the three horses plowed a five-acre field we sowed with clover and alfalfa. With Ben boxed in the Belgians' big embrace, we were perfectly safe, and the horse relished his return to harness: He did more than his share of pulling, as if to make up for lost time.

When Doc died, Jim turned to Ben for solace, and the two became as inseparable as the Belgians had been. If one became temporarily separated from the other on the farm, plaintive whinnies would ring out over hill and dale until they found each other. And when they did, they always met with a nuzzle of greeting.

After Jim died, we wondered how our big, black horse would adjust to his singular status again after so many years.

We've retired from commercial dairying, but still keep a handful of cows and calves. Ben, who did not have much to do with them for more than a decade, seemed to have forgotten their uncomplicated companionship.

So he wandered the farm on his own for several months. I'd visit with him, but aside from providing daily scoops of his favorite grain, I couldn't do much to lift the horse's clearly downcast mood.

We were away from home for a few days recently and had asked friends to watch the farm and animals for us. One of the first things I do after an absence is walk the fields to see where and how the animals are.

Cresting a hill, I came upon the cows sunning in a small meadow by the stream, under the bare white branches of a magnificent sycamore.

And there, right in the center of things, stood Ben, one of the summer's calves asleep below his massive head, the other curled under his luxuriant tail. The herd's doting uncle was back on the job. He knew by now that he was a separate sort of beast, but it didn't seem to matter a whit.

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