Teaming Up With Charlie's Horses

The auction was beyond our normal travel range, near the Illinois border, but one line of the ad - "team of Belgians" - pulled us west after Saturday-morning milking. Nowadays, it is a rare farm outside of the Amish community that still relies on horsepower; accordingly, draft animals are no longer widely available for sale.

After several hours of driving, and final directions from a man hauling beans, we pulled off a little-traveled road before a small, plain, tree-shaded farmhouse.

The bidding was well under way, centered on a hay wagon loaded with well-used items: crockery and churns, skillets and buckets, ropes and chains, motor and linseed oil, gloves, wire, tires, bits of tack, and all manner of tools. A few pieces of worn but worthy furniture, including some genuine antiques, decorated the lawn, creating an odd and airy parlor among the trees.

The owner, a widower past normal retirement age for any profession, was scaling down. The word was, his children had persuaded him to include the horses in the sale; it wasn't his idea. Despite his skill and lifelong experience as a handler of teams, they worried he'd injure himself if he worked the big Belgians much longer.

CHARLIE yearned to farm with a team again, a part of the old life he'd had to give up when he made the transition from a 30-acre vegetable farm to his present 80-acre commercial diary. Because of his increased labor needs - and the financially intensive start-up - he'd had to sell his team and turn to the speed and power of a tractor.

But he hadn't lost touch with horses altogether. In 1991, he was working a single black Percheron, Ben, a big animal with a mercurial edge to his muscle. In harness he hauled shedloads of firewood, plowed the garden, uprooted stumps, heaved storm falls out of the woods, and generally threw his weight around as Charlie bade - and sometimes according to his own fierce desires. I would watch the ensuing battle of wills in awe of the horse, the man, and the fiery bond between them. It was that bond, underlying Charlie's authority, that always triumphed in the end.

Ben was and is irreplaceable on the farm, but as the work seasons rolled by, Charlie talked more and more of what he could do with a matched pair as well.

We had arrived at the auction barely ahead of the Belgians. Exactly at noon they came from their barn, walking majestically across a gently rising field in full harness. Their brass frames swayed in rhythm, tossing off the sun. The lines from the man barely twitched as the three moved as a unit steadily toward us. These horses were even bigger than Ben, I realized as they stood still on command, their big hooves planted like dinner plates on the lawn. For a moment the crowd of farmers and rural bargain hunters fell completely quiet.

They were no youngsters, we all realized. Jim, the elder of the pair, had whitening down his face, and regarded us with Socratic patience and wisdom. Doc, younger by a few years, turned to his mate as if in question. "Relax, pal," Jim seemed to answer with his eyes, "we're OK."

As a prospective bidder, Charlie accepted the opportunity to take the lines and walk the team around the farm lot. He stepped in behind them as if through the door of an old homeplace.

I knew then that he hadn't been thinking so much of what he could accomplish with a team, as of what such a pair could restore to him. When he again stood beside me, we exchanged a glance that foretold a serious and unbegrudged dent in the budget.

The bidding opened on several fronts, eventually narrowing to ours and the competing answers of an Amishman, who no doubt needed the horses more than we did. But considering the team's years, I shamelessly hoped we could afford to make the best offer. Jim and Doc had some good work years left, but they would likely have an easier transition to retirement with us. For better or for worse, our tractors would still do much of what animals do alone on Amish farms.

T last our competitor shook his head and waved his palms downward, and the horses were ours. We sought the owner as he sought us. His name was David, and he and Charlie talked quietly of the power passing between them. He confirmed what Charlie had felt through the lines: that the team, granitic in strength, handled like cream puffs. I'd never attempted to direct Ben in harness, but I could learn to work with Doc and Jim.

David was clearly relieved when we apologized that we couldn't arrange for transport right away. His lined face broke into a grin: "It'll give me a chance to work 'em a few more times."

When we did come a few weeks later, he met us, as arranged, at the barn. Stroking Jim's flank, he remarked on the 20-yard distance to the parked and waiting trailer.

"No use carrying this ourselves" he said of the harness and collars. We stood back as he lovingly dressed his team for the last time, relying on a box and the horses' gently bent heads to slip on the heavy collars. He lifted their long, honey-colored tails over the britchen straps, fastened the last buckles and straps, then took the lines and led them into the trailer. There was a soft thunder of hooves as he removed the harness and bade us all a safe journey. We could not comfort him with more than a promise of a good and permanent home.

THIS summer, at another farm auction, a man recognized us as the people who'd bought those Belgians a few years back. Were we getting along all right with them, he wondered. Charlie and I exchanged a quick glance. He had mown pasture weeds with the team early that morning, as I'd milked the cows.

I thought of the quiet work I too shared with them, hauling manure and raking hay; of sliding over the winter fields in the low sleigh, with their big hooves plowing and kicking up snow; and of their massive elegance at rest. The thing the team had restored to Charlie now enveloped me as well. There is no one word for it, but it comes of contact with a serene and preindustrial energy - through the lines to a team.

Yes, we answered, all was supremely well with us and the horses - all three of them.

It had taken some time before Ben ceased to whicker with jealousy whenever he spied Doc and Jim in harness, and even longer before Jim accepted Ben in the same pasture without a challenge. But like Old World diplomats sensing their common strengths and purpose, they eventually had come to terms. I asked our auction acquaintance if he happened to know David, and whether he was still looking for a smaller, easier-to-teach team right after his auction. Somehow he'd ended up with an even larger pair than Doc and Jim, and still, no doubt, needed a box to lift on their collars and harness. But, yes, he was still picking up lines to a team as a prelude to chores.

I wondered if his children had seen what this must have restored to him - whether they know that he isn't likely to give up those lines again until he himself decides it's time.

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