New paths for horse and handler

When you retire from something you love, it's more than gratifying to see someone less than half your age take it up with intelligence and enthusiasm. It's downright heady. Our neighbor Jason doesn't want to be a dairy farmer per se, but he wants to farm, and to do it with horses. Moreover, he has a keen interest in and appreciation for timber-frame construction.

Since Charlie is an accomplished carpenter and the local guru on working with draft horses, Jason has spent a lot of time on our place over the past couple of years, learning by doing. He often cares for our animals when we're away - and he pastures his own Belgian mare, Julie, here. It has been a relationship of great mutual benefit, enhanced by the bonus of genuinely liking one another, and sharing a bond to the land and to the animals that provided the muscle to plow, plant, and harvest it before tractors came along.

Over the past year, Jason has learned specifically to work with Julie, either alone or hitched with one of our older, more practiced Belgians. As they have found their rhythm together, Julie has helped Jason to become an independent entrepreneur by plowing the semi-commercial organic gardens that he and his wife, Robin, have established.

The mare also pulled storm falls from our forest for Jason's first major timber-frame construction, a one-room hermitage he has been hired to erect at a Quaker retreat a few miles away.

Over the summer, he used our hay shed to precut and notch the timbers and roof rafters for what would be the frame. It was Julie who dragged the logs to the stationary sawmill behind our barn, and the square-cut timbers back to the hay shed for notching and shaping.

One fine September weekend, Jason and a helper raised the hermitage frame in a single day. The huge timbers he'd readied snugged together almost perfectly, from floor joists to roof rafters.

The site is well above the road, along one of the twisting wooded footpaths of the Quaker property, and inaccessible to motor vehicles. Virtually every beam, post, and rafter had to be dragged up there, compliments of Julie. Jason's skill as a horse handler, and Julie's willingness to do his bidding, were both put to their biggest test yet.

Day after day, he and the big Belgian kept steadily at it; both enjoyed the teamwork.

Rather than bring the horse back and forth in a trailer each day, Jason arranged a makeshift stall for her on the property. He built a gate frame under a sheltering shed to overnight the horse until her part in the project was done.

One recent morning, Charlie and I joined Jason to help him build the steps to the hermitage porch. As we worked in a light pattering rain, Jason told us how one morning he had arrived here to find Julie in a perfectly clean stall. There was no mucking out to do, which was unusual.

In fact, the property's resident owner had found the mare just after sunrise, standing outside with his llamas across a small stream from her temporary quarters. He'd returned her to her stall and relatched the gate she'd pushed open, which is how Jason came to find his horse in a stall that had obviously not been slept in.

Later, he walked the network of trails and discovered from hoofprints and droppings that Julie had wandered them all. Staying to the paths, she'd toured the property that soft autumn night.

A strange notion took hold of me as he told this tale. I could picture Julie stepping in solitary majesty along the moonlit trails, and I found myself grinning at the poetic justice of the mare enjoying the property she is helping to enhance.

Is it too much to suggest that she took not just a walk, but a meditative stroll that night? That, after a hard day's work, she sought a venue for peaceful and contemplative exploration - which is precisely what the trails offer? Could it be that, after her solitary reverie, she sought to reconnect with friends - and so joined the llamas to await the dawn?

It may be hopelessly anthropomorphic, but I have found that the more highly you think of your animals, the more they give back to you. I suspect that Jason feels the same way - which is why he and Julie have taken so well to working together.

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