Fast enemies slowly became fast friends

Along with the ceremonial closing of the chicken coop at day's end, I usually grain the horses if they happen to be nearby. Last night, our Percheron, Ben, caught my eye from the barn lot and met me at the hay rack with his quick, throaty "feed me" whinny - one of his vast repertoire of highly varied and expressive vocalizations I have come to understand. Jim, our Belgian, was grazing a short way down the pasture slope, and it was easy enough to deliver his scoop to him on my way to check our retired dairy cows - still wandering the high back pasture in the soft, cold dusk.

Separating from the cows was unthinkable to Ben back when he was the only workhorse on the farm. Head and shoulders above the biggest of the Holsteins, he seemed to consider himself the alpha bovine, a superior but true member of the herd. He might even have wondered why he wasn't ushered into the milk room along with the others.

Then we bought Doc and Jim, a team of big, honey-colored Belgians who awakened Ben to his true nature and sparked his furious jealousy. The very sight of the two in harness triggered the big black's foot-stamping rage and a crescendo of whinnied objections audible from all pockets of the 80-acre farm.

Eventually, though, a truce developed, and we could pasture the three together. Ben was admittedly the odd man out as Doc and Jim moved about almost in each other's shadows. Occasionally Ben and Jim nipped at one another, reviving some old quarrel, but by and large the trio coexisted peaceably enough.

Enter Julie, the Belgian mare that our friend Jason pastured on our farm for a couple of years. The old jealousies reignited, and once again we separated the horses - Doc and Jim on one side of the fence, an amorous Ben and Julie on the other.

Peace reigned. Then Jason bought his own farm and Julie left. Not long after that, Doc passed away. United by loss, Ben and Jim buried the horse hatchet for good. They've been each other's emotional ballast ever since.

Last night, though, having supped separately, they somehow lost track of each other in the hummocky topography of the farm. From the top of the far back pasture, where I'd found the cows settling for the night, I saw Ben cantering from the barn lot toward the stream, splitting the air with an emotion-charged "Where are you?" whinny. He climbed the steep slope on the other side in record time, repeating his question every 30 seconds or so.

No longer accustomed to taking on hills like that, he must have been good and winded by the time he reached the high pasture - to find only cows. Still, he managed to gather enough air to call for Jim again.

The Belgian had been near the barn, but downslope and out of sight all the while. I saw him moseying toward the stream just after I'd crossed it. He stopped twice to answer Ben with a long, patient, rippling whinny of his own. There was no mistaking his message: "I'm right here, man, on my way." At that, Ben cantered back down the sledding hill; the two met midstream, touching noses before they drank, side by side, ears forward.

I stood a while as the sun slipped behind the cedars, watching as the horses slowly ascended the track to the pasture in the fading, ruddy light. You couldn't guess from watching their fluid, superimposed silhouettes that there'd ever been a cross word between them.

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