No longer out to pasture

It had been awhile since either horse had been put to work, but they found their rhythm as a team almost seamlessly.

The Waterloo Courier, Matthew Putney
Grazing time: The sun sets behind a horse on a Midwestern farm.

By dusk, we'd spent several hours in the back woods mending fences and had eaten an early dinner. The dogs were fed, the water tank at the barn was filled for the cows, and all seemed poised for a relaxing evening. The last thing I expected Charlie to do was hitch up our horses Ben and Buck. But after a long vacation from tapping horsepower for chores, he is suddenly a man on a mission.

Until late this summer, it had been several years since he'd even oiled the harnesses. Jim and Doc – the Belgian team we relied on for more a decade to harvest hay, spread manure, and haul firewood – had passed away at advanced ages. Our almost 30-year-old black Percheron, Ben, retired from hard labor and, bereft of his buddies, had taken to grazing with the cows, all but forgetting his true equine nature. We knew we had to do something on the behalf of our once spirited and mercurial horse.

As much as Ben needed equine companionship, Charlie longed to work with horses again. So at an Amish auction in southern Indiana last year, we found ourselves bidding on Buck, a strapping young Belgian with plenty of experience in harness.

Before Charlie could test Buck's mettle at our place, a health crisis laid Charlie low, convincing him at the time that his days as a driver were over.

But this summer, fully recovered and renewed, he cast an appraising and anticipatory eye at the horses once again. Buck had put on weight, but there was no mistaking his strength. Ben's still well-muscled, ebony physique belied his age.

During the last few weeks of the season, Charlie oiled harnesses, rooted out dusty collars and hames, and finally outfitted the pair in their leather and brass. He walked them in tandem all around the pasture behind the barn for the first time last week, pulling nothing – the point being to gauge Buck's willingness to follow commands, while keeping Ben close to his buddy and a part of the action. Their response to flicks of the harness, and the shared language of gee, haw, whoa, step up, and go easy was the stuff of dreams. Buck had been trained beautifully, and Ben had forgotten nothing. They found their rhythm as a team almost seamlessly.

There was just enough time for a second practice session before full darkness fell last night. When I looked through the kitchen window to see what Charlie was up to and noticed the horses tethered for harnessing, I grabbed some carrots to offer them before they received their bridles and bits. Then, on a whim as irresistible as the evening air, I climbed the fence and slipped onto the soft leather strapping stretching down Buck's broad back to ride along.

The big horse's ears swiveled in acknowledgement, even, I fancied, welcome, and off we went to Charlie's soft click. Though he guided the pair, I rested my hands on Buck's brass hames, instinctively pressuring the left or the right to Charlie's gees and haws, my left knee comfortably cushioned between shifting, well-rounded withers. I hadn't even put on shoes, and my bare feet curved into the ample warmth of well-fed horseflesh.

Ten or 15 minutes passed as I floated thus across the barnyard, circling several massive sycamores, rising and falling with the dips and swells of the small front pasture. Charlie eased the pair back through the gate to the hitching fence, guided them around 180 degrees, backed them up, and nudged them forward until they were parked just so.

I slipped back down, aware that the relaxing evening I'd had in mind could hardly have launched more auspiciously.

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