I don't know how many romances trace their origins to a posting on Craigslist, or what the odds are of an online introduction catching fire and leading to a lasting relationship. But I can cite one such success and point to the evidence right out the window in the east pasture – where Buck and Mary graze side by side in the waning light of a fine spring day.
Watching them, I think how few of us in the highly mechanized world of 21st-century farming have the privilege to share chores or even time and space with draft horses. To have had six of them lighten our load and grace our lives during our tenure as dairy farmers seems an improbable stroke of luck. Ben, Doc, Jim, Julie, Buck, and most recently, Mary, all have been integral to our milking operation and lifestyle over the past quarter century.
When I first came to the farm in 1990, Charlie's big, black Percheron, Ben, was in his prime, moving about in harness like a force of nature, hauling manure, timber, wooden boats with an assortment of loads, and, in the best of winters, a cedar-runner sleigh. Ben died last fall, well into his 30s, some years after our older team of Belgians, Doc and Jim (purchased at auction in 1992), passed away at similarly advanced ages. In his final few years, Ben shared the farm, some light labor, and equine confidences with Buck, a young Belgian gelding we bought at an Amish auction in 2008.
With Ben gone, Buck began halfheartedly hanging out with the six cows we kept on after we stopped producing milk commercially. Charlie worked the horse in harness now and then, but like the bovines, Buck spent most of his time utterly at leisure. He moved amid the cows like a prodigious swan among ducklings; we knew he sorely missed Ben.
Things might have wound down from there, with Buck and the herd genteelly dotting the landscape like so many pasture ornaments. Instead, a young friend arrived with a plan to lease the barn, restore the milking parlor, reseed the hayfields, and rebreed some of the retired animals. With two of his own cows he launched a small herd-share operation that he will gradually expand as our cows calve again. Like us, Jason relies on tractors when necessary, but prefers to do the work of farming with horses whenever possible – ideally, an already matched and seasoned team of them.
As Jason scouted around the countryside for a pair to his liking, Charlie and I pursued our own secret agenda: to find a single Belgian mare as a match for Buck. We had no immediate success, and all too soon Jason seemed on the cusp of purchasing two big white Percherons (a move that would leave Buck the odd man out).
That night I whimsically played a wild card, typing "Belgian" into the Craigslist search engine for south central Indiana. People find each other via online postings, why not horses? A single hit popped up, profiling a lovely blond Belgian mare from a county well north of us. Her owners could no longer work her and sought someone who would give her a new place and purpose. When I showed Charlie her picture he simply commanded, "Call."
Once Jason handled the big, obliging horse, he was persuaded that Mary should come home with us. Buck was just walking up from the spring, singularly bored among the slowly shuffling cows, when she exited the trailer and looked his way, riveted. His bovine-constricted world instantly expanded and blossomed as he met her gaze. Within seconds the horses rushed to the intervening fence and began nuzzling each other with exquisite excitement.
To say they are inseparable is to understate a wholly tandem lifestyle, sleeping and waking. Did I mention how well paired they are or how beautifully they work together in harness? To think it all started with a posting and snapshot on Craigslist.