Why he’s ‘Ben,’ not ‘Odysseus’

In naming draft animals, brevity can circumvent catastrophe. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Michealla Flint, age 5, waits with Prince to compete in the junior showmanship halter class at a draft horse show in Johnson, Vt.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Ted, one of the Munson family’s horses, competed at a draft horse show in Vermont.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Josina Munson, age 6 (c.), walks behind the draft horses she and her mother showed at the Draft Horse Show in Vermont.

Anyone who’s worked with draft animals knows the value of single- or at most two-syllable names. When one member of a team of horses or oxen lags behind the other, straining yoke or harness, a simple “Gip, Jim!” is a quick correction. So, too, with commands to turn left (haw) or right (gee). 

Economy in naming is critical for “Whoa!” You don’t want to be stumbling over “Odysseus,” “Hercules,” or “Aphrodite” while trying to slow a runaway sleigh or disk harrow, however much those tags suit the animals’ personalities. If you’re going for classical, “Zeus” works better.

We have stuck to one-syllable names for all of our “drafties,” from big black Percheron Ben to the lovely, blond Belgians Doc and Jim, and now the inseparable Buck and Mare. For one thing, all of the horses came to us with their names, and why confuse things by changing them? And they are easy to slip into a command. I still remember my “Whoa, Jim!” whipped out in a millisecond as the horse on the left of the pair hauling timber started to veer from a forest track onto a mere trace of a trail, where we’d have soon gotten hopelessly tangled in young brush. “Back now” worked even without naming the horses. There was no one else that could have been meant for.

Friends of mine in Michigan, who have a literary bent, named their big, gentle oxen Leo and Stoey. “Tolstoy” wouldn’t have been much longer, depending on your pronunciation, but Stoey it was. For oxen, far less prone to sudden movements than horses, two syllables pose no real problem. Three would be acceptable, but there’s that age-old convention regarding these things: the shorter the better. 

As a kid I found the contests to name racehorses irresistible. Here, brevity is not a major criterion, since jockeys likely don’t actually converse with their steeds in the heat of a race. Of course I always came up with surefire winners like “Lightning” and “Streaker” – not clunkers like “Secretariat,” “Barbaro,” or “Seabiscuit.” I never understood why I never won. 

But drafties are a different breed. They respond to what they have long been used to: short, self-respecting, and simple references to their hardworking selves. These days, whenever I meet up with Buck and Mare wandering the pasture in their now-retired leisure, I greet them with the names they’d responded to over all their years in harness. And they do so again, ponderously turning to come for their carrots.

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