I remember the day my Dad and Mom met these horses for the first time. Marty and I had decided to get married shortly after arriving in our neighborhood. So we invited my folks up in May for a small family wedding. The weather was still cold when they pulled into the driveway of our farm for the very first time in their Buick station wagon.
I had been up early brushing and combing Barney and Nicker’s tails and manes. We had bought the team real cheap because they had been starved the previous winter and rescued by the SPCA. They had scabs on their haunches and their ribs showed but I was as proud as punch as my dad walked over and patted Barney’s dusty rump.
“Looks like real potential” he smiled trying his hardest not to have a heart attack on the spot. The sky was grey, our house was grey and my hair was turning grey. As we stood there trying to make the best of the situation, I heard the unmistakable growl of a “beater” car coming down our road.
We have a tradition here in Maine of buying the cheapest and roughest car you can find to get you through winter. When spring comes, you drive it out on a back road, roll it into the woods, unscrew the plates and walk home. You could always tell the arrival of winter because folks would ask each other, “got your ‘beata’ yet?”
The first guest to our wedding this cold May morning drove his smoke belching, muffler dragging ‘beater” past our driveway, then backed up, had his female passenger roll down the window and then peer across the frontseat at us. Beer cans fell to the road as he opened his car door and made his way falteringly towards my mother and father.
“Jesus Christ,” he said to my father with the most authentic down east accent you can imagine. “Where did you get them gawd damn horses?”
He made his way over past us, his tobacco stained wool shirt standing in sharp contrast to my father’s Brooks Brothers overcoat. I knew what my father was thinking. ‘Here was a real Mainer about to give us his impression of this logging team.’ He was enthralled.
“This one over here,” our new friend observed holding Barney’s mouth open for my parents to look in, “he’s still breathing but that black one, I don’t know if he will make it past noon.” Laughing out loud, he wiped his chin with his sleeve and with the elegant stroll of a man who has piled more than his share of pulpwood in a lifetime, made his way back to his ‘beater’ and was off down the road, never to be seen again.
Barney and Nick worked with us for eight years before they retired. We went to buying this ‘older’ type of logging horses because they fit our budget and because they were gentle and experienced. But after about 20 years of these “long in the tooth” horses my wife and I began to wonder what it would be like if we started from scratch and bought some young colts. It couldn’t be that hard. After all, we had been kicked, stepped on, dragged around and bitten at least as many times as our neighbors. Some of that must translate into wisdom.
So we bought two chocolate brown colts about nine months old named Nick and Willie, half brothers from the same stallion. They weighed about 400 lbs each and were easy enough to lead around. But at 16 months they passed the 1000 lb mark and were in and out of trouble every day, just like two half-ton kids.
Willie ended up in the vet hospital dehydrated, heat stroked and with a fever of 104. Two months later I found him wrapped up in some fence wire. As we slowly introduced them to farm work I could not fail but be impressed by the fear that especially surrounded Willie. We’d be walking through a pasture and a squirrel would pop out of a hole in a stone wall and Willie would jump like a jack in the box and bolt ahead, nearly trampling me to the ground.
We sought advice from a host of characters. Some told us that Willie just needed a harder workout to settle him down. Others suggested a more aggressive and painful bit in his mouth. But no matter what kind of bit we used or how tired he was, he always seemed ready to bolt at the drop of a hat. This behavior continued on unabated for eight years.
That eighth winter Willie, Nick and I were working up back on the hill behind the farm cutting pine logs for lumber. One afternoon Marty came up to join us. I had the horses teamed up and was backing them to hook onto a hitch of logs. I asked Marty to hold the reins while I hitched the load to the horses. Somehow Willie’s left rear leg stepped over a part of his harness and as I leaned over to fix it, this same leg shot backwards, knocking my hard hat off my head and sending it flying into the woods.
I scratched my forehead, turned and went to fetch my helmet while Marty stared speechless.
“It’s Ok,” I said “he only got the hard hat.”
I watched as her concern turned to incredulity, then to anger.
“How long has this been going on,” she asked. I tried to shrug it off but she would have none of it. “That kick could have killed you.”
“Yah, but it didn’t,” I replied, knowing already that I had lost. She dropped the reins and headed down the hill.
The following winter I was cutting wood on another of our woodlots with my friends Tim and Jeff. They had a logging tractor called a skidder taking out some of our bigger logs that the horses couldn’t pull and Willie and Nick and I were handling the smaller wood. It was a big deal for me to be working with these guys because back at the farm most everyone on our crew was female.
So it was doubly frustrating on day two when around mid-morning Willie and Nick refused to go back into the woods, even when I threatened them with a switch. I checked to make sure they weren’t going lame or getting sore in the harness. Just then Marty showed up to see how things were progressing. I had smartened up over the year and started appreciating how well she could read the horses. So I asked her what she thought was going on. She had me turn them again and head up the woods path and into the forest.
“Well, what do you think,” I asked after a few minutes of watching the horses not move.
“I think I know what’s going on,” she said. “They are not having any fun.”
“What does fun have to do with this?” I replied with a frustrated, mocking voice.
“If you have to ask me that, then I am afraid that I can’t be much more help,” and with that she turned and headed home.
Now I was stuck. I felt like a fool in my own wife’s eyes and I clearly wasn’t holding up my side of the log production with Tim and Jeff. I felt so helpless. Willie was clearly getting worse as he grew older. Maybe I should just give up on them both, sell them to some Amish farmers and go and find a nice broke team. Why did I have to get stuck with a 2000 lb brown eyed, terribly stubborn and complicated horse? As we turned down the logging road towards home Willie took the lead and it was all I could do to hold him back from a run.
My self-pity subsided the next day and I got up my courage to ask Marty for more help. After all, we had been together for a long time now, over 30 years. Sure enough, when I asked she jumped right in.
“I think that you need to start over again, right from the very beginning,” she said.
“How long will that take?” I queried. “Can we get things straightened out in few days?”
“No,” she said, rolling her eyes. “This is going to take more like a few months.”
Well I just about jumped up in the air in protest. I needed to get back to support Jeff and Tim. Marty just didn’t understand how vital I was to the success of that harvest. Fortunately a neighbor arrived in the driveway and I had a chance to cool my jets for a few minutes. I looked out in the pasture where Willie was chewing on some hay. He certainly was a beautiful four-legged animal. I knew deep down in my heart that if I could just get my pride under control that this whole thing might work out.
“OK,” Marty said as she returned. “Here is what I recommend that we do, starting tomorrow. “
So the next day, following Marty’s instructions, I walked up the hill behind the farm where the pasture meets the woods. It was now early January and we had enjoyed a few good snowfalls. The horses liked to come up here and eat their morning hay and get far away from me and the work I had lined up for them. Everyone in the small herd was watching my advance and ready to move off at a trot if I got too close.
This time, however, I brushed the snow off a tree stump, sat down and did nothing. I was quiet, eyes shut, motionless. After 20 minutes I got up and, without looking at the horses, walked down the hill and out of the pasture. The whole thing seemed like a total waste of time but a man can handle some pretty stupid feelings when he’s at the end of his rope.
I returned the next day and the day after. Marty kept telling me to have no expectations as to what might happen, just keep it simple, sit down, show no interest in any of the horses, then leave. Some days, especially the warm and sunny ones, I was totally with the program. But other days were hard, especially the ones when I kept reminding myself that it was I who had been working with logging horses for the better part of my adult life. Marty, God bless her, she rode at Camp Teelawoocket when she was 12 and that was that. Those days I began to backslide. But for some reason I kept my mouth shut and did as she suggested.
Then on one day during the third week something very special happened. I had been sitting, more like dozing on my stump for the allotted time and was just about to get up and walk away when I felt a warm breath on my left ear. I turned slowly to face Willie’s nose. I raised my right hand and stroked his chin. All at once an unexpected rush of emotion coursed through my body. Tears came to my eyes. I slowly rose up, sighed a deep breath and made my way down the hill towards home.
The next day the same thing happened. Willie showed up at my side, laid his huge head on my shoulder and this swelling of emotion again rose up in my body. But this time, as I stood up and stepped down the path, Willie stayed hooked on to me like a magnet, following my every step.
We crossed the brook, turned at the barn and headed for his stall. I instinctively walked toward the harness area to find his halter. Just then Marty came out of the house and peered at me from the woodshed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I am about to put on his halter.” I replied.
“Please don’t do that. Just pat him on the head and reward him for following you.”
So I did just that. I scratched behind his ears and walked away.
The next day I went up back, sat on my stump and after a few minutes, I felt the warm breath again on my neck as Willie came over to say hello. Again he followed me up to the barn and this time I gave him a good brushing.
One week later after visiting the field several times with a halter in my hand, Willie let me slide the smooth ropes up over his ears and around his chin and with a slack halter rope drooping from his chin to my hand he followed me to the barn. I would stop, he would stop. I would walk again, he would follow. We passed the wire fence he had wrapped himself up in when he was four. We passed through the field where he and his brother had run away with a mowing machine. And now he was walking by my side, his head low and relaxed, connected only by a slack halter rope. But as we crossed the bridge over the brook, everything changed.
All at once his nose shot up, his head turned to look into the far distance and as a chipmunk skirted up an oak tree 50 yards away, a bolt of fear vibrated through Willie’s body and all 2000 lbs of him jumped into the air and came to rest inches from my feet. His body trembled and he prepared to run. My instinct kicked in and I grabbed the halter rope and yanked his head towards me.
“Go ahead,” I screamed in a panicked voice. “Run over me, you son of a bitch”. But Willie didn’t move, just looked beyond me into the forest.
Slowly a deep rumbling began deep down inside of me. My eyes filled with tears and I began to sob like an old motor that had not run in a long time. It came first in fits and starts but soon I was forced to bend over while my inner soul retched out some powerful anguish. For several seconds I was barely aware of Willie’s presence. But then I felt the rope in my hands. Like following a lifeline in a blizzard I made my way towards him and putting my arms around his neck and hugging him as tightly as I could, I embarked on some serious grieving.
In my mind I saw a small boy on a beach with his mother. The weather was sunny but the mother was ever vigilant, nervously pacing back and forth by the water’s edge while her young son played in the waves. Then I saw this same woman, standing by her kitchen window as she watched the rescue workers carrying her dead husband out of her life forever.
I had never come to terms with the extent to which fear controlled my mother’s life. Unwilling to travel, afraid of new restaurants and constantly on guard for new diseases that might invade our house, she managed to see her life and her loved ones through a prism of fear. I had spent my life unwilling to forgive her for this fear, the demon that had robbed her from me. I had been unable to appreciate what it must feel like to live with this emotion 24-7. But here on this bridge on a winter afternoon Willie had opened a new door for me, had given me a very short but powerful preview of a life ruled by fear. For the first time in my life I found myself crying for my mother.
I don’t know how long we stood there. But when I finally let my arms go from around his neck, Willie breathed in deeply, dropped his head to face me, and let out a long sigh.
“I am starting to get it,” I said to his huge brown eyes. “Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you”.