That's Why I Still Miss Horses

JOHN REESE,a Nebraskan who spent most of his childhood in Otoe County, now lives in California and rarely visits his native state. “ To see the way things have changed since I worked horses on farms there.”he writes, '’makes me feel older than I am, and at fifty, that’s pretty old.”

MY FATHER worked in the sale barns in Grand Island, Nebraska, when that was the largest horse market in the world. Before that he had served in the cavalry in the Philippines and had trained horses for ranchers and horse brokers. Dad was a horseman ‘’by trade.” Later he became a railroader, but in my earliest memories I see him handling teams of big draft horses, or in the saddle of a green colt.

We usually lived in small towns with unpaved streets, and there are times even today when the word “city" means the clang of iron shoes on brick streets in the dark. Horses then delivered the freight, the mail, the milk. Beer was advertised by “dress teams” of four, six, or eight fine horses pulling gilded brewery wagons.

When we went to the city, the horses excited my father. “ There goes a fine, well-matched team,” he would say. “Well handled, too. Watch!” The team danced with the ponderous grace that only big draft horses had, curving their necks and blowing softly through their nostrils. Their trace chains jingled, the brass knobs twinkled on their hames, “Horses Eating Hay,” etching by Edmund Blampied. their heavy fetlocks frothed, and from them came a clean, salty smell of new sweat.

If you can define trace chains, hames, and fetlocks, you are up late. Today the important thing about horses is their parimutuel payoff; and to me the rabbity runners, good for only a two-minute sprint around the track, are decadent grotesqueries. Beside the honest horses I knew, they are pitiful.

I knew draft horses, strong pullers with too much dignity to be any man’s idle hobby. Their world was a good world. I was not born until it was dying, but I know a few things about it that should be recorded before it is lost forever from the memory of the last man who lived in it. So let us tell a few stories, of the kind that used to be told. Let us talk horse talk one last time.

Once my father was breaking horses for a Nebraska rancher, using a breaking cart and a breaking horse named Brokie. A breaking cart was a wagon with a short turning radius, so heavily weighted that no team could run off with it. A breaking horse was a traitor to his kind. “Spanned” with a wild colt, a breaking horse shoved, bit, kicked, and used his head as a battering ram to make the ignorant colt do what the man in the cart wanted.

For a helper, Dad had an Irishman by the name of Fagan. Fagan had never handled colts, so Dad hitched up the first few while Fagan, in the seat of the wagon, held the lines. The real trick was in hooking up the tugs, or traces— the thick straps connecting the hames with the singletree — to pull the load. To do it, one had to step in behind the colt. “Get in close. Put your shoulder against his rump,” Dad explained. “That way, he can’t swing his leg, so he can’t kick you.”

At last he took the lines and let Fagan hook the tugs. Fagan held the first one between thumb and finger and tried to tiptoe in. Every time he got close, the colt kicked and Fagan jumped back. “Fagan, do it the way I showed you!” Dad finally exploded. “If you get close enough to him, he can’t kick you.”

“Yis, Jack, but sure and I’ve noticed that if I stay far enough away, he can’t kick me either,” Fagan replied.

TO HORSEMEN, that story, which I heard my father tell dozens of times, was proof that there were two kinds of people — those who knew horses and those who didn’t.

Another of my dad’s favorite tales occurred when I was three. Dad was working on a Kansas wheat ranch where, in the harvest season, there were as many as forty horses and mules, each weighing up to sixteen hundred pounds, in the barn. After supper, Dad walked down the lines of stalls and dropped their halters, to let them out for a drink and a roll in the dust. When a big horse rolled in the dust, it was a cosmic frolic, tremendous to behold. But there was no other way he could find the itching spot.

One evening my baby brother got out of the house and toddled down to the barn. There was a sill about a foot high in the barn door, which the horses were accustomed to jump as they galloped out. The baby sat down beside this sill, in a small depression that the horses had pounded into the ground. My mother saw him from the house and dared not make a sound, lest she startle the horses.

The first old mare paused just long enough to shoot her ears and snort. Then she jumped — over sill, baby, and all. The others did not pause. They picked up the change in rhythm from the old mare and jumped as she had jumped. The baby sat there laughing as those great hoofs flew over his head and hit the ground beside him. One misstep, and he would have been smashed or beheaded. “What runaway car would spare a baby?” my father used to say.

One of the teams on this same ranch was a pair of handsome mare mules, Maud and Jude. They were good workers in the field, but Maud was a mean mule in the barn, and a meaner mule at the water tank. Coming in hot from the field at noon, most horses had to be prevented from gorging themselves on water. Few mules would eat or drink enough to hurt themselves, but Maud would. When the new crew was hired for threshing and Dad assigned their teams, he asked who thought he could handle a hard-working but headstrong pair of good mules.

“I can work any team that you can put the harness on,” one man said promptly.

Dad always said, “I should have known better than to give a good team to such a blowhard.” But he had a lot of men and teams standing idle, and wheat was four dollars a bushel; so he merely warned the man about Maud’s tricks. “When you pull her head out of the water, watch her, because she comes up fighting,” he said.

“I can handle her,” the man growled. Frowning, Dad watched him as he drove Maud and Jude to the field. He seemed to know what he was doing. But when he brought the mules in to water at noon, Dad nevertheless made sure that he had his own team on the other side of the long, narrowtank.

As usual, Maud rammed half her head into the water. The man hauled back on her bit. He didn’t hurt her, because Maud was a “hardmouthed” mule. But he did make her mad. She went up on her hind legs, biting and striking and screaming that mule scream that I think was the most bloodcurdling sound I ever heard.

The man lost his head and tried to run. Maud knocked him down and would have stamped him to death, except that Dad reached across the tank and hit her over the head with a neckyoke. A neckyoke was an iron-shod piece of oak that swung between a team to support the end of a wagon tongue, and was a lethal weapon.

But Maud was only stunned. She stood there, weaving and shaking her head, as the man crawled to safety. She would have been all right, only the crawling man frightened Jude, the other mule. She shied against Maud, who lost her balance and fell into the tank.

Over on her back she went, and there, held by her harness and the narrowness of the tank, she drowned. Twenty years later, Dad still had not forgiven himself for trusting her to that driver. He did not blame Maud. “A man spoiled her to make her a mean mule,” he said. “I knew that, and yet I gave her to the wrong man.”

Before I leave mules, let me recall Annie. A farmer I worked for when I was seventeen bought Annie to match with Peg, the smartest mule I ever knew. The farmer and I broke Annie together. She had been handled and was not a mean or dangerous mule, but she was headstrong. She did not like taking orders, especially “Whoa!" You might as well have saved your breath. Annie just kept going, dragging Peg with her, until she got ready to stop.

So we put a “W” on her, a trip rope that got its name from its shape. It ran from a ring on Annie’s hame down to a ring on a strap around her left foot, up to another hame ring, down to her right foot, and then back through another hame ring to me. When the farmer said, “Whoa,”I pulled the rope, and down Annie went on her knees.

Annie was a fast learner. The third time the farmer said “Whoa.”I did not have to pull the rope, because Annie promptly got down on her knees! Unfortunately, so did Peg. She looked pretty disgusted, but I guess she thought that if this was what we wanted, this was what we would get. It took us weeks to teach those two mules that “Whoa” merely meant stop, not kneel.

BY 1917, my dad was a railroad section foreman. One afternoon there was a violent rainstorm. After it ended, Dad and his crew went over the track to look for storm damage, and I got to ride along. While the crew was repairing a small washout, a farmer whose land adjoined the right of way there stopped to chat. He had been mowing weeds since the rain and was on his way home.

“Fine-looking team you’ve got there,”Dad said. There was no better opening gambit in those days.

“Yes, and they’re as good as they look,” said the farmer, “but that black puzzles me. I just got him. and I never saw a horse act that way before.

The moment it gets dark, he begins jigging and fidgeting and tossing his head. There — look at him!”

“Where did you buy that horse?" Dad asked.

“Out of a job lot, in a sale barn in Omaha. I know he’s an old horse, but he’s a good one, and I sure wish I knew what made him behave that Way.”

“Look.” Dad said. He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled a few bars of music. The black horse stopped jigging and shot his ears forward. When Dad stopped whistling, the horse relaxed and stood still.

“Don’t you worry about that horse,”said Dad.

What you’ve got there is an old army transport horse, and he’s used to hearing the evening gun and the bugle playing retreat as the colors come down, that’s all. He’ll get over it eventually. We all do!”

These were the stories people told in the world of working horses. In the evening, around the stove, the talk was of horses. To get in good with the banker before hitting him up for a loan, you said, “I saw your wife with her new buggy horse today. She handles it well, and it seems to be a horse of spirit.”A good character reference in those days went something like this: “The bearer is industrious, honest, and sober, and he does not abuse a horse.”

There were horse jokes too, but I doubt if they would sound funny today. One of Dad’s concerned the farmer who was dickering for a horse with another farmer, who had a bad reputation as a slicker with horses. “He looks all right in the barn.”the prospective buyer said warily, “but lead him out and let’s see him walk, before I decide.”

The horse’s owner stalled as long as he could, but finally he untied the horse and started outside with him. The horse missed the door and walked into the side of the barn. Shaking his head, he backed up, took aim again — and walked into the other side of the door. On the third try, he did manage to blunder through it.

“No wonder you want to sell that horse,” the other farmer said angrily. “Why, he’s stoneblind!”

I suppose you would have to remember horse traders to make a funny story out of the owner’s earnest reply: “No. let me explain about that horse. Now, that horse is not really blind, however it may look to you. That horse is one of those horses that just don’t give a damn!”

Then there was the Indian trying to sell his pony to an itinerant horse trader. After much haggling, the Indian said, “Fifty dollar! For fifty, I throw in my daughter too. Only sixteen year old, very pretty, never talk back, always work hard. Both for fifty!”

It was a good deal, and the trader knew it, but he took one more look at the pony and then one at the girl, who was struggling up the slope under an enormous load of wood. “Forty!" he said. “Your pony is head-shy, and your daughter sounds wind-broken to me.”

A head-shy horse fought the bridle, from abuse or from just plain cussedness, and a wind-broken horse groaned with every breath when he exerted himself, either from overwork, injury, or abuse. The point is, I don’t remember when I learned what those two terms meant. We grew up with that knowledge in us.

I first worked on a farm the summer I was thirteen, but long before that I could handle a team and could harness my own when I had to stand on the manger to buckle their collars. The first farmer I worked for was the son of a man who had been a prominent breeder of Percherons, and every horse on his place was a purebred.

How many people today know what Belgian, Clydesdale, Shire, Suffolk, and Percheron mean?

Those were the leading breeds of draft horses — big horses bred for big work, as distinguished from carriage, riding, racing, or coach horses. We never had to learn how to tell a Belgian from a Percheron. We always knew.

ON first day of work, I fed the twelve or fourteen horses in the barn and was told their names and personality traits. This one would crowd you in the barn. That one was lazy. This one feared shrill voices. That one tried to run with every new driver. And so on. We went in to breakfast, and as we came out afterward, the boss said, “Harness Chub and Dorothy and Buster and Dimples and hook onto the disk. There’s a rain coming, and this would be a good day to reseed some new clover that went all to weeds.”

I harnessed the horses and hooked them to the disk plow. He got his hand seeder out and measured some seed into it. We walked to the field together, I driving the horses. A cool, damp wind was blowing, and black clouds were piling up on the horizon. Horses can smell a storm, and all four danced nervously.

We reached the field. The boss adjusted the disk, but he did not climb up into the seat. “All right, you go ahead,” he said. “After you’ve made a couple of rounds, I’ll start seeding.”

Well! I had hoped, of course, but had not really thought it possible. Four horses, all stately purebreds, in one hitch! Four heads to be kept evenly abreast; four brute minds to be kept under control; four heavy lines in the quivering hands of a boy of thirteen! I climbed into the seat, took the lines, and off we went. I got not one word of advice from the boss. He already knew, by the instinct horsemen had, that I could handle a team.

When the rain began, 1 turned my horses’ tails to it; I have no idea when I learned that no horse can be expected to face a storm. When the rain changed to hail, I knew I did not have to yell for help, and perhaps panic my team. I knew the boss would be there, and he was, because that’s the way horsemen were.

He held the two inside horses while I wrapped my lines around the lever of the disk. I jumped down and ran around and took the bits of the two near horses, while he held the two off ones, until the storm ended. “Off” and “near” then meant right and left, but how much longer will our dictionaries carry these definitions?

No, there was no feeling in the world like holding a handful of lines. Late that summer, after the harvest was in and we started fall plowing, I drove six. At first they were hitched with four wheelers behind and two leaders in front. But, as everyone knows — or knew then — the wider your hitch, the more power you lose through side draft.

So after a few days, I timidly suggested that I hitch them in a three-and-three tandem, as it was called. “Go ahead,” the boss said. I did, and it worked better. A few days later, I asked if I could line them out two and two and two. “Go ahead,” the boss said; so now I had not only two leaders and two wheelers, but between them the two horses of my “swing” team. It was a long team, awkward to turn in a small field. But if you could “turn six,” you were a horseman, and I was one at thirteen.

One afternoon a storm came up. That day I had a colt by the name of Gus in my swing team. Ordinarily you’d work a colt in your wheelers, to keep an eye on him. But I had a steady horse by the name of Dandy working beside Gus, and at first everything went fine.

I knew I’d get a soaking when the rain began, but that was part of my job, which was above all to keep my team under control. Gus fought only a little as I swung the six of them around, with their rumps to the storm, and then raised the double plows out of the ground. Then Gus quieted down, and all I had to do was shift his line now and then and speak to him to let him know I was still there and would not let anything happen to him.

On this farm there was a dog by the name of Murphy that was part Airedale. Murphy was a good cattle dog, but gun-shy. He had come to the field with me, and I thought he had gone back to the barn when the rain began. But then the thunder started crashing and rolling, and the next thing I knew, Murph was under my horses, howling for shelter. He must have thought somebody was firing cannon at him.

The colt went up on his hind legs and came down on top of Dandy. The leaders tried to bolt ahead; the wheelers tried to back up into the plow. What does a kid of thirteen do at such a time? Those horses were worth about $300 each, and each wore about $75 worth of harness. That adds up to $2250, but still more important was the horseman’s obligation to protect the willing animal who worked for him.

No one had to tell me what to do. I hit the lever that dropped the plows into the ground. I shook my six lines and yelled, “Hup, hup, hup!” Dandy felt the slack on his bit and jumped out from under Gus. The leaders spraddled out and dug in, as we said then, and snapped their tugs taut. The wheelers — always your slowest team —

shook their heads at the unaccustomed looseness of the lines that held them. To them, that meant “hit the collar !”

All six hit their collars. The plows sucked deep into the earth as my team broke into a rhythmical run. I kept the storm to our backs as much as I could, and when I neared a fence and had to turn them, I yelled “Hup, hup!” and shook the lines again. They forgot the storm and ran harder, and I could turn them.

Before I let them stop, I gave them more running than they wanted. When they slowed down, I made them run again. Let a horse get away with something, and you “spoiled” him. Gus was not spoiled. He never shied from another dog, and he never tried again to run.

GUS was smart, but the smartest horse I ever knew was a three-quarter-breed Percheron mare by the name of Goldie, and the best horseman I ever knew was Goldie’s owner, Carl Walker. Carl’s son Gene was my boyhood pal. We learned horsemanship together, but never well enough to suit Carl.

Goldie was a sorrel, as was her usual teammate, Opal. But when Carl had a ticklish job to do or merely wanted the pleasure of handling a perfect team, he hitched Goldie with a brown mare by the name of Bonnie. All of these horses, by the way, were descended from an imported Percheron mare whose registry name was Santa Guadalupe, but whose working name was Queen.

The smartest horses are those that memorize best and rely most implicitly upon their drivers. I never heard Carl Walker raise his voice to any horse, but to Goldie and Bonnie he hardly spoke at all. I have seen him hang the lines on their hames, to free both hands for work, and put them through a whole series of maneuvers by the barely audible sound of his voice.

“Gee!" he’d murmur, and the two mares would sidle delicately to the right. “Ah, ah!” he would say, and they’d stop. Another grunt, and they eased into their collars and pulled straight ahead, digging in with their toes, pulling deep furrows in the taut muscles in their rumps, and keeping their ears cocked back for the next command. Everything they did was in perfect, sensitive rhythm. There is no such lovely sight on earth today.

Each horse was different, but some rules applied to all horses. You never walked behind a horse without the courtesy of telling him you were there. You never walked into his stall without giving him a chance to make room for you. In any emergency, you got to a horse’s head as fast as you could, because only there could you hold him and help him. I swung on the bits of rearing, frightened horses when I weighed no more than fifty or sixty pounds — yes, and held them, too. It was just something you did.

Old Queen, or Santa Guadalupe, loved people. In her old age she became very sway-backed, and with her European-style cropped tail, she was an odd looker. She was retired by the time I went to work for Carl Walker, but in busy seasons he sometimes used her, and she loved it. In slack times too, he might put her to work when he caught Gene or me doing something wrong around a horse.

“If you haven’t got sense enough to do it right by now, Queen has, and you can learn from her!'’ he said. He wasn’t kidding. Queen took no nonsense from dumb kids. She knew what had to be done, and she did it.

Carl usually gave me a pair of gray mares, Pet and Lottie, to work. He was the first to admit that, while they made a handsome team, they were ill-matched workers. Pet was slow, stolid, and fairly stupid. Lottie was fast and willing, but so nervous that she wore herself out. My hardest job was to keep Pet “up on the bit,” while holding Lottie back so she wouldn’t tire herself out.

One threshing season, I hauled wheat with Pet and Lottie. One day I was standing up on my load, climbing a hill in a stubble field, when we ran over a bumblebees’ nest. I got a few stings, but Lottie got none at all. Pet must have been stabbed hundreds of times. For weeks after that, all I had to do to make Pet hit the collar was stand up on my load. She thought that meant more bees.

Once I was working on a grading gang, driving a pair of Clydesdale geldings, Clint and Dan. One day we had a boxcar to move, and the boss told three of us to hook our teams — six horses — to it. “Don’t bother,” I said. “Clint and Dan can do it.'’ Somebody offered to bet me a buck that they couldn’t.

“I’ll bet you ten that they can, with the lines wrapped around their hames,” I said. Somebody called my bet, which was foolish of him, because I not only knew horses; I knew boxcars, too. This was one of the new ones, with good new bearings. Wonderful old Clint and Dan eased into their collars and just leaned their weight there until the boxcar began moving. Then they ambled off with it, while I collected my winnings. As for hanging the lines on their hames, they needed no driver. Like Queen, they knew more about it than I did.

The summer I was nineteen, three of us worked the harvest up through the Dakotas and Canada, and then back through the Dakotas again. There were few purebreds in that country. Most of the horses were “farm chunks,” which meant shortcoupled, sturdy, nimble horses bred up from native bronco mares and purebred stallions.

Once we hired out to a North Dakota farmer who had no place for us to sleep except in his barn. “Which one of you is the best rider?” he said, the first night. “We’ve got to catch our horses tomorrow, and I want to get an early start.”

At that time, I would try to ride anything I could saddle, and as often as not, I could. So I volunteered. Where we came from — eastern Nebraska — a horse pasture consisted of a few hundred acres, at most. But as it turned out, this man had ten sections, 6400 acres, with he did not know how many horses in it. We spent fifteen hours in the saddle the next day, “cutting out” eight teams and somehow getting ropes on them and hazing them back to the barn.

I was too tired and saddlesore to care about dinner. I barely made it from my saddle pony’s stall to our bed in the hay. That night, listening to those farm chunks fighting their halters, I thought, “What kind of gag is this? He surely doesn’t expect to thresh wheat with those broncs — or does he?”

But the next morning, we harnessed those horses. Somehow we got them hitched to bundle racks and worked them. They bucked and pitched and fought like rodeo horses — but we worked them. It was one of the wildest, happiest days I can remember. We had several runaways, but it was open range, and where could they run?

All we had to do was kind of herd them along until they got tired and keep them from turning too short on a slope and upsetting the rack. When they ran out of breath, we turned them around and went back to work. “You know, Reese, I think I made a mistake,” the boss said, as we unhitched that night. “That off horse of yours ain’t the one I meant to get. That horse has never had a halter on before! But I guess you’re getting along with him all right, ain’t you?”

I was dead on my feet, my arms ached from fighting those two horses all day, and I still had raw saddlesores from the day before. But what would you have said? “Oh, sure, I’m getting along just fine,” I said, nonchalantly.

That is what we lost when the world of working horses came to an end, and I don’t know what there is to replace it today. I love cars. I take care of a car the way I was taught to take care of a horse. “A man feeds his beasts before he feeds himself” was a saying in those days. But you walk into a dark garage, and nothing moves. You go in behind your car without speaking to it, and it does not move over for you. It does not kick, but neither is it glad to have you there. That is why I still miss horses.