If you have followed along with our farm adventures for a while, then you will remember that a couple of years ago, I made the decision to start writing a book. Many of you urged me onward, and so, I gave it a try. Seven chapters in, I ran out of steam. I was fearful that there was nothing interesting enough to add to what I had already written in order to have enough for a book. I also feared that what I wrote would not be good enough to sell a book. And so I stopped. Now, I must also tell you that I carry guilt for having stopped. I have never been one to give up on anything, and there is a part of me that feels like a failure with this project.
But then, I consider the fact that I spend a good portion of time, daily, writing a blog, taking photographs, and making and editing videos, so my guilt is assuaged, for the most part. Still... there are words that I have painstakingly, and lovingly written that have never been read.
So, today I am posting one chapter... just to share with you. As time goes on, I will post all of the chapters that I have written so that my writing was not in vain. I am, however, committed to the discipline of daily writing on my blog and plan to continue that until I am no longer breathing.
For me, writing and sharing my thoughts with you is an important part of my life. I love your comments and emails - especially when you share snippets about your own life with me. We have a unique friendship here on the internet and I feel blessed by your presence in my life. Life is so much richer when shared - and I have enjoyed sharing the ups and downs of life on the farm with you. Thankfully, the ups outweigh the downs.
I wish for you, today, a very Happy Thanksgiving.
And for those of you not in the USA... an equally wonderful day.
“Hi, my name is Bev and I am an addict. It’s been two hours since my last fix.”
Yes, it’s true. I am hopelessly addicted to the smell of horses. There is something so satisfying about the earthy smell of the equine body. To bury my nose in the neck of a horse and inhale is one of life’s best treats.
And although my pasture is filled with 7 equines of all sizes, I am no horsewoman. I am no expert. My earliest experience with horses was what I had seen in the movies and on television. I assumed that anyone could just hop right up onto any horse and take off into the sunset. Little did I know that the horses that danced across my screen, with their riders galloping bareback down the beach, or fording a stream, or racing across the high plains in search of rogue cattle, were a minority. I am pretty sure that those horses were merely acting!
Some women have the “horse gene”. My DNA does not have that particular set of chromosomes. I always knew I was not a natural-born horsewoman because my feelings for horses fell somewhere between awe and terror. I loved them from afar and longed to have them in my life. And at the same time, the idea of actually climbing into a saddle made me break out in a cold sweat.
Not one to give in to fear, however, I invested in riding lessons.
Under the watchful eye of my trainer, I learned to groom, to pick hooves, to tack and eventually to walk, trot, and canter any lazy or elderly horse with relative confidence. I would have been happy just grooming (and smelling) the horse. I was there for lessons, however, so I summoned my courage and climbed on to the back of whatever lesson horse was assigned to me for the day. No spirited horses for me. No… give me the 35-year-old draft horse with one foot in the grave and I am ready to ride.
Like all new riders, I took my spills. Luckily, it was at a time in life where my bones still bounced, and none of those spills ended with much more than a little sand and sawdust between my teeth. Months of lessons gave me the courage I needed to ride and enjoy it.
I worked out a deal with the stable, where I had been taking lessons, so that I could rent my lesson horse by the hour and take her on occasional trail rides through the countryside around the stable on days when I didn’t have lessons. Ooh, I was hooked. I had overcome my fears… as long as I didn’t have to ride anything faster than a trot. I had no need for speed. A nice slow walk through the woods was exciting enough for me. Just feeling the animal beneath me, and surrounding myself with its smell, was fulfilling.
My rent-for-the-day horse and I would walk on dry leaves through woods beneath a fiery red forest canopy in early autumn and emerge in meadows filled with wild purple asters and goldenrod as the last of Summer’s butterflies floated on a breeze. I was in heaven. This was perfect - a perfect moment shared by my elderly lesson horse and I. I needed nothing more than this. My life was complete.
But like any addiction, a few good trips leads to the need for a bigger and better fix; and before you know it, you find yourself looking through the livestock classifieds in search of the perfect horse.
It took many years for me to learn that the perfect horse is not usually for sale. No, anyone who has the perfect horse is going to keep it. Instead, the horses that you find for sale are usually a work in progress. It’s easy for a novice like myself to buy a horse that was described as a great horse to “learn on” and end up with a horse that needs hours and hours of training or one who has any number of “issues.” It’s rare to find a turn-key horse.
Oh how young and naïve I was in those earlier days. Let me tell you this: almost anyone who will sell you a horse will sell you a horse story as well. The story may or may not have anything to do with reality. Buyer beware! “Never trust a horse trader,” is a phrase often heard in the equine world… and for me, it held true.
My first un-educated foray into the world of horse traders was a month long crash course in “Everything You Never Wanted To
Know About Owning a Horse”.
In my ignorance (I didn’t know what I didn’t know) I searched the newspaper’s classified ads for the Livestock for Sale section. In this area were listed farms and ranches that had horses for sale. I circled all that were local and started telephoning to set up appointments for my next day off from work.
With anticipation I waited for the day that I would spend traveling from farm to ranch looking at their offerings.
The day arrived and I headed out with classifieds in hand. I was savvy enough to know that I needed a very calm horse. And that’s about all I knew. I visited and smelled and petted and considered but found none that would suit my needs. With only one ranch left on my list, I drove an hour through rural southern Pennsylvania with my fingers crossed.
Pulling off the highway onto a dusty, rutted, back road, I approached a large, rusty ranch gate. Above the gate was a wooden sign with “Double S Ranch” etched on it. I scarcely noticed the ranch house, a dingy double-wide, whose two halves didn’t quite match, with a derelict front porch attached to the house at only one corner - with rain gutters no longer attached to the roof at one end. I noticed an obvious lack of trash-removal service. But, I overlooked all of that, as I gazed beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the disheveled house to the paddocks of horses beyond.
A little patch of grass in the front yard was all that remained of this property’s vegetation….the rest having been nibbled or scratched away long ago. Three pygmy goats and a couple of Welsh Corgis came running across the yard towards my car… stopped short by the fence.
There were horses everywhere. There were paddocks of horses, scrubby pastures with horses and several ramshackle outbuildings with crude, horse-filled stalls. It was overwhelming…like no place I had ever seen. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I knew that I wanted to touch and smell and talk to each one of those majestic animals.
Looking back, this was nothing more than a horse turnstile. Horses were coming and going through this place, on their way from auction to auction. This was no home, but a mere weigh station on the highway to hell for horses. Again, I was new to this world and naïve. I never considered that a place filled with horses could be anything but wonderful.
The rancher, Barrett, came ambling out of one of the barns as I arrived. He was a cowboy through and through, from his brown suede cowboy hat to his dusty, pointed-toe boots peeking out from beneath his dungarees. I could tell from his protruding bottom lip that he had some “chew” tucked in there.
“Hey there, Missy.” he greeted me, condescendingly , “So yer lookin’ fer a little filly, huh?
I introduced myself and told him “Yes.” I was there to answer his advertisement for a quiet Sorrel (red) mare with10 years of trail riding experience. I explained to him that my riding experience had consisted of a about a year of lessons and some trail riding.
“Well, let’s go take a look-see at Red,” he said, beckoning me to follow him to the barn. “I think this little gal is exactly what yer lookin’fer, there, young lady.”
“She’s a quiet little mare with a great mind,” he added as we entered the barn.
There, waiting in the barn with saddle and bridle in place was the loveliest auburn horse with a full and thick auburn mane and tale. “Red” was what the cowboy had called her and it suited her.
He led her to a large round pen and handed me the reins. I slipped them over her neck and held them against the saddle’s pommel with my right hand. Lifting my left foot up into the stirrup, and placing my weight into that stirrup, I hung onto the pommel and reins while simultaneously throwing my right leg up and over the back end of Red… landing my behind squarely in the saddle.
Excitement, and a whole lot of fear, coursed through my veins. My heart was pounding. The world melted away and there was nothing but this russet horse and I. I felt the warmth of her next to my legs, felt her inhale and sigh. I took my hand and patted her neck, feeling her smooth coat in my fingers like silk. I adjusted the stirrups and checked my reins and gave Red a little squeeze with my heels. A little click with my tongue, and we were set into forward motion. We were walking around the perimeter of the round pen. I was in heaven.
My heart slowed and I relaxed. With a slight pull on the reins I gently leaned back and said “whoa, girl.” She stopped on queue. So far, so good.
Clicking her back into a walk, I decided it was time to see what kind of trot she would give me. I shortened my reins, pursed my lips and made a kissing sound. She answered my request with a solid, smooth trot. Afraid to push my luck, I took her no faster than that.
It took me no time to decide that Red was the right horse. I was too inexperienced to know that buying a horse is a process… one that should include having your Veterinarian inspect the horse before purchase. I was too ignorant to ask the right questions and naïve enough to have believed any story told.
I came back the next day with a friend’s horse trailer and loaded Red up to take her home. I was grinning from ear to ear… thrilled and terrified all at the same time. I made arrangements to board Red in that same friend’s stable in exchange for working at the stable on the weekends.
Sleep eluded me those days. Excitement had me up by 4 AM every morning. I’d make the fifteen-minute drive to the stable and sit there outside Red’s stall watching the sun come up. After sun-up, I would put a halter on Red and lead her out of her stall to the front of the barn. There I would tie her and spend the next half hour brushing her and picking her feet clean. I would stand in front of her right shoulder and bury my nose in her neck, running my fingers through her crimson mane. I took my time getting to know her, hoping that she would come to love and trust me.
On the weekend, I’d muck all of the horse stalls, clean and re-fill water buckets, and feed hay and grain to all of the horses in the stable. Then I would repeat the morning ritual of tending to Red.
A week passed and I had still had not ridden her. I told myself, and everyone around me, that I would just work on “ground-work” with her at first. I wanted to take it slow… rationalizing that this course of action was better for Red. What I couldn’t admit to myself or to anyone else was the fact that with every passing day I became more and more fearful of riding. Truth be told, I was just enjoying the ground-work.
I was happy enough just caring for this big beautiful red horse.
At the same time, with each passing day, a change was happening with Red. She was becoming more and more temperamental. It all began very subtly. One morning, as I approached her stall and greeted her, she quickly turned on a dime and showed me her tail end. She was ignoring me… and worse yet, warning me. She was in no mood to cooperate.
Within a day, this lack of cooperation had turned to attempts to kick me.
Eventually she would let no one enter her stall without a fight. Taking her out to pasture became nearly impossible.
The kids who worked the stables during the weekdays all became hesitant to open her stall door as she repeatedly tried to kick or bite anyone who approached her.
Within days my joy had turned to heartbreak. I had foreseen none of this scenario when I innocently bought this beautiful red horse. Tearfully, I admitted to myself that I was in way over my head. Not wanting to reach the point of no return, I telephoned the Double S Ranch and implored Barrett to take Red back.
We had agreed that I had a thirty-day trial period when I purchased Red. That was perhaps the only bit of wisdom that I had brought into this purchase. I explained to Barrett that Red seemed to have an unexplained behavior problem and that I would need to return her. He begrudgingly agreed to the return.
Later that day we hauled Red back to the Double S. Getting her on the trailer required a lead rope with a chain over her nose and a small army, but we managed to return her without injury…equine or human. Once at the ranch, Barrett had one of his stable-hands, unload the unruly horse. A lanky young cowboy dressed in jeans and cowboy boots backed her down the trailer ramp and she reared up to strike anyone in her vicinity. The cowboy gave her a swift kick in the side with his pointy-toed, spur-clad boots. He swiftly turned her around, and tied her onto a nearby fence post. Within minutes, he had thrown a western saddle onto her, replaced her halter with a headstall and reins, and jumped onto her back. Forcefully holding her reins, he dug his spurs deeply into her sides and she took off bucking and kicking. I couldn’t help but think that her behavior was in response to the rough treatment of this young cowboy.
“What the hell did you do to that horse?” Barrett asked accusingly. “You must have really miss-treated her for her to act like this!”
I felt the tears welling up. I had done nothing but love this horse. I had gently and kindly worked with her every day until that day when she decided no one was going to get near to her.
“I did nothing to her,” I choked, “I took great care of her. I didn’t even ride her. She got nothing but tender loving care from me.”
“No horse ends up like this unless they’ve been abused!” he sneered as he spit a mouthful of tobacco-tainted saliva on the dusty ground and wiped the sweat from his unshaven face with a dirty handkerchief. “This horse is not worth a damn, now!”
I wiped the tear that had fallen on my cheek and stood facing Barrett, summoning as much courage as I could.
“I’d like my money back, please,” my voice no longer quivering. “This horse was not abused!”
What I truly thought, at the time, was the possibility that Red had been given a tranquilizer on the day that she was sold to me. I'll never know.
There was no doubt about this. The stable that housed Red while she was in my care was top-notch, as were all of the kids who worked there.
“Well, Missy… I’ll take the filly back; but your money will pay me for the trouble of having to re-train this horse!” And with that, Barrett turned on his heel and walked into the ramshackle house.
I stood there with my mouth open in amazement. I had no horse. I had no money. I had no idea what to do.
The memory of that moment remained with me like the acrid taste of bile until years later when once again I found myself heading down a country road in search of the perfect horse. This time I had wisdom on my side… wisdom that I borrowed from my sister-in-law whose truck I rode in as we pulled her horse trailer behind us on the forty-five minute drive from our farm (yes, by this time we had moved to our very own farm in the country) through rolling hills, down a two-lane country highway to an Amish farm.
Becky, my go-to horse advisor, was a tall, savvy, athletic, equestrienne/comedienne/equine veterinarian with dirty-blond hair, whose first uttered word, as a child, was “horse”. She had spent her life in the company of horses; and the farm we were now headed towards belonged to a client of hers.
The farmer, an Amish man and owner of a local construction company, raised Haflingers as a side-business. Haflingers are a calm and docile breed, originally from Austria. They are shorter than horses such as thoroughbreds but much stockier and strong-bodied. They are typically light chestnut or blond colored with a white mane and tail, as well as a white stripe down their nose. With a strong constitution and an uncomplicated personality, they can be trained for riding or as draft horses for pulling carriages or farm equipment. Becky had described them as the consummate “surfer dude” of horses… observing everything in their world with a tranquil, drawn-out “Whoooaaaahh…Dude…” as if perhaps a little stoned.
I swallowed hard as we neared the turn-off for the Amish farm, trying to push back old memories of a similar, soon-to-be-forgotten, venture.
We approached a row of mailboxes along the two-lane highway we were traveling and Becky started to slow the truck and trailer. A sign that could have been painted by a grade-schooler-destined-to-be-art-major read “Whitetail Valley Farm” with a hand drawn and painted picture of a farm with pastures.
The farm was set at the base of the Tuscarora Mountain, with a quarter-mile-long, tree-lined, macadam driveway. Running parallel, but behind these two rows of flowering pear trees were dark brown, split rail fences separating large, neatly manicured horse pastures from the driveway. In each of these pastures were just a handful of well-nourished blond Haflinger horses with flowing white manes and tails.
The driveway headed straight for the front yard of the house before jogging left towards the barn.
I thought back to the day that I bought Red. I remembered the ramshackle ranch with its hundred-plus horses. Compared to that place, this was Horse Heaven! There couldn’t be two places that were more diametrically opposed than these.
This Amish farm could easily have been the subject of a magazine article in Country Living, or Architectural Digest, or any number of gardening magazines. The front lawn was a lush carpet of green, trimmed to a perfect height with two beautiful, blond, barefoot girls dressed in simple dresses of blue or purple skipping to see who was approaching. Flower gardens bordered every inch of the front walkway and porch that wrapped around a large, clean, newly constructed, yellow, two-story farmhouse with gabled roof. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the generator sitting in the driveway, with electrical cords flowing in through the front door.
In the right side yard there was a white picket-fenced vegetable garden; in the left, a swimming pool. This was not like any Amish house that I had ever seen or imagined.
We parked the truck and walked towards the lovely barn. Jacob, a handsome, bearded Amishman in a cornflower blue shirt, black trousers and black work boots, greeted us, “Good morning! Come on over to the barn… the children are getting two horses ready for you to see.”
“Why the generator, Jacob?” Becky asked, remembering that the Amish don’t normally use electricity.
“Oh, Sarah wanted to do a little sewing today,” he replied nonchalantly. Apparently, today was not a day for the old-fashioned treadle machines, but rather for faster, more efficient, “fancy” machines. There were lots of Amish rules forbidding “fancy”. Apparently today was not a day for rules.
Again… this was not the average Amish homestead. It was, truth be told, a wee bit fancy!
The barn was a large stable constructed of fieldstone that ran four feet up from the foundation meeting wooden siding in the same yellow as the house. There were windows, protected by wrought-iron grills, on each side of the barn with window boxes full of purple petunias and sweet potato vines. Gas lanterns flanked each side of the barn door. A long hitching post ran on the right side of the small parking area. Several buggies and wagons were parked on the left side.
We entered the front of the barn to find a spacious center aisle with several immaculate stalls on each side. In one of those stalls were a mare and her newly born foal. Focused on that tiny, wobbly newborn foal, I almost forgot why I was there.
The sound of laughter soon snapped me back to reality. There, cross-tied at the opposite end of the wide center aisle was a stocky, blond horse. His thick, flowing mane lay mostly to the right of his neck and hung almost a foot in length. His cream colored tail hung to the floor of the barn and swished from side to side as an occasional fly landed on his back. The two little girls I had seen on our arrival were busily brushing that tail when it came back to its resting place. Five children under the age of eleven were scurrying to make him presentable. The ten-year-old, Isaah, dressed like his dad, but barefoot… his hair, cut in an earlobe-length bob with bangs. He wore sunglasses and was obviously in charge of this operation.
There were children as young as three climbing in and out between this horse’s legs. The older ones were lifting his hooves and taking a hoof pick to them. The children seemed to love this horse and were enthusiastically climbing on and off of his back as they worked. I marveled at the horse’s tolerance and patience with these youngsters.
“This is Moonbeam,” said Jacob as he motioned to the kindhearted horse.
Isaah, uttering something in Pennsylvania Dutch, unclipped the horse from the cross-ties, walked him out the back of the barn, tied him to the fence, and placed a blanket and saddle on this horse’s broad back.
I couldn’t help but notice another horse, in a small paddock behind the barn, which could have been the first horse’s twin.
As I watched the second horse amble around the paddock looking for a little grass on which to nibble, Jacob pointed his finger at him and said, “Monty’s for sale as well. He’s one of my ice cream horses.”
I didn’t have to ask. Jacob caught the curious look I gave him and explained: “I take a team of horses to fairs and festivals to help me churn homemade ice cream.”
“I hitch them up to a carousel that churns the ice cream as they walk around in a circle,” he continued. “And as they walk, I let children take pony rides… round and round on the carousel.”
I was mesmerized, imagining children on these lovely horses as they walked in a circular motion while churning a delicious frozen treat on a sunny summer day. I was lost in this idyllic scene…transported through time to a much simpler day.
“Moonbeam is his half brother. I think Moonbeam might be just what you’re looking for. He’s a champion draft horse,” he explained, awakening me from my daydream. “He’s won a few driving competitions over the years.” He filled me in on Moonbeam’s history,
and the four previous owners who had used him to pull carriages as well as farm equipment.
“He’s a good horse… a great worker… and the kids just love him. I am only selling him to make room for a few foals. “ He must have guessed what I was wondering. “I try to keep my herd size from growing beyond capacity. I won’t sell him to just anyone, but I know Doc Becky and know that he will have a good home with you.”
Jacob had purchased Moonbeam from a woman in Ohio, and had used him for pulling farm implements the past year or so. He had obviously been well cared for, unlike so many of the Amish horses to which I had grown accustomed. It seemed so many of them were regarded more as equipment than as sentient beings. However, here at this unusual farm the horses obviously were cherished souls.
“I don’t have a carriage, so, I was hoping to find a riding horse. How does he do with that?” I asked.
“Ach, the kids ride him up and down the mountain all the time… bareback!” Jacob chuckled. “He’s had no formal schooling, but he does just fine.”
With that, Isaah, scampered up into the saddle and walked Moonbeam into a round pen behind the barn. Once inside the pen, he paused, removed his mirrored aviator sunglasses, and threw them to his brother.
“I feel the need for speed!” Isaah crooned and laughed, as he gave Moonbeam a little kick with his naked heels. The two took off in a smooth canter, the boy smiling from ear to ear. This horse had substantial feet and the ground reverberated as each hoof struck the soil. This was one solid horse. He was as graceful as he was solid, I noticed, as his blond mane and tail danced fluidly along.
Isaah circled the pen a few more times before bringing Moonbeam back down to a trot. Bringing him around to where I was standing, he wiped the wind-whipped hair from his curious eyes.
“Wha-da-ya think?” he asked.
“He’s beautiful,” I uttered, spellbound for a second. Then something I had heard a moment earlier snapped me out of that spell.
“Isaah, where did you hear that I-feel-the-need-for-speed thing that you said when you climbed on Moonbeam?” I knew that the Amish didn’t watch movies or television.
“From vacation,” he answered, unaware that most Amish folk don’t take vacations from being Amish! “We take a train to the Poconos every summer…to one of those big resorts. We watch TV and rent movies and go to a water park!” He placed his sunglasses back on his face.
“Ahhhh…so you saw Top Gun, too!” I had recognized the line.
“Those jets were so cool!” He was no different than any ten-year-old boy. “I’m gonna ride a motorcycle when I get older!”
Like I said before… this was like no Amish farm I had ever seen. It was quite magical; and I was swept away. A moonbeam had cast its spell on me. Suddenly, all things were possible.
Isaah hopped down from Moonbeam and it was my turn in the saddle. After seeing a ten-year-old handle this heavy-footed, gentle beast, I felt confident that I, too, would ride him with ease. I lengthened the stirrups for my long adult legs, and climbed into the saddle. It was a pleasure to mount a shorter horse, however, I couldn’t help but notice there was a whole lot more girth to this fellow. I looked down from my wide, comfortable mount. He was beautiful…mesmerizingly so. His name fit him. He reminded me of a moonbeam… luminescent and enchanting; and was perhaps the most appealing horse I had ever met. His eyes were soft and his face, kind. Something about his demeanor immediately put me at ease.
I relaxed and asked him for a walk… and with that he walked right into my life.
My barn would become the forever home for this horse, who had known six homes in his six short years of life. This horse, who so tolerantly allowed children to play between his legs, was exactly the kind of animal I longed for. The fact that he was primarily a driving horse didn’t worry me. He was honest, kind-hearted, sound, and willing. The rest we’d work on together.
My primary goal when bringing an animal home is to give it a forever home. Animals, like people, are not disposable. And animals, like people, become attached to their “family”. The challenge lies in finding the right animal for the situation. The breed of the animal can be important, but even more so is the temperament and how it complements my own.
One day, in my garden, it dawned on me that making big decisions like buying a horse should be done the way one picks sugar peas. If you stand close to the vine, you'll find a pea or two, but if you stand further away… you see so much more of what is there.
I’ve learned to stand back and look carefully, to get a little help, and to see the bigger picture… to listen to my heart, but to decide with my head.