#12 ~ what the fog brought in …
for all of the ‘horsie’ girls, who like me, have never quite grown up …
A sweet memory came to me through the thick, balmy fog balm as I walked with Djuna down our country lane this evening … the memory, moments finely hewn of mist and late nights, the solemn clop of rubber shod hooves on pavement accented by a the melody of bells provoked to song by each gentle step … the cold, quiet, absolutely empty late night streets, swirling fog lit by gas lamp … Maggie, tethered to me by a cord of trust, 4 legs swinging to the rhythm and her long, inward curved ears like radar, attentive to the magic at hand.
In another life (certainly in another century) I was a carriage driver, a 5’5″, 108 lb. teamster who worked for years for the local carriage company – my partners, a few good women and several magnificent Percheron draft horses. (Animals Rights activists, simmer down, now! It was another life, another time, and if not for the few of us horsewomen/carriage drivers, those horses’ lives would have had far less kindness and comfort.)
Aside from carriage work I once drove a team of six big mares – dapple grays, a snowy white and several blacks all hitched abreast, side by side and pulling a disk plow over rutted ground. The sight of those six huge and powerful butts in a line in front of me was surely incredible, but even more so was that though the rein coming from the mare farthest to my right was of a normal length, the other, coming from the mare at my far left, was not! It was a good three feet short, so as we bounced over that uneven field I had to lean far forward and to the left to make up it’s lacking. I remember looking down – legs shaking as I balanced perilously over those gleaming, knife sharp discs churning earth under the metal tractor seat I was thrown from with each bounce – making pleas and promises to some unseen Deity. But then there came a few weeks of peaceful work in a sustainable horse logging operation; setting the choke on a big log and then asking the big boys, Jerry, Bill and Dan, to pull it away – moving neatly through the woods, we snaked silently between standing trees.
I’ve loved horses since the beginnings of time. These wondrous and somehow fragile creatures had always figured largely in my life, yet a horseless void did come upon me in the early ’80s. The carriage work came to fill it, and having the opportunity to work with these massive beauties was a new kind of heaven for me.
I met Maggie in my second year as a driver. She was only three years old then, a finely tuned mass of muscle and nerves that had only been in the traces – in harness and at work – for about a month before being given to me to drive. A wee harrowing, it was, two novices turned loose in a town full of cars and oblivious tourists but when we found it, The Trust was easy and mutual and I fell hopelessly in love with the beautiful mare. Our connection was deep and mysterious.
The long trail of ‘lines’, the reins used for controlling direction, connecting horse to driver, felt to me electric, yet soft like butter … as though inhabited by light sprites relaying instant messages from me to her and back again. There was no strength needed to ‘control’ Maggie, for through the lines from my hands to the snaffle bit in her mouth I could telegraph messages with a delicate wiggle of only one or two fingers and she knew the verbal requests ‘Gee’ (move to the right) and ‘Haw’ (move to the left), a breathy ‘Easy’ (it’s OK, my darling girl, you can relax) and of course “Whoa’. An audible kiss, or a cluck let her know that I would like her to move forward. I carried a long driving whip, beautiful and made of holly, because it is traditional for a carriage driver to carry one. A driving whip is something never to be used aggressively towards the horse but rather is used as an ‘aid’, with a gentle touch to the horse’s side, right or left signaling to it to step over or to yield. It takes the place of what a proficient rider’s leg can accomplish when in the saddle – gentle, nearly invisible aids, asking, never telling. Maggie was so willing and sensitive that she would respond to a whisper and move on a dime, so my whip was only a dramatic prop in that theater of the streets.
There were those times, however, I was known to stand tall in that carriage box and lean out and over the street to use my whip, hard, on the tops of cars that passed by us too closely or that belonged to eejits I felt were harassing my horse!
Maggie was quite small for a Percheron, only standing about 16.2 hands tall. Each ‘one’ hand is approximately four inches, so she topped out at about six feet at her withers, the spinal processes where the horse’s neck meets their back. She probably only weighed in at a graceful 1500 lbs. While the Percheron is more compact than the other well known breeds of draft horse like the Shire, the Belgian or the Clydesdale, an average Percheron can weigh from 1800 lbs to over a ton, and stands about 17 or 18 hands tall. From the La Perch region in the NW of France, the Percheron has a good bit of Arab blood flowing through it’s veins, though it’s exact lineage has been lost somewhere in time.
Though she was quite dainty and elegant, her attitude made up for anything she lacked in stature … delicate of bone and petite in build, Maggie was huge and fiery in spirit. Her Arabian lineage made itself apparent in her verve and intelligence, and in a fine hair coat that was a brilliant, shiny black even in the dead of winter. She was gorgeous, a mass of muscle with a low center of gravity that made the street work quite easy for her. The carriage she pulled was a Vis a Vis, a replica of a 19th century six-seater which, though fitted with the a modern 5th wheel and rubber wheels for convenience and comfort, was a heavy carriage – yet she was forever asking me if she could please sprint up and down the hills of the town. Can we go fast now? Now? Now?
In our second summer together, while the rest of the company – four or five horses and three carriages – went off to work the California State Fair for a few weeks, Maggie and I were left behind to conduct the street business in town all on our own. We covered the long day and night shifts, every day, by ourselves and as there was no Boss to constantly look over our shoulders, we did as we pleased! The business didn’t suffer at all – but neither did the horse. Our hot summer days were measured, she was well rested and well watered, well shaded and never overworked, and on our dinner breaks I would unharness her, bathe her with cool water and rub her legs and back with liniment before settling her in a stall, deeply bedded with straw, to a leisurely dinner of grassy alfalfa hay and oats. A few hours would pass and we would hit the streets again, for our night shift. Locals felt sorry for us, being the only carriage in town for all that time, so Maggie was showered with thoughtful gifts of apples and pears and peppermints and horse cookies – and I was brought cafe lattes and ice cream (shared with Maggie, of course) and boxes of our illustrious, locally made gourmet pizza.
Life was good!
Our nights ran quite late during that two-week stint.
On this one night in particular, the hour hit 1 AM before I was finished and ready to head for home. After backing Maggie – and the carriage – into the narrow barn, I’d had to unhitch, shed her of her 100 lb. harness and then groom and feed her before my shift was over and I’m certain I was a bit brain dead there at the end my 18 hour day. I do remember, though, noticing through my haze that some kind soul had left Maggie a lovely gift sitting just inside the old barn’s door – a box filled with 50 pounds of carrots! I grabbed up a handful and fed them to a delighted Maggie before shutting off the lights. She whuffled her sweet goodnight to me, I locked up and went home.
Next morning, 7 AM, I was at the barn as usual to feed Maggie and clean the carriage, and as I slid the big door open I felt the earth move … an earthquake … the barn floor was shaking, then the whole barn was shaking, as though with the pulse of a large horse’s quick step.
It WAS the pulse of a large horses quick step. Maggie whinnied, a sound of pure delight that I seemed to mean: HELLO! MY GOOD FRIEND! LOOK! LOOK! SEE WHAT I GOT TO DO ALL NIGHT? I HAD SUCH FUN! SUCH JOY! COME ON IN AND SEE! … and at a bouncy trot she came to me from the dark of the barn.
She was loose.
She was supposed to be secured in her stall! The barn had four ‘tie’ stalls, and while large enough for a horse to easily lay down in, they were unenclosed so the horses had to be tied to the stall. With a loose lead rope leading from halter to manger, they couldn’t get themselves into any trouble elsewhere in the barn.
But Maggie was not tied. She was loose and trotting towards me right then. Laughing at me, I was sure.
I noticed that the box, just the night before overflowing with carrots, was now almost empty. Why, that little beast …
She danced up to me, 1500 pounds of big, happy horse loose in this rickety old barn … I caught her by the halter and put her in her stall, and going to fetch her breakfast hay worried about the troubles she may have gotten herself into overnight – Could she have cut herself on something? Did she get into the grain bin?
As my eyes adjusted to the barn’s dim light, my worries dissolved into wonder.
One of the handmade Amish carriage quilts was in a heap on the floor, a good six feet in front of the carriage. (I had left it, as usual, neatly folded on the back of a seat inside the carriage.)
It had been pooped on.
Another pile of Maggie poo had been precariously yet strategically placed on the carriage’s one step while another, an extremely large pile of manure had been left on top of the stemmy, weedy bale of hay that Boss provided for her. (This was a bit of a statement, I thought.)
What of the bale of fragrant, grassy hay that I had bought for her? A quarter or more of it was gone, nowhere to be seen – she must have been working on it all night long, when she wasn’t having loads of other kinds of fun.
(It came to me a bit later … how it was that Maggie had managed to poop so much throughout the night. She had been well loaded up with that nice hay!)
The wheat straw I used for her bedding was no longer in a neat bale, but had been fluffed and thrown to the four directions – the back of the barn now looked like a huge feather bed. Various bins and buckets had been overturned and opened, tools, nails, horseshoes spilled out onto the oak plank … halters and brushes and hoof ointments looked as though they had been carried off, and much thought had gone into how they were arranged, left in a neat array eight feet away.
Four large leather horse collars that had been hanging neatly in a row along the wall had been flung to the far side of the barn … it was as though she’d been playing a midnight game of toss-the-freaking-collar with them …
And - she had squeezed far enough into our little dressing room to be able to take all of the coats from their hangers, scatter them about the carpet and then knock the empty wire hangers down on top of them. Top hats had been pulled down from a shelf and riding boots were gone – eventually found scattered around the barn and even underneath the carriage.
She left a tidy little pile of manure there next to the topcoats as well, but had to have backed herself partway into the room in order to do that.
It took me two hours to clean the barn and put it back into a semblance of order; a good twenty minutes of that time was spent in tear streaming laughter as I tried to visualize the little mare wreaking havoc, in pure delight…
Maggie was my partner for about two more years. Of course I would drive whichever of the horses had been brought to town for work on any given day (they would get rotated in and out regularly for R and R back at their farm.) but I always looked forward to my shifts with her more than with any of the others. Our connection was magical, a shimmering, gossamer thread, heart to heart.
Eventually I worked it up to ask Boss if I could buy her … secretly wanting to save her from that life.
He knew. And he said …”No!”
It was an autumn morning. I came to work looking forward to a whole week with my little black mare, but she wasn’t in the barn. I grumbled about Boss changing up the schedules. Where was she? I asked. The other carriage driver looked down, quiet, and quickly turned away. Traitor. Boss walked right up to me and with jutting jaw and puffed out chest, looked down his nose at me and said she’d just been loaded up in a fancy trailer and was on her way to be shipped off to a new life pulling carriage – in Japan. (Japan. Where they eat horses, I remembered.)
What? And you didn’t have the decency to tell me ahead of time so I could have gotten here twenty minutes earlier?
“She’s gone. Deal with it. And I want you on the streets in an hour.”
Gone. I never got to say goodbye to her. I cried.
I made a list while I was thinking about Maggie. I was curious how many of the furred and hooved ones have found their way into my life and heart through all of my 57 years … I came up with roughly 50. 14 dogs. 18 cats. 14 horses. 2 cows. 2 goats. 50 beating hearts, 50 gossamer threads, 500 stories, 5000 smiles, 5 million tears. And a lifetime of gratitude.
I can’t imagine these years without them. They’ve warmed my heart, warmed my bed, gave me a place to deposit my tears and made me howl in laughter, taught me patience and responsibility … they embodied unconditional love and gave me their goodness and helped me to survive, to make it thorough. They, sentient beings all, have enriched my life. May I have many more lessons with those yet to come.
Djuna is standing here now, nudging, telling me it’s time for our bedtime walk. I’m going to go with him … we’ll see what beauty may still be out there for us in the fog.