For the Love of Horses

Stephen Leslie originally published this article on the Cedar Mountain Farm Blog on June 16, 2010.* Reprinted with permission. Stephen runs our Farmers’ Apprenticeship.

I have always favored a broad brimmed hat over a ball cap, especially so after working on the land out west. Without a proper cover on your head the mid-summer sun will crisp you to toast and the rain, sleet and snow of winter will freeze you solid as an icicle. I don’t know who or what first convinced the farmers of New England to give up their broad brimmed hats for the now ubiquitous ball cap, but I have my suspicions that it was all those tractor salesmen who were giving hats away as they sold tractors to the post World War II farmers who were letting go of their horse teams. The logic behind wearing a ball cap (complete with manufacturer’s logo) while working on the noisy tractor is that you can’t wear proper ear protectors with a broad brimmed hat on your head. At the same time that those early salesmen were giving away caps they were also offering the farmers trade-in value for their horses. Many fine teams were rendered into glue as a result of the turnover to the combustion engine.

The first time I ever rode a horse I was twelve years old. There was this girl that lived up the road from me that I was sweet on and her family was in the habit of going out to a riding stable on the north end of town for recreational outings and one time, probably because I was hanging around their house so much, I was invited to come along. I’ve always been partial to wearing hats. I had one in particular that I wore almost all the time until it got burned up in a house fire when I was twenty-two years old. I’d found it in my grandparent’s attic and I’d been granted permission to take it home. It was my grandpa’s World War I cavalry hat. It was a broad-brimmed Stetson, made of beaver felt, and sporting a four-pointed crown like that of Smokey the Bear. I didn’t fancy the crown much so I gave it a creased flat-top to make it look like any ordinary old cowboy hat.

Well, I don’t know what somebody wearing any ordinary old cowboy hat had ever done to that old nag I was supposed to ride at the riding stable, but when I approached her to step up into the stirrup for my first ever foray onto the back of a horse, she took in one big eyeball of that hat and whirled round as quick as lightning and shot off a double back-kick and split the board-rail fence into splinters about six inches from my head. The lady holding onto the horse’s reigns looked at my stunned demeanor and said, “Guess she don’t like that hat.” Now you might think that a sensible young fellow might not have wanted to climb aboard the back of an animal who had so recently attempted to stove in his hat-bearing skull, but remember, the girl I that I liked was looking on all the while. Needless to say I left the hat with the stable manager and thereafter had a very enjoyable first time experience in the saddle.

As with any craft, one of the key elements to becoming a successful teamster is repetition. Just as the skilled pilot must log many flight hours, building confidence through dealing with the unexpected contingencies, so does the teamster require the refining fire of hours spent practicing with a team of grounded sensible horses on the other end of the driving lines. This kind of practice and repetition involves a degree of kenosis—the emptying out of self. It’s like the old Zen parable about how you have to empty a cup before you can hope to receive anything new into it. This kind of practice can have a leveling effect on the personality so that the more effective we become at the task of driving horses, the less invested is our ego-force in the outcome. There is of course, a big difference between letting go of excessive ego and giving away your own power. As we come into our own as teamsters a power of a new kind might be sensed—a power of relationship and connection to a living reality.

On a sparkling autumn morning not long ago I was standing beside my harnessed team of horses as I addressed a group of twenty or so third graders from the local elementary school. Minutes before they had finished the task of broadcasting rye seed out of buckets onto the section where we had grown cucurbits (we apply about a 25% higher seed ratio when employing child labor). The horses were hitched to the disc-harrow so that after speaking I could give a demonstration of how we use the disc to cover the seed on rougher sections like the squash beds that still had a lot of dispersed mulch material and surface trash. I was busy extrapolating on the non-polluting, non-compacting, natural fertilizing, and self-replicating abilities of the horses in contrast to tractors. When I had finished, the young farmer, Steve Blabec, who was working with us that season, pointed at me and as he did so I became aware that I was leaning against the gelding with my arm draped in a casual embrace across his broad back. And Steve smiled his wide infectious grin and said, “Besides which, you can’t hug your tractor!”

If we are moved to treat the animals under our care with gentleness and respect, if we allow ourselves to be open to the small chance moments of rapture that the intimacy of our farm landscape holds up daily to our senses, if we are through with chasing the dollar and instead are inspired with a vision of attaining wholeness in our lives and fostering wholeness in the lives of our children—then we must finally admit that what ultimately drives our farming enterprises is not money, or fossil fuel, not composted manure nor even sunlight—but simply and entirely the love we hold in our hearts for the farm. This true love is like a fire that does not burn out, it is like that faithful and abiding flame that Moses witnessed on the branches of a bush high up on a mountain—the fire that does not consume.

For many men and woman who farm with horses, the realization that love is at the heart of what they do may never even dawn on them as a consciously explicated theorem or practice—but it will be evinced in their kindness, their care and concern, and in the reciprocal pride and joy with which they engage their draft animals. This love for our animals is also most essentially a love of beauty and a love of life and a love of the earth itself, but it even includes a love of this our most imperfect human proposition—with all its brilliance and all its tragic folly.

The horse is a highly sensitive and intelligent animal. Somewhere in the back of its mind every domesticated horse remembers that it is a prey species and that we two-legged creatures are a weird yet formidable sort of predator. It’s our job to convince them that all that hunting business is in the past and that horse and human can now be partners in work. Mind you, the human must assert its position as a lead horse in the herd. But amazingly—real partnership is possible. Once their confidence is gained and once they are rightly trained, and when they are treated with kindness and only asked to do reasonable tasks; the horses want to work. For the teamster a balance of a firm hand, a consistent and steady presence, and an enduring concern for the horse’s well being, all are a must. It’s not that the horse has no forgiveness, but there is a fundamental trust which must not be broken. What we are really trying to do is not so much master the horse, as to master ourselves.

* February 2013: Cedar Mountain Farm now has a new website.

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