the working pony: part 1
When I was looking into getting my first horse, I wanted an animal at my own eye level. I rode 16+ hand mares at my riding lessons (which have since stopped since I went from 5 days of office work a week to 4), but I only felt comfortable because of the amount of education of the mares and the amount of professionals around me. It also eased the mind to know we were in a locked arena, so even a mad dash could only last a hundred yards. But on a farm, out on my 6.5 acres of land and the thousands of acres of not-my land around us on the mountain...I didn't want a 16 hand horse bolting into the woods dragging a plow. I wanted something I could control with my own hands in a pinch. Something larger than a Shetland but smaller than a Haflinger. A Pony, sure, but an animal I could still jump on the back of for a ride to the back pasture to check on the flock. A horse calm enough to learn with, strong enough to be of use, and patient enough to put up with me, a greenhorn like me. I wanted the animal more educated in driving than I was, and willing to take me on as his student.
I also wanted a gelding. Boys make sense when it comes to working animals. I wanted Gibson to be a male before he was born, and I wanted my horse to be a male as well. At the office, I have two girl friends and one of them took 3 years to shore up. I am comfortable around all the men. My closest friends are all guys. Not sure that is sound horsemanship, but I went with my gut.
When I first met Jasper he was thin, ratty, and had not seen a brush or bath in months. The night before I met him, he was removed from his herd and stuck in a 2-horse trailer alone. In the morning, in a rain storm, he got freaked out when the trader tried to open the back hatch so he leaped out the side window. BOOM, just gone. "Well, the auction flyer said he was "spirited"..." the seller smiled, knowing this was not looking good for his bank account. Jasper trotted over to some grass near his pasture mates and without a second thought, I just walked up to him. He watched me, and let me grab his halter. I lead him back to the trailer where the Trader was getting him tacked up for a demonstration. It was starting to really rain now, and Jasper's eyes got white with stress. I didn't know enough about horses to offer to come back later, and the trader must have needed the money to ask his son to hop on board. I watched him walk off with his small passenger.
He let a 10-year-old boy saddle and ride him around an open field without qualms. Walk to Trot to Canter, then backed up easy. Which meant in a strange place, away from his comfort zone, after a night along, he let a child push him around in a backyard without fences. This was an equine Job. Knowing nothing beyond the fact that I would have bucked out of there a long time ago if I was that horse, I agreed to pay $500 over two months and he would be delivered with his Coggins in April. I shook hands with the trader and became an owner of my first equine. I felt rich.
Jasper came with his name and I did not change it. It suited him, and me. He's an 11.2 hand Pony of the Americas (POA). A dappled gray horse with dark brown eyes and a black and silver mane scruffed in a permanent mohawk. He's ten years old, and comes from a working Amish farm down state where he was trained to drive. He came to me from that scrappy dealer in Hebron, a town a few miles north of Jackson. (I have since learned buying a second-hand auction horse from a backyard trader might not have been the best way to get a working animal.) He was delivered and let loose in a half acre paddock and he ran, bucked, and kicked like a bronco. "Just settling in..." was what the man said before shaking my hand and leaving. As the trailer backed out of the drive, Jasper let out a cry only heard in movies. What was I getting into....
That's his backstory, our backstory really. Over the spring I didn't train with him at all. We just went on halter walks together, learned each other as peers. Summer came and we learned to trust each other a little more. When I bought him a harness he let me put it on him and soon we started working in the field together. It became a regular thing. I learned so much in such a short time. How to understand the confusing puzzle of leather straps that is a horse harness. I figured out his body language, bit size, farrier needs, and dental appointments. I got a few books, had a driving trainer visit, and over time gained some confidence that this animal and I could work together someday, get something of import accomplished. After all, that was his purpose: To be both my second vehicle and my farm hand. I had dreams of us pulling logs out of the woods together, or hitching up to a sled or cart to make a trip into town. I secretly wished I had the confidence to jump on his back and ride up into the pasture, like the Lairds did in storybooks in Scotland, hoping on the back of ponies in waxxed cotton coats to see how the flock fared. I was in a story book with this horse. I liked it there.
The weekend of Antlerstock was getting closer and closer, and I knew I wanted Jasper to be a part of it. I had written in the description of the weekend about backyard lumberjacking, with Jasper pulling logs, but wasn't entirely sure that we could or he would. He had worked in the open field pulling around tires and weights, but I had never walked him into the woods, hitched him to a log, and walked him out through low branches and uneven ground into a clearing. So I wasn't sure I would risk it, not around other people. If He got scared and bolted on me, a horse in harness dragging a log is a runaway train. It would be the event everyone remembered, and not in a good way.
But when Brett asked me if Jasper was ready to pull logs on the Saturday of Antlerstock...
I said yes.
Photos by Tim Bronson