the working pony: part 2
But when Brett asked me if Jasper would be ready, I said yes. I said it like we'd been pulling logs out of the woods behind the farm for weeks. I said it like I was more like Brett, a skilled woodsman with a plaid pattern of arteries around my heart. Brett seemed convinced and I told him Jasper would be harnessed up in twenty minutes...
For the first time since buying jasper this spring, I decided to harness him inside the stall instead of outside it on a tie out in the field. What a difference this simple act made. Instead of being bossy or anxious right out of the gate, he calmly walked out to a crowd of people with flashing cameras and children running around. I was shocked at this change in attitude and then realized this horse was probably always harnessed in a stall or barn before being lead out to work every day of his life as an Amish hand. All I did was return to his normal routine, and he responded as anyone would who realized into the familiar.
He walked calmly out of the gate, his bit calm, his eyes curious. I had ordered everyone to stand back, and explained he was known to be "spirited" Everyone cut us a wide berth, but no one seemed scared. Folks like Lara who had ridden mustangs out west were not skittish around a Hobbit-sized cart horse, but I had been kicked in the back of the thigh by Jasper once (I got between him and some sheep who were running towards his grain bucket as he was eating and he kicked back to scare them off), and it hurt for days. 600 pounds is a lot of animal when a hoof hits your ass. Everyone signed a waiver, but that doesn't mean I wanted someone's memory of this farm to be two cracked ribs.
My fears were mine alone. He was steady as a barge on a canal path. I turned him around towards those unfamiliar woods, and together, me leading him by his bridle with loose reins, we walked to the area where the cherry tree fell. Jasper had no qualms with the uneven ground, the leaves, roots, and stones below him. A summer on a mountain slope pasture had made him unusually surefooted for a small horse. When we arrived at Brett near the log pile, he instructed us to walk a wide circle around the logs and wait as he attached the chains to the single tree and got Jasper and I locked and loaded. When all was set, he asked for the reins and I told him I wanted to lead him by the bridle, but said nothing more. Brett resigned to the less impressive, but functional practice. I knew Jasper was still green being driven from behind and why mess up the good thing we'd discovered here in the woods?
So holding those black reins in my right hand, my horse on my left-hand side, I took a deep breathe and said, "Step up, Gelding" and together we walked towards the opening in the trees.
What followed was minutes of work, just a short 50 yards or so from the forest to the wood pile. But it required Jasper to pull uphill, across forest floor, grass, and scattered logs and rounds, new people and equipment. Jasper remained calm, and when the first log was delivered, we turned around and did it again. I got Cathy Daughton's expression as we turned to get the second load, she seemed proud I pulled it off. So was I, so was I.
Now, to most people at Antlerstock, nothing fantastic happened at all. To the general attendee, they saw a pony pull some small logs out of the woods, easy as pie. The horse didn't act up, just walked around, doing what was expected of it. But that lack of flash and noise was exactly what made it so amazing to me. Jasper acted as calm and normal as if he was just another part of this farm, as predictable as pulling the cord on a lawn mower or starting up the truck. He just worked. It was as if that was how it has always been.
I had won martial arts tournaments, driven cross country, acquired an envious professional design resume, and bought a farm...but walking back to Jasper's hand-made stall and kissing him on the forehead was a feeling of winning I had never experienced before in my life. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating as I removed his black leather straps and buckles. I had managed to acquire, train, and heal an animal that just months before was leaping out of trailer windows and kicking sheep. As he lowered his head into a well-deserved scoop of sweet grain I ran a hand along his strong neck and told him I was proud of him.
I am no Buck Brannaman, my horse training skills are as rudimentary as they come. I make mistakes out there, many, and learn only by beating a situation into a corner until it is subdued enough to let another problem pop up elsewhere. But I am learning this working horse thing. Things that were alien to my hands and words foreign to my mind are now common place and understood. "Check his cannon, I think the singletree might have popped at it when you were working on the surcingle" was once Greek. Now I speak Greek, thanks to the translator that is experience and a dapple pony. I am stubborn enough to keep trying, and my horse knew enough to lead me the rest of the way. Thank you, Jasper.
In closing, I can not express how great it is having a working pony on this small farm. Thanks to him, there is a level of self-suffiency that Cold Antler could not obtain without his contribution. He is more than a log caddy, Jasper could be a second vehicle once harnessed to a light cart that could carry me easily the three miles into the center of town. Or, I could hop on his back for a short ride through the woods where carts can't go. He's also able to carry small wagons and packs, through all sorts of terrain, if that would ever been necessary. He protects the sheep in the pasture, making a second living as a livestock protector. Any coyote would have to think twice before taking on a flock with a 600-pound body guard with big hooves...
If you're looking for a sustainable solution to small loads and chores, and a second form of transportation, a pony might be a perfect fit for your farm as well. Jasper eats a half-bale of hay a day and a scoop of grain, he drinks about ten gallons of water. Knowing what I know now, my second pony will be a Haflinger or a Fell, something both suited to the cart and saddle, but still only around 13 hands. I'd save up and spend the money on a solid, bomb-proof, working animal around 10 years old who came with an education. Later down the road. I'd like to try training a foal, and hire and experienced saddle trainer to start him with a solid foundation as a riding animal. But regardless, equines are staying on this farm, and I can't think of a more reliable and wonderful way to get brute work done and move across the landscape. Maybe I'm a romantic, but that's fine by me. Horses, my dear friends, are good. Very, very good.
photos by lara thomason