Friday, November 4, 2011

the working pony: part 2

Antlerstock had been moving at a full gallop since 9:30 AM that October Saturday morning. Brett had done an amazing job introducing people to backyard forest management and explained the essentials with a burly grace. BY 11AM trees were falling down in the woods behind the barn and cheese curds were forming in the kitchen. The house had become a school, the farm a campus. Between chicken 101 workshops and the sounds of a sharp axe splitting firewood: the announcement for lunch was more of an internal clock telling people it was time to eat than a clanged iron triangle (though I do have one of those in the kitchen). We ate and talked and everyone seemed content with their fresh-pressed cider, pulled pork, and pie but even as I ate my stomach was doing backflips. I knew that Brett had arranged for a few smaller logs from the recently downed Cherry tree to be hauled up to the splitting team. I knew that Jasper had been patiently waiting in his stall, watching the whole event unfold. And I knew I had not been granted the time to work him as much as one would before a large demonstration.
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


Blogger Sharon said...

We want to use a pony exactly the same way you do. We tap maple trees and are hoping to use a pony, mule, or donkey to help us bring the tubing up the mountains. Keep us posted on your equine adventures!

November 4, 2011 at 9:03 AM  
Blogger Kara said...

Great Post! I had a POA in high school and she was the best.

When you are considering a second pony, you may want to consider an Icelandic Horse. They are small around 13-14 hands but they can be ridden by adults. They carried the Vikings after all!

There is at least one barn in the Berkshires with Icelandic's.

November 4, 2011 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

I'm so glad Jasper is working out for you! He's got looks, brains and brawn.

November 4, 2011 at 9:21 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I saw Icelandics at the Washington County Fair!

November 4, 2011 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Kelpie and Collie said...

Might we see a paradigm shift?

November 4, 2011 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger CJ said...

Hey congratulations! That's the greatest feeling in the world.

I noticed, watching Victoria Farms, that they always led the horses instead of working them from behind. I think that was a smart decision and probably gave Jasper the reassurance everything was ok.

I realize this was a one-off event, but I would look for a heavier harness with hames and collar if you plan on doing much heavy pulling. I wouldn't want to destroy a nice cart harness pulling heavy loads and it would give Jasper more leverage.

A nice stone boat would be a good exercise and work tool for this winter.

Again, congratulations!!

November 4, 2011 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger CJ said...

Forgot the rest of my comment.

Jasper looks 110% better now than when you bought him, that was a heck of risk.

And what's that foundation and steps you are walking by in one of the pictures - that looks very interesting.

November 4, 2011 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Kat said...

I totally, totally, agree.

November 4, 2011 at 10:43 AM  
Blogger Kat said...

Jenna, did you ever consider a Morgan?

November 4, 2011 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Your demonstration with Jasper at Antlerstock looked like an every day occurrence! What a great story behind the scenes! He was so beautiful and well behaved during the entire event, he is friendly and beautiful.

Incidentally, we got our new axe yesterday and now have a lovely stack of freshly chopped wood! No log was safe from Jason. He was having so much fun that the boys were drawn to him and wanted to learn.

Last night on this city lot of 1/2 acre I was planting garlic while the boys helped chop wood. The sunset was nothing short of a masterpiece and we were all outside to take it in.

November 4, 2011 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger Kate said...


November 4, 2011 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I don't understand Julie?

November 4, 2011 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

thank you Kate, and everyone!

November 4, 2011 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger crashdown said...

Icelandics are great, but the average price for one is around $10,000!

November 4, 2011 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger E said...

You are very brave and determined! Writing so openly about your successes and struggles and taking on new projects. Be they a new farm, animals or another skill.

Hope you have an uneventful (in the best way possible), warm and snug fall and winter.

November 4, 2011 at 11:33 AM  
Blogger Valerie said...

I just wanted to tell you that this is the stuff that makes me come back to this site every day. My family and I are saving up for our own farm and have been keeping chickens for a little over a year. We grew a small garden this past summer for the first time. We love your successes, your mistakes, and your joy of learning. Your farm is a part of our daily life and we learn right along with you. Thanks for sharing with us.

November 4, 2011 at 11:45 AM  
Blogger Ngo Family Farm said...

Ditto what Valerie said :) -Jaime

November 4, 2011 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger LindaSue said...

I was making breakfast and hubby was getting ready for work. I finished reading part 2 myself and was having such a great time hubby wanted to know what I was reading. I have talked about you and the farm before to him and had read him snippets from other posts. But, this time I had to read the whole thing. He enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around. Asking me questions about you and the farm and Jasper as if you were my best friend.

And, that Jenna is what makes what you are doing and writing about so great. You just suck us all in and make us part of the farm and the animals and you. We are all family, part of your family. Thank you for that. You inspire us, make us laugh, shed a few tears, and most of all want to share in your life.

This morning I laughed, shed a tear or two over your happiness and of course "Jasper". What can I say, I love that pony too! Just as if he was mine.

So, thank you this morning from my heart. Keep it up gal. It has made my day.

November 4, 2011 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Meredith A said...

i get it.

my heart is set on a norwegian fjord.

November 4, 2011 at 12:37 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

E! thank you!

Valerie, you're making me tear up.

Thank you Jamie, Linda, Sharon, Kara...everyone.

And while those Fjords and icelandics are beautiful, I think a Fell or Haflinger might be where my heart resides. I'm small and stocky, too!

November 4, 2011 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Goat Song said...

Oh Jenna... This almost too cruel of you to tempt us like this! ;) LOL. Someday I will have a draft equine of my own. I would like a small pony, yes, but who knows? I may somehow end up with a Belgian or Percheron cross! But during this time while I am horseless, I love getting to read about your experiences with Jasper. What a spunky little guy. :)

November 4, 2011 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Kelpie and Collie said...

Just that your heart seems to be moving toward equine at least as much as ovine.........

November 4, 2011 at 2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always dreamed of having my own horse one day. And in the last few years I dreamed of having a farm. We finally got the land, and are slowly turning it into a homestead, but no equines just yet.

I never thought about having a pony - all I knew about them was you can put a kid on them, or they are pasture ornaments. Reading your story about Jasper has given me a whole new perspective on the humble pony. And now I'm thinking that it would, indeed, be a great way to do labour around the farm, and an excuse to have another equine around. Because while I love farm animals, they do have to earn their keep here. Thanks for giving me an excuse to add "working pony" to my list! (and congrats to you and Jasper for your performance at Antlerstock!!)

November 4, 2011 at 5:14 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Julie! Yes!

I think I'm a dog, sheep, and horse person. Maybe there are cat, goat, and cow people?!

November 4, 2011 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Melleah said...

Hi Jenna-I've been reading your blog for the past few months and my favorite posts are about Jasper as horses have always been my favorite animal. I grew up riding show horses, but our neighbor introduced me to his team of draft horses last winter. I am constantly amazed at the sensibility of the "working" animals versus the "show" animal. My husband and I recently bought 10 acres with a barn and I'm planning on getting one (or two) drafts in the spring.

I second your other reader-- you should buy Jasper a work harness with a collar and hames :-). You may want to think about attending a driving school- some draft horse clubs offer clinics. Speaking from experience, you gain a lot of confidence by driving different horses and teams.

November 4, 2011 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger Joleen said...

Jasper's a beauty now! Kind of reminds me a bit of the transformation of Simon at Bedlam Farm.

November 4, 2011 at 6:46 PM  
Blogger Goat Song said...

I'm not so sure you could find a "cat, goat, cow" person... ;) At least not cows and goats combined! I'm finding that you are either a cow person, or a goat person (from the dairy perspective). I'm definitely a goat person. Don't like bovines....

November 4, 2011 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

a draft harness and collar are indeed needed here, specially if we decide to keep logging. At the least I want to felt and make a pad out of the sheep[s wool here for the breast band on that light harness.

I need to figure out how to measure for a collar. has some great mini and pony sized items.

I'd like to have a working horse workshop here, but not teach it. Just host it. Kind of like what I'm doing with the emergancy prep shop here with Jim and Kathy (half full already!)

November 4, 2011 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Glyndalyn said...

Congratulations on yours and Jasper's success.

November 4, 2011 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger redbird said...

I’ve been nailed a few times (understatement) by hooves too—my family and some friends likes to kid me about the time I sported two perfect hoof shaped bruises on each thighs through basketball season in high school one year. You have me thinking working horse for sure, something I'd never considered before for some reason until seeing you and Jasper at work. I kind of have my eyes on something similar to those beautiful Suffolk Punches like at Merck Forest someday.

November 4, 2011 at 9:06 PM  

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