A Sunday Drive
That picture of me and Merlin was taken right before we hitched up. When I look at it, its hard to remember the girl from March who was basically terrified of that beautiful horse. I never felt threatened by his character, he's never even tried to hurt me (and trust me, he could if he wanted to). I was scared of the whole idea of him. Getting on a horse is an act of trust very different than getting in your car or walking across an intersection. They aren't machines, and even the most pleasant animal can have an off day. When I started with Merlin taking lessons in an arena I was constantly worried about that variable, about the possibility of being hurt, thrown, or hurting him. Now if you come over to the farm for a trail or cart ride you see a woman comfortable and confident, but quietly respectful. I know Merlin the way I know my dogs now. I understand his needs, his emotions, his attitude. We went from being a student rider on an out of shape horse to being a team. It took months, a riding stable, outside trainers, friends like Patty and Brett, and an entire club. This is what I talk about when I write about the Tein-Eigan, the Need Fire. A community is what creates an individual and the individual is just a spark of that community. Yesterday I rode bright as a candle. It took a village.
We met at the Arlington Grange at 9:30 Am for the pancake breakfast before the ride. For six dollars a heaping plate of blueberry pancakes, sausage, potatoes, and biscuits and gravy were served up. We drank strong coffee and poured Vermont Maple syrup over our flapjacks. I was sharing a seat next to my friends Melina and Robert who had come up from the weekend to camp along the river, and joined us on a whim. They never plan it, but both of them always make it to Cold Antler when the horses are out. Melina and Robert were with me the day I first met Merlin. They helped move locust logs out of my back pasture with Jasper. I was happy they were here to join for my first ride out with the team. It was fitting.
Robert seemed happy with his twist of fate, pouring syrup as he talked about horses and their plans to buy some land up here. Patty was seated a table over with the Vollkommer's and their extended family. The Vollkommers, Craig and Karen, drive a team of big Belgians in a beautiful wagon. Most members of the Washington County Draft Animal Association drive big teams, but there are a few of us with just a single horse rig. On this particular ride there would be a few solo equine acts. There was Merlin and me, Patty and Steele, and a woman from Warrensburg with a huge Suffolk Punch stallion in a heart-embellished harness. They looked like something out of a fairy tale. I did a lot of gawking.
It didn't take long to get the little red cart out of the back of my pickup. Patty helped me carry it over to where Merlin and Steele were tied to her 18-foot long trailer. Since I don't own a trailer yet, I depend on Patty for any transportation of the horse sort. Today she carried Steele, Merlin, and her beautiful wooden Meadowbrook cart in the trailer, tugged by her trusty Toyota Sequoia. Patty was like a mother hen with me, she seemed nervous enough for both of us. I wasn't worried at all but that was only because I was so comfortable with Merlin and with the road. Patty and her young Percheron started out learning driving together, and it was a lot harder and greater an accomplishment then buying a horse trained to hitch up and go like I did. She and Steele worked for years to get to this point and sometimes it was downright scary when Steele spooked when they started out. I adored her for this kind of care and concern she had, even if it was subconscious. But I knew I was in good hands. Driving Merlin in a light cart was like asking Peyton Manning to pass you a Nerf ball. Patty tied a sunflower and ribbons in Steele's white tail and then shrugged and smiled at me. "Now I have something to look at on the road."
I smiled too. Everyone was smiles. All around us horses were being groomed and fawned over, harness hames raised over heads and set on strong backs. People who came for the breakfast walked around and asked questions and pet our horses. I felt so proud to be a member of the club, so grateful for the blue skies and happy faces.
Steele looked magical and grand, something to behold. His 1800 pounds of muscle and energy tipped with a sunflower was ready for an oil painting. Merlin had a single goose feather tied in his mane, long and gray against the black mane with white stands poking through. When our horses were groomed, we got them tacked up and did some light ground work before attaching the lines and cart. Before I knew it I was sitting there amongst the big horses and wagons, waiting for our turn to join the parade. Herb, one of the older and more experienced teamsters in the club who had a pair of Percheron/Belgian crosses in blue-accented show harnesses came by to do a final check on my harness and rig. He nodded approval and slapped me on the shoulder. He wished me luck with a smile.
"This is it, M," I said to him, quietly so no one else could hear, "Do your best, be safe, know how much I love you, you big lug." and I asked him to walk. He did as I asked, like I knew he would. I kissed and flicked the reins and he trotted. If there was any fear to be had it wasn't mine. Merlin was as smooth and calm as could be. He didn't care about cars passing him, or dogs running out under his feet, or the team of big greys behind us. He just kept up the trot and rolled along the river road. I felt like Gandalf in his pony cart, or some character from the Emberverse books. How did I get here? How the hell was I lucky enough to be out with a beautiful Celtic pony on a sunny autumn day in a smart looking cart? I am not that heavy of a load for a Fell Pony, but I have no idea how he was able to haul that much gratitude for eight miles. It must have weighed 20 stone, at least. We rode along River Road for four miles. I was alone for that first part, just Merlin and I. I fell in line a few carts behind Patty and Steele, with Jan and her team of Haflingers between us. Ray, Jan's husband stood up in their big wagon and shouted back at my cart. He me if I wanted a club member to ride with me? I said we were doing fine. We were. I felt as comfortable as could be behind that big black ass. His crinkled tail swished and his ears flicked back and front listening to the bells and trotting hooves all around us. Merlin didn't even break a sweat the whole ride out. This was a different pony from the one I met who couldn't canter without needing to gag. He stood tall in our gear, used as it was. As he walked and made his way east I kept looking past the river over to Route 313. It was the road I took to work every single weekday not too long ago. It was busy, and cars rushed on towards their weekend plans at a clip our horses could never match. And to watch that from a pony cart on a dirt road was pretty darn neat, and sobering. It was like reading an obituary of a past life I once had. I don't miss those commutes to 313, but I do miss aspects of that life, the people and the memories. Without looking again I asked Merlin to step up and tapped his rump with the whip when he was slow to respond. He picked up his pace and I just looked forward from then on.
We took a break in a small field near the West Mountain Inn, near the town proper of Arlington. I watched Mike's team of Haflingers (we have two teams of these great working ponies) come around a bend and I saw a familiar face! Phil Monahan and his daughter Claire were in a wagon! I waved, thrilled to see them. They had seen my post on Facebook and came down to the Grange, not expecting a ride but happily joining in. I asked Claire if she wanted to ride back with Merlin and I and she literally jumped up and down. I had my first passenger, a second grader. She hopped up and off we went.
We joined the faster moving group for the ride back. Jan's Haflingers lead the way at a near canter and Patty followed with proud Steele holding his head high in a trot. Not to be outdone, we trotted right behind and made the four-mile trip back in about thirty minutes! Merlin was sweating now, but just. He was in the best shape of his life this summer and it showed. Claire talked the whole time about her friends, and horses, and her brother and life in Sandgate. She was great company and mighty brave. She helped me with Merlin's tack afterward and get water for his bucket.
With the teams back, the sun warm, and appetites awake we headed into the Grange to do what we do best as members of the WCDAA: eat. We filled plates once again, this time with chowders and buttered bread, mac-n-cheese and meatballs, and all sorts of cakes and desserts. Everyone, passenger to teamster, seemed thrilled with the event. Nothing went wrong, the weather was perfect, and the food as plentiful as heaven's own rain. I sat back in my folding wooden chair and looked around the room, at these people I didn't even know existed just a few months before. Here I was, a part of something and an accomplished driver. Outside on a trailer a black horse was eating hay next to a big white Percheron and no matter how many times I pinched myself I would not wake up from the dream. He was real. The day was real. I took a sip of my cold drink and joined back into the race of conversation.
Yeah. I felt full.