Farm Entertainment and The Winter Workhorse

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, our workhorses have a nice long lull in the winter. There is a little bringing in of firewood, and a little sap-gathering, but for about two months, our three horses get to loll about in their winter paddock.

They have plenty to eat, with three meals a day, and they have each other as company, and they can go in and out of shelter at will. But in the slow time, our horses seem to like a little something fun to do.

For example, when our kitty comes into the paddock, the horses think of a fine activity: Let's chase the kitty around! Luckily the kitty is fast, agile, and small: she ducks under the barn doors to safety, and peers at the horses' big feet.

Then again, when our nice relatives come visit us just before the New Year, the horses get the treat of a highly alarmed young Border collie on a leash. Who is this tiny shivering barking creature? The horses are not at all alarmed, and since our relatives also have two young children, along with their young dog, we put halters on the horses and give the children a ride around the paddock.

The five and three year old love it, and Molly, who is a very friendly horse, seems pretty happy too. Moon, however, is a little shyer, and wonders what exactly is happening, as the three year old is stretched flat out, in a most unriderly fashion. Moon flicks his ears back and forth nervously.

“He wants to know who's on his back,” I say to my little niece. “Will you say hello to him?” My niece is a very friendly, cheerful, even boisterous little being, usually perfectly willing to let out a good holler, but now she looks at me big-eyed and silent. Her mother, who is walking beside the horse, with a firm grip on her girl's leg, says, “Can you say hi to Moon, honey?”

In the smallest voice I have ever heard from her, my niece says,“Hi.” Not even “Hi, Moon.” Just a tiny little squeak of “Hi.”

Happily, this whisper seems to reassure that Moon that he does not have a panther on his back ready to devour him, and he relaxes a little. Then my fellow farmer and I, who are leading the horses, indulge in some fancy synchronized riding. We make diagonals, and circles, keeping pace with one another, and meeting in the middle. The horses are standing next to each other, and the little boy and the little girl reach way way way out over the big hairy horse bellies and hold hands, in a grand finale.

We pet our nice horses. “Wasn't that some good winter fun?” we say. They hang around until the petting peters out, and then go work on the hay in the mangers.

Of course, the horses' favorite winter fun activities always involve food. There are the Brussels sprouts and cababage and broccoli stalks we pull up in December, and dump in the paddock. The horses come right over to investigate, loving any little bit of fresh green during the hay season. They work all the stalks over with their teeth, and then they work them over with their feet, which is exactly what we were hoping would happen, since it breaks the stalks down for the compost pile.

As the snow gets deeper, we work in the greenhouses, pulling out dead basil and tomato vines. But the best is when we pull out the old pepper plants. There is so much snow that we can't use a wheelbarrow anymore, so we pile the dead plants on a length of plastic and slide them across the snow to the horses' paddock. This is highly exciting, as you can imagine.

The horses prance, they snort, they arch their necks, they prick their ears. This despite the fact that their paddock is right next door to the flopping, snapping in the wind plastic greenhouse, at which they normally don't bat an eye, and despite the fact that they see us work with heaps of dead plants all winter long.

But dead plants on a sheet of plastic! Coming right into the paddock! Now this is some fun! Everybody's got a fine excuse to run around in high spirits. When we dump the plants off the plastic, the horses converge. Let's see, what yummy little bits of fresh grass or weeds are all tangled up in these dead plants? What a great project!

Best of all is when the farmers start sorting their food stored in the root cellar along about February. All kinds of yummy things make it to the paddock: wrinkled carrots, brown apples, tired turnips. The farmers tuck them into odd places, for a curious horse to find. It doesn't take long. But then again, the time for lolling doesn't take long, either, and soon we'll all be back to work, horses and farmers both, instead of making up fun, highly sustainable ways to entertain each other.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Feb 14- Feb 20, 2018

Farmhorse Escapade

Occasionally we vegetable farmers briefly slip away from the garden during the high season. We know this is a crazy thing to do, but we sure hate to miss a nephew's graduation or a mother's birthday. Even though we are gone less than 24 hours, we are pretty sure what we'll find when we get back: the weeds will have grown to gargantuan heights, the greenhouses will have been open for the 4 inches of torrential rain, our kitty will be desperate to get back outside, and our horses . . . well, our horses will be safe and happy in their pasture paradise, flush with grass and water. Right?

Wrong. Recently, after a visit to relatives, we returned to our farm at about four in the afternoon. There were many messages on our answering machine:

6:07 a.m. Hi there, sorry to call so early, this is your neighbor, right down the hill from you. We're pretty sure your horses are down here, they're heading out to the street. We wanted to let you know, we're keeping an eye on them, and . . . oh, they're walking out onto South Village Road right now. They're pretty big horses, and we're pretty sure they're yours. Hope you get this message soon.

“Oh, no, oh no!” My fellow farmer is ready to race out the door, panic and despair on his face. We both have instant, terrible visions of traffic accidents on the main road, people and horses hurt.

“Wait, wait!” I say, “There's five more messages! Anything could have happened! They could be anywhere!” Oh please, I am thinking, please, please, let everything be all right.

6:36 a.m. Hey guys, this is your neighbor down the hill, I believe you already have a message from my wife regarding your horses. I'm currently following them, just hanging out with them. I don't really know what to do or how to bring them home, but my cell phone number is …. Hopefully you'll get this and give me a call and I'll let you know where your beautiful horses are.

These two messages are from our brand-new nice neighbors, trying to help us out. We are slightly reassured. Someone is keeping an eye on our wandering horses, someone is hanging out with them, someone even thinks they are beautiful, as we do.

7:11 a.m. Hey guys, your horses are out and were down the road. Somebody's bringing them back up, I believe.

This is a voice we immediately recognize: our long-time nice neighbors, still helping us out after all these years. They let us make hay in their fields, and our horses graze their pastures, too. In fact, when our horses do get out, they usually go straight to this neighbors' field (or lawn, more often) and make themselves at home, a safe and friendly place, thank goodness (and thank the neighbors). And if someone is bringing the horses back up, that's got to be good.

7:16 a.m. Hey there, our neighbor just called saying that somebody stopped down to the village store thinking that your horses were out. I didn't know if you guys were home or what the deal was, but give me a shout.

This message is from one of our nice CSA members, who lives right down in the village, where the horses-are-out word is spreading fast, apparently. We are a little embarrassed, but mighty grateful. There are many eyes looking out for our horses.

And then we listen to the last message, again from our long-time neighbor:

7:23 a.m. So your horses are over here in our pasture when you get this message. Bye.

We sag, nearly weeping with relief. Our horses are safe and sound. There have been no traffic accidents, no one hurt. We start calling everyone back, thanking them for all their concern and effort on behalf of local farmers and farmhorses. We find out that yet another villager, one who also has draft horses, drove by, called his spouse, and then she drove up with halters. Our beautiful, naughty horses were amenable to the project of being led from the road back up to our nice neighbor's pasture, where they are happily ensconced once again.

Later that evening, we take a walk around our farm. We find the horses' tracks in the barnyard and stable, where they could have stayed happily in the shade and out of the bugs. We find their tracks into and out of all of our hayfields, which have not yet been cut for hay, and where they could have stayed happily eating lots of grass. Of course, they could have also stayed happily at the neighbors' barn and grass. It appears that the horses just decided to have a little walkabout, and visit the whole neighborhood.

We farmers are thankful indeed for the whole neighborhood, indeed for the whole community: a community which cares about loose horses, and which also has halters big enough to fit them; a community which makes it possible for us to take a tiny break from farming, and come back to farming; a community which we help sustain and which helps sustain us.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, August 2-8, 2017

The Itching Post

Our work horses have a high old time in the late spring. They are out on green grass, which causes much equine glee, evidenced by all the kicking, running, rolling, and munching. The early spring horse work is finished, and the summer horse work hasn't quite started, so our horses spend the days at leisure in the pasture. 

Actually, they spend the nights at leisure in the pasture. During the days, they are at leisure in the cool, bug-free stable. Every morning, the horses come up to the gate for deliverance from pasture heaven, which has been slightly compromised by all the biting bugs.

The horses swish their tails and stomp their feet, and gaze meaningfully in our direction, waiting to be brought into the barn. We keep an eye out for the meaningful gaze and an ear out for the stomping hooves, because if we miss the gaze and the stomp, there will be be horses galloping and gasping and sweating and swearing at the flies. If we still miss their meaning, there will be horses busting through the gate and making their own non-leisurely way to the cool, bug-free stable.

This occasional gate-crashing is more of an emergency escape, caused by the lack of complete farmer attention on horse comfort, and is thus excusable. However, our bug-bitten steeds have another habit that we farmers find a little more daunting.

This is the Itching-All-Bug-Bites-on-Whatever's-Handy habit. This is also understandable, given the extreme itchiness of bug bites, for humans and horses alike, but it does cause some consternation for the farmers. We are not keen on being the Whatever's Handy, and we discourage horses from scratching their large selves on our small selves (though it's certainly nice to groom an itchy horse, because she or he is in such bliss).

Normally the horses wander at will in and out of their stalls, itching themselves on mangers or water troughs instead of people, or ambling around to check the bug situation. Still buggy? Back in their stalls they hurry. Usually this system works well, but recently we discovered that an ambling itchy horse had decided to test out the post that holds up the lean-to roof. Not as a hitching post, mind you, but as an itching post.

And, heck, when a big horse behind starts itching itself on a post, what happens?

The post comes loose, that's what happens. Then a busy springtime farmer doesn't have time to fix the post right away, so he or she decides to halter the horses and tie them in the stalls for the day, so the post situation doesn't get any worse.

However, the farmer forgets that one of the snaps on the ties periodically despairs of its duty, thus releasing an itchy horse to amble. The itchy horse finds the wobbly post, and itches some more. The post gets looser and looser. Another horse, dismayed by the lack of his escaped buddy's company, breaks his snap entirely and goes out, also to amble and itch.

Thus the post comes down completely, as a dismayed farmer discovers later in the day. The horses are returned to their stalls, the snaps are jerry-rigged, and the farmer also ties a piece of baling twine behind the horses, as a suggestion that they not back up and escape, a suggestion that they kindly honor.

Then for a fun change of pace from planting, plowing, weeding, and watering, the farmers replace the concrete footing, and prop up the sagging roof with a tire jack and a four by four. We position the heavy post, which won't fit exactly in the right place, so we stick it another likely spot, true to our usual busy farmer carpentry efforts.

My fellow farmer balances on a wobbly ladder with a drill, and I stand under the wobbly ladder, holding the heavy post and whimpering, wondering when the jack is going to kick out again and knock over the four by four, the wobbly ladder, my fellow farmer, the drill, the heavy post, and me.

Happily indeed, the jack does not kick out again, and my fellow screws in the post and we step back and admire our work.

It is a short period of admiration, an admiration bordering on disbelief, since the post is very very very crooked. But by then it is after seven o'clock and we haven't had any supper and we are hungry and the horses are hungry and we give up for the day. We take our horses out to pasture, where they are very gleeful, kicking, running, rolling, and munching. Which is right where we started in this itchy busy sustainable farming story, and a fine place to end.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 21 - 28, 2017

Words for the Workhorse

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, we've been farming with draft horses since the beginning. We've worked with several teams, in various combinations, and each team, and each horse, has its own charms and quirks. Mostly we say nice things to our charming, quirky horses. Sometimes we say other things. 

Take Ben, for example, one of our black Percherons, who is our biggest, youngest, goofiest horse, born here on the farm in 2002. He likes to drink from the end of the water hose, and he likes to flip the hose right out of the trough. “Oh, Benny!” we moan, “For crying out loud, how are you going to get water to drink if it's all running down the driveway?”

We might also say to Benny, on a fine spring morning,“Oh, you big, beautiful shiny horse, I bet you're ready to plow!” And he is. He is a fine, strong, steady horse, and we tell him so. He is also a fine, strong, steady horse with mighty big feet.

When it's time to cultivate the narrow pathways of the garden, we are more likely to say, “Gees, Benny, every time you wiggle your big fat foot, you step on a plant!” Benny is pretty unconcerned about our little lettuce or broccoli transplants; in fact, he has finally trained the people around here to choose a different horse to cultivate, a horse with nice little feet.

A horse with nice little feet comes walking right over in the barnyard. It is Molly, our lovebug, a sweet Belgian looking for someone to scratch her chin. She is a dear to work around in the stable, and we croon in her ears: “What a good horse, oh, what a nice good lovey-dovey horse.”

Molly is also a hard worker. She is quite the peppy stepper in harness, instantly ready for anything, quite often more than even the teamster is ready for. “Easy, Molly,” we say. “Walk. Easy. Walk. Easy,” in slighter louder and more convincing tones each repetition. Molly is also not fond of big branches catching on the machinery she's hauling, which puts even more spring into her step. “Holy smokes,” we might say, “What are you trying to do, Molly? Win the race? Or just lose the hayloader, haywagon, and haypeople?”

Molly likes to work best with her Belgian brother Moon, though we sometimes wonder why this is so. Moon has learned all the tricks of the draft horse trade, including lagging behind when there's a hard pull up a slope, and tucking ahead when there's a long downhill, which is the very time he's supposed to be helping hold the machinery from careening forward.

“Step up, Moon, step up!” we encourage. Moon flicks his ears at us, and sometimes his tail: oh these pesky humans, always yakking about something.

Moon is our most elegant horse, with his flowing blonde mane and tail, and his long neck. He also has the unusual and marvelous habit of stopping short when he is alarmed in harness, rather than galloping away. “Good boy,” we say, “Good good good wonderful marvelous fantastic horse,” we say, as we work out whatever noisy machinery disaster has befallen.

Betsy, our other black Percheron, is our retired mare, and was known in her younger years for her snorting, wiggling ways, which occasionally actively contributed to one of those machinery disasters. We said a few stern words to her in her time, such as, “Betsey! What the heck are you doing! Whoa means Whoa! Not lurch ahead and break the mowing machine on a big rock!”

Now Betsy has mellowed into the unflappable auntie. Mostly these days we say “Wow, Betsey!” instead of “Whoa, Betsey!”

Two by fours falling from a great height directly in front of her? No worries. Betsey keeps drinking from the trough. Sapling catches under the saddle as we take a little ride through the woods? No problem. She keeps trotting along as the sapling rips out from under the saddle. Other three horses racing around the paddock in horror at an approaching front-end loader? No big deal. Betsy chews hay, unperturbed, at the manger.

“Wow, Betsey,” we say. “You are some horse.” Betsy nods her head agreeably as she chews. She is some horse. And so are the rest of' 'em. We sure like to tell 'em so.
Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Aug 3-9, 2016