THE TRUE STORY OF A GREAT HORSE
To my great grandmother Mary Ida who gave me horse fever.
One Finding Danny
Three The Bear
Eight A Baby Boy
Nine Separation & Reunion
Ten The Last Goodbye
We wanted to do selective cutting on our land so that the big trees grew faster and the small or crooked trees are cleared out. A friend of ours, Bill, had a French Canadian uncle who had logged all his life. He was now about eighty years old. We asked if he would take a walk in the woods with us and teach us how to cut the forest the right way. He generously accepted and Bill drove him up to the land in his pick-up truck. He got out of the truck with two canes and seemed happy to be in the woods again. He said, “You have to cut out all the trees that are overcrowded and will never amount to anything.”
With Bill at his side, he moved using his canes to a very big oak tree and leaned against it. He looked up the tree and then to us he said, “Cut the trees that are crooked and the diseased trees. It sounds harsh but it works for the forest. Stack your branches and brush, it’s good food and a home for many animals and birds. It also is safer to move through the forest when there are no tree tops to stumble on.”
We walked him back to the truck and Bill helped him into the passenger side. He leaned out of the window. His last comment was, “Trees need space to breathe and grow. When you thin out the less usable trees, there is more air and light allowed into the tree tops and more soil for the roots.” Bill drove him to the cabin where I had lunch waiting. He was a kind and wise old man who helped us a lot in that one afternoon.
Pulling a big log
A horse is perfect for selective cutting because you don’t have to cut roads for skidders or tractors and horses don’t damage the roots of standing trees. Horses also spread “manure fertilizer” through the woods as they work which helps the remaining trees to grow. A single horse zig-zags between the trees pulling the logs behind him. This is called “snaking logs” because of the wiggling path the horse must take. Usually men do this work running behind and slightly to the side of the horse. The driver runs because the horse has to lunge forward to start the heavy log moving and then trots to keep the log going. Snaking logs is difficult because there are so many things to watch out for. Drivers have to find the best path through the trees for the horse and log. They also have to watch the horse’s feet, the log, and make sure the horse doesn’t run into any trees or that they don’t hit a tree themselves.
One time we went back to the pond that Danny swam through our first night going to Edie’s house. Now we had become friends with the people who lived in the cabin on the edge of that pond. Ralph cut wood for us sometimes, Lorraine worked in a big kitchen at a school in town. They needed to get some cordwood in for heating and the snow was so deep they couldn’t get into the woods. So Danny, Bob, and I went over there to help haul in wood.
I took Dan up to the top of a small hill and turned him and asked him to back up to the load. I was hitching him up to a bundle of ten-inch trees twenty feet or so long. The snow was waist deep and I struggled to step between the load and the horse to hitch up the off-trace chain. Dan heard the trace chain rattle and lunged forward to get the load moving. My leg started to go under the wood at a bad angle. I screamed, “Whoa!” and he stopped. All the guys cutting came running. I dug my leg out of the snow and it was fine, just bruised. Bob said, “That was some yell. I thought you were hurt bad!”
“I’m fine,” I said, “I just had to scream to make Dan stop fast or I would have broken my leg.”
Bob helped me get straightened out with trace chains and reins. We went on down the hill making a path through the deep snow. The next trip up and down the hill went easier and by the end of the day all their cordwood was pulled up to their cabin.
After that incident up at Ralph and Lorraine’s, I decided Danny needed more training. I taught him to stand still. I gave him the command, “Stand,” and if he moved, I gave him a squeeze on the reins. Eventually he learned to stand still whether I was hitching him or climbing up the harness to ride.
Teaching Dan to stand still on command also worked well for my drawing. I have always drawn and painted landscapes and wanted to go places in the hills that I had never seen. Dan got so good at standing still that I was able to turn around backwards and paint watercolors on his big square rump. I had a small field set of watercolors with a small pad of paper. Dan took it to be a time to rest when I told him to “stand.”
Learning to stand still while hitching
I was lighter and smaller than most men so I decided to try riding Dan when he was hitched to a log instead of driving from the ground. I hitched Danny to a log and climbed up on him to ride out of the woods. It took many days to train him to wait for me to climb up the harness before the snap (the jump the horse does to get the load moving). When Dan heard the trace chain hooks drop into the hooks he started prancing in place and arched his neck. He had to stay in place until I was mounted to make his lunge forward. He learned fast and this method worked much better for me – I could more easily watch where we were going.
Danny was always trying to look around, ahead, and behind him. He was one of those horses that thought about what he was pulling. You could feel it in the way he moved. But he seemed to be frustrated by the blinders on the bridle. Some horses just work better without blinders. So I tried making a bridle out of rope with no blinders on it and he worked much better. The next day I cut off the blinders on his bridle with my pocket knife. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Now Danny could really see what he was doing and I had a more alert and thinking partner.
Bob and I sold about a hundred cords of firewood that first year. Some trees we cut to sell to the sawmill for boards or veneers. We could get more money for a good straight log than for cordwood. When we found a good tree that was ready to harvest, Bob cut it for the mill. Danny pulled the logs to the truck where we bucked them up for firewood or loaded the whole logs to take to the sawmill in town. Soon after getting ourselves settled into our new home, we began cutting firewood to sell. We started with the area near the cabin that we wanted to clear to start making a four-acre field. Bob cut the trees down and I stacked wood and piled the brush along the edge of the clearing. I had read about the Indians making a brush fence by weaving the branches in and out of standing small trees along the edge of a clearing. It worked pretty well keeping Dan inside the fence, although he ate the sugar maple branches from the fence. When he did get out he usually came down to the cabin and looked in the window. In winter the brush fence sagged with the weight of snow. So each spring I added new brush to it. Eventually, over five years, we selectively cut forty acres and piled all the brush, as Bill’s uncle had told us to do; it looked beautiful.
After the incident at Ralph and Lorraine’s cabin, I decided to train Danny to refine his riding cues. I needed a clear space where we could both concentrate on the lessons. I found a place loggers had used as a landing to load trucks and turn skidders and loaders around – this is called a log yard. They had worked there a few years ago and now it was grown in with grass. It was on our neighbor’s wood lot but I didn’t think anyone would mind so deep in the woods. When we had some free time I took Danny to the clearing and rode him in circles and figure eights to teach him what leg pressure meant. He was very smart and learned quickly. I trained Dan in riding signals at the clearing whenever I could. He was easy to train because whoever had originally worked with him had done such a good job that Danny really listened to what you wanted. One day, after our training session, we were on our way home when we came to the intersection of two old logging roads. One ran up the side of our swamp about a half mile and came out at the power line. I had walked it many times but we never used the road because it had at least ten trees fallen over it.
He sailed over that one and kept going, jump after jump.
I wondered if Dan liked to jump so I turned him toward the first downed log and squeezed my heels to put him in a canter. He jumped the first one easily and headed for the next downed tree which was a higher jump, about three feet. He sailed over that one and kept going, jump after jump until we reached the power line where I could stop him. My stomach had been in my throat. We were both out of breath but I was very excited to discover his hidden talent. We walked back to the cabin by way of the cleared road to cool him out.
Danny so often surprised me. Another time, I was riding Dan through the woods late one summer afternoon, just exploring the hills. We were near the Ashuelot River, famous for its rapids. I could hear it moving, not far away. We came out of the woods to a clearing covered in low bushes. The sun was going down and I wanted to find a shortcut to the road home. This looked like it, so I nudged Dan into the clearing. The ground seemed solid so we kept going. About halfway across Dan suddenly sank down to his belly in soft mud! I jumped off onto a log. We were too far from houses or phones to get help. I couldn’t think of how anything could get in here to haul Dan out of the mud. My heart pounded.
Danny’s eyes were wild. He started to shake all over violently. He neighed at me. I didn’t know what he was going to do but instinctively I jumped back on him just as he made a huge leap like a surfacing whale, out of the quagmire. I gripped his mane with both hands and let the reins loose. Mud flying everywhere, he kept taking big leaps until we were out of the bog.
Dan leaped out of the mud like a rocket.
I was so amazed at how smart and strong he was, and that he had signaled me to jump on. I was shaking when we got to the road. A few miles later we pulled up to the cabin, covered in black smelly mud. Bob ran out of the cabin, yelling “Where have you been? I was so worried!” Then his eyes got wider as he looked us over. He pinched his nose with his fingers and said, “Guess you were down by the river!”
I took Danny to the stream and threw water on him to wash off the mud and cool him off. I put him back in the corral and fed him. He looked happy to be home as he munched his grain and hay. Then I heated up water on the cookstove for a bath for myself. I was so happy that Dan and I made it home safe.
My parents were ambivalent about the way Bob and I were living but my younger brother Tyler liked to come up and stay with us. He was about fourteen when he first came to visit us. He liked to fish the streams that wound around through our woods. Sometimes he went out on Dan carrying his fishing pole backwards (so it didn’t get caught on trees) to some secluded stream and he’d bring back trout for dinner. Tyler loved the way Danny just bulled his way over small trees and brush.
One time Tyler and Danny came back covered in mud and Danny was lame. Tyler was crestfallen, apologizing for hurting my horse. He said he had been riding through a muddy area when all of a sudden Dan sank down to his belly in mud, he couldn’t get out. Tyler was scared and didn’t know what to do, when all of a sudden Dan started to shake. I already knew the rest of the story. Tyler said it was like being on top of a volcano that was about to blow. And he did – Dan leaped out of the mud like a rocket and kept leaping to get out of the swamp. Dan was a little lame when they got home. Nothing serious. Like times before, I put liniment on him every day for a week and he was fine.
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