New Horizons Writers’ Group

Assert yourself, young man

Bob Hirt

Having been brought up on a large dairy farm with a couple teams of draft horses was a good experience for us kids. Those gentle “plugs,” as my Dad called them, were anything but a challenge. Billy and Sally were the gentlest animals one could ever imagine. If you’d stand next to Billy’s face he nuzzle you or nibble your flannel shirt. It was as though he wanted to just say something to you but couldn’t form the words in that big bulky mouth of his. Surely, he had a few thoughts to convey if only his brain would allow it!

When my Dad finished planting corn at dusk he would just unhook the team from the corn planter and slap one of them on the rump, say “Giddap” and they’d head home from the field by themselves. They’d still be hooked together with the neck yoke up front and the traces behind while he stayed back to burn the empty fertilizer bags. They knew where their next meal came from and they’d head home by themselves to the stables, often well over a half mile away. Oddly, one day when he finally got home he could not find the team he had sent on ahead. As it turns out they were out of sight at the backside of the barns by another set of doors. They instinctively ended up there because on the previous day Dad had given them a treat at that door after they had pulled a big clumsy machine out of the shed for him.

Now, living at the riding stables at the university was quite another experience for me. Draft horses and polo ponies are about as alike as apples and bananas. The temperament of the latter is something else to behold! It is rather a kind of “mind thing,” an instinct of sorts, something one apparently either has or doesn’t have – something only an experienced equestrian understands or, perhaps it is a natural part of one’s makeup.

I initially dreaded my new duty at the stables; I’d never mucked out polo ponies or any other sleek riding horses, for that matter. I quickly learned that they, with little exception, were often quite high-strung, edgy, often easily scared. Upon my walking into the first box stall, this beautiful chestnut-colored gelding, that muscle-rippled brute had sized me up in seconds. I was a rank amateur and he knew it as soon as he sensed the fear that pulsed through my very being.

I picked myself up from the straw-covered box stall floor before I fully realized that I had been leveled by a lightning-like blast of his left hind leg. Scared but unhurt I left and asked my buddy, Joe, to finish with that stall while I moved to a “safer” box stall. The next morning I unthinkingly entered that same box stall, probably even more scared than the previous day. One more time this overly-confident chestnut gelding leveled me with a precision swipe as though he had practiced the maneuver overnight.

Joe taught me something that day: animals are very quick to sense fear and they do what they need to do to protect themselves. He taught me to cover that fear offensively. On the third day we both entered the box stall at the same time. Joe took over. He brazenly took three brisk steps, smacked the horse hard on the rump and at the very same moment let loose with a barrage of swear words that were probably heard at the women’s dorm a half mile away! The horse quivered, pulled back his ears and trembled. The rest took care of itself. I never had a problem with any polo pony after that. It was not as though they all needed an authority figure; nor did they need physical action taken; they needed to sense who is in charge and I suspect most horsemen instinctively know that.

I established my country practice as a mixed animal practitioner but the bulk of my work at that time was with dairy cattle, sheep and the occasional pig or beef animal. On occasion I would do some equine work but a veterinarian not far from my own practice area loved working with horses much more than with cattle and I sometimes referred those clients to him. That way we were both happy. We each knew what we were best at!