Vagneur: A well-coordinated production
Metal, leather and chains fairly well make up a set of horse harness, and when a team of draft horses is at work, the sound of all three interacting makes up a delicious sound that is impossible to duplicate in any other fashion. Add to that the four-beat clump of equine hooves and it’s a cacophony of resonance addicting to the ear.
Probably like every other ranch kid, I wanted to be a teamster in the worst way. I reckon I was about 5 or 6 years old when my dad finally relented and tossed me onto the back of a huge, dark bay mare named Queenie and told me to take her and her partner out to the wagon waiting on the other side of Woody Creek. It’s another world up there on a draft horse’s back, one I will never forget.
I was used to riding my good ol’ saddle horse Stardust around the place, and that was one thing, but I was totally surprised and unprepared for the immense width of Queenie’s back, the impenetrable, thick depth of her black mane and, more than anything else, the easy, powerful stride of her walk as we jangled along. Her partner walked beside us, the both of them naturally going to the wagon out of habit, and that impressed me as much as anything.
I was hooked, and had to be reminded by my dad that draft horses were for pulling, not riding. Historically, I barely got in on the tail end of “horse power,” true, original horse power, but I got just enough of a taste that the memories will never leave me.
Imagine a cool July morning on the Woody Creek ranch during haying season, about 7 a.m. when things are just starting to warm up. Harness and collars were hung high in the tack room on pegs — a set for each of the 10 or 12 draft horses — and names weren’t necessary over the pegs. The hands knew from experience and repetition which went where, and if they forgot, the man next to them would point out the mistake. While the horses devoured homegrown oats in their stalls, the men harnessed them up for a day’s work.
A couple of teamsters (and their horses) might head out to the mowing machines where they’d left them the evening before. Unlike me, the little kid, they walked behind the teams, giving the horses every chance to put their energies into the work ahead.
Another group of men would head out with more horses, maybe two teams of steeds designated for pulling the buck rakes, which pushed the loose hay to the stack; another couple of horses would run the stacker, an apparatus run by cables that would pick up the hay brought to it by the buck rakes and toss it onto the top of the haystack the men were building. (This device was generally operated by the youngest member of the crew, maybe as young as 10 or 11, and could just as easily be a girl or a boy.) One or two men had to stand on top of the growing stack of hay, using pitch forks to keep the parameters of the mound in acceptable fashion.
While all this was going on, another man would probably be out in a field that had been hayed the day before, pulling a dump rake with a couple of horses. The dump rake picked up hay inadvertently missed earlier and dumped it into big windrows, awaiting the return of the buck rakes. That way nothing was wasted.
To those fortunate enough to watch, it was a well-coordinated production that went smoothly most of the time. For those who participated, it soon became obvious that the horses knew almost as much about their jobs as did the men giving them direction, sometimes even more.
Compare those days of haying when it took eight to 10 men (and 10 to 12 horses) on a 1200 acre ranch to put up hay, with today, when in a good year, one man can do it all by himself with modern equipment, although he usually prefers a couple of hired hands to help him, no horses.
No horses? We’ve lost something with our rapid technological advances, one of the most glaring being our association with the animal world. Through working animals, we learn patience, cooperation, teamwork and love. An old saying goes something like, “A true horseman doesn’t look at the horse with his eyes, he looks at the horse with his heart.” That goes for teamsters, too. And so we stumble onward.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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