Vagneur: Trusting your workers

At the sound of grain hitting the feed boxers they come, two by two, huge feet stealthily shaking the ground as they walk, quiet, deep and curious eyes looking for anything different from the last time they passed through. With a soft nuzzling of each other, they sidle up to their feeders, each one knowing its place from the day before.

You don’t see them much anymore, those giant draft horses that used to pull the winter feed sleds, brutes with names like Queen, Tony, Pearl, Tom, Blue, Betty, Ted, Sally, Charlie, Pete, Pat, King, Silver and Scout. Steady, solid, scary marvels all at once, producing far more horsepower than their individual count, they loved to pull and did it as seriously as a businessman calculates change.

It takes a strong man to throw a harness set over the back of a large draft horse, and it doesn’t hurt to be a little on the tall side, either. Leather and metal — meticulously engineered and designed over thousands of years — it all blends together in a suit of marvelous sounds and an incredibly simple but powerfully relevant conception.

Hook a pair of those big, proud bruisers together with the lines, and suddenly the world changes. The seemingly disinterested beasts come alive at full attention, and as you drive them across the tongue of the sled to be pulled, you’d better be quick at hooking them up. They can see you in front of the blinders while you slide the neck yoke into place, and then they give you a couple of breaths’ grace period as you slip behind them to hook the heel chains to the doubletree. If you’re a little slow or hesitant, they’ll fight back against your clumsiness and make you wish you were better at your job. Once hooked up, they know it, and they’re ready to fire — grab the lines and brace yourself, for a powerful ride is just beginning. They can pop a sled forward with a force that is astonishing.

Through the government, we did everything we could to eliminate passenger trains, trolley cars and buses, all in genuflection to the automobile. Now on twisting heels, we covet high-speed light-rail systems and do everything we can to encourage bus ridership.

Likewise, farm-equipment manufacturers quit producing horse-drawn machinery in the 1920s, jumping on the bandwagon to salute the gasoline-powered tractor. It is impossible to buy a brand-new, horse-pulled hay mower, grain drill or other implement now, unless it’s home-made, and those who need such equipment are relegated to farm sales and hodgepodge intertwining of parts from different manufacturers.

Today, one man, sitting in the heated cab of a diesel-powered tractor, listening to Sirius XM on his multi-disc radio, can feed a thousand cows before noon. Two men on a horse-drawn winter feed sled could never do as well, not in the same time frame, but those men will be more in tune and responsive to the natural thread of life that surrounds them. Frost-induced, glowing red cheeks will frame the big smile they flash when your visage comes into view.

It’s a dance, working with draft horses. A good teamster has to appreciate the abilities of his steeds and must know how to get his charges to respond together as one, in tune and motivated, whether it’s two-up, four-up or more. Otherwise his task is defeated. Horses study the man behind the lines, hidden from their view by the blinders on their headstalls; they learn to know his mood and can gauge his attention level just by the feel they have in the lines between his hands and their mouths. A feather-light touch will sometimes yield surprising results.

Like so many things in life, trust, understanding and caring are what make it all come together in a well-choreographed scene of vivacity. And, when at last the final sled is pulled, when their setting sun finally claims these gentle giants, the men who have known and loved them cry out their names in silent respect, surviving partners of cherished horses that will never be forgotten.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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