The nags who made life difficult remembered

A country life spent with horses had its moments, but there was relief when the animals were finally put out to pasture

WINNIPEG — I doubt Nellie the horse ever actually galloped. She just rolled up the lane once or twice a summer with my nine-year-old friend riding her bareback.

I was a year younger and totally unacquainted with horses, and stood in awe and trembling before this magnificent beast. Besides having the patience of Job, Nellie had the ambition of a sloth.

One day my friend finally convinced me that it was safe enough to go for a horseback ride. Sitting astride Nellie’s broad back while she stood still was OK, but when she started to move, I felt like an egg balancing on a domed roof during an earthquake. As the tremours increased, I rolled right off Nellie’s back and hit the ground Humpty-Dumpty-like.

Nellie promptly stopped in her tracks and reached around to nibble at my clothes with her long, grass stained teeth.

I began to panic.

Short of being trampled to death by her hoofs was the equally frightening prospect of being eaten alive. Although Nellie had no such ulterior motives, she effectively ended my riding career before it even began.

After that little episode, it was only occasionally that I wished we owned a horse, like on those lazy, hazy days of summer when my sister and I had to walk to town for groceries or to get the mail. On our way there, it never seemed like a mile, perhaps because our minds were full of anticipation. Maybe we’d find a parcel from Eaton’s mail order. Maybe we would meet some friends we hadn’t seen for a while. Maybe the storekeeper had received a new shipment of candy.

But coming home was a different story. All we could think about was the long road ahead of us, the choking dust and our tired feet. If only someone would come along and give us a ride.

One day someone did — our neighbour.

She was on the road so much with her horse and buggy, people chuckled about how many miles she got to a gallon of oats. Maybe her horse ate oats for dessert, but the afternoon we rode behind him it sounded like beans were his main course. The rhythmic expulsion of gas as he trotted along sent my sister and me into fits of giggles, giggles that we tried desperately to suppress for the sake of our Good Samaritan chauffeur. She somehow managed to maintain a perfectly straight face, a fact we found all the more amusing.

That percussive pony gave a decidedly different twist to the expression “taking the evening air.”

As if riding behind one horse was not bad enough, come time to go to school, I found myself jiggling along the road every day in a van that could best be described as a cross between a covered wagon and a gypsy caravan pulled by a team of horses. Every morning I watched with some degree of trepidation as they came up our rural lane. When my dog barked an alert, I’d pull on my boots, grab my lunch kit, sling my school bag over my shoulder and head out the door. Waiting to greet me as I crawled up the back steps into the van was an assortment of neighbouring kids ranging from age six to 16.

We sat opposite each other on narrow benches that were built along either side of the van, with the bigger boys stationed near the little wood stove in the middle of the conveyance and the driver perched up front from where he could keep both horses and kids in check.

Every season presented its own challenges for the van driver, but spring was especially fraught with danger. Afraid of getting bogged down in a late spring snowstorm, the van driver was reluctant to convert the van from sleigh runners to wheels. As a result, he continually made new trails from farm to farm, taking advantage of remaining snow banks wherever he could. It was easier for the team of horses to pull the van on runners, but sooner or later the inevitable was bound to happen. The runners would break through a rotten snow bank, and over we’d go.

Alarmed by this sudden turn of events, the horses snorted and stamped with fright while inside the capsized caravan a bunch of us upside-down travellers would be coughing and sputtering as the smoke poured out of the hole in the little tin heater where the stove pipe used to be. As soon as we all scrambled out, the big boys doused the fire with snow while the driver unhitched the horses. And then we all helped him tip the van right-side up.

The real panic was in coming late to school.

We’d straggle into classroom minus our mittens, our lunch kits dented, our textbooks torn, soot in our hair and straw stuck to our stockings and still be grilled at length by a city-bred teacher who was convinced that we were actually out having a good time rather than just having been involved in vehicle rollover and fire.

If she thought upsetting in a van was fun, she should have ridden behind a long-legged skittery steed called Archie. The team of horses that pulled our van had almost won my trust when the driver replaced the lazy old mare with young high-strung Archie, who could hear a freight train four miles distant. Since the railway ran parallel to the road, we were in for trouble three days out of five.

Archie the horse had but one goal in life — to outrun that freight train. It didn’t matter that the train was still two miles down the track when the bell rang at four o’clock. Archie was raring to go — eyes wild, nostrils flared, harness straining. On freight days, we always arrived home in half the time it ordinarily took.

My anxiety was such I secretly debated about writing the railroad company and asking it to reschedule its freight train, but it didn’t know Archie like I knew Archie, so why bother?

Within a few short years, the school vans switched to mechanical horsepower and Archie and his ilk were put out to pasture.

To my way of thinking, it was where they all belonged.

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