On Horses, Healing, and Escaping: Memories from the Morgan Horse Farm
By Chloe Ferrone
Three days a week this J term, I’ve been waking up early. Not because I am a morning person, but because I’m a horse person. More specifically, I am a volunteer at the UVM Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, Vermont. It’s one of those decisions that makes sense to me except for when my alarm goes off. But off it does go, on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday mornings.
My day starts in a flurry of putting on layers. Wool leggings under jeans. A base layer, sweater, then my black North Face jacket. Two pairs of socks. Hat, gloves, muck boots. I always wear the same clothes when I go to the farm; it makes doing laundry easier when you’ve only got one set of horsey smelling clothes to wash. I dress quickly, trying to convince myself that I’m ready to be awake this early. Sometimes I brush and braid my hair but today is a ponytail-and-baseball-cap sort of day. Then it’s down the stairs and out the door into the blue morning light.
The air is frigid and I breathe deeply, each lungful searing my throat and freezing the insides of my nostrils. I pass only one or two other students as I walk to my car. Almost everyone else on campus is still asleep. The car engine starts a little stiffly, as if it too is not ready to wake up. A few minutes of scraping frost off the windshield later, and I’m ready to head out to the farm. My stiff fingers jab at the radio buttons, flicking through radio waves in search of a decent song to carry me through my early-morning tiredness.
I got involved at the Morgan Horse Farm only recently, back in November. But even in the short amount of time I have been going, it’s become a ritual of sorts, a natural addition to the chaos of my life. Because today, and every other day I make this drive, everything else becomes unimportant and there is a certain peacefulness at the farm that I’m hard pressed to find anywhere else.
When I was in fifth grade, I was a member of the Rainbow Riders 4H club, and I remember I had to give a presentation to the whole club in order to move up to the next level. I have since forgotten what the leveling up system even was, but I distinctly remember the presentation because I had never been so nervous about doing something in my life. The presentation was on horse therapy. Mostly I focused on the physical benefits from horse therapy: people recovering from injuries, or children with diseases like cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, could benefit from riding horses and doing stretching exercises from the back of a horse. But I neglected to inform my fellow 4H members of the psychological benefits that horse therapy could bring. I guess it was mostly a no-brainer for us: being around horses always made you feel better.
I remember sometime after I’d given that presentation my club leader, a wonderful woman by the name of Lori Wiseman, told me that everyone has their addictions. She said sometimes people are addicted to bad things like drugs or alcohol; other times a person’s addiction is a positive thing, a life passion. She told me that horses were her passion.
“If I didn’t have horses,” she said, “I would go crazy. These guys keep me out of the bars and out of trouble.” She was joking, of course, but the sentiment rings true. Horses, to those who are around them and keep them, are a source of sanity, a way to stay grounded.
Ten years later, I remember her words as I drive out to the farm. Horses are my source of sanity, too. I don’t stop to consider it very often but there’s a part of me that knows that if I hadn’t found my way to this farm I would be in real trouble. A few days ago Steve, the director of the farm and the man responsible for its daily upkeep, said to me, “Chloe, you don’t know how good it is to have your help around here.”
And I smiled and didn’t say anything. But I was thinking, and you don’t know how much of a help it is for me to be here. Mostly I appreciate the way my mind goes numb to the rest of what’s happening in my life as I work around the horses. Especially this J term: the worse things got in my personal life, the more time I would spend at the farm.
When you pull into the driveway that curves around the broad, sweeping lawn, the first thing you see is the great white Victorian-style barn. To me it looks more like a house than a place to keep horses. There is also a large bronze statue of the first Morgan horse, a handsome stallion by the name of Figure, overlooking the spacious grounds.
The history of the Morgan breed is an interesting one, and it all started with the paying of a debt. Once upon a time, there was a man named Justin Morgan. Originally from West Springfield, Massachusetts, Morgan was a man of many talents and careers. He was farmer who also bred and raised horses. He was a musician and composer who travelled up and down New England, teaching and conducting at various music schools. He served as a tax collector, and at one time, he even owned and operated a tavern. And in 1792, in the small town of Randolph, Vermont, Morgan received a colt named Figure as payment from one of his debtors, along with two other horses. It is unclear what the debt was for, but at the time there was a practice paying small debts with livestock, and since Morgan was known as a horse breeder and stallioneer, this would not have been unusual. Whatever the debt had been, the result was that Justin Morgan had three new horses on his hands, one of which would be the founding sire of a line of horses that possessed a mix of endurance, grace, and athleticism that would end up catching young America’s eye.
Figure was a wonderfully versatile horse. He was used for riding, harness racing, logging, pulling, and even for reviewing troops as a cavalry mount by one of his later owners, Colonel John Goss. In 1817, Figure served as a parade mount for President James Monroe. His friendly disposition, his eagerness to please, and his willingness to work, combined with his unique abilities and distinguished features, set Figure apart as the wonder-horse of the day. He was said to be able to “outwalk, outtrot, outrun, and outpull” every horse he was matched against. Most importantly, each time he was bred, Figure’s genes were dominant in the foal, which meant that his athleticism and looks were passed on to his descendants, creating the second true American horse breed. (The first American breed was the Narragansett Pacer, which is now extinct.)
The funny thing is that although Figure is known to have been owned by at least nine other men, he is most famously remembered as “the Justin Morgan horse”—the name of his first owner stuck, and the new breed was referred to as the Morgan horse.
Although Morgan lived in Randolph, it was Weybridge Vermont that became the center of the breed’s historic location, due to the efforts of Colonel Joseph Battell, of Middlebury. The farm was started and owned by Battell, who loved the breed and who created the first breed registry. In 1907, Battell gave the farm to the USDA, and the government operated the farm for over forty years. Then, in 1951, the farm was transferred to the ownership of the Vermont Agricultural College, now the University of Vermont, or UVM, which continues to operate the farm and the breeding program.
I pull around the circle drive and park the car, then walk up to the great sliding wooden doors where Steve, dressed in his usual flannel, jeans, and rubber boots has just emerged.
“Hullo Chloe!” Steve greets me with his usual grin. He tucks a pair of gloves into his fleecy vest and adjusts his glasses.
“Hey, Steve.” He has this wonderfully endearing way of wearing his Carhartt stocking hat over his baseball cap, a fashion trend that I’m not confident enough to attempt.
“Beauuutiful morning, eh? Why don’t you start up at the remount barn, get those ladies up there fed. You can take the pickup. I’ll be downstairs.” And with that, he turns and heads back inside, down the ramp to the lower barn.
When you meet Steve for the first time, it’s pretty clear that horses—especially these ones here at the Morgan Horse Farm—are his life’s passion. When he was seven years old, Steve’s family moved to Middlebury, and his love of horses was fueled by the mentorship of his neighbor, Bob Baker, who was a breeder and trainer with close ties to the Morgan Horse Farm. Steve spent countless afternoons tagging after Bob, helping with chores and training. He is a self-described “barn rat,” and his avid interest in the farm led him to attend the University of Vermont in Burlington, where he studied animal science. After he graduated, he came back to Weybridge and got a job at the farm, working his way up the administrative system until he eventually became the director.
But even as the director, Steve works alongside his crew of staff, mucking stalls with us, and he is probably the hardest worker among us. It’s taken him many years to reach the position he’s in now, but even though he has been working here for a long time, he seems to treat each new day with as much energy and enthusiasm as someone much younger and much newer to the job. I often catch myself yawning with morning grogginess and wondering how the hell he manages to do it.
I jump in the truck and drive a little way up the dirt road to the Remount barn, which is a separate, smaller barn with a small paddock behind it. It’s where the pregnant mares are kept; they stay inside at night, and outside during the day if isn’t too cold. My job up here is to give them grain, bring hay down from the loft and spread it in the paddock, and then turn the mares loose.
Perhaps one of my favorite parts of being at the farm is the soft whinnies of greeting as I slide the barn doors open. I know they’ll greet any potential food-giver this way, but it still feels like a special hello.
“Good morning, mamas! Time for food!”
Hooves banging impatiently against stall doors echo through the barn as I wheel the grain barrow down the center aisle, scooping grain and distributing it into feeders, patting velvet noses and scratching shoulders, sliding creaking stall doors open and shut. Then I flick on the upper lights and climb the narrow wooden staircase to the hayloft. A mouse leaps frantically up the stairs ahead of me and disappears into the hay.
Mice—alive or dead—are something you have to get used to pretty quickly around here. Steve says there used to be cats, but then they got too friendly with the tourists and a little too comfortable around vehicles, perching on top of the wheels and underneath the cars. Next thing you know, well, no more cats. But I am constantly pleading with him to get another cat, or even a dog. I tell him it could be a barn dog and it would follow us around and everyone would love it.
“Until it became a liability issue,” he replied, and that ended that discussion.
The hayloft is large, but it’s cramped. Bales of hay are stacked almost to the ceiling. It gives you the sense of an expansive claustrophobia. In the summer and fall, during the haying season, conveyor belts carry the bales up to the loft, where they’re piled on top of one another like a massive game of Jenga. You have to be careful sometimes when you’re pulling bales down from the stack—at one point or another, taking a particular bale prompts a small avalanche. But it’s an occupational hazard that we all understand. I make my way to the other end of the loft to the window hatch at the far end, ducking under beams and wending through bales of hay.
The hatch can be a bit tricky. You sort of have to kick it open because the frame gets a little stuck, but if you do it too hard and lose your balance, you could fall right out of the hayloft. Tossing hay is a bit challenging (for me) for the same reason: lean too far out while you’re swinging a bale down, and you could find yourself in the frozen mud twenty feet below. Once I toss the bales down, I have to carry them out to the far end of the paddock and cut the baling twine, then spread the hay in small piles wherever the ground looks the driest. Steve has explained to me that the mares are territorial grazers; spreading the hay ensures that each mare has a chance to eat. Once that’s finished, I let the mares out and head back up to the main barn to help with chores there. All in all, it usually takes me close to half an hour to take care of the mares at Remount.
The other day I learned that the term ‘remount barn’ wasn’t exclusive to the Morgan Horse Farm. I was surprised to learn that back in the days when the army used horses, there were remount barns all over the country. These barns were owned and operated by the military and served as stations were horses were bred and kept in order to replenish the army’s stock. Incidentally, the largest remount station was located at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in the north-western part of the state, about a six hour drive from my hometown of Hastings.
I remember when I was little my family drove up to Fort Robinson for a vacation. It rained much of the time we were there. And if it wasn’t raining, it was misty, cold, and drizzly. But we had a good time anyway. We didn’t have waterproof jackets with us, so my dad procured some heavy duty garbage bags and we made make-shift rain ponchos. It wasn’t a terrible idea, but I still cringe inwardly when I think about how self-conscious I was while wearing my garbage bag. I remember the barn at Fort Robinson was enormous, and the main aisle of the barn seemed to stretch on forever. Looking back I can imagine how the fort must’ve looked in its heyday, with horses and cavalrymen everywhere, and soldiers bustling around the yard.
But the Remount barn I just left today is small, and the horses inside it are not destined to be cavalry mounts. Instead, they are the mothers of the newest generation of UVM Morgans.
In the main barn, Steve’s in the process of dumping a fresh pile of pine shavings in the aisle—bedding for the horses. I love the smell of the shavings and the small waves of steam that rise from the sun-warmed pine fragments. I walk in and grab a broom, joining the other staff members. Julia looks over and grins at me, waving good morning. She’s wearing her usual red and black flannel jacket, her blonde mohawk gathered and tied in a messy bun on top of her head.
“Morning, Miss Chloe! How’re you?” Her voice is warm and cheerful.
“Tired! But otherwise fine. You?”
“About the same,” she laughs.
Julia is only a year older than I am, but she seems older just by the way she carries herself. She told me that she’s always loved horses, but doesn’t really consider herself a horse person like some of the other workers here. She actually came to work here through the suggestion of a friend of Steve’s who put in a good word for her because he noticed her good work ethic and people skills as she worked at the grocery store. Julia is always very friendly and approachable, and she’s the one we turn to when an unexpected visitor arrives at the farm: she immediately welcomes people while the rest of us stand by awkwardly. I for one am not quite comfortable going up to new people, but she does it with grace and apparent ease.
Julia continues to sweep the main aisle in front of the stallions’ stalls. I walk around to the lobby and start sweeping there. In the winter, the lobby is home to several two-wheel carts, bundled up and stored for the season. It’s also home to the extra trash cans, the display shelves, and a tall glass case that’s completely covered in a dull beige tarp. Inside the case—because of course I had to see what was underneath—is the skeleton of a large horse.
In April 1833 a solid black colt was born in New Hampshire. He was named Black hawk, and he was the son of Sherman Morgan and a half-thoroughbred mare. A magnificent animal, he was a champion harness racer and an extremely well-trained saddle horse. He became an influential sire in the founding of the American Saddlebred, Standardbred, and Tennessee Walking Horse breeds, siring over 1500 foals during his career at stud. And now, all that remains of him is a skeleton inside this glass box.
The skeleton has been around since it was articulated in the late 1850’s—Black Hawk died in 1856. For the past 40-odd years, it’s been housed at the Farm, and it is one of the first things you see when you walk into the main lobby of the barn during tourist season. A few years ago, the Morgan Horse Heritage Foundation paid for the skeleton’s cleaning and re-setting, since it had been stored without a case for decades, left to the mercy of the dusty barn air and the host of sparrows that nest here.
It’s funny to think that even as I stand looking at Black Hawk’s remains, some of his thousands of descendants are in the stalls below me now, clamoring for breakfast. I turn and head back to finish sweeping the upstairs. In the hallway I find Annie, another volunteer, also sweeping the pine shavings back into the pile of bedding on the floor. She and I sweep in companionable silence, working towards each other from opposite ends of the hall, then circling past each other in a complicated broom-tango, continuing in the other direction.
Annie is another character I’ve met here at the farm. She has bright blue eyes and short white hair, and she always wears a dark green hoodie when she works. She’s been a teacher at Weybridge Elementary for thirty years, but she openly admits that she prefers horses to children. Annie volunteers on Friday mornings, and she always gets excited when I bring muffins for break, or whenever there happens to be double chocolate Oreos. She has a horse of her own, and she tells me that she wants to go skijoring this winter if it ever snows enough. Skijoring is a fast-paced sport of attaching a tow line to a horse’s harness and attaching skis to your feet. Exhilarating and nerve-wracking at best, disastrous at worst, skijoring sounds like an experience that most people would turn down. Not Annie.
“I wanna do it!” She said to me. “It would be so much fun.” And that pretty much sums up her personality: gregarious and always on the look-out for a new fun thing to try.
“Well, if it does end up snowing enough, give me a call,” I told her. “I’ll help you.”
Downstairs, Steve backs the wagon into main aisle and each of us takes a stall to start mucking. I take Whisper, a flighty young mare who likes to try to walk out of her stall as I’m cleaning it. We feed the horses as we clean their stalls, dumping a scoop of grain into their rubber feed tubs and setting the tubs in a corner. They usually munch away and let us clean without bothering us, but sometimes you have to watch yourself. Today Whisper stands in the doorway, looking out, and I try shoving her out of the way with my shoulder. I will be the first to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to horse-handling. Every other time I’m out here it seems as though Steve or Michelle points out one thing or another I’m doing wrong.
But I guess both of them have a right to, since they more than anyone know what’s best for the horses. Michelle is the apprentice at the farm, which means she’ll be living at the farm for a year, learning everything from the feeding and training to the selling and breeding aspects of the farm. If I were doing this program, I’m sure I would go stark raving mad inside a month, but she’s been here since September and not only is she still completely sane, but she tells me that she’s enjoying the experience. Michelle has dark eyes and beautiful dark curly hair that fluffs out from beneath her grey stocking hat. She’s always willing to help or to explain things to me, but I suspect she sometimes gets a little peeved at my incompetence.
This morning Steve points out to me that I am not doing a good enough job of telling Whisper to get out of my way while I’m working.
“They aren’t pets,” he explains. “They’re working animals, and they’re trained to get out of our way. If we don’t teach them to stay out of our way then sooner or later someone is going to get bit or kicked.”
He tells me that I need to have a firmer touch, be more commanding and clear so that the horse knows exactly what I want from it. Morgans are generally very intelligent, and they are eager to please.
Annie told me once, “All they want to do is figure out what you want and then do it. They just want to do what you want them to, every time.”
I’m sure that part of their willingness to cooperate is contingent on me telling them what I want in the first place. That applies to any horse, really. I resolve to be clearer and more aggressive the next time I want a horse to move.
Another morning task that usually falls to Michelle or Julia is watering the arena. At first it seems like a stupid thing to do: why spend time watering dirt? But even in the winter months, the loose dirt of the arena dries out very quickly, and the horses kick up a lot of dust. So in order to keep the dust under control, each morning we water the arena. Today, Steve asks me to do it. I grab the hose and stand there, feeling a little stupid, watching the stream of water arc over the arena.
It’s actually very soothing to watch the misty curtain of spray filter through the sunshine coming from the open doors. I stand and watch the water falling, twirling the spray this way and that in slow figure eights. Then I pretend to conduct an imaginary orchestra, lazily moving my arms in four-four time. The dirt of the arena slowly turns a darker shade of brown.
After we finish in the main barn, we’re ready to muck the colt shed and then head down to do the three stalls in the lower barn. Down there it’s Umbra, T-Rex, and Stella. I’m slowly getting to know these horses, starting to put names with furry faces. Umbra is a beautiful black mare, good-natured and curious. They’re all good-natured, really, though some of them can be a bit uppity. T-Rex, for instance, is not a favorite among any of us. He likes to be annoying and get in the way, and if you’re not careful, he might try to kick or bite you. He’s also not the prettiest horse; actually, he’s far from it, according to Morgan standards. His gangly tall frame, orange-ish coat, and markedly convex nose, combined with his fractious personality, means that he might be a permanent resident of the farm since no one wants to buy him. So I try to be as nice as I can around him, just in case he knows that no one really likes him and feels hurt about it. Steve would tell me it’s silly, but you never know.
After the lower barn is finished, we head back out to the Remount barn to muck stalls there. It’s a bit of a trek so Julia and I usually hop on one of the tractors beside Danielle as she drives. It’s a beautiful bright morning and the remaining ice and snow glints in the sunlight as we rumble our way towards Remount, Julia staring straight ahead and me watching the thin ice shatter beneath the heavy tires. Once we get there, I hop off the tractor, grab my shovel, and head inside and start scraping the manure into piles to be shoveled into the Kubota bucket.
I’ve found that the harder I work at the farm, the easier it is to forget about what’s happening in my life, and so I try to be as fast and efficient as possible. Sometimes that isn’t always possible though; the other morning I had a minute or two to myself as Danielle was in the hayloft and Gary, the newest addition to our crew, was backing the tractor up so we could load bales and take them to the main barn. I stood in the doorway of the Remount barn, facing the sun, just standing there and soaking in the rays. I am always amazed that I can be so warm on such a cold day; according to my phone it is thirty-six degrees outside but I am comfortable in my sweater in the sun, as long as there isn’t any wind.
Chores take us an average of three hours to complete, depending on how many volunteers and staff are around to help out. After chores are finished, we all take a break. There’s a tiny office off the main lobby and it’s in here that we congregate around the heater and the coffee maker. There is usually an assortment of baked goods, anything from cookies to donut holes to pumpkin bread and muffins, or whatever I can snag from the dining hall that morning. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that it dawned on me that I could easily take a to-go box of the baked goods in Ross and therefore contribute to the snack effort.
“Pumpkin bread!” Julia jokes. “Now I like you!”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” I laugh. “If I hadn’t forgotten about it until now, I’d have said that I hadn’t brought anything on purpose. I wanted you all to like me on your own terms, but I guess bribery works better!”
Every so often one of us will drop a cracker or bit of bread on the floor, only to discover that another mouse has been caught in one of the traps lying around the office. But mice aren’t the only unwelcome extra residents here. In the main barn especially, there are tiny flocks of sparrows that swoop in and out of the barn, perching themselves in the upper corners of stalls and the high places among the rafters. I like to watch them sometimes; on cold mornings they sit in the sunshine, clinging to the top of the metal protectors on the windows and puffing themselves up until they’re nothing but tiny tufts of feathers. But Steve doesn’t appreciate them so much—and he’s right to want them gone. As cute as they are, the sparrows are a nuisance, getting droppings in the grain and water buckets and potentially spreading diseases. Over a mug of steaming coffee, Steve asks me what my thoughts are on how to go about getting rid of them.
“Get a hawk,” I say. “Or a falcon. This place would attract so many more tourists if you had horses and a falconry.”
But Steve doesn’t see the genius of this idea. Mostly he just sees it as another ploy of mine to have pets on the farm—first cats and dogs, now I’m asking for falcons. Everyone else seems to be on my side however; Julia, Michelle, and Danielle all smile and laugh at the thought of falcons in the barn.
Danielle is another staff member at the farm. She’s got frizzy brown hair and a friendly disposition, and she often tells us stories from her other jobs. She works at other barns besides this one, doing the same kinds of things: morning chores and barn work. But the other week she complained to all of us that she was beginning to feel tied down in her job of living on a farm and caring for the horses while the owner was in Philly. Surprised, I asked her what she meant.
Danielle then explained to me that for the past couple of years, she’d been housesitting as a full time job, with day work at area barns to supplement it. But because she’d agreed to live at this one barn in particular, she feels tied down because she can’t move to another house. I had never considered this before: not owning my own house, but making my home in the houses of others. It seems like an interesting job. I can’t tell if I would like it or not. But she definitely does.
After break, Steve usually starts exercising horses. He’s taught me how to lunge a horse and sometimes I help with that. Since most of the horses live in their stalls, Steve tries to ensure that all of the horses are worked at least once a day. But because there are so many horses and so few full time staff, this is sometimes impossible.
To lunge a horse, you stand in the center of the arena and the horse, wearing a halter and a lunge line, which is basically a thirty foot leash, moves in circles around you. The goal is to keep the horse moving at an equal distance from you as you slowly revolve on the spot. Some horses will speed up at different point on the circle; others will pull outwards and then slowly fall inwards, following more of an elliptical orbit instead of a spherical one. Sometimes I get dizzy from spinning around in circles. The movement of the horse is mesmerizing. It sometimes feels as if you and the line and the horse are the stationary objects as the rest of the arena whirls past. Lunging horses gives you a curious sense of power. You feel as though you are the center point, the focus, of a small universe, and in a way you are: you are the center of this horse’s world for a few short minutes.
And then of course there is riding. At the barn where I take lessons as part of the college equestrian team, the horses are schooling horses, and they’re used to beginners like me. Some of them, like my usual mount Zoey, are tense, energetic creatures who require almost as much guidance and instruction as you do. I’ve only ridden one horse here at the farm, but even that was a totally different experience. Steve let me ride one of the old stallions, a gentle giant named Xenophan. There is a huge differenece between riding the lesson horses and riding a show Morgan. In fact, riding Xenophan is less like riding a horse and more like riding a well behaved couch.
Back in my 4H days, my friend Vicki and I would take our ponies and ride through the small streets of her rural town Juniata, past the gas station and the tiny general store and through the park. One time we made a mad dash away from a patrolling sheriff’s car; Vicki told me later that she’d been warned not to ride in town before, and I admired her rule-breaking streak. When I learned to ride, I rode Western as opposed to English. I think I’ll always prefer Western, partly because it’s what I learned first, but also because it’s more comfortable and more functional.
Once, we drove the horses up about two hours northwest, up into the hillier part of the state, to one of Lori’s friend’s cattle farm. Farms are much different out there than they are in Vermont. For one thing, in Nebraska, there’s usually enough grazing space that you hardly ever see the cattle. There are no barns, no milking machines. Instead there are windbreaks and cow tanks next to rickety windmills that pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer below us. We unloaded the horses and let ourselves into the pasture, following the cattle tracks and winding our way through the rolling hills and small bluffs. Eventually we found cattle, and we had a fun time trying and failing to herd them. Turns out it takes a bit of skill to herd cattle and none of us had any idea what we were doing. It also didn’t help that the horses were as scared of the cows as the cows were of us.
The thing about horses is if you want to be good at them—at handling them, at riding them, at jumping, anything, really—you have to continually be forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. You have to be able try new things that might terrify you. There have been many times in a lesson where my instructor, Kate, has asked me to do something that I don’t quite feel comfortable doing. But if you don’t push yourself—then what? If you’re not willing to try something new, then you might as well get off the horse.
I remember the first time I ever rode a horse. I had my mother to thank for that—always on the lookout for opportunities for her four homeschooled children to connect with the community, she’d managed to get in touch with the local 4H club. And even though now this seems like an easy thing to do, at the time, how my mom had had the courage to do this had been beyond my shy, highly introverted, nine-year-old comprehension. But the result was that I found myself in the dusty indoor arena at the Adams county fairgrounds, awkwardly shuffling my hiking-boot-clad feet, holding a beat-up skateboarding helmet because my parents weren’t about to buy me a real riding helmet.
I couldn’t even steer the damn horse. PJ, an elderly bay mare who was both stubborn and insolent, knew immediately that the tiny girl on her back had no clue what she was doing. So, PJ did whatever the hell she wanted as I clung helplessly to her back and tugged futilely at the reins. People often say that horses can sense fear. I’d go as far as to claim that they can sense a whole range of emotions—especially anxiety, tension, and a rider’s complete lack of confidence. PJ wasted no time in showing me that if I was ever going to become a proficient rider, it would be up to me to take the reins.
And that became a metaphor for my life. Long after I’d clumsily managed to steer PJ in the right direction, I still struggled to take the reins of my own life in hand.
Fast forward roughly eleven years and I’m here, working at this horse farm, not with my mom, but by myself this time. A lot has changed. I’m braver now than I used to be. More confident. Readier to take on the challenges that come my way. Being around horses has been a major reason for this confidence in myself. Horses simply require a certain amount of confidence. And it takes bravery to ride a horse. The best part though, is that once you’ve captured that elusive confidence, it stays with you. That confidence has become a part of me, grown into me and settled into the empty spaces of my being. It makes itself present here at the farm, as I go about my chores, but it has also permeated my everyday life. It is a quiet sort of confidence, a calm sense of self-assuredness that follows me everywhere.
There are other ways to exercise the horses besides riding or lunging them. All of the Morgans here are trained in harness, which means that before they are taught to carry a rider, they are taught how to pull a cart. So, part of the exercise routine sometimes involves hitching up and going for a short drive on the front lawn. I’ve accompanied Steve on a couple of these drives. It’s fun, zig-zagging across the grass, and Steve gives me impromptu driving lessons. The other week there was even enough snow to take the sleigh out. The sleigh is a Portland cutter from Maine, donated by friends of the farm, and it comes complete with a fur lap-robe. When I asked Steve were it came from, he just laughed and told me that he’s shot a bear up in Alaska that’d nearly killed him. He laughed even harder when I said I didn’t believe that story.
Apparently sleighs are harder to drive than carts, and the fixed runners make them more prone to tipping. But the one time I’ve ridden in the sleigh, Perlee was pulling it, and she is a reliable mare. I was also in the experienced hands of Steve, and we were only driving around the lawn. Steve even let me take a turn driving. I took the reins, gripping them tightly, worried that they would slide between the fingers of my leather gloves. Pretty soon my fingers and hands began to cramp up. When driving a sleigh, it is best to have strong hands and a good sense of how to do things; seeing as I possessed neither, I gave the reins back to Steve after a couple of minutes. Then I sat back and watched the ground slipping by, listening to the jingling melody of the sleigh bells.
The other week I noticed a ring of seats at the top of a grassy knoll near the woods. I crunched up the icy hill with Josie—Steve’s wife, who had come back with us after driving to a nearby barn to look around—and found a large metal horseshoe-shaped seating area, with rusted tractor seats bolted to it at intervals. Inside the horseshoe were white marble gravestones with names of horses on them. Josie explained to me that this was only a collection of the stones; the actual burial place of the horses was back in the woods and hard to get to, so the stones were brought here. The first stone reads General Gates—foaled in 1894 and died in 1920. Others read Ellen, Bennington, Helen, Artemisia, Mansfield, and Redfern. All of them were famous Morgans. It’s both eerie and exhilarating to stand here with these gravestones, not because there are skeletons beneath them, but because they are a solemn reminder of the history of this place.
Josie and I stood looking out over the farm, and I noticed the weathervane on the main barn for the first time. The weathervane, a beautiful metal ordeal in the shape of a trotting Morgan, is not original, as Josie informed me. In the 1970’s, the original was stolen. How it was stolen remains a mystery—at one point, people speculated that someone had stolen it with the aid of a helicopter. But according to Josie, Steve had been staying at the farm the night it was stolen, and he claims that he never heard a sound. The roar of a helicopter then would have been impossible to miss—not to mention the panic it would have caused in the horses. So we’re left to wonder: did the thief scale the barn walls and climb to the roof? Did he or she have a really tall ladder? It remains a mystery. At first I thought it was funny, the sort of extreme prank that I would envy someone else for accomplishing. But then Josie went on to tell me that this wasn’t the only vane that was stolen—many area farms had in fact been robbed of their metal weather vanes around the same time, and the stolen metal was presumably sold and then melted down, never to be seen again. The thought of someone being desperate enough to steal antique weathervanes is a sobering one.
Josie and Steve have a wealth of random stories and memories from their many years of being involved at the farm. Once I asked Steve what his funniest memory here was, and his story was surprisingly hilarious. Years ago, Steve had been working out in the yard with a stallion who was wearing blinders—devices used to narrow the horse’s field of vision and keep him focused in front of him as he’s pulling—and Steve, preoccupied with the stallion, did not see a tourist’s car that had been parked in the driveway in front of the barn. He and the horse didn’t see the car until it was too late—and he accidently ran the stallion right into the car, the stallion going up and over. The tourists inside the car must’ve been startled and scared, and Steve said they tried to sue the farm for the damage that the horse had caused. But, Steve said with a chuckle, they didn’t reckon on the damage that their car could have caused this valuable horse. The tourists ended up losing their case pretty badly once it was made evident that they had been in the wrong, having parked their car in a no-parking zone.
Steve says that most of the funny memories were the ones that seemed calamitous at the time. I try to apply that same thinking to my everyday life: when bad things happen, I try to tell myself that someday, it will all seem funny. I wonder if it really will, or if that’s just something I tell myself to make me feel better. I think Steve understands this, because after he said it, he gave me a long look as if to say, “I promise it’ll be funny someday.” Steve is the only person I know who calls me anything besides Chloe. He calls me “Miss Nebraska,” referencing my home state, which is funny because it sounds like I’m a beauty pageant contestant instead of what I really am: a grungy college student who’s mucking stalls. But I really do appreciate the irony of it. He also calls me “Lady,” “Miss,” and one time, “Clovis.” I would classify myself as someone who’s not prone to having nicknames—most people tell me I’m too serious for that—but Steve makes an exception to this.
Working here is hard. And it’s certainly not a glamorous job. But I like the simplicity of it, the way my shoulders ache after so much physical labor, the way my mind clears and I can stop worrying about anything besides the rhythm of my shovel as it scrapes across the floor and tips into the wagon—scrape, lift, dump, repeat. There’s a sense of comradery among all the staff that only shoveling excessive amounts of horse shit together can create. I’ve found a second home here, with people who I care about and who care about me. It’s a powerful thing to have. I am always reluctant to leave the farm and head back to whatever waits for me on campus. But I know I’ll come again soon.