Our neighbor has a team of six draft horses that he employs for almost every field job on the farm. And he is rewarded for it. If you compare a horse-plowed field of alfalfa to one plowed by a conventional tractor, you will find the ground is softer and the alfalfa growing taller in the horse-plowed field, the hooves have turned and aerated the soil while the rubber tires packed it down. And though the baling is slower and more labor intensive, the operation is quieter and creates less air pollution. From a neighbor's point of view, this is a good thing.
Bob, who is about 16 years old, is Elam's favorite horse, and they have been working together for about 10 years. Their relationship is one of mutual respect, this nearly one ton horse built for work and the straw-hatted farmer who depends on him. Bob is a natural leader within the team, dependable and often the hardest worker. When the team is grazing in the pasture, you call Bob and he comes, and the others follow. But, they always allow him to enter the barn first.
But even Bob's discipline goes to the wayside when given the the opportunity to flee. One morning, as I drove past the farm on my way to work, I see the team charging down the driveway towards the road, and I quickly realize they are not harnessed. I stop, and Elam motions me to pull the car into the driveway to block them. I do it, thinking to myself the insurance company will never believe this if I even live to tell the story. But it works: all six horses turn on a dime, and gallop back to the barn. I am momentarily amazed at their dexterity. I wave, satisfied that all is well (and that my car is in one piece), and pull into the road. But, seeing another chance, they all turn again and this time pass me in a thundering cloud of dust. Elam jumps in the car, and we follow them up past my house. They turn into the field at full speed, the tops of their heads barely visible at the treeline. We stop. Watch. After a few big sighs and some quiet cussing, he asks me to get his brother with his riding horse, and he goes running after the team who are, by now, out of sight. I drive back down the road to his father's house, pick up two of his brothers and a saddle, and back to Elam's to get the riding horse. Mary comes out of the house, smiling, hands me a plateful of cookies, and we're off again to catch up to Elam, the brother riding his horse like a rodeo cowboy. Another neighbor arrives, I am relieved and start for the office again. All ended well, I learned later, and our guests were giddy after watching the whole episode from the front porch. Not only was I late for work, but I had a good story AND cookies!
Besides Bob, there have been other horses we've known: Maude, another favorite, who died unexpectedly after a long, hard day of working in the heat. Joker - the lazy troublemaker and instigator of the above incident, who was sold off and with good riddance. And the beloved Pet, retired from driving the buggy, and who just this week became a new mother at a nearby family farm.
I have watched Bob lower his head to be petted by the tiny hand of Elam's young son. A little nudge from Bob and a big smile from the boy, I was amazed at the gentleness displayed by a beast of solid muscle whose head was bigger than the two year old. Lately, though, Bob's been halting in the middle of a job and getting tired more quickly. Elam feels now is the time to retire him, before he's too old for anyone else to want him. Before he gets hurt and before difficult decisions must be made. So, Bob will be put to pasture by a friend who is taking him to Wisconsin. He'll be King Bob, a family pet and retired draft horse. No more leading the team, he'll be living a life of fresh grass and kind spirits. Happy retirement Bob!