Dolly, the Belgian Mare

February 27, 2008

If you were to believe the photos on the stairway of my mother’s house you would swear that I could ride a horse before I walked. While this is not an inaccurate impression, it fails to take into account the forty-five year gap in my equestrian exploits after a series of disasters with a mean little pinto stallion named Tony that my dad figured I would somehow grow into.

The bites and bruises eventually became too much, and the homicidal little maniac went to a riding stable where he apparently settled down nicely. By my sixth year I had decided that dogs were more trustworthy, and that was that.

Of course everyone else in my family loves horses. My dad’s Belgians made great moving wallpaper, I’ll grant them that. They were beautiful, placid animals, and if you treated them like large, dull-witted golden retrievers they weren’t hard to get along with at all.

I had come up with a variety of methods of gathering sap from my two dozen buckets when the maple syrup run began each year. The first season there was no snow, so the golf cart did the job quickly and efficiently. The next year I upended the oil drum on the back of a vintage Ski Doo Alpine purchased for the purpose. As long as it sat and idled willingly while I gathered the sap it was fine, but with twenty-five gallons of product on the back it was hard to steer, even though the ride was much improved. When it stalled there was always some question if I would have the strength to restart its huge, high-compression motor.

The year after that the Alpine was in pieces and my tractor and trailer had the sap-gathering job. One morning after a heavy snowfall I needed to go back and look at the buckets and see if the little covers had kept the snow out, or if I would need to dump them before the next run.

The snow was too deep for the tractor, so I put the bridle on an amazed Dolly and led her out of the stable. The next hour was quite an education for me on the thinking patterns of a kindly Belgian mare.

I knew she’d be careful to protect me from harm if I climbed onto her back, so I mounted up off a nearby fence. Dolly didn’t mind, but my pelvis sent out an urgent distress call as soon as I straddled her broad back. I could put my legs over all right, but my hip joints felt as though they were being torn apart. There must be a more comfortable way to do this. Sidesaddle?

As a kid I sat right on the horse’s neck and dug my fingers into the mane to stay on, then kicked like crazy with my feet to direct the horse, but somehow as an adult it didn’t seem right to sit on top of the horse’s shoulders. She might stop for a bite to eat and I’d be down around her ears. I settled in over the saddle area and hoped numbness would come quickly. The ride was nice and warm, though.

Dolly agreed to go for a walk, but when she got about two hundred feet from the barn she stopped, gently turned around, and walked back. Huh? Mom later told me that my dad had trained her to walk that route with the many kids over the years who had come to the farm for a ride.

Now Dolly was my friend, but this wouldn’t do, so the next circuit out I used the bit and my heels to make it clear to her that we’d venture a little further afield this time. A snort and some head-shaking, and Dolly reluctantly plugged back the lane through the deep snow. I noticed that without her partner, Duke, Dolly walked exactly in the middle of whatever lane she faced.

This posed a problem in the woods. I wanted to look into the sap buckets without getting off the horse, so I tried to persuade Dolly to move over closer to the trees. No way. She just wouldn’t do it, for fear of scraping her rider off on a tree, I guess. Whatever I tried by way of backing her up, turning at ninety degrees to the trail, stopping, speeding up – they all ended with Dolly, whatever direction she ended up facing, standing exactly in the middle of the logging road.

Eventually I gave up and headed Dolly back to the stable, but because the snow drifts were very deep I thought I’d cut out into the field to find easier walking for the horse. That’s where we hit the frozen puddles. They happen often in spring. The water drains away from beneath an inch of ice. This day they were covered by snow and invisible to both horse and rider.

Poor Dolly. Every time she cracked the ice the horse thought she was going to die. She didn’t start or buck or balk, she just internalized the panic, but I could feel the shudder slowly run down her neck, along her spine, through her ribs and back to her tail — every time she took a step which cracked ice. And we had a great deal of ice to crack: it was a ten-acre field. It made no difference to her that she had pastured this field every day of her life and had come to no harm, or that the previous dozen crunches underfoot hadn’t actually hurt her. Nope, she was going to drown, she just knew it, and yet she nobly shivered her way across the field to the barn.

She was a glum and tired horse by the time she regained her stall. When I landed on the ground I discovered I could hardly walk for bowleggedness, but my hip joints recovered fairly quickly.

I immediately got to work on the ailing snowmobile. It has always been more than willing to run into trees, and I had had enough of getting out-thought by my vehicle. There was no danger of the Alpine doing that.


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