~ Riceland Meadows ~

The King of Horses
by Ralph Rice

Babe was an old Percheron mare my grandpa had for many years, even though she and Grandpa had a common dislike for each other. Babe worked single on many jobs, mostly because she hated other horses.

One job that was exclusively hers was pulling the hay fork rope. She would pull loads of loose hay up into the barn and then the load would traverse the haymow until my grandpa tripped the fork. The hay fell where he wanted it and Babe backed up until the large fork was once again on the hay wagon getting another bite.

Babe would pull against the rope and know just when to stop, then back up to repeat the process. But apparently she found this job boring. To keep things interesting, usually when Grandpa was in the greatest hurry, she sometimes stopped just short of where Grandpa wanted her to, forcing him to come down out of the mow to drive her another two or three feet.

Babe was a powerful mare. On the sawmill skidway she once landed a red oak log that was 560 board feet. She had to do it herself because the sour cuss wouldn’t work with her teammate. She had kicked the other horse in its stifle, making him too sore to work. The log had to be milled, so Grandpa was determined Babe would do it by herself. I beleive she did it just because Grandpa thought she couldn’t.

One of Babe’s many foals was King. Babe fussed over King and let him nurse long after her milk was gone. She doted on him, knowing all along he was special. King went with Babe everywhere on the farm. Grandpa broke King as a two-year-old alongside Babe. She loved King and worked with him, and him only, until the day she died.

King was a big gray Percheron and an awesome brute. He was as gentle as a lamb, smart, and strong. He had heart and would pull with every ounce of his being anytime my grandpa asked. King became Grandpa’s best friend.

My first memory of King came during haying season. I was five years old and got to ride his wide back, holding onto the hames of his harness, while King pulled sled loads of loose hay to the barn. He was patient with me as I crawled on and off him, scaling his harness like a little monkey going up a tree.

King, like Babe, often worked alone. The manure spreader had shafts, as did the hay rake. King pulled numerous loads of firewood to the house and countless loads of sugarwood to the sugar house to boil the season’s maple sap.

King’s mission in life was to please my grandpa. He would stand for hours while Grandpa worked nearby. King could back the spreader into the barn almost by himself; Grandpa had only to whisper gee or haw. He was the icon of the barnyard, the crown jewel of the pasture, and one of the best horses I have ever known.

On a cold snowy January morning in 1967 my grandpa and King were hauling a load of manure out to the field. The sun was shining brightly on the new fallen snow. Ice crystals reflected the sunlight, looking like diamonds poured out on the ground. Steam from King’s nostrils froze in mid-air on that crisp, frosty morning. He arched his neck and proudly high-stepped along the lane, the feathers on his big hairy feet leaving snow angles with every step. The heavy load of steaming manure pulled easily behind the confident horse. Grandpa held the lines in his gloved fingers, a glint of pride gleaming in his eye as he watched his proud horse swagger.

The big horse hit a patch of ice and in an instant was down. A bone protruded grotesquely from his foreleg as he struggled to regain his feet. My grandpa, recovering from almost being thrown from the spreader, rushed to King’s head. He put his hands on King’s proud neck and spoke softly to his friend. The big animal groaned a sickening painful sound and tears rolled down my grandpa’s cheeks.

A shot pierced the crisp morning air, ending King’s suffering. My grandpa’s mind held memories of King while his trembling hands held the gun.

King is buried on Grandpa’s farm near the orchard where he was born. Sometimes I picture him as a young colt, running and playing in the meadow. I dream of sitting on his wide back while he worked, and I reflect on all the work he and grandpa accomplished as a team.

Now that Grandpa, too, is gone from this world, I think of them working together, King prancing, neck arched and confident, leaning into his collar while his muscles ripple under his shiny dapple gray coat. My grandfather, lines laced through his fingers, humbled by the awesome grace of that fine animal, proudly drives King in an eternal field of light.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Winter 2007 issue.

09 May 2007