by Ralph Rice
“Don’t push down on the handles. Relax. There you go,” my mentor shouted from across the field. He was teaching me to plow with a walking plow. It was my second time at the handles. The horses knew more about plowing than I did.
My dear friend had the patience of Job. He coached with encouragement, yet admonished with candor. While I made a round he sometimes followed in the furrow and other times watched from the land. After I had made a crooked mess of the field, he would make a few rounds to straighten things out.
Awestruck, I watched the old man walk with ease, guiding the plow with just a touch of his work-worn calloused hands. The horses slowed down and walked in step with the plowman. They felt his confidence through the lines and were assured by his easy calming voice. If only I could be half as good as he, I felt I’d really be something.
My old friend stopped the horses, slipped the lines off his shoulders, and hand them to me with a big easy smile that lit his entire face. He gave me another pointer and some words of encouragement, and it was my turn again.
I put the lines around my neck and shoulder, took hold of the plow handles in a death grip, barked to the horses, and off we’d go. I was a tense, apprehensive, nervous wreck. I knew it, my friend knew it, and the horses knew it.
I did almost nothing right. I was pushing and shoving on the plow, tripping and falling over my feet, and leaning so far over the plow handles I didn’t have control of the horses. I couldn’t quit watching the plow. “Look up. Look out in front of the horses,” my friend kept reminding me.
Then, all of a sudden, it all clicked. I slowed down, leaned back, and loosened my grip on the handles. The horses felt me relax and they did too. When I leaned back, I got control of the team. I liked it and so did they. As soon as I loosened my grip on the handles, the plow ran the way it was set; I merely had to guide it.
I got to the end of the field, flopped the plow over onto the right handle, and turned the horses to the right. Slowly and confidently I guided the team around the headland and back into the furrow. My near horse stepped into the furrow and straightened right out. The off horse took his place on the land right next to his mate and waited patiently for me to start them off. I tipped the plow upright, raised up on the handles, and started the horses toward the other end of the field. The plow sucked into the earth and the soil rolled off the plowshare in a beautiful uniform slice.
My mentor beamed with pride. My confidence grew, and the job got easier. Each time I reached the end of the field and orchestrated the turn, enjoying the choreography of man and horses working together, I could see the sense of accomplishment in my old friend’s eyes. He had passed the lines from one generation of plowmen to another. Not until many years later did I realize what an honor it is to be accepted into the plowman’s circle. My dear friend not only accepted me, he embraced me.
In the many years since then, I have learned to plow with smooth and fluid moves, like a dance. I find plowing to be relaxing and enjoyable, especially since it comes at a time of year when life is returning to the pastures and surrounding woodlands.
I recently learned to plow with a sulky plow. My first days were filled with frustrations as I adjusted the plow and my three-horse hitch. Soon, however, I was executing the turns at the headlands with the ease and confidence I feel when plowing with a walking plow. I simply had to learn to dance with a different partner.
My old friend is gone now, but every time I enter a field to plow I think of him. I picture him relaxed, plowing a furrow straight as a string from horizon to horizon. A snappy pair of young high-stepping dapple gray Percherons pull his golden plow. When they get to the end of the field, man and horses turn as one, dancing with the plow into eternity.
Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Evener 2006 issue.
09 May 2007