by Leo Doucet
A more accurate title might have been 'Horses I should have known
better', because as I look back on certain incidents in my life it is
clear that had I known horses better I would have avoided accidents, a
few of which I can only thank my Guardian Angel for pulling me through.
First let me say that horses are not as intelligent as people think. Veterinarians and others ,place them somewhere around 20 on the list of animal intelligence, far behind the ape and the dog. You may be its friend but he is never yours, he will know you from a stranger and come to your call, but only if he has been conditioned to believe there is something in it for him. Threaten him for misbehaviour and his response is to run away if he can. Indeed a horses first response to a perceived danger is to flee. There are situations however when a horse can and does take the offensive. No horse wants to be ridden or worked and does so only because after being trained (conditioned) he fears the alternative.
Ponies, it has been said with some justification, can hold a grudge and will try to get even. It is not unusual for a pony to elect itself leader over a group of full sized horses in a pasture. Never however if there is a stallion present. A mule, which is the sterile product of a female horse and a jackass is far less tractable and will not allow itself to be worked to the extent a horse will. More intelligent?. A cross between a stallion and a she ass is called a 'Hinney'. It is smaller than a mule and rather rare because it is inferior to the mule as a beast of burden. Some stallions will not cover a she ass and as has often been reported , may not cover a mare once she has been bred to a jackass.
My first incident with a horse occurred one winter when I was about 12. A friend had given me three full grown rabbits which I had placed in the hayloft of the barn. Two or three times each day I would dump some oats from a pail into a box and the rabbits would all jump in to feed. Farmers from outlying areas were in the habit of leaving their horses at our barn while they did their shopping in Dalhousie, and one day one of them had asked me to feed his horse while he was gone. He did advise me to be careful because the horse was young and excitable.
It so happened this was the day I had let the rabbits loose in the stall area of the barn and when I dumped a pail of oats into the horseís feed box all three rabbits jumped in at the same time. With a snort the horse threw himself backward the four foot length of his tether then reared and came forward frantically pawing the manger, feedbox and anything else his hooves could hit.
The stall was the standard 5 feet wide and normally allows a person to walk by, but now the horse was crossways in the stall and throwing himself backwards and forward, all the time bumping his hind end into the sidewalls, pawing and snorting. Every time I moved to get past him he would jam me into the wall. I knew even then that a thoroughly frightened horse would jam you into a wall to keep you from moving when caught in a confined space, but no one had told me what to do about that. Every time I made a grab for his halter he jerked his head away, then just as quickly jammed me back into the wall with his shoulder.
Then it happened, his head hit me in the face and knocked me to the floor from which I was able to crawl into the foot high space under the manger. I donít know how long all of this lasted but I stayed quiet long enough for the horse to stop jumping around. Still snorting he now stood as far back from the manger as his tether would allow.
My nose was bleeding and I knew I had to get out of there. When I got up he quieted down some more and allowed me to go by. I never did find out if my nose had been broken but it bled profusely from both nostrils and my right eye was completely closed.
A while later the man came for his horse and paid my mother for the service. Mom did not tell him what had happened feeling that it had been all my fault. In any event it did not take long for me to get rid of the rabbits.
One day in the Spring when I was about 14 a certain lady in Dalhousie asked me to plow the garden behind her house. For years I had gone by her place four times a day while going to and from school and was aware of her gruff impolite ways and her reputation of minding everybodyís business but her own. I told her ďnoĒ I didnít have the time and left it at that. It wasnít long before she got hold of my father and asked him to plow the garden. Since my father knew her well, they had been in the same class in school, he told her he would get me to do it. He offered to help me by holding the plow handles while I drove the horse, then I all I needed to do was to harrow the ground, it would only take about 3 hours.
Right after supper a few days later we put the plow and the spring toothed harrow into the sloven and drove over to the womanís place. I had no more than hitched the horse to the plow when she came out with orders of how the work was to be done. I had warned Dad that this was going to happen and now when I looked at him he just smiled and nodded his head at her.
She wanted the plot plowed deep which would make the unbroken ground very much harder to harrow. She also wanted the plot plowed to the fence at the back of the lot, a near impossibility since I needed room to turn around. She informed me that I could turn the horse and then Dad and I could manually haul the plow backwards to the fence each time. I flatly refused to help haul the plow in any direction and as work progressed the words got hotter. Finally the plowing was done, at least to my satisfaction. When the horse had been hitched to the harrow she invited Dad into the house to have a cup of tea with her and her husband, who all the while had been smart enough to stay inside.
A spring toothed harrow is a device that is suitable mainly for harrowing previously tilled soil and not for the course grass covered clay soil we had just plowed. It is made of two parts connected by a hinge in the center which allows it to to be folded over making it easier to transport. When open and dragged over the ground the curled spring points dig into the plowed sod, the spring uncurls, tension builds until the point suddenly burst through and hooks into the next piece of sod, and so it goes. It takes many passes to do a good job.
It was now starting to get dark and thinking that I would finish sooner
if the points of the harrow dug deeper I jumped onto the implement to make it heavier. It worked for a pass or two then in trying to get as close to the fence as I could I turned too sharply. One side of the harrow tilted up and as I fell the raised side folded over on top of me. With only half of the harrow now working the horse had an easier time and continued on. Each time a point broke through the sod it snapped back into my body. My ribs, stomach and back were taking such a pounding that I couldnít breath or call for help. The horse made a pass or two more and not being urged on stopped.
It took a while for me to extricate myself and a while longer to haul the harrow to the sloven, load it and get out of there. I did not wait for Dad but got home as fast as I could. Next morning I saw a Doctor who told me I had broken some ribs. My arms and legs were covered with blue marks and I could hardly move. Then shortly after dinner, who should show up but the lady at whose house I had been the evening before. She told me she had waited all morning for me to come back and finish the job. I think she is still waiting.
In 1941 the war was in full swing, recruiting posters were everywhere and men and women were joining the armed services. This, and with more people working in wartime industry caused a shortage of manpower in Canada. It gave me the idea that I should leave school and go to work. I had my mind set on working for the local paper mill which paid 35 cents an hour, and with lots of overtime at time and a half I figured I would soon be in the money. Problems arose however. One legally had to be 16 years old and show proof of age in order to work. The federal government via the post office, issued a registration card which all Canadians were supposed to carry, to be sure you werenít a spy, it was said. The paper mill insisted I had to have one of these before they would consider my application.
At the post office the post master Mr. Allain insisted that he knew all my family and that I could not possibly be sixteen. Go home he said. So much for a small town. His daughter Eileen who also worked there had been listening and told her father that she knew me and that I must be at least 16. Her father then relented and filled out the registration card application form reminding me that all applications were checked against birth records and there was a penalty for a false application. Well he was right, someone did check for when my card came it showed that I had been born in Green River, N.B., and that I was two years older than my true birthdate. I can only surmise that there was someone in that community with the same name.
The next morning I went down to the mill and presented my new registration card. Same old problem. The employment manager also recalled he knew my family well and regardless of what the card said, I couldnít be 16. Besides he said, your small, how much do you weigh?. Weighing less than 100 lbs. I felt embarrassed and left. Damn these small towns.
Now however I could work with our horse full time in the trucking business. There was lots of work. Moving furniture, hauling firewood, loads to the dump and hauling hardwood edgings from the Eastern Cooperage barrel factory. Well if one horse could do well, two could do better I thought so I bought and paid for a second animal. Things went well economically but I was working every day from early morning until dark. I soon became aware of some problems of owning and working with livestock.
Sundays the horses rested except that in the afternoon I would put the bridles on the horses and ride on one bareback down to the beach and into the salt water where I would make them swim for a hundred feet or so then let them eat some seaweed along the shore which they relished. The salt water was a good disinfectant for whatever scratches they might have on the lower part of their bodies. Riding a swimming horse is a tricky operation. If one sits the least bit forward the horses front end starts to go down and he panics. Lean a little to one side and he takes on a dangerous list, more panic. I was in this situation one Sunday with the tide too high for comfort. The other horse was swimming alongside but the horse I was on was making him nervous.
Several times I leaned over and tried to get on the other horse but the more my horse listed the more panicky he became and the further away the other horse tried to get. In one last effort I got my sneakers up on the horses back and made a spring of about 6 feet for the other horse. I landed on his withers, his head went down and now I had two frightened horses desperately wanting to get to shore. The bridles had been tied together with a short length of rope but somehow one horse managed to turn inward and now both were swimming for shore. There is an old saying "Donít change horses in the middle of a stream", whoever penned that knew what they were talking about.
You can slip off a horse and into the water while holding on to the saddle horn or stirrup and let the horse pull you through deep water. That does not create a panic situation but you canít hang on to a bridle because the horse will try to climb up on you. With the team I had to let go of everything and managed to swim the short distance to shore. Of course as soon as the horses got a footing they bolted for home. When I got there they were quietly standing by the barn door like nothing had happened.
About two weeks later I took one horse up to Balmoral to have him shod. After the shoeing I went to my Grandparents place for dinner and put the horse in their empty barn. Unknown to me a neighbour had stored a quantity of fresh barley in a large bin and while I had dinner the horse gorged himself on the barley. When I came for him about 2 hours later I led him to the watering trough and let him drink his fill. That evening he took sick and the next morning he was dead.
After that things got progressively worse. All my friends were starting to go out in the evenings while I had to work. There was much speculation about the fact that with so many men away in the military there was now a surplus of women in town. The theory was intriguing. A drawback was that if one works with a horse one smells like a horse, or so I thought. A month or two later I sold my complete outfit and proudly came home with the money. Dad confiscated the money and said he would give it back only if I returned to school. I didnít and he didnít.