Saturday, May 17, 2014

Horses in Fiction: (Trying) to Work around Horses

Note that I did not say "work with horses" here. Working in close proximity to horses on something that does not involve grooming, tacking up, or groundwork is an adventure in itself. Oh my, the joys of maintaining a farm with horses around are many and varied. One of them is attaining close companionship with your beasts whilst attempting to improve their home (or yours). Really close. Like, beat them out of your back pocket because they are playing with the pocket flap while you're bent over close. Like, guard the shift lever knob of the lawn tractor because Pilot is trying to crib on it close. Like, get your frigging nose out of the tool bucket close. When horses are loose in the pasture and you need to do something there, your choices are always to lock them up somewhere else or live with their curiosity. Me, I enjoy the entertainment value. Most of the time.

Let me back up and explain how this subject sprang to mind. Every spring is, of course, the time when fences need to be checked and mended, the weeds get sprayed, the barn gets thoroughly scrubbed out and reordered, and general maintenance on the whole place gets done. Landscaping projects get started, and I get to spend a lot of time outdoors, in and out of the pasture and barn. My horses are currently on pasture, sleek, fat, and happy. So happy, in fact, that they have lost their initial exuberant attitude toward being out on grass and are now spending a lot of time lazing in the shade in the barn. This is lovely so long as one is not required to do anything related to the stalls or the corral itself.

My latest landscaping project is putting in small square edging bricks between the driveway and the yard. It looks really good, but there is a low spot at the end that needs filling. Since the manure pile has been nicely rotting down for years, it provides a good source of dirt, albeit a little rich to use without mixing it with less fertile soil. For filler, though, it's just fine, so this morning I got out my trusty lawn tractor and my dump wheelbarrow, hooked 'em up, and drove into the corral. And, of course, there were Nellie and Pilot swishing flies in the barn. Hoping for treats and/or their itchy spots scratched, naturally they came over to say hello.

Now a horse cannot say hello without getting as close as possible. This means sticking his head in the wheelbarrow (it's MANURE, guys. Yours. There are no treats here.), nudging the whole works to see if it might move and entertain him, and checking out in close detail the fascinating apparition that is the lawn tractor. The noise doesn't bother them, nope. In fact, I have to shoo them off quite vigorously or threaten to nudge them with the front end in order to get them out of the way when I'm ready to drive off.

Not at all discouraged, back they come when I make the second trip to fill the wheelbarrow. This time they are completely mesmerized by the shovel and the dent I am putting in their precious pile, which I have actually seen Nellie back up to and contribute to on her own over the winter. It is tough to dig with el├ín with a horse's nose two inches from the shovel tip. Likewise, the suspicious crunching noise behind me turns out to be Pilot checking out the possibilities in the round, hard-plastic knob on the tractor's shift lever. Meantime, sweet Nellie really wants her ears scratched, and butts me hard in the side to get my attention. Noticing the flies buzzing around her head, I now have to stop and go get the fly spray (she HATES fly masks and promptly rubs them off). This at least gets rid of Pilot, who is traumatized by spray bottles and goes nuts at the feel of the descending droplets. He even tries to duck out when I rub it on with a cloth, so for the moment the tractor, et al, are safe from his attentions. He's too busy watching me to see if I'm going to attack him with the fly spray.

As I climb on the tractor again to drive off, Pilot blocks my exit by presenting his butt to be scratched, knowing full well that I won't. Nellie gazes at me wistfully before turning to examine the new hole in her pile again. I slap Pilot's butt to encourage him to move; insulted, he moves off and glares at me over his shoulder. Tough, buddy, I've got things to do. I race them to the gate and manage to get the tractor and barrow through without also introducing two Thoroughbreds to the wonders outside the pasture. Do I want a third trip? No. Thankfully, it is now raining (thanks so much, guys, for the delay). I drive the tractor up to the house, park it beside the spot that needs filling, and trudge in to have lunch and write this post.

At least neither of them is as nosy or determined as Kalup was, that fiddler par excellence. I once had to mow an area that had never been kept short, so the grass was a couple of feet tall in places. A push mower is really not designed for this. Mine kept choking out every minute or so, which meant I spent a lot of time yanking the start rope. Kalup, who was munching said grass inside a temporary hot wire fence, kept watching me through all this but keeping his distance from the noise. However, when I walked away to help my husband and my brother-in-law hang a gate between this area and the regular pasture, Kalup seized his chance. He walked right over to the lawnmower and grabbed that starter rope handle. Fortunately for all of us, the mower also had a safety bar that had to be depressed at the same time the rope was pulled for it to start. Kalup was frustrated in his ambitions to start that thing, but I sure would have loved to have seen him do it. I know we could have won big money on America's Funniest Home Videos!

I love my horses. I love that they trust me and like me enough to want to come check out what I'm doing all the time. It is my choice to not run them off, in part because I like watching them exercise their curiosity and I'm always interested in what they will do. Your fictional characters may have much less patience, or much greater urgency, in whatever brings them into proximity with loose horses and tools. You can certainly write a great scene with personable horses and exasperated people, and have every bit of it be perfectly authentic. The horses will show up as though magnetized the second you get down to work, so take advantage of it and have some fun with your scene.

Until next time, happy writing, and don't forget to check out The Mask of God to see how I use my own fictional horses.

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