Friday, June 19, 2015

Horses in Fiction: Out in the Barn

I love summer. It has always been my favorite time of year, but even more so since I grew up and have sole responsibility for my horses. Not being a morning person, I anxiously await that magical day in spring when the grass in the pasture is tall enough to support the beasties, and I can decadently roll over in bed instead of getting up to go feed them breakfast. Long live summer!

Summer temporarily frees me from another chore that has faced horse owners since domesticated equines came off the steppes and into the stable. Keeping the barn mucked out is a major undertaking most often glossed over in fiction. A good many writers and movie directors seem to believe the grooms are just there to conduct illicit affairs with the Earl's daughter and catch reins tossed by imperious masters as they stride off to advance the plot. Eh, no. Those gorgeous, shining beasts you see in the movies are the product of a LOT of work, not the least of which is conducted with pitchfork in hand.

This farmer looks this way because he knows how much
fun pitching poop really is.
Since at least Xenophon's time horse owners have understood the importance of a clean living space for their critters. Despite Horsey's unfortunate tendency to stop and smell every pile of poop he comes to, he really doesn't like standing in his own excreta any more than you would. Fresh horse droppings attract flies--and I mean instantly; within a minute the whole pile will be covered with little black flies--which can lead to disease, hoof rot, sick and unsound horses, and just the general nuisance of airborne insects attacking sensitive ears and eyes all the time. My horses spend a good deal of time lounging in the shade of the barn in the summer to get away from the gnats in the pasture, which seem to need the grass to hide in. They swarm up when the horses go out to graze, and I see them trotting (or running) around to stay ahead of them. I cut a ride short just last night because the little monsters were swarming in my face so badly I couldn't concentrate.

It is, however, difficult to feel sorry for my beasties, because both of them have figured out how to remove a fly mask in sixteen nanoseconds flat. Aaand... Pilot hates fly spray. Really hates it. Used to have panic attacks at the sight/sound of a spray bottle. I spray it on a rag and wipe him down, which he tolerates, but he still doesn't like it. Unlike Nellie, he has not figured out the association between the spray and the relief from the flies.

But I digress.

There are other reasons to keep the barn clean. In fact, stable management revolves in large part around Horsey's digestive system. The stench of urine-soaked straw rotting would knock Bigfoot flat. Acrid, eye-watering, it just gets more foul the longer you put off shifting it, so it behooves a good stable manager to keep the lazy grooms stirred up every morning. And though horse poop smells (to me, anyway) way better than cow poop, it can still get pretty strong in large amounts. With horses, you WILL have large amounts. A thousand-pound horse produces forty or fifty pounds of manure every day (eight or nine tons a year!) and pees several gallons. The resultant soggy mess, left untended, will quickly make the stalls unusable. Think medieval cities. Think 19th century cities, for that matter, with thousands of horses crowded into small walled enclosures. Unmanaged manure piles would mount to the skies! Simply wheelbarrowing it out and dumping it by the garden wall was not enough; it had to be carted outside the city and spread on fallow fields to get rid of it, which at least fertilized the fields and made better crops. This, of course, was a much more labor-intensive solution than simply dumping it in the nearest river, as many lordly houses in London did. Eeeww.

See why I love having the horses on pasture?

The grooms in a large operation really earn their keep, and they work very hard, because that sh--er, stuff--ain't really light on the pitchfork. Shifting an accumulation of horse manure is hard work. It's not too bad if you muck every day, and twice a day is better, picking up the two or three piles that accumulate between morning and evening. Some horses will even conveniently pick a place in the paddock or stall and deposit everything right there. Others let it fall where it may and then grind it to itty bitty green bits polluting every scrap of bedding. Cleaning those stalls takes a whole lot longer, involving shovels as well as pitchforks, multiple trips to the manure pile, and a lot of grumbling. The old-fashioned pitchforks shown in "American Gothic" above were not created for this, by the way. They were made for pitching straw and hay, not used hay.

The underside of horse keeping is a revelation to a lot of people because you really don't see it presented much in fiction. In movies you may see someone leaning on a pitchfork outside a stable door, or shoveling sh*t played as a joke. What you don't often see is the time spent with currycomb, hoof pick, and brush needed to produce that shiny, dust-free coat; the daily grind of hauling water, hay, and oats; and the ubiquitous labor of keeping stalls bedded and clean. Every. Single. Day.

Horsey is a demanding master. Try to give the grooms a little credit (or blame) if you can. An ill-tended horse might just break down on that lordly plot-driver at the very worst moment and throw everything into chaos.

And a last note on horse droppings. You know those picturesque cobblestone streets that do such a marvelous job of setting the historical scene in the movies? The ones with nary a road apple in sight? I always have to laugh at those shiny, scrubbed stones. In actuality they would have been two inches (or more) deep in horse crap, exuding stench and flies, and turn to green slop in the rain. I would venture to guess that until about the 18th century or so even grand ladies didn't worry about their skirt hems, because horse and oxen poop underfoot was just a fact of life.

Ah, I love summer.

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