The farrier came early. Wayde Ellsworth trims our horses’ feet every six to eight weeks or so. It’s been about ten or eleven weeks since his last visit, but because of the cold, snow, and inactivity, their hooves aren’t too bad.
He was due around 8:30 this morning. Jay was in the middle of his second episode of his current TV obsession. Paw Patrol, which I had cleverly timed to end at about the hour of Wayde’s arrival. Except, Wayde got out of the house early this morning. At 8:15 there was a knock at the garage door. I poked my head into the garage. “Be right there.” Wayde heard Jay’s objections and smiled. “I’ll be here.”
Wayde is himself a father, the single parent of a 12-year-old girl. He works his ass off at a job that is, on its best days, unforgiving and brutal to his body. Yesterday he spent a good bit of time doing some corrective work with a very heavy, unbalanced horse that refused to hold its foot up (horse owners do their best to train their horses to lift and hold their feet for farriers, vets, and even for themselves, so they can clean out rocks and debris). His back was still a bit off today, but Wayde is a man of few words. He doesn’t waste them on complaining.
The argument over leaving the TV to go outside in the rain had the seeds of an epic father-son battle. I didn’t want to keep Wayde standing around, so I immediately pulled out the big guns. “Jay, you get to wear your squishy boots.”
“Oh. Okay.” He sat quietly in the big recliner, breaking his gaze from the TV long enough to look down and smile as I pulled on his monkey socks. I pulled his muck boots as far onto his feet as I could. Jay slid onto the floor and jumped up and down, saying “BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE” until his heels reached the bottoms of his boots. I didn’t teach him that. He continues to put his own spin on his world, and I can only shake my head and smile at his spontaneity.
We pulled on his dinosaur raincoat, and headed outside. The air was heavy, with a few sprinkles popping onto Jay’s green spiked dinosaur hood.
I had run out earlier and put halters on the horses. It’s nice to have a “handle” when I need to catch them. Kal, my horse, was never a problem. As is the case with most horses of Arabian descent (Kal is Anglo-Arab), he is extremely people-oriented. I walked up and took hold of his halter. He didn’t really want to go into the shed, but that is just how he is. He prefers to stand in the rain than to go inside any building. He relented, and I turned him so Wayde could get to his feet safely.
Holding a horse for someone else is not a casual thing. Everyone in the area needs to have a clear space to move, to run out of harm’s way if necessary. No one should end up between a horse and a hard wall. The handler should know to hold the horse on the same side as the one working on that horse. This allows the handler to pull the head toward him or her if the horse objects, which moves the hind feet away. Ideally this has to be done while not standing directly in front of the horse. Some horses will strike out with their front feet, others may head-butt. Because of the position of their eyes to the side of the head, some horses get nervous about anything directly in front and up close. They actually don’t have great vision there.
On top of all of that, the farrier in particular has to be able to move the horse’s feet around, forward and back, out and back in, to clean, clip the ends, pare the sole, and rasp the hoof wall. This requires the handler to control the horse fully, give the farrier ample room, and always be on guard to move the horse away from the worker who is likely to be bent over in a vulnerable position.
Thankfully, our horses are generally quiet and pretty easy to work with. Today’s rain and gusty winds challenge the calmest horses, however, and Kal was a bit jumpy. He’s a good boy, but just doesn’t balance himself well when standing. He shifted his feet together. Wayde talked to him calmly, suggesting that it would be easier for the both of them if Kal would square up a bit. Kal did his nervous best.
Jay stood at the edge of the fence. He knew not to enter the turnout without being told it’s okay, and I was extremely proud of him for not testing me on the matter.
Molly, Laura’s horse, wandered around the paddock, and seemed to be pretty calm, at least while Kal was the center of our attention. I asked Jay if he would like to come in with us. His eyes widened and brightened, and the excitement in his face was radiant. It was a big-boy thing, this being asked by Daddy to come in with the horses. He nodded vigorously. I pointed to the divider between the stalls of the run-in shed. It was under the eaves, thus dry, and a pretty unlikely place to get run over no matter what happened.
“How about standing right over there?”
“Okay!” He walked quietly but quickly to the assigned spot. He was beaming with pride and excitement. He was IN with the big guys.
Jay watched Wayde's every move. “What are you doing?”
“I’m working on your horse’s feet. What do you think of that?”
I explained, “It’s kind of like when mommy trims your toenails. A horse’s foot is ALL toenail.”
“What are you doing?”
Jay really wanted to maintain his conversation with this fascinating man. Wayde patiently and kindly answered questions (okay, it was actually just the one question, over and over) as he moved from hoof to hoof. I had Jay move into a corner while I turned Kal around for Wayde to work on his right side. Wayde finished the last hoof and said to Jay, “What do you think? Does he look like he’s done? Does that look okay?”
“Yeaaaaaaah!” Jay was thrilled to offer his opinion.
I gave Jay a carrot to offer to Kal, and reminded him to hold his hand flat. Kal is great about this thing in particular; he takes food from the hand with his lips, and is extremely careful to keep his teeth back. He smacked Jay’s hand with his lips, grabbed the carrot, and turned away. Jay cackled with delight.
I moved Kal out of the stall far enough that if he decided to celebrate his freedom everyone would be safe. I removed his halter and stepped to the left. Sure enough, he charged Molly and threw his right hip into her. She had already been wandering around, dreading her turn, and was ready to show some fire.
Wayde and I have been through this before with Molly. She hates the notion of being "caught." She could also rile up her stable mate with little effort. Between the two horses, we could soon have about 2100 pounds of careening cheval meat, complete with eight flying feet and two large tossing heads. And now there was a toddler in the mix. As I saw the energy build in the turnout, I looked to make sure Jay was staying in his safe place.
The other father in the paddock was at work. Wayde was already holding Jay in his arms. Jay was on top of the world, in the arms of a rodeo guy watching the horses play rodeo around him. He was completely comfortable, excited to be in the action and close to this most interesting man.
Molly raced around the muddy turnout, and if there had been less mud I’m sure she would have thrown a buck or two. She worked herself into a corner. Kal moved forward as if to help catch her. Molly’s sire is Custom Chrome, a member of the reining horse hall of fame. It's in her blood: she threw some spins and flying lead changes that dropped my jaw. While she never made it on the reining horse “A” circuit, she still had some moves left in her.
I continued to move Molly toward her stall, even as she attempted to flee. I dropped the lead rope and showed her my open hands, one balancing a piece of carrot. She wanted no part of me or my carrot. Eventually, though, a winter of inactivity and eating extra hay rations caught up with her. She kept moving away from me, albeit more slowly. Eventually she decided to switch tactics. That little boy had given Kal a carrot a few minutes before. Maybe he had one for her. She wandered up, and Wayde slowly and carefully reached out and took her halter. She relented. I gave her the carrot. Jay was pleased to have "helped" with the wrangling.
I took Molly's halter. Wayde looked at Jay and said,"Let's go get your daddy's lead rope." He giggled and answered "YEAH!"
As I moved Molly into position inside the shed, she hinted that she might want to rear up. This has historically been her defense; rear, spin, and run. She has overdone it more than once, having pulled off cross-ties, broken halters, and landing on her back in our barn in Massachusetts. Another time she nearly killed us both:
I was out riding alone with her. We were at peace, rolling along a dirt road, taking in fresh spring scents and sounds. We reached the gate the held out car traffic. She balked at my efforts to pass her between a large rock and the gate. She went up, and up, and over. As we went over backward, my only thought was, I have no control over how this will end. I landed flat on my back. My head was within a foot of one of Massachusetts’ famous stone walls. Looking up, I watched her roll down onto me, and for whatever reason she tucked her chin at the last second. It saved her life, as she narrowly missed the same pile of rocks. She panicked, jumped up, and started to run. While my foot position was great during the ride, my boot had slid a bit forward during the ride over to our upside-down position. My foot was twisted a bit sideways in the stirrup. At the last possible second, it slipped out. Molly ran for home. I took my time, testing everything slowly before moving very much. Aside from a sore back and loss of wind, everything seemed to work okay. I got up and walked home. Molly was standing in the yard, eating grass. She looked sheepishly at me, and shuffled her feet nervously. She wasn't sure what my response would be. I walked calmly and confidently (as best I could), and took her reins. I patted her and talked softly as I re-cinched her girth. She knew it was no time to mess around, and she stood quietly as I remounted. We walked about a mile down the road, and returned home. A few short minutes after our near-disaster, we ended our ride on a positive note.
I looked up inside the shed. There was a two-by-four rafter about a foot and a half above her head. If she chose to rear, her decision would meet with some pretty fast karma.
I looked over at Jay. Kal was shaking him down for more carrots, snuffling his pockets and pushing his nose into Jay’s hands. Jay was giggling, and rubbing Kal’s nose. Kal's feet were well away from Jay, and he was being his usual sweet and gentle self. Normally I would not intervene, but Molly was still a bit fractious, and nothing gets Kal into the air faster than a freaking-out Molly. I pushed Kal aside. He walked into Molly’s stall and began eating what was left of her hay. Molly decided that was okay, and settled into her trim.
Jay was disappointed to lose Kal’s attention, and told us so. We moved him into the front corner of the stall, right next to the opening. Wayde handed him a hammer and asked him to hold it until he needed it (our horses are unshod, so he wasn’t going to need his hammer). After Wayde finished each foot, he asked Jay for the hammer and gave Molly’s freshly-trimmed hoof a few taps. Jay was happy to see he was being so helpful. Once Molly's trim was done, again he asked Jay to inspect his work. Jay nodded vigorously in approval.
Wayde took his hammer back and thanked Jay for his help. I moved Molly well away from the shed, and turned her loose. Wayde grabbed his box of tools and headed up the hill toward his truck. Jay was at his side, stretching his legs mightily, moving his squishy boots to match Wayde’s strides.
I gave Jay the check, and asked him to pay Wayde. “Here you go!” He handed over the check, and marveled at the tool shop in the bed of Wayde’s pick-up truck. There was row after row of horse shoes, boxes of tool, a drill press, and welding tools.
Jay was reluctant to let Wayde go. He had a new hero.
He'll have many heroes. Mine, growing up, included those lucky guys that got to operate the garbage trucks, cement mixers, and other big noisy things. And perhaps the biggest of all, for a short while, was Neil Cole, an actor at the now-defunct Six Gun Territory near Ocala, Florida. He was the guy who, during the shootout, fell off the roof and landed in a cloud of dust. He told us after the show that he was a real cowboy, from the days when the town was a real western town. Right there in central Florida. We bought the whole story. My brothers and I ran around for days, maybe weeks, popping our cap guns and arguing over who got to be Neil Cole, the cowboy. Was I smitten? Almost fifty years later I remember the name of a 1960's theme park actor.
About heroes, I will say that Jay could do a lot worse than to idolize a hard-working single parent who goes out of his way to include a client's two-year-old in his work. A rough-hewn, heavily-weathered man who "gets" gentleness, Wayde will teach my son values I appreciate, without ever knowing he is doing it.