Monday, May 22, 2006


Watching the Preakness was a bad experience this year, because one had to watch that gorgeous, streamlined, proud and shining creature stumble and falter, his leg broken in two places, I believe, as well as damage to his hoof. It was heartbreaking to watch, not only because of the beauty of the racehorse, but simply because its owner lost so much money, time and effort. This horse had been destined to be our first Triple Crown winner in many years. He had a chance to live up to that dream.

There is something about racehorses that tugs the heart. They are so proud, hold their heads so high, yet walk and run with effortless grace, not embellished by egotism or awareness, for they have no idea how beautiful they are, what magnificent creatures they represent. but running with sheer joy at being alive, with such fluid, powerful movements.

Much different than a human being on parade, the beauty pageants where the bodies may be svelte and lovely, but the smiles are fixed, the eyes glazed with desire to win, and the movements so practiced.

Besides, racehorses do not say, "I'd like to see World Peace!"

There is a vast difference between a racehorse and a plowhorse. I grew up amid plowhorses and they are not such beautiful examples of God's grace. They are big and clumsy. They have huge feet. They move in slow, lumbering gaits and rather than holding their heads high, they hold them down in their efforts to pull whatever load they are hitched to pull, be it a wagon or a plow.

But their hearts are the same. They respond in the same way to an apple or a touch of sugar. And they will snort gratefully in response to a hug or a soft hand run over their bodies.

Even lower on the echelon of beasts of burden is the mule. My father loved mules. One of the times I have ever seen him become emotional, besides the day that Deed left for the Army, was when Old Kate died.

Old Kate may not have been so old, no one knew her age. I don't even know where Pop found her, but she took up residence in our barn and stayed there until she died. She was a hard worker, Kate, with a strong heart and pure ideals, giving her best to the task. And she ignored the fact that her legs were deformed, the tendons pulled up in such a way that she was forced to walk on tiptoe.

About twice a year, Hubert and Bud would come to the Farm to help Pop file down "Old Kate's toenails". They would file away at her hooves, trying to create a flat surface so that she could walk with some measure of comfort. Throughout this ordeal, as they worked with a rusted rasp, Old Kate would stand patiently, as though aware they were trying to help her.

Old Kate was not our only mule. Others came and went, as did the horses. Horses and mules together are an interesting combination. There is always a horse ringleader that the others followed. They were so loyal they would follow this leader anywhere, through a fence, down the road, all the way to town.

It was my duty to join the forces herding them all back into the pasture. There we would go, all of us available to join the rescue efforts, clad in a variety of housecoats, sleeping garments, or what have you, wielding brooms and dishcloths and anything else available that would help herd a group of horses and mules.

They were not cooperative, but would sometimes split into groups and run in different directions. It took a long while to get them all together and get them back in the barn. We could have used a few cowponies and perhaps a lariat or two, but dishcloths and brooms were all we had...along with a few barking dogs to add to the confusion.

The situation became so common that Hubert decided it was time for Pop to join the Machine Age. He went out and bought the World's Oldest Tractor and brought it to the Farm for Pop to use. Pop, of course, scoffed at this rusted, paint-peeled example of Manmade farming methods and declared it useless.

"I'll show you, Pop! It will makes things easier for you!" declared Hubert. He then jumped on the tractor and chugged away from where we stood in the barnyard. The old tractor coughed and wheezed as it moved slowly along, but I was thrilled by this example of New Age Comfort arriving on our Farm.

It took Hubert about ten minutes to get the tractor hopelessly mired in the swamp. The motor roared and roared, but the more Hubert tried to get out of the pit he had fallen into, the bigger the hole the tires dug in the muck.

With an expression of great pleasure, and flourishing his moves with the mules' harness, Pop hitched up Old Kate and her partner, Jack. He then walked them to the swamp and hooked them up to the tractor, as Hubert sheepishly looked on. The muscles on the backs of the mules bunched and strained, but the tractor slowly moved out of the mudhole. Pop led the mules as they dragged the contraption back to the barnyard, as Hubert trailed behind.

The tractor sat in lonely desolation in the pasture for as long as I can remember, as Pop continued to use his animals for the farm chores. As far as he was concerned, the fact that the tractor had gone into the swamp and the fact that the mules had pulled it out proved for once and for all that the old style methods of farming were best. It was all right, he thought, for men to use newfangled machinery in factories, amid the dust and the debris, but under God's blue sky, his creatures were intended to do the chores.

When a horse or mule died on the farm, Pop would send it off to the glue factory, and that was Old Kate's eventual fate. Sometimes he would buy a mule for $5 and sell it after its death for $15, quite a profit, and I used to wonder if the glue I used at school was made from our old friends.

It was a sad day on the Farm when Old Kate passed on. Tears flowed liberally at the death of the crippled, courageous mule. This is why my heart goes out to the owner of that racehorse. To love an animal, whether it be worth millions or $15 bucks dead, is still heartbreak, no doubt about it.