There have been several references to horses in other parts of these memoirs. From heavy horses for farm work to ponies and light horses to get from here to there, see they played a big role in our lives on the farm.
The one horse that stands out, front and center, in my growing up years was Buster. Buster was a Shetland pony, a pretty good-sized one as Shetland ponies go. He was black with a personality to match! Stubborn – he was so stubborn! I didn’t see the following incident, but it remains a family story told and re-told many times. My sister Ina, starting school at Ryerson at 6 years of age, was placed on Buster’s back who was then urged to leave the yard and go across the field to the school. At the end of the lane, Buster would lie down, rolling Ina off onto the ground. After some “disciplinary action” by Dad – probably repeated several mornings – Buster finally agreed to go. He loved to come home from school; going there was his problem. When brother Lyman was 6, he rode behind Ina. When Ina moved up to high school, I was ready to start school and got on behind Lyman. When Lyman went to high school I had Buster all to myself and he took me to school until I left Ryerson at the end of grade 9.
Buster and I herded our small herd of cows and calves on the road allowance every summer. The road allowance was the 99 ft strip of land separating one section (640 acres) of land from another. Our pasture land was not great and by the end of June was usually pretty bare of grass. So, my job (I was 10 or 11) was to move the cattle up and down the road allowance where the grass was plentiful. I would spend most of the day there, and Buster would sometimes nip a wayward cow in the rump if that was needed. He wasn’t afraid to try to bounce me off his back either, so that he could run home.
Horses did all the field work on the farm in the early days and an old horse was one that lived to be 10. Today’s pampered equines live well into their 20s. We had mostly Percherons with names like Bob and Prince, Mabel and Molly and “drivers” with names like Peggy and Flash. (Drivers were smaller, faster horses harnessed to a 2 person “cutter” sleigh in the winter, or a buggy in the summer).
I remember, at age 8 or 9, riding and steering with reins our big work horse Molly between the rows of corn and potatoes; Dad maneuvering a small garden cultivator behind us to root out the weeds. Molly was so broad in the back that I was stretched pretty wide and was glad when “skuffling” (that was the term) the potatoes was over.
When Dad bought our brand new John Deere Model “B” tractor in 1939. We paid for it with $700 plus a team of splendid black horses. We found out they were trained by the person who bought them to pull a bread or milk wagon in Brandon.
Horses were an integral part of farming – and here I digress a bit to explain how we had a lot to learn about putting up hay for feed for the animals. Part of the 320 acres we farmed was pasture – some of it grew tame hay, usually a mixture of brome grass and alfalfa. When it was ready to cut- we usually cut it too late for best quality forage – we used a 7 ft mower hauled by a 2 horse team (see photo on opposite page) to cut down the crop. In a day or so, depending on the weather, we would rake that hay into windrows, then straddle those rows and “bunch” the hay into piles. By this time, a lot of leaves had broken off and were lost on the ground. We then came with a team of horses and a rack to load the hay – more leaves lost. The hay was hauled to the barn, up the earthen gangway and into the loft. Thrown off, then thrown back into the corners of the loft, the hay finally came to rest. Later, in the winter, we carried that hay (still more leaves lost) over to a hole in the loft floor where it fell into the alley way in front of the cows or horses. Then it was forked into the mangers for them to eat. The loss of forage quality – not to mention the hours of labour, seems to me now to have made this a money-losing proposition all around. And it probably was. But it wasn’t over yet. After the hay had travelled through the horses and cows’ digestive system we had to load up the manure and take it out to the field to spread on the land.
In winter, the horses were housed in the barn. It was an easier time for them, although the 15 mile round trip to town for supplies wasn’t that easy. Typically, Dad would shovel 40 or 50 bushels of wheat onto the sleigh box- now mounted on sleighs instead of wheels – and set off on a cold winter morning with a team of heavy horses. He would deliver that grain to the local Manitoba Pool Elevator and then buy some coal for our heater in the house. He probably bought groceries too, but I would expect nothing too perishable for it was a three hour trip home from town and it might be 30 degrees below zero by late afternoon. For us kids the most important thing was that Dad might be bringing a new battery pack for the radio. As the old battery gradually lost power, we restricted our listening to the bare essentials. For our family that meant CBC radio news and, maybe, a Fibber McGee and Molly episode. But a new pack meant that we could listen to all the programs and turn up the volume! Waiting for Dad to come home, I recall looking across Harold Cairns’ pasture in the direction of Gordon Kennedy’s and seeing the horses moving slowly along, nostrils steaming in the frosty air. Dad would be walking behind the sleigh, slapping his arms against his body to try to keep warm, silhouetted against a sky from which a February sun had just disappeared.