I remember riding a grand carousel as a child at the Jersey Shore. It was one of those old fashioned ones, with wooden horses, three rows deep, and (at least in my memory) it was fast. If you chose to ride one of the horses on the outer most edge of the carousel you could try and grab a brass ring, which lowered out of the top of the canopy and it took a perfect combination of reach, effort, and the bobbing of your horse to actually grab it. I was maybe ten years old when I grabbed that brass ring on the back of a white horse. I was one of the lucky ones. When I had it in my sweaty palm I held onto it like it was destined for Mordor, so precious. If memory serves me right I slipped it into my pocket to keep.
I think I stole that brass ring because it was the token of a fantasy, something I knew I could never relive back in Palmerton, my home town. There were no horses on Columbia Avenue. So If I wanted to carry around a tangible memory of time spent on horseback I would need to break the law. I loved that experience, even if the horse was made of wood and leather. I may not have been real but it was the closest I could get, or ever imagine getting. I loved the feeling of moving fast on top of a horse. I felt like something I was supposed to do, that my mind—even as a child—felt was correct. So I held that ring tight and instead of throwing it back into the collection bucket.
What can I say? I'm pretty ruthless when it comes to love.
Today I spent an afternoon sitting with friends new and old in a series of horse-drawn vehicles. It was my first event as a new member of the Washington County Draft Animal Association, and it was wonderful. I arrived with Mark and Patty Wesner and their Percheron gelding, Steele. They were the only people I knew, but I quickly learned people interested in horse power were a friendly and like-minded ilk. It didn't take long to feel comfortable.
If the word "horse people" in your mind brings up images of snotty, upperclass, over achievers: this is not that stereotype. The Draft Association is regular folks, just folks who happen to love traditional modes of transportation and horses, and not everyone has a 401k or even a full set of teeth. These are people who love working horses, mules, ponies, and donks. There were 11-hand Hackneys pulling small metal carts and 19-hand Shires moving surreys with three rows of passengers. and besides that: everyone was different. I loved this about the club. I loved watching museum curators and architects bullshit and laugh with secretaries and truckers. I loved the happy camaraderie, and this unspoken love everyone had for their horses. This was not a scene to probe yourself in. It was one to enjoy yourself in.
We rode a 7-mile trail through paved and dirt roads. We passed farms and other horses, homes and busy intersections. People who weren't driving just road along, as there was plenty of room for passengers and fun. I rode the 3.5 miles out with Patty and Steele and road back with Jan and a wagon full of my county-men. Strangers, mostly, but happy travelers all the same. It is pretty hard to not be amicable on a horse cart on a Saturday.
I remember when I was taking riding lessons one of my instructors said, "There was no such thing as a pet horse. All horses are for sale at a price" and she was of course talking about her world of dressage and hunter jumpers. She couldn't make a living keeping every (or any!) good horse she trained. But at the WCDAA that idea was blown out of the water. Beloved old Shires, Clydesdales, Percheron and Haflingers lined the county roads. These animals would live, work, and die on their owner's farms and become things of Legend. One man wearing a "Lou-King-Good Certified Contractor" t-shirt just returned from a 200-mile road trip with his 6 and 7-year old Percheron geldings. He took his family in a gypsy wagon down to camp in Massachusetts and back home to Washington County. I actually saw them in Cambridge a few weeks ago, ambling up route 22. I was driving back to Cold Antler with Ajay after some errands in town and I remember saying how I loved that horse-drawn vehicles were common here. Not just for parades and Amish folks, it was just another way to get around. I thought of Mary Cricket and her corn cart outside the Salem Agway, and Patty and Steele and I driving for ice cream. This is normal here, and I love the whole damn County for it.
I joined the WCDAA today. I didn't bring Merlin, since I am getting his $99 eBay harness repaired by an Amish man upstate and my little red cart still needs tires, but I still wrote my thirty-dollar check and signed the paperwork. I left the party that day proud as a peacock. I'm a member in good standing. I have a draft pony, and a cart, and friends who know a hame from a singletree. This is certainly not a common hobby, but it is a welcoming one. And next weekend I will be driving my own Fell amongst the big horses in Arlington, Vermont. We have a pancake breakfast at the grange by the covered bridge and then a 7-mile river trot followed by another enormous potluck. It'll be a whole new experience driving Merlin out there. I can't wait.
I'll leave you for the night with this story. Since I was now a member, I was legally able to drive another member's team and so I took the lines from an experienced member named Jan, who let me lead her team of Haflinger Mares down busy roads. I can't begin to describe what it feels like to be controlling two beautiful blonde horses in a pre-thunderstorm wind, carrying a wagon of six people to a feast. It is a sensation that does not belong in this modernity. Something magical, special, and only available to those willing to reach out and take it.
For the first time since I was a little girl, I grabbed a brass ring.