Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Runaway Horses

The harvest is nearly done for this year apart from a few acres of corn still drying on the stalks. I can watch the progression of the season every time I glance out my windows at the fields surrounding our home. My children used to love watching the big tractors and wagons trundling past the perimeter of our yard on their circuit of the neighboring farm. They learned early on to recognize the different equipment used to plant, cultivate and harvest various crops. Farming has come a long way since our parents’ time.

Back in the forties when my parents were on a small farm in Northern Ontario, they still worked with horses. Getting hay into the barn was a labor intensive proposition. First it had to be cut, then raked into windrows and finally loaded onto a wagon with pitchforks. Of course the load would then have to be forked into the barn. I believe my mother was still in her teens the year she had a little accident with the dump rake.

If you were operating a dump rake pulled by horses you would sit perched on a seat between a widely spaced set of two big wheels with the rake itself behind you. Your job would be to drive the horses up and down the field while the rake caught the hay up in its huge curving tines. When it was full there was a foot pedal that would lift the rake to dump its load before continuing on. The trick was to dump each load in line with the one beside it so that a fairly straight windrow was created. The wagon could then be driven slowly along each windrow while the hay was loaded.

Mom sat clutching the reigns in both hands as she slowly drove the rake across the field with her friend, Mary, walking alongside to keep her company. No one knows for sure what caused the horses to spook. Perhaps one of them got stung by a bee. In the blink of an eye their placid, tail-swishing plod became a confused jangle of stamping hooves and tossing heads. Mom was struggling to get the team under control when they bolted. She was thrown completely out of the seat and fell under the rake still grasping the reigns. Mary screamed and kept on screaming, which did not have a particularly calming effect on the runaway horses. Mom had no thought to spare for her friend. She knew with a sickening certainty that if she let go of the reigns it would mean getting caught in the tines of the rake as it was dragged over her by the fleeing team. She held on with a desperation born of fear as she was bounced across the rough stubble of the hay field with the rake looming over her. It was one of those situations where every second lasts an age. With the horses showing no signs of slowing she could feel her last strength draining away and she knew she couldn’t hold on any longer.

She closed her eyes as the reigns slipped out of her grasping fingers, convinced she was about to be mangled terribly. At that precise moment the tongue broke with a splintering crack, the jagged end catching in the dry earth and flipping the entire rake up and over to land upside down on the backs of the two horses. It stopped them cold and they stood sweating and trembling, shocked into immobility. It took a few moments for help to arrive, enough time for Mom to realize that she wasn’t dead after all. When she finally understood what actually happened she couldn’t believe how lucky she’d been. The timing was incredible. The whole thing could have ended very badly but apart from scrapes and bruises she came out of it all in one piece. I’m not so sure about luck though. I’ve always believed it was a miracle.

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