30 April 2014

Christmas Chores: An Essay (Part 2)

Recap from Part 1

  Trudging through hard snow before 7:00 a.m. is no way to celebrate Christmas. My hands, stuffed into pockets, are cold even beneath the two sets of gloves I wear, and my shoulders hunch against the bitter, dark winter morningMy cheeks numb as I walk, and my eyes squint against the cold....
 One thought repeatedly interrupts my thoughts: Horses react to the smell of fear.

Part 2
The three yearlings — hungry and mischievous — stand ready at the gate. As I release the stiff chain that secures it, they nuzzle and nip, bite and jostle at each other, occasionally butting at the gate. 

The stud dominates. But the fillies fight back — with twice as much flirtation as earnestness, I think. Pampered, well formed, and prized for high spirits, they all tend to push and romp when excited—an unpleasant reality for anyone caught between their bodies when they bolt. Especially someone as short and unpracticed as I.

I can, however, avoid confrontation.

Inside the corral, and further down the fence, stands a large tub of water. In the summer it must be dumped every day to rid it of insects, pine needles, and manure — and I must enter the corral to do it. But in the winter, it need not be dumped so often, and I can merely — if the water is not frozen — hoist a hose over the wall. Usually the yearlings gather to watch the tub fill, allowing me to enter furtively, ration quickly, and retreat from their feeder before they return to nip at the bucket in my hand and anything else within reach.

Today the tub is frozen solid. But two of the three animals — the stallion and one of the females — have already crossed over, sniffing in disdain at the ice. The third animal nuzzles at the empty feeder.

The odds are pretty good. Christmas present.

I'm 15, and every moment matters now. My boots seem too heavy as I move. I jerk the metal gate open and, as the other two yearlings advance towards the bright green bucket I carry, dispense three canfuls of feed, dodging around the third yearling. I'm out of reach as fast as I can be, and the thoroughbreds turn to the feeders, bumping and vying for positions. They notice nothing else now, and I make good my escape.

One-third of the process down. Now they need hay. 

Perhaps the most enjoyable part about issuing hay is slashing the bales open. The flakes fall apart as I sever the twine with a cheap pocketknife. Good. For once the flakes separate easily. I will not need to stick around to pry it loose once it is in the feeders.

Here, as with everything else the boss does, method reigns. Each horse receives for its rations a 10-inch portion of a bale. The boss tends to take the portions separately; it avoids spills on the ground and on oneself. But this is no time to care about what I look like. I can do it in two trips rather than three.

The yearlings have all but finished their grain by the time the first flakes shower into the feeders. As they probe the basins for the last kernels, I hurry back, grab the last section, and slog through mud and manure to the feeder. As I hoist it over, part of it spills onto me and the ground. Spitting out hay, wiping it out of my nose, and trying to see through the dust and hay mites that have landed in my eyes, I shove the rest into the feeder. Not until I have gained the gate and clanged it shut it behind me do I stop to brush myself off. My heart hurts from pounding.

The watering still remains.

For breaking ice, an old length of metal pipe stands propped beside the hay bales. I clutch it with throbbing fingers and sneak through the gate. Hugging the wall like James Bond, my feet sticking in the smelly slush, I head for the tub. A hole in the ice appears after a few purposeful blows, and I stealth back. The stud rears his head up to watch me as I move. Then he buries it back in the manger.

The gate clangs shut, and I breathe a loud sigh of relief as I replace the chain, not caring who hears me.

Reaching the pump, I lift the handle and let the streaming hose slither over the wall. My nose feels frozen, inside and out.  Smells of pines and water, dirt, manure, horses and hay all mingle deliciously as my lungs fill with air and my heart begins to beat more rhythmically. The sky grows lighter, though the cold does not dissipate. My boots, caked in brown stench, now all but skip to issue rations to the foals in the stalls nearby.

That chore does not take long, for I can do just about everything outside their pens. When I finish, I swing the big gate shut securely. The sound reverberates in the still morning. My teeth chatter, and my toes sting as they trudge back to the old shed. The cold pokes fun at my longing for my new pajamas and some hot wassail at home.

I must still mix the grain for the afternoon shift.

My boss has disappeared. Sounds from the 5-horse barn further down the property betray his whereabouts. Inside the tack room, eighteen #10 cans and 2 buckets now stand empty. I do not remove my gloves; I can hardly move my fingers as it is.

Each horse gets the equivalent of one #2.5 can of grain….

My boss reappears as I mix the last bucket and sets down three more cans. “Make sure Zebu gets only ¾ the grain. She’s not eating like she was when she was younger.”

It is the same every morning.

Quickly we mix the last 3, settle the time card, switch off the light, and heave the old, warped door shut, locking it with some difficulty. It takes two of us — one to brace the door, the other to grunt at the lock. Today I find myself with the key. Teeth gritted, I strain until I feel the bolt give way and slide into place.

Inside the big open barn, just off from the shed, 18 horses munch around hay-filled feeders. Here, the hay has been loosened with tender care. The horses do not rip at flakes or jostle for position like in the round corral. These are the brood mares, the gentle ones. They were yearlings once too, wild and unruly. Now foaling and age have tamed them. I fancy that as soon as those fillies in the corral start breeding, they too will become docile. There is no hope for the stallion.

As usual, my boss insists on checking these 18 mares one more time on our way out. As he adds a flake here and loosens one there, I stand back and watch, touched by his tenderness to them.

Stench hangs strongly in the barn, though no flies disturb the freezing air — the one advantage of winter-feeding. My cheeks feel numb, my fingers sting, my toes beg for warmth. Clouds hang heavy over the barns and trees. I had not noticed before; it was too dark. But it does not matter. For once I am glad that I feed here in the mornings instead of the afternoons. I will spend the rest of Christmas Day inside, warming up.

Tomorrow morning I will come back and do it all again.

We walk back silently. My boss did not bring the golf cart out today. At the end of the driveway, we part ways. “Merry Christmas,” he says with a hint of a smile. I turn to him in surprise, but he has already started back. A smile forms, and I wish him the same. He raises a hand in acknowledgment, back still turned, before disappearing behind the trees.

My dung-laden boots crunch back the way they came, leaving stains in the snow. My hands hide from the cold, and my nose burrows into my coat collar, hot breath frosting inside. The street is deserted; I am all that moves.

It is 8:30 on Christmas morning.

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