Ufford: Whiskey for my friends, tears for my horses

Joy Ufford photos.

A midday phone call, not unusual in and of itself – but another sad one.

Another old friend died. Ed, unable to heave himself to all four massive feet and shake himself off as he’d done for so many years after a good day’s work.

Ed, whose whiskery lips would nibble gently on my hand before I slid the leather neck yoke off his rugged shoulders.

Ed – or “Bighead Ed” as I nicknamed him – gave me my first personal experience working with a team one winter many winters ago. He and Kate, a short stocky Belgian mare, fascinated me with how to harness a team of workhorses and watch them work.

Kate retired after that winter, finding it harder to keep up with feisty Ed on her left. His next partner was a larger tubby gray – “Poky Smoky – and they became inseparable quickly. They gnawed their bits, Ed often pulling a more reluctant Smoky through deep snow to make new feed lanes, huge knees breaking above the surface.

My left arm grew stronger; I called it my “Ed driving arm.” Over the many years to follow, we created our little rituals. Before the water tank with a propane heater was installed, I’d walk them to the trickling stream where a nervous Ed would fidget and fuss about where he put his feet. Smoky would swirl his mustached in the arctic stream and blow before settling down for a drink.

Bighead Ed and Poky Smoky also liked to roll in the snow after work, sniffing out the perfect spot. First Smoky, then Ed. Ed grew stiffer but never gave up, much like another homegrown workhorse I loved – Snip. She and a blond, suntanned Belgian I named “Dude” were the winter feeding team at the ranch.

Both Snip and Ed were both giant bays with crazy black gypsy manes. Both felt obligated to call deep within their hearts and keep pulling. For Snip I’d gather some soft grass from the loose hay piled in the hayrack they pulled every day. That was Snip’s idea of a treat. I’d twist her forelock into a braid and tell Dude he was the suntanned hero of the Golden West.

Snip and Dude, being older with aching shoulders, retired several years ago. She grew thinner and thinner but was still majestic. She ruled the gang of saddle horses and workhorse colts. This winter, she came home to the corrals near the house, where the oldest and youngest are kept.

Several times I wandered out to her with a plastic grocery bag of green alfalfa leaves. She wasn’t even polite about snatching it from my hand.

Unfortunately, the others caught on and harassed us both. I realized this treat caused Snip more problems than it was worth – even for her.

Snip died not long ago and I cried because I could always count on her to try and listen when I asked her and Dude to “walk.” I think my talking to them, using their names, helped us pay more attention to each other.

Ed, and with him Smoky, were the same. Over the years we developed our little winter rituals. When they trotted to the finish line, I recalled a lesson from my college time as a school bus driver – when they don’t do what you want – stop. Stop and stay put until they decided to behave. Ed, being the toughest, took awhile. But eventually these two would walk – walk – around the corral and step perfectly into the parking spot they’d left from that morning.

“Excellent! Good job! Perfect!”

Unhooking Smoky and moving to the front, I’d pat each one and say “Great job! Excellent!”

Last week, that phone call about Ed dying made me cry. Kevin gave me a piece of Ed’s mane; Snip I’ll visit when her bones are uncovered. I didn’t get to say goodbye in good time but I will remember when the time comes.

For Valentine’s Day, I walk out with my horse treats to say hi to Dan, another one who’s getting old… pictures show us together for the past 14 years. Of course Dan comes over because he knows I have treats. When they’re gone, he walks away.

Smoky, who shared their first year of retirement after many years of pulling sleighs and mowing hay, waits for me as I talk to him, a little unsure. But he knows me so well from years with Ed. I figure he’s lonely now.

I scratch his ears like always after taking off his bridle, pats him and give him a hug, standing there as long as he will let me – a long time. He sets his massive white head over my shoulder and I tell him again what an excellent job he’s done. He exhales into my nose and I blow back. He chases away Reeves, who ventures too close.

I don’t think horses cry, but people do. If something happens to Smoky without me seeing him again, I want him to know I care about him. We are both feeling a little lonely, I think.

I finally trudge away across the winter pasture and look back. Reeves is still hanging with Smoky and I think, someone else cares. That makes it much easier for me to turn and walk to the green gate, snow so high I step right over the chain.

Looking back once more, I think of our great friends who have died in the past year – Blue Rocket, Billy, Powderville, Snip and now, Bighead Ed.

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Joy Ufford photos.

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