Yesterday was the kind of day that puts meat on the bones of my spirit. My daughter had to get a few volunteer hours at the 4-H riding park completed, so we piled some shovels, rakes and gloves in the back of the van and drove out to the forty-acre park. For me it was to get it over with, I have to admit–one of those things I know I should do, always end up being glad to have met new folks and been useful, but hard to make myself commit to in the beginning.
The gravel parking lot was busy with volunteer vehicles parked on one side, trucks and horse trailers on the other, horses and mules tied outside, riders getting set up. After getting directions from the volunteer coordinator–a short, ample woman we recognized as the straight-faced but kind and patient judge for the practical horsemanship event a few weeks ago–we took our tools and walked out to the first group on the trail. The air was warm and damp, the light filtering through the overcast sky was gentle on the eyes. The trail was just over a foot wide, red-brown soil lumpy from human and equine steps; the forest floor under the maples and alders and right up to the trail edges was carpeted with false lily-of-the-valley, pale pink bleeding hearts and trillium leaves above moss and ferns, and punctuated by rotting stumps and spongy fallen branches. An occasional breeze shook down tiny clumps of red and white maple flowers and silver drops from the last rain. We introduced ourselves to Sonia, Joan, Cody, and another girl whose name I can’t recall now, and soon up came a train of mules ridden by a silver-haired rider in brown suede and cowboy hat. Sonia gave me a quick lesson in how to time the release of the saddle bag ropes, direct the gravel down the leather chute onto the trail, and retie the slipknots.
In each train the rider rode one horse ahead of the two pack animals, the three linked together loosely by rope. There were horses and mules, some sleek and show quality, some draft horses, some furry and striped like their ancestors. The two following animals carried balanced loads of gravel in leather chutes folded and tied to form bags. Back and forth the four trains–a dozen animals in all–carried their loads, the men guiding, encouraging, training, and managing the fears of the less experienced animals. It was a beautiful thing. In response to my inquiries Sonia told me they were from Back Country Horsemen, and some also worked with Animals as Natural Therapy on excursions for youth who didn’t get out of town much or at all.
The whole time I felt a steady delight and sense of privilege as a participant in a process that was both poetic and practical, both traditional–even ancient–and relevant for our time of declining access to cheap oil-based fuels. Could these men train others and work with the county, the cities, to migrate some of their horse stables closer to cities, start providing trail work and even transportation, transitioning to a less oil-dependent ways? Bus children to school, taxi folks out and back on errands, haul deliveries? Maybe convert streets so there’d be a paved bike trail on one side, an earth horse-trail on the other? What subtle changes in worker and customer would come about by switching to movement via flesh and blood and beautiful form?
I watched how delicate and narrow were the horses’ line of steps along the trail, and thought of what wounds in the loam and gashes in the tree bark would have had to be healed if any kind of wheeled vehicle had been used here. Each of the four horsemen had the same relaxed smile and air of work’s fulfillment about their countenance. Our work required strength and some simple skills with shovel and rake, but was also restful, a sort of punctuated equilibrium. The company was easy and quiet as we stood under spring leaves and commented on the appropriateness of fit of the weather to the work and the obvious improvement to the trails that was being realized. And while I value the riding my daughter and her fellow girl riders can experience through the performance riding club and showing in their fancy clothes and silver-trimmed saddles, it seems to me that doing real work with horses, whether making trails, hauling logs, or plowing a field, not merely for pleasure but pleasant nonetheless, is more fitting. Although we worked for over three hours, I was energized when it was over and regretted having to leave.