DOLLY & TOPSY

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My love of horses began early in my childhood when I visited my uncle’s farm along the Bonnechere River in the beautiful Ottawa Valley of Ontario, Canada. I loved watching the magnificent draft horses at work harvesting the hay from my uncle’s fields on late-summer days. And sometimes I was allowed to help!

My ‘help’ consisted of standing behind the buckboard at the front of the wagon and tugging the reins to guide the horses to turn right or left as they plodded along hauling the wagon and hay loader. I was quite impressed at how quickly they obeyed me, as I took my teamster responsibilities quite seriously.

Many years later when we were reminiscing about those halcyon times, my uncle told me that the reins had been securely tied around the front of the buckboard and that the horses were responding to his voice, not my dutiful tugs on the reins. Although I was a bit miffed at first with this revelation, I quickly recovered as my uncle and I went on sharing wonderful memories from those cherished childhood visits to the farm.

In the mid-1950’s, my uncle had two Percheron horses—one white and one black. Their names were Dolly and Topsy. There was a steep hill on one of the fields that the horses had to navigate as they brought the loaded wagon back to the barn to be relieved of its huge burden of freshly harvested hay. Since he had not the luxury of an extra man to drive the team, the reins were loosely tied around the front beams on the wagon while the horses worked pulling the loader as my uncle called commands to them from the top of the ever growing pile of hay on the wagon. The reins were later released and used to guide the horses to the exact place my uncle wanted the wagon to stop under the huge hay fork that was used to haul the hay up into the hay mow.

While harvesting the hay, the loader relentlessly pulled the hay onto the wagon; my uncle relentlessly forked and balanced the load. Commands were spoken to the obedient animals as man and beast worked together in harmony to bring in the harvest. Descending the hill, my uncle calmly, yet authoritatively, coaxed and guided the horses safely to the bottom with their precarious load.

Hooooo now, eaaaaasy Topsy, easy Dolly, eaaasy now. My uncle’s steady voice talked the horses step-by-step down the hill, where often times they had to almost sit back on their haunches to hold back the weight of the wagon. At the bottom of the hill a quiet ‘haw’ turned the horses left down the lane towards the barn, and at the gate, gee turned them right into the yard and on to the barn.

Why did these massive, powerful horses obey my uncle’s voice?

Because they knew his voice. And they trusted him.

There is a correlation between authority and obedience.

The horses trusted my uncle. They obeyed because they had been trained to obey from the time they first came into his care. They trusted my uncle because he sheltered them, protected them, fed them and cared for them. He taught them to obey both the tug of the reins and the sound of his voice. He never pushed them beyond their limits. He was a kind and loving master who never hesitated to discipline them when they were stubborn or disobedient, and who never failed to reward them when they did as he asked.

Once at the barn, the horses were driven into a space between two hay mows. A giant fork suspended from the ceiling was lowered and driven firmly into the hay. Ropes and pulleys hauled the laden fork back up into the loft where the fresh hay was released into the mow to await its winter destiny in the bellies of the horses who so diligently had helped with the harvest and the small herd of cattle that provided the much-needed milk for my uncle’s family.

Nothing in the world can compare to the smell of the freshly mowed and harvested hay, the sweet sweaty smell of the perspiring horses (and men) and dank barnyard smells replete with chicken, pig and cow manure.

I loved every minute of it! My uncle, my grandfather, my father, and at times, my brother, who helped on the farm during his teen years, worked hard. My aunt cooked nutritious meals and my cousins and I played on the rock fences and cedar rails that lined the fields.

What wonderful memories I have of summer visits to the farm. Those days are long gone, but even now, as an adult, the smell of freshly mowed hay, the smell of a horse or the sound of clanking machinery swiftly take me back to those halcyon days.

Here is a short video of hay being harvested using an old-fashioned hay-loader exactly as it was done by my uncle and grandfather. The draft horses look like Belgians, another lovely breed of heavy horse—a bit smaller than the sleek Percherons, but just as amazing, as is every draft horse in its own right.

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