My Hay Day
By James Huskins

Dateline: 2 April 2015
(photo link)

I've come to know about Jim Huskins the same way I've come to know about a lot of other intelligent, uniquely talented, down-to-earth folks.... he happened upon this blog, and sent me an e-mail. 

Jim may not refer to himself as a Christian-agrarian, but he certainly fits the description. He's a pastor with a background in horse farming. Besides that, he's a banjo maker, a banjo player, a banjo-making teacher, a carpenter, a mechanic, and a talented writer (in other words, he not a typical helpless modern man). If that's not enough to pique your interest, Jim is also happens to know Wendell Berry. 

But wait, there's more... Jim is currently transforming a transit bus into a mortgage-free home for him and his wife. He has been writing about the bus/home project since 2012 (with pictures) at This Link. And if you read far enough into the bus project story, you discover that Jim has also built himself a Whizbang Garden Cart (click here to see it).

The following essay is being published here with the permission of James Huskins. 

My Hay Day
By James Huskins

Hay season is the highlight of my farming year. Weeks before the first cutting, usually sometime in early June, I move the mower from shed to shop. Then, as time allows, I sharpen, grease, tighten, adjust. I gauge the bearings and bushings for wear. If the gearbox shows oil leaks, I replace the offending seals. No motor maintenance is necessary. This mower is powered by horses.

On the morning of first cutting—hay day, we call it—an electronic scream jolts me from sleep at four a.m. Too excited to eat, I dress and hurry to the barn to feed and harness the team.

By flashlight I lead both horses from roomy box stalls to the water trough outside. They follow me readily, as anxious as I am for this day to begin. Each horse drinks almost five gallons, and I marvel again at their capacity while drawn-out throat muscles contract in wavelike ripples. Back in the barn, I stand at each stall door and unsnap a lead. They would step inside even without the enticement of awaiting hay and grain.

As the horses eat, I attend each one carefully with curry comb and brush, removing the remnants of yesterday’s dried sweat and stray bits of straw bedding, stimulating the blood flow just beneath their skin, adding polish to the faint, healthy shimmer that delights a horseman. I love this part of the ritual. Every inch of their bodies is known to me in the grooming, and I revel in their defined muscles. With almost no light, their form is intimate to my fingers, and even their colors flood my mind—Scruggs like a shiny old penny, Flatt a bit darker than ripe wheat.

When the grooming is finished, I walk to the tack room for collars. Each one allows the momentary interruption of his meal as I slide a 25-inch leather collar over his face and force it gently past his eyes. When each collar passes its owner’s ears, I turn it right-side-up and slide it down against the broad, obliquely-sloping shoulders that will bear the force of our day’s work. 

The shoulders of a draft horse must always be given exact care, and a horse’s collar size can vary with seasonal changes in body weight. Mowing requires extra attention to fit. The mower generates vibration in addition to heavy load. These conditions, with a poorly fitting collar, can rub a painful sore on a horse’s shoulder in less than one round of the field. A sore can take weeks to heal. I triple check the fit of each collar, testing with my fingers for just the right clearance at the throat, making sure we have no clearance at the sides and top. We do not own a spare horse. A collar sore now could cost the hay crop.  

The rest of the harness must seem a maze of straps and buckles to the untrained. Each harness hangs shoulder high on two wooden pegs. I slide my right arm through Scruggs’ gear from the back and with each hand grasp a tubular, steel hame topped with a brass knob. Speaking to the sorrel horse, I approach his left side and reach across his neck with my right arm to drop the two hames in place in the collar groove. I buckle the hame string at the collar throat. Then I pull the rest of the harness the length of his back and slide the breeching under his tail. One buckle at the belly band, a snap on the breast strap beneath his neck, two snaps beneath his belly to connect quarter straps and pole strap, and I’m almost finished.

After similar attention to Flatt, I bring in the bridles and each horse receives the part of the harness that allows human control. Flatt takes his jointed, iron bit with no protest, but Scruggs always makes a show of resisting before reluctantly opening his mouth. 

The two become a team as I lead them to the hitching rail and tie them alongside each other. An Indiana teamster named Mike Hart taught me how to store the check-lines in loops around the hames (could that have been thirteen years ago?), and I always think of Mike as I take down the lines and buckle each one to the bit rings. Then I unsnap the lead ropes and step behind the horses with lines in hand. My hands tremble a bit as I use gentle tension to signal my readiness. I speak their names, and our dance begins.

These horses are named for musicians. A Bluegrass duo. Names chosen to reflect close harmony and intricate rhythm. We walk to the mower and Flatt steps over the ash tongue. I say, “Whoa,” then “Back,” and they back into place. Both horses usually back a bit out of line, and I pull each one by his breeching closer to the double tree while speaking the command, “Over.” Then I lay down the lines with confidence—this is a mark of a good team—while I walk to the front of the tongue and pick it up. They stand still while I snap the four-inch steel rings on each end of the wooden neck yoke to their breast straps. Then, after stepping behind the horses, I take down two traces from each one and hook heel chains to single trees. We’re ready to mow.

Scruggs is anxious to be in motion, and he almost takes a step when I pick up the lines. A softly spoken “Whoa” is enough to keep him in place until I am seated and ready to start. I drive to the edge of the field and stop to wait for enough light to begin mowing. Then, I slip the Maglite out of my pocket and look at my watch. It’s five thirty. We have fifteen minutes to wait.

Those minutes ooze stubbornly by, and my mind begins to sift through the details of mounting a light system to the mower. I could clamp a battery-box behind the axle, bolt a short piece of square tubing to the oil can holder that would mount two halogen lights, attach a third light to the front of the tongue….

Scruggs nickers softly to tell me we are now  surrounded by the palest of gray dawn. That miser’s-portion of light is enough to reorient me to the reality of my own intentions. One of the reasons I have chosen to farm with horses is that they don’t have lights. They make it impossible to do day-work at night. This is one of the gifts of muscle-powered technology. In choosing horses I have chosen their limitations, and I am satisfied within those margins. 

But at this moment, on the first day of hay season, we face no limits but our endurance. Our next restraint will be the sun moving toward its intensity around ten o’clock, but that is hours away. I pull barely noticeable pressure on the bits, and both horses rotate their ears toward me. The exaggerated kissing sound I send them is synchronized with a bit of slack in the lines, and they step out. I slip the mower into gear with my left foot. Hay season has begun.

Several things happen as the mower is engaged: the clatter and vibration of the moving sickle-knife cause Scruggs to make half a hop with his hind legs, and this causes Flatt to settle even more intently into his collar. I discover an urgent need to release the breath I have been unconsciously holding for the past minute. By their third step, Scruggs has settled into his partner’s cadence, and I am lining up the outboard end of the six-foot sickle bar with the edge of the field on my right. Mowing hay with a cutter-bar mower—whether horse or tractor powered—is done in a clockwise direction—except for the first round. We travel counter clockwise on the first trip to cut the edges. 

Flatt and Scruggs are pleased to be mowing in the coolest moments this day will know. They would trot if I allowed, but I know they will need that energy later in the day. Besides, seeing the edge of the field with only a hint of light is difficult enough at a walk. I hold them back while I strain to see well enough to keep the end of the cutter-bar following the lip of the field. We travel a dozen steps before I relax enough to realize that I am surrounded by the smell of new-cut alfalfa.

One of Tom Robbins’ characters claims that smell is eighty percent of a sensual experience. During hay season, I agree. Even many non-farm people are familiar with, and delighted by, the earthy-sweet smell of new hay. That smell does not mature, though, until the hay is cured and ready to put up. This fragrance bears hints of the ripeness to come, but it is softer, more pungent, more fragile. It’s almost like fresh-picked spinach. I suck in the the dew-wet tanginess of this morning’s air, smiling in gratitude that I am not isolated from the hay by a glassed-in cab or diesel stench.

Before we finish the first round the light is stronger and I can relax a bit. At the corner where we started I raise the cutter-bar with the foot-lift and shift the mower out of gear. Then I pull slightly on the left line and say, “Haw.”  The horses sidestep 180 degrees until we are in place to begin a new direction. I time dropping the bar and engaging the machine a half-second after the “Come up.”  Once again the horses step out smartly, and I am no longer constrained by the need to watch posts and trees on the field’s edge. Driving now means keeping Flatt walking just outside the uncut margin of the field, and that happens partly by instinct—his and mine. Finally I am free to watch the six-foot ribbon of alfalfa as it trembles on first contact with the mower knife, then falls over the bar in an unbroken wave. The sight captivates me. I find it necessary to pay attention to my driving—to not be mesmerized by the stream of new-mown hay falling in our wake. 

The first corner is a reminder of my duties. “Whoa.”  As I lift the bar, I pull solidly on both lines. “Back.”  Immediately the horses lean backward against their breeching straps, and we reverse direction, accompanied by the metallic clanging of the wheel ratchets. “Gee.”  Still backing, they swing to the right to line up the mower with the next edge. “Whoa.”  This time they do not stop but take take three or more steps backward before coming to a halt. I've never figured out why they don’t stop at once when backing, and I’ve never been able to persuade them to do so. It is a small deviance from perfection, simply a quirk I’ve learned to live with. “Come up,” and we’re mowing again.

Except for rare breakdowns, little interrupts the rhythm of the mowing. Occasionally, after we’ve mowed into a patch of especially dense growth or I’ve daydreamed while the loose-piled dirt of a gopher mound sneaked up on us, I have to stop and unplug the sickle. Otherwise, we only stop to rest. Since the horses are fresh and the air is cool, we may make two or three rounds before I allow them a break. I judge their need to rest by the rate of their breathing and their willingness to stand at the corners. After a while, I give them half a minute’s breather once each round. As the morning grows older and the temperature warmer, both the frequency and the length of the stops increase. By the time we knock off in late morning, even though the field is much smaller, we are resting at every corner. During one of these rests I notice that my neighbor to the east is in his field, too.

This neighbor is a big-time farmer. Today he is working milo ground with a three-hundred-horsepower Versatile tractor. His eight immense tires hold him far above the earth, and I can see the fans spinning on the air conditioner unit atop his glass-walled cab. Even as sweat dribbles from my nose, I find myself pitying him for missing the smell of my hay and of his own good ground. Suddenly, I am overcome by the humor of his system of farming—spending so much on immense hardware designed to separate a farmer from the smell and the feel and the taste of the earth. As he makes the turn at the common edge of our fields, I surprise the resting horses by throwing my head back and laughing aloud. During that deep, rolling laugh, I happen to catch a glimpse of my neighbor through the back glass of his cab. He’s laughing too.

(photo link)


wildbillb said...

loved it. thanks for taking me out in the field with the team.

Everett R Littlefield said...

Oh Herrick, This post just sent me back to being a kid again. I used to help my Grandfather when he did his haying. He used a single horse rig for the mowing and the next day for putting it in windrows and draglining it to a common spot to either load it on a wagon or truck or to just build a haystack. The smell of new mown hay is enough to make you want to grab a handful and start chewing. And I HAVE done that! But no swallowing the stuff except the juice. Yummy it was. absolutely grreat post. Everett

Pam Baker said...

Oh my.
You speak of my deepest desire.
Draft horses.
I'm not a "horse lover" per se, but there is something about working with horses that strikes a visceral and primal chord so profound I almost weep.
I took a draft horse workshop last April just for fun and on the last day came away a changed person.
A wonderfully written account of a satisfying day at "work". We should all be so fortunate.
Thank you so much for sharing with us. I am deeply honored.
Pam Baker

Denis said...

Hi Herrick,
I wondered where the clicks to my Hay making post were coming from :-) I own the bottom photo. I thoroughly enjoyed that read and delighted my pic is being used on your post. It was taken at our local annual Hay Making festival which is always good fun.