To say my dad had a big heart, especially for family and children, would be an understatement, he was a pediatrician after all. However, that big heart rarely extended to animals. He was old school in that animals were just that, animals, things to perform a task with little affection being shown. Provide for their needs and use them as you will, anything else is wasted effort. I remember once when he was giving me a riding lesson he stated,
“Never be nice to your horse in the mountains cause it’ll get you killed.”
He learned horsemanship from old cowboys where a heavy hand was the norm. To be clear, my dad wasn’t cruel, he just rarely showed any affection for an animal. Try as I might to emulate that creed I just couldn’t. Instead, I always connected with the animals on a deeper level than what appeared to be the case with my father. That isn’t to say I didn’t jerk a rein hard when the horse was being obstinate, it’s just that I preferred to work with the horse rather than against it whenever possible. Perhaps it was the narrow mindedness that teens sometimes possess, but I just never saw my dad having that same point of view. Then one Christmas night he proved that he was much more than a heavy hand, when it came to horses, and that I should never look at the exterior gruffness of a person, but rather try to see the heart beneath.
It was early evening on Christmas Eve or Christmas day and dinner had ended. My younger siblings were playing with toys or the latest football video game that had become a tradition at our house. Whatever the case, most everyone was in the living room when I heard dad call me from the kitchen,
“Troy, come help me check the horses.”
Always preferring the company of horses or dogs over humans, I left the festivities and joined my dad. From the entry hall we went out into the cold garage and started putting on layers of wool and Carhart coveralls to fend off the single digit temps that we knew awaited us outside.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as I zipped up my Carharts, knowing full well that for my dad to go outside on Christmas was unheard of. He mumbled something about checking the horses’ water and feed, though I knew that was false, as I had set out a round bale for the herd just the day before and they still had plenty of hay. I didn’t press the issue, though, as I had learned to just go with it and not question everything my dad did. Once outside, the chill snapped at any exposed flesh as the snow creaked with each step of our boots.
“Go get one of the kid’s sleds and meet me over at the tack shed”, Dad ordered. I obeyed as I watched him trudge through the foot deep snow that had drifted across the path to the small log cabin serving as storage for all our saddles and horse related gear. Digging out a long red plastic sled that had been snowed over, I dragged it to the shed with the long rope that was tied to the front. “Here, help me out”, Dad requested, handing me a fifty pound bag of oats and then another one of alfalfa nuggets. Being the one responsible for the care of the horses and all the tack, I knew that these bags of feed were recently purchased and not by me. It was then that I realized what my dad was up to.
In silence we walked down the snow packed road toward where the horses stood huddled around the mound of hay, the laden sled dragging behind with both dad and I sharing the effort. Breathing caused the cold to sting our lungs and form icy clouds with each exhale. For almost three hundred yards we walked until dad was content with the spot. The horses were in another field about a hundred yards from us, huddled around the swath of hay that I had spread out with the tractor the day before. We were free of the bright lights that illuminated the house and now stood in the dark field with a sliver moon and a river of stars above us.
“Stomp down the snow”, Dad instructed me as he pulled out the big folding Buck knife he always carried. As I formed a trench with heavy steps of my boots, I heard the tearing of the bags and saw dad start to pour out a long line of oats in the boot formed trench. I went back and did the same with the bag of nuggets. As I finished, my dad let out a shrill whistle that echoed off the mountains surrounding us.
The low rumble of thundering hooves was heard across the snow as the dozen horses responded to the call. They had heard it before. The whistles always coincided with food. I used a different whistle than my dad but the effect was the same. At the head of the herd were our two Belgian draft horses, David and Goliath. After them came our various saddle horses, icy bellows blasted from their nostrils as their hooves shook the earth through the deep snow. It really was a beautiful sight, the clear night sky above, a partial moon making it almost like daytime with the blanket of snow, and through it all a thundering herd of horses.
Stomping hoofs and showers of snow halted the advance as nostrils sucked in the aroma of the oats and nuggets. The herd ignored us as they necked down to their Christmas treat. I watched as my dad went to each horse, patting their necks affectionately, and then quietly wishing them a Merry Christmas. I had done this before, sneaking out during Christmas to wish the dogs and horses a Merry Christmas, but always solo. I would load up my pockets with alfalfa nuggets to give as gifts but dad had taken it to a much higher level, as was his nature. Once the food was consumed, the horses milled around for a little while longer, sniffing us to make sure we hadn’t secreted away another treat for them. Satisfied that the food was gone, the herd meandered back to the hay they had left for their unexpected gift.
Without a word I grabbed the rope to the sled, and together with my dad, walked back to the house. The silence of winter always appealed to me but that night it was even more powerful. I saw my dad differently that night and it forever changed my view of him as a person, as a horseman.
Going back into the house, the blessed silence of the outdoors was replaced with the noisy merriment's we had abandoned an hour earlier. No one noticed we were back, and for that matter I don’t think anyone realized we had departed. Neither dad nor I said a word, as none were needed.
Merry Christmas everyone. May your family, your pack, your herd, all be blessed.