A few months ago in September, when the weather was warmer, the leaves a golden yellow and the grass still green, I found myself back at Windy Ridge Stables. Barb Barnes was expecting me. She stood in the indoor arena instructing a woman on the art of Western equitation. As I walked into the waiting area just outside the arena, I anticipated my first lesson on how to drive a cart.
“Fiona’s in her stall. Grab a brush and cleaner her up. I’ll be with you soon,” Barb said turning back to her student.
Fiona, a white Percheron, stood 17 hands at the withers. I slide the stall door open as the horse turned her head and gave me an inquisitive look. Conveniently, a brush box doubled as a stepstool which I climbed onto giving me the height I needed to brush dirt off Fiona’s back and neck. Before long, Barb showed me how to put the draft harness on Fiona. We took the horse outside for some ground work. I walked behind Fiona and with Barb’s help drove the horse up and down the gravel road next to the barn.
Barb loaned me a couple of books on driving a cart: “Work Horse Handbook” by Lynn R. Miller and “Breaking & Training the Driving Horse” by Doris Ganton. I took the books home and flipped through the pages until I came to a section in Doris Ganton’s book explaining an accident she had when driving her cart. It seems she was out late one night and lost sight of the edge of the road. Her cart’s wheel slipped into a ditch ending up with her cart flipping over. Luckily, she managed to save herself and her horse, but as I read I suddenly realized that there was a downside to carts and carriages.
After a few lessons, I gained some experience on driving the cart and harnessing Fiona, not an easy task given the size differential between me and the horse. One brisk November morning, Barb and I climbed into the cart. I drove Fiona away from the barn and out onto the open road. The wheels clicked as the horse’s hooves tapped out a rhythm on the asphalt. I tried to remember to keep track of the cart’s front wheel and the side of the road.
The countryside opened up before us as we traveled along the road occasionally increasing speed to a trot. After a few miles, Barb told me to turn around. I turned the horse back towards the barn, and immediately, like many horses, Fiona picked up the pace and trotted up the hill.
“Just don’t let her break into a canter,” warned Barb.
At the top of the hill we saw a pothole repair truck coming towards us. The huge truck had a large hose attached just above the front bumper; coiled like some strange gigantic serpent. The driver saw us and slowed down but didn’t stop; not a good sign.
“Is Fiona OK with big trucks?” I asked.
“I guess we’re going to find out,” answered Barb.
Fiona’s pace slowed as the horse stopped, lifted her head and looked at the truck slowly approaching us. Before the vehicle could pass by, Fiona decided she didn’t want to have anything to do with the truck. Quickly, the horse spun around, turned the cart in the opposite direction and made a hasty retreat. At that point the driver stopped the truck and Barb took the reins. She skillfully maneuvered Fiona down a steep driveway away from the road and the odd vehicle. Before long we heard the truck rumble past us, then Barb turned the horse around and we headed back onto the road.
“That was exciting,” I said.
“A little too exciting,” replied Barb handing me the reins. She pointed to a steep drop-off and continued, “I just don’t want us to end-up down there.”
“That would have been bad.”
“With horses things can go bad real fast.”
Time passed and the weather changed. Winter brought snow storms which blanketed the countryside and made travel difficult. Then a polar vortex streamed across the Northeast plummeting temperatures into the minus digits. My lessons on driving the cart were cancelled until better weather and I found myself inside keeping warm. Even riding CJ or Pepper proved difficult, except for trips to the barn at Horse Heaven to brush down the pair. Currently, the weather report is not encouraging; another polar vortex for next week. This weather can’t last forever, and when things thaw out, I’ll be back to Windy Ridge for another lesson on driving a cart. Until then, stay warm.