Wagon Rides

The blinking light on the phone beckoned: The elementary school was planning a Harvest Festival and would my husband, Steve, and I give rides with our team of horses and wagon?

Of course we would. Our team had carted giggling fourth- and fifth-graders around Conrad before. I answered the message more than a month ago.

But this time I was anxious.

We had not used our Percherons, Merry and Melody, for a while. The full sisters are strong, and sometimes Melody takes her bit in her teeth, bows her neck and goes just about wherever she wants to go. Steve has always been able to regain control eventually, but usually our passengers are 1700-pound bales of hay, not 65-pound human bouncy balls.

A couple of days before the Harvest Festival, Steve and I drove out to one of our south side pastures to catch Merry and Melody. We stood on the tailgate of the pickup to jump on — I rode Merry while Steve’s long legs split across Melody’s fluffy-not-fat broad back.

Our team did not want to leave the other horses.

I saw it coming. Steve thumped Melody with his heels. A cog in Melody’s brain twisted. Her ears twitched. The muscles in her neck rippled. Her front feet came off the ground. Steve’s legs gripped tighter. Melody’s hind feet cleared a sagebrush. The synapse returned to Melody’s brain, pausing one more time for a mighty thump from her massive front feet.

I laughed so hard that I thought I might fall off Merry. Instead of watching the lightning fast kick-snap of a National Finals Rodeo bareback bronc, I was watching a porch chair rocking in a gentle breeze. Somehow, Steve managed to stay on board.

We hitched the horses to the wagon and drove them around for a couple of miles. They did just what we asked of them.

Harvest Festival morning was dark and chilly. Daylight savings time had yet to buy an hour of morning light. None of us had thought about the need to harness the team in pitch black. Did we get the buckles tight? Were any of the lines twisted? Would our passengers be safe?

Steve played the strong silent role, guiding the team efficiently, stopping periodically to let the students get off the wagon and even, every once in a while, hitting a badger hole to bounce the passengers off their seats. Screams of delight and excited constant chatter kept him entertained.

I was the education committee. How much do these horses weigh? Thoughtful answers ranged from 100 to 100,000 pounds, until someone guessed a ton. How much do they eat in a day? A pound, 10 pounds and 100 pounds of hay were estimates. I hoped that the little girl who guessed one pound was feeding a Chihuahua, not a horse.

Then the kids asked questions.

Why did you name Merry like Christmas? She was born on Christmas morning.

Why do you call her Melody? You might hear her sing.

And the best question of the day, from a boy who looked as if our educational system might not fit all of his needs: How do you control these horses? My first thought — “sometimes we wonder about that, too” — probably wasn’t appropriate so everyone unloaded from the wagon and we looked at how the harness worked. And I took this opportunity to check the traces one more time.

One boy, observing the concho on Melody’s bridle, asked if we nail the bridles to the horses’ heads. At that moment, Steve and I agreed that our efforts were important.

But silence gave us the most reward.

Amid all the chatter and noise, two little girls would not speak. One would not even meet my eyes. But, one at a time, each little girl pet Merry and Melody. Steve and I watched a connection between horse and girl that was stronger than any words could form. One of the girls moved closer, toward Merry’s nose. Merry blew a greeting. The girl softly, slowly stroked Merry’s cheek. Merry blew again.

The girl’s smile lit up the playground, the sky and our whole world.

Lisa Schmidt