Someplace for Us

Published 12:06 pm Thursday, December 17, 2015


Written and Photographed by Vincent Verrecchio
For Life In Our Foothills Magazine, December 2015

On the Friday when a stranger would decide if he lived or died, he was merely a number in a horse auction. The adhesive label slapped on his sorrel buttock read 152. His docked flaxen tail, typical for a Belgian draft, was short of flicking away the paper.

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As a plow horse, his eyes had looked ahead at farm rows beyond numbering, seemingly no end in sight. Now his horizon ended at a stained concrete wall two feet from his blaze. The lead rope gave him little slack to move back. One in a row of multiple breeds, he could turn left slightly, and look down at the dark face of an unknown smaller horse. He could turn right a bit, and meet the tired gaze of 153, his lifelong companion in hauling the machines.

So many years together…18, 20, or more?  They had been a handsome, powerful team in their prime. This day, in an auction catalog, their labors in harness totaled to an impersonal line of type: Smooth-mouth gelding—Works with all machines.

“Machines” in farm country translate to iron and steel such as plows, cultivators, and harrows. Where the work collar had pressed his neck and shoulders, now only ache and atrophy. From withers to croup, the weight he had borne, including more than a ton of his own mass, had worn him down until he could not pull as fast, as much, and as long. The bearded man in white shirt and suspenders who was selling him may have described him as broken and not worth repair.

152 was leaning to his right lightly against 153, when he felt a gentle push on his right thigh, a steady request to open a gap. In response, he took barely a step before bumping the next horse in line. Looking back and down, he saw the top of a dark-haired head, a woman who was wrestling her way forward though the canyon between him and his buddy. Her eye level was just above his mid shoulder. One misstep on his part and his hoof could cover and crush her foot. 153 was also studying this bold advance along his high body of more than 18 hands. They were looking down at bidder 714, the retired telecommunications process engineer who alone stood between them and the butcher’s knife.

“I can’t remember when I didn’t love horses,” says Peggy Pollack, bidder 714. “When I was about five or so, the only way my mother could get me to the doctor was to promise that I could see and touch my uncle’s horses. There were pony rides as a child and trail rides as a teen, but riding was never my bag. I just wasn’t that good at it.”

After she graduated from the University of Miami with a mathematics major and chemistry minor, horses slipped further to the periphery. It was not until retiring from AT&T, did she take lessons that reminded her that she didn’t really want to ride but just to be with horses, know them, and care for them. And that’s how Peggy got to be at a Pennsylvania horse auction in the company of the founder of Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, Mount Airy, Md.

A teenage Amish boy led both horses into the sales area, a dirt aisle between steel corral panels just wide enough to turn around. Bleachers loomed five rows high on both sides. Men in straw hats and others in seed caps lounged against the rails.

“So tired, so resigned,” recalls Peggy describing the two horses. “A bonded pair, they had only each other. There was no place for them and they had given up.”

IMG_9730VWEBThe staccato boom of the auctioneer opened the bidding at $400: that day’s price for a lifetime of service. The kill buyer raised his bid card.

“Do I hear $450?”

Card 714 went up in challenge.

Increment by increment, it was a battle of two, 714 against the meat man.  At $700 the broker could still make a profit. “Going once…” But no, 714 was not to beaten. “$750 once…twice…sold.”

“I was stunned when asked which one I wanted,” says Peggy. “Which one!? I couldn’t speak.”

Peggy raised her fist and from within it, two fingers, a sign of peace. For 152 and 153 it signaled the start of new lives as Mickey and Pete at Fawn Hill Farm with 10 acres of rolling pasture and a modern four-stall barn in Columbus, N.C. They would join Tommy, a rescued senior Morgan.

“There was no enthusiasm when they got off the trailer. I could lead them easily, but there was an uncertainty and sense of ‘okay, whatever.’ It was months before they finally lazed in the sun.”

Now, often during the day, the outside doors of stalls are open and the three horses come and go from the grass. Mickey and Pete often choose to stand together in one stall and groom each other. Mickey and Tommy have developed the friendship of two old men who pass the time grumping at each other. Pete remains aloof from the gelding games. But when Tommy foundered and was stall bound, both giants consistently lingered outside the Dutch door of Tommy’s stall, checking in with a frequency that would make a skeptic consider caring intent.

Chores and care of three senior horses is a massive job and Peggy goes it alone without hesitation. “They are so good…when I stand with Mickey and Pete, they don’t move. They know they are big and clumsy.”  During a bath, there are no cross ties for Mickey. His head swings slowly and his eyes follow Peggy with care as she hoses him and stands on her toes to blade away the water. At 5 feet 2 inches, she is often reaching upward. The expression shared by both is contentment.

Mickey and Pete have found more than someplace to live, they have found just reward for their labors in the attentive care of a small woman with a heart more than big enough for both of them.