Sunday, September 26, 2021
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The farm horse merits recalled

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We bought a new T20 tractor, BZ 1249, from McCullaghs in Kilkeel. It put an end to the Scotch Cart.Curiously, I’ve never been able to remember (even when stopped by the authorities) the registration of any of my vehicles ever since.

The tractor is still in the family and as I looked at it the other day I recalled the great penance put upon me never to try and start it without pushing in the little brass button on the side. I gather those young people on the BBC’s ‘Tricked-Out Tractors’ would understand that.

I was always more taken with the horse and cart. Backing the horse in under its tipped up shafts. Pulling them down on the straddle, linking the chains to the collar, the breeching to the shafts and tying the belly band.

With the arrival of the tractor the horse went out of fashion; men who had knowledge of horses, centuries of knowledge, seeped down to them like water through porous rock, were left behind; farmers in limbo – sidelined – if they couldn’t see their way to learn to drive. I often think how it’s happening again with computers.

In the 1950s men worked horses that had been bred right back to the Hobby, a much revered Irish light cavalry horse from the Middle Ages. The horse had a very special place in the culture of the ‘men from the upper parishes’ and the fact that it took an acre of oats to feed one horse for a year speaks for itself.

So much time, energy and output was invested that it had to be more than just an animal to pull a plough or draw a cart. Your horse was your statement of your perception of yourself. About fifteen and a half hands high, a good hard colour, too heavy would not work in steep land, too light would not pull a plough. Fed on oats, straw, bran, the horse was fit, spirited and in peak condition.

I note modern tractors, leviathans, have to reverse up fields last ploughed with horses. Fields so steep that when the two horses reached the head-rig they, the chains, the double-tree, single-trees and most of the plough would be above the ploughman’s head.

Horses had to be spirited and manoeuvrable to perform in this arena and for the ploughman on the brae a situation could easily develop far more volatile than anything imagined by his counterpart with stoic Clydesdales on a level plane. No wonder ‘do nothing sudden, and do nothing rash’ was their mantra on such elevations, underpinned with cropping rock.

Balmy evenings in the early 50s would see me sitting in the flat field above our house waiting for James Larry and Paddy John to come back up the road. They were jarveys, older men who carried not only trades but names from another time.

There I’d delight in the change of pace as horse and indeed big wheel sensed the easing of the gradient and made a final push for home.

Paddy John was the older man, in his seventies, a druid, sitting slightly bowed in the dickey (the driver’s seat) as he gently shook his hands, allowing the reins to fall and ripple on the rump of his Morgan horse. James Larry, for his part, sprawled languidly over both the passenger seats on the near side.

Here, where two contours widened on the mountain road, he’d give two clicks out of the side of his mouth. It was the signal for the big Ablack horse to switch on his turbo charger and in that instance the gold and black spokes of the varnished wheels would fly.

The horse was Friesian in his carriage, warm blood in his pace and had the strength of an Irish draught. He had all this power after more than 60 miles spiriting four tourists, their lower limbs swathed in tartan blankets, from Warrenpoint to Newcastle along the shore.

These men had schooled horses to cart and plough in tranquil uplands and on top of that foxtrot in the urban throng of fairgrounds, brass bands and milling crowds in a seaside resort. No one thought they were doing anything special and I gather neither did they; their horsemanship was so deeply engrained.

PS: Also last week a neighbour casually mentioned that he had a jaunting car and a milk trap in his garage, and suggested I

take a look. And I did. The jaunting car is simply endearing. I recall the Scotch Cart being cumbersome, often called ‘The stiff cart’. The jaunting car is flexible and

lithe. Its shafts have a spring to them. I wheeled it about for a bit. It is light. I

was so taken with it, that it is only now

in the photograph I note the carriage

lamps.

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