APRIL 28, 2015
Growing up in Louisa – Real Horses
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
It was perhaps only one or two generations before my time that was markedly different than our world today. The earlier way of life went back through to the ages even past the time known to history. You see, life before the early twentieth century was ‘horse driven’ and very different than what I knew when growing up, and completely beyond understanding of the majority of people today. It was the internal combustion engine that changed the world and provided a better energy source and its applications. That wasn’t a small change.
My wife’s grandmother began her married life in a new place in what is now West Virginia, but traveled in a horse-drawn buckboard over mud roads. Neither of the couple thought anything of it because that was life as it had been since horses were first tamed and harnessed. There weren’t any cars or even rumors of cars in those days. Besides, the roads were so bad, especially during times of rainy weather, so that travel by even the most rudimentary ‘horse-less’ carriage would have been impossible.
Even when the big cities started to see motor cars, it was a while before back-woods Kentucky saw them, and longer yet before they were practical or easily available. Therefore, the transformation was not yet complete when I came along. Some readers will remember my mention in an earlier article that I sometimes woke up on Saturday mornings hearing the clipity clop of draft horses pulling a creaking buckboard wagon with the farmer sitting high on a seat leading them to pick up feed and groceries. I saw firsthand farmers out in the country plowing behind horses and mules. Others occasionally rode into town on horseback, sometimes holding a child who was enjoying his, or her turn, to go to town. Admittedly, these things were fairly rare. I’m sure that is why I took notice of it and enjoyed seeing what I thought was someone having fun, but it was how life was lived for some.
It wasn’t unusual to walk up a street and have to circumvent a manure pile left by some animal while performing its duties. I usually gave such things wide berth, but then again I was a boy. On a few occasions I got close enough to examine the makeup of those droppings. They seemed full of straw in brownish clumps usually around the size of baseballs. I can only imagine what the streets looked like perhaps thirty or forty years earlier with lots of horse traffic.
I rode a few horses that belonged to friends as I was growing up, but it wasn’t often at all. I was never trained to put on a bridle, or harness for that matter. I suppose that if someone had sent me out to saddle a horse the horse and I would have both been in hysterics if I hadn’t been stomped to death. I saw plenty of hitching on the big screen, including hitching up horses to buggies, stage coaches, and wagons. I remember a movie in which Sargent York was trying to plow the rocky ‘high land.’ It went better for him after the war, because the State of Tennessee gave the hero some ‘bottom land,’ which everyone but a city slicker would know was fertile with black soil filled with nutrients.
Just a little further west, in the middle counties of Kentucky we still have plenty of horses, but these are thoroughbred racers. Certainly they are higher strung that the gentle animals I rode, and a great deal faster. Kentucky is known for its fine horses and of course the world famous Kentucky Derby. Even the Queen of England has made trips here to watch the races. I haven’t been to any of those but I have seen them on television. I think if I had gone as a kid I would have been more out of place than Eliza Dolittle at Ascot.
I’m still in some ways a country boy at heart and very aware of what a good horse must have meant to my ancestors, but it helps that I saw a couple of thousand cowboy movies to give me this understanding. Horses really have had little to no effect on my life. Still, the most basic things in our lives that we take for granted, are subject to obsolescence. We’ve seen how communication has changed from newspapers to electronic news services, how telephones were invented and now becoming rare in terms of ‘land-lines.’ Trains were the main way to ship goods and people, but they are much less influential today. Radio was invented and now is digital and piped in by satellite. Food that was pickled, put in a root cellar, or canned is now frozen and mostly already prepared. I met someone recently that had never had a bag of flour in their kitchen. I’m afraid I’m a throwback when it comes to food. I like fresh, basic, home-made, and served up hot.
The Egyptians pulled chariots, as did the Greeks and Romans. The world broke out of the dark ages on horseback. We know that horses were brought to America by the Spanish and English. More recently, the Civil war had its cavalry and so did World War I. A few holdbacks were still around in WWII but more for the romance of the thing than practical use. General Patton was in the cavalry, but his horse was made of steel.
My play toy as a child was a rocking horse, a broomstick, then finally a bicycle. My bike was versatile because it could be a horse, a motorcycle, or even an airplane. These toys were friends, but nothing like the real little palomino that was kept for a time behind the IGA to be raffled off. That horse had big, pretty brown eyes that I looked deeply into and immediately fell in love. I gave it sugar cubes and stroked its mane. It was a very sad day for this little kid when the lucky winner led it away.
Horses reproduce and feed pretty well off the land. Cars don’t. Horses have a lot of attributes, but in the end, this side of progress is far sweeter and easier. I have seen places I wouldn’t have visited on horseback, and squeezed more into life than I ever could have from a covered wagon, not to mention better relative comfort. I’m not sure if progress has necessarily brought more happiness, but it has saved lives; and taken a few. Who knows? I’m claiming complete satisfaction that I was born when I was, but I remain respectful to those who churned the butter, made the quilts, strung the beans, and rode to church in their buggies. It was a magical, even romantic time in the movies, but I’m thinking it was just part of everyday living for them. I’m thinking that having the space, the money to feed, doctor, and outfit, or building corrals, training, and shoveling might not be all that romantic. I know that back then men loved their horse, but I’m a little sweet on my car, too.
Drop me a note about your memories. I’d love to hear from you.