Winter wonderland of work with horses

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“All right, you **********ers . . . I don’t want to see anything but elbows and **** flying.” With that bellow, from the top of the narrow stairway to the lower barn, and those well-placed profanities, Lonnie Fuller announced the beginning of storm preparations.

Below him stood two Pennsylvania farm boys, shocked instantly to work by a 6-foot-2, 250-pound black man who wanted to go home before the real snow started. Lonnie, a racetrack groom spending a rare winter on the farm, carried a pitchfork and looked far more menacing than he really was. Also carrying a pitchfork, I followed him down those steps and loved every second of the declaration and the next two hours of mucking stalls, moving horses, working hard, telling stories and laughing, laughing, laughing. We finished in time, and got to go home. I can’t remember how much snow we got or if we went back to work the next day – probably – but I remember that day in the snow.

It was a classic winter day on a horse farm. One of many that came to mind as the blizzard of 2016 raged over the weekend . . .

On a frozen-nose day at the same farm, on Bell Road north of Oxford, Pa., I was riding Money By Orleans in a paddock adjacent to that same lower barn. I remember ice on the road, a crazy fog hovering above the valley, a straw ring for jogging the horses and an aching cold. I wore a ski hat under my helmet, and another one (with a face mask) stretched over my helmet. A stakes winner, Money was just starting back to work and he was normally a quiet ride – the only reason I would have been on him – but he felt good that day and sent me crashing to the ground with a twist and a buck. Of course, his setmate was a filly and he charged off across the paddock to meet her. Somehow, we averted disaster and lived to tell my father about it – carefully.

On yet another cold morning at that same Pennsylvania farm, the tractor wouldn’t start. That’s a tricky one to pinpoint, because it was a frequent occurrence since the tractor – were we the only farm with an Allis-Chalmers? – lived outside while perpetually connected to a manure spreader. The farm boys, tractor experts in my book, wanted to use ether. I knew that was a thing, at least I think I did, but I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t ether make you pass out?” The farmboys in question were the same guys who once backed a manure spreader through the back of a four-stall barn. The one telling the other one how far to go yelled, “That’s good,” as the beaters crashed into the wall and shook the whole building. I really didn’t think ether was a good idea, but it worked. The tractor started and nobody got brain damage, as far as I could tell.

I spent a few cold mornings at Delaware Park shortly after the summers-only barns were winterized. The walls were made of a lightweight concrete or some-such stuff and hard plastic “windows” installed between the shedrow pillars. Wind made the plastic shake, shudder and howl (horses loved that). In the end, we might as well have been outside. Sun couldn’t get in, but cold could.

Driving the farm truck – F-250 with a manual transmission, vinyl bench seat and an AM radio – to work one otherwise clear morning, I rounded a curve and started to climb a hill. The truck spun out, fishtailed and slid off the road. Black ice. I stopped, and got out to lock the front hubs so I could put the truck in four-wheel drive. When my feet hit the road, I fell and slid down the hill. Only a last grab of the rear bumper kept me with the truck. It wasn’t pretty, but I got to work.

On another drive in that truck, the weatherman on the radio spoke of sub-zero temperatures, snowdrifts, high winds and the danger of traveling. It was winter, there was snow, I was going to work. But I felt safe, even if I wished for a warmer jacket to face that forecast. Then the radio station switched to sports. The Sabres won. Wait, the Sabres? The truck’s AM radio picked up a station in Buffalo. I was in Pennsylvania.

I remember winter racing trips to Penn National and Bowie – cold and colder. I remember frozen pipes at Fair Hill. We chain-harrowed snow-covered fields to make gallops. We wore long johns, two pairs of jeans, three pairs of brown, cotton gloves (until we added supposedly high-tech silver liners) and Bean boots. I preferred sneakers. Under Armour didn’t exist. Nobody knew what Gore-Tex was.

But we went to work.