Horsing Around

We spent much of September at L’Archerie horse farm in Secondigny, near Parthenay and Poitiers. Our sixth and final HelpExchange of the year was in many ways the most interesting and challenging of all. We spent two weeks of isolation on a horse farm with two strange old coots (German Pamela and English Jim) for company and a combination of hard labor and mind-numbing routine. But we also got the chance to work with 11 wonderful horses, each quite a personality in its own right, enjoyed lots of peace and quiet, and had a sweet and spunky 5-month-old kitten accompany us on our chores.

The farm acted as a kind of retirement home for horses, many of whom had been abused or overworked. Some belonged to the owners of the farm; others were boarded there by their owners. Only a few were actively ridden, although Pamela regularly worked with many of them in the ring on a lead line to keep them in training.

At first, it was all a blur trying to remember the names of all the horses and the details of their care. But after a few days, we got the hang of the morning and evening routine, which was the same every day: distributing bowls of food, making sure water troughs were full, collecting and cleaning the bowls, releasing the horses to their pastures for the day (and bringing them in at night).

After that, we spent a couple hours each day with pitchforks and a wheelbarrow picking up manure from the upper pasture. That task gave us lots of opportunity to muse on the fine points of shoveling manure (as described in the next post). I now know exactly how much a “shitload” is, or at least a wheelbarrow full of horse shit.

We spent the late mornings and afternoons doing chores and general work around the farm—pruning the garden, pulling out ivy, whitewashing stables, cleaning out sheds, doing laundry, washing dishes, etc. Very little time off here!

The hours were much longer than at our previous HelpExchanges, and the only chances we had to leave the farm (which was really in the middle of nowhere) were for trips to the grocery in the nearest villages and the occasional organized afternoon outing to a local site of Pamela’s choosing.

We stayed in an apartment attached to the house, which featured lots of spiders, mildew, a nasty sulfur smell from the septic system, no heat, old furniture, horrid beds, and a leaky shower. Chris only barely managed to survive the first few days with all the spiders, before she got the vacuum cleaner working and happily sucked them all up, despite Pamela’s assertions that there was no point getting rid of them because they’d just come back again. (Why do we keep working for the only German women in the world who aren’t clean freaks?)

The farm’s attitude toward food can be summed up easily: They’ve lived here for seven years and never once tried the local bakery (or any food shop other than the hypermarket). Lunches were identical trays of cold cuts and cheese every day, which quickly got very dull. Dinners were a bit better, although they were largely silent affairs with us and Jim, a taciturn man in his mid-70s. Pamela cooked her own meals and ate in the other room with the dog and the TV—a bit odd.

We had no TV, little internet access, and a radio that only got two stations. The worst part was that, living with two expatriates and not interacting with local culture at all, we barely felt that we were in France. If not for books and each other’s company, we would have died of boredom or left (which we heard that some earlier helpers had done).

Our first “horsey” lesson was how to groom a horse, starting with two of our favorites: two big, incredibly docile Irish tinkers, Snoopy and Ballou. After the grooming, the tinkers looked like rock stars, all long hair and “bell bottoms” (feathery forelegs).

Ballou, a big Irish Tinker cart horse

We had really hoped to get some riding lessons, which (disappointingly) didn’t end up happening. But we did get to work with some of the horses in the training ring. We haltered them and practiced walking them through a series of obstacles—a blue crinkly tarp laid out on the ground (very scary to horses), water jugs set in a slalom course, a big door-like wooden plank lying on the ground, and logs laid down to form an L-shaped corridor.

We learned that a horse will naturally mirror its handler’s body language. Slog along, and the horse will slog too. Walk with purpose and energy, and the horse will too. When you change from a walk to a run, or come to a stop, the horse follows suit.

We did manage to get on a horse’s back one time, though. After we had finished grooming Snoopy one day, Pamela gave us a leg up onto his massively broad bare back, where we could turn in all directions, kneel upright, and slide down over his rump. All while he stood not batting an eye—a very calm guy!

So what did we take away from this experience? Melissa was reminded how much she likes horses and would really like to work with them more in the future. She can drive a tractor backwards and knows how to handle yet more farm implements. Chris, who had always felt a bit nervous around horses because of their size, gained a lot of confidence. Horses are big and powerful creatures, amazingly strong and muscular, yet even a small human can impose her will on them with patience, sensitivity, and determination.

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