Are you as Healthy as a Horse?

I’ve been kicking around a couple of common phrases from the English language lately wondering just what deceptive fool created them in the first place. You know when something gets repeated so many times that we start taking its literal meaning for granted? If it ever had a literal meaning, that is.

Let’s start with the meaningless phrase “healthy as a horse.”

In my everyday wanderings, I hear folks say that someone is “healthy as a horse” if he is, for instance, running marathons at 85 years old and has never suffered an ailment, prolonged sickness, or injury. In fact, the specimen in question is so genetically superior that in seven and a half decades of life, he’s never experienced even the most minor upset like indigestion, fatigue, toothache, or hair loss. And so, therefore, he is “healthy as a horse,” right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. To be precise, if this gentleman were in fact “healthy as a horse,” he would have been lucky to live to his tenth birthday without a major medical procedure, never mind his 85th. By now, he would have racked up a retirement’s worth of medical bills and expensive nutritional supplements. He would become perilously ill from a fly bite or minor scrape on his leg, or he’d mysteriously develop gastric distress after eating his routine meal of 20 years.

Anyone with horses knows what I’m getting at. Horses are the most fragile animals I’ve encountered, susceptible to bizarre fevers and split-second injuries. They can be in fine health one moment and then in a welted rash the next. Or have an unexplainable swelling. Or a foot abscess. Or any number of debilitating anomalies which will empty a horse owner’s bank account from vet bills quicker than a stock market crash.

Just last week I went to the barn on Monday to ride my horse who was bright-eyed and energetic as usual. We had a very pleasant ride, after which I washed him off and let him graze for a while in the sun, all the while pondering contentedly how wonderful life with horses was. On Tuesday, I went back out to the barn to ride again. And there stood my horse with a fever, three legs ballooned to the size of elephant limbs, and really gross edema pockets all over his body. What? I backed away, stupefied. What on earth could have happened to transform him overnight into… this?

The usual scenario played out. A vet was called. My horse was treated with every injection medicine available. A diagnosis formed loosely: “Hmm…not really sure what it is. Could have been caused by a tick bite… or an allergy… or who knows. Sometimes this stuff just happens. Call when you need more antibiotics.” And that, dear reader, is how my bank account wound its way closer to $0.

I spent the last 10 days driving 40 minutes twice a day to the stable to administer drugs and check on my guy. He is fine now. Totally fine, in fact, and back to his normal healthy self. Who knows what caused his episode last week. Must have been a fly bite… or an allergy… or something. One thing’s for sure, though. After writing out all those checks to my vet, I wanted to punch the lights out of whoever invented that idiom “healthy as a horse.” I would have blurted out, in lunatic fashion, “oh yeah? healthy as a horse? You call this the epitome of health?– a creature that can just fall to pieces overnight, possibly from some innocent wildflower blooming?” I think “healthy as an octegenarian” might be far more accurate. I intend to start using that phrase in fact.

My animosity over the idiom has settled since last week. I’m no longer screaming it– ‘healthy as a horse?!– out my car window, anyway. Instead, my mood has turned more reflective, which accounts for my study of these horse-related phrases.

“Horsepower” is another one that mystifies me at the moment. At first, it seems to make sense. I mean, sure, a lawn mower could be called ‘six horsepower’ if it pushed itself along with the strength of six horses in full motion. But this makes the assumption that there is a basic unchanging standard for an ordinary horse’s power output. As a horse trainer, let me assure you that this is not the case.

How do lawn mower manufacturers, for instance, account for times when horses just aint putting out any power? Like when a mare comes into heat and flat-out refuses to do anything for three days? Would she be counted as a ‘fussy horsepower’ during that period? Or then there’s the stall bound horse recovering from a strained tendon that needs to be confined for three months. Is he counted temporarily as ‘no horsepower?’ Although maybe his tally gets cancelled out by the feisty Arabian who tears around the arena, tail arched over his back, and bucks off his rider every day. Perhaps he gets counted as ‘one horsepower with spunk to spare?’

You can see how this Horsepower term gets vague. A dozen ornery Shetland ponies will not produce the same output as a dozen steadfast draft horses. And a dozen mares will simply never give a consistent output of agreeable, hormone-free, activity from week to week.

So who came up with this term in the first place? Definitely a non-horse person, that’s who. Most likely, an enterprising salesman in a machine shop many moons ago looked out his window and came up with a genius marketing plan. No doubt he looked out at a team of harness horses clip-clopping its way down the street, lean and muscled and perfectly behaved. Such industrious animals, he probably thought to himself and then pondered how many more engines or motors or machine-like things he could sell if he aligned them with man’s good friend, the noble Equine. And, thus, he began equating the capability of his motors and engines with the clip-clopping harness horses he’d seen. A common motorized something-or-other now became a “three horsepower” item. Consumers, therefore, now had all the muscle and brawn of a few horses but without the hay consumption and pooping. Perfect!

Today, I hope most consumers realize how defectively ‘horsepower’ defines what it purports to. For instance, I hope mega-billionaires realize when they rev up their 200 horsepower sports car engines that if, in reality, 200 equines stood at the ready in their driveways, only about ten of them would produce any power. The other 190 would be spooking, grazing, mating, or napping. How’s that, for horsepower?

It’s an Alternative Universe in a Feed Store

Today, our lives have adopted such a blurring pace that folks now outsource parts of their lives or just neglect them altogether. And horse owners are certainly not immune from this acceleration. But fortunately we have a quick remedy for these times where even reminders to brush our hair need to be written on a list, lest we forget. The local feed and tack store offers an injection of solace and simpler times unavailable to our non-horse counter-parts. I like to think of it as yes, a place that drains my bank account, but also a mental oasis.

See, here’s the profundity of feed stores: time stands still there. Just last week, I found myself fiddling with a multi-tiered chicken feeder one moment and then looking at squishy bottles to feed baby calves the next. Everything I fondled seemed devoid of any relevance to our modern times. It was grand! I inhaled deeply the old-fashioned smell combining oats, rubber footwear, and caged Angora rabbits in a nearby corner. I recollected moments with the exact same ingredients in various times and feed stores throughout my life, at 6 years old, 12, 15, in my 20s. Nothing ever changes in these places. Nothing. Being inside a tack and feed store is so delightfully timeless and technologically deficient that a person can actually forget about cell phones, text messages, day planners.

In fact, if a person were to spend an abundance of time in these wonderlands, her bonds with modern day reality would loosen pretty swiftly. Spending all that time surrounded by hand-held scythes, garden seeds, and livestock troughs can skew someone’s perception of which century we’re in. From inside a feed store, you might easily assume everyone led a homesteading lifestyle, driving their horse and buggy to market and raising hogs at home. You’d think that everyone in your mostly urban surroundings knew what to do with the oddities I played with last week: four types of chicken scratch, a sleek magnet for pulling nails from cows’ bellies, bags of sodium chloride, seed potatoes.

It’s definitely not your average retail browsing experience, though feed stores are predictable and that’s what comforts me. Ironically like McDonald’s and Starbucks, every feed store in every town across America is nearly identical except for small differences in floor plans. They all seem to have a senile old cat curled up by the cash register, a quirky fellow (or gal) behind the counter who has lived in the same town a lifetime and knows every scrap of historical lore. They all have stacks of free agricultural magazines by the front door and fly catchers hanging from the ceiling. There’s a guy out back who divides his time between loading sacks of grain into patrons’ trucks and flirting with women in the bird seed aisle. His sidekick divides his time between loading hay bales and napping. Some of the store aisles will be laden with cans of brass polish and leather dye so old and dust-covered now that they qualify as antiques. And no feed stores I know follow normal business practices like sales, promotions, or customer appreciation days. Nope, they all just keep marching along to their own never-changing beat.

The feed store of my youth– Braley’s Feed in Randolph, Vermont– was a high point for me when Dad took me along on Thursday mornings. During my decade of visiting Braley’s, the scene inside remained unchanged. Braley himself, grandson of the original founder, wore a long sleeve white thermal shirt under denim overalls no matter the season. He always lingered near the front of the store, flanked by four or five local farmers that came in every morning around 7am for the hot coffee and fresh glazed donuts that Braley set out between the Farmer’s Almanac stacks and display rack of gardening gloves. Their conversation lasted the duration of a glazed donut for each, or approximately enough time to comment on the weather, their hay crop, and the maple sap flow. Extra agenda items included the idiocy of members of the local select board.

Initially, I loved Braley’s because of the glazed donuts. Then, over the years, I began to savor the scene. The brown braided rug by the front door occupied by a three-legged black Labrador, the way Braley wrote out receipts with pencil and paper even long after the invention of computers, the cluster of farmers or wanna-be farmers leaning against his counter with a cup of hot coffee and no other place in the world to be at that moment. The lazy conversation and Braley’s opinion (he had one for everything) about the best type of salt minerals for livestock. The boxes of peeping fuzz balls in the spring that would grow into chickens by autumn. As I grew up and changed, Braley’s remained the same, which in time endeared the place to me. It somehow made the store more precious and trustworthy to me in a world quickly becoming fleeting, changing, or deceptive. Braley’s is in fact still operating in Randolph, Vermont in the same location, and probably with the same handwritten paper receipts, although it’s a younger generation of Braley now writing them with pencil.

Last week, after spending more time than I realized in the feed store and pondering the purchase of nostalgic items I didn’t really need like little cans of Bag Balm, I wandered slowly out to my car. A very busy day lurked ahead of me and, yes, I should have been moving at a franctic pace. Instead, though, I meandered. I clung to the slow rhythms of our local feed store here and thought about finding uses for a hand-held scythe. A noise startled me once I got back in my car. My cell phone rang from the passenger seat and due to my temporary time warp, I wondered aloud “What the heck is that thing?”