Is it Worth the High Maintenance?

Without naming any particular facility, I will say that I found myself last week staring unabashedly at what can only be described as complete and utter disrepair. And no, I was not at the county dump or the scene of an earthquake. Quite the contrary, I was at a place where folks pay big bucks to be. Or more accurately, they pay big bucks for their horses to be there.

Call me unrealistic or snobby, but in my opinion any place that shares a sentence with ‘big bucks’ should be of a certain decorum. I’m not instating high standards here; I’m just looking for basic infrastructure. Read as: fence posts that stand vertically to the ground rather than bending over in insect-riddled, rotting splinters; stall walls made from legitimate building materials instead of baling twine, hoses, cardboard; gates and cross-ties that actually latch; arenas without weeds growing in them. Stuff like this. For some reason, these requirements are becoming more difficult to find.

This situation gives my mother justification to say “I told you so.” You see, I spent most of my childhood enslaved in what I believed to be a cruel regime of child labor (which meant I had a few chores around our New England horse farm) and whined constantly about the endless lists of things to be repaired, fixed, maintained. My mother used to chant her mantra “upkeep, upkeep, upkeep” around our farm, reminding us that, without constant maintenance, a farm would fall into disrepair faster than anyone suspected. I originally thought she herself was being a little high maintenance, but now I have to admit that she was right.

My brother and I formed a labor party of two at Maranatha Training Stables, my parents’ farm. We did everything from prune our fruit orchard to stacking firewood to painting fence boards. We spent so much time painting pasture fences, in fact, that I occasionally still see white paddock fencing stretching for miles when I close my eyes. Of all the treasures on our farm, my mother was proudest of those wooden fences. Every board, every post, and every nail was painted a perfect white. Should a board get chewed on or kicked by a horse, her labor party (the aforementioned offspring) hustled out there with replacement lumber along with a pail of paint.

I will admit that 36 acres of this fencing IS a lovely sight. But the adult in me is the one who can admit this, the adult who suffers severe nostalgia for so much pristine perfection on a horse facility. The kid in me secretly hated that fencing. It meant nothing to me but achy wrists and paint gunked under my nails and hours of boring labor. What was the point in any of it? Wouldn’t twine and duct tape and cardboard suffice for fencing AND be a lot easier?

Initially, my brother and I were paid– if you can call microscopic figures that–by the hour. We earned something like $1 per hour for painting those never-ending fences and the task consumed our entire summer breaks from school. We tried convincing ourselves it was better than working at the video store or bagging groceries at the supermarket. But it wasn’t until the end of summer that we made it better by sheer childhood cleverness. One day with his hand permanently frozen in a claw-like position from grasping the brush handle, my brother realized we would be paid the same amount per hour regardless how many sections of fencing we accomplished. So, why were we working so hard?, he mused? Why not just slack off? And that, gentle reader, is how an 8-year old and a 9-year old introduced themselves to often inefficient ways of capitalism.

Being the older wiser one, he convinced me that mom would never know our productivity had dropped off and we would still collect our $1 per hour. So, when we got out to the perimeter fencing of our property, most of it out of sight from the main barn or house, we would lay down our paint brushes and go skip stones in the creek. Or build bike jumps or collect grasshoppers. Shucking off the guilt that sometimes reared its head, we told ourselves that abandoning our job was just fine because, at the end of the day, all those perfectly white fences didn’t really matter. Wouldn’t twine and duct tape and cardboard suffice for fencing, anyway?

One sunny afternoon in August, we hid our paint cans and crawled into the expansive raspberry patch to take naps. We were asleep for probably two hours when a shadow slanted across our blissful sunshine and stirred us awake. And in our repose, we looked up to see my mother staring down at us. Needless to write, much lecturing ensued. The lengthy and sometimes poetic scolding covered the grounds of employee ethics, general good behavior, workmanship, etc. But my mother’s primary disappointment came not from her children’s sneaky ethics. More hurtful to her was the fact that we abandoned her prized white fences. She reminded us in the raspberry patch of their beauty, their value, their sheer aesthetic superiority to something like twine or cardboard.

For us, that afternoon fell into the category of moments where children think their parent is greatly over-reacting. I held that belief for a number of years, bolstered by the bitterness of having to give back most of my summer wages. In fact, I think I held onto the secret animosity towards those summers of white fence painting until just last week when I stood aghast at the dilapidation around me that qualified as a bona fide boarding facility. In that moment, I finally got my answer. NO, twine and duct tape and cardboard do not suffice as fencing. A familiar ache crept into my wrists briefly as I reflected on all those acres of white wooden fences at Maranatha Training Stables. I couldn’t promise I’d be a more productive employee now than I was as a mischievously napping 8-year old, but something in me felt compelled to nail up some boards and brush paint across them. My chest tensed with urgency and excitement. White fences! Wooden boards!

Don’t misunderstand me, I wouldn’t wish to create a ritzy place that could justify charging boarders a fortune to be there. Nah, I might even charge less than the facilities falling into disrepair. I would just want visitors to pride me every day on the aesthetic superiority of my white fences.