On Saturday May 28, I had the delightful treat of visiting Singing Brook Farm with several members of the London Writers’ Society.
The purpose? To learn how horses are harnessed and then hitched to a wagon, from start to finish. Field trips like this provide first-hand knowledge of subjects that writers can work into their stories: this helps to hedge against the incomplete learning gleaned from Hollywood, which can turn an otherwise fabulous story into well, a lame horse.
Arriving at Singing Brook Farm, the first thing I noticed after coming down the long, tree-lined drive, was everything’s green lushness.
Green was the lawn at the front of the house, green were the grasses behind the barn, and at the back of the property? A crop of green winter wheat that stretched into the misty horizon.
After being graciously welcomed by our hosts, the Van Winden family, they introduced the Society to two of their Belgian show horses, Topsie and Tucker.
Linda Van Winden demonstrated one of the ways they prep the horses for a show: putting the tail into a cute little bun. I had not realized the coarseness of a horse’s tail until I saw this done… and heard Linda mention how tough it can be on the hands. As you can see below, to arrange this barnyard coiffe requires a little bravery.
The horses certainly liked having their hair done. Topsie’s wavy tail bore witness to having been recently braided. She seemed more at ease when her mane was under the strap on her forehead, not over! Linda seemed to operate intuitively on these matters…me thinks she knows her horses well.
Steve and the Van Winden’s sons led us through the different harnesses and equipment, providing tutelage on each piece’s function and how it worked once hooked up to the wagon. Naturally, their knowledge behind the history of these items was especially interesting:
From a horseshoe fitting, to which side knights of old typically mounted their horses, all members of the family had something interesting to share.
Once hitched to the wagon, Linda took up the lines (not reins!) and invited our group to climb aboard for a late morning jaunt through the countryside.
This particular stretch of Highway 2, near Woodstock, was beautiful. The lilac bushes along the side road lent a sweet fragrance to this memorable ride.
Along the way several of us were invited to drive the team of two horses.
I was hesitant at first, but my curiosity got the better of me and boy, was I glad! Linda was a great teacher, giving me all the tips I needed to safely, and relatively competently, drive the wagon. I even got them up to a trot!
Photo taken by Erin Moxam
One thing I didn’t expect was how much one’s body is engaged when steering such large animals. The pair of horses likely didn’t need a lot of direction from me, as they knew the route, I’m sure. But, to keep a straight path and control their speed, your core and thigh muscles are engaged just as much as your arms, if not more so. Linda told me this was correct, that if your arms are really sore after doing this then you aren’t doing it right.
My arms weren’t sore the next day! HOORAY!
Photo taken by Erin Moxam
For me, I think it was also something about balance too. Sitting up high, with two mighty animals pulling you in a big wagon, you want balance, so that you know you have full control. Or, at least as much control as the horses decide to give you.
Steve and Adam certainly seem to have mastered this quite well, providing a show of just some of what a team of two could do, including a figure eight, high-speed trot and backing up.
A driver’s voice is another key element in directing a horse-drawn wagon. You need to say the magic words in a clear direct tone, and not forgetting that little “kissy” noise! You certainly don’t need to yell: Topsie and Tucker had brilliant hearing and rarely had to be told twice to ‘keep on’.
Speaking of voice, that brings us to the other interesting part of this field trip. When we returned to the barn to see the horses relieved of their tack, brushed down and checked over for any areas that needed care, Linda told us about the day camp they run at the farm.
Linda is an award-winning musical director and among many other artistic roles, is also the director of music at Innerkip United Church. With her many years of vocal teaching and performance experience, she has designed a fun and educational arts camp for children ages 4-14. Teaching music, drama and crafts with plenty of nature hikes and animals, the day camp at Singing Brook Farm provides a wide variety of artistic skill building in a comfortable and welcoming setting.
What stood out most was the family’s love and dedication to their animals. Every member of the family was involved, and passionately so, in both the care of the horses and the activities going on at the farm.
I’m glad we made it out to Singing Brook, and thank our hosts for a memorable and inspiring day.