I was biking back from the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum, after dropping off my final paperwork from the weatherization program I help out with each year, and decided to take a different route home, just following the grid and the sun-compass roughly in the direction of home, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I was in a pretty dense, high-dollar northside neighborhood, but here in a large well-fenced but empty vacant lot were two enormous horses. They had obviously spent a lot of time here, not just appeared- there were two half-full, half-frozen water troughs, some hay, and a deflated ball to kick around. The ground was frozen, but pockmarked with hoof-prints. Of course, I had to get closer and say hello! The gelding near the fence stuck out his muzzle in greeting, and I gave him a soft pat as he munched his hay. I stood for a moment, breathing in that intoxicating horsey perfume that anyone who’s ever loved and been near horses knows all so well, while I cleared space in my camera phone memory bank to snap a photo. I had to send one to my friend, who’s ridden and worked with horses far more than I could have ever dreamed growing up… we’ve got this probably pipe-dream about a horse or two (I really just want a large pony, or a small horse, trained to ride and drive… not much to ask, right? haha) kept nearby. It works in North Philly… so I’m not utterly in fantasy la-la-land, right?
This American Life: Horses in North Philly
Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club
I technically have a horse, but he’s an ancient sway-backed Arkansas pasture ornament, and after over a dozen or more years away in the city, and possession being nine-tenths of the law, he’s my dad and stepmom’s pet by all rights. Overcome by teenage romanticism, I named him Stormy Moon, though Stormy was all anyone ever called him. He was the result of years and years of reading, dreaming, and talking horses… of saving my allowance and birthday money and babysitting cash… of combing the swap-ads at the local filling station, until finally finding and buying the first horse we saw, the first one I could afford that almost met all my requirements. Of course, I knew the CARDINAL rule of horse buying (“don’t buy the first horse you see”) but it was such an ordeal to coordinate and cajole my parents into the idea that I didn’t want to risk it not happening again… I was in high school, planned to go away for college (somehow) so I was running out of time for this particular dream. He was a grey gelding, part-Arab, and to my eyes, the most beautiful thing in the world. He came with tack, or at least a western saddle and some assorted gear. I already owned an english bridle, and other horsey accoutrements. I learned early that putting the cart before the horse is not necessarily a bad plan… and made inspiring wall decor until it could be useful. The Mennonite family that sold him to us said he was gentle and that their kids rode him, but didn’t ride him enough so he needed a new home. He was gentle, from the ground, and as it turned out, more green-broke than kid-broke… My horse experience up to that point was mostly seat-of-the-pants, thick on book-learning and a bit of bareback trail-riding on a friend’s older sister’s bombproof retired show horse. Misty, also dapple grey, was a Quarter Horse that had won trail and halter classes, and competed in barrel-racing and pole-bending before a pasture accident ended her ring career and left her with one eye- she was dead-calm and kid-proof in spite of the affliction, and she carried my friend Jeanie and I, riding double through blackberry hollows, fields, and roadsides without incident. For Stormy and I, our combined inexperience was a bad combination indeed.
My cowboy cousin-in-law Stacy helped haul him home, saddled him up, and said to hop on. Unlike his rodeo horses, which were used to trailer travel and unfamiliar situations, this guy was rattled and already a little out of his element… but I mounted, and set off downhill into the pasture at a walk, then a brisk trot. My poppy (grandpa) and other cousin were baling hay that day, and Stormy caught an eyeful of a square bale ejecting from the machinery and tumbling out onto the field, and decided that this tractor-demon was very dangerous indeed. He sped to a run, whirled and reared, and I went flying. After a mid-air backflip, I broke my fall with my left arm outstretched over my head, and half-broke a bone in the process. Everyone came running as I sheepishly and painfully dusted myself off. True to form, cowboy cousin says “get back on the horse”, which I did with a leg-up, and rode to the back of the hill, where the house and bags of ice were. Spent six weeks in a cast with what the doc called “a greenstick fracture” as one of the two bones in my forearm had bent and snapped on one side but not the other under the strain of the landing… a lucky break, and it healed well… but I never rode that horse much either. I’d spend time with him, and brush him, but we didn’t have the girl-and-pony mind-meld and endless adventures I’d dreamed about for years. I loved him, and admired his beauty and power, but was also more than a little intimidated by it, and more than a little afraid to climb back up there and try again. I was in over my head, and it’s not the last time I learned that kind of lesson. Riding lessons would have helped both of us… or should have been essential, but there was no budget for such things. Someday I’d like to try again, with some guidance and groundwork first. And a dead-broke schoolmarm of a horse. And a helmet, haha. My bones aren’t as pliant as they were back then… but I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot of lessons about falling. And getting back up.
In other news, our pig is ready, at the locker in Chenoa, IL, waiting for us to drive two hours, pick it up, and start turning it into delicious bacon and sausages. I consider it a good omen that my friend, who works at the Spice House, just brought us a jar of their italian sausage seasoning, and didn’t even know about our pig purchase. The fates are with us! He was one of four raised on pasture by a woman in Lemont, on a diet of organic feed, food scraps, and acorns. If he’s half as delicious as the pig I raised in FFA, we’re in for some great meals. 241 pounds of great meals- we requested pretty much “everything but the squeal”. Who wants to fry up some pork rinds with me? We have to render the lard first…
Have more realistic urban livestock dreams, but not sure how to get started? There’s an Urban Livestock Expo event at the Garfield Park Conservatory on February 16th… come learn about chickens (the gateway drug), bees, rabbits, and goats, and meet other current and aspiring urban farm folk; talks and Q&A to follow! It’s being put on by folks from Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts (two great list-servs that I’m on) and Angelic Organics Learning Center, among others I believe? I’m hoping to attend if I can wiggle my work schedule… it’s 10 am-1 pm, which might make it tough. Looks to be a fun event, so put it on your calendars now!