It’s that time of year again, those magical mornings when small ice rinks begin forming in water buckets and your soul, as the cold months of horse slavery winter warfare begin.
You’ve already accepted that your feet will be frozen until mid-March, and your red weathered hands will resemble those of a tenured Everest Sherpa. Few moisturizers stand a chance against what another winter outside will do to your face or the grinch-grimace frozen upon it. You know the season has arrived when you karate kick a crap pile while searching for a lost shoe and find it frozen to the ground. Only horse people know this kind of agony, and although no amount of pain-flailing will remedy it, you do the dance of your people anyway.
Your relatives won’t understand the struggle as they baste their roast beasts, warm in their kitchens, phone resting on one shoulder, shaking their heads in disappointment as you yell into the receiver above the wind and trampling sounds as your winter-wild horses drag you into the barn. “I can’t hear her Marty, she’s playing with those damned animals again.”
They’ll hang up eventually, and it’s just as well because you dropped your phone in the snow 10 minutes ago and are now busy chipping ice balls out of impatient creature hooves. The holiday season is here, and no amount of grinching can stop it. Channeling the late Ned Stark, you squint across the frozen landscape and the blanketed beasts fart-bucking across it. You turn to your shivering dogs and whisper, “WINTER IS COMING.”
It was the first week in November, and already your family was hounding you about actually coming home for the holidays this year. They demand commitments, dates and times and want to know if you’ll finally be bringing a living, breathing man home with you, instead of a sulky Puggle in a Santa Suit.
They know better than to ask you to bring anything except cheap alcohol after the Christmas of 2012 when you made pecan pie crust with the tamale corn flour your Guatemalan coworker left in the tack room, and consequently the Fiesta Nut Pie was born.
They have a hard time with the concept that horses do not give one single expletive about the holidays, your sanity or your human family and will continue crapping, eating and trying to kill themselves despite your best laid plans. When the day arrives, Grandma expects that, in addition to your 12 hours of work in sub-zero temperatures, you’ll arrive sweater-clad, showered and sober at approximately 5 o’clock p.m. Imagine her disappointment as you blow through the door at 6:45, small snaggle-toothed dogs zipped up in your rancid Carhartt coat, crap-covered muck boots unceremoniously kicked off by the front door. (I mean, you’re not an animal.)
Your wild hair is swept up in a knot, adorned with a horse slobbered straw tiara. “You look like a dirty homeless little Christmas angel,” declares one of the uncles.
Your dogs tumble to the floor as your jacket is unzipped, and you toss your keys on the counter asking hopefully, “EGGNOG?”
Dinner is served, and your family watches in horror as you lay waste to your plate, pausing only to take a shallow breath and throw back some of the cheap lager you brought and have consumed most of. Your 5-year-old cousin tugs at his mother’s blouse, never taking his wide eyes from you as he asks, “Mommy…WHY is she eating like that?”
At some point during dinner your mother tries to pick a rogue strand of hair off your forehead only to laugh and say, “Oh… that’s a wrinkle with dirt in it.” You rage through dessert like a rabid pitbull and start shoving the small dogs back into your coat along with some snacks for the road. Your mother looks disappointed as you high-five her goodbye (don’t want to crush the snacks with a hug) and congratulate her on another culinary holiday triumph.
Grandma, still having trouble conceptualizing the whole farm slavery situation, intercepts you and forces you into the living room, immune to your, “BUT THE HORSES NEED ME!” arguments. You’ve learned from holidays past it’s best to leave before all the eggnog is consumed, the good scotch is opened, inhibitions/manners are tossed to the wind, and people start trying to have meaningful conversations with you like:
“When are you going to get a real job?”
“Soooooo basically you want to do this forever?”
“Do you have health insurance yet?”
“You need new tires—you can’t keep taking everyone’s spares.”
“No boyfriend again this year?”
“Can Tommy ride your horse?”
“Can Great Grandpa ride your horse?”
“Can I ride your horse?”
“Are you still into men, because Grandpa and I are fine if you’re not, Muriel from church has this one granddaughter…”
“You look old.”
“I want grandchildren before I’m dead.”
And on it goes. It’s also advantageous to make your exit before gift exchanges, but now, thanks to Grandma, you’re forced to watch as your family opens all the individually wrapped horse biscuits you’ve given them.
You don’t need to open your own gifts because despite requesting Dover gift cards and gloves without holes, you know your presents consist solely of self-help books and years worth of eHarmony subscriptions. Guess no one gets what they want this year, “DO THEY Aunt Linda?” You silently shove your self-help literature under the couch, saving the gift bag, with which you slink off to the kitchen to fill with the stolen leftover pumpkin pies you’ve stashed behind the Keurig.
With a grinch-like grin, you dump the contents of your mother’s Christmas cookie jar atop the stolen pies, shove a box of candy canes down your shirt and head for the exit. You force your mismatched sock feet back into your muckboots and throw on someone’s knit hat you find hanging from the door. (You need this more than they do; they work in an office.) Plus next Christmas you can gift-wrap it and give it back to them.
Finally, with baked goods, candy cane contraband and small beige dogs secure in your coat, you make a harrowing escape. “SEE YA SUCKERS!” you yell to your siblings before Grinch-prancing out the door and into the crisp night air. Smells like freedom.
On your way to the truck you rearrange your mother’s pair of light-up Christmas lawn deer, stacking one on top of the other so they appear in a compromising position. You stand back to admire your handiwork. Another holiday dinner on the books. Good riddance. Cue the Whoville songs.
You make it back to the barn despite almost running off the road twice. Once because you were trying to eat pumpkin pie with one of the long forgotten parking tickets that live in your truck, and the second time from splitting up a small dog riot over the pie you just dropped.
You leave the truck running with the heat on for the little monsters, warning them that no more pie fights will be tolerated. You offer them the knit hat as a distraction. You have to leave the driver’s side window open about 4 inches, because the little cretins recently discovered that by dancing on the power locks with their talons, you’ll be forced to play the coat hanger door unlock game for 20 to 45 minutes while they bounce around the cab screeching with joy. (This is why we can’t have nice things.)
Once the truck is small-dog secure, you roll open the heavy barn door just enough to squeeze through so as not to let the cold in. The air is still and quiet and sweet. You breathe deeply and immediately feel the tension leaving your body.
Not another human for miles. The only sound the happy munching of alfalfa and a soft nicker in greeting.
You take your time going from stall to stall, topping off water and hay, fluffing up the bedding, and making sure everyone is properly tucked in for the night. The dim barn lights cast a warm glow as you shut the last stall door, brush yourself off, and stand in the center aisle, taking a moment to appreciate the life you’ve chosen and the end of another hard day’s work.
The crinkling of the pie bag captures everyone’s attention as you produce from your jacket the stolen Christmas cookies, candy canes and a giant ziplock of baby carrots you pilfered earlier from the refrigerator while pretending to look for beer. (It’s a Christmas MIRACLE, thanks Mom!) Flaring nostrils suddenly appear over stall doors, and several sets of bright eyes regard you with hopeful interest. You fairly distribute the contents of the bags, being sure to give the oldest man an extra cookie that was once a pine tree shape, but looks like a demon now because your mom tried to make a face on it with red hots, which then melted in the oven. The old horse doesn’t seem to mind.
Once everyone receives carrots, demon cookies and goodnight kisses, you stuff the candy canes in the stockings you hung on each stall that morning. You hit the lights and head for the door. By now the dogs have likely confettied the pie tin all over the back seat of your truck, and you need a shower and some sleep. As you reach the doors to leave, you pause, listening again to the satisfied munching and unmistakable peace of a horse barn at night. A sudden warmth rushes over you, the same warmth you felt around this time of year as a child. That feeling you get when the world is draped in strands of twinkling lights, and the air smells like pine needles and snow. That old familiar magic.
A man named Michael Holbrook once said, “If you can’t find the spirit of the holidays in your heart, you’ll never find it under a tree.” Yes Mr. Holbrook, but have you checked in the barn?
Alice Peirce was raised as a self-described “feral horse farm child” in Howard County, Md. She’s made efforts to leave the horse world over the years but always comes back and has worked for a number of people in various disciplines. Currently she’s riding young race horses and training foxhunters in Monkton, Md., where she hunts with the Elkridge-Harford Hunt.