Horses on Muddy Creek

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Horse team

Even today, a good farmer must be a jack of all trades: a horticulturalist, an electrician, a bookkeeper and a banker. But in the early days on Muddy Creek, it was necessary to wear even more hats. The farmer had to be a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a tinsmith and even a veterinarian. Every farmer had a copy of the standard treatise on Diseases of the Horse, a three-inch-thick volume that contained the standard treatment for every conceivable ailment with which horses, mules and other livestock might be afflicted.

In the spring, after a long winter’s layoff from hard work, horses were inclined toward sore shoulders. Oftentimes the collars were ill-fitted, like clothing that was handed down to the young’uns from the elders. Horse collars were no exception: they cost money, hard money, and none were thrown away, but were passed on to younger workers. (Seems I have heard that line before.)

Sometimes the pads were not adjusted as they should have been, and care had to be taken that the horse was properly conditioned. Most importantly, the operator had to know his charges and be aware of problems before they arose.

The old reliable Stock Book listed the following as a very good liniment for sore shoulders: “Melt 2 ounces of beef suet in an equal amount of raw linseed oil, add 2 ounces of beeswax and rosin, stir and cook until well mixed, then pour the melted liquid into 1-ounce salve boxes and cool. This will keep a long time, and is a sure cure for sore shoulders.”

Speaking of horse liniment: Old man Catterton was reputed to have made the best horse liniment in the country. Most of the neighbors were discreet enough not to talk about what was in it, but would rather talk about the results of using the product. His praises were sung far and wide. Even Uncle Walter admitted that “The best ‘stuff’ I’ve found since I left Memphis” came from right up there on Red Hill.

In fact, some of the menfolk would have need to visit him several times a week to replenish their stock. You see, in the spring, there was always a great need for spring tonic. The more affluent ladies of the area resorted to Perunia or Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Elictra, but the men preferred old man Catterton’s brew, er, product. Sorry.

My mother used to tell about Mr. Charley Wagner, who had an affinity for the fruit of the vine, coming into a tent meeting over at Tom Town one night. He interrupted the conclave with “I had a bottle of horse medicine out here in ma’ buggy and it’s gone. Now I just wanna warn folks not to drink that medicine, ’cause it’s poison, hear? Poison!”

Speaking of medicine, when a horse needed a dose, the usual way was to “drench” him. This was done by filling a quart whiskey bottle with the dosage mixture, whatever it might be, and then apply a “twitch” to the horse’s nose (a “twitch” being a foot-long piece of broom handle with a six-inch loop of rope in one end. The loop was slipped over the horse’s nostrils and twisted so that even the most stubborn horse was made docile). The bottle was then inserted into his mouth as far as possible, and the contents “poured” down his throat.

A review of the 1920 census shows that in Lawrence County alone there were 6,386 horses and 1,438 mules on the 1,710 farms in the county, an average of 4.6 animals per farm. This is for every farm, and since many of them had only a buggy horse or two, the larger farms would be tending at least four teams, while some, like my Uncle Clint’s, would field as many as a dozen teams in the oil fields. The horse and mule business was big business, and vets like Carl “Doc” Case did very well caring for them. Veterinarians didn’t have time for cats and dogs in those long-ago days.

When dad was teaching Uncle Walter how to harness the team and care for the horses when he came to live on Muddy Creek, he cautioned him about some cardinal principles of horsemanship. “Keep the wrinkles out of the horse blanket when saddling Old Doll, and watch out for a burr under the saddle: Some of them Legg boys might just get set to pull a trick on ya’.” It’d be a trick that would certainly get a rise out of Old Doll, docile as she was.

Dad always advised Uncle Walter to check the shoes on each horse every morning, for a loose shoe could easily mean a lost team and a lost day’s work. How many horseshoe nails were planted along the roads of America is anybody’s guess. But many of them were certainly picked up by the newfangled motorcar tires in the days before the “slap” was laid.

Horses were given a bit of unearned credit in the saying about “having horse sense.” They have none whatever when it comes to eating, and unless you keep the oat bin well locked, will actually founder on fresh oats or other grain.

There are some other “horse related” gems of wisdom worth remembering:

“Always look a gift horse in the mouth.” You see, a horse’s mouth gives away its age, and sometimes gift horses have a rather short life expectancy.

Then there is “Give someone a horse laugh.” This is an exaggerated and exceedingly wide-open-mouth guffaw that is more to embarrass the speaker than to applaud him.

Uncle Walter used to use the phrase, “She is a little long in the mouth,” when he was talking about the Widow Parsons when she was not acting her age.

“Kicking up one’s heels” refers to someone who is acting like a young colt and frolicking in the pasture.

“Taking the bit between the teeth” is what happens when a person takes complete control of the occasion and is uncontrollable, just as when a horse holds the bit between its teeth and defies the person holding the reins.

“A short horse is soon curried” refers to a small job that is quickly completed.

“To kick over the traces” is to get things fouled up, as a horse does when he gets his legs tangled in the trace chains, a real mess!

Sometime I may tell you about some champion horse traders I have known, some known too well for my own good. Till then, I shall mount my trusty steed and ride off into the sunset. Adios, pardner. Hi Ho Silver, away!

Perry E. Piper’s recollections of his boyhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – appeared in newspapers in Indiana and Illinois for the 12 years.

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