Here’s the Forward for the new book. I haven’t selected a title yet. I hope you enjoy it.
August 1, 2012
Sitting in the front seat of the horse-drawn wagon, I guided the team of large draft horses onto the narrow, steel truss bridge. Doc, a powerful gray Percheron, was pulling on the left, and closest to the river was my lead horse Bill, an athletic sorrel-colored Belgian. The lane narrowed to eight feet as the horses pulled the hard-sided wagon with a bowed roof and the accompanying supply trailer onto the bridge. Tied to the rear of the trailer and enjoying his day off, was my third horse, Bob. His heavy muscles rippled under a red coat as he strolled along, calmly watching the oncoming traffic pass by, a few feet away. Near the middle of the bridge, I divided my attention between driving the horses and enjoying the magnificent view of the Snake River carrying the rapidly melting snow of the Northern Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, which was located several hundred miles downstream. As the wagon rolled across to the far side of the river, there was a sign that said I was entering the State of Washington, making this the 21st State that I had traveled in by horse and wagon.
My name is Bob Skelding. I have spent most of the previous four years driving a team of horses around the country. In outward appearance I’m just a normal looking 53 year old guy of average height and weight, but a soft eye and a slight grin betray the fact that I truly enjoy the lifestyle I have adopted. The soothing sound and sight of these magnificent creatures comforts the soul and brings about an inner peace. The joy and wonder I see on the faces of those I encounter leaves me with the feeling that I’m really making a difference in the world.
Occasionally, I wondered why I was trekking around the country in a 19th century mode of transportation while everyone else was buzzing by in their trucks and cars. Today was one of those times, and it didn’t take long for the answer to become readily apparent.
A glance in the rear view mirror showed that I had quite a line of traffic backed up on the narrow bridge. Just beyond the bridge was a wide shoulder which offered a safe place to rest the team and let the cars go by.
Once the backed-up traffic cleared, I pulled the team back onto the road. The horses were used to city traffic and we made good time on our way to the grocery store. I couldn’t pass up a chance to re-supply, as towns in the western portion of the country are spaced far apart. The last opportunity I had to fully replenish the wagon larder had been a couple of weeks ago while traveling through Missoula, Montana.
As the lads pulled the wagon into the supermarket parking lot, the sound of their steel-shod hooves resonated off the rows of parked cars. Steering my way to a clear area at the back of the parking lot, I pulled in next to a small group of elderly veterans who were enjoying their coffee while standing close to each other and recanting tales of war and woe in lands far across the ocean. The gestures they used to emphasize their stories froze in place as they gawked at the sight of the wagon making its way to their grassy, tree-dotted refuge on the edge of the mayhem surrounding the grocery store.
Tying back the driving lines to a pair of cleats near my feet, I opened the driver side door and climbed down from the wagon. As I reached out to secure Doc’s lead rope to a handy four inch wide tree, a veteran with a warm smile, long hair and a salt and pepper beard asked me, “Have you traveled far, young feller?”
After exchanging a handshake and a few pleasantries, I replied, “So far, I’ve been out for three months and have traveled 1200 miles on this trip. For the past two hundred miles I’ve rolled through some of the most beautiful wilderness on earth as I meandered down the banks of the Locsa and Clearwater Rivers. Now I’m running a little low on grub. Since canned beans and ravioli aren‘t the best fare, it’s time I picked up a few victuals.”
We continued to chat as I cleared the old food out of the refrigerator and brought the trash to the front of the wagon. Before I left to dump my garbage and do some shopping, I asked him, “Would you mind keeping an eye on the team for a few minutes while I run into the store?”
“Not a problem”, he replied with a smile.
By stopping in the rear of the parking lot, it delayed the inevitable arrival of visitors wishing to see the horses and hear my story. Before walking into the store, I glanced back and watched as a mother and her two young girls walked up to the wagon. A cute little red haired girl, perched on her mother’s hip, boldly reached out her tiny hand to rub Bill’s nose. The horses are old hands at greeting the public so I knew they would be on their best behavior while I was gone. Smiling at the sight, I walked into the store.
When I started back to the wagon, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries, there were several groups of visitors gathered around the horses. Lifting my shopping bags into the wagon, I grabbed a handful of horse treats from a plastic jar that was alongside the brake pedal. As I was distributing them to the children to feed the horses, the old veteran volunteered to roll my shopping cart to the collection point in the middle of the parking lot.
"Thank you", I said as he wheeled it off.
He returned as I was putting away the last of the groceries and recanted his tale, “When I pushed the cart into the corral I happened to glance in the bottom and saw an old lottery ticket. When I looked it over I saw that it wasn’t scratched. It was worth twenty bucks, imagine that?”
As I caught his eye, neither of us felt the need to utter a word.
A tug on the right driving line and a loud “gee” caused the team to turn and pull the wagon back through the cars in the parking lot. Before entering the stream of traffic in front of the store, I exchanged a nod and a wave with the old guys gathered for their morning coffee.
The horses were fresh and leaned into their collars while steering the wagon through the morning traffic. My next goal was a trip to Wal-Mart to replace a broken digital camera.
After 9000 miles of travel, the team was used to cars and traffic lights, automatically stopping at red and yellow lights. They react to a slight change on the pressure I apply to their bits to change direction and speed. Most of the time I stay to the right so I won’t delay traffic, however when I have to pull into the traffic lane to pass parked cars, they instantly respond to my lead.
A few blocks away from the grocery store, I guided the team left at a traffic signal and entered the Wal-Mart parking lot. To avoid the congestion near the front of the store, I pulled the horses to a stop in a large open area near the back. After gathering up the driving lines, I jumped out of the wagon and began unhitching the team for lunch. As I was unhooking the neck yoke at the front of the wagon tongue, a family showed up to see the commotion. “Have you ever driven a team of horses?” I asked a young mother who was accompanied by her ten year old son.
“No, I ride, but I’ve never driven a horse”, she replied as I gathered the line and walked with her to a position behind the horses. Before she could talk herself out of it, I quickly showed her how to hold the lines and drive Bill and Doc to the side of the wagon where they were to be tied up for lunch. This is a favorite trick of mine to leave people feeling good about themselves and believing that they have done something really special. The team is well drilled in the routine, easy to handle and know right where they have to be driven.
The little tow-headed boy looked in awe as his mother guided the two large horses to the side of the wagon. Reaching approximately the right place to tie them, I left her side and caught up their halters to guide them the last few steps. “Can you hold the lines while I tie them up?” I asked her as she stood proudly behind the team, her face beaming in wonder.
“I didn’t think I could do that”, she said.
For a reply, I turned to her son and said, “How do you think your mom did?”
The little boy could hardly contain himself as he blurted out, “Mommy, you were wonderful.”
After tying the lads to the side of the wagon, I asked him, “How would you like to sit on that big old gray horse? His name is Doc.”
“Can I really do that?” he asked, as he bent his head backward to look up at the horse that towered above him.
After boosting him up on Doc’s back I pointed to the top of the metal hames, which are used to secure the harness to the collar and told him, “Just hang on to the two metal balls.”
For a couple of minutes he appeared to be doing well, but then I saw him glance down, realize how high he was off the ground, and a little twinge of fear crossed his face. Turning to his mother, I said, “How would you like to sit behind your son?”
While mother and son were enjoying the comforts of Doc’s broad back, I removed the horses’ bridles, poured each horse a pail of water, followed by a rubber tub of oats. More people were now starting to crowd about the wagon. I moved around a lot, dodging in between the horses, as I fed them their lunch. A woman followed me around, recanting a tale of a horse she owned several years before. When I politely slowed down to listen to her story, Bill demonstrated his impatience by pawing the ground with his hoof.
With the horses all enjoying their oats, I made my excuses to the crowd and walked into the store to buy a camera.
When I arrived back at the wagon there were several new groups of people, most of them with young kids. They were all keeping their distance, but moved in next to the horses when I said it was okay to pet them. By this time, the empty grain tubs were scattered around, kicked about by the lads as they shuffled their feet while taking their lunchtime naps.
I continued to chat with people through the open front door of the wagon as I poured a glass of wine and prepared my lunch. Moving to a seat up front, I ate a couple of olives and a chunk of cheese before hopping down to lift a pair of youngsters up on Doc. With the kids hanging on and excitedly talking with their parents, I had time to sneak a little more lunch before once again turning to the crowd.
There was a time when I would dread a chaotic scene like the one unfolding around the wagon. Normally, lunch is a time to relax and enjoy a midday meal. Four years ago, when I first started my journeying by horse and wagon, I couldn’t wait to get underway and leave the crowds behind. My attitude slowly changed when I experienced events similar to the one that was about to unfold.
Off to the left, I watched with interest as Jamie Beidler lifted her 12 year old daughter out of a Range Rover and sat her gently in a wheelchair. The girl was dressed in cutoff jean shorts and a pink tank top. Underdeveloped legs and a long, serious face betrayed the fact that there was little to smile about in her life. Wheeling her chair to a place where she could watch the horses from several feet away, I saw the uncertainty on her face as I told her, “You can move right up to the horses and pet them. They’re used to wheelchairs and really like people.”
“I can’t”, she stammered.
Seizing the initiative, her mother offered a few words of encouragement and urged the girl forward. The definition of the word “bravery” is not the absence of fear, rather the ability to push on in spite of being afraid. As she fearfully looked up at the massive horse towering above her, a young lady with a difficult past and an uncertain future took a large step forward in life as she rolled to a stop alongside Bill’s sturdy legs. When Bill lowered his head for a pet, a smile slowly crept across her face as she hesitantly reached out to rub his nose.
I knew right then that her life had undergone a change, but there was still more to be accomplished. To cement her achievement and build it into something that would later be more than just a good memory, she needed to build on this minor success with something more solid. Confidence is achieved and uncertainty overcome through a series of successes. To make this happen, I had to put her on top of the world.
While she was still beaming after conquering her earlier fears, I asked her, “How would you like to sit on top of that horse?”
“I’ll fall off”, she replied with a broken voice, as she fearfully visualized a possible disaster.
“No you won’t. I won’t let go of you. After I boost you up, all you have to do is hold onto his harness.”
After she settled on Bill’s wide back, I told her, “Right now, you’re the tallest, strongest and fastest person on earth. There’s nothing you can’t do. All you have to do is try.” And as I looked at Miss Beidler’s young face radiating a newfound confidence, I saw a different person, one that had been completely changed by the magic of a big red horse!