I FIRST MET RALPH in September of 1980. I'm sure that we both remember the day well. I was fairly new to horses and Ralph, at 9 years old, had never done a day's work in his life.
It was 6:00 a.m. in Cold Springs, New York. It was still dark. Ralph was loaded and we started down the lane. I suddenly realized I didn't know his name. I rolled down the window and yelled back to Wendy O'Brien, "What's his name?" I thought I heard, "Ralph!" A month later ROLF'S papers arrived but it was too late. He was a Ralph and he still is.
We had an eventful first 24 hours together. Wendy had given me the wrong border crossing papers. I realized this half way to the Canadian border. I badly needed a vet who could issue federal papers. A couple of hours later we were on the road again but that wasn't the end of our troubles. I had to get those papers stamped. That meant two hours back to Albany or reaching the border before the wet's quitting time. We made it to the border with five minutes to spare, yet it was another three hours before we were allowed into Canada. It is certainly easier today.
Then we got lost in Montreal, and finally arrived in McDonalds Corners, near Ottawa at 10 p.m., a tired new horse owner and a very tired horse.
Home that fall was a tent on 100 acres and no fencing. I left Ralph off at neighbors in their foolproof, or so I thought, paddock. At 7 a.m. my neighbor arrived in a hurry breaking the news to me that Ralph had escaped! There was an old chicken coop with two very small doors in it. This big fat Fjord had managed to squeeze through. I found him in two minutes, in a very lush hay field behind their house.
Ralph was bought for one reason: winter was coming and I needed a house. Ralph's job description was log skidder. Now the trouble started. I had one big fat lazy Fjord who had never worked for a living and much less seen a harness. It sure was fun getting him skidding those heavy logs.
However, by the time the house was built, he had accepted the fact that he was going to work most of his life. He is now 23 years old and is still skidding logs for a living.
For ten years on that farm Ralph skidded logs for our house, his house, all the outbuildings, firewood and all the logs for my log building business. He also ploughed and disked and harrowed 10 acres of land all by himself. I had a driveway that was half a mile long. I used Ralph hitched to a V plough to keep it clear of snow. Many times I got stuck in the snow with the car. You know who pulled me out. It was a little tricky hanging out a window driving the horse and the car at the same time.
I remember one time when I was stuck in the mud with my truck, right up to the axles. Ralph tried a couple of times and couldn't move it. If a load doesn't move the first time, he is reluctant to try a second time. I had to trick him into thinking the load was lighter. The truck was stuck on the rise of a little hill. I took a 100 foot nylon rope, tied one end onto the truck and Ralph to the other end over the hill. He thought it was great pulling down the hill. By the time the rope stretched he was pulling quite hard and the truck just popped out of the mud.
The best times I had with Ralph were the winters. We used to go sleigh riding at night in full moonlight. We had a creek that was quite winding. It was great sleigh riding when the creek was frozen and windblown. We would put corks on Ralph for traction. He could surely fly around the comers on the creek. It was great fun. We still take Ralph out on Christmas Eve and visit our neighbors. And he still brings home the Christmas tree.
Ralph loves children. When our daughter, Janeva, was nine years old she would harness Ralph by herself and drive him two miles down the road to play with a girl friend. She would tie Ralph to the fence post for a couple of hours and then head for home. Our son, Christopher, when he was 13, would take a couple of his buddies and Ralph five miles down a busy country road to the local swimming hole for an afternoon. Ralph has given many pony rides in his day. When school groups come to the building site for visits, Ralph is always the biggest hit.
Ralph not only likes children, he likes and protects young horses. For this reason he has been a great help to me in starting young horses. In fact, Ralph and I have started fifteen or more beginners. He will stand in one spot while I hitch and he gives the beginner great confidence.
I start by putting Ralph and the young horse in the same pasture for a few weeks, so they can get to know each other. When I finally go to hitch, I always tie the youngster to Ralph's hames using a lead shank. I make the length of the lead shank just long enough so that I will always have control of Ralph. If the young horse bolts, he will hit the end of the lead shank before his head passes Ralph's. If I didn't have control of Ralph, he would run with the young horse.
Ralph not only starts young horses, he has been my teaching partner in Workhorse and Pleasure Driving Training Clinics. We worked with Lyn Miller from Small Farmers Journal. My wife, Jane, was one of our students who fell in love with Ralph and decided to stay. Ralph also insisted on bringing us home from the church in a cutter after our wedding. It was 20 degrees below zero that day.
When we moved farms and were organizing new barns, for a time Ralph was left behind in a field at the old farm. He adopted an unusual new friend, for a horse. He became very close to a little red banty rooster. They were inseparable all that summer. It was a comical sight to see the two friends pacing the field together, never more than a few feet apart. And at night the banty would roost on a beam just above Ralph in the old barn.
When I purchased Ralph, I had two black, full brother Morgan stallions, Nick and Diamond. I started both of them with Ralph. When the Morgans were 3 and 4 years old I decided that having two breeds was too much. It took me two months to decide whether to keep fat Ralph or the beautiful, matched pair of Morgans. One day it was Fjords, and the next it was Morgans. We all know which it turned out to be.
The decision came one spring day when I was planting a hedge of cedar trees around the garden. I had Ralph hitched to a stone boat loaded with trees - He was standing on the field side of an electric fence and I was working in the garden on the opposite side. While I was planting trees, a friend came by for a visit. When he let his young German Shepherd dog, Thor, out of the car, my Black Lab, Molly, came running to greet him. The young dog was afraid of Molly and ran for cover, under Ralph. Both dogs were barking wildly and Ralph just stood there watching. Suddenly Thor realized he was under a horse. He stopped barking and backed into the electric fence. He let out a wild scream and came flying out from under Ralph. Ralph still just stood there. Nick and Diamond would have been long gone. The next day there was an ad for a matched pair of Morgans in the Morgan magazine.
Ralph had a great adventure in 1987, the year that Jane and I spent in France. While we were away, ninety year old Henry Judd looked after Ralph. This man never owned a vehicle and lived alone on his family farm. He would harness Ralph once a week and take the family buggy (65 years old) six miles to town to get the mail and weekly groceries. There was a big fall fair every year and Henry wanted to be in the parade. He spent hours getting Ralph ready and then lay down for a nap. When he woke up several hours later, he realized that he was almost too late to make it. He ran Ralph into town, just managing to join in at the last minute. When it was over he left for home not realizing that he and Ralph had won first prize in the parade contest. He was too deaf to hear the announcement. He heard the news next day when the Ottawa newspaper came out to take his and Ralph's picture.
That year was sure a holiday for Ralph. Henry liked Ralph a lot and Ralph liked Henry and Henry's old pet cow. Henry would feed the chickens a handful of grain and Ralph and the cow would get a quart. Ralph gained over 350 pounds and weighed 1500 when we returned, pretty heavy for a 14 hand horse. His neck was like a rock. It took a full year to get him fit again.
Besides all the work Ralph has done for me over the past 15 years, he has given me a lot of fun and success in the show ring. Woodstock has been our favorite show. He has been to Woodstock eight years and in that time has never come home without a blue ribbon. He has won several times in singles and pairs, in gamblers choice, cones, cross country, obstacles, log skid, stone boat pull and farm versatility classes. He has won the Valdor trophy many times and has brought home many championships for singles and pairs. At home this year at the Canadian Driving Classic Show he won seconds and thirds in the pair pony classes. In his last show this year at our local fair, he was first and second place winner in the driving classes in the morning and first place beating the big draft horses in the log skidding competition in both single and team classes in the afternoon. He was also first place in the team "backing up through pylons" competition.
1994 is Ralph's retirement year from showing. He is 23 years old and the long trips to the shows are now too much for him. At home though, he still pulls logs just as hard as the young horses. And presently I have three young horses to start in harness. So Ralph and I are still a partnership and we're going to have a busy winter. You would have to go a long way to find a horse with a heart like Ralph's.