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February 28, 2008

Farms Can Only Run One Way: Downhill

There is an undoubtedly apocryphal story of a farmer sitting on his tractor, gazing out over his immaculate farm. A neighbor stops his car to chat, and together they view the newly painted red barns, ruler-straight white fences, lush, green pastures, and bright blue silos.

"Henry," says the neighbor, "this farm looks so good that it could probably run itself."

"Sure could," replies Henry. "Downhill."

Anyone who owns a horse farm knows that the creation of disorder, chaos and destruction is a horse's favorite pastime. More often than not, chaos, disorder and destruction are also the lifestyle choices of the teenagers who ride them. Put together, these realities can make keeping up the farm a never-ending challenge.

A couple of years ago, I noticed a plastic McDonald's drink lid, with the straw still attached, lying in the driveway in front of my barn, where all the riders park their cars. As an experiment, I left it there, wondering how long it would take for someone other than me to pick it up.

Three days later, I gave in and removed it. By that time, probably dozens of working students, employees and visitors had walked past, over or on the drink lid. They failed to remove it, I can only assume, for one of several reasons:

1)They did not manage to see it.
2) They saw it, but attached no significance to its existence.
3) They saw it as trash, but decided not to pick it up because: a) It wasn't in their job description; b) Their mother wasn't there to pick it up for them; c) They preferred the look of trash; d) Other.

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth (N.H.), someone in my fraternity invited John Dickey, the college president, to speak to us. He talked about being a good citizen of the community, something that at age 20 or so, I considered a fairly irrelevant concept. I do remember, however, that President Dickey told us that in all his years at the college, as a student and then as a teacher, he never picked up an empty beer bottle on campus before he became president.

This idea of ultimate responsibility may be more prevalent than most people realize. In his book The Headmaster, John McPhee describes the legendary Frank Boyden of Deerfield Academy (Mass.): "At 86, he continues his work with no let-up'conducting Sunday night vespers services, writing as many as 70 letters a day, careering around his campus in an electric golf cart, and working from 7 a.m. to midnight every day. If he sees a bit of paper on the ground, he jumps out of his cart and picks it up. He is uncompromising about the appearance of his school."

Riding establishments and horse farms can range from the magnificence of places like Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky., replete with fountains and stained-glass windows in the stallion barns, to the filth, squalor, and rusty barbed wire of utter desolation. Most, of course, are at neither end of the spectrum, and most horse farm owners and managers have the well-being of the animals high on their list of priorities.

I've heard respected coaches and trainers say things like, "I can walk onto a place, and just from looking around, I can tell you the standard of horse care and instruction you'll find there."

I don't necessarily agree with such sweeping statements. Some beautiful farms are beautiful because no one works horses on them. The horses are pasture ornaments, and the jumps are ring ornaments. Some places are beautiful because the owner is a city stockbroker or a trust-fund farmer and can afford fleets of paid help.

By contrast, some hard-working kids, strapped for cash, work out a system of economic triage: First comes hay and grain for the horses, then a running pickup truck, then heat in their house. Fresh paint and new board fencing come pretty far down the list.

I think it's important to look past the gloss when assessing the correlation between aesthetics and a high standard of horsemanship. Are the horses themselves fat, sleek and healthy? Are there overt hazards lying around like nails, metal junk, things that can really hurt a horse? Mud and dirt may not be pretty, but if we watch horses turned out in nature, they roll, they paw, they chew, they scratch, and they're usually bedraggled pretty much by choice.

It's easy to just let it all go. I've always believed that lethargy breeds lethargy and squalor breeds squalor. Nevertheless, being neat, keeping the farm tidy, and acquiring a "manager's eye" can be acquired habits.

My uncle, Macdonald Peters, a Scotsman from Inverness, held the typical British Islander's antipathy toward disorder. "The history of civilization," he lectured to meat the age of 12 or so, "is the history of man's attempt to impose order upon chaos."

It isn't that much harder to knock down the cobwebs than to leave them festooning the walls, to pick up and get rid of that broken board, to clean the soap scum off the bathroom sink, to turn the lights off when leaving the barn.

Here's the point: It all becomes overwhelming when all those little things have been neglected for so long that the task seems beyond accomplishment. One of the Twelve Labors of Hercules was to clean the Augean stables, which hadn't been touched for 30 years. Hercules solved the problem by diverting a river through the stables, a remedy unavailable to most of us.

Farm owners or managers must often agree with the adage "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Anyone who has raised children knows a phenomenon known as "the child's room." You open the door, see a mountain of possibly living organisms, and try to slam the door before it all escapes into the rest of the house.

It doesn't end when the teenage years are over, either. A few years ago, at the graduation of one of my sons from Colgate University (N.Y.), I made the mistake of going to his room, upstairs in his fraternity. My feet stuck to the floor, the odor of stale beer permeated the atmosphere, and it was very hard to discern what were my son's treasured belongings and what was garbage. It was exactly like my own fraternity house 34 years earlier.

It was with a degree of irony that an hour later I listened to the class of '97 being described by New Jersey Governor Christy Todd Whitman as "the future leaders of the United States of America." I thought it would have been more appropriate if she'd said "The United Slums of America."

Now, these are not war-criminal children, followers of Attila the Hun, intent upon trashing everything they touch. They do trash everything they touch, but it's not done with malice aforethought. It comes as naturally to them to destroy your tack room as it comes to your horses to destroy your fence. That's why the farm owner is often the last line of defense between order and the surging flood of chaos!

When you see that sparkling neatness of a horse farm, school, college or business, you can be sure that somewhere, behind that tidy and polished appearance, will be a person like Frank Boyden, who is "uncompromising about the appearance of his school."

If there is no Frank Boyden, if the farm is left to the tender mercies of benign neglect, there is nothing surer than that the farm will run itself "downhill."
 
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