The term "horse whisperer" has been thrown around a lot since it was coined in the late 1990s, but as long as there have been horses, there have been people with the special gift of understanding and bringing out the best in them. This is a tribute to the greatest horseman - and his wife - I've ever had the honor to meet. It was my privilege to live next door to them (next door being a relative term here in Maine... Their farm is almost a mile from us, but they were our nearest neighbors in that direction!) for fifteen years.
They had driven two days to this horse auction in Alberta, Canada, to find Jennie a new horse. Yet as the day wore on, and horse after horse paraded through the ring, she shook her head at each. As the gate opened for the last horse in the sale, there appeared a boldly marked Leopard Appaloosa, wearing a halter with a rope tied to each side, and two men gripping each rope with all their might. The horse entered the ring on his hind legs, dragging all four men along behind him. "That one," Jennie said.
Theirs is a love story for the ages, and one that centered on their love of animals, particularly horses. Chris and Jennie had met one day, back in the 1930s if my memory is correct, when they were both riding their horses to town. Chris's horse had picked up a stone in his hoof and he was searching for a stick to pry it out with, when Jennie came along with a friend. Without hesitation, she leapt off her horse, fished out her hoof pick and cleared out the stone. From this, a marriage lasting seventy years was born!
The young couple purchased a 1700s farmhouse in the mountains of Maine, far from any human neighbors. They named their farm Broncho Ridge, and from here Jennie became the first person in Maine to show Appaloosas. How she loved those spotted horses! She spent an entire winter in the 1960s, sitting by the fire (they had no electricity), hand-beading her deerskin dress for Native costume, and that costume was legendary! People still talk about it today. She and her horse Buckshot Britches logged many miles in costume... When they weren't showing, Jennie would often take him to schools to teach kids about Native American lifestyles and traditions.
They were the only bidders for the unruly Appy gelding, and Jennie was smiling broadly as the weary men wrangled him out of the ring. Spying Chris and Jennie's homemade horse-box, which was built into the back of their old pickup (yes, they built walls and a roof over the truck bed!), the men looked doubtful. "We'll help you try to load him," one offered. Chris thanked them, but said he preferred to do it himself, and untied one of the ropes from the prancing gelding's halter as the men backed away nervously. Chris and Jennie spent four hours that evening with the wild-eyed spotted horse, never raising a hand to him. As dusk became night, their patience was rewarded as the gelding stepped up the ramp into the box.
Chris joined the Merchant Marines in World War II, working as an Engineer aboard several ships in the Pacific, while a worried Jennie kept up the farm by herself. Even though she stood less than five feet tall, she cut wood, raised a garden, tended the animals... and then one day the fire came. This was in 1947, a year that is remembered throughout Maine as the Year of the Great Fire, or "The Fire of '47."
The wildfire started northwest of us at the Maine-New Hampshire border, and burned a broad swath right through the state until it reached the ocean. Jennie recalls looking across the valley and seeing flames crowning high over the top of a mountain on the other side, like a huge, fire-breathing dragon approaching their farm. An emergency call to her relatives saw all the animals and many of their belongings packed into trucks and taken to safety for an anxious few days. When it was over, 17,000 acres had burned.... but Broncho Ridge had been spared. The fire had split into two when it jumped the river, and left this little "island" of land untouched as it marched to the sea.
Approaching the Canadian border, a Customs official checked off his list of questions while the Appy quietly munched hay in the horse box. "For what purpose are you going to use this horse?" he asked. Chris replied that he intended to train him for riding. The fellow looked up at Chris, cleared his throat, and asked the question again. Years later, Chris related, "He was an old fella... I thought maybe he was hard of hearing, so I repeated myself a bit louder. The guy sighed, charged me the fee, and off we went. It wasn't til later when I was reading the Customs booklet that I realized if I'd said I was gonna use him for meat I wouldn't have had to pay a fee! That old fella wasn't hard of hearing - He was trying to help us out!"
Chris and Jennie's way with horses became well-known, and as some people take in stray cats, they began taking in "problem" horses. With patience and love, they taught these animals to trust people again, then gently trained them to ride and drive. Well, most of them. There was that little bay Morgan that decided he didn't want to drive one day, and bolted in through the narrow paddock gate, wedging the sleigh neatly between the gateposts. The only injury was to the sleigh, and they always told the story with a laugh. Over the decades "a good many" horses, according to Chris, passed through Broncho Ridge's fields. Jennie could name every one of them, even when she was close to ninety, and tell you who adopted each one and how the rest of its life was lived out. They cared, so they stayed in touch with the adopters whenever possible, and if a horse didn't work out, they happily took it back and spent more time with it.
That summer, the Appy, now named Splotch, bonded more with Chris than with Jennie, so he spent hours and days out in the pasture with him, just being near him, touching him, gaining his trust. The tranformation was incredible. By the end of summer, Chris and Splotch could be seen lying together in the grass, riding through the fields, and driving down the roads. This once-unmanageable horse, most likely destined for the slaughterhouse if he went unbought at the auction, became a wonderful companion and partner. He would do anything for Chris. He was ultimately adopted by a family who cherished him for the rest of his life. Oh sure, Chris could have kept him, but there were other horses like Splotch out there that needed a chance to be great, too.
[Chris with Splotch, 1963]
I met Chris and Jennie shortly after we moved to the Triple Mountain, one mountain north of Broncho Ridge. I was privileged to be welcomed into their home - They still chose to live without electricity, and I came to appreciate the peace and quiet of a happy home with nothing buzzing or humming in the background. Chris helped me find the boundaries of our property, and while we walked in the woods, I enjoyed hearing his tales of horses past and present: There was the horse he'd drive in the buggy down to the hydro dam where he worked, then turn the cart around and let the horse head home on his own. In the evening, Jennie would drive the buggy down to pick him up again.
And there was Chubby, the Belgian, who enjoyed logging with Chris. They'd bring in logs for firewood and for building, and Chubby threw himself into his work with vigor. One day they were trying to pull out a stump... Chris had dug the roots out and wrapped a chain tightly around it. As he dropped the harness hook onto the chain, Chubby heaved forward with all his might, and as Chris tells it: "That's when a strap broke, the harness flew off, and next thing I know, I'm sitting on the stump, fully harnessed."
Chris passed away this month at age 90 (Jennie passed two years ago). In his last few weeks, I spent as much time with him as I could, and asked him to tell me Splotch's story again, because it's my favorite. I told him we'd soon be opening a physical store for Triple Mountain Model Horses, and showed him a framed collage of him with Splotch that will hang in our store, with a photo of Jennie and Bucky in their Native Costume right next to it. They'll always be watching over us. He was pleased. The morning he passed, as I sat in his living room with his friends and relatives, I thought the house would feel empty, but it didn't. His and Jennie's energy and memories still filled the place, and I hope they always do. We talked about what they had taught each of us, and for me, their greatest lesson was love. They truly loved each other their whole lives. You could see it in Chris's indulgent smile as Jennie recounted a story from a decades-past horse show, and in her voice as she teasingly chastised him for tracking mud across her floor. This same love and patience that they showed the animals that came to Broncho Ridge they also showed to each other, and it's something that Roy and I try to emulate every day.
[Chris and Jennie at home, 2007]
[Chris and Splotch playing in the field and showing what a little love and patience can do.]