There comes a point in life where it seems that you need to make a choice: live a single life, or find someone special to share love with. I was one of the lucky ones. Some 20 years after I finished high school (graduated was an optimistic term) I was re-acquainted with a woman that I greatly admired back then. After sizing me up for six months, she recognized that she had found a man that not only appreciated and encouraged her passion for horses, but was crazy about her as well. She accepted my proposal of marriage and I became Mr. Horse Husband.
Relief, happiness and optimism were all for what I felt when we walked the aisle.
Finding a home was first priority and together we discovered a 100-acre farm we both thought might work. It was neglected and overgrown with an uninhabitable house. Perhaps we should have run away, but we were intrigued. Speaking from experience with her 10 acres, my new wife suggested that it looked like a lot of acreage to get back into shape. Somehow I didn’t hear that. The jerk in me thought it was a great way to be away from neighbors. The horsewoman in Dianne noticed the miles of riding trails, seasonal creeks, amazing vistas, and 19 empty horse stalls. She thought it was perfect. We signed the deed. Several weeks and multiple semi-truck loads later we completed moving her hard-earned ranch possessions from the Bay Area up to sunny Southern Oregon. Along with stall mats and pipe panels came a half dozen horses, llamas, cats, dogs and a pig named Blue. The only thing missing were squirrels and gophers, but there were plenty of those at the new place. When she closed that chapter of her life I felt a great responsibility to try and make the next 20 as fulfilling.
Once we settled in I was constantly impressed with how much her decades-long prior ranch experience would manifest itself in her new home. Her depth of knowledge about the care of the horses and other critters was amazing. She had so much practical knowledge and this new beginning let her run with it. The barn was repaired and cleaned, the horses were assigned to their new pastures. One restful evening we snuggled next to a campfire, its flames reflecting on the new white fences, while overhead the Hale Bopp comet streaked across dark starred skies. The nearby horses nickered softly to her. It made me happy to see her thrive.
While all of this was taking place she kept in touch with her old friends (some of whom eventually followed her move up here) and quickly made new ones. It wasn’t long before her horse buddies would call her before calling the vet, just to see if a visit was really necessary.
But while she was in her element, I was slightly adrift. I had sold my marketing business and was extracting myself from an ill-advised helicopter operating company. My plan, if you could call it that, was very general. Spruce up the place, and become a farmer. A ‘gentleman rancher’ if you will. “Heck.” I figured. “I liked driving my Johnny Popper tractor. How hard could farming be?” The salesman who we had bought the property from had remarked that it made more than $20,000 per year growing hay. He lied. Well, perhaps not lied, but I certainly should have asked for proof of profit, not just income. It is possible I should have listened to my wife, who was pretty clear that she thought growing hay was a bad idea. She said she didn’t use all that much and that the price of delivered hay in our area was surprisingly low. I also could have heeded the council of the local men whose farms surrounded us. I seem to recall “rocks in your head” and, “ruined ground” as some of the terms I blissfully ignored.
The slide from sunny days and butterflies to bare dirt and stubborn weeds came about one discouraging plow furrow at a time. Unless you have done it, there is no way to understand how often the machines break, how much time is spent preparing a field, and how quickly a beautiful day can degrade to rain and instantly ruin fresh hay bales. A $15,000 broken tractor transmission (exceeding the gross income for the year), accompanied by the realization that if you have hay fever you should NOT live in the middle of a 100 acre HAY FIELD, finally put me over the edge. I was spending 14 hours a day in misery, expending time and money on something I was terrible at. Perhaps if I had ever grown something as substantial as, say, a cherry tomato, I would have known it wasn’t as easy as it looked. But I hadn’t.
Two years of farming effort later I was beyond discouraged. In fact “Hate,” with a capital “H,” was the term I frequently began to use to describe how I felt about it. I Hated farming and saying it didn’t make me feel any less frustrated. My wife helped where she could, but the fact was that my farming effort was really an afterthought to her work with horses. She had been raising them just fine on her prior ranch without ever owning a tractor, so to her farming was an unnecessary complication. And to be fair, her hands were full with the growing horse side of things. I was feeling trapped and it began to show negatively in my relationship with Dianne. The jerk that I thought had been left at the altar was back and I didn’t like him.
So I was determined to make a change. I approached my wife with my unhappy dilemma and told her that while I loved her, I hated farming. I told her was miserable, that hay fever was killing me, and that I wanted to move.
In retrospect I am glad that that she gave me the answer that she did. There is no way to predict what the future would have otherwise held. But at the time, being calmly told “the only way I’m leaving here is in a box” was about the last thing I wanted to hear. But alpha mare had spoken. So there you go. I had two options: work here on the ranch with Dianne or live somewhere else by myself. If I weren’t so smitten a choice would have been easy. If she weren’t so secure in her appreciation for the farm it would have been easy. If the farming effort weren’t so relentless and unrewarding it would have been easy. If I had someone else to blame it would have been easy. But it wasn’t easy.
Fortunately, my wife was content. While my situation degraded, as long as she was around her horses she was happy. She had a rewarding relationship with horses that I so admired. I felt stuck in a rut and unable to balance the disagreeable tasks I was encountering. Farming was my effort to be the best possible horse husband, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. I found it increasing difficult to keep our work/marriage relationship in perspective. I desperately searched for a way out.
It was going to take an exceptional gift from a loving horse-wife to make me stay…
This is the second part of a multi-part series chronicling Joseph Berto’s early experience as a horse husband. Read part one HERE, and watch for the next installment in a few weeks.