Night Check

This is one of my favorites, written several winters ago.

Night check. Every night, after dinner, we trek to the barn. Some days, it’s comforting, almost therapeutic, a stroll, past the apple tree on the left, winding between the fence rows of the front field and back field, along the stone driveway, down the incline to the bank barn built in 1890. Tonight, it’s anything but comforting, the wind whips like it’s finishing a grudge, my nose instantly drips, on command. I don’t dare check a thermometer. I pull my wool hat down, over my ears, and zip my down jacket to my chin. A stray cat, well, once-a-stray cat meows – more like a screech – from his makeshift bed next to the door. I walk head-on into the wind, the sky is bright for this time of night, one lone light shines from across two cow fields, I wonder if our neighbor is doing night check too.

We do this every night, after dinner, usually after putting Miles to bed. If we were late leaving the barn at feeding time, we try to go later at night. Sometimes when we go to dinner or a party, we wonder if we should check them on the way out or on the way in, one seems too early, the other too late. New Year’s Eve was tricky, should we check them at 8 at night or 2 in the morning? We always check them.

The horses don’t seem to care – I’d like to say they do – but they’re indifferent at best. Some nights, we wake them up. Some nights, they’re awake, like they’ve been talking, maybe about the glory days or maybe about how they’ll torment us tomorrow. If Pete Fornatale or Steven Crist or Andy Serling spent two days on this farm, they’d never bet another horse. One day, sure. Two days, never again. There is nothing predictable about a horse’s behavior.

Tonight, they were mostly awake, huddled near the back of their stalls, settled but not sleeping. Five geldings rest in the bank barn and two rest in the attached shed-row barn. Kissin Conquest and Apse breathe the cold air, flowing over their wooden doors in the outside stalls. Under think blankets, they walk to the front of the stall as I approach, stick their muzzles in my face, like they’re making sure it’s me. Apse has shoved flakes of hay into his two water buckets, they look like soup explosions, it’s his thing. We hung an extra bucket on the other side of the wall so he has fresh water. It’s half full (half empty?) and I walk to the tack room to fill a water bucket full of hot water, I return, fill the bucket to the brim, weighing the payoff, hot water freezes faster but horses like to drink warm water. He takes three long, slow sips, I feel better. Like a child closing his eyes at night, there is nothing like watching a horse drink water in the dead of winter.

I turn off Apse’s light and Kiss’s light, open the top door of Eli’s stall, the black and white pygmy goat looks up at me from a pile of hay, he blinks his eyes and stretches his neck. He looks like a cartoon character. I say good night.

Inside the barn, Eagle Poise who hasn’t had a blanket on him since last winter when he was a stakes horse with Graham Motion, walks to the front of the screen. Actually, he is predictable, he’s always friendly at hello and then pins his ears, just a game. This year, his coat grows, long and shaggy, he goes out all day, in at night. He’s happy to be in tonight, I slide his door open, check his hay, he always needs hay. Two flakes will do. I top off his buckets with hot water, he slurps one long, slow slip and begins to eat the fresh hay.

Teddy pins his ears from the back of his stall, like always. A six-time winner when he was known as Three Steps Ahead, he’s aloof but likeable. I toss him a flake of hay, he looks at it like a prisoner watching a car go past in the distance. I top off his buckets, same look. I turn off his light. 

Just Blue, who ran as Linda’s Blueberry, begins to weave, I pour half a bucket of water into his two buckets and throw him a flake of alfalfa hay, he’s placated and stops weaving. He needs a good night’s sleep.

As I’m sliding Blue’s door closed, something catches my elbow. For a moment, I’m startled, until I see Royal Bonsai jutting his head through the feed window at the corner of his stall. If he could climb through it, he would.  

The last one checked, Situational Ethics stands at the front of his stall, I slide his door open and toss two flakes of hay to him, they settle at his front hooves and he doesn’t look up again. I turn off his light.

The barn is silent.

I slide the barn door open and step into the cold air, leaving the door cracked for the barn cats to come and go as they please. I turn toward the house, the wind whips across the field, snow whirls and dances across my path. Night checked.