Monday, July 14, 2008


I learn by osmosis. Or maybe it's not that effortless; maybe I just like to learn, so it feels that way. I know Dad occasionally got frustrated because I couldn't remember the difference between my thermostat and my alternator. (I know the difference now.) Because sometimes he assumed his daughters were born knowing what he knew or remembered everything they saw him do and heard him say. He tried to be patient.

On really slow days when it's just me and Jeff at the plant, I learn things. How to draw up plans and build a set of stairs for a new deck. How to bevel the sides of a slab of oak for a home office counter top. How to smoke rock chucks in their dens. How to sharpen curved knives. How to raise pigs. Every weekend there's a new project to plan out, something Jeff's doing on the property up in Riverton or remodeling in his home or for one of his two twenty-something sons, who both have wives and homes of their own now.

But I'm also learning something I never expected to learn, and that is the anatomy (and nature, and care and feeding) of the horse. Specifically the feet, composed of bones with sinister Medieval names: the coffin bone, the cannon bone. The short pastern and the long pastern and the minuscule sesamoid bone. For some reason I have imagined early, superstitious scientists and determined scholars, Aristotle, and later Da Vinci, crowded around a horse carcass, sketching and cataloging the structure of a horse's foot and leg, the skin peeled away to reveal the tendons and muscles and nerves bare above the hoof. And, of course, there are the bones.

Jeff is a farrier, a trade which hasn't changed much since the industrial revolution or before. I remember being utterly fascinated when he opened the shell of his old white truck once and I caught a glimpse of all his tools, the strange, knobby hammers, buckets of shiny arched shoes, boxes of nails, a rather compact anvil, tubes and tins of evil-smelling greases and ointments, the thick leather apron to protect his thighs and knees from slipping blades and the blows of sharp hooves.

Jeff's son Brian's horse has been boarding with Jeff for two weeks while he tries to figure out why it's gone lame. He leads the horse into the irrigation ditch and lets him stand there, where the cool water soothes the pain in his feet, while he exercises the fine limbs, taps the hooves. He thinks he knows what the problem is, would prefer not to have to diagnose it. The final, central bone in a horse's foot, the navicular bone (or distal sesamoid), a small oblong behind the coffin bone to which the nerves and tendons and muscles stretching down from the knee are connected, can become diseased and degenerate to the point where the horse becomes disabled. This is unfortunately common but also commonly misdiagnosed. He'll take the horse to the vet for X-rays. If it turns out to be a problem with the navicular bone, Jeff can have his younger son, Jared, weld spars to attach to regular steel horse shoes to better brace the center of the hoof. This is only a temporary solution. The horse, a pretty bay, is only 11.

I don't need to know all the things I know about diseases and deformities of horses' feet (and I can list several from memory). But I can't help learning them. Jeff likes to discuss things like this with me, projects and problems; he solves problems by thinking out loud. And as he talks, his knowledge seeps in. I can't stop it. I wouldn't want to.


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