From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume IV, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 715-722.
THE FAMILY HORSE1
BY FREDERIC S. COZZENS
I have bought me a horse. As I had obtained some skill in the manège during my younger days, it was a matter of consideration to have a saddle-horse. It surprised me to find good saddle-horses very abundant soon after my consultation with the stage proprietor upon this topic. There were strange saddle-horses to sell almost every day. One man was very candid about his horse: he told me, if his horse had a blemish, he wouldn’t wait to be asked about it; he would tell it right out; and, if a man didn’t want him then, he needn’t take him. He also proposed to put him on trial for sixty days, giving his note for the amount paid him for the horse, to be taken up in case the animal were returned. I asked him what were the principal defects of the horse. He said he’d been fired once, because they thought he was spavined; but there was no more spavin to him than there was to a fresh-laid egg — he was as sound as a dollar. I asked him if he would just state what were the defects of the horse. He answered, that he once had the pink-eye, and added, “now that’s honest.” I thought so, but proceeded to question him closely. I asked him if he had the bots. He said, not a bot. I asked him if he would go. He said he would go till he dropped down dead; just touch him with a whip, and he’ll jump out of his hide. I inquired how old he was. He answered, just eight years, 716 exactly — some men, he said, wanted to make their horses younger than they be; he was willing to speak right out, and own up he was eight years. I asked him if there were any other objections. He said no, except that he was inclined to be a little gay; “but,” he added, “he is so kind, a child can drive him with a thread.” I asked him if he was a good family horse. He replied that no lady that every drew rein over him would be willing to part with him. Then I asked him his price. He answered that no man could have bought him for one hundred dollars a month ago, but now he was willing to sell him for seventy-five, on account of having a note to pay. This seemed such a very low price, I was about saying I would take him, when Mrs. Sparrowgrass whispered that I had better see the horse first. I confess I was a little afraid of losing my bargain by it, but, out of deference to Mrs. S., I did ask to see the horse before I bought him. He said he would fetch him down. “No man,” he added, “ought to buy a horse unless he’s saw him.” When the horse came down, it struck me that, whatever his qualities might be, his personal appearance was against him. One of his fore legs was shaped like the handle of our punch-ladle, and the remaining three legs, about the fetlock, were slightly bunchy. Besides, he had no tail to brag of; and his back had a very hollow sweep from his high haunches to his low shoulder-blades. I was much pleased, however, with the fondness and pride manifested by his owner, as he held up, by both sides of the bridle, the rather longish head of his horse, surmounting a neck shaped like a pea-pod, and said, in a sort of triumphant voice, “three-quarters blood!” Mrs. Sparrowgrass flushed up a little, when she asked me if I intended to purchase that horse, and added, that, if I did, she would never want to ride. So I told the man he would not suit 717 me. He answered by suddenly throwing himself upon his stomach across the backbone of his horse, and then, by turning round as on a pivot, got up a-straddle of him; then he gave his horse a kick in the ribs that caused him to jump out with all his legs, like a frog, and then off went the spoon-legged animal with a gait that was not a trot, nor yet precisely pacing. He rode around our grass plot twice, and then pulled his horse’s head up like the cock of a musket. “That,” said he, “is time.” I replied that he did seem to go pretty fast. “Pretty fast!” said his owner. “Well, do you know Mr. ——?” mentioning one of the richest men in our village. I replied that I was acquainted with him. “Well,” said he, “you know his horse?” I replied that I had no personal acquaintance with him. “Well,” said he, “he’s the fastest horse in the county — jist so — I’m willin’ to admit it. But do you know I offered to put my horse agin’ his to trot? I had no money to put up, or, rayther, to spare; but I offered to trot him, horse agin’ horse, and the winner to take both horses, and I tell you — he wouldn’t do it!”
Mrs. Sparrowgrass got a little nervous, and twitched me by the skirt of the coat. “Dear,” said she, “let him go.” I assured her that I would not buy the horse, and told the man firmly I would not buy him. He said very well — if he didn’t suit ’twas no use to keep a-talkin’: but he added, he’d be down agin’ with another horse, next morning, that belonged to his brother; and if he didn’t suit me, then I didn’t want a horse. With this remark he rode off. . . .
It rains very hard,” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass, looking out of the window next morning. Sure enough, the rain was sweeping broadcast over the country, and the four Sparrowgrassii were flattening a quartet of noses against the window-panes, believing most faithfully the man 718 would bring the horse that belonged to his brother, in spite of the elements. It was hoping against hope: no man having a horse to sell will trot him out in a rain-storm, unless he intend to sell him at a bargain — but childhood is so credulous! The succeeding morning was bright, however, and down came the horse. He had been very cleverly groomed, and looked pleasant under the saddle. The man led him back and forth before the door. “There, ’squire, ’s as good a hos as ever stood on iron.” Mrs. Sparrowgrass asked me what he meant by that. I replied, it was a figurative way of expressing, in horse-talk, that he was as good a horse as ever stood in shoe-leather. “He’s a handsome hos, ’squire,” said the man. I replied that he did seem to be a good looking animal, but, said I, “he does not quite come up to the description of a horse I have read.” “Whose hos was it?” said he. I replied it was the horse of Adonis. He said he didn’t know him; but, he added, “there is so many hosses stolen that the descriptions are stuck up now pretty common.” To put him at his ease (for he seemed to think I suspected him of having stolen the horse), I told him the description I meant had been written some hundreds of years ago by Shakespeare, and repeated it —
“Round-hooft, short-joynted, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eyes, small head, and nostrils wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.”
“’Squire,” said he, “that will do for a song, but it ain’t no p’ints of a good hos. Trotters now-a-days go in all shapes, big heads and little heads, big eyes and little eyes, short ears or long ears, thick tail and no tail; so as they have sound legs, good l’in, good barrel, and good stifle, and wind, ’squire, and speed well, they’ll fetch a price. Now, this animal is what I call a hos, ’squire; he’s got the p’ints, he’s stylish, he’s close-ribbed, a free goer, kind in harness — single or double — a good feeder.” I asked him if being a good feeder was a desirable quality. He replied it was; “of course,” said he “if your hos is off his feed, he ain’t good for nothin’. But what’s the use,” he added, “of me tellin’ you the p’ints of a good hos? You’re a hos man, ’squire; you know —” “It seems to me,” said I, “there is something the matter with that left eye.” “No, sir,” said he, and with that he pulled down the horse’s head, and rapidly crooking his forefinger at the suspected organ, said, “see thar — don’t wink a bit.” “But he should wink,” I replied. “Not onless his eye are weak,” he said. To satisfy myself, I asked the man to let me take the bridle. He did so, and, as soon as I took hold of it, the horse started off in a remarkable retrograde movement, dragging me with him into my best bed of hybrid roses. Finding we were trampling down all the best plants, that had cost at auction from three-and-sixpence to seven shillings apiece, and that the more I pulled, the more he backed, I finally let him have his own way, and jammed him stern-foremost into our largest climbing rose that had been all summer prickling itself, in order to look as much like a vegetable porcupine as possible. This unexpected bit of satire in his rear changed his retrograde movement to a sidelong bound, by which he flirted off half the pots on the balusters, upsetting my gladioluses and tuberoses in the pod, and leaving great splashes of mould, geraniums, and red pottery in the gravel walk. By this time his owner had managed to give him two pretty severe cuts with the whip, which made him unmanageable, so I let him go. We had a pleasant time catching him again, when he got among the Lima-bean poles; but his owner led him back with 720 a very self-satisfied expression. “Playful, ain’t he, ’squire?” I replied that I thought he was, and asked him if it was usual for his horse to play such pranks. He said it was not. “You see, ’squire, he feels his oats, and hain’t been out of the stable for a month. Use him, and he’s as kind as a kitten.” With that he put his foot in the stirrup, and mounted. The animal really looked very well as he moved around the grass-plot, and, as Mrs. Sparrowgrass seemed to fancy him, I took a written guarantee that he was sound, and bought him. What I gave for him is a secret; I have not even told Mrs. Sparrowgrass. . . .
We had passed Chicken Island, and the famous house with the stone gable and the one stone chimney, in which General Washington slept, as he made it a point to sleep in every old stone house in Westchester County, and had gone pretty far on the road, past the cemetery, when Mrs. Sparrowgrass said suddenly, “Dear, what is the matter with your horse?” As I had been telling the children all the stories about the river on the way, I had managed to get my head pretty well inside of the carriage, and, at the time she spoke, was keeping a lookout in front with my back. The remark of Mrs. Sparrowgrass induced me to turn about, and I found the new horse behaving in a most unaccountable manner. He was going down hill with his nose almost to the ground, running the wagon first on this side and then on the other. I thought of the remark made by the man, and turning again to Mrs. Sparrowgrass, said, “Playful, isn’t he?” The next moment I heard something breaking away in front, and then the Rockaway gave a lurch and stood still. Upon examination I found the new horse had tumbled down, broken one shaft, gotten the other through the check-rein so as to bring his head up with a round turn, and besides 721 had managed to put one of the traces in a single hitch around his off hind leg. So soon as I had taken all the young ones and Mrs. Sparrowgrass out of the Rockaway, I set to work to liberate the horse, who was choking very fast with the check-rein. It is unpleasant to get your fishing-line in a tangle when you are in a hurry for bites, but I never saw fishing-line in such a tangle as that harness. However, I set to work with a pen-knife, and cut him out in such a way as to make getting home by our conveyance impossible. When he got up, he was the sleepiest looking horse I ever saw. “Mrs. Sparrowgrass,” said I, “won’t you stay here with the children until I go to the nearest farm-house?” Mrs. Sparrowgrass replied that she would. Then I took the horse with me to get him out of the way of the children, and went in search of assistance. The first thing the new horse did when he got about a quarter of a mile from the scene of the accident was to tumble down a bank. Fortunately the bank was not over four feet high, but as I went with him, my trousers were rent in a grievous place. While I was getting the new horse on his feet again, I saw a colored person approaching, who came to my assistance. The first thing he did was to pull out a large jack-knife, and then next thing he did was to open the new horse’s mouth and run the blade two or three times inside of the new horse’s gums. Then the new horse commenced bleeding. “Dah, sah,” said the man, shutting up his jack-knife, “ef ’t hadn’t been for dat yer, your hos would a’ bin a goner.” “What was the matter with him?” said I. “Oh, he’s ony jis got de blind-staggers, das all. Say,” said he, before I was half indignant enough at the man who had sold me such an animal, “say, ain’t your name Sparrowgrass?” I replied that my name was Sparrowgrass. “Oh,” said he, “I knows 722 you, I brung some fowls once down to you place. I heerd about you and your hos. Dats de hos dats got de heaves so bad, heh! heh! You better sell dat hos.” I determined to take his advice, and employed him to lead my purchase to the nearest place where he would be cared for. Then I went back to the Rockaway, but met Mrs. Sparrowgrass and the children on the road coming to meet me. She had left a man in charge of the Rockaway. When we got to the Rockaway we found the man missing, also the whip and one cushion. We got another person to take charge of the Rockaway, and had a pleasant walk home by moonlight. I think a moonlight night delicious, upon the Hudson.
Does any person want a horse at a low price? A good, stylish-looking animal, close-ribbed, good loin, and good stifle, sound legs with only the heaves and blind-staggers, and a slight defect in one of his eyes? If at any time he slips his bridle and gets away, you can always approach him by getting on his left side. I will also engage to give a written guarantee that he is sound and kind, signed by the brother of his former owner.
1 These excerpts are from Chapter VIII and Chapter IX of the delightful Sparrowgrass Papers, by Frederic Swartwout Cozzens, which are on this site, along with more of Cozzen’s work. — Elf.Ed.