Things I was taught at horse camp: 1. How to clean stalls 2. How to brush/groom horses 3. How to pick out and clean their hooves 4. How to feed them 5. How to ride them.
Things I learned the hard way at horse camp: 1. Don’t touch an electric fence. 2. Don’t try to steal anything out of a vending machine because the owner might see you do it and wear out the seat of your pants. 3. Don’t throw a ton of hay down the chutes that lead to the horse stalls for the same reason that you don’t steal from a vending machine. 4. Don’t double up on a pony ride with your friend if that pony has recently given birth. When that pony knows it’s going back to the barn and back to its colt, it will take off at a ridiculous speed and buck you off to lighten their load. If you are lucky, you won’t get stomped by the pony once you’re on the ground.
My lone horse camp experience occurred when I was 6-7 years old. It would be disingenuous to say that I attended. That would imply intent. I had a friend that owned a pony. He went to a camp at the stable where his family kept the pony and they invited me to go with him. I think if you ever know anyone that owns a horse, it’s probably just one kid from your childhood. It’s not a gang. If you know more than one person that owns a horse, you probably own a horse as well. You’re horse people. This boy’s family, from a 6-7 year old’s perspective, seemed to do pretty well. The kid had a go kart and a zip line in his backyard. Their garage was so big that he had a basketball goal installed in there. That blew my mind. It still blows my mind.
I don’t know how many hours a day that camp lasted, but my memory of it is that it went on all day. For all I know it was just the morning. In retrospect, it seems like a lot for a kid with no farm experience to learn all of this in a week. Maybe I just sell my own son short. He could clean some horse hooves and manage to not get kicked in the head. Somewhere, someone that grew up on a farm is reading this, laughing. “That’s all you had to do?” No one over the age of 7 probably likes to clean out horse stalls but I remember it being fun. At some point, a person loses their fondness for horseshit.
The week ended with a set of races for which I was not remotely qualified to participate. I might have been the only one at the camp that did not own a horse or a pony stabled at the farm, so I had about 4 hours of riding experience by the time they had us “race”. I ended up in a contest where you had to carry an egg on a spoon while riding a horse. I don’t know that I could walk and do that, much less ride a horse and do it. There were only two kids in the race: a girl whose name I don’t remember and me. She could legitimately do this: carry an egg on a spoon while sitting on a walking horse. I could manage no such thing. I made it two feet and it fell. Someone picked up the egg and put it back on the spoon. It fell again…and again…and again. It wouldn’t break. Maybe they were hardboiled. It was muddy. Maybe that helped. There may have been some tears involved. The girl finished her race. Based off my showing up to that point, mercy was granted, and I was not expected to finish. I got a second-place ribbon, which is accurate but does not necessarily reflect the entirety of the event.
We spent the final night in the loft or mow or whatever you call the top level of a barn. There was a nighttime horse ride. I don’t remember much else but that all seems like a good amount for 1st or 2nd grader to experience in a summer, and I think the camp only lasted a week. I remember that my primary horse’s name was Charlie. He was solid but, one day he decided to run rather than walk which freaked me out, and Charlie was dead to me after that.
That camp represents 90% of my total farm experience. Someone in Philadelphia once asked my wife why I didn’t have a country accent. She said, “Rob’s southern. He’s not country.” True. No matter whether I lived in a small town or a suburb growing up, I was very much in a residential, “town” environment. No one ever had to get me up at the crack of dawn to feed anything, ever. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family lived and worked on a farm. Nelly Oleson’s family ran the mercantile. I’m Nelly.
Despite that, or because of it, I do like northern European painting that centers on farm life. It is always referred to as “peasant” life. I get it. Within this genre, there is a sustained interest in depicting the dignity and honor of these people and their commitment to a simple life. Implied in this is a choice of a “simple life”. Like someone walked up to these people and said, “You can continue to labor in difficult circumstances and provide this country with sustenance and probably die early of some malady or you can join us in the city during this continent’s greatest economic boom of the century. Poverty and farming it is? God bless you, noble peasant! Let me paint you.” Despite being regarded as realism, it is a romanticism of a subject. The realism extends only to depicting a “real” subject otherwise ignored by art history. Otherwise these painters treated their subjects like Bono speaks about anything from Joey Ramone to Crest toothpaste.
A large number of Dutch and French painters committed themselves to this work. Van Gogh probably considered himself one as most of these painters were his true conceptual heroes. For the casual art fan, consider what van Gogh painted in the south of France and you’ll see the connection. He was not a Parisian Impressionists painting the middle class engaged in leisurely activities and ridiculous amounts of bathing. He painted farmers. He was attracted to “sowers” and “reapers” and “gleaners”. It was all very Biblical for him. His formal execution was radically different, but his subjects were no different than his Dutch predecessors.
The genre is meant to bring dignity to this slice of the Dutch population through how they are presented in the work but, it’s not like they could buy the art. Instead, their dignity is sold to the merchant class. I assume the subjects appreciated the hat tip to their lifestyle, but I don’t know how much they believed it. Very few people living this life would look at it and think, “You know, you’re right. I’m a dadgum folk hero. Thanks for capturing that part of me.” It’d be like painting a version of that now but the dude in the painting would rather be listening to Florida-Georgia Line than looking at your painting. More than likely they were glad to get paid to pose for the work. There is cultural history and the recognition of a hard day’s physical work shown in the painting which is something that might be lacking in the life of the importer/exporter that bought it. Like I said, I either like this work because of the limited experience that I have or because I have so little experience with it that I carry these same misguided stereotypes. Either way, all of this leads to a piece from this genre that sticks with me more than most others.