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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Frederick Swartwout Cozzens (1818–1869)

A Family Horse

From “The Sparrowgrass Papers”

“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 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 rainstorm, unless he intends 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 hoss 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 hoss, 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 hoss was it?” said he. I replied it was a 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 nostril wide,
  • High crest, short ears, strait 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 hoss. Trotters nowadays go in all shapes—big heads and little heads, big eyes and little eyes, short ears or long ones, 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 hoss, 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 hoss 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 hoss? You’re a hoss man, Squire: you know——”

    “It seems to me,” said I, “there is something the matter with that left eye.”

    “No, sir,” said he, 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 eyes are weak,” he said.

    To satisfy myself, I asked the man to let me take the bridle. He did so, and so 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 gladioli and tuberoses in the pod, and leaving great splashes of mold, 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 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.

    It is a mooted point whether it is best to buy your horse before you build your stable or build your stable before you buy your horse. A horse without a stable is like a bishop without a church. Our neighbor, who is very ingenious, built his stable to fit his horse. He took the length of his horse and a little over as the measure of the depth of his stable; then he built it. He had a place beside the stall for his Rockaway carriage. When he came to put the Rockaway in, he found he had not allowed for the shafts! The ceiling was too low to allow them to be erected, so he cut two square port-holes in the back of his stable and run his shafts through them, into the chicken-house behind. Of course, whenever he wanted to take out his carriage he had to unroost all his fowls, who would sit on the shafts night and day. But that was better than building a new stable. For my part, I determined to avoid mistakes by getting the horse and carriage both first, and then to build the stable. This plan, being acceptable to Mrs. Sparrowgrass, was adopted as judicious and expedient. In consequence, I found myself with a horse on my hands with no place to put him. Fortunately, I was acquainted with a very honest man who kept a livery stable, where I put him to board by the month, and in order that he might have plenty of good oats, I bought some, which I gave to the hostler for that purpose. The man of whom I bought the horse did not deceive me when he represented him as a great feeder. He ate more oats than all the rest of the horses in that stable put together.

    It is a good thing to have a saddle-horse in the country. The early morning ride, when dawn and dew freshen and flush the landscape, is comparable to no earthly innocent pleasure. Look at yonder avenue of road-skirting trees. Those marvelous trunks, yet moist, are ruddy as obelisks of jasper! And above—see the leaves blushing at the east! Hark to the music! interminable chains of melody linking earth and sky with its delicious magic. The countless little wood-birds are singing! and now rolls up from the meadow the fragrance of cut grass and clover.

  • “No print of sheep-track yet hath crushed a flower;
  • The spider’s woof with silvery dew is hung
  • As it was beaded ere the daylight hour:
  • The hooked bramble just as it was strung.
  • When on each leaf the night her crystals flung,
  • Then hurried off, the dawning to elude.
  • *****
  • “The rutted road did never seem so clean,
  • There is no dust upon the wayside thorn
  • For every bud looks out as if but newly born.”
  • Look at the river with its veil of blue mist! and the grim, gaunt old Palisades, as amiable in their orient crowns as old princes, out of the direct line of succession, over the royal cradle of the heir apparent!

    There is one thing about early riding in the country: you find out a great many things which perhaps you would not have found out under ordinary circumstances. The first thing I found out was that my horse had the heaves. I had been so wrapt up in the beauties of the morning that I had not observed what perhaps everybody in that vicinity had observed, namely, that the new horse had been waking up all the sleepers on both sides of the road with an asthmatic whistle of half-a-mile power. My attention was called to the fact by the village teamster, old Dockweed, who came banging after me in his empty cart, shouting out my name as he came. I must say I have always disliked old Dockweed’s familiarity; he presumes too much upon my good-nature, when he calls me Sparrygrass before ladies at the depot, and by my Christian name always on the Sabbath, when he is dressed up. On this occasion, what with the horse’s vocal powers and old Dockweed’s, the affair was pretty well blown over the village before breakfast.

    “Sparrygrass,” he said, as he came up, “that your hoss?”

    I replied that the horse was my property.

    “Got the heaves, ain’t he? Got ’em bad.”

    Just then a window was pushed open and the white head of the old gentleman who sits in the third pew in front of our pew in church was thrust out.

    “What’s the matter with your horse?” said he.

    “Got the heaves,” replied old Dockweed; “got ’em bad.”

    Then I heard symptoms of opening a blind on the other side of the road, and as I did not wish to run the gantlet of such inquiries I rode off on a cross-road; but not before I heard, above the sound of pulmonary complaint, the voice of old Dockweed explaining to the other cottage, “Sparrygrass—got a hoss—got the heaves—got ’em bad.”

    I was so much ashamed that I took a roundabout road to the stable, and instead of coming home like a fresh and gallant cavalier, on a hard gallop, I walked my purchase to the stable and dismounted with a chastened spirit.

    “Well, dear,” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass, with a face beaming all over with smiles, “how did you like your horse?”

    I replied that he was not quite so fine a saddle-horse as I had anticipated, but I added, brightening up, for good-humor is sympathetic, “he will make a good horse, I think, after all, for you and the children to jog around with in a wagon.”

    “Oh, won’t that be pleasant!” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass.

    Farewell, then, rural rides, and rural roads o’ mornings! Farewell, song-birds and jasper colonnades; farewell, misty river and rocky Palisades; farewell, mown honey-breath; farewell, stirrup and bridle, dawn and dew; we must jog on at a foot pace. After all, it is better for your horse to have a pulmonary complaint than to have it yourself.

    I had determined not to build a stable nor to buy a carriage until I had thoroughly tested my horse in harness. For this purpose I hired a Rockaway of the stable-keeper. Then I put Mrs. Sparrowgrass and the young ones in the double seats, and took the ribbons for a little drive by the Nepperhan River road. The Nepperhan is a quiet stream that for centuries has wound its way through the ancient Dorp of Yonkers. Geologists may trace the movements of time upon the rocky dial of the Palisades, and estimate the age of the more modern Hudson by the footprints of sauria in the strata that fringe its banks, but it is impossible to escape the conviction, as you ride beside the Nepperhan, that it is a very old stream—that it is entirely independent of earthquakes—that its birth was of primeval antiquity—and, no doubt, that it meandered through Westchester valleys when the Hudson was only a freshwater lake, land-locked somewhere above Poughkeepsie. It was a lovely afternoon. The sun was sloping westward, the meadows

  • “were all aflame
  • In sunken light, and the mailed grasshopper
  • Shrilled in the maize with ceaseless iteration.”
  • 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 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 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 a fishing-line in such a tangle as that harness. However, I set to work with a penknife, 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 farmhouse?”

    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 more than 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 jackknife, and the 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 jackknife, “ef ’t hadn’t been for dat yer your hoss would ha’ bin a goner.”

    “What was the matter with him?” said I.

    “Oh, he’s on’y jis got de blind staggers, dat’s all. Say,” said he, before I was half indignant enough at the man who sold me such an animal—“say, ain’t your name Sparrowgrass?”

    I replied that my name was Sparrowgrass.

    “Oh,” said he, “I knows you; I brung some fowls once down to you place. I heerd about you and you hoss. Dat’s de hoss dat’s got de heaves so bad! You better sell dat horse.”

    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.

    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.