By Derek Smith
Norman knew needed to make a positive change in his life. The last big change he had gone through had been pretty negative, at first at least. His wife had divorced him. It wasn’t anything too volatile, they just didn’t get along together like they once had. That wasn't the cause of Norman’s continued frustration though. He was in his mid-forties and feeling like everything he’d worked on to that point had been meaningless. Right out of school he worked writing dry press releases for a company whose ethics he despised. Later he joined the public sector and wrote report after report seemingly only to meet a deadline that ultimately never truly mattered. Norm decided he needed to step way outside his comfort zone, the city life he’d grown accustomed to and complacent within, and challenge himself doing something totally different, and that in his mind mattered.
Looking to blow off steam after yet another soul-sucking day at the office, Norm headed out to his usual escape, a local off-track betting joint. He felt like he was among his kind there, the clientele was made up of mostly middle-aged men or older, and all were tired and world weary. It certainly had its uses for watching and betting on horse racing, but it was mostly just a communal escape. Over beers he lamented his situation with one of the regulars. Brian Cameron had been a fixture since Norm had started going a few years back. Brian had moved to Ontario from P.E.I. in the 1980s to work at some of the horse farms, working with horses racing on the bigger Toronto-Upstate New York racing circuit. Though as local farms downsized, Brian lost his job. The two often shared stories over beers together, sharing strategies for sure winners and complaining about their many losses. This time as they talked though, Brian had some news for Norm. Brian’s family back home was having trouble finding some temporary help on the farm. The pay wasn't great, just minimum wage and lodging for a position needing no experience, but he figured he could get Norm the work if he wanted to try it. Norm wasn't sure, but he did have vacation time he had to use up soon.
Norm ultimately found himself on a farm in the middle of nowhere in P.E.I. He knew the island wasn’t all that big, but the drive from Charlottetown seemed to take ages, passing by field after field of blossoming white potato plants, seas of tall, green corn stalks and fields of bright green grass full of grazing animals. Norm was amazed by the lack of pretty much anything. For someone who was so used to having neighbours just a bang on the wall away the fields that stretched on for miles and miles between houses was quite a switch.
He hoped it’d prove challenging, and indeed, it lacked most of the creature comforts he’d taken for granted by living in a city. The internet connection was slow, if it was working at all, and he didn't have the same access to foods or coffee he liked. The nearest town didn’t even have a Starbucks. What passed for a coffee place was a simple local diner. And of course there was the whole thing about not knowing anything about horses, but he figured he could pick that up along the way. The downgraded coffee situation, that was truly dire.
An obstacle Norm hadn't expected was a bit of culture shock. The family he was living with, who ran the farm, had very different interests from his own. They had never agonized over a submission for the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest, or had spent an ungodly amount of time flipping through a Netflix queue of movies they'd already decided they wanted to watch. But they were kind, as people helping rescued animals tend to be, and extremely welcoming.
Norm had never worked with animals before, and especially nothing as big as a horse, so they started him out slow. To his surprise the first day working they handed him a shovel. He was going to shovel the horse shit out of dozens of stalls. Not something he had expected, but very much out of his comfort zone. It was frustrating work at first; it was mindless and every day there was more shit to shovel, it reminded him too much of his previous work. Slowly though his responsibilities grew as the family realized he wasn't a completely useless, self absorbed city person. After a couple of weeks of mostly menial labor they finally let him near a living, breathing horse.
The first horse Norm was introduced to was a calm old Clydesdale named Harold. Harold had met with a forced retirement after breaking a leg stepping into a gopher hole. He had had a lengthy career pulling wagons and sleighs loaded with screaming kids. His owners knew the basics of caring for a horse, but dealing with an aged horse with a broken leg was too much for them to handle. Harold was like family to them though, so they moved him to where he’d be well looked after.
At first Norm was intimidated by Harold, but Harold had seen it all and was extremely gentle and well trained, standing stoically while Norm fumbled around with the bridle. Try as he might Norm could not get Harold to budge. He pulled, he tugged, he whistled, he patted, jumped up and down, asked nicely, asked rudely, offered to do the dishes for a week, but Harold stood tall and unmoving. After a few minutes a trainer came over to help and showed Norm the proper way of pulling on Harold’s bridle. Harold had been so well trained, that when the bridle was on that meant no moving unless instructed to.
The two spent countless hours together, most of it walking around one of the bright red soil tracks. It was a good structured work out for old Harold, and Norm soon discovered that Harold was a pretty good listener. As they worked, Norm would share stories about his life and his concerns with things back home. Norm’s responsibilities grew to essentially be fully in charge of Harold’s care, feeding him, grooming and washing him, and giving him his workout. The two fell into an easy routine.
“Good morning, Harry!” Norm would greet Harold in the morning, rubbing his neck and teasing him with a carrot before the two got to work. Norm had never really been responsible for another living thing before, and he was finding caring for Harold meaningful in a way he’d never experienced before. Back at the office it was hard to care about the work he was doing when his bosses ultimately never did either. But caring for Harold and looking after him, seeing him limp less as he walked, was rewarding in a way Norm had never felt before.
Norm found the work and pace of life liberating. When he had a few minutes spare time, instead of spending it staring at his phone, he’d wander outside and breathe in the fresh, clear, country air and watch trainers working with their horses, seeing them making progress step by step. With two weeks left, the family running the facility offered Norm the chance to stay on as a regular employee. The pay was a substantial cut from what he’d been making at the office, but the family was willing to overlook his prior inexperience and let him learn on the job.
Ultimately though Norm decided on returning to the city and continue working at his office job while taking classes at night. He still didn't like his office job, but it was going to be a means to an end, no longer just a dead end. He had discovered he liked giving back and truly found a new direction in life, he was motivated to do more, to dedicate himself to helping those in need. Norm thought of the homeless that frequently huddled around the front of his office building and was inspired, concerns for him had been trying to find something on his Netflix queue, while they struggled with life battling the elements. Norm knew he could do more to help, with his job experience he figured he’d be able to get an administrative position at a homeless shelter to start. But by going back to school and getting another diploma, he hoped to be able to do something more hands on working directly with those in need.
Afraid of slipping back into his old work routine, Norm began taking more frequent breaks at work. He’d sneak off for a few minutes here and there when he could. Every few days, he would text with some of the trainers back at the farm and check in to see how Harold was doing. After being home for a few weeks a package arrived for him. He opened it and found a framed photo of him tugging at Harold’s bridle as the horse stood firm, refusing to budge. He took it to work with him, it was a good motivator to stay focused on his goals.