Sep 23, 2020, 05:57AM

The Magician’s Namesake

One man’s disorder is another man’s opportunity.

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Across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire, and Lake Champlain from New York, lies Vermont. Once among the French possessions in North America, France surrendered it to Great Britain after losing the sixth and last of the French and Indian Wars in 1763. This merely acknowledged the territory’s widespread British settlement from 1724 onwards.

The Provinces of New York and of New Hampshire each claimed Vermont. One man’s disorder is another man’s opportunity. Even before 1763, Benning Wentworth, the unscrupulous Royal Governor of New Hampshire, quietly enriched himself by erecting townships and selling lands in Vermont to which his title was dubious or non-existent. As he had in New Hampshire, he often purveyed these lands to influential friends and speculators who, in turn, sold them to small farmers at a profitable markup.

The Province of New York then began selling Vermont lands, too. Each Province maintained separate and conflicting registers of deeds. The ownership of many pieces of Vermont real estate fell into dispute.

King George III’s Privy Council ruled in favor of New York in 1764. The Yorkers interpreted the ruling as retroactive and demanded that occupants of disputed lands now claimed by New York speculators could remain only by paying those speculators a fee. This sum often equaled the land’s original price. The Vermonters wouldn’t or couldn’t pay.

The 1764 decision was reversed in 1767. Nonetheless, New York continued creating new counties and courts to enforce its titles. The new county sheriffs dispatched armed deputies to evict men and women who to the Yorkers were squatters, though they had paid Governor Wentworth and his friends for their farms.

Out of this chaos arose Ethan Allen and his brothers, small-scale land speculators themselves. In 1770, they raised the Green Mountain Boys, a volunteer army of irregulars prepared to resist the Yorkers’ incursions by threat when possible and force when necessary.

Today, the powers-that-be would label the Allen brothers and their followers domestic terrorists. To Vermont’s beleaguered small farmers, they were heroes and freedom fighters.

The Allen brothers’ equivocal reputation was gloriously transformed when, early in the morning of May 10, 1775, Ethan and the Boys overwhelmed the guard at the south gate of Fort Ticonderoga on the New York shore of Lake Champlain. They bloodlessly gained its surrender from the British “in the Name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” Over the winter of 1775-76, the dumpy, bespectacled, and resourceful Colonel Henry Knox and his engineers dragged the fort’s cannon overland by sleigh and ox team to General Washington at Boston. Once emplaced on Dorchester Heights on March 5, 1776, the artillery’s presence persuaded Major General Sir William Howe, the British commander, to embark his garrison and depart for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776.

Vermont became an independent republic. On July 8, 1777, its newly promulgated Constitution made it the first former colony to abolish slavery, establish universal male suffrage, and create taxpayer-supported public schools. Its freely elected government, headed by a Governor and Captain-General of the Forces, issued its own money and operated a postal service.

Although Vermont fought beside the Thirteen Colonies in the Revolution, the land dispute with New York survived the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the final evacuation of British forces from New York City in November 1783. Ethan Allen and his friends secretly negotiated with the Royal Governor of Quebec on whether Vermont might become part of Quebec or of British Canada, provided the British fought off the Yorkers. The land issues were settled by Vermont’s payment of $30,000 to New York in 1790. Vermont became the 14th State in 1791.

Some contemporary Vermonters, dismayed by the Federal government’s foreign and domestic policies, insist their state must once more become an independent Republic, that there’s a loophole somewhere. So far, they haven’t found it. At Vermont’s 2010 state elections, a slate of secessionist candidates for the statewide offices, associated with a movement called Second Vermont Republic, polled from one to four percent of the vote. Clearly, the Green Mountain State is not yet ready for either Vermont Independence Day or a renewed discussion of whether states may leave the Union, a question some believe was permanently settled by the Civil War.

Anyway, in April 2020, after weeks of shutdown due to pandemic, His Excellency The Honorable Philip Scott, Governor and Captain-General of the Forces, to use what our British cousins might call his formal style, title, and attributes, determined that Vermont’s riding stables were essential services and permitted their reopening. Besides teaching would-be riders at her stable at Stoddard, New Hampshire, Dorothy Crosby, my instructor, teaches at Southmowing Stables in Guilford, Vermont, a few miles west of Brattleboro. She invited me to resume my lessons there. I accepted. One bright, cool April morning, after mapping my course, I left for Guilford. The journey was uneventful: I was lost only twice en route and once on my way home.

After my first wrong turn, I was on Brattleboro’s Main Street. It’s lined with handsome older commercial buildings, three to five stories tall, clearly built in an age that valued beauty and restraint. I regained my way, crossing the West River on U.S. Route 91, and exited the freeway to High Street. After a time, I realized I’d passed the turnoff to Greenleaf Road, part of the route to the stables. I pulled into a parking lot, checked my road atlas, and returned one block to Greenleaf Road. The street sign was engulfed by foliage.

I followed Greenleaf to Hinesburg Road. Eventually, a sunny gap opened in the canopied trees. A yellow traffic sign bearing a horse appeared to my left and a dirt-and-gravel parking lot awaited my car. There was a large, rambling, handsome white house close by a succession of classic red barns and a hillside of horses: bays, roans, grays, and whites, quietly ambling and grazing. Donning a facemask before pulling on my riding helmet, I asked an instructor for the nearest restroom and Dorothy’s location. She answered both questions. I headed for what Ethan Allen might have called the necessary.

Once back in the open air, I removed the mask and replaced the helmet. After I met Dorothy, we strolled past the white house and the last barn, and down a steep, rocky, foliage-lined path. At the end was a large paddock, a shelter akin to a ramada, a large trough of water, and a basin once filled with feed, now holding a few scattered grains. Inside the shelter stood a paint horse, its hide a pinto spotting pattern of white and darker colors. This was Merlin.

The magician’s namesake was focused on eating something from the shelter’s floor. I took his halter and lead rope from a hook outside the paddock and opened the gate.

I walked to him. He looked up. I stopped three feet or so away, respecting his space as one should do on first meeting a horse. He gazed curiously and didn’t move. I did the same. What Merlin saw in me only he knows. I saw the largest horse I’ve met, over 16 hands high (Henry VIII defined a hand as four inches some 500 years ago and no one has ever dared disagree with him), and massive, probably weighing about 1500 pounds. There was a draft horse in Merlin’s ancestry: aside from the size and musculature, he had the hairy ankles of the Clydesdales in Budweiser advertising. He was descended at least in part from the huge, immensely strong north European horses bred in the Middle Ages for honest toil and grim warfare, with the power to pull ploughs or bear knights in heavy armor into battle.

I stepped closer. He sniffed at me. I bent, sniffed at him, moved still closer, and then our nostrils began exchanging breaths, one way for horse and rider to make their acquaintances.

I easily placed the halter over Merlin’s head, secured it, and attached the lead rope. Then we walked back to the first barn. I secured and groomed him. A horse that stands five feet, six inches tall at the shoulders, not counting the neck and head, requires even a six-footer to spend some time on tiptoe while working the brushes.

I found the largest saddle pad, dressage saddle, and girth in the tack room. They fit him. I returned for the reins, bridle, and bit. I tossed the reins over his head, unclipped and removed the halter, and, seizing the top of the bridle, drew the bit into his mouth and the headstall over his ears. After some adjustments, I led him to a huge, rectangular indoor arena. We went to the mounting block.

I aspire to mount from the ground, placing my left foot in the stirrup and then pushing off with my right leg, gracefully passing it over the horse’s body. I’ve read that Montgomery Clift had never ridden a horse before he was cast in Howard Hawks’ Red River. The studio gave him two weeks’ training. I hope Hawks gave him a few days to recover. In watching the film, I admired how elegantly Clift mounts from the ground. I’m not up to that yet. Even if I was, I’m unsure I’d be up to it with Merlin, who’s built like an enormous beer keg with legs. So I walked up the block’s steps, Dorothy keeping Merlin in place. I placed my left foot in its stirrup and leaned forward over his neck. Then I dragged my right boot across the saddle’s cantle and found the stirrup. After some six months, I was again in the saddle, a place where no hour is ever wasted.

Dorothy adjusted the girth. Then I clicked my tongue and he walked, slowly. Another click and he picked up the pace. I rounded the arena once at a fast walk to settle my seat into place. Then I squeezed my calves into his torso. He began trotting.

As the horse trots, the rider posts. Dorothy called out, “Kneel, squat! Kneel, squat.” This meant that, with my weight primarily on my knees pressed against his upper torso, I rise and fall in rhythm with Merlin’s movements, primarily using my thighs while keeping my upper arms rigid, forearms loose, and reins short. When I rise, I kneel; when I fall, I squat. I focus on rising when he raises his right foreleg to take another step and breathing from the diaphragm at every fourth step.

This is multitasking, a word and concept I’ve always disliked. I was raised to finish one task at a time. But you can’t work that way and ride. Besides, neither of my parents were riders. So it’s difficult. It’s real work. I was perspiring before finishing my first round of the arena. We rode on.

Merlin’s power to endure means he’ll probably stay at the trot as long as I can post. I did my best and, not for the first time in my riding life, fell short. Dorothy, ever perceptive, directed me to take a walk break. Then back to the trot, moving in ever-larger circles shifting and up and down the arena. Merlin and I changed direction by crossing the rectangle from one corner to another, on the diagonal, and turned left or right as need be, always at the trot.

Lesson over, I dismounted. My boot caught on the cantle. I managed to pull it loose over Merlin’s back, landing on my heels, the impact shaking my teeth.

I led him back to the stable, groomed him again—cleaning off the sweat and dirt after a lesson is satisfying, as tangible thanks for his work—and began returning him to his paddock. Here I learned that Merlin is, as they say, “strongly food-motivated.” He saw some tall grass and impulsively lunged for it, his left hoof incidentally stepping on my right boot, pressing it with all of his 1500 pounds. My language was somewhat colorful. He shifted his weight to seize another clump of grass. I pulled my boot from under his hoof. I’d neglected an early lesson: it’s not the horse’s job to know where my feet are, it’s my job to know where his feet are. Then I fought him past the last clumps of grass into his paddock.

Then I made a mistake. He’d worked hard and done his best for me. He was an easy horse with whom to work. I took a carrot from my right front pocket and palmed it to his lips, which engulfed it. I instantly became Merlin’s new best friend. He kissed me on my face, helmet, and shoulders, looking for the place where I kept the carrots, while I tried to unclip the moving target of the lead rope.

I succeeded. By the way, my foot is fine. I closed the gate, returned to the barn, cleaned the bit, put away the bit, bridle, and reins, swept the floor of his hair and detritus, and went home.

Captain-General? The rank is also held by the Governors of Connecticut and of Rhode Island.  The latter declared her independence of Great Britain on May 4, 1776, two months before Congress got around to it. To borrow a line from Shakespeare, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Captain-General is the highest ceremonial rank in the Royal Marines, last held by the Duke of Sussex before he left public life. It’s the highest rank in the Spanish Army, held only by the King.

And Ethan Allen? Before his death, he promised that, in Vermont’s hour of greatest need, he’d return from the dead to her aid, galloping across her hills, incarnate as a great white horse.



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