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The Horse in the House

© Davidson Loehr 2006

It happened in the summer of 1955, and was both logical and necessary. We lived in Colfax, Iowa, a town of about 1800, twenty miles east of Des Moines. Formerly located on Highway 6, the Interstate bypassed it when it went in in the early 1960s, kind of leaving it where it was.

But where it was – at least in 1955 – was a wonderful place, at least for a 13-year-old boy with a horse. My younger brother also had a horse, named Spooky. Spooky was white, and hot-tempered, at least to me, though my brother seemed to get along with him.

My horse was brown, with a big white line running up the back of his left hind leg, around his rump and back down his right leg. He was laid-back and cool, and his name was Louie.

The horses were our freedom. We could come home from school, throw a saddle on, and just ride, ride, anywhere. A couple times on weekends, we left on horseback to make camp for the weekend. I had a Marlin lever-action .22 caliber rifle and a saddle holster, just like I knew all real cowboys had, and would hunt big game for our vittles. OK, squirrels. Whatever. We’d make camp, cut down some saplings, or cut branches, make a corral that straddled the small creek, so the horses wouldn’t wander off. Then I’d shoot a squirrel or two, which we’d cook on a stick over an open fire, then retire to sleep using our saddles as pillows, just like in the movies. I don’t think cowboys really used saddles as pillows. It’s very uncomfortable.

When my brother Peter and I were 13 and 10, our horses were sometimes our best friends. We fed them, cleaned their stable in the barn, and rode them around the fenced pasture next to the house almost every day. I had a paper route that went from downtown straight out Main Street about two miles out past our house. Every day, summer and winter, I’d get to our house, saddle up Louie, and we’d finish the route together. We were close.

My brother Peter and I used to like to give the horses sugar cubes, which they gobbled out of our hands almost too eagerly. That was until the vet said the sugar cubes would rot their teeth and we shouldn’t do it any more. Bummer. They liked carrots and apples fine, but they also had a sweet tooth. We understood.

We were looking for a loophole in the “no sugar cubes” deal. I think we found it by chance one morning, when my brother didn’t want to finish his grape juice because it was too sweet. The words hit like a revelation straight from the gods – or at least the god Poseidon, who was also fond of horses.

After our mother left for the day, we poured some grape juice in the dog bowls on the rickety back porch. The horses loved it! But there was an unexpected bonus that made it all even better. The grape juice made their noses and tongues purple. Now that was cool! Horses with purple tongues and, in Spooky’s case, a purple nose!

The occasion giving rise to the center of this story came on one of those days when both horses were up on the back porch, drinking grape juice out of the dog bowls. When Pete took Spooky back down, he broke the wooden steps – really, it’s amazing that both horses didn’t fall straight through the porch.

Well, now Louie was stuck up there on the back porch. He wouldn’t jump down, there wasn’t any other way off the porch, and our mother would be coming home in an hour or two. This called for quick thinking, which kids mostly know they’re pretty good at. We had two friends over, who would help with the horses in return for getting to ride them. I shared my plan. Joey could take Louie’s halter, I’d go ahead to clear away the furniture, and we would lead the horse through the house and out the front door, over the new porch with its sturdy cement step. Oh yes, and Jimmy would walk behind Louie, carrying a metal bucket, just in case. Jimmy protested, but he was the littlest, so it was only fitting.

No sooner had I announced this grand and eminently logical plan than my brother jumped on Spooky and rode away as fast and as far as he could.

The plan worked beautifully. I cleared the furniture out of the way, Louie was very well-behaved, and Jimmy whined all the way through the kitchen and dining room about the sorry hand that Life had dealt him.

When we got into the living room, the television was on, and Louie stopped. His ears shot forward, his eyes got big, and I could feel him thinking “Hey – we haven’t got this out in the barn! The Big House is a whole other thing!” I saw the family camera sitting on a hall table – a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye with flash bulb attachment – and quickly took a picture of this scene.

But I wasn’t as quick as Jimmy. When he saw me going for the camera, he walked up by the horse’s shoulders, and set the bucket down.

This was not good timing. It was not good timing because when the flash bulb popped, it startled Louie. And Louie pooped on the rug.

I yelled at Jimmy – his duties had been made very clear. But he snapped back – petulantly, I thought – “I am not going down in history holding a bucket behind a horse’s butt!” It was a good point, well taken.

Still, there was the poop.

We took Louie out the front, got him back into the barn, and both Joey and Jimmy disappeared as quickly as my brother had a few minutes earlier.

I scooped the poop, but it wasn’t going to be that simple. There was a stain. Not dramatic, but noticeable. I went into the kitchen and looked under the sink, where wondrous and mysterious Chemicals are kept. And there was a big bottle of Glamorene Rug Cleaner. It was, I’m quite sure, the only time in my life I ever saw or used that product, but its name was stamped in my mind forevermore.

Luckily, I had a bucket. Of course, if it had been used in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to use it in the second place. I filled the bucket with water, dumped in a lot of Glamorene, got a brush, and scrubbed.

Glamorene Rug Cleaner was truly miraculous! Unfortunately, there was now a large wet spot, a couple feet across, which was even more noticeable than the original stain. My mother had never been accused of being a good housekeeper, though this was the first time I saw that as a good thing. I took a throw rug from the other side of the room and covered the wet spot.

She never noticed. Neither did my father. And Peter knew better than to say one single word. During the day, I’d take the rug off, covering it again before my mother came home. In two or three days, the rug was dry, and looked like its scruffy old self again. When I moved the rug back where it belonged, both parents suddenly noticed it had been moved, though I assured them it had always mostly been there.

In short, I pulled off the caper of the century. I got away with bringing Louie through the house, even though he had had that little accident in the living room. In the days to come, both my brother and I would laugh about it while we were out riding. Certain kinds of kids live for moments like that.


It was – I don’t know, maybe two or three weeks later: a long time later. I came home from some serious playing, and no sooner had the screen door shut than I heard this Mother Voice shouting “Howie! Come in here!” Every kid knows that voice, and knows what it means.

I stood a little paralyzed there by the front door, wondering – not what I’d done, but what anyone could possibly have told her about. Nothing. There was nothing. I’d either been quite good, or left no evidence. I was sure of it. I went into the kitchen, and every kid knows just what comes next. With my most innocent look, I said “Yes, Mother?”

She was not a happy woman. “What do you mean, bringing that horse in the house?”

This took really quick thinking. Could she possibly know about that? It didn’t seem likely. Pete wouldn’t dare tell. And Jimmy and Joey knew if they blabbed, they’d lose their ticket for free horse rides. And Louie didn’t talk. That’s it. She couldn’t know.

So again with the innocent kid look, I said “What horse?”

The next line was the Voice of Damnation and Doom: “I just got the pictures back from Walgreen’s!”

Poop. That horse. Louie, the cool, laid-back horse. Ah, yes.

The next moments were a bit awkward. Denial seemed out of the question. But explaining the logic of it – and especially how responsibly we brought the horse into the house, with moving the furniture and Jimmy and the bucket and all – that was a little trickier. And then there was the matter of the poop. I couldn’t really leave that out. And the Glamorene, and the wet spot – which finally cleared up the mystery of the moving throw rug. It was actually quite a complex story. And telling it did sound a bit odd, even though it was all quite logical from beginning to end.

As I stumbled through the story, I suddenly saw a gift from the gods, a shot of pure Grace: the corner of her mouth twitched. She was on the verge of laughing! Oh, Hallelujah!

Again, every kid would know what move to make next. “What’s the matter, Mom? Are you going to laugh? It’s really pretty funny, isn’t it? Huh?”

Her expression was one of those that should have been filmed. She needed to be serious – it was still Serious Parent time – but she could barely keep it in. Finally, she blurted “I have no idea what to say to you. I would feel ridiculous saying ‘Don’t bring that horse in the house again’!” I look back on that as about the most ideal way a parent could handle this situation – not that more than like one in a billion parents will ever have to face this situation. As for the back steps; they were rebuilt, but I don’t remember anything about it. Maybe Pete and I had our allowances docked to help pay the carpenter, but I don’t think so. I think the family absorbed Louie’s Big Day as one of those Memories we’re always trying to make — or perhaps as the sad sign of a child too far gone to save.

And that’s the story of how the horse was brought into the house, way back in the summer of 1955 when both I and my world were a lot younger and simpler.

But as logical as it is, I have learned through the years how filled with Basic Disbelief many people are. Like you. You don’t quite believe it — at least not all of it — do you?

Oh, come on. This is better than most history. Even if you don’t believe it, can’t you pretend to?

But no. No. And so, for those too cynical to accept the simple truth of a childhood memory from a half-century ago, a gift for you too. I carried that photo in my billfold for over twenty years. Louie was with me through the Army, in Germany, even through the Vietnam War. Then sometime in the mid-70s, while I was spending a weekend with my brother’s family, he picked my pocket as I slept, stole the picture, and sent it off to have it copied. At Christmas, he gave me a 16×20 print of that old photo, complete with its fading and scratches, which I then had mounted and framed. It still hangs on my office wall today.

Virtually the whole story is captured in this photo. At the far right, you can see the edge of the console-style television set. Louie’s alert eyes and ears speak for themselves. That’s Joey on the sofa, and Jimmy, derelict from duty, peeping over the horse’s shoulders. On the floor, you can still see the top of the metal bucket – which, like Jimmy, is about four feet from where it should have been.

Rev. Davidson Loehr is a liberal minister in Austin, TX, and author of the book America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005). He can be reached at dloehr …

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