Belgian Draft Horse Chester: A Story of Friendship is a wonderful book by Larry Kidder about his long friendship with Chester, a draft (working) horse at the Howell Living History Farm. It’s a charming story that includes some sad moments, and also moments of great satisfaction as Kidder describes his growing friendship and working relationship with Chester and the other horses. (View the book on Amazon.)
These days we think of animals mostly as pets, and build emotional attachments with cats and dogs. But as is demonstrated at Howell Farm, around 1900 the Hopewell Valley was still a very agricultural area with large farmsteads. People then lived closely with animals, particularly with horses for transportation and for work on the farm. Kidder has great delight describing how adults and especially children discover and respond to the horses at Howell Farm, and then come back on return visits to see their friend Chester.
Early in the book, Kidder describes his own initial reluctance to be around these large and intimidating-looking draft horses (weighing around 1700 pounds). Luckily, as a long-term volunteer, he came to care for them and work closely with them. The book goes into some detail on the care of horses: feeding, mucking, shoeing, and cleaning with comb and brush (which they love), as well as the process and equipment for harnessing horses for different jobs, from plowing in the fields to pulling wagons with visitors. Kidder also describes the work on the farm, from plowing and spreading manure, to seeding and weeding, to cultivating and harvesting. In his writing, you are hands-on with him walking carefully along the furrow, working to keep the plow running straight behind the team of horses.
Chester and Jack
Chester arrived at Howell Farm in 2008 with his lifelong working partner, Jack. They worked together there to grow crops, which are used to feed the farm animals and to donate to local food pantries. This not only provided demonstrations for visitors to learn about farm life around 1900, but also let kids get some hands-on experience, including guiding the plow along the furrow. Both horses also were very calm and friendly to visitors, and would come over in their stalls or to the pasture fence and lower their heads so kids could rub them.
Chester and Jack were eventually retired from farm work in 2021, although they clearly missed their work and were sad when they saw other horses being geared up. Unfortunately, Jack died that winter and Chester was clearly saddened and missed his friend, staring at the now-empty adjacent stall. He was getting better, but then COVID hit, and Kidder and other volunteers were not allowed to come in to the farm to spend time with them. When Kidder was finally able to come in months later, Chester was in bad shape:
I found Chester very emotionally depressed and physically stiff. … When I went into his stall to greet him after our long separation, he ignored me and kept his head lowered in the far corner of the stall. I could see how terribly unhappy he was and also saw that his joints were tight.
To help Chester, I felt that I just had to get him moving and socializing. … I urged him to come with me for a walk, but he just stood there. After more coaxing and then combing and brushing him, it was painful to watch him begin to slowly move a little. … We only walked for a few minutes before he wanted to get back to his stall. I made sure the several visitors that afternoon have a chance to meet and talk with Chester, which seem to help him emotionally. I repeated these things for the next couple of days and his joints began to loosen up. … He began to walk more comfortably and to hold his head up and look around.
Chester and Paul
The story continues with Paul, a new draft horse friend for Chester. They work together, hang out in the pasture together with other horses, and enjoy socializing with visitors.
Kidder also takes them on walks together, with only a short lead on each: “[Paul] and Chester would even graze side by side, with me in the middle sort of being hugged by both. I never felt threatened or endangered standing between them because they both let me know the hugs were friendly and calming.”
In this book, Kidder tells the story of deep friendship between man and horse, as well as explaining how people lived life on the farm a century or so ago, in harmony with horses.
This is an 88-page paperback, printed in larger type, and written in simple language so children can understand – while adults can appreciate the depth of the connection between man and horse.
Photos from the book.
- Find Belgian Draft Horse Chester: A Story of Friendship by Larry Kidder on Amazon.