A better day had never dawned in Garnish, Newfoundland than the one Levi Legge and his dad Wilbert awoke to during one winter in the 1960s. The weather was calm and the pair thought it was the perfect chance to move some firewood. Having just bought a new Newfoundland pony a few weeks earlier, they were anxious to see what he was like working in the woods. Jep was a rich dark brown colour, with white hooves and a white face. He was a pretty animal, and a sturdy one, by the looks of it. With promising skies overhead, father and son had Jep hooked to the slide in jig time.
Levi told his father to hold on tight, because Jep looked a little “yarry” (high spirited). As Levi reached for the reins coiled on the collar, Jep’s ears pricked up waiting for the word outport people in Newfoundland used to get their horses to go. “Gawn Trooper! Gawn!” Levi called to the pony. The words were hardly spoken when Jep gave one big lunge and Levi jumped just in time to catch the slide as the little pony sprang ahead and settled into a fast trot, with snowballs flying off his hooves.
Amazed by the animal’s speed, Levi wondered how much wood he would be able to haul. As they loaded the slide Jep stood with one hoof cocked, his weight resting on the other three. He patiently waited to take the first of several loads of wood he would haul to the mesh (marsh) that day. With the wood piled high over the horns, the two of them hopped atop the load and away they went down the path to the edge of the mesh. They spent the morning going back and fourth till all the wood except one load was piled on the edge of the mesh.
A change in the weather
Before making their final trip, Wilbert and Levi decided to take a break in the mesh to have dinner and let their hard-working pony rest. They were almost finished eating when they noticed the angry clouds. A short time later big flakes of snow began to fall. Anticipating bad weather, they loaded the slide with the final pile of wood and started out the path. But they didn’t get far before the snow got thicker and the wind changed direction, blowing snow straight up into their faces. The father and son were blinded by the snow. But Jep plodded on, trudging through snow that by now reached his knees. Finally, Jep stopped in the middle of a big drift and looked behind at the two men, as if pleading with them to lighten his load. So Levi and Wilbert unloaded the slide, leaving the wood where it fell, and got back on.
With just the men to pull now, Jep again began trudging through the deep snow drifts. Shortly after, he rounded a bend and stopped; to their terror, the path they had travelled only hours ago was gone. In its place was drift after drift of snow.
Levi urged the pony on, and Jep slowly beat his way through the deep snow, stopping often to catch his breath. The wind was blowing with gale force as it whipped the snow in their faces. Jep plodded on, snow up to his belly, as the storm raged around him.
Blinded by the snow, Wilbert half-guessed that home was to their right. Hoping and praying his instinct was correct, Levi turned the pony right. But Jep walked only a short distance, turned left and continued walking – face into the blizzard. Confused at the pony’s disobedience, Levi turned him right again, but again Jep defiantly turned left. No amount of urging or pulling the reins could get the pony to go right.
Several minutes passed and the pair still couldn’t get the pony to follow directions. Having lost all hope, they decided to drop the reins and let the pony go where he pleased – for all three, survival was bleak. Levi and Wilbert turned backwards on the slide, put their hands over their faces and hunched down, hoping Jep would soon make his way to the trees for some shelter. But he continued on in the wide open. Snow and ice hung from Jep’s belly, legs, muzzle, and eye lashes, but still he went on through the deep snow. The temperature dropped fast and the snow was getting deeper by the minute. All of a sudden, Jep halted. Levi looked up, expecting to be under the protective cover of the trees, but his hope vanished when he saw they were still out in the open. After sniffing the ground for a moment, Jep started on again.
The men, still hunched on the slide and numb from the cold, had given up. They were sure they would take their last ice breaths huddled together on the slide that day. But then, the sound of iron on ice brought the two men to their feet. The only place they’d passed over ice that day was on the river near their home. Could it be that this new pony had found their way back home?
Lo and behold! Through the blowing snow Jim could see the houses and fence they had passed on the way in. And before long Jep came to a sudden stop. The two men shouted for joy when they looked up and saw where they were: Jep had stopped right in front of the barn door! Relatives and friends who gathered to help them off the sled couldn’t understand how they’d made their way home in the blizzard.
They could all thank Jep for that. It was Jep who got them home. It was Jep who, despite having been purchased a few days before from a different community, knew all along where he was and, most importantly, where he was headed: home.
Reader Elaine Cluett penned this story from her memories of conversations she had with Levi and Wilbert Legge about their Newfoundland pony, Jep – a true hero. Elaine fondly recalls riding Jep years ago in Garnish, Newfoundland.
Click here for another Newfoundland Pony tale. See the August 2009 issue of Downhome for more about Newfoundland ponies.