RANDOLPH CENTER, Vt. — They once were grumpy and gruff, the man and the horse. But now, pacing slowly on a thin crust of snow, Donnie MacAdams and Waco Hanover are a picture of mellow camaraderie as they make a crunching circle around a small paddock.
“Dude, have you been chewing on the fence?” MacAdams gently asks Waco, a former harness-racing standardbred. The horse leans close, rubbing his large brown head up and down the left sleeve of MacAdams’s heavy plaid coat.
“I’m part of his herd,” MacAdams says with a smile. The horse’s 58-year-old caretaker says he has not spent a single night away from him in more than eight years.
It’s a tender scene that shouldn’t be happening. Waco is 40 years old — more than a century old in human terms — and has far outlived what his owner expected when he moved away from the farm about a dozen years ago.
That owner, Everett Kettler, said he will provide for the old racer as long as Waco is healthy. He’ll pay for his feed, maintain the barn where he’s stabled, and pay for his infrequent visits from the vet.
Kettler just never expected to be doing it this long. All these years later, Waco keeps chugging along and MacAdams keeps caring for him — without pay.
“There have been just a few animals I’ve met that have his will to live, and want to adapt, and want to survive like him,” said MacAdams, a former dairy farmer. “He wants to live.”
Waco can’t chew any longer, he has a small swayback, and he moves slower than he once did. But he still will rear a bit on his hind legs, MacAdams said, and he spends much of his time outdoors.
In his prime, Waco won a less-than-impressive $10,214 over 12 years of harness racing in small New England towns and country fairs. But whatever Waco lacked on the track before he retired in 1991, he has made up in longevity.
Neither MacAdams nor Kettler has ever seen another horse this old. Ellen Harvey, a native Vermonter who follows standardbred harness racing for a living, said the same.
But age is not the only remarkable thing about Waco. The relationship between this 850-pound horse and his handler has enriched both their lives.
“I thought that horses were nothing but hay-burners,” said MacAdams, chuckling at the animal’s big appetite. “Now, he’s my best friend. It kind of changed with him.”
And so has Waco’s approach to MacAdams, who said he used to be greeted with “an intentional insult” — a regular view of the horse’s hindquarters. Now, Waco will stand shoulder to shoulder with MacAdams, who is blind in one eye and numb in the arm that the horse likes to nuzzle.
The connection has been therapeutic.
‘There have been just a few animals I’ve met that have his will to live, and want to adapt, and want to survive like him. He wants to live.’Donnie MacAdams
“I had to learn to calm down. I had a temper, and I’d been working on it for years,” said MacAdams, who graduated from Lexington High School in Massachusetts but soon moved to Vermont.
The horse has helped him do that. “Were we meant to cross paths? Who knows?” MacAdams said.
MacAdams works four days a week at a state visitors center -- “I get paid to tell people where to go,” he said with a grin — but he gladly works for free in the unheated barn where Waco is stabled. Several other horses are boarded there for students in the Vermont Technical College equine program.
MacAdams’s arrangement was born of a promise to the horse and its owner, who lives nearly 100 miles away on Lake Champlain.
“I made a commitment; it’s that simple,” MacAdams said. “I made a commitment to take care of him.”
It’s just that Waco doesn’t seem to have an expiration date, which for most horses comes at 25 to 30 years old.
“I’m 61 and the fifth generation of my family to be in the horse business, and I’ve never known of a horse this old,” said Harvey, executive director of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the US Trotting Association.
Neither has Judith Bokman, executive director of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, who said Waco’s logevity is not the only rarity. The fact that he still has caring ownership is unusual. Most standardbreds in the United States are sold for slaughter in Canada or Mexico long before they reach old age, Bokman said.
Asked about Waco’s staying power, neither Harvey nor MacAdams had a definitive answer.
Maybe it’s the cold winters and mild summers, Harvey said, which cut down on the bothersome bugs that cause incessant foot-stomping and other movement that can tire a horse in warmer climates.
Or maybe it’s genes — Waco’s father lived to 34 years old. Or perhaps it’s because Waco’s a gelding, Harvey said, and he didn’t have the stresses that might trim a few years from a romantically inclined horse.
Harvey said the oldest horse ever documented appears to have been a 51-year-old from Ireland, and she has also heard of a Maine horse that is six weeks older than Waco. Although Waco was born on May 4, 1977, all horses in North America officially turn a year older every New Year’s Day.
MacAdams would not look beyond Waco’s death, but he did mention quietly that he hopes the horse passes away in his sleep.
Until then, MacAdams will continue to feed him as early as 5:45 a.m. and check on him at night after his work at the visitors center.
And he’ll continue to buy the $3 packets of animal crackers that Waco craves or the apple pies at McDonald’s that the horse ate on his New Year’s birthday.
“It’s not a job when you love it,” MacAdams said. “And if you’re going to take care of an animal, that animal comes first.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.