A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses
by Paul Birdsall of Penobscot, ME
I must give credit to George Frangoulis, founder, publisher, and later editor of Farmstead Magazine for encouraging me in having Small Farmer’s Journal reprint the following article which originally appeared in the first issue of Farmstead, Spring/Summer 1974.
In this issue, George stated that “Farmstead is a magazine for all of Maine’s gardeners and Farmsteaders. (It) discusses new gardening methods as well as the good old ways of farming.” In short, this timely publication enabled those of us in what some will recall as the back to the land movement to educate each other in the many issues and problems involved in developing a sustainable and locally based agriculture.
Appearing when it did, “A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses” is evidence of a redeveloping interest in draft power, following its precipitous decline from the mid-1940s on. Early draft horse publications were starting up such as the Draft Horse Journal and Small Farmer’s Journal. In stating that the New Idea spreader was the last piece of horse machinery being made, I did not realize that Amish shops were already, or soon would be providing equipment for non-Amish horse farmers. We have come a long way when we consider events such as Horse Progress Days, or if we examine the contents of draft horse publications then and now.
As further background, anyone knowing me before my late wife, Mollie, and I moved to Maine in 1972 would have found me an unlikely candidate to become a horse farmer. I had no great liking for or interest in horses, probably because of some bad experiences as a child. Once I was on a horse which was being led, when my little sister, wearing a white dress, darted from behind a bush in front of the horse. Enough said, for me, horses were large and dangerous.
Also, I have to confess that we at Horsepower Farm represent “mixed power” now that we also have a tractor. This in no way diminishes the fact that horses supply almost all the power for farming and field work, their manure, composted with seafood waste, provides most of our crop fertility needs, and almost all their hay and some of their oats come from the farm.
Horsepower Farm involves three generations. My son, Andy, and his wife, Donna, operate the farm, and grandson, Drew, and his wife, Meghan, are also involved. It is with their help and encouragement that I continue to work on the farm.
More articles from Farmstead will be coming, and the next, “My First Team of Workhorses,” will feature my first horse, “Lady” and “Trixie” who had been used on the farm by a neighbor from whom I later bought her. However much you may benefit from these ramblings, hopefully the struggles of a would be teamster will provide some entertainment. In any case you will find a postscript in which I will try to bring some of my thinking in 1974 up to date.
A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses
We have tried a workhorse, and for our needs he has proven quite satisfactory as well as satisfying to use. Thus we feel it is possible for someone with little or no experience to learn to care for and use a horse or a team for farm and woods work, although, obviously, this is not a process to be undertaken lightly.
Why bring back the workhorse when the tractor has come to be generally accepted as more “efficient” for farm tasks? One of the basic aims of the farm operation for us is self-sufficiency, and we thought that the horse would be more efficient than a tractor in achieving this aim. The horse supplies a considerable amount of fertilizer every year, and can be fed on hay and grain raised on the farm. In addition, a mare can produce an occasional foal for profit or as a replacement. We would also be spared mechanical breakdowns of tractor and equipment; horsedrawn equipment and harness is easier to repair. Related to this was the thought that a horse would fit in better with the farm environment than a tractor, and would be pleasanter to use.
Admittedly, a tractor can perform some farm tasks more rapidly than a horse, but we thought that a horse would give us greater flexibility as far as farm and woodlot operations were concerned. With a horse we can get to almost any part of our farm at almost any season of the year. This is important in Northern New England where the snow depths may be great and there is always a mud season to contend with in the spring. (Needless to say, there are wet spots where you can mire a horse, too, but there are fewer of them.) At the same time, we did not feel denied absolutely the use of a tractor, for arrangements could be made to swap labor with a neighboring farmer for such tractor work as might provide occasionally necessary. For example, last summer we were not set up to mow with a horse during haying season, but a neighbor cut much of the hay we needed with his tractor in return for several occasions on which we helped him get in his hay. From our standpoint, such spreading of tractor utilization is far more efficient than for everyone to own his own tractor, which in most cases would be underutilized, and would thus represent at least to some extent unnecessary capital investment.
Such ideas look good on paper, and it is probably safe to say that they are shared by a small but increasing proportion of the population, but obviously it is the practice and not the theory which should determine whether or not there will be a workhorse or a team in your future. In this respect our experience may prove helpful in showing to what extent we have found horses practical on the farm and to what degree the greenhorn may become competent and comfortable in using and caring for them.
For us the transition from ignorance and inexperience to ownership and use was helped along by our good fortune in being able to borrow a team for six weeks or so last summer. The experience in itself was not particularly successful, and in fact some might have been discouraged by what happened. We tried the team with an old mowing machine which we found difficult to use because the cutter bar could not be elevated properly to avoid obstructions. Moreover, in our ignorance we rigged the reins improperly and were forced to control the horses by leading them. Finally, the harness was not up to the requirements of this job, so we had to give up the idea of using the team. All was not lost, however, for we learned to care for the team, became accustomed to harnessing them, and got used to having them around. We also learned from “Charlie” how adept some horses become in escaping from almost any kind of enclosure, with disastrous consequences to the oat supply and the new corn.
The outcome of this experience was to convince us that horses might prove satisfactory for our needs, but that we needed more favorable circumstances in which to try out the idea. Thus we resolved to have “as new” harness, because to do otherwise would endanger the experiment. We decided that one horse would be better than a team because one would be easier to hitch up and manage, and even a beginner can work a well-trained horse on simple tasks, provided he is careful. Also the chances of acquiring one good horse are better than those of getting two good ones at once. Most older, experienced horses have generally been worked double at some time or other, and with care and patience it should be possible to find a mate if you decide that a team is really what you want. (Of course, there is the serious objection to this approach that you will have to switch from single horse harness and equipment to double horse equipment, if you decide on a team eventually.)
The prospects looked pretty discouraging when we actually tried to find a workhorse in the late summer of 1973. It seemed clear that whatever we found, we would have to make a very quick decision because others were beginning to want workhorses, too. So when my son Nat told me of an ad in the Bangor Daily News for a “gentle farm horse with some equipment,” we wasted no time in following up. A number of others had already expressed an interest in buying, and we decided that we would take her while we could in spite of a bunch, or swelling, on her rear hock. We paid $325 for her, and an additional sum for the farm equipment. This price might be low today. We thought the risk slight that we would not be able to get our money out considering the interest in workhorses and their scarcity. As a greenhorn, I was taking a real chance in not bringing along someone who knew workhorses.