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.
This was the beginning of our association with a strawberry roan mare named “Lady” of no determinable ancestry, weighing in at about 1,400 lbs. (not much for a workhorse; they go from this size to over a ton) and aged about 12 years. The association has been pleasant for us from the beginning because she has proven to be as gentle as advertised. Never has she made a move in her stall or out which might have injured someone. This is an important consideration, and one which it is well to keep in mind when picking out a workhorse.
“Lady” had come equipped only with a yarding harness, which would permit her to draw a load by means of a flexible hitch, but which would not permit her to stop the load. For this she needed a driving harness with breeching, holdbacks, and a jacksaddle which would hold the shafts. Thus we could not use her on a cart or mowing machine which had shafts. We did try her successfully with a stoneboat, onto which we could roll various heavy objects which we wished to move such as rocks and debris remaining around the house from renovations and rebuilding. She also hauled boxes of manure on the stoneboat for the new lawn and drew the harrow over the lawn to prepare it for seeding. At such simple tasks, “Lady” performed well, and they served to bring her back into condition from a summer of inactivity out at grass. As is usual in summer, she was unshod, and I had to keep her away from rocky areas where she might have damaged her feet.
The main job I had in mind for “Lady” during the early fall was to mow some of the old hayfields which had not been mowed for several years and to mow some blueberry land as a pruning measure. By this time I had bought a driving harness, so I could hitch her to either one of two antique mowing machines which I had acquired. This equipment serves to illustrate some of the problems you will face in finding usable horsedrawn equipment. One mower was a Richardson, manufactured in Worcester, Massachusetts, and despite all efforts with the oil can, one critical adjustment remained frozen. The other machine, an Adriance made in Poughkeepsie, New York, performs quite well since it has always been kept under cover. How old these machines are is anyone’s guess, but 70 years would not be an unreasonable estimate. Thus the problem lies not only in the difficulty in finding good horsedrawn equipment but in finding spare parts. Replacement parts may have to be made to order.
The results of the mowing encouraged us to believe that it would be possible and practical for us to mow with a horse or horses. For rough, rocky blueberry ground, only a horsedrawn mower is sufficiently maneuverable to be practical. We did experience some difficulty with the fine, matted hay in the old hayfields. When these fields have been fertilized, plowed and reseeded, as we plan to do, the hay will be of better quality and easier to cut. Also, the hay tended to jam the cutter bar in the mowing machine because hay is dry and tough when cut so late in the season. It would be much easier to cut in regular haying time. However, if you plan to go into the hay business on a large scale, and you must cut many fields during a season, then a tractor would be more practical than horses.
Plowing proved to be the only discouraging part of our experience. I had assumed that you just backed the horse up to the plow, hooked the whiffletree on, put the reins around one’s neck, and, grasping the plow handles firmly, told the horse “gaddup.” I found myself pursuing the horse at breakneck speed along a furrow which was consistent neither as to depth nor direction. A few more tries and I found myself sitting on the ground exhausted, and looking up at the horse. My two strong sons laughed when they heard about this, but when we tried it with one on the plow and the other handling the reins, the results were no better, and sometimes one of us would find himself lying flat in the furrow. I have since been told by those with some experience that you need a very strong horse or a team in order to have the power to plow slowly and with enough control to have straight furrows. Certainly it would be best to contract out or trade labor for large scale plowing such as required for reseeding an entire field or in breaking new sod. Plowing is not something that I am counting on being able to do for myself except possibly in relatively small garden patches in which the ground has already been broken. On the other hand, I plan to harrow and cultivate the garden with the horse, since we have successfully tried “Lady” out with the harrow and the cultivator.