A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

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

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.

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

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.

We had long planned to take some old hay from the barn and spread it on the lower blueberry field in order to achieve a better burn in the spring. In any case, it was December before we got time to do the job, and by then it was so wet that the only way we could get to the field was with horse and cart, another indication of the flexibility which horses afford in farm operations.

Perhaps the most satisfactory use for horses in our experience has been for woodlot operations in the winter time. Here the horse must compete against the farm tractor and against a specialized piece of logging equipment known as a skidder. For us the choice was simple. Farm tractors are considered to be dangerous for use in the woods, and more space must be cleared for their operation than for a horse. Skidders are very expensive and can be justified only where a high volume of wood is to be got out. This requires clear cutting timber rather than selective cutting. Skidders also damage the soil cover and there is usually a lot of damage to trees which are not supposed to be cut.

To begin with, we were late in cutting our winter’s supply of firewood, and we needed quite a lot of hardwood since we planned to heat with wood alone. In November and December we cut the firewood and piled it up in four foot lengths along woods roads we had cut out or reopened. Then we brought “Lady” into the woods with the rubber-tired woods cart to pick up the wood and bring it back to where we could cut it up and split it outside the cellar door. Later we cut pulp for a local paper mill. This, too, was piled up in four foot lengths and brought out of the woods by “Lady,” though by January we were able to use a single horse woods sled instead of the cart.

It was not until February that the ground was frozen hard enough and there was enough snow to start cutting sawlogs. After the trees have been felled and cut into log lengths, the logs must be “twitched” or dragged out by the horse to the woods road where they can be brought to the skidway or yard for loading on the truck. In twitching, a chain with a choke hook is led around the end of the log. Then the horse is backed into position, with someone drawing back the whiffletree to where it can be hooked to the chain at a point as close as possible to the choke hook. The tension on the chain through the choke hook draws it ever tighter around the end of the log. When the horse is hooked on, he is encouraged to snap the log free and draw it out to the woods road.

When the snow cover was adequate, we used the woodsled without the rack which fits on top for carrying pulp and firewood. The logs were rolled up on the sled lengthwise and locked in place with chain and log binder. Then, riding the load, we drove the woodsled to the skidway where the logs were rolled off and into position where they could be rolled onto the truck. Depending on snow conditions, we sometimes used only the front of the sled, letting the back of the logs drag behind. Recently, with no snow at all in the woods, but with the ground well frozen, we got logs out by having the horses drag them all the way to the skidway as in twitching.

In these operations we used two horses, “Lady,” and a Belgian mare named “Trixie,” who belongs to a friend working with us. He had worked horses as a boy and as a young man. Although we never had occasion to hitch the horses double, they worked well in each other’s company. “Trixie” was the stronger, younger, and more willing of the two, but I was very satisfied with “Lady’s” performance. The largest log which we took out with “Trixie” was 12’ long and measured almost 24” at the butt. It is doubtful that we will find anything much bigger than this, but with a team, it should be possible to get out even larger logs.

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

That has been our actual experience with horses so far. We do have plans to use horses even more extensively in the future, such as in garden operations which I have already mentioned. We are looking around for a double horse manure spreader. (For those who can pay the price, New Idea makes a spreader which I understand is the last piece of horse drawn equipment still being manufactured.) This we hope to use in the spring, especially for the fields we plan to plow and reseed as well as for the garden areas. We also plan to use horse power to pull bushes which have been creeping into our fields, and we think that a horse may be used to advantage in fencing some of our fields, especially when the ground is soft.

If you are thinking about a work horse or a team for your farm or woodlot, there are signs that you are not alone. For the first time in quite a while, two horse dealers in this region have received consignments of work horses. I talked to one of them, and he had sold his all out and was hoping for another shipment. He also said that interest in workhorses had grown rapidly during the last year, and that he had sold out much equipment which he’d had little hope of selling several years ago. If you are as lucky as I was, you may find someone who knows workhorses and who is willing to give you advice. Obviously the place to start is to question the people who already have workhorses and have experience in using them. You will be especially fortunate if you have occasion to work with someone on a task involving work horses as I did this winter in yarding logs in the woods. Not all the old teamsters are gone, and one of them who was spending the winter in this area used to come out and work with us. Thus I had a chance to pick up a good deal of first hand information about caring for horses and using them in the woods.

I have said little of the pleasures of using workhorses. You may enjoy, as have I, getting to know and, perhaps, working with people who know the care and use of draft horses. Then there is the pleasure of being out in the fields or the woods with a workhorse. Generally it is quiet except for the sound of whatever horse-drawn implement is involved. Sometimes there is the moment you stop the horse late on a beautiful afternoon and sit there for awhile enjoying the view and the peaceful scene. Then there is the sense of power and purpose that a good draft horse or team conveys in doing some job well such as drawing a heavy load.

Whether there is a workhorse in your future depends upon a variety of factors. Workhorses are scarce, and there is competition for them not only among those who would use them as they should be used, but also from those who would sell them for meat. We can only hope that increased interest in the workhorse will result in increased breeding. Also it is difficult for someone without experience to pick out a likely animal. You should certainly try to get competent advice in choosing an animal, and you should try to start out with one which is gentle and well trained, and thus, not too young. It takes some strength and agility to hitch and work horses, although increasing experience probably helps to compensate. You should take care not to ask more of the horse than he can do. Think out the task ahead so that you don‘t involve the horse or yourself in a difficult or dangerous situation. You are probably already aware that sloppy harness and trailing lines are an invitation for trouble. Also, good harness is expensive, and I have already indicated the difficulties you may experience in finding suitable horsedrawn equipment. You will have to care for the horse regularly, including picking up and inspecting (and cleaning) each of his hooves.


Not surprisingly, some of my opinions and conclusions have changed since 1974, and I take this opportunity to bring them up to date.

Our early, less than satisfactory, experience plowing was with a walking “side hill” plow, which being reversible gave the option of turning the furrow up hill consistently. This is essential on a hill farm like ours. What we quickly learned was that a “two way” sulky plow, being set in a frame on wheels, with various adjusting levers, was far more manageable than the walking plow, and was easier on the teamster, enabling more work to be done in a day (about an acre). We use two Oliver plows of this type, a #23A and a #V387. Cast replacement shares are still available, but you can get complete new bot- toms, with steel “off the shelf” shares from White Horse Machine.

The only drawback is that in our soils, you may be jarred or unseated by the occasional rock. While still able, I often walked behind, with the advantage of being able to observe the plow bottom more closely, and having a little less draft for the horses. Also, having an extra horse helps on sod ground, so I use a double pole setup with a special evener. (Also, the Oliver is designed so that you can move the tongue to the side and use a regular three horse evener to plow both ways.) The shares for these plows are 12”.

We also use a one-way Oliver trailing plow with 14” share which goes behind a Pioneer forecart with a 3-horse hitch, and enables us to do up to 1 1?2 acres a day. The plow handles easily, with a pull rod for dropping or rais- ing the plow bottom. In rocky ground, the teamster is certainly more secure on the forecart than riding a sulky. Of course, use is limited when conditions call for a two-way plow. One piece of equipment which I think will increase our effectiveness on sod ground where we like an extra horse, is Pioneer’s new four-horse evener which will enable us to hitch four to this one-way Oliver, with a horse in the furrow, but no horse forced to walk on plowed ground.

Finally, some plowing on fields distant from the farm is done with the tractor and on occasion I have hired contract plowing, which doesn’t usually have very satisfactory results.

Having mentioned the use of one in connection with the one-way Oliver plow, my feeling is that the forecart is one of the most significant developments in the area of horse machinery, largely on the part of Amish manufacturers. This is a list of small ground driven tractor implements which we use behind our two Pioneer forecarts: Grain drill, manure spreader, Oliver trailing plow, potato planter, cultipacker, hay rake, hay tedder, spinner spreader, lime spreader, and field cultivator, not to mention conversion of a dump rake to a tractor hitch.

I had hoped to comment at this point on haying and our use of two McCormick Deering High Gear #9 mowers to contrast with our problems with the two ancient mowers mentioned in the article, but I think it more important to examine the different ways in which I went about acquiring my first two work horses; Lady and Trixie. I took no one with horse or veterinary experience with me to look at Lady. It was claimed that she was 12, but the way her front teeth protruded; more people with any experience could have told me that she was more like 25. It appeared that she had been used mostly single as a twitch horse in the woods. Perhaps she had been abused or overworked, for although she proved well trained, she could show her uneasiness at working single through unexpected maneuvers. Once she suddenly and expertly backed the woods cart into an opening beside a woods road, turned around and headed for home. Fortunately I was young and athletic enough to control such behavior.

Interestingly, when I later teamed her up with Trixie, it was clear that she had been worked double before, as she was happy to cooperate, and never gave any trouble. It is clear that I was taking a chance not having her properly checked out, and I paid the price for not determining her age, as she was only to last a few more years.

Circumstances surrounding Trixie’s purchase were far more favorable, not because I had really learned anything, but rather because she had been worked on our place by Lawrence Closson, son of the former owner of our farm. So I could observe her closely, she always seemed healthy (although I probably should have had her checked anyway), well trained single, and able. Ironically, when I went down to lead her home the three miles to our farm, she proved to be dead lame in front. (It took a little longer than I had bargained for.) But she had just slipped in the mud during the spring romp after having been tied in the stall for a little too long. It turned out that she had soft teeth and soft hoof materials, so there were some future challenges in store, but she turned out to be a wonderful little work mare, single and double.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next installment, “My First Team of Work-horses,” as the education of the greenhorn continues.