Are You Working Your Horses?
by Leroy Keim of Columbiana, OH
This question could apply to any draft animal, oxen, mules, donkeys… but since my experience has been with horses and ponies of various sizes, I will not attempt to address the issues you might face with animals outside of my experience. I believe that some of these observations do apply generally with draft animals regardless of species, while others may not.
I would imagine that at least for those with draft horses, many may have some intention of working those animals in some capacity on their property. These goals will vary from those who would like to do all the draft work on their place with a horse or team, to those who never plan to do more than wagon or sled rides or perhaps a little hauling of materials around the farm or homestead. My main interest is in thinking through some issues I believe those who really mean to use their draft animals, for farm work or logging or for regular hauling projects, may encounter as obstacles to really achieving those goals.
1. Time constraints. I see this as perhaps one of the most difficult issues for many to overcome. Since a large percentage of our farmers are part time, working at other occupations to sustain the farm program either full or part time, with a long term goal of becoming full time in the future, this becomes an issue of some moment! My own solution to this problem has taught me several things.
Make your use of your animals as convenient as possible. My approach to this became a decision to stable my horses in the daytime whenever I intended to use them at some point or even when I wasn’t sure. I would begin the day by bringing my horse or team into their stable, which in my case was usually tie stalls, giving them a light feed of grain and hay and, if I knew I would be using them soon, harness them in their stall before going to my breakfast or the care of other livestock, or a job which would only require part of a day. If I didn’t know if I would use them I didn’t harness them, but they were there, accessible and ready to use if I only had a couple of hours free to work with them. Nothing will lessen your use of your animals like needing to find them in the back forty, and bring them in and feed them when you only have a few hours of daylight left in which to work! Bringing your animals in at a specific time each day will help to establish a routine in their minds which will make the task easier for both of you. Some horses are difficult to catch no matter what you do, and those should, in my opinion, belong to someone else! Some can be rehabilitated and if they are good in other ways are probably worth the effort, but our theme here is to minimize the time spent on the routine so as to find the time to get work done!
Most of us don’t have perfect facilities, but as much as possible, we should make the daily routines as convenient as possible. Such things as the location of feed and water, bedding and manure handling deserve our attention and can make a large difference in the labor required over the course of a year! Ease of access to your harness and using as simple a harness as you can for the job at hand can shave time off the routine work and give you more time in the field.
No one should harness a dirty horse for work, with special care taken of shoulders and breeching points as well as legs and feet. Having grooming tools at hand is a great incentive to using them! A regular few minutes per horse per day can minimize the time spent when we want to be at work.
Having well trained and responsive horses will make the use of them more pleasant and will result in more work done in less time. We should remember that we are always training our horses in every interaction with them and should pay special attention that they obey our commands both in the stable and in the field. ‘Whoa’ should be enforced at the watering trough or the return to the barn or at any point in our use of them. They can and should learn to stand when the lead rope is dropped just as they should stand when the lines are laid down. I know that many horse farmers never achieve this and have learned to live with the problems their horses cause them, but I am suggesting that you will magically find more time to work your horses if they are easy and pleasant partners in your common endeavors. Most of us, especially part time farmers, don’t have time to deal with problem animals, and would be better off to trade them for something more suitable to our circumstances. In my experience, you will use your horses if it is a good partnership and this will help you find the time!
2. Those tractors! I have always had a mixed power operation! I have always done some jobs with a tractor that I could have done with a horse or horses. In fact, I believe some jobs are better done with a tractor or other machine.
I have come home from a day at work elsewhere to discover that the south end of a field that laid wet had dried off in the afternoon sun. So that I could harrow it in preparation for the next morning’s seeding, and because it was only a half hour to dark, I went to the shed and harnessed (that is, started) my old 14hp Power King tractor and hitched it to the 5 foot spring tooth harrow that I normally used with my Halflinger team. Just as it was nearly dark I finished the last round. My horses were in the barn and if I had taken the time to water and harness them I wouldn’t have gotten the harrowing done before dark. The next morning I hitched the horses to a small two horse grain drill and by noon I had sowed 4 acres of oats.
My father told me once that if tractors had remained at maximum sizes comparable to a four horse team, most 160 acre farms in the Midwest would still be viable. Perhaps an oversimplification, but probably mostly true. My personal rule has been to keep my horsepower, whether animal or motorized, roughly equal in ability to get work done. This allows me to use several implements interchangeably. With the use of a forecart I can use some of the small implements my small old tractors used, while keeping the long tongues on my drill, spreader and mower ensured I would use them with the horses.
I’ve never liked to use engines on machines pulled with horses, but many do, and if it helps you to use your horses more, I’m for it! For myself, I would rather use a tractor for PTO work than to deal with another engine, but the use of a small engine on a 5 or 6 foot mower allows it to be pulled by a single large horse or a small team!
All of these issues are somewhat relative in general, and certainly need to be decided on your place under your circumstances. But, if you really want to use your horses, then taking deliberate steps to create an environment in which you are most likely to do so makes sense to me!
3. Peer pressure. All of us deal with this in different ways. Not many of us have to use horses for farming; while almost any use of horses for recreation or sport seems socially acceptable, many of us feel some pressure from our peers to “Stop working so hard,” “Get out of the sun,” “Keep up with progress,” “Why be so old fashioned?” “Sorry, we don’t make loans to horse farmers,” and so on!
We vary in our concerns for the opinions of our peers and to pretend that we are not moved by them at all would likely be untrue as well! I was giving a wagon ride to a group of high school students around the farm once when one of the riders begged me not to go close to the road as she did not want to be seen by some peers riding behind “these outdated horses!” I have several times stood next to a group at a draft horse auction or event, only to hear disparaging remarks by draft horse owners about those who actually use their horses to farm!
Of course, there are real obstacles to using horses, but peer pressure seems to me to be, shall we say, one of those obstacles overcome by me more easily than the others. I like to work horses; yes, some jobs are slower with horses and if you really don’t have the time to do it with horses, you shouldn’t! Not good for the horses, not good for you! But if you like to do it, you will come to see work being done; perhaps you will find ways to streamline your operation which will allow you to use them more, and if it’s right for you, will result in your use of them more often!
I have often quipped that “I have to have a horse (or horses) to haul my horse manure!” and for me, that has been one of my favorite things to do with them. It’s a good place for the inexperienced to begin as it does not require the same level of expertise as some of the other jobs and is a good way to learn to drive in a straight line and in parallel lines: skills necessary to many other jobs. All sorts of hauling and dragging jobs can be done with horses and are good jobs to increase your skill and confidence for the more complicated ones!
As with all of the foregoing, being comfortable with your use of your horses will result in increased desire to use them more often and for more jobs! If you are fortunate enough to have a partner or friend or neighbor to work with you as you begin the process, you will likely find yourself doing it more often. Such a person might at your direction have the horses fed and watered and maybe even harnessed when you arrive at home with a couple hours to work and this may be just the incentive needed to encourage more use of your animals! Getting those horses out of the pasture and into the fields at work may just become the passion of your life and result in better horses and people on the farms and homesteads of America!