Fjordworks: The Barefoot Farmer Part 2
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
Natural Hoof Care and Holistic Management at Cedar Mountain Farm
There is an ancient belief that if you contemplate a single facet of nature long enough you will gain insight into the workings of the whole. For instance, in the Chinese text of the sage Chang Tzu there is a lovely description of a butcher who becomes wise by learning to apply the technique for cutting with the grain of meat to all other aspects of his existence. A simple task done mindfully leads to understanding of the larger patterns that ordinarily lie beyond the mundane scope of vision. If you were to spend your entire life living on the same twenty acres of land you would probably gain greater insight into how life functions at its essence than if you were to spend your life traveling the globe. To be an effective trimmer of horse hooves one needs to spend a lot of time simply looking at horses. It is important not only to study their feet but to understand how the grounding action of the feet is affecting everything in the mass of body above. The adept trimmer needs to observe the horses from all angles both when they are standing at rest and while in they are in movement.
Eohippus – the dawn horse – was a four-toed marsh dwelling creature the size of a small dog that inhabited what would later become the southeastern United States about 20 million years ago. Pliohippus – the first true horse appeared about 6 million years ago. Although the modern horse is much larger, this ancient horse was fundamentally the intelligent fleet-footed creature that we know today. By way of contrast, a mere one million years ago our immediate ancestors were 3 ft high Australopithecines just barely down out of the trees and hardly recognizable to what we think of as constituting a human being.
Paleontologists tell us that some 8,000 yrs ago, after the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia was swallowed by the rising sea, the primitive horses of the Americas went extinct, while their Asian and African cousins prospered and evolved and spread their range into every corner of the Old World. Some Native Americans claim that the horse never left North America, that it has always been here. While that claim may strain the credulity of the rational Occidental brain, I for one, am at least willing to entertain the idea as being valid within some nonlinear perception of reality. For the Nez Perce tribes for instance, those master horsemen and ebullient shapers of spotted breeds, the term; “Always had horses,” certainly conveys their experience of a cultural inheritance of ten generations of horsemanship.
It is commonly held that horses were first domesticated in the Middle East about 6000 yrs ago. At first it is likely that horses were herded by nomads as a ready supply of milk and meat much the way reindeer and cattle still are today in remote pockets of the planet. Gradually some intrepid individuals began using the horses as beasts of burden and ultimately as a means of transport, at which point the horses became an effective tool for herding sheep, goats, and cattle. Once human beings began riding and driving horses the pace of cultural evolution accelerated dramatically.
Prior to the domestication, under the combined forces of the cooling climate of the last ice age and the increased hunting pressure exerted by that master of all predators, Homo sapiens, the ancient horse was on the verge of extinction. In an ironic twist of fate, thanks to their symbiotic relationship to humankind, horses have flourished all over the planet. There are now an estimated 60 million horses worldwide.
No one knows for sure when the first iron shoe was nailed onto a horse’s hoof. There is some speculation among historians that iron-age Celts may have fashioned shoes for the steeds that pulled their fleets of chariots into battle. If so, this would place the origins of horseshoeing as far back as 500 BC. The Celts were renowned for their mastery of the metallurgical arts. However, as the ancients always recycled used metals to some further purpose, we have no examples of horseshoes from this era and thus no definitive evidence. The oldest archeological finds from Northern Europe would have iron horseshoes produced in the 2nd century BC. Based on drawings and sculptures dating to this same era it seems evident that both the saddle and the stirrup, as well as the driving collar all appear to be inventions of the nomadic societies of the Asian steppes (the forbears of Genghis Khan). These people also employed a kind of horse boot formed of soaked rawhide that was packed with straw and then fitted to the horse’s hoof. The Mongol raiders were feared for their amazingly swift military incursions and these boots no doubt aided in keeping the feet of their mounts sound. In the 1st century AD the Roman army developed footwear for their horses that were called “hipposandals”. They resembled the leather sandals of the soldiers, conformed of a hardened leather boot with an iron sole insert and laced leather thongs to attach the boot to the cannon bone.
The first actual archeological specimen of a nailed on horseshoe was discovered in the tomb of the Frankish King Childeric in Belgium that dates its manufacture to 500 AD. There is much speculation but a similar dearth of concrete evidence that iron and bronze horseshoes were in use during the Middle Ages. It is not until 910 AD that an inventory of cavalry supplies provides an actual description. Later, the heavy demands made on war horses during the Crusades (1096-1270) made shoeing a common necessity. At this time iron was a highly valued commodity and horseshoes were accepted as readily as coinage as a means of economic exchange. A shod horse also made for a more formidable enemy, as these horses were actually trained to kick and bite at the foe in battle. By the 16th century, farriers in Europe were hot-shoeing iron on the forge. The first horseshoe manufacturing machine was patented in the United States in 1835. The patron Saint of farriers is St. Eloy of France (588-660). He was a real-life goldsmith who went on to become a bishop in the church and founded several monasteries in “pagan” lands. In folklore he is reputed to have cured a lame horse by removing its leg, shoeing the hoof, and then miraculously restoring the limb.
Modern Equus still bears all the evolutionary traces of her ancestry in the configuration of her bones. The bones in the legs of our horses out in the corral tell the story of their fore-bearer’s journey from the tiny four-toed Eohippus to the single-toed modern horse. Once the Dawn-horse had gained in stature and began venturing out of the cover of woodland swamps onto the arid grasslands it needed increased speed and agility to evade a host of prehistoric predators. It did so by transforming its feet into the singular-toed hoof. What we think of as the horse’s knee is the remnant of the original wrist bone. The hock of the hind legs is the remnant heel bone of the ancient horse. The ability to run on the hardened nail of the single digit has allowed the modern horse to attain speeds of 40mph. It has also given the horse a formidable arsenal for self-defense with kicks and strikes that can crack the skull of a lion or a wolf. In the wild, it is only the very young, old, or sick horse that falls to the predator. The great Renaissance artist, Leonardo DaVinci, made an extraordinary drawing entitled, “The Battle of Anghiari” which depicts the knights of Florence and Milan squaring off. What is most striking about this illustration is that, not only are the men engaged in fierce battle with sword and axe, lance and shield, but the horses are also flinging themselves with ferocious energy into the fray, striking and biting with frightening intensity – clearly they were a trained and seasoned species of warrior as were their masters. No wonder that at the time of the conquest of the Americas these horses bred for war struck terror into the Aztec multitudes – it wasn’t just the never-before-seen sight of men on horseback – it was the horror of man and horse coming at them as a unified death machine. The ultimate virtue in this story is that the heavy horses that were bred to carry the total weight of four hundred pounds of knightly flesh encased in armor eventually became the stock that peaceably plowed the fields of Northern Europe.
The horseshoe has traditionally been associated with good luck. When hung with the open side up above a door it is said to catch any evil before it can enter through the door. But whether or not shoeing is always a lucky option for the horse is question that is now widely debated in the horse owner’s world. Whether or not one is in the camp of the barefoot horse advocates, who believe that most horses do not require shoes once they have been transitioned to the barefoot condition, or of the farrier’s who are certain that every horse should be shod – one fact is indisputable; for the first 5000 years of the 6000 years human-equine symbiotic partnership the horses have served in their various capacities as mounts and beasts of burden without the aid of metal shoes and it is really only in the last 150 year period of modern manufacture that the shoeing of horses has become widespread.
The wild horse is by necessity attuned to the subtlest of senses and sensations within its own body, even picking up sound vibration through its feet and teeth. The wild horse is intimately connected to its environment and each horse in a band carries a map within of all the features in the landscape that contribute to its survival. To say that these horses live in the present doesn’t begin to describe it – it is more that the horse, and in particular the wild horse, is of the present, an active participant in the creation of the now.
Natural selection has dictated that any horse that survives in the wild is going to have tough feet. The wild horses of the American West routinely cover 20 miles a day in their quest for food and water. It is likely that many of our domestic breeds have traded off resistant hoof material at the same time that they have been selected out for specific attributes such as jumping ability, speed, or endurance. The reliance on shoes over the last 150 years has permitted horses with less than ideal hoof material to perform reasonably well and pass on their genetic traits which might include inferior hooves. In addition, the relative ease of domestic life, particularly for the modern “pleasure” horse, often means that the animal’s feet are never put to the test of their wild cousins.
THE BAREFOOT TRIM
Our barefoot horses have been working the bony and stony ground of this farm for more than a decade. The biggest problems I’ve had in the health of these horse’s hooves have been the direct result of my leaving too much material in place at a trim, and then secondarily in waiting too long to get back to them. With the press of work in summer it would be almost inevitable that intervals between trims would stretch out to eight or ten weeks or more and that’s when I would see flaring, dishing, cracks and chips, all begin to appear. Once I got the idea that my Fjords weren’t heavy horses and should naturally have compact feet to match their compact builds, and that my trimming intervals had to be within the six to eight week zone in order to keep the hooves healthy, all the aforementioned common maladies began to disappear.
The barefoot trimmer does not trim for external appearance but according to an understanding of the position of the suspended coffin bone within the core of the hoof. It is much more important to understand the actual position of the coffin bone suspended within the structure of the hoof than to blindly follow standard formulas of alignment such as hoof to pastern or pastern to shoulder slope. The coffin bone of a shod horse can be rotated forward so that it is pointing down towards the toe without immediately affecting the performance of the horse. This is a result of trimming too much toe and leaving too much heel. In this common scenario the hoof wall at the toe extends and the heels run under. At the time of trimming the angles might all appear appropriate but soon after the point of break-over will be out of whack and the horse may be prone to stumble.
The basic tool kit of the barefoot farrier consists of: hoof pick, hoof knife, rasp, nippers, and a hoof jack. The hoof jack can be a purchased item or a homemade version, but in either case the height should be adjustable to accommodate different sized horses. For years I toughed it out trimming without a hoof jack by supporting the horse’s leg on the top of my thigh. While this isometric exercise might have been a great workout for my leg and back muscles, it didn’t make for the best circumstance to effect a good trim. Making the horse comfortable will make the trimmer comfortable enough to do good work. Not having to bear weight and having the hoof jack as a point on which to stabilize the hoof just makes for a better trim.
It is hard for a horse to stand still when it is being bitten by flies. During the summer, when it is time for a trim, I bring the horse into the barn and put her into cross-ties with break-away snaps. Some folks don’t consider cross-ties safe, but our horses are quite used to them. After grooming, I spray the horse down with fly repellent and place a floor fan several feet out in front. All these measures increase the horse’s comfort and make for a more relaxed atmosphere for getting down to the work of hoof care.
To begin a barefoot trim the frog is taken down at the apex (the point, not the bulb) just enough to establish the base of the soles natural concavity. Any flakey material within this inner rim adjacent to the frog is removed to reveal the new healthy growth. The outer 3/4” of sole adjacent to the white line is left untouched to allow it to build up a tough healthy callous. A 1/4” of hoof wall outside the white line is the ideal, but it is even more important to not leave the toes too long. When removing flares we should take care to not infringe on the uniform thickness of hoof wall all the way around from heel to toe. The natural stride of a horse would have each footfall landing first on the heel and then rolling over the toe as it proceeds to the next step. To facilitate this action we need to trim the hoof wall level to the bulb of the frog. This will encourage the heel-first landing. It will also help to insure a natural break over point at the toes.
As a final touch, the sharp outer edge of the hoof wall is “rolled’ with the rasp to help facilitate an effortless break over. The hoof wall will ideally be about 1/16th” above the sole, though I find this hard to attain in practice. However, a couple of weeks after a successful barefoot trim, the wall will have grown to this supportive proportion. The length of the barefoot hoof will be shorter than what owner’s of shod horses are used to – just 3 to 3-1/2” from the coronary band to the toe for saddle horses and small draft types. The hoof quarters are trimmed slightly higher off the ground than the toes and heels to create a natural arch of the foot with dorsal flexion, similar to the human foot. The frog will be 2/3rds of the total hoof length from heel to toe. The frog base should make up half of the hoof width at the heel. The hoof bars are only touched if they appear deformed or folded over. In the best of circumstances, when the trim is complete the horse will be turned out in an environment that leaves clean earth packed in her feet.
The calendar that we always have hanging in the milking parlor provides a quick and easy way to establish a farm log. We record all sorts of data there; from rainfall amounts to last frost date, Canadian geese sightings, the return of the barn swallows, the 1st cutting of hay, calving and culling of cows. I also use the calendar to keep track of horse hoof trimming. I mark the date on the calendar when I trim a horse’s hooves and I also page ahead to mark the date six weeks later when that same horse will likely be due for another trim.
Left to its own devices a horse living in dry rocky terrain would fully replace its own hooves with new growth in the cycle of one year. That is near to how much material the farrier must remove in one year from the feet of a shod and stabled horse. The hoof of a horse is composed mainly of the protein keratin. In the arid steppes where the horse evolved this hoof material was ideally suited to wear and regenerate at an even pace. However, under domestication and in the wetter conditions of settled agricultural regions, these same hooves are vulnerable to softening, cracking, chipping and attack by fungal disease. It is estimated that the wild horse spends as much as 60-80% of it waking hours on the move in search of food – that’s a lot of wear and tear on the hooves! In order to replicate the circumstances of the wild horse the horse owner has to create an environment and feeding program that contribute to hoof health and above all, to trim in a way that mimics the wear on the hooves of the wild horse.
When our mare was pregnant her weight got up over 1200lbs. She is now 16 yrs old and has been on a diet regime for the last several years and her weight is kept at or under 900 lbs. During those years when, through ignorance we allowed her to get so heavy, she developed soles flat as a pancake with almost no natural concavity. Luckily, except for one incidence of a stone bruise, she never came up lame or appeared sore, but the flat soles troubled me. Within the span of two trimmings, according to the guidelines of natural hoof care for bare foot trimming, the concavity had been restored to both her fore and hind feet. She grew a strong hoof wall and a protective calloused rim of sole inside the white line.
Trimming her own horse’s feet can be yet another very tangible way for the farmer to be in touch with what’s going on with the weather and its impact on the immediate environment. For instance, in a dry season the horse’s feet will respond by toughening up and growing a hard sole that is difficult to pare with a knife. A rainy year will soften the ground and reduce the amount of natural erosion of the hoof wall and sole and likely result in hooves that require more aggressive removal of excess material.
One way to think about natural hoof care is to consider that we are not so much trying to shape the hoof into some abstract ideal of perfection, as much as we attempting to allow the innate shape of a particular horse’s foot to express itself. Sculptors of wood and stone often embrace the concept that the form they wish to carve is already latent within the uncarved block and is simply waiting to be revealed. In ancient China under the influence of Taoist priests this aesthetic was taken to its ultimate conclusion of allowing the uncarved block to stand as the finished piece. It was for each viewer to then discover for his or herself the intrinsic beauty therein.
So much within farming well has to do with learning to work with natural flows of energy rather than trying to exert total control. The wise farmer doesn’t simply resort to chemical fertilizers and pesticides but instead chooses to build up the natural immune system of her soil with humus so that the plants will be more resistant to insect pests and pathogens. When such a farmer takes hold of the handles of a properly set walking plow behind a settled team she is simply trying to sense the energy generated within the plow as it moves through the soil and making subtle adjustments by tilting the handles to the left or right to keep the share driving true. On the other hand, the novice plowman will bear down on the handles as if he were to push the plow through the ground with his own strength and tip right when he should tip left and try to steer rather than guide the share and the horses will feel all the fuss and speed up and so out of the ground pops the plow. Each horse has the template of the unique foot that is right for it inborn within the marrow of its bones – it is up to the sensitive and astute hoof trimmer to reveal it.
In a small village in rural China an old man sits by an open window waiting for the swallows to return. He is too old to work in the fields so waiting for the swallows has become one of his tasks. Every spring the swallows return to their mud and dauble nest affixed to the ceiling of the main room of the upper story of the building that houses the old man’s extended family spanning four generations. The people of the village have a custom of allowing the swallows to build nests in their homes because they believe the swallows bring good luck to the household. Swallows are thought to mate for life and it is hoped that this fidelity will extend to the human couples dwelling under the same roof. Of course, everyone knows that the swallows eat mosquitoes and flies but this alone does not explain the special treatment accorded them. When the birds come flying through his window chirping excitedly as if to announce their return, the old man marks the date and the time in a ledger kept just for that purpose. He then compares the date with the return of the swallows in seasons past. From that cumulative data stretching back through the scribing of the many old men who have preceded him he formulates a prognostication for the coming growing season; cool, wet, dry, hot – in effect, the birds are an augury of how much rice the villagers can expect to store in their granaries come harvest time.
To manage a farm demands that we are awake to the plants, the water, the insects, the seasons. Now that we are facing such extreme ecological imbalances as climate change we have to be awake to the whole atmosphere, the oceans, to the multi-decadal unfolding of things we have set in motion. It’s challenging enough to be attentive to the complexity of one little farm, can we do it for a whole planet? Do we need to? We’ve already been experimenting with this kind of micro-management of ecosystems in our National Parks and game reserves – sometimes to good end and sometimes with unforeseen disasters. In any ecosystem we can break down and catalog the components but we still don’t come any closer to understanding the complexity of interconnections that sustains the whole – let alone grasp the mysterious creative force that breathes life into it all. The small diversified farm is a step back from the hubris of industrial monoculture. Humbly but sincerely, the small farmer tries her best to mimic the diversity and complexity of wild nature in her farming system and to allow space for that mysterious creative force to bring healing to the land and the animals and her own soul.
The constant assault of advertisement within our society is symptomatic of our progression over the last one hundred years from being a people living in agrarian-based communities who were proud small-scale producers of their own food and necessities, to a highly industrialized, largely urban and suburban population, willing to trade its labor for a never-before-seen access to consumer goods and digital entertainments. The trouble is, as a society we’ve lost sight of what we truly need to be happy. We’ve lost control of direct access to the generative and productive powers of the earth and many of us labor under the sneaking suspicion that we’ve been subtly converted into slaves for the wages of industry.
All those advertisements are filled with lies aimed at convincing us that we are in a state of lack. Our own sense of identity and security is swept up in this culture of lies. The powers of government and business are prone to spewing out rhetoric which touts the glories of the free market and free trade agreements. Yet they assiduously evade any discussion of how to establish a system of fair trade. The advertisers always promise us that our next purchase will come with a free gift. But deep in our hearts we know – “it ain’t a gift if it ain’t free”.
Well, the world financial and banking systems collapsed and guess what Wall Street? The world itself did not come to an end – the sun continued to rise every morning, seeds that were planted in the ground still sprouted, and the little people of this world still got out of bed everyday and put their shoulders to the wheel one way or another to keep their families clothed, housed and fed. This is not to deny the suffering and hardship all the high finance gambling has brought down on our heads. Here in Vermont it is estimated that six dairy farms are shutting their doors each month. The national dairy pricing system is broken and even the best-intentions of our political leaders seem unable to come up with a way to fix it. But conversely, the number of small diversified farms selling their products locally continues to grow each year and we have the most CSA farms and farmer’s markets per capita of any state in the union.
ART & SCIENCE
Because our farm is located within the larger context of an eco-village we do our work in a very public venue. Often when visitors come to our dairy barn they are surprised to see that when the door is opened to let the cows into the parlor each one goes to her own tie-up without needing human assistance. Usually I will hear a remark to the effect; “Oh, I didn’t think they were that smart”, to which I have my ready reply; “The cow knows what she needs to know… which is a lot more than I can say about most humans.”
As I progress along the path of the farmer I have been repeatedly struck by the mounting evidence that everything we need to know to live well – in balance with nature – is already known and has been known for a very long time. This knowledge is sometimes referred to as the wisdom of the ancestors. I don’t mean to suggest that we have or will ever reach the end to human innovation (for as long as there are humans). Surely the best is just ahead of us, for instance, in the emergent technologies of renewable energy – innovations that will ease some of the burdens of human life while at the same time enabling us to live with a lighter impact on the earth’s resources. And yet, the basic knowledge of how to create viable human communities based on sustainable forms of agriculture has been with us for 10,000 years. What we are currently lacking is the political will and the collective imagination to place appropriate limits on our aspirations. If we are to survive as a civilization we must somehow begin to align our personal and societal wants and needs with the lives of other beings and the entire planet.
In recent history in North America to be a member of the counter-culture meant that one had either turned on and dropped out or become a militant activist in protest against any number of nefarious shenanigans being perpetrated by the government or military or industry. But in our times it may just be that the most relevant counter-cultural stance is simply to SLOW DOWN. All the trends of our cyber-driven society compel people to go extra fast. As a culture we delight in speed and we reward the speedy. The cyber-gamblers of Wall Street wager the nation’s gold on trading opportunities measured in nanoseconds. We have become reckless with our inheritance and we don’t even have time to consider what is missed or perhaps even lost along the way.
Here in the Upper Valley region where our farm and community are located the average time that a residence is occupied by the same owner is ten years. The forces that fuel our highly mobile society encourage this kind of supreme fluidity that keeps populations shifting in search of the best jobs and the best places to retire. Only when we stop running and stay in one place and enter into the kind of truly committed relationships to family and neighbors and land that such stability engenders, will we create the space and time in our lives to begin to untangle ourselves from that which would keep us from being free.
To choose to farm with horses, to choose to operate ground-driven machinery, to choose to not spray herbicides and to cultivate crops with a single horse or a handheld hoe – is to choose to return to nature’s pace. Implicit in the intention to slow down is our conscious deliberation about which technologies we employ in both our work and in our leisure. When we consciously choose to slow down and farm on a human scale our work begins to restore us and it builds our soils and strengthens our relationships – even as we pour our life’s blood into this holy chalice we call the farm.
You can approach farming as a science or as an art. When the two are perfectly blended we have the makings of farming as a religion – a new kind of religion whose only doctrine is the deepest sort of listening. We may also fairly say that the wedding of science and religion produces the finest of art. We’re not talking about the kind of art that simply references functionality. The art of farming expresses in vigorous action and deed that desirable union of form and function that not only gets the job done but also leaves beauty in its wake.
END OF PART TWO
“Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You” by Pete Ramey, 2003 Star Ridge Publishing
“Shoeing Right – Advice to Horse Owners from a Working Farrier” by David Krolick, 1991 Breakthrough Publications, Inc.
OF WILD AND FERAL PONIES AND HORSES
On our farm we have been working with Fjord Horses for sixteen years. This horse is often classed as a pony but the Norwegians insist that it is a horse. The Fjord is descended from a now extinct Eastern European or Asiatic wild horse, with very little influence from crossing with the warm and hot-blooded horses that influenced virtually every other modern European breed. In Norway breeding stallion selection has been a reserved right of royalty for over 500 years. Technically speaking, a pony is any equine that stands shorter than 14.2 hh. This measure is applied specifically in competitions such as pulling events where animals are classed in divisions according to size and weight. In genetic terms, the pony breeds tend to have short legs and a large head in proportion to their body mass. They have a short steep slope of shoulder and strong compact hindquarters. The horn of their feet is iron hard. The pony breeds are long-lived and durable little creatures and are often able to carry or pull a larger percentage of their weight than their larger cousins. The word pony is a derivative of the French term poulenet which simply denotes a small horse or a foal. Much of the stock of the modern pony breeds derives from the hardy little creatures that inhabit the highlands and moorlands of Great Britain, such as the Highland, the Exmoor, and the Shetland.
The Fjord horse is a breed that is renowned to have tough feet. This may in part be due to how little they have been “bred up” from the original primitive horse stock from which they were first domesticated some 2000 years ago. The breed was a favorite of the Vikings, being employed as a war horse, a cart horse, and in more peaceable times as a beast of burden in the fields. The Fjord exerted a major influence on the development of the Icelandic Horse, which also carries the genes of the ponies of the British Isles. The Fjord is a direct descendent of the wild horses that once roamed the vast steppes form Mongolia to Poland. The last truly wild horses in this part of the world are now confined to the restored remnant populations of Prezwalskis horses extant within reserves. Most other European horses were to some degree “improved” by being bred to the desert-tough and fleet little hot-blooded horses from the Arabian Peninsula.
To my mind, the Fjord is quite comparable in attributes to the Lippit Morgan – the traditional farm horse of Vermont. The original Justin Morgan was a champion stallion who took on all-comers both in races and in pulling contests, despite the fact that he was all of 14 hh and weighed about 800 lbs. The Morgan was prized as the all purpose farm horse; able to pull a cart, steady under saddle, and a hard worker in field and forest. From colonial times on up through to the advent of the age of the tractor, the heavy horses never really played much of a role on the hill farms of New England. For heavy draft work the mighty oxen was most often preferred. The horse has always had a role, but was most often employed as a means of transport. Horses certainly did their share of work on the farm but the big heavy draft horses of Northern Europe were only imported to America after the vast farm lands of the mid-West were opened up.
A Fjord horse will never win the Kentucky Derby or become the national hunter-jumper champion – but on the small farm they can get the job done. They are not draft horses and they don’t have a draft temperament. They may be mellow compared to a thoroughbred but despite the claims of some enthusiastic breeders, they aren’t born knowing how to drive. They are tenacious little horses with a tremendous amount of try but they can be strong-willed and stubborn. Even with my older settled team, in the springtime I sometimes have to make them walk around the periphery of the garden four times (about one mile) towing the plow or disc or spreader, before they are settled enough to walk and get down to work – but then they surely do work. If at this juncture, gentle reader, you are not persuaded that the Fjord is indeed a horse, well, you can call them ponies if you want to and I promise to take no offense.
Despite the obvious similarities between the Fjord and the Prezwalskis Horse, such as uniform dun coat with a cream muzzle and dark points, dorsal stripe along the spine and zebra markings on the legs, there is no direct DNA link. On closer examination it will be noted that the Fjord has a much more refined dish shaped head with a broad brow and large widely spaced eyes, whereas the Przewalski’s Horse has a narrow head more reminiscent of the Spanish Barbs; descendents of the wild horses of Northern Africa.
The Przewalski’s Horse is named after the Russian officer who first “discovered” them in 1879. Soon after, the breed went extinct in the wild, but a reserve population was maintained in zoos. In the 1960’s the Przewalski was once again released into the wild in the form of reserves created in cooperation with the government of Mongolia. The 15,000yr old remains of the Przewalski’s type have been discovered in the frozen wastes of Northern Russia. The modern Przewalski’s Horse is said by observers in the field to be an easy going and even affectionate horse in regards to relationships within the herd.
A true wild horse is any equine breed that has never been domesticated in contrast to the feral horses which are domestic horses that have returned to a wild or semi-wild state. The true wild horse is quite distinct from the feral descendants of the Spanish horses that roam the high deserts of the American West. The Mustang horse carries the blood of the Barb and the wild horses of North Africa. The Przewalski’s Horse is wild in the sense that its kind has never been domesticated – the breed as it stands today has not been shaped by the hands of humans but rather only by the natural carving tool of that mysterious unseen hand we deem Evolution. Distinct from the Przewalski’s Horse are the Onanger and Tarpan, extant forms of ancient Equus Caballus, the former bearing more relation to the wild Ass side of the Equidae family tree and the latter being a different Asiatic horse type – leaner and longer in the leg.
UPDATE FROM Cedar Mountain Farm
This past summer we took more strides in our intention to hay with horses. For the second year in a row the team did the raking on the 7 acre field which is closest to home. They also performed well on a restored McCormick-Deering No. 6 mowing machine. They laid down two acres of the 2nd cut on a hot afternoon in July. Afterwards they were hitched to a newly acquired Grimm tedder.
Many of the tasks that I undertake with the help of the horses in the market garden tend to be relatively quick jobs. These shorter work periods make it hard to find what Donn Hewes of Northland sheep dairy refers to as “No pressure driving”. Whereas, in the hay making we are involved with long repetitive work sessions that not only wears the edge off my frisky little horses, but also allows them to enter into a groove and learn how to better pace themselves.
A retired neighbor farmer let us bring home a 60 bushel ground-driven JD spreader for the price of pulling it out of an overgrown hedgerow. After a little cleaning and oiling it was ready to be put back to work. What most surprised me was that, even though this spreader is half again as big as the one we have been using, for the horses it proved to be an easier pull. I could only guess that the larger size makes for a more efficient gear ratio in actual performance.
We bought our mare Cassima when she was a four month old weanling. In the ensuing years we have had our fair share of ups and downs, trials, wrecks, and a growing list of successes. Now at sixteen, she is an accomplished farm horse able to serve with skill and enthusiasm, both singly and in team, in a multitude of farm tasks. This past October I brought her to the 4th annual North East Animal Power Field Days in Tunbridge, Vermont. I was admittedly a little nervous about how well she would perform in that context. Our horses are complete herd-bound homebodies. The last time this horse had been on a trailer was when we moved to this farm 11 yrs ago. Nonetheless, she comported herself as the model of a well-trained working equine. Both in the workshop on cultivation that I co-presented with David Fisher of Natural Roots Farm, and in the next day’s exhibition of twitching a log through a complicated obstacle course, Cassima was responsive, sure of step, and patient. By the end of our three day sojourn at the field days I was overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude for this proud, gentle mare. I felt an inexpressible pressure on my heart that even brought tears to my eyes, which was an admixture of love and awe for what this little horse and I have been able to accomplish together. At times, I feel scarcely deserving of her obedience and devotion.