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Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

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

“In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired, in the pursuit of The Way, every day something is dropped.” – Lao Tzu

PART ONE

Introduction

Before I dreamed of farming with horses I dreamed of becoming a saint. As things have turned out I have had a bit more success in attaining my horse farming dream. I was an art school drop-out, completely disillusioned at the prospect of trying to make a living hustling my oil paint artifacts through the galleries of Easy Street. At the age of twenty-four I dropped everything and entered a Benedictine monastic community. While a monk I had the opportunity to travel extensively in Mexico and Nicaragua. I had direct contact with the plight of the poor, and particularly of the indigenous communities whose lives were still so intrinsically linked to the soil. These experiences deeply impacted my world view.

In 1992, after seven years of monastic life, I reached a decision to leave the monastery with the intention of going to Latin America to do service work in community development. I wished to help those poor Indian farmers gain access to new tools and markets so that they would be able to hold onto their traditional lands. Toward that end I enrolled in a two-year Apprentice Program at a Biodynamic farm in upstate New York to acquire practical skills in organic agriculture. After working there for a couple of years, completely immersed in the joys and struggles of a small farm striving to survive in our North American context, a conviction began to arise and take root in me that transforming our own culture through sustainable agriculture was a worthy and noble task and perhaps the more urgent.

It has been said that we will protect what we love. Prior to World War I about 90% of Americans were agriculturalists. Today in the United States only 1.5 % of the population is involved in farming. We are a nation in which farmers have become a disappearing minority. Many contemporary Americans have never set foot on a working farm and have no idea where their food comes from. We are raising a generation of children who are computer savvy but environmentally illiterate. In such a society the value of farm labor and the conservation of farm land are cast to the wayside.

In the 12th century in feudal Japan there lived an outstanding Zen monk by name of Dogen. He taught a pared-down form of meditation which he described as Shikantaza — or “just sitting”. Shikantaza is the indescribably subtle art of “not-doing”. Zen Buddhism is not so much a religion, with all the attendant doctrines and belief systems, nor a philosophy with a complex set of thought constructs, but rather simply it is a practice for paying attention. Viewed in this light, the practice of Zen is not that different to the deeply present awareness required of anyone who wishes to skillfully work with draft horses.

In Zen practice one learns to relax all parts of the body and mind that are not intrinsic to the support of a specific action. This kind of focus is referred to as single-pointed attention. Shikantaza is not a practice whose purpose is to bring us closer to some future enlightenment; it is a practice that aims to help us unfold an authentic expression of who we really are in this present moment. Practice is not something that we do — it is something that we become. To practice Shikantaza is to express a deep-seated faith in the basic goodness of our own true nature.

Vermont based horse trainer, Neal Perry has said that there are no hard-mouthed horses. He explains that if you were to put a horse with a reputation as hard-mouthed into a stall next to a horse that is responsive to the bit, and then sent a veterinarian in to examine them to see which one has the hard mouth, the vet would not be able to detect any physical difference between the two. Neal believes this is because the hard-to-handle horse does not have a hard mouth, what it has is a tense body. The hard-mouthed horse has responded to training by tensing all its muscles and in that way it can resist the bit. Often what follows is an escalating cycle of harsher bits and heavy-handed training techniques that result in an even tenser horse. The easy-to-handle horse on the other hand, has learned to relax into the pressure of the bit, to keep its body supple until specific muscle groups need to be engaged for a particular action. This horse can be handled with the hands light and sensitive on the lines.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

Horse as Teacher

After completing our two year apprenticeship in bio-dynamic farming at Hawthorne Valley Farm, Kerry and I had a few month’s hiatus before going to the next farming situation we had lined up in Montana. As we were preparing to leave the farm I began to have some doubts as to whether the farming life was really for me — all that hard work and little pay — was it really worth it? Shortly before moving, we went to hear Wendell Berry speak at the town hall in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was there to help inaugurate the opening of a new CSA farm in the area (Brookfield Farm). That evening Wendell spoke words that stirred me to the depths of my soul and galvanized my commitment to pursuing the small sustainable farming dream.

I don’t recall the exact words that Wendell spoke on that occasion but I still remember very clearly what I thought I heard him say; “If you want to save the earth — if you want to save humanity — stay in one place. Stay in one place and get connected to the land and grow your own food; get connected and build your own shelter; make your own clothes. Stay in one place and begin to build community with your neighbors, those who walk on two legs and those who walk on four or wing in the sky or swim in the brook. Enough talk, enough New Age rip-offs, turn off the TV, give the computer a rest, stay off the jet planes and step out your back door — behold infinity in a spring blossom peaking up through the leaves of the forest floor. What is at stake here is your own life and the very life of the soil.”

As an apprentice at Hawthorne Valley Farm I had my first opportunity to enter into a relationship with horses. Brownie was a fifteen year old Morgan mare. Dakota was a refined looking quarter horse mare, a couple of years younger than her companion. These two horses served as the saddle horses for the Visiting Students Program and for the summer camp. There was a very high turn over of personnel in these programs. As a result, the horses had to constantly adapt to changing management and training styles, all of which left Dakota with a rebellious streak and Brownie with a sour attitude.

Soon after I arrived at the farm I got a couple of riding lessons on Brownie from a young woman from Germany named Inez. She was a skilled horsewoman and gave me a thorough introduction to riding, something which I never had. She showed me how to properly groom the horse and how to pick up and clean out its feet. She gave me pointers on making sure the fit of the saddle and bit were proper.

After completing our two year apprenticeship, Kerry and I went to work for the Visiting Students Program. Brownie and Dakota were under our care for the duration of one year. Although I would never harness or work either of these horses, that year of being responsible for their daily care was an important phase in my development as a novice teamster. It is only through the daily repetition and contact with horses that we can begin to develop “horse sense”.

Kerry had some riding experience from her school days. We rode Brownie and Dakota western style. On one occasion we were riding bareback across a rolling hillside pasture. It was a beautiful fall morning with just a slight nip in the air. I was riding Dakota and she was feeling frisky. She broke into a canter without my asking her to but I went along with it because it was an exciting ride, when all of a sudden the tricky old gal did a little buck in full stride and sent me sky high. I landed in the soft meadow grass, unhurt but duly humbled.

In the fall of that year the director of the Visiting Student’s Program invited over a horse trainer named Christine Sierau to work with us and our horses for a day and to explain what she was doing with her horses over at Blue Rider stables in South Egremont, Massachusetts. Christine was German by birth, she had an austere persona, one might even say harsh — but she sure knew horses. Some of her ideas seemed eccentric but her results were amazing. The riding stable she ran served children with special needs. The stable was outfitted with rescue horses. Many of these animals had been starved and abused and probably most sensible persons would have considered them beyond repair. This woman devoted herself to bringing train wreck horses and outlaw horses back from the brink.

Her recuperative strategy was built upon the theory that, just as a horse’s vision is split between two half spheres pertaining to the orbit of each eye, so is the horse’s cognitive function split along the same lines. According to this reasoning, if a horse had been typically trained to do everything starting off its left side — bitting, saddling, mounting, etc. — and had negative impressions of all that due to poor handling, well then, you could start from scratch by retraining it to accept everything being done instead from the right side. This was a brilliantly simple but effective way to begin anew with a troubled horse. Her motto was, “No bad horses — only bad trainers.” In regards to riders, Christine focused on helping people to discover and move from their own “core” while on the back of a horse — and to tune into the grounded center of the horse and try to become one with it. She had us try lying back on the horse’s back and feeling the support as we released our arms out to the sides in a wide gesture of trust and release, or to ride bareback in a circle with no hands — arms spread wide like an eagle. Afterwards, she worked on the horses with acupressure and stress-releasing traction of their tails, necks, and limbs. This work opened up my mind to how much more there could be to training both horses and people beyond simply saddling or harnessing and making it go.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

First Things First

If we want to train people to drive draft horses, we must first learn how to train the horses. To effectively train horses in a meaningful and lasting way we must first understand them. Equus is an ancient Greek denomination for the horse that had the connotation of quickness. The Greeks, who depended on horses and understood them very well, may have been alluding to quickness of mind as well as to the obvious quickness of the feet.

The first written account of a training approach that used positive reinforcement and which sought to train the horse by first understanding it on its own terms dates back to a treatise entitled; “The Art of Horsemanship” composed in 360 B.C by the Greek warrior horseman Xenophon. The modern equivalent of this empathic approach to training horses is Natural Horsemanship. Through this approach we have available a whole new skill set based on ancient principles of understanding the horse in its own right; seeking to gentle it rather than to break it.

Working with horses has a humanizing effect on the teamster. As sentient beings we can’t help but enter into a relationship with a living breathing horse that is going to be profoundly different from our relationship to a tractor. If I become impatient in my work and abuse or bust a piece of farm machinery then I have to deal with the economic consequences of my poor decision — time and money spent fixing it. However, if I abuse or break a farm animal there are moral consequences to face as well. The horse serves as an instant bio-feedback mechanism. If I can approach my work in a calm and collected manner, the horses will respond and perform in kind. If I am empathic to their needs as members of the equine species and ask them to work in a way that takes into account their world view, I will achieve much better results than if I simply coerce them into performing by fear of punishment. A horse who has been gently persuaded that it is in his own best interest to be an obedient work partner is also more likely to comport himself intelligently and to help keep things safe during the potential crisis moments of an equipment or harness failure in which the teamster has temporarily lost control.

As in most matters within the horse training world, there are differing opinions as to how mature a horse should be before it is asked to take on a full work load. The cannon bone, which determines the height of the horse, reaches its full length at 18 months. We don’t want to submit the young horse to any strenuous training or work until the growth plates in the bones are finished with their job or we may end up with permanent deformities in the conformation of the legs. The horse has its full set of adult teeth at age five. Generally speaking, a horse is considered mature at between the ages of three and four. Most of the draft breeds are somewhat slower to mature, not attaining their full girth until the age of five. It follows that this is a reasonable age to expect a young horse to be fully trained and integrated into the work life of the farm. But I have known of work horses being successfully employed in their third year of life.

In the past green broke horses were sometimes thrown into work by placing them in multiple hitches with seasoned work horses who would not run no matter how worked up the newcomer might get. While hitching a young horse together with a trustworthy older mate has its merits, these days almost any trainer of horses would concur with the statement that; if you can’t first work with the horse properly on the ground you have no business harnessing him up under any circumstances. Ground work can be as simple as leading the horse with a halter on a lead and repeating basic commands, or as complex and subtle as round pen training using pressure and release techniques to gain the horse’s acceptance. Because there are no corners in which the horse might feel trapped, a round pen or oval ring is the best situation in which to introduce new elements. For instance if you are attempting to teach a young horse how to drive in a team with an older horse, the round pen will provide a safe parameter to work in. The round pen need not be an expensive investment. Although a pen constructed of tubular steel gates or plank fencing is ideal, a temporary training pen can be put up with inexpensive fiberglass poles and two or three strands of fencing tape. Presuming the horse is already trained to electric fence, the temporary pen does not need to be electrified. It is sufficient in that context to simply present a psychological barrier to the horse.

The training and exercising of the horses should be considered as part and parcel of their work duties on the farm. Consistency is the most important component of any training program. Three twenty minute sessions spread out over a week with a young horse will be far more effective than a marathon three hour session on the weekend, Once a horse is capable of working singly and in a team driving situation, the best training is work. As long as the horses are not over- worked the more you work with them the better they will get.

Working with horses will help those humans who are in need of “Assertiveness Training”. To establish a true partnership we must treat the horses with kindness but we must also back that up with firmness. The horse is a large and formidably armed animal and if it chose to it could kill us in a second. If they don’t harm us, it is either because they have been cowed into submission or because they have come to understand that we are not a threat; at the very best, it is because they recognize us as a dominant herd mate. The dominant herd mate is not a horse that arbitrarily or cruelly rules over the other horses, it is a horse that by dint of its exceptional wit and strength helps to insure the survival of the entire herd. All horses are instinctually programmed to follow a dominant herd mate out of their own self-interest. As horse owners we need to ask ourselves; would we rather work with a horse that obeys us out of fear or a horse that obeys us out of respect? When raised and trained with gentleness and respect, most horses will develop a good work ethic. Some horses might appear to be lazy creatures that need to be goaded to labor for us, but what we term laziness can also be interpreted as a smart survival strategy. Once a wild horse has acquired sufficient water and feed it only makes sense that it should conserve energy by resting. If a predator should appear suddenly on the scene the horses may be required to draw heavily on their reserves to fight or flee.

Each member of a wild horse band has its position and role to fulfill within the herd hierarchy. While some horses feed, others rest, and still others keep watch. Each horse has a “job” to do that contributes to the survival of the whole. The horse is already very good at staying present to its physical environment; in the wild it is a principle element within their “job description”. The wild horse has to exert a tremendous amount of energy to take care of its own basic needs. By providing for all our horse’s basic needs we save them from having to expend energy to gain their livelihood; that excess energy is then at our disposal to harness for the work of farm and forest. If we keep the horses in good condition and treat them well they will become willing partners in work. We can help the horses to develop a positive attitude towards work by recognizing their needs for adequate rest and social time (many of us horse farmers are better at doing this for our horses than for ourselves).

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

Starting Out the Youngster

One of the advantages of raising your own future work horses on the farm is that you can begin the work of partnering with your animals while they are very young. Just as we ourselves needed the help of parents and mentors to develop healthy work habits when we were youngsters, so it is that with patient and gentle and consistent handling we can help the young horse to gradually acquire a good work ethic. With the young horse we can challenge ourselves to not just impose our will upon the horse, but to appreciate its unique personality and to creatively and empathetically train that horse to be the best that it can be according to its own lights.

It can be hard to know the history of a purchased team. We can gain hints by observing and enjoying their talents as well as through suffering their foibles and vices. One thing is certain, any horse that has changed owner’s hands has had to deal with confusing situations and a degree of miscommunication; the astounding thing is how well they are able to adapt.

The first step to a successful training session is to decide ahead of time what it is you wish to accomplish with your horse. In the wild the horses in a band require the strength of a lead horse. Your horse needs you to be that strong leader, but she can’t follow you if you don’t know where you want to go. On the other hand, we need to retain some space within ourselves for spontaneity to respond to the actual physical and mental state of our young horse on any given day. We need to develop consistent and adequate boundaries to move our horses in the direction we want them to go. These boundaries are established by visible and “invisible” restraints. Our voices and our body movements are our primary means of communication with the horse. These restraints do not need to be harsh or abusive. It is possible and beneficial to raise and train a horse to maturity without ever once striking it. What are the restraints I place on myself during a training session? I commit to training my horses in a non-violent manner. This means; not to hit, not to raise my voice, and most especially; not to take anything personally. I am no saint and I don’t always follow these three maxims perfectly, but my horses and I keep picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and we gain more and more understanding of each other as time goes by. While over the years I have been applying myself to penetrating the mysteries of the compression engine, I have no expectation that my tractor will ever gain any understanding of me.

The halter is a restraint that we introduce to the horse even before it is weaned. The halter is really a kind of portable “fence”. The halter and attached lead rope held in the hands of the trainer becomes a fenced-in area within which we train the horse to move. Ideally, we prefer the horse to keep its head by our shoulder as we walk. In this way the horse is neither taking the lead nor simply following, but rather she is choosing to go along with the trainer. The human is also in a safe position to restrain the young horse when she gets spooked. If the horse is out ahead she might more easily pull away, if she is following the trainer might end up getting trampled. When the horse is walking well the lead rope can be held with a little slack about six inches to a foot below the chin. The other end of the rope should be held in the left hand, bunched in the grip and never coiled around the hand. If we coil a lead rope or driving lines around our hand we are at risk of getting dragged if the horse suddenly bolts.

Within any fenced-in area the horse still has a relative degree of freedom to move. The horse can even associate a fenced in area as a place where its needs are fulfilled. To the contented work horse the appearance of the human with a halter in hand represents the relative freedom of time out of the tie-stall or dry lot paddock. The work horse with a good attitude will approach their owner when they see them coming with the halter. They may also justly anticipate a reward of food and rest when the work period is through.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

A training method that is commonly used to train saddle horses can also be useful to begin to teach young horses how to drive. The horse is outfitted with a bridle without reigns and a saddle upon which the stirrups have been drawn up to their highest setting. Driving lines are then clipped to the bit and each one is threaded through the corresponding stirrup. Presuming that the horse is already fully trained to ground work on the lead rope, the trainer begins with the lines looped and up on the saddle or held in one hand (the horn of a western saddle comes in handy for this purpose). We begin by leading the horse around the pen or show ring with the lead rope, allowing time for her to get used to the feel of the saddle — this may or may not require more than one session. Once she is going well, we stop and reverse the position of lead rope and driving lines; looping the lead rope around the saddle horn (or otherwise cinching it to the saddle — taking care to leave enough length that the horse still has freedom of movement in its neck and head. Next, we step back behind the horse and ask her to step forward. Some horses will get this right away, others will need more coaching. You may have to walk back up to her head to start her out and then slowly drift back behind. If there is grass in the training pen you will probably have to begin teaching the horse the meaning of the command; “Head up”. Take care not to yank on her mouth though, keep any corrective pressure steady and gentle. Once you get going it helps to give the horse a sense of containment by holding the lines in close to her flanks.

If dropping the head to eat proves to be a huge distraction, try moving to an area such as a quiet drive way where the temptation is removed, or use the riding reigns as a check reign by tying their ends and looping them over the horn of the saddle. Again, don’t make them so tight that they interfere with the action of the horse’s head, only tight enough to be a preventive against the horse dropping its head to the ground to eat. Dropping the head is a habit, and like any habit, with patience and persistence the horse can be convinced to drop the habit and keep its head up while at work. A work horse that is pulling well will drop its head and neck into a level line with its body. A slight arch in the neck and the muzzle pointing to the ground indicate strength and will and fortitude on the part of the horse. However, check lines should never be used to try and simulate this kind of action. The check lines used in this way will only inhibit the horse’s natural expression and may even cause discomfort. We only employ the check lines on our harness to remind the horses that reaching down during work for a bite of grass is not allowed. The check lines are not attached to the bit but only to the side rings of the bridle.

When you first start driving the horse from behind, it can be of immense benefit to have an assistant walking at the horse’s head with the lead rope. All the aforementioned issues of dropping the head or balking can be dealt with far more efficaciously with a second person to control the horse’s head when necessary. The assistant should remain as passive as possible, allowing you to try and establish communication with the horse through your voice and the driving lines. If the training is proceeding well; the horse is responding to queues and taking direction from you; then the assistant should try walking slower so that she drifts back out of view behind the scope of the horse’s blinders. At this point, the assistant is only there as a safety net should the green horse be suddenly spooked and attempt to bolt.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

In any training or work session with a horse we are trying to establish a “container”. This implies a space into which the horse feels confident to move. We build this safe container by making gradual advances in the complexity and duration of our training sessions, only introducing new elements once we are certain that our horse has competently mastered the previous steps.

Once the young horse has grasped the lessons on being driven from behind we can introduce the element of actually pulling something. The first step is to introduce the horse to all the new sensations of being harnessed. We do well to let the young horse simply stand hitched and harnessed at least a couple of times for fifteen minutes or so, before resuming the ground driving practice. Once the horse is comfortable with the process of having the harness put on and taken off and ground driving in the practice area, then we are ready to introduce her to the single horse hitch. Once again, it is a lot easier to do this with an assistant. The horse will invariably step a leg to the outside of the traces, she might turn in on you and get her legs wrapped that way. The traces present the horse with a whole new set of sensations to deal with and to accept as non-threatening. For any four-legged prey animal new sensations that rub on the flanks and hocks can be terrifying at first. It’s a lot easier to keep such scenarios from turning into panic moments when you have an extra set of helping hands.

We don’t want to start out with a hard pull, just something that will track well and be heavy enough to keep the trace chains taut. If we start out with a heavy pull we will risk turning the young horse sour. An old truck tire works about as well as anything; it is heavy enough and causes enough drag that there is no risk of it riding up onto the horses heels on a downslope. The tire is perforated on the tread side with two eye-bolts set about a foot apart and anchored from the inside with washers and nuts so that a chain can be threaded through the eye-bolts and attached to a single tree. Another option is to cut a round saucer out of a piece of plywood and put skids on the bottom. The saucer should be close to 4′ in diameter and hitched to the single-tree so that the skids pull straight. After the horse is competent at pulling the saucer around the pen, the teamster can then try stepping up onto it, not only to increase the weight of the pull, but also to simulate the sensations of having the horse pull a vehicle.

The next step after teaching the horse to be driven from behind and to accept pulling a weight off the single-tree, is to introduce her to team driving. To do this we need an older settled horse that won’t get ruffled by the nervousness or antics of the younger. Again, starting out in a round pen or a show ring is the ideal setting. If the horse does touch off into flight mode there is much less risk of anyone getting injured within the container of this training space. Here again, an assistant to take the head of the young horse can be of great value to ease the novice horse into the experience. The use of the three aids of the jockey stick, the butt rope, and the buck back rope, can all be very helpful in creating that sense of container for the young horse. Once the horse is ready to drive on a vehicle or implement with a tongue the sense of containment is greatly enhanced, because the horse is more or less held in place by the yoke, the tongue, the double-tree, and the traces. But in most cases, that would be asking too much too soon, so we start off ground driving with the team.

The three aids can help to define the space for the young horse as it learns to accept driving in a team. The jockey stick is a short rigid pole with a clip on either end that joins the head of the new horse to the shoulder point of the experienced horse. In this scenario it would be clipped to the inside ring of the young horse’s bit and then to the inside middle ring (the same ring that receives the driving lines) of the older horse’s hames. The jockey stick is designed to train the new horse as to the correct position to maintain its head. The butt rope can be a braided length of baling twine with a clip on either end, made to the length that would normally separate the inside lower rings of the hip drop assembly of the harness. It is attached to these rings to prevent the new horse from winging its butt out and away from its teammate. If the young horse does try to do this the butt rope will be pulling on the britchen of the older horse’s harness, so she has to be settled enough to not let the effects of this restraint bother her.

The design and purpose of the buck back rope has been well covered in the pages of this Journal. It causes a young horse who is stepping out ahead of her teammate to take some pressure on the bit, so that she learns to match her pace to, and work more in sync with, her teammate. Some overzealous equines may need this reminder all their working days.

In most cases, once the new horse is driving well, these three aids can be dispensed with. The exceptions would be a horse that requires the jockey stick because it will not be verbally restrained from rubbing its head or otherwise messing with its teammate, and the buck back rope for the horse that is always prone to stepping out faster than its teammate.

Once we have our young horse confidently driving with an older teammate we will graduate to hitching to an evener with a training device. To start out we will resort to the old truck tire, only now chaining it to the doubletree. The tire provides just enough drag to keep the traces and the evener taut. The next step is to introduce the horse-in-training to the tongue. A time honored tradition for “breaking in” young horses is to hitch them onto a stone boat. Contrary to popular opinion, the stone boat is not made for loading up so much weight behind green horses they simply can’t run away with it. As a training tool for first driving lessons in which the horses are actually hitched to something, it provides a fairly safe way for the teamster to either walk or ride behind the team. Of course from the practical stand point the stone boat is best built rugged enough that it can eventually be used with the settled team to actually haul rocks from the garden in the spring.

You will find that there is a lot of diversity of opinion among teamsters on the utility of blinders. Many of us simply inherit the tradition of using blinders when we purchase our first draft horse harness and only perhaps think to question the practice later on. The theory behind blinders (or blinkers) is that they help the horse to remain focused on moving forward in a straight line and to remain undistracted by the movements of the equipment or vehicle they are pulling. I have known horse loggers who felt it was imperative to their safety that the horses work with open bridles. Some horses that are raised and trained to do farm work without blinders perform perfectly well in harness. However, for the nervous horse that spooks at abrupt visual disturbances, blinders might be an aid that will enable this horse to serve as a useful work animal.

There is an old horse training maxim that bears repeating; Always end the training session on a positive note. Maybe you were trying to introduce a new element and you and the horse wound up feeling frustrated; best then to take a step back and practice an elementary skill that you know the horse can perform well. You can now end the session by giving genuine praise to the trainee.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster

Conclusion

From the holistic goal point of view; horses fit well into our larger vision of trying to farm sustainably and in a way that is humanly enjoyable. However, even if the economics of horse farming compare favorably with that of the tractor, if the farmer is of the temperament that favors the mechanical certainty of motorized equipment over the sometimes quirky nature of working and living with equine partners, then the option of horse farming might not be suitable. The horses are after all, living beings, not machines. Just like us they have a whole range of physical and emotional needs; good days and bad days, periods of health and sickness. The tractor doesn’t cost us anything when it sits idle for a time. But the horses need our daily care and attention whether or not they are engaged in farm work. They also don’t do well with extended idle periods. They need to work regularly to keep sharp. Within reasonable limits, the more they work the better they get.

When we hop on the tractor and turn the key the machine turns over and gets to work — end of story. When we choose to farm with horses we enter into a relationship that will demand of us patience, awareness, consistency and compassion. We are changed and forced to grow and stretch our own personalities in order to successfully manage the farm with a team. Ultimately, if we are open to all that they have to offer, life with horses can help us to become more fully human.

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To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

LittleField Notes Seed Irony

LittleField Notes: Seed Irony

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They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

Sustainable

Sustainable

Sustainable is a documentary film that weaves together expert analysis of America’s food system with a powerful narrative of one extraordinary farmer who is determined to create a sustainable future for his community. In a region dominated by commodity crops, Marty Travis has managed to maintain a farming model that is both economically viable and environmentally safe.

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

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I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

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Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
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Sisters, Oregon 97759
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agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
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