Getting Started Behind the Plow

Getting Started Behind the Plow

Excerpts from The Horsedrawn Circle Letter

compiled by Eric Nordell
illustrated by Ed Ochsner

Getting Started Behind the Plow

It has been two years since The Horsedrawn Circle Letter last appeared in The Small Farmer’s Journal. The delay in horsedrawn information can be partly blamed on our precious packet of letters being out of “circle”lation for almost a year. Due to the circuitous nature of this form of communication, no one suspected that the circle letter might be lost for quite a few months. Once its absence was evident, postcards and phone calls flew back and forth across our far-flung community of horse farmers trying to locate the runaway packet. Much to everyone’s consternation, we never determined the fate of the missing circle letter.

Fortunately, new circle letter scribe, Keith Morgan- Davie, had made copies of all of the letters so we were able to set this circle spinning again without starting from scratch. To keep track of the packet’s progress around the circle, we instituted the “leap frog postcard policy.” Maybe this simple procedure will be of help to others who have tried to start a circle letter:

Each time the packet arrives in our mailbox, we take out our old letter and replace it with a new one as usual. Then, when we send the packet to the next member in our “round pen” of like-minded teamsters, we also send a postcard to the following farm family, notifying them that the circle letter is on the way. For example, when we send the packet to Leo and Julie Trudel, we put a postcard in the mail the same day to Ken Akopiantz, the next scribe around the circle. If Ken does not receive the packet within two to three weeks, he can contact Leo and Julie to see if they received the letters. The leap frog postcard policy has already saved the circle letter from the black hole of procrastination on several occasions.

The other noteworthy change over the past two years is the addition of four wonderful farm families. They have taken the places of those Foundering Fathers of the HDCL who have decided to pursue new life ventures. These recent members bring with them a diversity of work experiences and farm aspirations which has put a new spin on our circle.

Keith and Margie Morgan-Davie join us from central New York where they are breathing new life into an old farm and a Quaker Meeting House. Margie balances parttime teaching with homeschooling their two daughters. When Keith’s schedule as a commercial airline pilot permits, he is attempting to break the sound barrier with his quick stepping pair of Suffolks. Researching alternative small-scale livestock systems, like pastured poultry and sheep dairies, is a priority in these startup years as well.

Joe D’Auria divides his time between high-stress stints with the New York City Fire Department and carefully tending his farm in the Catskills. His goal is self-sufficiency. To that end, he is developing gardens, orchards, intensively managed pastures and crop rotations with his team of faithful Fjord horses. His farm experience also includes several years of intense market gardening on Long Island.

Ken Akopiantz has stretched our lopsided circle to the West Coast where he is bringing land back into production on Waldron Island. He ferries his crops to Seattle where the demand is so great for his “horsedrawn produce” that he is now chomping on the bit to expand production and his herd of Belgian horses. Ken has tantalized our circle with photos of his island paradise – images of seaside fields filled with lush produce, beautiful horses, and hard-working women, including his 4-year-old daughter.

Julie and Leo Trudel have expanded the postal horizons of the HDCL to the northernmost reaches of Vermont where they homeschool four children and numerous cattle, sheep, livestock dogs and imported Belgians. Spring is a particularly welcome, if hectic, season for the Trudels between lambing, off-farm employment, and tapping their large sugar bush.

Leo initiated the circle letter discussion on plowing in their very first letter. Already familiar with turning ground with the sulky, he asked for tips on taking the first steps behind the walking plow. The following advice may not be complete, but it is unique in that it combines the fresh impressions and lessons of teamsters who first put their hand to the plow this past year with the seasoned experience of those who have been walking the furrow half of their lives.

Getting Started Behind the Plow

Yesterday, when I came home, on my table I discovered a Cornell Extension Bulletin from 1937 on Plow Adjustments. I have no idea of how it arrived, but it sure contained a lot of info. I still spend a fair amount of time adjusting and readjusting my 2-way plow. This pamphlet hopefully will put me just that much closer to getting my plow just right. Question: Does anyone know how a jointer works on trashy ground or sod? I’m using a coulter now, but it’s a little big so I can’t adjust it quite how I’d like and I just can’t find any coulters around here, but I do know of a source where I can get jointers for my plow, an Oliver No. 23 B.

That brings me to Leo and Julie’s question on learning how to use a walking plow. I managed that one last spring. And you know, I found it much easier than I thought it would be. So here’s some tips from one greenhorn to another. Pull a few furrows with your sulky plow until your team has settled down to the task. Then hitch to your walking plow, have a wrench handy because you will probably need to do some adjusting on the clevis. Step the team up to the furrow and stop. Pull the plow upright and back some and then try to tie the lines so that you can maintain the contact with the horses that you desire. This will probably take a few tries, but it’s not all that hard. And remember, if you’re fighting the plow, it’s not adjusted properly, hence the wrench. Also remember a 38″ evener for a 14″ plow and a 33″ one for a 12″, otherwise you won’t be able to adjust your plow properly. I learned this both from experience and books. It worked for me. I hope it is of some use. – Ken

I have a little experience with jointers on tractor plows, and the principal is the same. I’ve always adjusted them to turn about a 2″ furrow toward the plowed ground – in a very deep sod slightly deeper may help make a clean furrow, and in sod the jointer can make a noticeable reduction in draft, since it cuts a path for the duller plow shin. Some plows use both jointer and coulter – not sure the advantage, but probably would help in heavy trash. A word on lines for walking plow. I’ve been told to put the lines (fastened together) over one shoulder and under the other arm. This allows you to duck out from under the loop should something let go in the hitch. As for tying the lines, I would instead recommend a buckle or Conway, and punch a few holes in the last 18″ of your lines. They won’t be noticeably weaker, but it’s much easier and more handy to adjust than tying knots in that good leather! – Keith

Managed to get a little plowing done the first week of January with Emma and Blaze. Went good. I always walk behind my weird sulky plow. You don’t have to ride the things. They suck in just the same. The added benefit is you can see exactly what the horses are doing. If there is a wreck (highly unlikely with Emma and Blaze) you’re not going to be wound up in a wheel or stuck with a lifter handle. – John

I’ll be honest, we use our 2-way plow almost exclusively. Every year we bring the walking plow out and do some, but it’s not my calling. But when starting out we like to make sure the horses have been worked and are ready to settle into a steady pace. It’s just too difficult for an old man like me to keep up their pace unless they are ready for a slower, steady pace. My Suffolk gelding did an extensive lot of plowing in a walking plow prior to my getting him so it’s really a matter of getting them worked down and keeping his mental attention on that furrow. The offside horse, when she is settled down, really just complements him. Good luck, but don’t let that sulky plow get out of your sight! – Paul

Our spring was very cool but not especially wet which made for great plowing weather. Both mares foaled this spring which meant the stallion, once again, did most of the plowing on the walking plow. It’s almost time again to figure out our fall plowing but this time he’ll have help…

As far as the walking plow goes we just go with it. We fiddled with it a lot this year adjusting it in the notches up and down and sideways as I was having a terrible time. After a few days of complaining we went back to the original position. It was fine the way it was adjusted last year. I was having trouble. We plow very shallow and our biggest problem is getting it to stay flipped over but we’re very steep. I think going very slowly helps that a lot. The one piece we have which is flat doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Our real problem is with a 2-way sulky plow. Any tips on how to get those things to work? We were plowing sod both times we tried it on a side hill. Plowing so the flip was uphill. We tried last fall and again in the spring. The wheel was so tipped that walking behind soon became the safest thing to do. Oddly, it seemed to work better that way. Does that mean the weight of the driver unbalanced the machine? All of our gardens are sloped, but this was not in an area where the slope is extreme. – Katy

Getting Started Behind the Plow

Although I’m relatively new to the walking plow, I’ve enjoyed some success with it. Consider making a ditch by some other means and then practice ground-driving your horses in the ditch with the lines tied behind your back and without the use of your hands. Imagine that your shoulder blades are the inside of your hands in that we need to learn “constant tension” with a pull on the skin of the back. Once this is second nature the plowing will come easier because your attention won’t be divided. With your hands on the plow remember the corrections are small and that less is more. Also, when working the plow alone consider standing up straight as there is a tendency to lean over as our attention is on the horse and plow. I also like Ken’s idea of tiring out your horse on the sulky plow first. – Joe

Re: the walking plow discussion. When it comes to learning we’ve found it helpful to have a helper lead or walk along with the team or single horse. Especially with a young team – they gain so much confidence when there is a friend up front walking and (equally important) talking to them. Also one person on the lines and one other on the plow handles works wonders to get started. Of course, properly adjusted hitches are always necessary. I use a jointer on our main walking plow (which does 90% of our plowing). It is probably not necessary for anything but sod, but I don’t see where it hurts leaving it on (that way I don’t have to reset it in the spring). I’ve used jointers and coulters both on sulky plows – still like jointers overall. Coulters worked good in corn stubble – now I mostly disc it down first.

Katy, I also plow across some sidehills (not as much as you) and sometimes with more success using the walking plow. Sulkys have so many possible points to get worn out and out of whack that when you need them to track well on a sidehill they show their worn-out side very clearly – often one beam will roll sod better than the other on side hills. I have used leather to shim up the slop in one of my old sulky plows with temporary success. Also, when plowing with sulky (not only sidehill), after plow is set and plowing, stop and lower the other beam so its point is just above the ground – this will level out the wheels. We have two old Syracuse sulkys (one for parts) and two old Olivers (both plow) 23A and 23. All three of these working plows has its own personality and forte. (Example: The 23A has these sod cutting “shark fins” that stick up on the front of the moldboard and look weird but cut sod like there is no tomorrow!) Still though, I use the Wiard 90 walking plow for almost everything. (Remember Ross Pino’s when I was giving “rides” on the walking plow?) Now if I could rig one of these guys up to plow snow maybe we’d have something. – Mark S.

We can’t offer much about making the transition from sulky plow to walking plow as we have never taken the opportunity to try a sulky. So as greenhorn sulky plowers, we would appreciate tips on what to look for in selecting a sulky plow, how to set it up for plowing sod, and any other helpful pointers. Like Katy and Tod, we’d like to use one for plowing the furrow uphill on our steep hillsides. Plowing and reseeding some of the poorer parts of our pasture would be a good job for our younger horses before we get busy in the market garden. This year we plowed and fallowed a contour strip around the south side of the truck patch with hopes of establishing an insectiary windbreak someday and used our 3-year-old Fred, just back from making hay with the Amish, for the final stages of fallowing and seeding down to rye. With less in the fall crop department than usual due to the drought, we also had time for clipping the pastures, a great job for a colt. Putting Fred in the sulky plow next spring would be the perfect follow up.

As for the walking plow, the only advice we would add is probably so obvious it need not be said. If at all possible, choose a piece of land that is already in a high state of cultivation and the rocks have been picked for your first attempt with the walking plow. Likewise, make sure the plow is equipped with a good share and landside. This way the only variables are you and the team. And remember that just as important as the width of the evener is adjusting the team so they walk the right distance apart for the plow and so they pull evenly. It is surprising how much one horse pulling ahead of the other (or apart from the other) will affect the direction and angle of the plow. That is one reason we continue to use a jockey stick on the landside horse. Once the team gets used to this arrangement the jockey stick keeps the landside horse the proper distance apart from the furrow horse and the tieback keeps the landside horse from pulling too far ahead. We just put the lines on the furrow horse and hold them with one hand on the plow handle. We think this is more comfortable and safer than having the lines over our backs and once the furrow horse learns to walk in the furrow all we use the lines for are to control the speed of the team.

Just to expand on Mark’s point about the different types of plows, it seems that every area had its preferred type of plow. For example, in this immediate region the old timers remember Syracuse being popular while south of here along the river many of the plain farmers prefer the Wiard. Some areas are strictly John Deere country. It may be worthwhile to try to match the plow to the soil type, or, as we have done, try to match the condition of the soil to the plow. Our Leroy is a real lightweight and is not really suited for the hard, rocky ground. Leroy has taught us the importance of picking stones and fiberizing the soil with a well-sodded cover crop before plowing. – Eric

Sulky plows: I use a 2-way plow, an Oliver No. 23B. I’ve not quite mastered it, but as far as I can tell it’s a good one. They seem popular around Lancaster, PA. In fact, the bottoms on White Horse Machines are designed to fit an Oliver. This winter I think I’ll buy new bottoms for mine. From then on new shares are easy to find and inexpensive. Anymore info on this would be appreciated. That’s a hint for anyone passing through Lancaster. – Ken

On your sulky plow, going uphill with the dirt, I suspect you do need to be sure your plow isn’t taking too much land (as it tends to do plowing “uphill”) because that results in part of the soil not being free at the bottom, making it hard to lay over. Tractor plows use an extension of the moldboard to force the land over. I’d go for the moldboard extensions or just a different moldboard that flips the dirt all the way. – Keith

Walking plows/Sulky plows: A Wiard man myself (104) for walking plows but my current small team is best in the sulky. The one thing with plowing (starting to) is a mindset of patience. Visualizing two acres plowed when you set out becomes frustrating to man and beast.

Also starting a team or new plow in an existing furrow (neighbors help here) makes a world of difference for horse equipment, and the tag along farmer. – Steve

Getting Started Behind the Plow

More Plow Thoughts: It was interesting and very informative to hear your thoughts on using that walking plow. I’ve taken quite a few notes and feel I’m much better prepared for using it next time.

I’d like to talk a little more on using our 2-way plow. First, on plow types. Maybe it is just a matter of semantics but in our area a sulky plow indicates a plow, usually without a tongue, that only plows in one direction. A 2-way plow, usually with a tongue, is called just that. In our area, Oliver plows are the preferred type. In fact, you rarely see any other besides Oliver. Whether it be a horsedrawn plow or a tractor plow pulled by a forecart, Oliver is the plow to have. And when it comes to the horsedrawn plow – left-handed plows are more common than right handed. When it comes to 2-way Oliver plows, I have only come across 14″ plows which take four horses. Since I only have two horses I have a 12″ Syracuse 2-way plow. This has a tongue and is set up for an even number of horses, be it either two or four. To adjust our 2-way plow for width of cut you unbolt and slide the beams closer to the wheels for a larger cut. This 2-way plow has several adjustments.

First, the tongues on these plows have an adjustment to move the plows to the right or left. Always position the tongue, usually with a foot lever, to turn into the furrow. If it is leaning away from the furrow you won’t take a cut at all. Second, when you switch the position of the tongue your eveners also have to slide toward the furrow horse. I have gotten off the plow at times to physically slide them over if they don’t naturally slide – for if they don’t, you won’t cut a full slice off. You can also control the amount of cut by how far over you swing the tongue. What I feel is important to look for in a plow is to first find a plow appropriate in size to match your horse power. Whereas two horses handle our 12″ plow we would need to go to four horses for a 14″ plow.

Second is to make sure you can get plow shares for your plow. Otherwise you are only one rock away from losing your plow.

Next I would make sure my plow beams are good and straight. A lot of these old plows have hit a few too many rocks that have bent the beams. This will throw the accuracy of the plow off.

Lastly, I would make sure the plow has a foot lever to swing the tongue. My plow has a hand lever and when I’m coming to the end of the row I will have one hand on the lines and one on the lift raiser of the plow. I have to come to a stop to then switch one hand to the tongue lever whereas with a foot lever I would never need to stop. You might also want to check out the dog mechanism that raises the plow when you hit the foot lever for that.

As far as plowing on a sidehill, it sounds like your ground is a lot more steep than ours. And I can’t quite understand what would cause these types of plows not to be balanced to avoid rolls as they were constructed to avoid that. I have found that when you lower the offside plow, the one not cutting, you can increase stability but you will decrease your cutting depth. We also find that our plow seems to naturally stand the furrow upright rather than rolling. I prefer this to completely rolling it over. And naturally, when you are plowing uphill you will never quite cut the maximum width or get it to roll as if you were plowing downhill or on flat ground.

As far as what horse belongs in the furrow, I definitely vote for the skilled lead horse. Now in a 2-way plow obviously they alternate there, but my Suffolk gelding who I use in the lead is truly a plowman’s horse. What I really like when he is in the furrow is that he controls the pace. He just sets a steady pace that the offside horse conforms to. And then when we hit a rock he has enough sense to stop rather than charge through and break shares. In fact, I like him there so much I will often use him in the furrow exclusively by just plowing with the left moldboard.

Eric, a few years ago I was up to Macknairs and he had quite a selection of Syracuse plows. In fact, he had a 3-horse 12″ 2-way plow which was really unusual. (The placement of the tongue differentiated it from the 2-horse model.) Something like that would be great to work those young horses on and give you plenty of power to go across those hills. – Paul

Getting Started Behind the Plow

I haven’t done much plowing with a 1-way sulky plow. I have mostly rolled my furrows downhill with a 2-way plow: I guess I felt it did a better job and was easier to fit. I have tried to roll them uphill on a few occasions and found it to be more work both plowing and fitting. I’ve had good results with hillside walking plows also. It is a plow which the bottom flips over so you can roll everything downhill. Sorry not to be much help on the subject. I guess I’ve looked at it like, why fight gravity when it can work for you? It takes more energy to roll dirt uphill also.

Walking plow is one of my favorite tools. It can be so pleasurable or so frustrating. The whole key is the horses. The best is when you are moving at about a standstill. It’s one of those jobs the slower you go the more time you save in the long run. The better job done plowing the more time and energy you save fitting. I just realized this is mostly based on stony ground. If you have nice, mellow, stone-free land it is easy to plow along at two to three miles an hour.

Adjustment of the plow is very important so you’re not fighting it all the time. When it is set right you can let go of it and it will run at proper depth and width if you have no stones. If your soil changes from one day to another moisture-wise, you will probably have to readjust your plow. Most people think the furrow horse controls the plow and I have come to believe it is the land horse.

If the land horse pulls more or is walking out to the side too far your plow will hog into the landside too much. If he crowds or lags it won’t cut into the landside. Everything affects your plow; length of traces, height of horses, length of evener, soil and condition, lay of land. One thing to remember is if it is hard work something is wrong. You should be able to just have your hands setting on top of the handles and not grasping to them for your life. It takes very little pressure to steer the plow. If you want it to go left, apply pressure with the right hand. To go right, apply pressure with left hand. Same goes with sideways adjustment. If you move your hitching point to the right, your plow moves to the left, and vice versa. For something that seems so simple it can be quite complicated. I hope I haven’t confused you too much. – Peter

Thanks to all who sent in the information about using a walking plow. It is great stuff and we will certainly use it. Leo has not had the time to work the horses much this summer and will make it a priority this spring. By the way, we sold our sulky plow, so it’s just us, the horses, and the walking plow! – Julie

Getting Started Behind the Plow


  1. For past contributions of The Horsedrawn Circle Letter, see: Getting Started with Horses and Mules, Winter 1994; Preparing Horses for Spring Work, Spring 1995; Blinders, Bits and Barn Training, Summer 1995; The Great Potato Trials and Tribulations of 1995, Summer 1996.
  2. Please keep in mind that plow types and terminology will vary considerably with the territory. For instance, Paul Hauser suggests that left-handed plows (plows that throw the furrow to the left) are most common in his area of Pennsylvania, but just over the border in New York is strictly right-handed plow culture. Even an everyday term like “sulky plow” means distinctly different things to different members in our small circle of teamsters. As with any aspect of true agri-culture, the names may not be as important as discerning the practical advantages of the traditional tools used in any given area.
Getting Started Behind the Plow