Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 1
by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
For the last ten years, I have made hay mostly with a single horse. This has not necessarily been out of choice, as at one time I had hoped to be farming on a larger scale with more horses, and certainly having two horses would make the choice of implements and the work itself easier. However, the small scale of my farming activities does not justify an extra horse, as it is very much part time.
My first experience of horse drawn haymaking, however, was on a ‘proper’ farm belonging to Geoff Morton, in the dryer eastern side of England. Geoff’s experience encompassed making hay both with early tractor implements and horse drawn implements, including using a hay loader towed behind a pike maker, a bee hive shaped cage on wheels, inside which someone trampled down the hay until it was full. Then the hay loader was unhitched, the whole cage was turned upside down, and a door at the back opened leaving the 10 feet tall ‘pike’ to stand in the field. By the time I worked there in the late 80s and early 90s, however, the hay was cut and baled with a tractor, so it was only the turning and tedding that were horse drawn. Both these jobs were done with a pair of horses in a hitch cart pulling implements made for tractors, the reason for which I would better understand when I came to make hay of my own, but at that time while I was learning to work horses, my attention was on driving the horses so as to not miss any hay.
The tedder the Mortons used was made by Nicolsons of Newark [England], and being a tractor implement, was wider than the horse drawn models, and its drawbar was offset to one side so the tractor wheels, or in this case the horses’ feet and the hitch cart wheels straddled one of the swaths. Their turner with six spider wheels was made by Lely in Holland in the 1960s, with a drawbar for a tractor, but some of them also had a big hook on the front for a singletree, the flat land in their country of origin allowing it to be used with a horse in traces, [though I would always want to have shafts]. When adjusted correctly this implement was light of draught and could obviously be pulled by a single horse, but with plenty of horses available, the Mortons hooked it onto the hitch cart, though slightly off centre so the horses did not trample the hay. With good judgement and the combination of these two implements which gently moved the crop, the Morton’s always seemed to make good hay.
When I came to making my own hay in 1999, as far as implements and power were concerned, I was starting from scratch. My Percheron filly, bought from Geoff as a weaned foal, was still too young to work, so for the first couple of years I got someone to cut and bale the hay on the two or three acres I rented, and borrowed a tractor to do the turning myself. This gave me some experience of deciding when to cut and when to bale without having to think much about the implements, but by the time Molly was three the possibilities started to increase, as I had done enough work with her to use her to gather the bales, and once I had a suitable piece of equipment, to turn the hay.
This first implement was a ground drive side delivery rake, which a friend found in a corner of a field, the greatest point in its favour being that it was free for the taking. In Britain most horse drawn side delivery rakes were made for use with a single horse, and could either put all the hay into one windrow, or by taking the centre section of tines out of each raker bar, could turn two swaths independently. In our essentially damp and not always very hot climate, this allows the hay to dry, whereas if the two swaths left by the mower were immediately put into a windrow the centre would probably never get dry. My rake, however, was made for a tractor, and had an additional gearbox to turn a completely separate mechanism which turned the right hand swath. The advantage of having these two sets of rakes side by side, is that with long grass the near side cannot steal hay from the offside swath, as can happen with the horse drawn models, but the extra weight and gearing means it is heavier to pull.
Nonetheless, it turned my few acres of hay, and in a light crop and reasonable weather it was all that was required. In heavy hay, however, especially when the crop had gone down and then re-grown, the intertwined clumps were slow to dry, so I would often go round the heavy parts of the field with a pitch fork and fluff up the hay by hand. Although this perhaps saved a day of drying, it was tempting to go round more of the field than was necessary, so the idea of getting a tedder became more appealing.
As luck would have it, later that year we stayed on the farm of a horse farming friend who had a single horse tedder which he wanted to sell, as he now had a newer tractor model which he used with a pair of horses. The ‘new’ tedder was surely the answer to my problems, but being at least fifty years old, it also had its own problems. The first was that my mare only just fitted in the shafts, so even when the shoulder chains were at full length, her hocks only just cleared the cross piece joining the shafts. Even when I lengthened the shafts, her tail was so near the revolving mechanism that a sudden grooming of her tail was a real possibility, so despite the presence of flies I had to plait up her tail, which was an extra job I would prefer not to do. With this machine it was not just the horse’s safety which was at issue, as the driver’s seat, perched above one of the wheels, was just inches from the revolving tines. From my point of view this was a serious design fault, and not being keen on the idea of a bloodied, dislocated or broken hand, before I ever used the tedder, I built a guard to prevent me from leaning over or falling off the seat and ending up as part of the mechanism! Thus equipped, we went and tedded hay, though it did miss bits where some of the tines were missing. Then one day when we out tedding, with a sudden bang we came to an involuntary and abrupt halt. This was caused by one of the bars forming the reel bending and hitting the frame, which stopped my tedding for that year. The reason this happened was that over the years all three of the angle sections forming the reel had had additional pieces of steel welded on at numerous places where the original metal was weak, and these pieces had also become rusty, and the welds were not much to write home about either. The best remedy, which with the advantage of hindsight I should have carried out before I ever used the machine, was to replace these bars with new steel, cut to length and drilled to accept the tines. But removing the old bars from the castings at each end proved to be a much harder job than making the new pieces, the electric drill almost burning out as I drilled very slowly through the big rivets which must have been hot riveted in the factory. Once the machine was back together, and a year later when I managed to find some tines to replace those that were lost and broken, the tedder did a much better job, picking up all the hay nicely and throwing it out loosely behind.
I often use the tedder immediately after the day old swaths have been turned with the turner, and doing so made me realise just how much harder the tractor side delivery rake pulled compared with the horse drawn tedder, so I set about making some modifications. The first thing was to dispense with the hitch cart and find a pair for shafts for the side delivery rake, which also came from an old hay turner, there seeming to be many more of these surviving than the machines themselves. If I was going to avoid walking, I also needed a seat on the back. This involved welding a frame on the turner with a footrest and a guard rail/rein guard. Having once fallen off a hitch cart which did not have a guard rail, I am now a great believer in having something to stop me falling and to keep reins away from the machinery, as well as having a good solid platform for my feet. The seat itself was a new pressed steel tractor seat with home made spring suspension, which I decided to bolt on, as then I had the option of unbolting it and using it on something else if I wanted to. These changes would have reduced the draught a little, but there was another obvious cause for the rake to pull hard, the small iron wheel at the front.
This was a little over a foot in diameter, less than two inches wide, and carried perhaps a third of the weight of the whole machine, cutting into ground when the conditions were anything but bone dry. What I needed was a bigger and wider pneumatic tyred wheel, and since we have a car scrap yard only two miles away, I went and found a back wheel from a Ford Fiesta, which has a tread width of 5 inches, a diameter of 22”, and four bolts to fix the stub axle to the car. Although the stub axle meant that it was easy to bolt onto something else, I needed to construct a completely new support for the front of the machine. The original wheel on the rake had an axle straight through it, supported on both sides, and although some people advised me to do the same thing with the new wheel, I figured if the stub axle could cope with the weight of a quarter of a car driven by a boy racer at sixty miles an hour, then as long as the framework it was attached to was strong enough, it could surely cope with a quarter of a ton going at three miles an hour. For the framework I used 4” x 2” channel section steel, with triangular fillets welded inside the right angled joint at the top of the wheel, for extra strength with the minimum of additional weight. With the new wheel in position, the improvement was immediately obvious as the machine was much easier to push around by hand, and when in work it was easier to turn tight corners, I could back it up, and with a guesstimated reduction in draught of about a third, fewer rests were needed.
There were other advantages to this set up. Without the hitch cart, the swaths were not being run over, the horse just walking between the swaths, followed by the front wheel. It was also much more pleasant to drive as I didn’t have to crane my neck round to check if the turner was working properly, and wasn’t jamming up. In the beginning this was a relatively common occurrence, as the hay would lift up and settle at the top of the raker bars, eventually wrapping itself around the bearings. Sitting at the back of the machine rather than on a hitch cart meant I could see this starting to happen, stop the horse and lean forward to remove the hay before it jammed, and it wasn’t long before Molly learned to stop of her own accord when this happened, because in an open bridle she could see the few wisps of hay joggling about on the raker bars. The reason why the hay was lifting up onto the mechanism took me a while to work out, the puzzle being solved one year when I had eight acres of hay instead of three or four. If I turned the hay four times, that was thirty two acres, and towards the end of the process, I noticed the hay was falling off the tines more easily and wasn’t lifting and jamming the rake. On inspection the reason was clear; the tines had become smooth with wear, so the hay wasn’t sticking to them. In retrospect this was so obvious; why hadn’t I thought of it before? But equally, no-one had ever told me either; and since then I put grease on all the tines at the end of the season.
A couple of years later, my attention turned again to the tedder. Although the safety guard had put me out of danger, sitting on that seat always felt a bit precarious because the foot rest was small and just a bit too far away from the seat, and occasionally something in the gearing underneath me made a worrying clunking noise. I suppose I could have tried to take it apart, but rusted cast iron of that age might well break rather than bend to my will, so instead I took off the shafts and put on a drawbar so it would go behind the hitch cart. The only problem was that the hitch cart wheels would now run on the swaths, so I remade the hitch cart shafts, so they can either be mounted centrally or offset almost in line with the off side wheel, with another hitch point in line with the shafts. Although this looks a bit strange, except for the hitch cart, the line of draught is straight down the tedder drawbar, and none of the hooves or wheels paddle the hay. In addition, I do not need to plait up Molly’s tail any more, she can flick at flies whenever she wants to, and I can ride in comfort and safety on the hitch cart.
Using the tedder is still the job where I have to drive most accurately, because it is only just wide enough to ted two swaths four foot six inches wide. This is the width most British horse drawn mowers cut, but the tractor mowers which I either borrowed or the contractors used were five foot wide. To overcome this problem I always turned the hay first before tedding it, removing a couple of tines from the nearside of each raker bar on the side delivery rake so that the left hand swath was not moved quite so far as the right hand swath. The resulting two rows I then always work as a pair, until they are finally raked into a windrow before baling, rowing up as we call it. Removing these end tines was actually nearly a necessity, as I never have had a complete set of tines, so between turning swaths and the final rowing up I have always needed to remove some tines from the short off side mechanism to put them on the long raker bars for rowing up.
Although this was only an inconvenience, a few other breakages and the heavy weight of the machine made me start to look for a better solution for turning hay. Then four years ago I saw an advertisement for a Lely rake of the same model Geoff Morton used. Frustratingly it had already been sold when I rung up, but I left my number anyway in case the deal didn’t go through. Three weeks later the seller rang back, and I went and bought it. Although some of its tines were broken, these machines were used for longer than most side delivery rakes, so I stood a better chance of finding some, and within a year, I found some unused tines to complete it. The other advantage is that except for the bearings which allow the wheels to caster and the spider wheels to move up and down, the only moving parts are the wheel bearings, so there is very little to go wrong with it. With this machine, I just went to work with it behind the hitch cart, with the shafts offset as when using the tedder. This was a harder pull than the tedder, but a lot can be done by adjusting it properly. The first adjustment is to set the spider wheels to only just touch the ground, so it is the hay more than the ground that makes them rotate. The other adjustment is to set the whole rake at an acute angle so the spider wheels only just tip the swaths over, rather than coming at the hay fairly square on, and rolling and rolling it to the side, which also ropes the hay making it harder to ted or bale. With narrow swaths it is also possible to use four or five wheels instead of six. On the first time round, I always use two wheels on the nearside and three on the offside to put the two five foot swaths closer together for tedding, and subsequently use either four or five wheels, only putting six on occasionally when rowing up. Still, I was conscious that the horse was doing more work than necessary in pulling the hitch cart, so by the third year the shafts from the side delivery rake were remade for the Lely, and I got a another pressed steel seat and attached it to the rake, with a footrest and safety rail of course. The Lely company did make seats for these rakes, but I was unable to find out where they went on the machine. In the end I decided to put it over the off side wheel, which does not have much weight on it, but having done it, I am not sure whether it would have been better over the back wheel. When driving from the present position I do have direct contact with the horse’s mouth, but when I turn to the right and the horse gets nearer, I have to take up the slack in the reins very quickly. If the seat was at the back, this wouldn’t happen, but I would have to have a rein guard in the middle of the machine to keep the reins out of the spider wheels.
At the moment this is how I turn and ted hay, and I am more or less happy with it; but knowing what I do now, I sometimes wonder if I might have done it all differently. Although the tools I use do work and move the hay gently, when the hay is intertwined and damp in the bottom, neither machine pulls apart these lumps like the rotary tedders which everyone else seems to use on their tractors. Cutting the crop earlier, before the hay gets blown down does avoid this problem, but the reality is that in some years we do not have three dry days together from the middle of June, sometimes right through July. Using a modern rotary tedder with horses is of course possible, but with a single horse this would only work with an engine to drive the tedder, and I am not particularly keen on going down that route. A further complication is that in Britain all the tedders are mounted implements, so I would need a trailed three point cart and a powered hitch cart, or alternatively build a front axle and an engine onto a tedder. A more attractive option, largely because getting parts would no longer be a problem, is to import new machinery; and after seeing a Pequea tedder at Horse Progress Days last year, that is definitely on my list for when my tedder falls apart, but if the Lely rake becomes unusable, as far as I am aware there is no new side delivery rake where the central sections can be removed, though there is an Italian ground drive machine on rubber tyres which otherwise would be suitable.
Anyway, it does little good to dwell on ‘what if ’. The reality is that I am able to make hay, and through making and modifying machinery, I probably have a better understanding of hay making and the mechanics of draught than if I had bought the ideal piece of machinery to start with. Still, as time goes by I am more inclined to agree with one of the announcers at the last Horse Progress Days, who said, ‘wearing out an implement for the first half of its life sure is more fun than the second half!’