Home & Shop Companion #0058
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Now that it is dry enough and warming up, it’s great to be out again doing useful work in the field with the horses. After carting a load of water yesterday morning, I put the horses in the chain harrows and spent the rest of the morning making stripes along the field. I’ve always liked field work; when I was younger, I couldn’t get enough of it, the routine and the concentration, the space, the achievement, the tiredness and the good night’s sleep. Nowadays, even at my small scale, my body can get enough of it, but my soul could do with more.
Over the last week I have been giving Molly some work every day, mostly just for an hour each time because she has been idle over winter, she was a bit lame a couple of weeks ago, and with her advanced age a steady start before ploughing is called for. In truth, she is not the only one who needs a gradual start, my fitness level at this time of year being well below the usual summertime level, and there is plenty to do. Besides wanting to get a start with the ploughing, I have wanted to tackle the hedge on the roadside which has become high, thin and gappy, so besides not being stockproof, it is providing less shelter from the wind and is less of a visual barrier. So just before the buds start to burst and I miss the opportunity for another year, I have been laying it, just a couple of hours each day because it is hard work, because at my age a gentle start before ploughing is a good idea.
Hedge laying is a bit of an art, a way to rejuvenate hedges and make them stockproof, the only tools needed being a sledgehammer and a sharp billhook. Ideally the hedge is laid when the stems are about 2 inches thick, then they can be cut on one side, almost all the way through, leaving only the bark and a thin sliver of wood as a hinge to lower the stem almost horizontal, the little bit of bark providing enough connection for new shoots to emerge from the stems. With enough material, a good hedge layer can make a hedge which will stop anything from a lamb to a cow, the stems being laid on top of each other and woven between stakes driven into the ground. However, I am not a good hedge layer; I haven’t done it nearly enough and the hedge had mature stems four inches thick or more, which sometimes can be laid and then at the last moment they break off. Because of the thick stems I have also used the chainsaw to make a number of horizontal cuts, which helps in splitting out the wood, but sometimes I have just had to cut right through the thickest unbendable stems for firewood. At the moment it doesn’t look very pretty, though another couple of hours with some flexible hazel wands woven along the top will improve it, but even if I don’t manage to get it done, the shoots will soon appear, head towards the light and cover up my errors.
There is a difference between the horses just now, this being the season of springtime snowstorms of hair as a Percheron shakes itself. Lucy is shedding her winter coat with every touch, but Molly, in less good condition despite getting much more feed, is hanging on to hers. It’s at this time of year I do 80% of my brushing. At the farm where I learnt to work horses, they hardly ever used a brush because the horses were usually clean when in the deeply strawed yard during the winter and when at grass, and being in regular work they didn’t often get covered in sweat, except at harvest time when we would wash their shoulders with salty water.
Another change with the horses has been the fit of Molly’s collar. With her weight loss over winter, when I put on the collar earlier this week it was a bit too big. Recently I have been using a thin vinyl sweat pad, because that is what made the collar fit properly, but this week I swapped it for a deer hair pad and once again it is a good snug fit. Because it is so important and a little tricky, collar fitting is something you really need to be shown how to do, probably more than once and with different horses. Both my horses are now in adjustable collars, but I prefer fixed size collars. I did have a logging collar for Molly until it was stolen, which was more substantial and built out wider at the point of draught so the traces were further from the horse’s sides. Being non-adjustable it allowed you to really tighten up the hame strap without any danger of pulling the collar smaller which can happen with the adjustable ones.
The other harness adjustment has been to Molly’s breeching, which due to muscle loss was hanging a bit too low, so I shortened the hip and loin straps, and that seemed OK. Then I checked on the clip for the neck yoke which was too far forward in front of the collar when pulled forward, so I shortened the quarter straps and the pole strap so when viewed from the side, the breast strap is now in line with the hames when the backing mechanism is tight. Then, when chain harrowing, which is probably when the angle of draught is at its lowest, I noticed the traces were slightly resting on the trace carriers, and although they possibly weren’t quite pulling down on the hip drop assembly, I lengthened them anyway. Still not quite happy, I then re-lengthened the hip and loin straps just a little. It is altogether better now, but I am still keeping it under observation.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.