Horse Progress Days 2011
photos and text by William Castle of Shropshire, England
Editor’s note: William Castle’s perspective lends a fresh and valuable view point to something many of us in the U.S. have come to take for granted. The breadth and scope of innovation across the animal- power landscape is nothing short of staggering and it points squarely at the viability, excitement and potential of the future of accessible craft-based modern small farming. LRM
Although this journal goes to many parts of the world and features many interesting features on farming methods in other countries, it is nonetheless a very American publication, so it was with some trepidation that I, as an Englishman, offered to write a report on the foremost work horse event in the United States, the Horse Progress Days. For more than a decade this is the event that I have most wanted to visit, and as it has grown in size and stature, reading the reports, seeing the pictures, and watching the films only increased my desire to make the trip over the Atlantic. So it was with no little anticipation that I arrived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in late June this year, and with great excitement descended the steep grassy slope from the car park above the Henry King farm on the first morning of the event, overlooking rows of buggies lined up next to the horse stable tent, marquees full of trade stands, rows and rows of horse drawn equipment, and everywhere horses, mules, and swarms of people converging on the field demonstrations.
For anyone coming to the Horse Progress Days for the first time, especially from somewhere where working horses are scarce, the size and scale of the event is scarcely imaginable. Although I had expected to see well engineered, functional equipment and beautifully behaved horses and mules, I had not imagined the vast range variety of horse drawn tools, the number of people, or the fantastic collaborative atmosphere that underpins the whole event. Horse Progress Days is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. It is quite remarkable: for anyone with an interest in working animals and modern equipment, it has to be on their ‘must do’ list, at least once in a lifetime, the shared interest in working horses bridging any cultural or language barriers. So even though I was thousands of miles from my native soil, being in a place where others understand about the line of draught and get useful information from picking up a handful of dirt, I felt right at home.
For frequent visitors to Horse Progress Days, much of the machinery has been seen before and has become well loved and well used by horse farmers, but for me, it was good to see it in action and see how well it worked, which is of course the whole point of the field demonstrations. But to give the impression that the manufacturers are simply producing the same items as a decade ago would be a mistake. In amongst the new stuff, the well established machinery is continually being reviewed and improved, so for instance, Pioneer now give the option of a battery powered hydraulic lift on their gang plough and make rear guard rails for their PTO carts, whilst White Horse Machine now also offer torsion bar suspension on their heavy duty forecarts to give a more comfortable ride and probably less stress on the machinery and horses.
Other interesting developments were the planting machine from the Mechanical Transplanter Co. of Michigan which has a ground drive mechanism which firmly plants the plants, so the two operators do not have to bend down to the ground, and the ground drive forecarts from I and J Manufacturing, the smaller one of which was demonstrated with a two rotor tedder and a manure spreader, but their combination of this forecart and the mower based on a 7 foot ESM Busatis cutter bar, [as featured in the Winter 2011 SFJ] was particularly impressive, a team making easy work of the alfalfa, and I was told by Norm Macnair that he has seen it working on hard cutting grass without a problem.
If Horse Progress Days is exciting, and it certainly is, then it reflects an exciting future for working horses. Indeed two of the local implement manufacturers told me of increasing sales, not only from the Amish, but even more so amongst their non Amish customers. For anyone farming with three or more horses or mules, it seems like there is everything available that you could possibly wish for, which is perhaps not surprising given that the Amish who provide the majority of the customer base tend to farm with four to seven work horses. Although the selection of tools is wide and various, there also seems to be a gradual meeting of different approaches across the companies, so for example the basic forecarts of many manufacturers now come in different sizes depending on the type of horses you have, with the choice of different types of brakes, hillside steering and torsion bar suspension on some models. Other options include easily added hand or electric powered hydraulic pumps, and small engines to drive a PTO, giving the simple forecart incredible versatility to suit particular requirements. With the exception of the small three point hitch adapter on I and J’s forecart, which I unfortunately missed being demonstrated, the use of three point tools seems to be a less common approach than in Europe, probably due to the availability of specifically horse drawn implements, but nonetheless at least three manufacturers make a trailed three point cart, elegantly demonstrated at HPD either with a closely mounted plough or subsoiler, or less harmoniously, with a big rotovator, its weight being counterbalanced by the big engine on the forecart needed to power it. Other similarities of approach amongst the implements not needing a forecart, are seen in the field cultivators which now almost universally come with an integral or add on crumbler, which makes a lot of sense, not only being able to do two jobs in one pass without a great deal more draft, but also if the soil is not quite in a condition to be a seedbed, the surface is at least easy for the horses to walk on during the next operation.
For those farming with a team, or with a single horse, the choice of equipment is less extensive, but there are positive moves, not least by the organisers of the event who for the first time this year had separate field demonstrations for smaller scale and horticultural equipment. Although this is a very welcome step, the demonstrations here were perhaps less convincing than in the bigger field. Certainly there were machines which performed very well, but there were others, which whilst fine for a big team of draft horses, were still rather heavy, being narrower versions of the field scaled machines and oversized for lighter horses. Another issue, also tied in with trying to produce smaller equipment cheaply, is the tendency to oversimplify the construction of the smaller tools by limiting the range of adjustment, so reducing their effectiveness under some conditions. It was therefore encouraging to see that both E-Z Spreaders and Conestoga, who make various sizes of manure spreader, have designs which allow the rate of application to be varied even on their smallest models.
Still lacking on the horticultural front was any two horse cultivator setup with a tool bar to work three or four rows of vegetables on a bed, a common method of growing organic vegetables, at least in Europe. This application is ideally suited to horses, and a number of existing row crop cultivators could easily be modified for this work. Equally, for those growing vegetables in single rows with a single horse, there seems to be no modern walking cultivator with a low centre of gravity for stability and easy steering, which also has a range of tines, shovels and shields to allow cultivation of small plants.
There was, however, one innovation which aims to address the needs of small scale farmers and which was getting a lot of attention, if the number of people who sat on its seat was anything to go by. This was the prototype multipurpose tool being produced by Pioneer Equipment. Based on the idea of the old style straddle row cultivator, this tool is built to be pulled by a team of lighter draught horses or ponies, the conversion between disc, plough, ridging plough, precision drill, spring tine or row crop cultivator being a matter of removing two pins. Whereas some features are retained from the older style cultivators, such as the pedal steering, the variable wheel spacing and the height adjustment on the singletrees, the tilting of the frame is by a small threaded link, like a top link on a tractor, and very importantly the support for the seat is at one side, making a quick exit possible. Now in the later stages of development these machines have been out working in the fields, but Pioneer were still welcomed suggestions for improvements from the visitors to Horse Progress Days. Light weight, versatile and well-designed, it looks like a very promising piece of equipment, shortly to come on the market.
With an event as big as HPD it is impossible to see everything, and hard to take in everything you do see. So this report is inevitably just a small part of my Horse Progress Days. Even then I have left out meeting the man who reconditioned and then sent my mower a third of the way round the world to me, and interesting conversations with Leon Wengard and Norm Macnair [I found them interesting anyway!] And I should mention how delicious the ice cream was after waiting in line in the hot sun, or the groups of Amish teenagers playing volleyball in what had until shortly before been a hayfield, or the tiny wagons drawn by ponies bringing more bottles of water to the ice filled containers. I could tell you a lot more, but it would not come close to actually being there. Even after two weeks of being back at home, my head still hasn’t completed the journey back across the Atlantic; some of it is still processing the impressions, the information and the atmosphere of two very memorable days.
But I still have questions, as I am sure do many others who do not have neighbours using horse drawn machinery in nearby fields, most especially if they are new to horse drawn farming. Would a plough with a 12” Kverneland bottom be too much for a team on my soil? Would it be fine on the sandy land, but a challenge on the heavier land? Would four horses cope with a baler powered by the bigger I and J ground drive forecart with the hay crops I grow at home? Or in my particular case, would the smaller forecart and the ESM Busatis mower if reduced to 4’ 6” cut more easily than my slightly modified McD no.9 with a single horse? The answer, of course, can only truly be discovered by trying these things at home, but I do feel that more could be done to give a better idea of the power requirements for specific implements, especially for those implements used with one or two horses when the power available is limited. In some ways HPD would be an ideal venue for some draft tests to be carried out, since so many machines are in one place at the same time, though the time needed to test just one type of implement would probably make it impractical. Maybe it is the manufacturers themselves who should conduct such tests, as the information gained would be a benefit to them as well as their customers. Perhaps the HPD committee could lend out electronic dynamometers and laptops, or arrange draft testing days at another time of year? Although there is much more to working horses than rows of figures, having such information available, [just as we can find out how much fuel a particular motor car uses] would enable horse users to make better decisions, which means they are more likely to be happy with their machinery purchases. Although this is not the primary focus of the Progress Days, it would certainly fit in with the organisation’s ethos to promote the use of horses.
Now back home in England, I have just finished making my hay, and today went to pay the man who custom baled the hay I didn’t stack loose. To my unspoken satisfaction, he commented, with some surprise, on what a good job my horse drawn rake did in rowing up the hay; another reminder that there are always people, some teamsters included, who do not know what can be achieved with horses. The best remedy for that is to see them in action, and for that there is no better place to go than the Horse Progress Days.