Horse Progress Days 2019 – Weathering Change
by Paul Hunter, with photos by Jerry Hunter
The Amish may not watch TV or listen to radio, but this year’s Horse Progress Days in Arthur, Illinois reminded this visitor how we are all in the same world, some thinking deeply and well about what is to be done, in the midst of ceaseless climate change. On my drive here through twelve states over the past few weeks, I saw flooding, and stunted corn and beans aplenty. But the tallest healthiest corn and the richest blackest dirt to be found in this stormy growing season was just across the road and all around the Arthur Sale Barn, stock sheds, and vendors’ tents full of booths and displays.
This is my third Horse Progress Days, including 2008 in Mount Hope, Ohio, and 2016 in Howe, Indiana. We could note a few trends in a nutshell — how tall draft horses are back, and miniature horses (which are not stocky ponies but perfectly proportioned horses more pleasing to the eye) are being bred to ever more refined and useful conformations. How the current style for most big draft horses is to have their tails severely docked, though the tails of miniature horses are left long. By way of footwear these days there seem to be few of the brightly colored Crocs for the whole family, but gray and black Crocs aplenty. One huge change over three years ago is that here were as many bicycles, with and without baskets and trailers (and some with batteries and motors), as the dark square family buggies drawn by identical lean brown trotters and pacers. Bicyclers include both youthful and older farmers, using this healthy and efficient form of transportation to get around.
Horse Progress Days has proven a powerful and lasting notion, with its informal social scene, and its focus on education into new equipment and methods — a great way to see and acquire what’s new, both large and small, in the farming world. Field demonstrations help farmers imagine how innovations might work alongside what they are already doing, by way of crops and livestock, managing nutrition, combating pests and weeds. There were also experts demonstrating in round pens, offering lectures and slide shows. This year’s focus included expert talks on the health of honey bees, raising rabbits, and subjects that included draft horse conformation, equine reproduction, colt starting for field work, proper fitting of harness and collars, and basic horse-shoeing. There were also the perennial joys of sheep and geese herding performed by a set of sheep dogs who seemed to enjoy having minds of their own while getting the herding job done.
For every expert giving a talk there were a dozen impromptu gatherings around new equipment, both in the field and in booths, considering improvements and changes. Wind and solar power are clearly in evidence, and there were battery-powered sewing machines and lumber mills with computer programs that could be programmed to embroider or slice boards, hands-off, easy as you please. Those who come clearly enjoy the chance to meet and talk things over with the folks at Pioneer, White Horse and other manufacturers. And for those whose needs include fostering the next generation, HPD events both days began and ended with a “Pony Express” — a wheeling parade including all manner of small carriages, sulkies and coaches, driven around the admiring crowd by skilled young teamsters ready at the reins.
For all the action, the surprise star of the show, as it turned out, was none of the usual performers, but the nation and region’s unpredictable weather. In the middle of Friday afternoon’s field trials, where hay had been mowed then tedded and raked in the morning, and was now being baled into various square and round bales, the sky darkened, the wind picked up, and in short order the field audience of over 5,000 was scrambling for cover as dark clouds opened up, and rain blew sideways. Horses were unhitched and driven to their stalls as the storm pounced. Doors had to be shut for a while on the largest building, though spirits remained undampened and unflappable. Many used the storm as time for a quiet visit, a snack or missed lunch. Within an hour or so the storm had moved on, and folks were back out in the open, though animals, equipment and spectators had to wade through some sizeable lakes and streams of black mud. When the visitors reached the field parking, mud had made some approaches all but impassible. The rich fields were so saturated that for the second day the managers had to improvise paved parking on the other side of town, with tractor and wagon shuttles operating all through the day. The shuttle was an easy twenty-minute ride, with large new Massey-Ferguson tractors hitched and rolling. But after the storm there was no more plowing, no more field demonstrations, apart from showing hitches pulling various implements. The crowd understood that both humans and their fine teams would rather be doing real work in the field, and were ready and willing — but what went on was a show-and-tell of what might really be done.
There seemed an unspoken understanding at this event that small sustainable farming is up against stiff, often thoughtless competition, that ignores many of the real costs of production. And there are fresh uncertainties in the field; the weather has a new bite and unpredictability, and runs by quick turns hot and cold. But for those who do the work here are reliable companies busy advancing bold new ideas — like the White Horse series of spring-loaded rock plows that continue to be refined, allowing farmers who must plow rocky soil to do so without damaging animals or equipment. Every year Horse Progress Days continues to offer ways forward for those farming with animal power. For example, this year offered a wave of new two-wheeled manure spreaders, designed to be hooked up to a forecart. The largest of these spreaders include a gas engine for more even distribution, independent of the speed at which a ground-drive spreader might be pulled. Horse Progress Days is in its 26th year, and there are signs that it’s quietly refining its purpose and methods. One fine example in plain sight is the big green four-gang plow that every visitor might have seen used by big hitches, from 12 to 16, even 20 horses or more. Turning that many horses at a time can take a lot of spotters to make sure everyone in the field is kept safe. The big green plow with its raised platform to let the teamster see over his horses, was built and donated the first year, 1993, to showcase large hitches, and ever since has traveled to each new venue in turn. But this year the announcer gave a history of the implement, and said it had been recently studied and reconfigured for a better pulling angle and more efficient spacing between the shares. This year it was being pulled by 12 matched Percherons, and the measure of success was that the plow’s all-time record was recently set, plowing 15 acres in nine hours, using these 12 horses.
This year there were more foals tagging along with mares in harness than I had ever seen before in one place, a dozen to upwards of fifteen, perhaps because so many farmers in this area raise, train and sell horses as a regular part of their enterprise. Going along with mama while she works can make a foal eager to start in the field, though it gives the teamster something extra to watch for. And in the covered zoo and playground for young ones there were toddlers playing with sandbox implements in a bin of shelled corn — a sweet invention that kept those small ones clean, dry and happy.
Sadly we weren’t able to sample or show everything, though the ice cream and pies remain tasty. The best deal on the best work socks in the world from 2016 wasn’t to be found this year. But one new-old little gem we managed to capture snapshots of, was the way the little John Deere hit-and-miss engines busy churning ice cream would blow perfect black smoke rings high into the air.