How and Why I Finally Settled on Using Horses
How and Why I Finally Settled on Using Horses

How and Why I Finally Settled on Using Horses

by Phil Forbes of Kalona, IA

Dear Lynn;

I would like to introduce myself. My name is Phil Forbes, and I live in Kalona, Iowa. I was first introduced to your publication about 10 years ago. I’ve been into farming for quite some time now, and have utilized many techniques and methods. I have double-dug beds, I have used rototillers, tractors, all sorts of implements. I’ve helped harvest corn with the latest John Deere combines (complete with GPS, CD player, TV, etc). I currently have a team of registered purebred Percheron mares which I am using to farm with.

The main reason that I’m writing you is to let you know how and why I finally settled on using horses as my main method/approach to the challenge of good farming. I figure that feedback is always good and generally helps the efforts that are put out.

When I first began reading your magazine, I was not interested in horses as a means to farm with. They looked like too much work, not to mention that I did not grow up with horses so had no clue as to how to begin. I had no horse equipment, and horses (especially huge draft horses) were intimidating, not to mention a tad scary. However, I really loved all the articles and the “feel” of the magazine. Even the title of “Small Farmer’s Journal” was attractive, because I was so turned off with the mega-farming that I saw (and still see) here in Iowa. The one thing I never really read was the specific horse articles, because they did not apply, obviously.

Well, here in Kalona I live in and around an Amish community, where the horse is one of the main means of transportation and farm power. Just being in and amongst that day after day I couldn’t help but notice how horses were used. And I have to say – there was nothing more majestic and wonderful than seeing a team of draft Belgians pulling a heavy load up some dirt road, or watching a hitch of eight Percherons pull a two-bottom plow driven by some eight-year-old Amish boy. It was intriguing.

I can’t say specifically when the bug bit me, but it did. I had an opportunity to work for someone who offered to pay me in draft horses. Like, two draft Percheron mares to be specific. I thought about it, and took the deal. After my work was completed, my wife and I were the proud owners of two draft animals. And then all of a sudden all the horse articles became so important and pertinent! It was like a light turning on! And I have to say that I was so grateful for your efforts to stay in there and keep putting out valuable information so that people like myself, who did not grow up on a farm and did not have that valuable parental guidance to help mentor the learning curve, could use and learn thereby.

I’ve now been farming with horses for four years. I have learned some things. Here are some milestones along the inevitable learning curve that have been burned into my brain:


In this instance, I’m defining a “thing” as a world. A realm. A reality. A unique set of skills. The horse-farming world has its knowledgeable ones, its own language and lingo, its own culture, its own characters, In short, it’s a “thing.” No, just because you can drive a car, or you work in the city as a successful attorney, or you’ve seen farmers farming with horses in picture books, or you can spell “farm,” does not mean you can show up and harness a team of draft horses to a plow and expect to have success. Just to show up at the field ready to do some work requires a lot of knowledge. For instance, the horses need to be trained (God help you). The equipment needs to be in working order (Is it old equipment? Are you a welder? Are you innovative? Do you know about tools? Are you borderline insane?). It would be a somewhat fair, if not really positive state of affairs if the horses were in good physical condition (Do you know about feeds, and feeding? Can you tell if the horse is sick? Do you know how to at the very least trim the hooves?). In short, horse farming is a thing. Not to mention that horse farming innately lends itself to the organic system, which in itself is another whole set of skills and knowledge. Farming is a skilled craft. Horse farming is farming times ten (in my opinion). Throw in the organic method, and the amount of skills and knowledge necessary to do it successfully is almost mind-boggling. It’s not impossible, but it is at the very least challenging.


There is nothing that can take the place of actual experience – books and magazines are helpful, but you have to actually do it to get the feel. Having the “feel” of how it should be working is crucial. As I have read and believe: Good Judgment comes from Experience. Experience comes from Bad Judgment. I’ve had, since I started, two runaways. Both were extremely traumatic, and borderline fatal. Both taught me more abut horses, equipment and competence than any book would. However, when I went back to the book and to my mentors after those two disasters, the knowledge transfer was keen from them to – I had experienced something and I was able to now “understand.” Why are my greatest times of learning when I “do it wrong?”

Be prepared to feel incompetent. Learn to love being humble and not in charge. In fact, now that I’ve done this for four years now – now realize I know enough to know that I don’t know anything. I’m willing to listen to anyone, even if I know, and ponder it to see if I can learn something more. Everyone seems to have an opinion of the “right way to do it.” I’ve found that there are many ways to do it successfully. What works for you is usually the best way.

Learning is speeded exponentially if you can have a mentor to help you. I have been blessed to have my father-in-law, Dan Nisly, who grew up with horses and horses farming as my main teacher. Because he grew up with it, he knows things instinctively that I’m trying to learn. My good friend John Campbell has also been a great mentor. The Amish have also been so helpful.

The horses seem to know who knows and who doesn’t. Using the same language as my mentors rarely produced the desired response. They are responding now to my voice, but for sure not at the beginning. I think they know if you know, and they know if you don’t. It’s weird.


Patience. Long-term perspective. Foundation training. Working with them. All guidelines I’m learning and gaining experience with. You just can’t go out and turn on the horses like you can a tractor. Just won’t work, I’ve tried it. Each horse is different, and having a feel and relationship with each one is very beneficial.

I have learned to stop nit-picking the horses. These animals are not robots. I have to be okay with a slower pace, and that translates into less land farmed, which means that what I do and how I do it are going to be very different than how it is currently done in Iowa. I have to be okay with that, and stop fighting the feeling that comes in around me that what I’m doing is stupid, a “hobby”, that I’m playing around, etc. I’m not playing around; I’ve chosen horse farming as my main method, and just because of how farming with horses is I’m finding myself in a certain arena of size and scope. No, I won’t be farming 5,000 acres, but that doesn’t mean that I’m less of a farmer. It just means that the acres that I do farm must fit a system that I’ve devised to provide a return for me, a return that I feel is acceptable. And I know this might grate on folks – but part of my return is the knowledge that the land that I am farming is well cared for, the animals are in good health, and the equipment is in fine-working condition. Financially, there is a return, but it’s hard to compare with today’s agribusiness standards. Seems like it is comparing apples to oranges.

Now, I do have to tell you of my first successful attempt on the walking plow. We had tried and tried to get the walking plow to work properly. All the subtle adjustments needed were beyond me, plus the horses had no idea, not to mention I absolutely had no clue. But, I had to try. And, quite frankly, – it was a lame effort initially. Crooked and broken furrows, confused horses, frustrated teamster, the list goes on. But, one day critical mass was achieved. I had enough “doing it wrong” experiences that built up into a “doing it right” moment. The horses knew what to do, I knew what the plow should be doing and how it should be adjusted. I clucked my tongue, they set off at the right pace, the plow sucked in nicely and off we went! Beautiful furrows, straight line (or, fairly straight), cover crop turned nicely – my God, just amazingly amazing the feeling. However, when I go to convey that to others, they look at me kinda strange. It’s hard to describe the beauty of it, the feeling of the relationship between me, the horses, the earth and the plow. The feeling of art, in a way. An honest craft. Others seem to view it as too much work, not efficient, not worth doing, not financially viable. Oh dear, how can I tell them??

Recently I had a great encounter on the road next to my house. I was hooked up to my forecart and wagon, my team was standing patiently. I was thinking about my next moves, and all of a sudden an awful noise came barreling down the road at me, dust rising like some tornado. As “it” got closer, I saw it was a massive tractor – literally six huge wheels on the back and two on the front. It swiveled in the middle. It took up the entire road. I think it was a little bit bigger than a M1A1 Abrams tank. The driver looked at me and my team, with my beat up forecart and small wagon, as he blew by at 55 miles an hour. I looked up at him and at his tractor that was probably worth more than my house, barn, chicken shed, tool house, and all 60 acres, not to mention my car, my clothes and possibly some of the dishes thrown in. We both grinned, and I know our thoughts were similar – “What is he doing? Why is he doing that? He’s not going to make it doing that way!!” Hee hee, it was so beyond ironic.

Here is a funny story that happened recently. I had a group of very young children out on a field trip visiting our farm. It was nice little tour – the youngsters all oohed and aahed at all the animals and it was very nice, mellow, congenial and sedate.

Well, all the niceness, mellowness, congeniality and sedateness ended when they joined me at the pen where Jake our male stud miniature donkey and female milk goat were currently abiding. I had just finished milking the goat, when Jake the male stud donkey decided it was time for some fun and games, and proceeded to attempt to mount the female goat. I had other things to do, so in passing thought it was kinda weird and turned to go out the gate, when I saw…

…six (6) wide-eyed, open-mouthed, totally interested where before the interest factor was a strong 3 on a scale of one to 100, open-minded, wanting-to-know-every-detail little boys and girls with their faces glued to the fence fabric watching in rapt fascination. I turned around and looked again at Jake and saw what they were looking at, and thought “Oh, please not now Jake.” A little girl in her high little voice said “Oh My Gosh, what’s that?” And I’m like thinking – “Wow.” I mean, when we talk endowment, we are talking basically an unattainable level. I mean, I saw male elephants in Africa, and I’ll tell you, Jake may not be first team, but he is definitely first on deck.

So, anyway, Jake, like I said, was attempting to mount the female goat when everything happened at the speed of light. The female goat took two quick steps forward, throwing Jake off her back end. She then proceeded to kick the living heck out of Jake’s jaw so hard that it actually hurt me just watching it. Crack! Crack! Crack! I mean, real hard. Jake, now a bit off balance, gave off a weak, lame and somewhat shocked bray and sat down in the horse trough full of water. He tried to scramble up and got his feet tangled up, which threw him off balance and he ended up banging his jaw against the side of the metal outbuilding trying to get leverage before finally getting to his feet. In the meantime, the female goat had sauntered over to Jake’s food trough and ate all his grain and alfalfa hay.

By this time Jake was a dazed, confused, and totally disoriented young man. The goat walked out to pasture, and Jake, smart guy that he was, followed along side (a bit back) without a lot of fanfare. The last picture that I saw was the goat and Jake munching grass very contentedly, side by side out on the side pasture.

I then turned to the group, to include their group leader, who was as open-mouthed as the rest of them, and said, “now there is a real-life situation.” I mean, it is beyond classic, and see if you don’t agree. Man and woman are put together to learn to relate. They find out very quickly that both are two completely different animals. They even look different. Man tries to relate in a very male way, and woman lets him know, through whatever mode of communication that will be most effective, where the flaws are in his approach. Man retires from the arena a bit disconcerted, ends up missing the feeding and blessing for a while, but in the end sees the error of his ways, relates correctly and both man and woman feed on green pasture in eternal bliss. Pretty scary, huh?? Those kids got a real lesson in life. Farms are real good for that.

Anyway, this is getting too long. I thought I’d add a little poem I wrote a while back, in honor of the solstice and for all of SFJ. Thanks for all what you and the wonderful staff at SFJ do for us all. Be encouraged. Life has its ups and downs, but your steady hand and commitment will live and be appreciated for a long, long time.


Sun rising, rising
heat glimmering, dancing around me
Horses stamp, stand waiting
the field beckons,
calling, calling for the steward,
she calls for me.

The plough sinks into its song,
horses lean, they lean into work,
roots snap, earth turns,
I love it so.

Sun rising, rising,


all stop, listen, feel
the cycle ending, now beginning
Winter coming

Day ending, Work done, all seek the haven
Arms outstretched,
the Earth calls, she is calling, calling
what is hers home.
Can you hear it?

I am home.