Twitter  Facebook  YouTube
HCL How Many Horses

How Many Horses?

Excerpts from The Horsedrawn Circle Letter

compiled by Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

One of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring teamsters is “how many horses will I need for my farm?” Judging from the following circle letter responses to this very topic, three horses – a team and a spare – would be ideal for a market garden, and four to eight work animals should be sufficient for a livestock operation, where a significant acreage of hay and field crops are harvested.

At the risk of the twelve circle letter scribes sounding like they are “talking in circles,” reprinted here are all of the excerpts from the last three rounds of the Horsedrawn Circle Letter that were in any way related to the “how many horses” topic, just to show there is a lot more involved in answering this question than the crops involved or the number of acres. Variables like farm philosophy and life goals, the size of the labor force and challenges of the terrain, matching the personalities of the horses to the farm tasks and the teamsters, mixing live horsepower with tractors, the availability of inexpensive pasture and hay land, the costs of retiring aging work partners and purchasing or raising their replacements, not to mention the degree of general farm management and efficiency, all play a role in determining how many horses are ideal for each farm family.

Hopefully, these considerations offered by this small circle of horse farmers will give readers contemplating farm life with work horses a better feel for what is involved and the number of horses they might need. This postmarked discussion on “how many horses” may also encourage others in the SFJ family to mail in their thoughts and experiences on the ideal number of work animals for their farming adventures.

HCL How Many Horses

Paul Hauser: Our enough is enough question was great. (See the Fall 2003 SFJ.) So many interesting thoughts that everyone had. I have another question I’d like to ask – Bob mentioned in his letter – how many horses is ideal for the farm? How do you cost justify your horse expense and under what conditions do you cost justify both horses and tractor?

On our small 20+ acre farm, we use two horses which we think is ideal, but I have a third. This third horse is supposed to be the spare, the young trainee, but in all honesty I don’t give my two horses enough work to keep them real sharp and honest so why did I ever think I needed a third? My honest question is how can I ever cost justify two when I have a tractor that can really do their work? We do raise all the feed, hay, straw and grain for our horses, so I never have out of pocket expense, but should I get rid of them to make more cash on the sale of those crops? Or should the tractor go? – I justify my tractor because we do a fair amount of power take off work and I think it’s foolish to keep an engine on every piece of equipment. Yet my greatest enjoyment in farming comes from working the horses. So I justify them as essential for peace of mind. But I do fall behind in my spring plowing and sometimes I have to resort to using the tractor, so should I have more horses so I can go faster? My close Amish neighbor on his 20+ vegetable farm says he has to have five Big Horses to do his field work – nothing heavy like a baler – just plain plowing and harrowing. He doesn’t fall behind like I do with my team, so is he more efficient? At what size farm does the use of three or four horses become more efficient than two horses? Can you cost justify buying feed for horses that aren’t used everyday? We use our horses maybe three times a week in season – not much at all in winter since we have no woodlot – that just doesn’t seem enough. Are you able to use them more often to justify having them, or are they simply part of the farm?

Bob Kidwell: I’ve been thinking about the question of how many horses for so many acres and have decided there is no answer. It all depends on the area of the country, the crops grown, rotation used, etc. For us with about 20 fallow acres, 80 acres of hay/pasture, and 20 acres of small grains, four working horses seems about right as long as the tractors do some jobs, and can help out in a pinch, like a lame horse. An Amish farm might have 12 or more horses including buggy horses. They use 8 on a 10 foot disc and 7 or 8 on a two bottom plow, so the number is somewhat dictated by equipment size. Because they have a big family workforce, they often need many teams on wagons at the same time for bringing in hay or thrashing. I would think two would be enough for a market garden with the right size equipment. It’s a complex balance of factors like how fast work needs to be done, how many people there are to do work with the horses, how much the horses eat, and how much capital is available. (Lynn Miller, in Work Horse Handbook says, “One good work animal for each 25 acres excluding pasture.”)

To try and find a way to look at the cost of using horses, I went through our field records (mostly mental ones, so not too accurate) and calculated the horse hours worked in each field, basing it on the approximate time it takes to perform each task such as plowing, raking hay or whatever, then multiplying the hours by the number of horses working. It came out to 1041 horse hours for this year excluding hauling firewood and maybe some manure spreading. But then came the hard part. How much do we spend each year on the horses? Do you include farm raised feed? Depreciation? Some times we might get by with $400 purchased inputs like wormer, vaccines, vet., harness repairs, and salt. Other years we might have a $400 vet bill alone. It would take an accountant to sort it all out. In the end, we just do what we want and let the numbers sort themselves out for better or worse.

Eric Nordell: We think it is wise to have three horses even for a small vegetable operation like ours in order to have a spare horse on hand in case one of the team gets injured or otherwise put out of commission. We can partly justify the expense of feeding a third mouth because we need the manure to produce enough compost for the market garden and some of the pasture. For this reason alone, we have often had all four horse stalls filled. Usually, the fourth stall has been for a colt we are raising for sale or replacement which helps offset the feed costs. Now we have four horses because we would like to let our old faithful team of Becky and Buster live out their days on the farm, but we really need to start a younger team for some of the heavier work and to eventually replace them altogether. From a strictly economic point of view, this is not cost effective, especially adding in some of the expensive feed supplements we are trying to ease the older horses’ arthritis with. But emotionally, we feel we owe them a good retirement plan. Really, we are indebted to Becky and Buster for many years of selfless service and patience helping us develop our horse powered farm system.

We would also add that most tractor driven market gardens we have seen also have far more horsepower than they actually need. It is not unusual to see 2-3 tractors even on a small operation, at least one for heavy tillage and another for cultivation – sometimes a tractor for each cultivator setup! Although the tractors are essential for the efficiency of the operation, they could never be justified based on the number of acres in production. So relatively speaking, we do not think keeping three to four horses is unreasonable for a market garden operation.

Having a little extra horsepower also gives us more flexibility. For example, this wet summer, it was an advantage to be able to hitch three head to the harrower disc to make better time tilling the fallow fields during those brief moments of opportunity when the soil was fit. Likewise, it has been fun to mix and match personalities of the individual horses to match the job – or our mental outlook.

Julie Trudel: Since I’m pretty much working the farm alone now (Nicki is my part time helper), I finally had to learn to use the horses in the garden. So I disced and made raised beds (using a potato hiller). It was a learning experience for me and Queenie, my fjord. I did okay and she did great. I had Rose (imported Belgian) by her side to teach her. Rose is awesome and very cooperative. Queenie picked up the idea quickly and really worked to please. She seemed to enjoy it. We have a 2 ½ year old Belgian also, Kim, who is still a bit green. I’m hesitant to hitch her up because I am also a bit green. But I think when the snow gets a bit deeper, I’ll put her with Rose and take them for some rides.

In terms of how many horses is enough, I’m not sure my opinion counts. Since our farm alone does not support us and I myself have not done a lot of the actual horse-driven work, I can only speak from observation. Though we have had as many as five draft animals on the farm at one time, it always seemed as though only two were used regularly with a spare to fill in. Currently, we have three and I am very comfortable with that. I only feel bad for the one left behind when the other two are out working. Horses are so social with each other and with people that I truly think they are insulted if left in the pasture alone. We have dreamed of having bigger hitches to do more farm work (bale and plow) but that has not become a reality. The horses are a big expense to us, especially with such a long “hay feeding” season, but there have been years when they paid our bills and the manure is always welcome on our depleted soils.

The horses have done an incredible amount of work at helping us establish the beginnings of this small farm. In the very beginning, they made roads so we could access the fields. Then they hauled in our belongings and materials. They pulled our portable sawmill onto the land and then hauled logs to be milled to build our buildings. They plowed fields that had not been turned for 25 years, full of thatch, compact and heavy with clay. They pulled 200, 600- pound round bales one mile each to feed our livestock. I guess they’ve done and do their share of work and I don’t know how I could put a dollar value on that. There is so much in life that just can’t be measured with a dollar sign. We also dream of a time when we could manage a stallion and foals so the mares could optimally add more financial value to the farm. There are so many more ways we would like to include the horses in the efficiency of the farm but they need us to get our act together in order to give us their best.

Ken Akopiantz: How many horses? We have 80 acres with about 50 tillable. We rotate 4-6 acres of vegetables through a 16-acre area with green manure and forage crops. The rest is pasture, which we drag and mow occasionally. We purchase all of our supplemental feed. We have had as many as 6 horses and as few as two horses. Presently we have only two and feel if we could keep them working 100% of the time they would be all that is needed. They are big, 1800-1900 lbs., fit and strong willing workers. Not much except my ignorance can stop them. Luckily, they continue to educate us daily. The only downside to this limited horsepower is taking advantage of those sometimes small windows of opportunities to plow, seed, etc.

This summer is a great example. We had one of the driest and hottest summers on record. Finally, in the middle of September we got some rain, not much, but enough to plant a cover crop. We are still harvesting two to three days a week and planting on one, Sunday is our day off so that left only one or two days to prepare, broadcast, incorporate and cultipack a cover crop. This also includes time needed to cultivate some of the veggie ground. So with our two-horse power farm this did not get done. Our next rains came in the middle of October, and when they came they did not stop. We now are contending with record rainfall. So it is now the beginning of November and the fields are just beginning to show signs of being dry enough to work again. The question we need to ask ourselves here, though, is the problem limited horsepower or management? Beyond keeping our team working 100% day in and day out, is it just too much to ask them? So we think three horses would be all that is necessary for our operation. If we added putting up our hay, four would do, as we would be able to run two teams.

Keith Morgan-Davie: Had the opportunity to visit a fellow who raises Welsh ponies in the fall, and was very impressed with the animals from a small farm perspective. The ponies come in four size ranges, the smallest true ponies, but the largest up around 14 hands or slightly more – quite reasonable for light work and carriage service, which is what I have in mind here eventually. My heavier work (mowing pastures, moving round bales and snow) I’ll do with the tractor, but I’d like to have a smaller draft animal or two for some of the light hauling and such that it seems silly to fire up a tractor for. My pastures are a bit spread out, so having a way to move me and supplies from place to place would be very useful, and more efficient. Perhaps in time.

John Coffer: No, I don’t farm with just horses, I also have oxen (five). I guess that’s what they call a mixed power operation. Cost effective? Heck no! Romantic? Exceedingly!

Paul Hauser: On horses on the farm – our concern was that our horses are just so under utilized. They are capable of working all day, everyday and that is simply not the case. And naturally the more they are worked, the better they work. So should we keep fewer horses, which would certainly increase their efficiency? How many of us are satisfied that we are really getting an efficient return on our horses? Or can we justify keeping them because of the intrinsic value of having them?

Katy Sweeney: How many horses? We’ve had three Haflingers for a long time and it works just fine. It’s hilly here by any standards. It’s a lot of work to hay, but it can be done. The garden work isn’t the problem, it’s fieldwork on the hill that’s hard, and remember you don’t have to fill that manure spreader, it’ll be okay. That’s actually one of the biggest factors out there, as far as I can see. Do you work on a maximum strength attitude of tow that barge, lift that bale or would you rather run ten trips with the sled? What about your horses? You only figure out what your horses like to do after you’ve been with them a while.

Julie started talking about the poor horse left out of the work cycle and if that isn’t the truth. I never leave just one out in the fields by themselves. I don’t think she’d stay there for very long and she’d be running up and down the fence-line calling wildly which would ruin the working concentration of the other two. I’ve got a mare that I had in the barn as she had a foal and I thought I was doing her a favor by using the other mare more. The first one really got her nose out of joint; she was miffed. She’s the one who rubbed off her halter. She was unhappy!

We’ve decided to keep her foal, a colt, to raise up as a fourth horse. He’s the best little horse we’ve ever had. He’ll be gelded and the girls felt their little-old-lady mother needed a nice calm horse. Like what do I have now? Anyway, he should be very useful to make up a team with whomever happens to be around whether in foal or in heat. That’ll be important as I don’t have a tractor.

Karma Glos: How many horses are enough? Oh heavens that’s a hard one since I’m not very practical about horse keeping. I believe if Michael ran the farm by himself there would be one well-broke, well-used, well-loved team of Percheron mares on this farm; very practical both economically and psychologically. One team is perfectly sufficient to complete our farm chores of hauling manure, plowing, discing, cultivating (primarily about one acre), and pulling logs. We don’t till much land and our old mares get just enough work to keep them fit. They are in their mid-twenties now and I wouldn’t expect them to do much more. So, that’s all well and good if Michael was a practical old bachelor farmer. But of course, he’s not. He dared to marry a horse nut who spent her entire childhood gaga about horses. Therefore, the moment I had the farm, I began acquiring horses with a passion. And, of course, I had to want Haflingers, not cheap when my passion began.

We also have a different view of relationships, be they horse or human. Michael picked a wife (his first girlfriend) and has stuck with her through it all. Michael picked a team and has stuck with them no matter what. I, on the other hand, have tried a few… always in search of the perfect one. I finally found the perfect husband and some nearly perfect ponies that suit my personality.

That leads me to the other half of this horse thing. Our horse choices, both in number and types, have followed our personalities. Michael has chosen big, quiet, hard working beasts who are loyal, kind and stoic: just like him. I have chosen two of the most stubborn, ornery, frisky, high-spirited ponies I could find. But these girls work hard when asked to and best of all they seem to adore me. When I whistle they come running full speed to the gate and whinny demandingly until I step in to scratch their bellies. Due to my affection for these ponies, they have remained. They no longer work as a team since English has some harness fears (she has been through a lot in her life), but have their own roles on the farm. Friday is our one horsepower tank used for hilling potatoes and cultivating in the summer when the plants are a bit too close for those big Percheron dinner plates they call feet. English still has a lot of fear around machinery so she has become my riding horse for mushroom reconnaissance through the woods. In addition to these horses, we also have the great honor of being home to a most noble Norwegian Fjord pony. She is my daughter’s mount and a very reliable single horse for the job. If we want to try something new with a piece of single-horse equipment, we use her first to get our bearings before we put some tank power on it. So, realistically, we have too many horses, but who cares. We love them all and they are our teachers in so many ways.

Joe D’Auria: On the topic of enough horses, Kaycie and I are probably comfortable with at least three draft horses. For the most part we are growing enough for ourselves with very little for sale, but we expect this will change in the not too distant future. So, three horses sounds like a lot. We have had some bad luck with horses dying on us. And found the interruption from getting the work done plus the time loss finding another horse has made it worth having the third horse around.

Additionally, although the amount of work we have I consider light to medium duty, the amount of draft we have on our animals is enough for at least three horses. Plus the time we spend resting our two horse team more than outweighs the harness and care time of the additional horse. We ‘re hoping that by having three horses do most or all of the work we will delay the retirement of our older mare or negate the concept of retirement because all work will be done with a casual walk which may help keep that older horse fit. None of our horses have ever needed grain, so assuming that we make our own hay, the cost of keeping horses seems nominal. Certainly, the costs are not more than oil changes and worn parts on old tractors.

Bob Kidwell: I guess “How many horses does it take…” was kind of trick question. I don’t think there is any answer. It just depends on what feels right and works on your farm.

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by Wendell Berry called “Citizenship Papers.” In one essay he talks about the two different kinds of mind: The rational mind and the sympathetic mind. The rational mind carefully examines every available bit of data, then makes a logical decision based on the facts. The problem is that you can never get all the facts. It is impossible to predict how a decision will affect the future. The sympathetic mind, on the other hand, just does what feels right. There’s a lot of love in the sympathetic mind. Rational minds have gotten us into a lot of trouble. I guess one shouldn’t be too rational.

The rational mind of a friend recently allowed me to read a paper he wrote comparing the cost of using horses to farm compared to tractors. His name is Chet Kendell and he is getting a PhD at Michigan State University in Sustainable Agriculture. He does make his living on a few organic acres out in Utah raising cherries, and does use horses, so he has practical experience. The paper was very well-written and it concluded that over forty years of farming 25 acres with two Belgian mares who produce horses to sell, compared to a $15,000 new tractor every ten years, the horses came out way ahead economically. In fact the horses produced a revenue of $21,000 over the forty years while the tractor farm had a net cost of $70,000. He had in all the things like labor costs, fuel, feed, vet, etc. Very professionally done.

I took my figures for used tractors and changed a few little things, and plugged my numbers into his formula. I was able to show the horses were much more costly than tractors. The point is that you can use the rational mind’s logic to prove whatever you want. Chet feels there is a disconnect between sustainable agriculture on the farm and sustainable agriculture in the Universities. We know that to be the case. He hopes to bridge that gap by teaching agriculture courses in Utah after he gets his degree.

About using horses to their full advantage; in the spring we work the horses every day for tillage and planting. As the weather gets hot the work decreases to mostly pasture mowing, hay raking, and other light work. I guess about 8 months of the year they are under utilized. Maybe we need some more holistic management here.

Eric Nordell: On the concern about not utilizing our horses sufficiently on our small farms, maybe it is helpful to look at two trends happening in horse farming today: on the one hand, we know of a number of Pennsylvania Amish families cutting back on the number of horses due to limited acreage or lack of labor (children too young to help). Spring tillage usually requires the most horsepower, as Bob pointed out, and these farms have been able to cut back from 7- 8 work horses to 2-4 by following what seems like two diverging movements in agriculture today: either going to a grass-based livestock operation which does not require lots of horsepower for tillage; or eliminating heavy tillage in field crops by going to no-till which requires more chemicals.

On the other hand, the vast majority of “horse farms” in the US today are recreational. There are more horses in this country now than before the introduction of the tractor, but only a small percent are used for farming. It seems every ad for small tractors you see today features them toting around hay, sawdust or other materials for idle horses in the background. Today, the reality is that tractors – and farmers – work for the horses! So compared to this widespread recreational trend, any aspect in which our horses help out on the farm could be considered a net savings. That is, we can think of our work horses as a low cost, or even profitable hobby rather than as an underutilized power source.

Really, we think the most underrated aspect of sustainable agriculture is that the farming must sustain the interest of the farmers if it is going to be sustainable for the long haul. Without that, the economic, environmental and social justice aspects of sustainable ag will be short-lived and meaningless. In our case, farming with the horses is a big part of what sustains our interest in farming. Because of our love of working with them, we find different ways of utilizing them more fully on the farm. By the same token, if the pressure to fully utilize the horses on the farm takes the fun out of farming, then, in our minds, it is no longer sustainable.

We wonder how those of you who have studied Holistic Management fit the how-many-horses question into the decision making process? We would also appreciate some examples of what THE GOAL might be in HM? I realized after attending a one-day introduction session that what we do here is really just holistic problem solving, not HM. That is, the leader suggested that our goals of remaining debt-free, keeping the farm a two-person operation, relying on the internal resources of the farm as much as possible, etc…were not goals in a HM sense but tools to arrive at a greater goal. Asked for an example, the leader said such a goal might be Serenity. Wow, this seems like a pretty vague and all-encompassing goal which almost goes without saying! Is this the sort of Goal the rest of you HMers have come up with?

HM does seem to have the potential to get the “rational” and “sympathetic” mind working together in a balanced and directed way. Like you, Bob, we feel numbers are manipulated to justify preconceived outcomes – they can’t really tell you anything you don’t already know – or want to know! We also think numbers are misleading because they can never quite take in the whole picture. For instance the NEON enterprise budgets we included in the Summer 2003 Cultivating Questions column indicate we made a good profit per acre on garlic and carrots after paying ourselves $10.00/hour for everything from compost making to marketing. This surprised us. We thought we would be lucky if we were making minimum wage. In fact, if we take a rough guess at the total number of hours we spend on market gardening and related tasks per year and divide that into our net profit as determined by the IRS (that is, after subtracting any possible business deductions), our wage would be closer to $7.50/hour and no other profit. When we mentioned this discrepancy to the economist who worked on the project, he didn’t question the methodology of the enterprise budgets but just assumed that maybe we had less profitable crops in the mix that were pulling overall income down. Our guess would be that there is a lot more work that goes into a farm operation than will turn up in just itemizing the tasks for growing each crop. The sum of the parts does not equal the whole.

We like Karma’s observation that horse choices reflect the personalities of the farmers. In our case, we are not sure how much the choice of horses reflect us – we just sort of end up using whatever comes our way which is one reason we now have such a mismatched team of young horses (a high strung, lanky horse and a low strung, short stocky partner), but it definitely seems a horse has entered our lives just when a new person has entered our lives and somehow learning how to relate to that animal has helped us to understand how to relate to that person. So yes, the horses have been invaluable teachers of human psychology!

Kathryn & Ken Akopiantz: We got some new horses this spring. A guy from San Juan Island called and offered us two 2-year old Belgians if we could get them in our trailer. He could not get halters on either one of them. Well, it took about four hours, mostly spent trying to figure out how we were going to proceed, but we managed to get them loaded. We brought them home on a Friday night and by Sunday they had both been haltered, and they were coming into the barn by Tuesday morning. They greet Ken at the pasture gate now every morning waiting to come into the barn. They stand to be trimmed and one has been harnessed already. For now, though, they just eat grass and add manure to our barn compost until fall when we can turn our time and attention to them once again. We also acquired a 12-year old Amish broke mare from this gentleman for $500.00 and some hoof work. We got her just in case we needed another good broke horse. Ken does all the work now with Dahlia and Darwin, a team of 6-year olds that he has raised and trained himself. So now our barn is full with the older team (6-year old mare and gelding), a 12-year old mare, and three 2-year olds. This brings us back to the question of how many horses. Where we are now, three good horses could do all the work. We could get by with two, but it is nice to have a spare and the extra horsepower helpful getting things done during those little windows, especially in the fall and spring, that nature provides for fieldwork…

There have been a few comments going around the circle about the cost effectiveness of using horses. Here is how I see it. We raise veggies and meat here using 95% live horse power. (The 5% tractor work is very painful to me. It has to do with trying to do too much, lack of management and systems, a father-in-law with five tractors up the road, and many other factors. But I dream of the day when the tractor will be gone for good.) We pay our bills, this includes a $15,000 a year mortgage, and have money left over for farm improvements. I know of folks trying to do the same with tractors who just cannot seem to make it work. So as far as I can tell, horses must be more cost effective. The truth is, and this is what I tell people starting out, it is not the tools that make a farmer successful. If you can succeed with a tractor, you can succeed with a hoe, small tiller, and a digging fork, or yes, even a team.

As for using our horses efficiently, the horses here are always working. They never have a day off. Right now there are five in the barn producing manure. Three of which are let out in the evenings to help with controlling spring grass growth in an attempt to keep the pastures vegetative for finishing lambs. The other two get rotated around the house and greenhouse mowing the “yard.” Works great. It is kind of fun to be laying in bed reading with your horses grazing quietly outside of your window. And then, on top of all the grass and fieldwork they do, they are always out there marketing for me. There is a roadside at the north end of our fields. I cannot tell you how many people stop there to talk and take my picture. I just cannot imagine folks doing this if I was on a tractor. And then, on top of all this, the horses are what keeps my interest. They motivate me to go out and work. Then, on top of all that, there is all the fieldwork which they perform.

Paul Hauser: It was interesting to hear all the comments on how many horses to a farm. It seems three is a real popular number and this year for the first time we have been using three on a regular basis. It gives us the luxury of not having to use our mare who just loves to “go” in slow, patient situations like cultivating. Nor do we have to use our slow, pokey big gelding in the manure spreader who suddenly becomes an all man’s horse, and who literally will pull your arms out as you try to hold him back. Yet, no one really mentions the cost of keeping an extra horse. Everyone seems to have plenty of pasture so the expense is minimal. But on our little farm we have just one acre of pasture. We really have to control their pasture time – maybe they get 25 hours a week total on pasture once the spring flush is over. Maybe it’s my fixation with costs, and profits, but I really have to cost justify keeping them on the farm. I really enjoyed and took meaning from your thoughts, Eric, that working and keeping horses is more than just dollars and cents. It really made me stop and think how I enjoy them and how I need to look beyond the cost for what they bring to our little farm. We’re fortunate that we have some free ground in our neighborhood to grow enough hay on to keep them, otherwise I’m afraid that the third horse would be a luxury we couldn’t afford. If our horses were maybe better matched, maybe we wouldn’t need the third to match the horses to the work being performed, but perfect teams are few and far between…

Unfortunately we had to put down our colt – Smarty Jones – as we called him. He simply couldn’t get back up. He wasn’t much to look at – so scrawny and small – but he really had a personality that fit us. Karma – you’re right about our personalities matching our horses. But the loss of Smarty Jones also enters into How Many Horses do we keep – that is, keeping a supply of young horses coming to replace the older ones. Do we raise them or simply buy one when we need it? Smarty was just a colt but our horses are about five years apart in age and we had hoped he would fit into the natural progression of replacing older ones. Having the flexibility to cover the loss of a horse is one of the key factors in this question. We’ve replaced two older horses in the last few years by having a younger horse ready to step in.

Katy Sweeney: The “world peace” idea about Holistic Management isn’t a joke. That’s exactly how big they want you to think and then they want to know how you plan to get it done on your place. And then they want to know how you’re going to know it’s not getting done! It seems to be a pretty good system that takes a lot more into consideration than just business. Anybody can make a business plan, but to figure out why it’s not going according to plan – before it’s real obvious – is a trick they seem to be working hard to develop.

Joseph D’Auria: Eric, although we’re new to Holistic Management, I’d like to try to explain how I understand it works. Though there are many questions one can ask oneself, and many perspectives one can have, it seems many of our goals get teased out by first asking if the goal addresses the root cause of the problem. The model seems to flush out the lack of thought given to the problems we face.

If serenity is the larger life goal, then the HM process would flush out that it’s too vague and general a goal and that we need to articulate what is meant. One’s success is made up of large goals and small goals to achieve the larger goal. The how many horses question might be how we arrive to the goal of serenity. Will I be more serene with the company of more horses or will I be more stressed because more horses complicate my daily chores? That may lead us to a study of our barn and farm management plan.

To give an example of how the “How Many Horses” question might work, I will hypothetically ask the question of Joseph and Kaycie. If we assume that we are using two horses and it is working to some varying degree, then we’re asking if we should get a third horse. Does this address the root cause of the problem? Well, maybe we don’t have a problem with our team, but we have a concern for the ability to maintain the work load if one gets sick. Maybe the real question is, how do we build self-reliance and independence into the farm operation? One way to build self-reliance into the operation might be to add a third horse. Next, we need to look at our description of our larger life goal. This life goal should be written down and be detailed. The more detail the better. If we look at Joseph and Kaycie’s larger goal of being minimalists in approach, then we might want to look at options that don’t violate the larger goal. Such as having extra equipment on hand that one horse could do the same job with…possibly at a slower pace.

Obviously, there could be other reasons for having a third horse, but that implies another question. There are several other questions to the model that one could ask of the goal of how many horses. Depending on how the goal tests out, one might find that the answer is clear or tentative. Sometimes we need to shelf the question and ask it again in the future. Sometimes we end up with more questions for the goal that require research and deliberation. This can become a long process but the result is action that is more deliberate and with confidence. On a farm where projects can take years to materialize, this questioning process can pay big dividends. Enclosed in the packet you should find a sample list of some additional questions. It is only really meaningful in the context of a really well-developed life goal. One value for me of the test questions is to find out how developed our goal in life is.

Bob Kidwell: Anne and Eric – I like the idea of thinking of the horses as a self-supporting or perhaps profitable hobby. No more need to compare them with tractors.