Jonathon and Fiona Waterer, British Horsefarmers
by William Castle of Whitchurch, England
photos by Bernard Chambers
This main part of this article, originally written for the British magazine,The Heavy Horse World, focuses on the implements used on the farm of Jonathon and Fiona Waterer, who are amongst the few in Britain who use horses for farm work.
The present situation of the work horse in Britain is somewhat different from that in America, which can, to some extent, be explained by our history.
At the beginning of the 20th century the culture and traditions of British farming, based around the working horse, were very well established. On arable farms in particular there was high standard of horsemanship and farming practise, and a rigid hierarchy between horsemen. By the time of the first World War, the breed societies had been promoting good horses for thirty years and had reduced hereditary disease, so the average quality of the farm horses was better than a generation earlier, and this was matched by a similar improvement in machinery. With increased prices after the war, the 1920s can be seen as the high point in horse farming in Britain.
All this changed in the depression of the 1930s. Many mixed farms were allowed to revert to poor grassland, and maintenance of hedges, ditches and buildings was neglected. Even farmers in good arable areas struggled as prices dropped, and the employed horsemen had to accept lower wages, and dared not offend the farmers, as there were plenty of other men who would willingly take their job. Because of this, and the horsemen’s pride in the job, the standard of work was largely maintained. Perhaps surprisingly, little was done to improve the horses’ efficiency. So whilst many American farmers were harnessing big teams and using gang ploughs on their own land, the horsemen in England, Scotland and Wales were still ploughing with a pair of horses and carting manure to little heaps in the fields which were then spread by hand. Although 2 furrow walking ploughs were used on light land, usually with 3 horses, there was much resistance to their use by horsemen and farmers alike, and although some people must have known about riding ploughs and big teams, after working in the US or Canada, they were never used in Britain.
By the start of the second World War, British farming was at a low point and we were importing much of our food from the still-fertile, virgin lands of N. America, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. But with shipping in danger from German U-boats, the Government ordered the ploughing up of grassland to grow more food. The County Agricultural Committees, whose job it was to make sure it happened, bought fleets of tractors and machinery to help farmers, many of whom could not do the work, not having the right machinery, or enough horses.
By 1945, farmers were producing much more food, and getting more money for it as well, but more of them had also become familiar with tractors, which could be worked by less experienced staff, and many of the returning soldiers did not want to work under the same conditions as before the war. In 1947 the Government, concerned to maintain national food security in the event of another war, introduced price support, so that everything a farmer produced was guaranteed a sale at a guaranteed minimum price. Knowing that, a farmer could borrow money to make improvements, buy tractors and machinery, or artificial fertilizer to increase yields. With a guaranteed sale, a bigger yield meant a bigger profit. The land used by the horses could now be more profitably grazed by sheep and cattle, and the tractor was embraced whole-heartedly.
On some farms and in some areas the horse continued for longer, particularly in the Fenland areas of East Anglia, where the horses had advantages in the rows of sugar beet and vegetables.
Nowadays, most draught horses in Britain are kept for showing, increasingly by people not connected with farming. Competition at ploughing matches is still keen, and the sport of cross country driving with heavy horses is increasing in popularity, as is using draught horses for riding.
Farms which use horses for work are very few, and require a considerable amount of commitment on the part of the farmer. A major problem is the lack of equipment, as very little is made in Britain. We have no communities, like the Amish, who use horses all the time and thus provide a market for equipment manufacturers. So horse farmers have to use old horse drawn equipment, adapt tractor technology, or import new horse drawn equipment. One of the farmers who has imported machinery, and uses horses to good effect on the farm is Jonathon Waterer, who farms in Devon.
HIGHER BIDDACOTT FARM
Arriving at Higher Biddacott Farm, after driving through the quiet enclosed lanes which wind their way up and down the hills of North Devon, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens here. But Higher Biddacott is a hive of purposeful activity, with horses coming and going, dogs running about, and people arriving for Bed and Breakfast, or to enjoy the Devon landscape from the back of a horsedrawn wagon.
At the heart of this activity are Jonathon and Fiona Waterer, who combine running their farm and other horse work with providing food and accommodation in the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere of their farm house. Although this makes a significant contribution to the family’s finances, the horses are still the most important source of income. Besides the wagon rides, running driving courses and working the farm with horses, Jonathon trains other peoples’ horses to work, aiming to send two trained horses away a month. He also has a landau, mostly used for weddings, and a refurbished Victorian hearse for funerals. Important as these activities are, Jonathon is primarily a farmer, committed to farming as best he can. Just as the outside work with the horses allows him to farm in the way he wants to, the farm facilitates the other enterprises by providing a firm base, and work for the horses, which keeps them fit, versatile and dependable.
Jonathon’s approach to working horses and his expectations of what is possible, were greatly influenced by the four years he spent in western Canada, working on a ranch with Appaloosa horses and Percherons.
Whilst there he had the opportunity to learn all about training and breaking horses. “I was privileged enough,” he said “to end up working with more horses, specially heavy horses, than probably most people, and in every sort of task, so from that point of view I was terribly lucky, as the more you do, the easier it all is —— You cannot beat working with lots of different horses.” This experience stood him in good stead, as he continued to train horses for other people when he started out on his own place in 1982. This was on the edge of Exmoor, where he managed to buy a very hilly farm of 44 acres, which did not have a house until Jonathon converted the old cow shed.
In 1996 he and Fiona moved with their children to Higher Biddacott Farm, near Chittlehampton. The farm is 87 acres, of which seven are wooded, seven acres are sown to a cereal, usually wheat, and the rest is grass.The soil is a stony loam, and all the farm is hilly, receiving 45” rain a year. Besides the horses in for training, there are seven horses on the farm, one mare and six geldings, all Shires. The horses are usually brought in as youngsters as Jonathon finds them easy enough to buy and you can tell to a certain extent what you’re going to get, without having the risk of breeding. There are also 40 head of cattle. The cows are North Devons, often called ‘ruby red’ Devons, which are put to a South Devon bull to give bigger calves. Until a couple of years ago the Waterers rented some additional land, and had more cattle, “far too many,” Jonathon says, but reducing the numbers has enabled the system to become much more simple, freeing more time for training horses, especially in winter. Now all the meat from the cattle is sold direct to the customer, after being slaughtered locally, and is delivered in quarters of mixed cuts. The seven acres of wheat is grown to make wheat reed for thatching houses, and so is cut with a binder, the same binder which Jonathon bought at a sale when he was fourteen!
Because using a single horse is common in Britain, , every horse which comes to the farm to be trained has to be accustomed to cart harness and work in shafts [see the Tip Cart SFJ winter 2000]. On the farm, however, cart harness is only occasionally used, for odd carting jobs or on the trip rake. For most of the work two or more horses are used in western breeching harness. When Jonathon returned from Canada, he brought a set of harness hardware with him and had a set of harness made, which is still in use 20 years later. As such, he was probably the first to use N. American harness in this country, and he still strongly advocates its use, describing the britchen setup as “the most efficient system of backing in the world. When I came to Devon I knew I had to have something which would hold vehicles back on the hills.”
Jonathon likes the way the britchen system works without interfering with the collar, allowing the vehicle to be reversed accurately and the horses’ efforts to be effectively transferred to the vehicle. He is also keen on the leather traces, hating to see sores on horses’ legs caused by chafing of chains, and he appreciates the use of collar pads under the collars as shoulder sores are very unusual when collar pads are used. However, for weddings and funerals, collars are used without pads, but for farm work, “they’re a must.”
Walking round the farm, there is little evidence of any equipment at all, as Jonathon can’t bear to see it all sitting outside in the rain, so until the planned implement shed is built, it is all crammed into whatever shed space is available. The equipment is a mix of old horse drawn tools, some tractor implements and a number of new or reconditioned horsedrawn items, all of which are obviously well looked after.
The first new tool, bought about 12 years ago, is a Pioneer sulky plough, which is used with 3 or 4 horses. This was probably the first sulky plough in England, British ploughs being walking ploughs with two wheels to help control the width and depth of furrow. Jonathon finds the Pioneer “ such an easy plough to operate. Its all on levers, there’s no fiddling about with a spanner, letting wheels up and down, and as you go along you can soon alter something. And, of course, the main thing is you can write to the Amish and they send the parts to you, instead of wandering around at farm sales, wondering if you can get another share somewhere.” The hardest part of using it, particularly on hilly land, is learning exactly where the share has to go, to get back into work again, as there are no handles to control it, but Jonathon describes it as “ a wonderful plough—— You whip along” and “ can certainly see some work being done.”
After ploughing, the land is worked down with a set of harrows which belonged to Jonathon’s father, and rolled with a single, wide section of cambridge roller behind the hitch cart, which is also used with a 1 1/2 ton flat roll on grassland.
The corn drill is a horse drawn implement, made at least fifty years ago, by C.H. Thomas & Son, of Bishopstaunton, near Barnstable. It has steel wheels, force feed to 15 plain coulters and covers 6 ft on each pass. It was bought at a local sale for £30, and “works beautifully.”
Not being great believers in the use of sprays, the next operation in the cornfield is cutting the wheat. The binder is an International, made in 1942. Jonathon likes the International; most of the binders he saw working in Canada were Internationals, with a 6 ft or 6’6” cut, pulled by four horses abreast, whereas Jonathon’s is a 5’6” model pulled by three horses. The horses go straight on the pole, though Jonathon would like to try a tongue truck to take the weight off the horses’ necks. Jonathon likes tongue trucks on mowers as well as binders, but warns against using them with inexperienced horses, as it is possible for the horses to pivot right round and onto the cutter bar.
For carting the sheaves a big bale trailer is used behind the hitch cart and the wheat is stacked in the field until the the autumn when a contractor comes with a reed comber, to produce ‘wheat reed’ used for the distinctive West Country style of thatch.
The hitch cart was bought twenty years ago when a higher and wider seat was added. The platform is 28” off the ground and the wheels are 56” apart. The pole is a scaffold pole which has, on occasion, been bent by horses in training, and has had to be straightened. The main role for the hitch cart is for breaking horses. Indeed it has been used so much over the years that Jonathon has managed to wear out a set of tyres on it. For farm work, in addition to rolling and carting sheaves, the hitch cart is used on the side delivery rake, occasionally for chain harrowing and for spreading fertilizer. The Waterers do use a bit of artificial fertilizer on the grassland, except for the land which is in a Countryside Stewardship scheme and another ten acres which is sown to a mixture containing a high proportion of clover. The remaining grass gets about a bag per acre, spread with a ground drive Wessex spreader made for an ATV, and this has a 12 ft spread.
For spreading manure Jonathon has a new horse drawn spreader, one of the ones he imported a few years ago from Canada, from Jonas Kuepfer in Ontario. Although costing £2000 then, Jonathon sees it as a good investment – “It works incredibly well, and kept undercover, it should last my lifetime.” It is loaded with a tractor bucket and is pulled by two horses, except on the steepest ground when four are used. When using this fairly heavy machine on hilly ground, Jonathon considers the use of the western britchen harness essential.
Also from Ontario is Jonathon’s mower. It is a McCormick Deering No. 7, which was bought after being completely reconditioned in Jonas Kuepfer’s workshop. This model was made in Chicago between 1929 and 1939, both for the home market and for export, the ones in Britain mostly having a 4’6” cut, as does Jonathon’s original mower, which is now fairly worn. However the new one, which has all new bearings, oil seals, gears and cutter bar parts, cuts a 6 ft swath, enabling an acre to be cut in an hour. Jonathon much prefers this mower to the heavier English machines, a major advantage being that a complete range of new parts is available, albeit on the other side of the ocean. The relatively light weight of this mower and the enclosed gears in an oil bath contribute to making it easy for the horses to pull, as does its ‘as new’ condition. Nonetheless, on the hills it is still hard work, so mowing is usually done in the cool of the early morning or in the evening, leaving the middle of the day for turning hay.
The reel type tedder was made by Nicolson, of Newark in Nottinghamshire. If the weather is favourable, it is used on two consecutive days before the hay is rowed up and baled. Originally made for tractor use, with a working width of 6 ft, the tedder has had a seat and a pole added for use with horses. It is a sturdy piece of equipment, but works well behind two horses.
To put the hay into windrows for baling, the hitch cart goes in front of a side delivery rake, made by Dening, of Chard in Somerset. Jonathon has tried a spider wheel rake, but found the side delivery rake works better on the hills. The Dening is lightly constructed for a tractor model and it rakes 6 ft at each pass. Jonathon calls it “a excellent piece of kit”; it works well and he has rarely needed to replace a tine.
Baling is a tractor job at the moment, most of it being put into small bales, though sometimes haylage is made, for weed control or on the steepest ground. The hay is baled with a John Deere baler with a Cook sledge behind, which leaves the bales in groups of six. Raking the fields after baling is one of the rare single horse jobs on the farm. The trip [dump] rake looks at a glance like any other. It was made by the Devon firm of Huxtable, and is only about 6 ft wide, in order to negotiate the narrow Devon lanes. However, once in the field it has legs which are lowered to the ground, enabling the whole rake to be wound out with a handle to its working width of 10 ft.
The Waterers make forty acres of hay, at a time of year which is busy with weddings and wagon rides, which means Jonathon and Fiona are working absolutely flat out in June and July. With mowing at both ends of the day, Jonathon finds that the Nicolson tedder, although a good tool, is not quick enough when there are 10 acres of hay on the floor. Although he has enough horses, he finds he is simply spending too much time on the seat of the tedder. So he has recently bought a Farr centipede, which will go behind a hitch cart with a mounted engine. Although Pioneer makes a hitch cart which would be suitable, at £6000 Jonathon has decided instead to make one with a local agricultural engineer. It needs to be light, so it will be a two wheeler, with lugged tyres, brakes and probably Ackermann steering, so when the drawbar is locked up in relation to the hitchcart, the whole unit will steer like a car. Although primarily intended for tedding, it will be powerful enough to run the baler with the 25 h.p. Kubota diesel engine. In tractor terms this seems low powered, but of course the horses will be pulling the baler along, and there isn’t the tractor itself to be moved. Jonathon thinks this should make a big difference to the speed of turning hay. “I think two horses will pull it very well, but if we want to keep going I don’t mind if we put four on it. We’ve plenty of horses, and you would never stop all day. And again with the baler, I would probably keep the Cook sledge behind — four horses would run that.”
It will be interesting to see how it all works. However, Jonathon adds, “If we were only cutting twenty acres of hay, I wouldn’t think of doing any of this.” The equipment he already has works well.
One piece of kit which hasn’t been used yet is Jonathon’s International straddle hoe [riding cultivator], a tool which is almost unknown in Britain, where walking cultivators were the rule. Again this was imported from Canada after being reconditioned.
Although Jonathon would like to grow row crops and use the horses on the straddle hoe for the cultivations, at the moment he is too busy. Besides all the weddings [28 last year] and an increasing number of funerals, Jonathon spent five weeks in Turkey last year, training horses for a film company doing a historical reconstruction of Assyrian chariot racing. Fitting such projects round the work on the farm necessitates a straightforward farming system, as well as good organization and reliable equipment. The policy of selling unwanted implements and gradually investing in new or reconditioned horse drawn equipment has thus helped in keeping the farm running efficiently. When I asked Jonathon whether there was any other piece of kit he would like to have, he admitted to being “very happy with what we’ve got. — There’s no job we can’t do.”
Not only do Jonathon and Fiona have the right equipment, they know how to use it, and they obviously enjoy doing the work. Their commitment to farming with horses is evident in their care of the horses, harness and equipment, as well as the buildings and fields. For anyone interested in working horses, Higher Biddacott is an inspiring place.