Learning to Plough
by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
This article first appeared in the British magazine, Heavy Horse World. There are many similarities between the North American walking plow and the 2-wheeled plough which is the most common horse plough in Britain, and the principles are the same for both types. Most British ploughs, however, have two wheels rather than one, the furrow wheel which travels in the corner of the furrow, and the land wheel which functions in a similar manner to the gauge wheel. – SFJ
For many people, ploughing with horses is the epitome of working horses at their best. In the past, ploughing was also the main occupation of farm horsemen so many people were very good at it, but nowadays it can seem like a skill so complicated and mysterious that it is difficult to know where to start.
There are several prerequisites to ploughing successfully: you need a workable plough, somewhere suitable to plough, and horses which will walk where you want them to, at a slow to moderate pace. You also need to know the feel of the plough, how to adjust it, and how to control the horses. Once you can do all these things, then you can plough, but for each one that you cannot yet tick off your list, the harder it will be to learn. Fortunately, some of these skills can be achieved before you ever get near a moving plough, and the more boxes you can tick before you start, the easier it will be.
Let’s start by breaking down the act of ploughing into its component parts.
Handling the plough
Imagine you are standing on the headland of a partly ploughed field, ready to have a go, the plough handles in front of you, the plough in line with the next furrow to be cut. As the horses step forward, the big wheel, the furrow wheel, drops into the last furrow. As it does so, the point of the plough, the share, starts to cut into the soil and after a couple of feet the plough levels out, cutting the furrow to the correct depth and width. Since you are supposed to be controlling the plough, you grab hold of the handles and follow the plough. Although a well-set plough doesn’t need much steering, at first it still seems that you are going at ninety miles an hour, because there is so much happening, even if the horses are drawing steadily. To begin with you need to get used to walking in the furrow, and you can feel the plough’s movement through the handles and see, hear and feel the soil being turned to the right. The turning furrow can be a bit mesmeric, so concentrate instead on steadying the plough handles, resisting any big movements.
As you get used to this, you will start to notice other things, the smaller land wheel up ahead to the left, travelling on the unploughed land, which helps to control depth and keeps the plough stable, but don’t worry about that for now. Pay attention instead to the furrow wheel in the corner of the furrow, next to the furrow wall.
At times this wheel may move away from the furrow wall, so the plough cuts a narrower furrow, or sometimes the furrow wheel may press hard against the furrow wall as the plough tries to cut a wider furrow. To avoid this happening, you need to push or lean sideways on the handles. Steering a plough is like steering a boat with a tiller; to go to the left, you push to the right. Push to the right and you go to the left. The reason it works like this is because the plough pivots about its mid-point, so, for example, when you press to the left, you push the back of the landside against the furrow wall, pivoting the share away from the furrow wall, so it takes a narrower furrow.
Unlike a boat, this topsy-turvy steering also works in the vertical direction, so as you press down on the handles, the plough pivots on the rear of the sole, the point is lifted, so the plough rises through the soil and the furrow becomes shallower. Lifting the handles on the other hand, tends to make the plough sink deeper, but the amount is limited by the wheels.
As you get to the end of your first furrow, press down and the plough will come out of the ground. One furrow done. Phew! When you look back down the furrow it won’t look perfect. On some soils the plough runs true, but often there are changes in soil type over the length of the furrow which, as a beginner, you weren’t ready for. So next time down the furrow, you might see that there is a wobble where the furrow wall goes to the left, where the plough took more land. When you get there this time, you need to lean to the left to take less land to make the furrow straighter.
When ploughing, the horses need to move at a steady walk, pulling a moderate to hard load. Many horses nowadays are not used to this, especially if they are mostly used in light wheeled vehicles. Just like when you need to push a heavy wheelbarrow, they tend to rush at a big load. If your horses have been allowed to do this, they are unlikely to pull steadily with a plough; they need to be trained to do it first. Regular field work with consistent moderate to hard loads is a good prelude to ploughing, but if you do not have that opportunity, training them in a sledge to which you can increase the load by adding weight, will also do the job. As you are doing so, keep them walking straight, pick a point in the hedge and aim for that. Another thing they need to do is to turn precisely and tightly on the headlands. If they have done land work, this will be part of normal life, but if it isn’t, then make sure you turn them tightly when chain harrowing or when you are turning the sledge. Keep the traces tight whilst they turn, because when you are turning a plough, you need the contact via the traces to steer the plough. Should you be contemplating ploughing and your horses are unhappy with the feel of traces against their legs, then you need to go back to basics and in a safe environment, get them desensitised to this, and leave ploughing until they are unconcerned and have done a lot more work. Finally, the furrow horse needs to be happy walking down a furrow, the easiest way to learn this being to lead him down a furrow, and when he steps out of the furrow, put him back in with a suitable tone of voice, and praise him when he stays there. After that, drive him along the furrow on his own, then drive him together with his mate, keeping him in the furrow. The more steady work your horses have done, the easier it will be to get them to plough.
Ploughing effectively requires a plough where all the parts work; the wheels should move freely without wobbling, all the bolts should move, and the hake [clevis] at the front where the draught chain attaches should have its full range of movement and the means to fix it in any position. Unless it is a digger plough with a shin on the leading edge of the mouldboard, you need a coulter to cut the vertical cut, and a skim coulter [jointer] to turn a mini furrow in front of the plough body. [Most American plows have digging or semi-digging bottoms and function without a coulter.] The point, or share, should be firmly attached to the frog, and all wearing surfaces should be bright and shiny.
Unfortunately, horse drawn ploughs have not been manufactured in Britain for 70 years or more, so finding a useable plough may be difficult. Finding replacement wearing parts, such as shares, may be even more difficult, so much so, that some ploughs are no longer viable as a useful tool. You are more likely to find parts for ploughs made by large manufacturers who turned out thousands of ploughs, especially if the same plough bodies were also used for tractor ploughs. Many old ploughs are no longer in useable condition, with missing parts, seized bolts, rusted and pitted mouldboards, cracked castings, and maybe bent beams. So, until you know what you are looking for, buying an old plough is a risky venture; far better to ask someone who knows, or put off finding your own plough until you know by experience what to look for.
New ploughs are produced in America, though you can only get walking ploughs with short digging mouldboards, and as far as I am aware, they all have a single gauge wheel, rather than the 2-wheeled British ploughs.
Land varies in how easily it will plough. This is partly due to the qualities of the soil itself, whether it is sandy, silty, a stiff clay, or a mixture, but it also depends on other factors. If it has been a dry summer, it will be hard for the plough to penetrate; if has been very wet, some soils can become very sticky, and for the sake of the soil are better left until they are dryer. When you are starting, it is good to find somewhere which is reasonably flat, with an even surface, free of big stones and big weeds, such as a stubble field. If the land has been travelled by heavy machinery, especially when wet, then leave it alone. Most land has been compacted over the last seventy years by tractors smearing the soil, it is usually low in organic matter and low in worm numbers, all of which make it harder to plough.
Adjusting the plough
Depth of ploughing
In most ploughing, you are aiming to plough at a consistent depth, so the bottom of each furrow should be level. Since the furrow wheel runs in the bottom of the previous furrow, it follows that this wheel should usually be set at the same level as the share.
If you were to raise the furrow wheel from this position, the wing of the share would cut lower than the wheel, so the right-hand side of the furrow would now be deeper than the left-hand side. Similarly, the height of the land wheel can be raised or lowered to adjust the depth of the left-hand side of the furrow. In normal ploughing, if you want to change the depth of ploughing, you usually adjust the depth of the land wheel.
Width of ploughing
The width of the furrow slice can be affected by moving the furrow wheel sideways on the cross piece. If you move the wheel to the left, nearer the share, the whole plough is moved to the right, so the plough cuts a narrower furrow. Move the wheel to the right, away from the furrow wall, and the plough can take a wider furrow. However, that is not the whole story. If the plough was set right and you move the wheel away from the furrow wall, say by an inch, when the horses go forward the wheel should still be traveling an inch away from the furrow wall, so the furrow will obviously remain at the same width. You could push hard to the right on the handles to make the plough take this extra inch of land, but it is hard work. Instead you need to make another adjustment, this time to the hake.
The hake [clevis]
The position of the hake determines where on the plough the force from the horses is focussed, and it is the prime method of regulating the furrow width.
The hake at the front of the plough is either a quadrant with a locating pin or a piece of metal with a series of notches or holes to adjust the position of the draught chain from the horses’ eveners, both vertically and laterally. The adjustment of the hake works in the same back-to-front way as steering the plough handles.
So, if you want the plough to go more to the left and take a wider furrow, move the hake to the right. If you want the plough to go to the right and take a narrower furrow, move the hake to the left.
If you want to plough more deeply, move the draught chain upwards. To plough more shallowly, move the draught chain down.
If you didn’t have any wheels, adjusting the hake [clevis] is all you need to adjust the plough, but wheels do make ploughing easier and prevent the plough from going too deep or too wide. However, you can have the adjustment of the hake at odds with the adjustment of the wheels. For instance, you may have the furrow wheel pressing hard against the furrow wall and trying to climb up it. This is because the hake is too far to the right, so the plough is trying to plough a wider furrow than the wheel is allowing it to cut. To remedy this, you can either move the furrow wheel out a bit, but this may make the furrow wider than you require, or you can move the hake a notch or two to the left which will allow the plough to run straight and the furrow wheel to turn happily near the furrow wall. Conversely, if you are continually having to push the handles to the right in order to get the furrow wheel close to the furrow wall, then moving the hake a notch or two to the right will correct this.
The vertical adjustment on the hake is slightly more complex. If the draught chain is hooked on too low, the share is tipped upwards, so the plough will plough more shallowly, and the wheels may come off the ground. If the chain is fixed too high, it will tend to force the plough deeper, but the wheels will prevent it from doing so. Instead, extra pressure will be put on the wheels, the plough will tend to run on its nose and the draught will increase. To remedy this, once the plough seems to be set correctly, it is a good idea to lower the draught chain one notch at a time until the plough starts to lose its depth, then move it back up one notch. This will take pressure off the wheels whilst still allowing them to regulate the depth, and the plough will run more easily.
The last adjustments on the plough itself are the coulter and the skimmer. The coulter makes the vertical cut of the furrow wall. There are two types of coulter. Most traditional general-purpose horse ploughs have a knife coulter, but some can have a disc coulter. Knife or disc coulters should be set about ½” to the left of the share to leave a cleanly cut furrow wall. The tip of a knife coulter should usually be set a little in front of the plough point and a little above it.
The disc coulter is useful if there is a mass of grass roots to cut through, or if there is a lot of vegetation on top of the soil. To cut through grass, the disc should be set deep to cut through the majority of the roots, whereas with a lot of loose stalks or leaves on the surface, such as after mangolds or a green manure, the disc needs to be quite high so the crop residue is squeezed down by the disc coulter as it is being cut.
The skim coulter [jointer] does a completely different job from the knife and disc coulter. The skimmer is like a mini plough which turns a tiny furrow in front of the main plough. It removes the top left corner of the furrow, dropping the soil and vegetation at the bottom of the furrow. Its main purpose is to eliminate the possibility of vegetation poking through the seams between the finished furrows, because it is this corner of the furrow that remains near the surface of the finished work. The skimmer should be set to cut the very edge of the furrow slice, and as deep as is necessary to bury the trash.
Before ploughing on your own you need to be competent, confident and relaxed with your horse driving skills. You should also know what will happen if your horse steps forward, backwards or sideways, and what will happen to the implement, to the other horse, the lines, and the traces. If your horses end up at right angles to the plough, with two legs over traces, you need to know that your horses are calm, know what to do and when to sort it out, and where and what the potential dangers are. If you are not that far advanced but want to have a go with a plough, let someone else with better driving skills, and ideally, knowledge of ploughing, drive the horses while you learn the basics of controlling the plough.
Adjusting the horses
If I took my horses out of a plough and you put yours in, the plough may not run the same. If your traces were shorter than mine, or your horses were taller, then the angle of the draught chain will be higher, so it will tend to pull the plough out of the ground, in which case you would need to raise the draught chain on the hake. Alternatively, the plough might cut a narrower furrow, because your coupling band [or cross checks] were shorter, keeping the horses closer together, so with the furrow horse in the furrow, the line of draught is closer to the ploughed land. If you used a narrower doubletree that would also bring the horses closer together and make the furrow slice narrower. In both cases you would need to move the hake to the right.
If this all seems a bit complicated, it does become clearer once you have a plough in front of you and can see what is happening.
Putting it all together
Although ploughing looks simple, it is a complicated business with many variables. For anyone just starting out, learning horse skills must be the highest priority. You can also learn about ploughs and adjusting them by watching and talking to ploughmen, but the only way to learn how to guide the plough and to use the feel of the plough to tell you how to adjust it, is by ploughing.
Unless you are lucky enough to work on a horse powered farm, probably the best way to learn is on a ploughing course. Here, everything will be explained and demonstrated, the horses will be well trained, the plough will function correctly and, at least at first, you will be able to steer the plough without having to think about the horses. In addition, you will be able to step back and rest your muscles and brain while someone else has a go, learn from their mistakes, and benefit from the questions they ask.
Another option is to apprentice yourself to a knowledgeable ploughman, though some may be more interested in doing the ploughing themselves, rather than teaching a beginner. Nonetheless, if you find a ploughman who is a good teacher, who lives nearby and is happy for you to gain experience over months, this could be an ideal situation.
There will, however, be some people who want to give it a go on their own. If you already have good horses that are used to land work, but you use a tractor to plough, then you stand a reasonable chance. First leave an open furrow from your tractor plough, or from your horse plough on a long chain behind the tractor, and teach your furrow horse to walk along it. Then attach the horses to the plough, put the hake all the way to the left so the horses will just drag the plough down the open furrow without cutting new ground. When you have all got used to that, reset the wheel[s] and move the hake back to the middle and let the plough work. Having someone experienced drive the horses will make all the difference while you concentrate on the plough. At the bare minimum, have someone who is confident around horses to stand at the horses’ heads, or do anything else necessary. Nonetheless, you will be on a steep learning curve. No matter how you start, spending lots of time driving horses and ploughing without having to set out a field will make the next part easier.
Dividing the field
Most land today is ploughed with a reversible plough, which is in effect a right-handed plough with a left-handed plough on top, the whole lot being swivelled round at each headland and used alternately on each run up and down the field. This allows the ploughing to start at one hedge and continue across the field, turning all the furrows in one direction. Most horse ploughs, however, have a single mouldboard which [in Britain] turns the furrow to the right, so if you were to plough along the hedge side, you would have to return empty to the starting point to lay another furrow against the first. To avoid this, the field is laid out into sections, into parallel strips called lands, with the headland all around the edge to turn the horses. To set out the field, a very small furrow, a scratch furrow, is ploughed parallel to the hedges, about 5 to 6 yards away. This is the line where you will put the plough into the ground and take it out at the end of a furrow. The lands are then marked out at regular intervals at both ends of the field, with pegs perhaps 11 to 22 yards apart. Then sighting from one end of the field to the other, another peg or two will be put in between, which is the line you plough to when ploughing your first furrows.
The tricky bits
Then comes the time to plough that first furrow. With the plough in line with the headland peg, raise the land wheel so the point of the share will plough 2-3” deep, and the furrow wheel a little bit too so the wing of the share is just in the ground. The horizontal adjustment of the hake should be in the middle, along the line of draught, and the draught chain should be set fairly high to encourage the point to go in the ground. Now line up your horses so you can see between them along the line of the pegs and drive as straight as you can, keeping the pegs in line. This is where your practise driving other implements in a straight line will pay off. Don’t turn around until you get to the other end, and when you do get there, try not to worry about what you see! Turn the horses to the left to face back down the field, putting the horses either side of the furrow. You now want to plough another shallow furrow away from the one you have just made, so that together they leave a shallow v-shaped trench. With your horses either side of the existing furrow, you will see that the bit of land you want to plough is not equidistant between the horses, but more behind the off-side horse, the furrow horse. So, set the hake a few notches to the left, so the plough runs more behind the furrow horse. You also need to think about where the little wheel is running. It needs to run in the open furrow, not on the bumpy turned furrow. [this is not a concern with a gauge wheel] The depth also may need adjusting because you want the left-hand side of the share to be a little deeper than last time, so that the landside has a ledge of soil to run on. This will prevent the pressure of the turning furrow from pushing the plough sideways. Once you start the horses, if you need to push hard one way or the other to keep the plough where you want it, stop and adjust the hake.
At the end of the furrow, turn to the right and put your furrow horse in the furrow, because you are now going to turn those two shallow furrows back towards each other, except deeper than before to form the crown. Reset both wheels to allow the plough to take a deeper furrow and drop the draught chain two or three notches. At this stage you don’t want to plough to the final depth, otherwise the crown will be higher than the rest of the work. Unless you are using a plough with a wide body or have a narrow doubletree, the hake will need to be a little left of centre. After a couple of yards, you may find you need to adjust this horizontal adjustment on the hake for the plough to follow the correct line. Once you have ploughed back these two furrows against each other, you have ploughed your ‘top,’ ‘crown’ or ‘rigg’ and hopefully it will be reasonably straight.
Now you can set the land wheel deeper to the final depth for normal ploughing. Unless you want the wing of the share to cut a little deeper this next pass, you also need to set the furrow wheel at the same depth as the share.
Continue ploughing around the rigg, turning to the right at each end. Correct for any wobbles by steering the plough to take a narrower furrow where there is a bulge along the furrow wall. With a big wobble you might have to do this over a few turns; don’t try and correct it all with one furrow.
Stop ploughing when the ploughed strip measures half the distance between the riggs. So, if the rigg marker sticks are twelve yards apart, you first plough a strip six yards wide, three yards each side of your marker stick. Then you go to your next set of marker sticks and plough another rigg, until it is also six yards wide. You then will have a six-yard strip of unploughed ground in between. Plough this part turning left at the ends. As the unploughed ground becomes narrower, measure it with your feet, heal to toe, at both ends to see if it is parallel. Often it won’t be. To avoid leaving a long thin triangle at the end, correct for any inaccuracy by taking narrower furrows at the narrow end.
If you were to continue to plough at the same depth as you come to the finish, it would leave a very deep furrow which would be inconvenient to cultivate afterwards. So, for the last yard or so, you raise the plough on each turn, so it ploughs less deeply. At this stage you also might need to adjust the width of your furrows, to ensure that the last furrow is the full width. Besides looking tidy, the full width furrow turns over better than a narrow one. As the land gets narrower, the land horse will have to walk in the other open furrow. Because this may put the horses further apart, you may need to change the length of the coupling band [or cross checks] between the horses and/or adjust the hake to allow the plough to run where it should. On the last furrow or two, the land wheel will have no unploughed land to run on, so to maintain the right depth you need to set it deeper to run along the bottom of the other open furrow. When you have only one furrow to turn, the land wheel [or gauge wheel] needs to be raised a little to allow this last furrow to be ploughed a little deeper. This is to create a ledge of soil, so the landside can resist the sideways pressure of the turning furrow.
The very last furrow, the mould furrow is taken out of the bottom of the open furrow, and if you can leave it dead straight, everyone should be highly impressed. Having made the last few furrows shallower, it seems surprising that you might want to take an extra furrow, albeit a small one, at this stage. Its name, the mould furrow, suggests its purpose, that is, to create some loose soil, or ‘mould,’ which gives something for the harrows to go at and the seeds to grow in.
This is just a basic introduction to ploughing; there are many more subtleties which you will want to learn when you have gained experience. Ploughing with horses, when it is going right, is a delight. When it isn’t going right, if you have horses that go too fast or won’t stop immediately, or if you can’t work out how to adjust the plough, then it can be most frustrating. Avoiding that frustration by learning good horse skills, preparing the horses, and above all, getting informed instruction and help will give you the best start.
With thanks to Mike Bingham, Will and Ann Williams and Kevin Wright for the photos.