by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty
Making Your Horses Work For You Part 1
The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses. I would like to see farms rely more on the horses and less on the tractor.
All too often I talk with farmers and aspiring farmers who are plagued by that nagging internal voice which whispers, “I really should be using those horses more. There they stand out in the field getting sassy and fat while I fire up the tractor again; them standing there, watching me from across the fence, me going to the field without them once again.” I know folks who desperately want to use their horses more, but always seem to find one or more stumbling blocks that hold them back, including the oft quoted falsehood that using horses simply will not pay, considering market imperatives and pressures of the modern age. It’s time to break down these barriers to success and help aspiring farmers create the horse- powered farm of their dreams. This issue and next I want to address some practical ways in which you can make more effective use of your horses in the everyday working of the farm.
From Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton:
“When work is mere thoughtless drudgery, slavery to a machine or to some other of the countless mechanical routines of modern life, undertaken only in view of a wage, then naturally the mind and system of the worker react against this irrationality and disorder. On the one hand, meaningful activity is sought in some sort of tension-releasing recreation that relieves the tedium of one’s daily job. On the other, a person with spiritual aspirations may tend more and more to escape from his monotonous and futile work-routines into a separate spiritual realm in which he tries to find comfort in prayer and communion with a God who has emphatically nothing to do with machines.”
Anyone who has grown up in the modern, internal-combustion powered world has a certain set of expectations relative to speed and convenience built in from birth. We are born into a world of speed and ease. A choice to use horses on the farm runs counter to the ordinary conditioning of the modern mind. Instead of seeking bigger and faster ways of accomplishing tasks, horse farmers seek to stay small and go slow — by choice. This aspect of choice is critical. For most of human agricultural history humans have been steeped in slowness by necessity; it came naturally. There was no choice. The human mind and ambition didn’t resist slowness because the option of speed was not available. In fact, having a team of horses would have seemed a luxury when compared to the only other options available: the shovel and hoe.
So by choosing, of our own volition, to slow our pace of work, we encounter a kind of cognitive dissonance that must be reconciled in the practical, everyday workings of the farm in order for the modern day horse farmer to be successful. In other words, one has to throw out the dominant paradigms of scale, structure and speed and think like a horse farmer. Successful farms have been powered by animals for 10,000 years, and there is no reason that the invention of the internal combustion engine should, in the span of 70 or so years, put an end to human scaled farming as it has been practiced for centuries. In order that this kind of farming continue, we all need to take the lines in our hands, drive the horses to the field and get the work done. Otherwise we risk ending up as just so many romantic visionaries, farming in our minds from the comfort of the easy chair- or the tractor seat- without a trace of soil under out fingertips.
More people are recognizing that farming with horses offers a life of balance in an unbalanced world. Folks are attracted to a way of working that allows time for contemplation; an opportunity to feel a part of a process, rather than always standing on the outside looking in. People are seeking ways to enrich their own lives and the lives of others by nurturing and working with biological processes, rather than continuing to impose our violent wills upon nature in the form of huge machines, chemicals, and that newest form of ecological tyranny- genetic manipulation. People are fed up with being ruled by a world of machines and speed. However, understanding the problems of a techno-centric culture, and appreciating that slower living offers a fine way out, is, at best, only half of the solution. We need people out there doing it: living and farming in simple ways, feeding local people utilizing biological capital and the honest sweat of their brow. I have several good friends who understand all of this, and yet struggle to turn the dream into reality. So let’s take a look at some real world ideas to help make your farm what you really want it to be. Enough of compromising solutions! Enough of that which dilutes our appetite for sublime experience steeped in the rhythm and romance of good work!
It all starts with the barn. Ask a random person on the street to think of a farm and the first thing that will come to mind is the big gambrel roofed, red and white barn with the rooster weather vane on top and all of Old McDonald’s animals inside. With the advent of tractor farming and mono-cropping, the old barn with the loft above and stalls below has become obsolete to the modern way of farming. Replaced by enormous metal buildings for behemoth machines, or sadly, torn down and not replaced at all, these majestic buildings have largely lost their relevance. However, the barn is the heartbeat of the horse-powered farm; its place just as important today as it ever was. The day begins here with feeding, grooming and harnessing. Lunchtime finds you back again to water, feed and rest the horses while you water, feed and rest yourself. Evening comes and you’re back again to wrap up the day — unharness, feed and water, milk, gather the eggs, slop the hogs. A well thought-out barn will go a long way toward making the operation of the horse-powered farm efficient and practical. If you are not lucky enough to have a real horse barn, new or old, many of the same concepts I present here can be duplicated with a little thought and creativity using other structures. A three-sided shelter with mangers and tie rings will do. Even a hitching rail and a harness shed nearby can get you started. Having a good working set-up with barn or other structure so the horses are ready when you need them is an important first step in getting your horse drawn operation to function in an efficient manner.
One difficulty some aspiring farmers deal with is the need to “catch” the horses before going to the field. I’ll typically hear something like this: “By the time you’re done chasing them around the field and get ‘em caught, you could have had the job done if you’d fired up the tractor.” Well, I don’t believe in “catching” horses. If I had to chase my horses around the pasture every time I needed to get something done I would use the tractor too.
The horses need to be in the barn, where you want them, when you want them. If we are to have our horses at the ready we must establish a daily working routine. Livestock like routine. They require it. Constant change and inconsistency throws them off and makes them unsure of what to expect, making our job of management more difficult than it needs to be.
I have a winter barn routine and a summer one. Each is basically the mirror image of the other. In the winter the horses are brought in at evening chore time from the loafing yard and stabled in tie stalls for the night. Grain and hay are the secret here. They know to line up at the gate at the same time every day and I will let them in for groceries. The stalls are clean and bedded; the grain ration is waiting in grain boxes and hay fills each manger. The horses know which stall is theirs, and generally go right to it. Halters are slipped on and soon the contentment is palpable as the sound of horses munching good loose hay fills the space inside the cozy winter barn. In the morning the mangers are filled with hay once again, and if a team is needed that day one will be harnessed at that time.
Once the pastures come on and we no longer need to feed hay, I reverse the schedule and bring the horses in first thing in the morning — this time with just grain. I simply call “boys!” and they come running. I’m sure I will have detractors here who will say my horses are “spoiled.” Grain, in addition to being a valuable feed, is also a useful management tool. No, I would not recommend going out to the middle of a pasture and calling a dozen horses to you while you hold a bucket of grain in your hands. Nor do I recommend handing out little “treats” every time you want to praise a horse. My horses only get grain in the barn, in their own stall, and only in the morning or evening, unless they are working, in which case, I will grain them at noon as well.
In the summer months when opportunities abound for working the horses, I like to harness everybody up first thing in the morning. There they will stand, at the ready when needed; no catching, chasing, getting out of breath or cussing.
In addition to having the horses where we want them, bringing them in every day provides lots of little teaching moments; daily opportunities to reinforce manners and skills such as stepping over, backing and standing patiently — all skills that will help us as we head to the field to get a job done.
As the horses come into the barn each day we are afforded an excellent opportunity to observe them for signs of lameness or sickness. A horse that doesn’t feel well for some reason will come in slower than normal; or we may notice that a horse is not in his normal place in the pecking order established by the herd. If we are observant, we will learn how each horse carries himself, how he moves when healthy, so we are less likely to miss a sign that he may not be well.
Horses left on their own for too long in the pasture without regular human contact tend to get sassy and will be more difficult to be around than those that experience regular stabling. If we are going to get the most out of our horses we want their minds and hearts with us as we go to the field. By interacting with them daily through the barn routine they become very accustomed to being in the presence of humans. They learn to trust us. We are asking them to be our working partners and we expect their full attention when we go to work, and they expect our full attention when we care for them at chore time.
Some of my favorite memories are of bringing in horses in the morning. I remember summers at Grassy Mountain Ranch, Montana, where we would wrangle 50 or 60 head of horses every morning. What a thrill to ride bareback, like a Comanche, bringing the herd into the corral in the tender early morning light of a youthful summer long ago. I get no less of a thrill now, just standing, watching as our seven horses come thundering into the barn on a misty morning in March in advance of a day of spring plowing.
How the barn is laid out and arranged is very important to the smooth day-to-day functioning of the horse-powered farm. All of the pastures should be easily accessed from the barn. We have four pastures that the horses are rotated through during the course of the year. By opening and shutting the proper gates, we simply take the halters off at the end of the day and the horses will find their way to the intended pasture via the doors and gates that have been left open or shut. This past winter we renovated a fenced alley that will allow us to bypass the winter horse loafing area. Formerly this sacrifice area, which becomes a muddy mess during the winter months, was needed as a pathway to the far wooded pasture known as the Shire. Because of the constant livestock traffic it grew nothing but scrubby weeds all summer. With the addition of the alley, we can now by-bass this little piece of ground and plant it to oat hay, thus utilizing a formerly unproductive part of the farm.
A word or two about stalls: I prefer a double tie stall rather than a single. With the double stall you simply rig up lines and neck yoke in the stall, back out and go to work. With the single stall you must first get one horse and have him stand somewhere while you fetch the other; not the end of the world for sure, but each additional level of complication in the routine will add one more reason to not use the horses when choice presents itself. In our barn we actually have the option of a triple tie stall, an odd configuration that nicely utilized the existing structural posts of the barn in an efficient manner. For the most part I just use the double side. However, I can rig a three-abreast hitch in one of these stalls, which is a nice luxury.
I like the harness and collars to hang on the post right behind the horse rather than in another room. Again, it is handy and convenient. Additionally, if you ever have help who is unfamiliar with the horses and harness, it will be readily apparent to which horse each harness belongs. Of course brushes and curry combs should be close at hand as well. In the same vein I like to keep all the neck yokes in the barn near the stalls and put the proper one on before heading out. With many different pieces of equipment in use, and with several different size eveners, it is nice to have the yokes all there in one place, ready to go, not still out with the implement that was last driven. Sometimes I’ll use four or five different implements in a day and I don’t want to have to wonder where I might have left that 40 inch neck yoke when I need it.
Much of what will make your operation succeed revolves around good organization, established routine, and logical physical arrangement of buildings, fences and fields. I’ll carry on this discussion next issue with thoughts about equipment, rotations, pace and timing of work, and how it all relates to making your horses work for you.