Making Your Horses Work For You Part 2
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by E.W. Littlefield Jr.
Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.
Farming is an enormously complex endeavor. In generations past, the complexity, local knowledge and techniques unique to a particular region were passed down within families and communities. There was a connective lineage unbroken by succeeding generations. Young farmers starting out now do not usually have the good fortune of having grown up with soil under their fingernails, or having spent mornings in the barn while Dad and Grandpa harnessed up, discussing the work of the day ahead. To take on the steward- ship of a piece of land and try to scratch out a living on it has always required a lot of tenacity and a broad base of knowledge. This is no different today. A young farmer must learn something of soil science, rotations, livestock care, marketing, tilling, timing, and fixing rusty iron to name but a few of the skills necessary to successful farming. Adding horses to the already bubbling brew of the new farm is a tall order indeed.
When I say the horses you choose at the outset will make a difference relative to your horse farming success, I speak from experience. I have seen excellent outcomes but I’ve also seen those that haven’t worked out so well. Let me say right now- loud and clear: if you are getting your first team try to find a well broke, older one with some miles and experience. Don’t be lured by with the lower price tag or flashy curb appeal of the young two year old, perfectly matched, registered, bred-up, pedigreed team. Be patient. Talk to experienced teamsters. Make sure you drive a team before you buy. Ask a lot of questions. Your first team has the power to make you into a life long teamster — or tractor farmer who used to own a team.
When I bought my 10 acres of land and decided for sure that I would use horses for all of my tillage, I started looking and asking around about teams for sale. At that time, in western Wyoming, there were quite a few big horses around, what with the Wyoming Game and Fish feeding 25,000 head of elk all winter, numerous dude ranch and wagon train outfits, and the fair number of cattle ranches that still fed with horses. Despite the relatively large number of work horses in the area, there were not a lot of young horses for sale like you might find in Amish country. Through the grapevine, I heard about an older pair for sale that were Amish broke out of Iowa, but for the last several years had been feeding elk up at the Grays River feed ground. They still had “plenty of work left in ‘em,” I was told. They were a pair of fairly well matched, grade Belgian geldings being replaced by a big young Shire team. I hitched and drove them, and decided right away that they were going to be a good fit for my upstart market farming operation. At $2,000 for both, I knew that was more than a fair price, though Steve Clark, in his good natured, Star Valley way, agreed to take $1000 up front if I would send him $100 a month until the balance was paid. No interest. That was more than fair, I thought.
And so Lester and Earl came into my life and I’ve never been the same since. Those boys would do anything asked of them. Plow snow, plow dirt, mow, cultivate, pull a wagon, work single and work double on either side. I know they would have stood for hours if asked. I’ll never forget the time I bought several lengths of used 4” sprinkler line from a neighbor and the only way to get it to the farm was to put the load on my wagon and haul it down the lane. Imagine eight or ten clanking, banging 40’ hand lines on a 16’ wagon bed. There were pipes crashing around right up over their heads – such a racket and commotion you’ve never heard come from a wagon. Lester and Earl just stepped up like they were hauling tourists around the pond in Central Park!
I was fortunate to already have basic horse skills when I brought Lester and Earl to the farm. Their patience and gentle quiet ways would go a long way toward making my first forays into operating horse drawn farm machinery successful. I always knew I didn’t have to worry about the horse end of things. Instead, I could concentrate on figuring out whatever plow or cultivator adjustments I may have been struggling with. It was an ideal situation for a young farmer.