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.
They served our farm unfailingly while I learned the ropes and built a business. After Lester died I used to hook Earl to my homemade tip-cart and lay mulch on the garlic beds in the fall. I would hook up the lines of course, but when we got to the field they really weren’t necessary. I would just talk to him, “Ok Earl,” and off he’d go down the row 20 or 30 feet and stop. I would mulch up to the cart, say the word and off he’d go again, walking daintily between the beds with nary a miss-step.
They are both gone now. I miss their steady presence and quiet ways. The working partnership I had with them is at the heart of what makes this business of farming with horses so alluring. Though they weren’t flashy or striking to look at, they had the quiet, solid work ethic so desired in a farm team. I would wish a team like that for every new horse farmer.
A dear friend’s tale illustrates an all too common scenario without the happy ending of my first experience. She was a newly graduated farmer, fresh from two very successful farm apprenticeships in which she received lots of practice and good solid experience working horses on various pieces of farm machinery. She moved to the farm of her dreams, and bought a pair of young green broke mares. They were beautiful and full of promise, yet unproven in the work-a-day world of the farm. The young farmer hitched her young team to a cultivator one fine June day and in an instant, without warning, the team took off like it was the Kentucky Derby. You should know that an old McCormick straddle row cultivator is a death trap in a runaway. The operator is slung low between wheels, high on either side, settled in like a turret gunner and just as vulnerable. Fortunately in this instance the worst was avoided. The short-term result was a scared teamster, nervous frightened horses, and a damaged, though not totaled, machine. The long-term consequences however, were of greater consequence and more tragic. Understand- ably the horses were put on the back burner, their everyday use shelved, and other tillage options considered. The team, with the memory of the incident never far from their minds, were nervous and prancy when hitched, and the teamster nervous and jittery herself when holding the lines. Not the picture of workhorse success that we want to see in the new farmer.
I received a phone call a while back from her asking did I want to buy her horse-drawn equipment, as she didn’t think horses were in her future. I could not in good conscience do such a thing. I know that she will return to the horses someday. It’s too hard to shake the dream once it’s planted. There is a Lester and Earl out there for her somewhere. If she can hold on until she finds them, and then ease back into it, she’ll be able to put her painstakingly procured equipment to good use once again.
I don’t mean to say that a beginner cannot, or should not, under any circumstances train young horses. There are countless stories of people having done it and done it well. My hat is off to them. However my own experiences, and those of several close friends, have convinced me to unhesitatingly recommend that beginners should try mightily to purchase a proven, older, quiet team. Buying and training young horses is better suited to those with more experience.
So you are looking for that first team. Clydes, Shires, Suffolks, Belgians, Percherons, Halflingers, Fjords, draft crosses… so many to choose from. Of course if you look at the promotional material from any of the above breed registries they are all going to assure you theirs is the best. Each certainly does have its merits. Each will have something that another may lack. Some have exceptional feet, some are taller and leggier, while others are squatter and more heavily muscled. Some will have a quiet disposition, while others may be more amped up. Some breeds may be readily available in your area with several local breeders, while others may not be available at any price.
Over the years I have had opportunity to work exceptional horses representing nearly all the major breeds. One must bear in mind that the general characteristics representative of a particular breed are just a generality. Individual animals will vary in one degree or another away from the breed standard. Be sure not to overlook the mixed breed horse either. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has the most mixed up bunch of crossbred work horses you have ever seen. They simply find a good stallion locally and turn him out with a bunch of mares on summer pasture. The colts are raised and trained and a lot of work gets done every winter with these completely un-pedigreed, hardy, mixed-blood horses.
The Suffolk punch is my breed of choice for a full sized draft horse. They have been bred exclusively for farm work for centuries and satisfy all of my main criteria for a work animal. I want a workhorse that has good solid feet, preferably of dark color which is not as prone to flaking and cracking. After all, “no foot, no horse.” I like a compact animal, no taller than 16 hands, so that a short guy like myself can throw the harness on without needing a ladder. I’m looking for a conformation that says “plow horse,” with a squat low center of gravity and with good heavy boned legs without a lot of feathering to attract mud and dirt. I like a quiet, even tempered, willing horse that is pleasant to be around. The Suffolk certainly has met my expectations for what I want in a working horse. Using them also contributes to their preservation, as there are only an estimated 1200 animals worldwide.
Some farms may find that the smaller size and economy of a Norwegian fjord or halflinger may fit their needs nicely. These smaller breeds are particularly well suited to the needs of the market garden, where acreage requiring primary tillage in a given season is not so large, and opportunities for time spent on the cultivator are ample. Their small feet and small feed bill are attractive reasons to think about these smaller breeds. Here at Littlefield Farm, we have found that having both a team of Fjords and team of Suffolks is very useful. There are many tasks for which a pair of full-size draft animals is simply not necessary and for which the fjords are ideally suited. We put them to work pulling the hay rake, tedder, and straddle row cultivator, as well as doing light cart and wagon work and harrowing in the small spaces in the garden. Occasionally I will use three abreast to plow, harrow and disc. The big horses do most of the mowing and plowing as well as pulling the hay loader. Although this year, just as we were working through our last hayfield, Fred, the mighty Suffolk, came up lame and the Fjords were pressed into service pulling the hayloader. They really impressed me with their scrappy ability to pull a big load. They stepped up to the plate — in a big way. Actually, our loads of loose hay were not much smaller with the ponies pulling than with the Suffolks. We certainly learned to never underestimate the heart and soul of these compact little work ponies.
Another reason I champion the Fjord is for their dual-purpose ability to be useful as a saddle horse as well as a draft horse. I ride quite a bit to move and sort cattle, check fence, or for any other of the innumerable reasons one may have for moving from one place to another on the farm. I frequently work a fjord in the field in the morning, and at noon exchange harness for saddle and go to work moving cattle in the afternoon. Versatility and a tenacious, hard-pulling work ethic make these big ponies/little horses a good fit for just about any horse powered farm. My only caution is that I have definitely noticed that they tend to be — as one horse book put it — “willful,” having a penchant for a bit of barn sourness. They are easy keepers with a fondness for the groceries and will balloon up in a hurry if access to pasture is not controlled.
At the end of the day a good fit is any horse that fits your needs, interests, skill level, workload, and budget. Remember, what is on the inside of a horse is more important that what is on the outside. After all, old Lester sure wasn’t much to look at especially in his older days when he developed Cushing’s disease and grew a coat like a wooly mammoth. Despite that, he was still the workingist, gentlest, most honest horse you could ever hope to find. So go find some good horses you like, treat them well, set them to honest work and savor the process.