LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay
LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay

LittleField Notes : Hay Notes – Riding on a Load of Hay

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA

O! Someone stole my heart away
Riding on a load of hay
– Hope Arden

I take my hat off to catch a bit of the welcome breeze which has just come up and wipe my dripping forehead with the sleeve of my already sweat-soaked shirt. I lean down, stretch out as far as possible, grope around until I find the end of the trip rope, give a firm tug, and hear the satisfying sound of the hay loader hitch fall to the ground signaling a successful disengagement. I holler out, “To the barn!” Way down below and out of sight, beneath a mountain of hay, I hear Nathan say, “Let’s go, kids,” and the wagon begins to lurch across the hayfield in the direction of the barn. I securely lodge the pitchfork in the load and flop down on my back gazing up at the intense blue July sky. The wagon jostles and bounces over the uneven field, but I scarcely notice – there is nothing so relaxing as riding on a load of hay. The sun is bright and hot so I put my straw hat over my face and close my eyes as we lurch along over the uneven ground. Finally the ride smooths out and I know we’ve entered the lane that cuts through the garden next to the house. I remove my hat again and enjoy the relief of the shade provided by the giant drooping cedar bows which just do brush my face. The sudden clamor of steel wheels on gravel signals our exit from the garden and the beginning of the descent to the barn. Cedars give way to wild cherries, alders and maples. It is a perspective like no other, completely out of the ordinary: at a horse’s pace, leaves and branches pass by a hair’s breadth from my face, with snatches of intense blue sky for background. I savor the cooling sensation of suddenly finding myself resting in the shade, instead of working like a steam engine against the relentless waves of loose hay sent up by the loader. As we reach the bottom of the hill, I feel the tiniest lurch as Nathan releases the brake. We come gee and the eaves of the barn drift into view. The century old raw fir siding, darkened with age, has weathered to a fine patina. From this vantage point I can read the telltale signs of age, nails popping, a green splay of moss, arrested for the moment by the dry heat of summer, a facia board dangles, about to fall. Someday we’ll make repairs, but not today. Today we make hay. I hear ‘whoa’ from down below and the wagon stops precisely; the horses, knowing the drill, scarcely need to be told. I savor one last moment of stillness before laboriously standing up on top of my load with the aid of the pitchfork. Suddenly everything and everyone is in motion, getting ready for the unloading. Today we make hay.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay

The Process

It’s a big project, putting up 20 acres of hay with horses. I love it, I anticipate it, I obsess on it, I worry and fret over its intricacies; I do my best to parse its nuances, to coordinate its many moving parts. It’s a tightrope, balancing, juggling, three ring circus kind of affair. The logistics are formidable.

If I used a modern tractor and round baler, I could mow the whole 20 acres in one day by myself; day two ted the hay; day three rake it; day four bale it; day five go fishing. As long as rain doesn’t threaten I could pick up the bales at my leisure.

Making loose hay with horses is not so simple. It looks something like this:

Day one:

  • mow the approximate amount of hay that my crew can put in the barn in one day.

Day two:

  • mow that much hay again on an adjoining land
  • ted yesterday’s mowing

Day three:

  • mow again
  • ted yesterday’s mowing
  • rake the hay from day one

Day four:

  • mow
  • rake
  • ted
  • after the dew is off and the afore mentioned work is done, pick up the hay from the first day and load it in the barn. If enough help and horses are available, some of these tasks can be done simultaneously.

Day five:

  • same as day four, but add raking the scatters from day four. For this job we use a dump rake. (Scatters are the bits of hay that fall from the wagon or are missed by the hay loader.)

By day four and five it’s getting complicated: One mower requires two horses and one teamster; two mowers require two teamsters and four horses. We have two tedders, one an old-style McCormick set up for a single horse, and the other a newer Amish built unit pulled with a forecart, single or double depending on the available horse power and the size of the field. Our ground-drive, modern (relatively speaking) side-delivery rake is used behind a forecart, again single or double depending on circumstances. I use three horses on the hayloader, and we need one on the rope at the barn. We have three sizes of horses, fjords, Suffolks, and crosses, aged 6 months to 28 years, one of whom is a stallion, most of whom can work one with another, but not all. I have three regular farm hands in the summer: one doesn’t drive at all, two can drive pretty much any outfit, and one can, at this point drive certain machines with certain horses, but not all. You add in vagaries of weather, inevitable breakdowns, and the possibility of horse injury or illness, and you have a symphonic level of nuance and complexity.

I love loose hay, everything about it: the quality, it’s beautiful compatibility with horse drawn technology, the way it feels when hefting a satisfying bunch on a fork before shoving it down into a manger while outside the rain blows sideways in a January gale. Having said this, it may surprise you to learn that for reasons related to my own aging self, and the uncertainty of help, I bought a baler a couple of years ago.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay


This year though we started out with the intention of making loose hay. And why not, the Farmall refused to start, and I had an enthusiastic crew of young agricultural idealists that were aghast at the idea of doing it any other way.

We had a nice stretch of weather the second week of July and we set to work mowing, tedding, and raking. We drug the hay loader out, greased it up, and were putting only our second wagon load of hay in the barn when it happened. I was driving Suffolk stallion Donald on the haul-back rope, drawing up a few hundred pounds of loose hay from the wagon to the loft. For years I’ve known we had a weakness at the far end of the track; decades of pigeon droppings had corroded the last section almost into non-existence. I also knew exactly how far I could go with the rope, and I’d cleverly marked the spot with a rock on top of a fence post. The rock meant ‘Danger! Do not proceed past this point.’ Donald came up to the post while hefting the third jag. When his head came in line with the rock, I said ‘whoa.’ As he stopped he somehow ended up slightly off balance and took one step too far, one last, fateful 1800 pound step. The crash as the trolley fell off the track was telegraphed directly to Donald and me standing in the sun-baked, dusty loafing yard 50 yards out from the barn. The rope snapped taught even as Donald started to come haw like usual, unconcerned about the calamity that had just occurred.

Much to the disappointment of my young crew, I announced that we were done with loose hay for the year. The repairs were simply more serious than we could undertake now in the middle of the season.

Fortunately, my newest young farmhand Carson has an extraordinary talent with all things mechanical, and by the next afternoon he was able to get the old tractor fired up and we started making bales. This went along pretty well until the second afternoon of baling when the tractor developed a pretty serious radiator leak. Once again we found ourselves becalmed by breakdown. It being Friday afternoon, and the Farmall being seventy-two years old, no replacement radiators were available in a reasonable amount of time. Hoping for a quick-fix, we added a bottle of stop-leak, which unfortunately proved ineffective. After the trolley derailment we were no longer constrained by how much loose hay we could put in the barn in an afternoon, so we mowed with abandon, dropping 15 acres of hay in just a couple of days. The mowing was very pleasant, but looking out across that vast sea of grass lying on the ground in the baking sun, I was at a loss. With neither tractor, nor trolley, short of making outdoor stacks by hand, we had no viable option for picking up and storing the mown hay.

We stood around the next morning wondering what in the world we were going to do. The previous afternoon I had ordered a new radiator from California, but it was days out. The only option that remained was to somehow get the trolley back on the track. As sometimes happens when under duress and in a tight spot, I had an idea, and I thought it just might work.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay

I climbed like Spiderman up the ‘ladder’ on the back wall of the barn, up to the dizzyingly high catwalk that was placed there for the purpose of maintaining the trolley at the end of the track. Using an electric winch attached to the rope, we slowly raised the trolley up off the barn floor and up to the catwalk where I retrieved it. I very carefully put in place a thin 30 inch piece of metal, salvaged from some old cabinet hardware, to bridge the gap in the corroded track. I secured the twisted, bent end of what track remained with a piece of baling twine. Then ever so carefully, scarcely daring to breathe, all the while trying not to fall off my precarious perch, I lifted the cast iron trolley (which must weigh 40 pounds) and eased on the front wheels, then slowly pushed and lifted until all four wheels were engaged, one side supported by what remained of the original track, and the other by the piece of improvised track. I held my breath and pushed further, bit by bit, a half-inch at a time. It held. As the trolley passed out of reach, I called down to Carson to gently pull the rope. He did so and I let out a little whoop as the trolley rolled freely forward finding secure footing on good solid track.

Carson cleverly suggested that we use a fixed object to tie a safety into the return rope, making it impossible to pull the trolley past the danger zone. I praised his clear headed, logical thinking, while I cussed my own muddled ideas about putting rocks on fence posts and trusting to giant horses and my own acuity to stop just in the nick of time.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay


“You’ve got to watch those two mares, they like to run,” says one wisened teamster to another. “That doesn’t concern me,” says the second fellow. “I can ride as fast as they can run.”

When we hitch up live horsepower and go to the field, we take a certain calculated risk – every time. In order to reduce that risk, it is important to take the utmost care in our preparation, attend to the quality and maintenance of our harness and equipment, ensure the proper training of young horses, and the proper formation of young teamsters. Yet even having laid the best groundwork, and invested in the best equipment, adventures and accidents will, from time to time, happen in one form or another. One incident from this haying season is worth the telling.

A couple of days after the trolley fell off the track Nathan and I were setting out to mow about 3 acres of hay in the triangular corner of the upper field down at the end of the lane. This being the last bit of mowing for the season, our teams were conditioned, the mowers well tuned and sharp, the day bright and warm but not excessively so. Nathan was driving Stella and Luna on a John Deere Big 4, and I was driving veteran fjord Ole with three-year-old Suffolk Jimmy on a McCormick #9. Our teams were stepping out smartly, the hay falling in lovely cascades behind the sickles with scarcely a plug. There is a bit of a hill on the back side of the field which becomes gradually less steep with each successive round. I was heading up this incline after making three or four rounds when suddenly my team startled and took off to the left, pulling the mower out of the standing hay. With a firm hand on the lines and an equally firm command, I voiced a solid ‘whoa!’ Normally the horses would have stopped, we would have regrouped and reengaged with the mowing. This team, on this day, just kept going at a good clip and gaining. Though I wasn’t worried yet, I was definitely puzzled, as I had neither seen nor heard anything that could have caused alarm. They were making for the fenced tree line just off to our left. Ok, I thought, with that visual barrier and my more insistent commands to stop, we’ll get this situation under control. But it was not to be, by now the horses were running – full out. Heading straight for a barbed wire fence is a decidedly bad idea with out-of-control horses. It is interesting to note that in the case of a runaway, while you are indeed out of control in the sense that you cannot stop the horses (and it is a terrifying realization), the truth is, runaway horses, given enough room can still usually be steered, if not stopped. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), this was not my first runaway, and I managed to keep panic at bay and react somewhat coherently to the situation. I steered the horses away from the fence, and away we went across the open field, like the Calgary Stampede on a mower instead of a chuckwagon. Everything I have just described, though it seems to have taken an eternity as I reflect on it, took place in a matter of seconds. In the next few seconds as we flew across the field, another thousand thoughts flashed through my mind: Wow, how in the world did that happen? Should I bail off of this thing? Can I ride it out? This is terrible! – the mower is still in gear, at this speed this thing will chew itself to bits. Don’t forget the story that Lenny Campbell told you all those years ago about the brand new out-of-the-box (literally) #9 mower that he was lucky enough to find, and how the first time they hitched it up there on the ranch, they had a runaway and the thing was destroyed. No, definitely don’t bail off the mower, or it will for sure be busted up, and likely you, and your horses too; you know better, stick with it as long as you’re in the open and you can keep them going moderately straight; [the horses, in mid-flight, jump violently to the left, by some miracle I manage to not be unseated] holy cow, what was that!? – ah…two deer, that must have been what spooked them initially; ok hang with them, you are doing fine, just keep your balance and keep a hold of those lines, (gosh, this is dangerous!) and think, think, what’s your next move? Got it! – just ahead is that swampy patch of reed canary grass, drive straight into that and you just might get ’em stopped.

Which is exactly what I did, and they did indeed stop, almost immediately. They just couldn’t keep up that pace in soft mucky ground with the cutter bar down in that tall, thick grass. Everything went silent. And what a blessed silence it was, but not total, as there was yet one sound, that of those blasted horses contentedly chewing on giant mouthfuls of the grass that towered up over their heads. The horses were instantly at ease, apparently untroubled by what had just occurred. I meanwhile, was slumped forward, shoulders hunched, breathing heavily and re-gathering my wits which I had left scattered across the field. My thoughts came more slowly now: I’m fine, I’m not hurt; my horses are fine, they are not hurt; the mower is beat up, but not destroyed. I see the pitman stick is broken, but that is as it should be, if it’s doing it’s job it should break first, like a sort of circuit breaker, sparing gears and cast parts. I got lucky today, that could have ended badly. I’m just glad it wasn’t young Nathan. I sat there recovering and reflecting for what must have been 10 minutes while the horses grazed contentedly. I finally lifted up the cutter bar, tied up the busted remains of the pitman stick with a piece of string, and headed back to the barn.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay

Nathan had seen the whole thing from behind me, though he too missed the initial event that startled the horses. As near as we could piece together, the two deer had been bedded down in the tall grass, and as we mowed around and around, they became more nervous with each pass until finally, feeling cornered, they jumped up and bounded off. Because of the hill, the tall standing hay, and the clatter of the mower I neither heard nor saw the deer initially, but the horses sure did – first they took fright, and then they took flight. It’s what horses do.

This is a dangerous business and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Yes, it is absolutely rewarding, beautiful, fulfilling, and a most appropriate way to accomplish the work of farming, but a dangerous business nonetheless. There is nothing I know of that I could have done otherwise to have better prepared myself or those two horses for what happened that morning. I have been working horses for 30 years, Ole is an experienced farm horse of 16 years. Jimmy is a three year-old, it’s true, and he certainly did not have years of experience behind him, but he is one of the most willing and levelheaded colts I have ever trained. He was accepting of everything I threw at him. At no time in the several months leading up to his first full season of work did he try to run; he never even once tightened the buckback rope on his first trips on the forecart.

On a beautiful July morning after three weeks of daily work, my horses, walking along quietly and comfortably, were suddenly startled and ran away – and all I could do was ride along.

LittleField Notes Riding on a Load of Hay

A Note to Four Fine Young Men

Dear Brendan, Nathan, José, Carson,

Now that the last forkful of hay has been carefully placed in the mow, I wanted to write a brief note of appreciation to let you know how proud I am of the fine work you have done this summer.

In that dark hour when the barn and the tractor both seemed hopelessly broken, and I looked out across the field at that expanse of mown hay, and when I read the reports of the imminent heat wave, my heart sank. I was sure there was no way we could ever pick up all that hay before it bleached out in the summer heat. Yet, because of your persistence and your insistence that we not lose sight of our horse-powered agrarian ideal, we accomplished something special, way beyond my expectations.

I see now that in the small world of Littlefield Farm, a baler has become a symbol of compromise, an emblem of eroding standards, of infidelity to the dream. It is true that even before the trolley breakdown forced our hand, I had threatened to bale all of the hay; it is also true that I made the announcement with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm, touting the fact that we could finish the whole job much more quickly than by using the horses on the hay loader. I said something about how this would relieve a lot of pressure and anxiety because we could bail in a single afternoon what might take several afternoons of loose hay loading. At this announcement your downcast looks and disappointment did not escape my notice. In that moment I let you down. Let you down with my wisened practicality, my misplaced focus on product rather than process.

If one proffers a vision, and if that vision is honest and true, one must accept the responsibility to nurture its growth and development. I owe that to you. I am extremely proud that you have made this lifestyle your own, that I have helped inspire in you a healthy reverence for good tools and honest work, along with a healthy irreverence for doing things just for the sake of efficiency, and ‘progress.’

It is all too true that idealism fades with age, yet we aging persons have a right (or so we tell ourselves) to become more pragmatic, to set aside youthful exuberance in favor of methods safe and staid. There are precious few gray-haired revolutionaries. As we age, we become tired, and complacent, reaching for easy solutions, forever searching not only to smooth out the wrinkles, but to avoid the wrinkles altogether. We trade in the armchair for a recliner, trade up from a tent to an RV, trade in the hay loader for a baler. These changes are fine and natural as far as they go, but as we shed youthful enthusiasms, we romantics must accept that something important is lost along the way. But what is lost can be found again, and there is no better mirror than that of youth to show us what we are losing.

In an age when young people are chided and derided for their umbilical attachment to their devices, their propensity to avoid physical work, and for their general lack of practical knowledge, you guys proved the exception. Putting up twenty acres of loose hay with horses is no lightweight affair and I couldn’t have done it without your enthusiastic commitment to the project. You worked hard and long and with indefatigably good cheer. I dare say, in the end we had a grand old time of it. It feeds the soul to accomplish something so real as stuffing an old barn full of the sweet perfume goodness of loose hay. Thank you for being a part of it. Thank you for restoring and revitalizing my passion for the process. One sleeps well after a day of good hard work. One also sleeps well with the sure knowledge that passion and energy for craftsmanship and good work will continue on to the next generation.

Thank you boys, you’re the best! – Ryan