LittleField Notes What Letters Bring

LittleField Notes: What Letters Bring

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA

Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives. – Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn, 29 June 1784

This issue I am going to invite you to lean over the fence rail and listen-in to a conversation that took place via email just before Christmas 2015 between myself and Ben Saur, whom I visited with last fall at the Farmer-to-Farmer gathering in Dorena, Oregon. Ben is just getting started farming with a team of Fjords in Hood River, Oregon. Following Farmer-to-Farmer Ben emailed with several farming related queries. The questions Ben asks get right to the heart of what it takes to get started in farming. He’s not asking grandiose questions about how to hitch 12 horses to a four-bottom gangplow, or how to properly line-breed a pedigreed herd of Watusi cattle (though I don’t mean to imply that these questions are not perfectly worthwhile in the proper context), but rather more seemingly mundane questions; standing-there-with-your-headcocked-scratching-your-chin kinds of questions; no glamour, just grit. I have a feeling that Ben is not alone in his quest for answers to such basic questions.

Indeed, part of what interests me in writing this column is addressing the very kinds of questions Ben asks: the ones that fall through the cracks of books, the little every day circumstantial kinds of questions that in a former time would likely have been answered by one’s father and grandfather. But we live now in a fractured and disparate world, too often isolated and alone on our little agrarian islands in a sea of encroaching industrial suburbanism. In our time, fathers and grandfathers, like as not, live far away and probably aren’t even farmers at all. Hence, a conversation like this takes on a greater significance than it may at first seem. A question asked by one is usually wondered about by many.

And so I present to you our nearly complete exchange with only slight editing for clarity as it occurred just before Christmas 2015. Hopefully this information will be of value to others of you out there just starting out on your own horse farming adventures.

Hey Ryan,

Was nice meeting you again at the Farmer-to-Farmer in October. Glad you brought the Homesteader; it was what I needed to make my decision to buy one. Just wanted to touch base and let you know what we’re up to, we are going to need all the help we can get as we start our venture into the workhorse world.

As you may remember, we got our team of Fjords the weekend after the F2F. They’re a somewhat older team that is fairly rusty in the working world. The folks we bought them from used them occasionally for driving, but I don’t think they did much actual work. Unfortunately that seems somewhat common among folks who have worked horses. So, we’re going slow, learning to walk and pull some weight at the same time. As soon as they have weight to pull they want to pick up the pace and my guess is they haven’t experienced pulling weight slowly in a while.

We also got our Homesteader recently, as well as a No. 9 Mower. If you don’t mind I may send you some pictures of the Homesteader to make sure it’s set up correctly, and I’d love to pick your brain on how to switch out implements, etc. Also would love to hear how your training has gone with your Fjords and some of the things you’ve learned about them. Have you used them to mow? The mower we just got has a long bar, as well as a shorter 3 foot bar. I’m curious if the Fjords would do better with a smaller bar or if they’d do just fine with the full length one. Also curious if I should cut the tongue of the mower a bit to match the smaller team.

Really enjoy your stories, wisdom, and insight in your articles and when we were able talk as well.

Hope you’re not flooding up there!!

-Ben Saur, Mt. Hood, Oregon


It is good to hear from you. I’m glad you are getting started with the horses.

Feel free to send pictures of the Homesteader and I’ll take a look at the setup. Be sure that the tongue is set in the shorter position for Fjords. Changing out implements is quite easy with some practice. Here are some hints to help you perhaps shorten the learning curve:

1- Have the tongue at working height, either with the horses hitched (and tied, of course) or otherwise propped up.

2- Undo one or both draft chains that hook in behind the evener to make room for maneuvering the implement into place.

3- Use the main adjusting lever to lower the tool bar to the optimal height so you are not lifting too much.

4- Once you have the tool in the slots, position yourself behind the implement and pull the back end of the tool up so it seats on the toolbar and, finally, slide the pins in.

5- To make wheel adjustments easier wipe the dirt off the axel with a rag and hit it with WD-40. Don’t use heavier oil, as it will attract dirt.

6- When traveling to the field use the leveling adjustor to lift the front of the implement up so as to avoid digging into uneven ground before you are ready (especially important with the disk).

7- I have a dedicated short rope permanently mounted on my shed where the Homesteader is stored. This simplifies changing implements with the horses hitched. I simply pull up to the post, clip one horse to the rope, change tools, unclip and go.

On training Fjords: I finally found peace with my Fjords when I realized that they have the mind of a pony, not a horse. They are willful, and tend toward barn sourness- I think because of their inherent greedy desire for food.

That said, they are quite capable, willing, and are, pound for pound the toughest horses I’ve ever worked.

I would caution against trying too hard in the beginning to make them walk slow. You don’t want to create hard mouthed horses by being constantly on the bit. Just let them step out naturally, letting them go at a comfortable walking (at this point don’t let them break into a trot) pace, preferably pulling a harrow or such: something that is not an overly hard pull, yet provides enough draft to make them tired. It sounds like what they need is regular work. If they are used every day they will certainly slow down. There is no better training tool than sweat on the collar pad.

Mowers: A Fjord team can pretty readily clip pastures and stemmy crops like alfalfa, or mature rye cover crops with a 5 ft bar. I have found, however that in heavy, dense grass hay the 5 footer was too much. I cut a bar down to 4′ and that was about right for my conditions. And yes, you’ll probably need to cut the tongue down a bit. I can’t remember off the top of my head how long my Fjord tongue is, but you can use the shorter tongue length on the Homesteader as a guide. Incidentally, since I use Suffolks and Fjords, I now make all my tongues a mid-length so that I can hook both size horses up to any implement. The Fjord tug chains are typically hooked in the last link and I’ll drop 3 or 4 links for the big guys.

Hope this helps some. Good luck and let me know how you are progressing.

Best regards,


Thanks for the generous response! Great stuff. I’m glad you mentioned not trying to get them to walk slowly at first, I think you’re right about that-I don’t want to over do the bit pressure as I can tend to pull hard while trying to slow them down.

Hooked to the new stone boat yesterday. The Fjords did pretty well, as soon as I put a bit of weight on it they typically speed up, but it seemed they responded better if I wasn’t pulling back the whole time, only when the speed was too much.

Do you have any tips for getting the double tree off the ground, or does it just come with shorter horses that the double tree is going to drag a bit? Was watching Doc’s video the other day and his double-trees lift off the ground a bit when hauling logs, using taller horses though, so his tugs are starting higher to begin with. Thought about shortening the trace chains a few but didn’t want to hit their feet with the single-trees… Also thought about shortening the chain coming off the stone boat a bit more, is there anything to watch for with how short that is? It connects to both runners with an eyebolt to each side, then I put a quick link and clevis at the middle so it pulls evenish.

And I think you’re absolutely right, regular work for them is going to be key. All this cold rain sure makes me want to be under cover though.

There are two dynamics at work with the evener dragging. One is, as you suspect, length of hitch relative to the height of the horses. The other is amount of draft exerted relative to speed.

As for the first, the chain from the boat can be fairly short; indeed you’ll have better response steering around corners and such with it shorter. The issue here is that as you shorten the chain you increase the opposing pull on the chain at the eyebolts, tending to pull them towards one another width-wise. On my stone boat I drilled holes through the front of the runners and ran the chain right through, eliminating the worry about eyebolts bending or coming loose of their moorings.

I think you could likely drop a couple of tug links safely as well. Just watch carefully and adjust accordingly.

As for the second dynamic- if there is more weight on the boat there will be a more constant pull and less shimmying around. Of course you aren’t always going to have more weight. In theory, if your horses walked very slow and steady the evener would stay airborne even with an empty stone boat. But realistically, at a steady walking pace some dragging of the evener is inevitable. Your job is simply to minimize it as much as possible.

Today we hitched and since the snow had melted over night, the friction on the runners was making it a more steady pull, and just like you said the evener stayed up a bit more. I also shortened the tugs a link. What are you using to attach the chain to the double-tree? I’m kind of make-shifting it, using what I have on hand, but it’s not as slick as I’d like it. I’m also using the double-tree from the forecart, so that makes it a little more awkward (I’ll send a picture).

The girls started much slower today right off; even with the stone boat hooked they did pretty good. I added weight, and also dragged some logs, so they did end up speeding up at times, but I think if I can keep working a few days a week we’ll be in good shape come farming season. Now just gotta have more of these sun breaks!

How’s the Stillaguamish doing? Flooding at all?

A picture is worth 1000 words so I took a couple this morning to illustrate:

LittleField Notes What Letters Bring

This is my stone boat chain set-up. Simply put a clevis through the ring and away you go.

LittleField Notes What Letters Bring

This is actually on a harrow, but it shows a system more like what you have, I think. Note that I never have to touch the quick link- the loop in the chain stays just as it is- precisely in the center. All you mess with is the clevis.

You asked about the river… it’s been up an awful lot so far this winter, even to the point of flooding one of our pastures and lifting a gate off its hinges. Fortunately the original homesteader of this place had his head on straight and all the buildings are high and dry.

Couple more questions, if you don’t mind…

What size double-tree would you recommend? Looking at Pioneer they have the light or heavy (I’m assuming just get the heavy), and then they have several choices of width, 38″, 40”, 42”, or 48”. I would be using it for groundwork, like the stone boat, or pulling logs. They’re Fjords, so I probably don’t need something very wide… maybe just go with the middle choice?

Now for a longer question that needs some context… What I would like to do with the Homesteader eventually is use it with our 4′ on center bed spacing, or at least something close to that. We don’t have the space to do a traditional single row crop system, but need to stay with our bed system to maximize our space. Since the homesteader does have a 48″ wheel spacing that works well, but my question is if the horses can walk in the paths and be that far from each other. I’m wondering if I’m going to need a wider neck yoke to make that possible? I haven’t measured the one that comes with the homesteader but it’s fairly narrow…

As for your doubletree question, I find a 40” inch one to be just fine for general-purpose work. Also I think you might be fine with the light-duty one for pulling a stone boat. I’m not sure that the Fjords would be able to pull hard enough to do a lot of damage to it. Also I think the lighter evener will stay off the ground better. That said, if you intend to do much logging, you will want to get the heavier set.

As for your Homesteader question: unfortunately, due to the built in spacing at the point of draft, there is not a lot you can do to space your horses further apart. If you have a wider neck yolk there’s no readily apparent way to widen them correspondingly at the back of the machine (at the single-trees).

Thanks for the feedback on the double-tree. We will be logging a little, but just our own small woodlot for firewood, not on the commercial scale are anything.

Do you think if I modified the evener on the Homesteader, like welding a few more inches on to spread the single-trees a bit, that it would do it? I suppose I should actually use it a bit before deciding anything, but I still like to kick ideas around for future reference. I received Stephen Leslie’s new book for Christmas and it looks like there is someone who is modifying the Homesteaders for market gardening multi-row systems. I haven’t had a chance to read through it but maybe it will give me some ideas.

I’m sure with a welder and a bit of ingenuity, one could widen the spacing at the hitch point of the Homesteader to accommodate wider planting beds. However, you would want to do so cautiously, as machines are engineered to place the point of draft in the most advantageous position relative to the load. You’ll notice that the draft chains on the Homesteader hook in a direct line with the point of attachment of the tool (plow, cultivator etc). To offset this hitch point will inevitably change the physical dynamics of the machine, potentially adding points of weakness by deviating from a straight line of draft to an angled one.

Postscript: As I read through the previous exchange I realized I wanted to add an additional note about horses walking faster while pulling a load. I have noticed that when I ground drive a team or single horse from the barn to an implement they will often do so at a lazy, lollygagging pace. Sometimes it seems as if they are barely putting one foot in front of the other. Yet as soon as we are hitched and start to work, they step right into another gear. There seems to be a number of things at play here: certainly a horse must step out more briskly and with more energy while moving a load than while walking free. Speed is an essential dynamic when moving loads. I also think a horse bred to pull actually enjoys the work, and the increased sense of purpose while hitched to an implement causes them to want to step up the pace. Of course what I’m speaking about here is not to be confused with a scared walk, which you may see when a horse is hitched for the first time to a new machine making unfamiliar sounds. This walk will be erratic and perhaps lunging, with ears back and head moving nervously. The scared walk will likely increase to the scared trot and so on to potentially dangerous levels of speed if the basics of quiet walking are not dealt with first.

If you are traveling down the road with a wagonload of hay you will welcome a fast walking team. I well remember sitting around a Montana wagon train campfire 25 years ago listening to several old time teamsters reminisce about when they were youngsters working on haying crews for big western ranch outfits. What they valued most was a fast walking team on a mower. A pokey team with only one slow gear can be very frustrating at times.

That said, one of the most impressive things I have seen lately was a video shot at Ken Lang’s Orchard Hill Farm in Ontario. It showed a pair of horses hitched to a vegetable transplanter. The team was walking in a very slow, quiet, yet steady pace, perfect for the interns on the machine dropping seedlings from the seats of the transplanter. An Allis-Chalmers ‘G’ in granny gear couldn’t have done better. It was poetry in motion. That’s what good horse farming is, and you know it when you see it.