LittleField Notes: Winter 2014
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
The dark days of winter are upon us. I feel like I have been painted into a watercolor. The moist colors of the woods and fields run together: burnt umber, raw sienna, and many shades of winter green; the sky all wet brushstrokes: Payne’s grey, black and white, patterns of cloud sometimes shifting, sometimes flat grey without depth or texture. We’ve had a little snow in the lowlands, some extended cold and a bit of rain, though much less than usual. The ski areas are worried about business with so little mountain snow. We do chores, haul manure, build new fence, fix old, cut firewood, repair machines.
I have begun in earnest training our 2-year-old Suffolk stallion Donald. He is a sweet boy we purchased as a weanling colt from Eagle Ridge Suffolks from north of the border in British Columbia. He is a mild mannered, good-natured fellow who is intelligent and eager to please. I am taking my time ground driving him around the farm introducing him to all the scary horse-eating monsters that lurk behind every corner; trying to get him to move out comfortably and confidently. Occasionally he spooks at some random object (or nothing at all) and jumps out of his skin. When this happens I am sure he is going to run a hundred miles an hour back to the barn and leave me flat. Instead he sprints four paces and freezes, looking back at me as if to say “you’re still there? Ok then, I guess I’ll be alright,” and walks on as if nothing happened. This confidence reflects the initial round-pen work I did with him. In the early goings I was his trusted place of refuge when he was introduced to something unfamiliar. It also reflects the terrific work that Deena Meadors, at Eagle Ridge did with him from the hour of his birth until the time I loaded him in my trailer and brought him home. He has an easy trust and confidence in people. The value of early work with foals cannot be overestimated.
It is a priority for me to have a stud horse that can work alongside his barn-mates in the daily work of the farm. He should be able to work in the woods and fields the same as any other horse. Teaching him manners, respect, and the working ways of the farm is much easier while he is young. Nearly every day he and I have a discussion about who is Boss. We must agree in the end that if this working relationship of ours is to be functional, I must always be the Boss horse. He understands this, though it is not always to his liking.
In the Fall 2013 issue Journal reader W.D. Cooper of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania respectfully took me to task for plowing with the lines tied behind my back while using the walking plow. Mr. Cooper put it this way, “Any one whose ever plowed knows that you never put the check lines around your waist. I don’t care how quiet your team is. If they plow up a nest of yellow jackets they’re fixin’ to blow up and run. Needless to say, trapped.” That got me to thinking about all the different aspects of safety while farming with horses.
First a couple of basic truths about working horses: 1) in no endeavor will you find more die-hard opinions about the one-right-way to do something than with horses. In an earlier column I told the story of the two old-time teamsters feuding with each other about whether it was safer to drive the team over the tongue to hook up, or to lead the horses over the tongue and then connect the lines. Like a couple of religious zealots each was utterly convinced of the righteousness of his way. 2) Working horses is an inherently dangerous business. It is an activity fraught with peril. Whenever you use leather, wood and iron to hook up 4,000 pounds of horse flesh to a noise-making-ground-breaking-squeaking-rumbling-vibrating machine and drive it around past cars-potholes-fencerows-blue tarps-stumps and boulders you have entered a world rife with opportunity for disaster.
I am not saying that because working horses is dangerous we should throw caution to the wind and accept our doomed fate like a confederate soldier in Picket’s Charge. Rather we must constantly evaluate how and why we do what we do and weigh the risks and rewards in an intelligent, informed manner. However, we must not paralyze ourselves with the fear that comes from trying to protect against every negative possibility.
Sometimes I wonder if life on the farm is actually any more dangerous than that of life in the suburbs. After all, what could be more terrifying and inherently dangerous to life and limb than driving down an interstate highway at 75 miles an hour with hundreds of other cars traveling at a similar rate of speed. When the distractions of texting, talking on the phone, applying makeup and excessive drinking are factored in, the potential for disaster is chilling.
I would like to offer a few examples of the kinds of choices that we must make with regard to safety on the horse-powered farm. Since plowing is the subject of the letter that sparked my interest in this topic, let us start there. I was well aware of the “proper” way to position the lines when I took my first baby steps behind a walking plow. The lines were to go under one arm, behind the back and out around the other arm. Should a miss-hap occur one can simply twist and duck free of the lines. In those days I didn’t actually know anyone who had ever plowed with a walking plow and it was prior to the publication of Lynn Miller’s excellent book Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing. So to help me get started I purchased Farmer Jim Brown’s four-hour instructional video on horse drawn plowing. In it he effectively demonstrates plowing with the lines tied behind the back while using the walking plow. He discusses this very issue of safety with the lines and points out that if he is worried that he may have to duck away from a team he shouldn’t oughta be plowing with them in the first place. I agree. If a team is too unsteady for quiet plowing then more fundamentals need to be addressed before they are ready for the walking plow, no matter how you hold the lines. If I have to put a young horse to the plow for the first time I always make sure my first few passes are from the comfort and relative security of a sulky plow.
Believe me, I tried plowing with the lines under one arm and over the other, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it. The outside line continually wanted to fall and I never felt that I could establish anything resembling perfect tension with the horse’s mouths. Everything felt askew. I found that by tying the lines behind my back I was able with practice, to become relatively nuanced in my control of the horses by twisting my body side to side as needed, allowing me to keep a steady pair of hands on the plow. I have had moments of excitement with a particular horse acting up and I actually feel that because of the security of the lines behind my back and the good tension I’m able to maintain, I actually have better control of an excited horse than if I had the lines looped under and over. Incidentally, I have seen multiple old photos from the glory days of horse farming with the plowman’s lines tied behind his back.
That said, if I did happen to plow into a hornet’s nest, as Mr. Cooper rightly asserts, I could possibly get into real trouble if the horses bolted. That is a risk I have consciously accepted as part of my risk/benefit analyses. We may not often think in corporate terms on the farm, but we really do have to weigh the risks against the rewards when we set out to accomplish a task with a horse.
Every teamster should know full well that every time he hooks the trace chains onto a vehicle, implement or log he has just committed himself to a dangerous act and consented to a certain amount of risk. There is a delicate balance that must be struck in order to get the work done as safely as possible. We can be feckless and reckless on the one hand and risk serious injury to our horses and ourselves. On the other hand we can be a cautious Nervous Nellie and never actually accomplish anything. I believe there is a balance between the two extremes that each teamster must find for him or herself.
To illustrate further I would like to offer some additional everyday examples of the kinds of safety trade-offs I am talking about. If you look closely at the photograph of me bringing in Blossom and her calf you will see that I am riding bareback. I left my saddle in the tack room for the short jaunt out to the waterfall pasture. Would it have been safer to have saddled up? Absolutely. In fact I fell off a bareback horse a few years ago in a fluke accident (no bucking or running away) and broke a vertebrae and was out of commission for a month. Am I a slow learner? Do I enjoy taking unnecessary risks? Maybe. But the truth is I like to ride bareback. And it is extremely convenient and quick to just throw a bridle on a horse that’s standing in a tie stall and go out and bring in the cows. I have accepted the risk and I carry on. Incidentally, when I am moving greater numbers of cows to distant pastures I do indeed saddle up, again- calculating the risk relative to the job at hand.
If you had x-ray vision you would also see from the photo that I am not wearing steal toed boots despite having suffered breakage of the same pinky toe twice from horses stomping on my toes. I wore steel-toed boots for a while. An 1800 lb horse could just stand on my toes and I wouldn’t feel a thing. Yet the extra weight and discomfort of clomping around the farm all day ended my steel-toed era.
How about safely loading a manure spreader or feed wagon? Should you unhook the team each time you get off to operate a pitchfork? While you are not actually on the vehicle the possibility always exists that your team could run off without you. Again, we have to balance perfect safety with the practical necessities of work. I expect my fully trained teams to stand indefinitely while I load a spreader with manure or a wagon with hay. I will park them in front of a gate and even tie them if it is quite convenient, but rarely is that an option so stand they must. The lines will always be tied up off the ground to the vehicle and I will stay close. Of course horses aren’t born knowing how to stand patiently. They must be trained to meet your expectations.
Years ago when I fed elk back in Wyoming I would stand on a 30’ haystack and lob bales down onto the sleigh while the team waited below. If I needed them to nudge the sleigh ahead a bit for easier loading I would quietly say, “little bit,” and they would walk two or three steps and stop. Could they have run off and left me stranded atop the stack? Youbetcha. But we had work to do, and work we did, seven days a week for five months out of the year. And as for developing safe working habits with horses there is really no substitute for regular steady work. In this way horses and teamster get to know each other intimately, learning your own limitations as well as those of your horses.
The balance between safety and “gittin’ her done” is exactly what makes this workhorse business so difficult to learn well. It is why so many young people starting out fear that the challenges to success may be insurmountable. There is no formula for what is safe in every situation. Each individual horse is different; every combination of horses is different; each day is different; each teamster has a different skill and comfort level. Each implement and working situation brings its own set of special conditions when considering safety.
We live in an increasingly virtual, digital, insulated and excessively comfortable world. There exists a chasm in people’s lives that is not being filled by more digital gadgets and safe easy living. I for one, embrace whole-heartedly the challenging and inherently dangerous world of working horses because it is so real. Living and working with animals affords us the opportunity for authentic living, where the dangers are not virtual and the rewards not monetary. Henry David Thoreau would see it as a vital way to “suck the marrow out of life.”
So when you hitch up your horses be safe by being smart, patient, instinctive, and knowledgeable. Learn to read the body language of your horses. They will tell you when they are nervous or uncomfortable. Train yourself to be vigilant and watchful for anything amiss in your hitch: the harness buckle that has come undone, the change in tone of the mower, the lowering of the horse’s ears, the helicopter that just came over the ridge heading your way, the horsefly that just landed on the back of the furrow horse. Use your six senses, stay alert, practice prudence and right judgment. The world of the teamster is mystical and wonderful, art in motion, poetry in action. Embrace its dangerous wonder.