Living With Horses
by Paul Schmit of Teinten, Belgium
A LOOK BACK
The picture shown below has surely caught your eyes as you turned to this page of SFJ. You might have looked to the carthorse to determine its breed or you might have focused on the horsemen to find out the period this picture was taken. Take also the time to analyse the background of this photograph and you will see a rich countryside. A small farm building surrounded by a hilly forest, an orchard and a pasture full of various plants. Every living being here has found his place, from the people who cultivated the land to the small insect which flew from plant to plant to collect its nutrition.
The picture, which was taken before WW II, shows my grandpa François Lecomte, who was born in 1891 and who spent his life by farming and serving his neighbours as a blacksmith in a small village called “Téinten” located in the middle west of Luxembourg. He holds the jerk line of his carthorse harnessed to pull a two wheeled wagon, called a “Teimer”, which served many different purposes. This ranged from transporting the buckets full of fruits and big hay loads back home or the manure out of the stables. A single horse hitch was very common at this time as the farmers were very poor and beside the several cows and pigs they were only able to feed one horse.
If the work did require more draft power, a second horse had to be borrowed from a neighbour and hitched in front of the owner’s horse. In this case the traces of both horses were attached immediately to the shafts, however with a bad angle of draft, especially for the extra horse in front. When the farmers spoke about their horses, they mentioned the grey, the black or the bay horse. They didn’t worry too much about pedigrees and simply bought from the horse dealer what had an acceptable morphology and a clear head. The national stud book in Luxembourg, initially consisting only of the Ardennes draft horse breed, was established in 1921. Today it covers all kind of horses.
In the beginning of the last century, the vast majority of the 431 inhabitants of “Téinten” have been small farmers or worked as day labourers. Not every family, but also every house had its own name like “A Jounker”, “A Péiks” or “A Mäesch”. The house of my grandparents was called “A Schmatts” as “Schmatt” is the Luxembourg’s name for a blacksmith. The life was as hard as the soil in the Ardennes, the hilly countryside at the north-east of France. The south-east of Belgium and Luxembourg, was not of a great fertility. The local draft horse breed was a small horse and its conformation was far away from the show type horses of today, which stand high on their heavily feathered feet.
Today, the number of citizens in “Téinten” has nearly doubled, but there are only three farmers left who do their work on the fields full time. During the last century a lot of people left their rural milieu in order to find employment in the steel industry, which flourished at that time as some iron ore was found in the south of the country. The steel and finally also the slag, a by-product of the blast furnaces, which was used by the farmers as fertilizer on the fields, gave a certain prosperity to our nation.
Rural craftsmanship has changed into business. Not cultivating the land and harvesting what Mother Nature offers you does not guide the life of most of the people anymore, but making money is the name of the game. Finally, as you got some money, getting more money is what makes the challenge. If you leave your house at the morning by your air-conditioned car, closing the door of your garage by remote control, arriving after a more or less stressful drive to the underground car park of your company and being gently transported by an elevator to your office, you don’t have to worry about nature. It doesn’t matter if some rain helps grow the plants or if the sun helps to dry the hay on the fields.
Our villages and their surroundings are getting poorer from year to year. Not only by the modern agriculture itself, which becomes more and more an industrialized process, but also by the people who swarm out of the cities to the villages, where building land is still available at an acceptable price. The terrain around their small castles is kept clean by frequent acting motorized lawn mowers and large amounts of pesticides. There is definitely no place anymore for the elements shown in the background of picture #1.
We, my wife Cathy and I, still live in the village of my ancestors. Not at the farm “A Schmatts”, as this was given to my older brother. Our farm buildings are of recent time, while the main house is getting built, the barn and the stable are nearly finished. Even if everything is built with respect to the past and hosts a collection of old horse drawn farm machinery, we don’t look forward to opening a museum, nor do we think that we are one of the true references for doing farm jobs with horses in Europe. We both learned farming as a kid in the 70’s and the 80’s on different farms using tractor power. Today we try to put our farming methods in a more natural context. We don’t see our approach as a static one, with rules based on strong traditions, but we consequently adopt our methods.
An old beekeeper, who taught me in younger years some tricks about handling bees, always said to me “As a beekeeper you will rest an apprentice for all of your life”. What he meant with this statement was that each year differs from the year before. One year, nature offers a rich harvest of honey, the next one the cups get only half full. In one colony you can find bees with a smart character, while opening the next hive some other individuals greet you. What the beekeeper has finally to do is to learn to adapt himself to the different conditions that nature imposes on him.
This approach is, in my view, not only valuable for beekeeping, but it is true for all that you do in relation with the nature. You have to learn consequently and think about your actions over and over. By this article, which I consider as a small support to this magnificent publication, I simply try to share our experiences with you and would be very delighted to get some feedback, positive or negative.
There is obviously no better way for farming with respect to nature than doing it with horses. Our farm is run on organic principles and is using draft horses with modern farm machinery, mainly manufactured in USA but also some of our own development. We strictly rely on ground drive implements as using a donkey engine on horse drawn forecarts is not an option for us. (I may only see a reason behind this approach within the structures of life of the Amish subculture, but surely not in Western Europe.) However, to be honest, I must add that some of the work on our farm is done by contractors using tractor power, for example to run the hay baler. Moreover, even if we get some financial income, through participating in different programmes supported by our ministry of agriculture and the EU for extensive farming methods, we don’t farm to survive financially, but we do it simply as a vocation. Improving the quality of life, not only of ourselves, but maintaining the biodiversity around us is our goal.
Using draft horses allows us to harvest our own hay and it permits us to maintain our pastures, respecting the particularity of horses, which differs from what the farmers around us are thinking is right. Furthermore it gives me the opportunity to cultivate the land of my grandparents, which fulfills me with a great satisfaction. Every moment I hold the lines in my hands and pass with the horses through the fields, surrounded by our dog, the birds, the butterflies and all other of these small friends, is a moment of pleasure. Living with horses let us finally find a place away from the hectic scenery around us.
My main job is teaching coachbuilding and auto mechanics to young people at the high school. My wife, who spends some years in studying veterinarian medicine, nowadays works as an inspector of the tax authorities on a 75 % basis. The rest of her time she works for non profit organisations for wildlife and animal protection and finally also on the farm. The work on our farm is done around our daily work schedule, early in the morning and sometimes also late in the evening. Please consider us both as bit players in this article. We will avoid exposing ourselves too much and will let the horses play the main role.
WHAT IS THE ARDENNES?
Our farm hosts at this time six horses. Three Ardennes draft horses, ten, nine and six years old, which are mainly used for farm work and occasionally for carriage driving if time permits, which is regretfully not very often, maybe twice a year. The other three equines are saddle horses, which are a 21 years old crossbreed from Luxembourg, which is now in retirement and two purebred Arabians, which are bred in Belgium. The main riding horse is 11 years and the youngster in the herd is 2 years and is getting taught the basics.
Our Ardennes are coming originally from France. Even this breed has also its origins in Luxembourg, we are choosing our horses from some breeders in the north-east of France, this for these different reasons. The first one is that in Luxembourg the breeding of Ardennes is done almost exclusively for the slaughterhouse. At the only breed show, which is usually held at the first weekend in July in “Ettelbruck”, the horses are shown among the Charolais and Limousin cattles. Most of the breeders act more like wild animal trainers than like horsemen. The only positive aspect I can see in this scenery is the fact that is now forbidden to cut off the horse’s tails. It was very common, for better showing the heavily cruppers as they claim, to do not let a single piece of bone nor some hairs on the horses back part, and thus totally deprive the animals of their natural protection against the midges.
The national studs in France, the”haras nationaux”, have recognized that there is some other market for draft horses. It’s found in the leisure activities, mainly the carriage driving. To serve this market, the breeders are encouraged to pay more attention in their selection to the horse’s character. In order to show the young horses, aged two to three years, to the customers, so called “concours d’utilisation” (utility contests) are organized through the whole breeding area, such as the regions of “Champagne-Ardenne”, “Lorraine” or “Alsace” but also in the “Auvergne” and the “Limousin” located south of Paris. The finals of these competitions are held in the first weekend of September in “Vittel”. To qualify for the finals, where higher but still modest price money is paid out, the horses must end up in the first ranks of the regional competitions. Even when not everything is quite perfect around these competitions, the breeders take the time to prepare their horses in an appropriate manner and the judges don’t keep their remarks to themselves when a horse isn’t correctly hitched or handled.
During the preliminary tests the young horses must give their four feet smoothly and enter with the same ease into a horse van. Afterwards the horses are hitched to marathon carriages and are driven through an obstacle circuit with all variations like standing still for some minutes, trotting or backing up the carriage. The last one is only asked of the three-year-old horses. Afterwards they are asked to pull a small stone boat to show the capability of the horse to move a heavier load with slow pace. The weight of the stone boat is set in relation with the horse’s age. By this, it’s possible to distinguish the horses as well as their breeders and trainers and finally buy a horse which suits for the purpose you have. We don’t pay too much attention to the colour of the horse, which may vary mainly from bay or roan to chestnut, but particularly to its temperament, as we need working horses capable of pulling some loads while tolerating the noises of the machines behind.
One other reason why we buy our horses in France is the fact that the French breed of Ardennes is closer to what the breed has been in the past. The Ardennes has always been a stockier type of horse, rude as its environment. Following the historians, even Napoleon has admired these horses for their strength and used countless numbers of this breed in his military campaign against the Russian artillery. Today the breed has dramatically changed into a real heavy horse. If the Ardennes had an average weight between 550 and 700 kg (1200 to 1500 lbs) in the first part of the last century, the balance shows today 1000 kg (2200 lbs) and more. Thus the difference between the Ardennes and their “big” sisters, the Brabants in Belgium, or the Trait du Nord in France, has gone.
Luckily, there are still some breeders in France, only a few and regretfully of older age, who don’t favour these fancy show horses. As our three draft horses, being a little bit too fat during the winter, put their feet the last time on our scale, it measured between 750 and 850 kg. For a price of about 1700 euro, ($2125) you can get smart draft horses in France. As the best of them are sold at two years, they are still babies in our mind, surely not ready for heavy farm works, but a good foundation is laid down. It will take some time to polish these jewels into brilliants and get finally a reliable carthorse.
Our stable, which we began building in 2002, is designed for eight horses, grouped four by four, as experience has taught us that it’s better to separate the draft from the saddle horses. Not only they differ in their temperament and their behaviour, the Arabians for example like more individual space as their heavier colleagues, but also finally their force. If there is some discussion within the herd and there are always some disputes between younger horses, which have to step upwards on the hierarchical ladder and older horses, the stronger build individuals have always the better cards in the game.
Before building this stable, we tested various methods for stabling horses with one exception, the tie stalls, which we despise and which are nowadays forbidden in some European countries. We like to keep our horses as close to their natural environment and their habits as possible. By that we allow them to maintain their social contacts with other horses and give them the possibility to enter and leave their stable as they like during all the year. The access to the pasture is however limited. During the winter this prevents damage to the grazing areas and during the rest of the year this protects the horses for getting too obese. During the cold period of the year, we open the gates to the pastures once a week and from April to November the horses have access to the pasture for about 6 six hours a day. Immediately adjacent to the stable is a paddock, which is also split into two different compartments, one for the heavy and one for the saddle horses. The ground of this area is build up on two sections. The foundation with a height of about 50 cm (20”) consists of sandstones with a slanting section to the top, giving the whole structure a good drainage. The layer on the surface of about 20 cm (7-3/4”) in height consists of wood splits, which are available from a sawmill. The muck in this area is collected each evening.
Both of the two inside compartments of the stable are divided into two different parts. The outer part we call the “lying area”, which measures 5 x 10 m (~ 16 x 32’) bedded with barley or wheat straw, serves as sleeping area. This serves not only during the night, as the horses retire themselves, but also during the day to rest while lying down. The middle part with the same dimensions contains what we call the “feeding stalls”, which are of our own design. Each horse has one of these devices available. The galvanizised metal structures are partially filled up with oak wood of 38 mm (1-1/2”) thickness and measure 85 cm (33-1/2”) in interior width, 350 cm (11.5′) in length and 230 cm (7.5 ‘) in height. The upper rear part, as well as the upper front door, is fitted with vertically mounted 1/2” bars to allow as much light as possible to pass into the stalls. For the same reason we put also eight windows, measuring each 100 x 100 cm (3-1/4’ x 3-1/4 ’), into the closed sides of the stable. The upper front part of each stall as well as the bottom part is closed with wood to allow the low ranking horse to eat all of its food in a relaxed manner. By the limited width it is not possible for a higher ranking horse to get his colleague out of the stall for picking up his hay or grains. Furthermore to enter and leave backwards from the stalls is a good training for a younger horse for doing the same with a horse van. All our horses, even the Arabians which are a lot more anxious than the Ardennes, have accepted the design very well. The height of the stable itself measures 350 cm (11.5′) and every internal part is fixed with four 1/2” bolts on the bottom and four 1/2” bolts on the ceiling to withstand the force and the weight of the draft horses.
The watering device is located in the lying area and consists of an isolated trough. The water enters by a 3/4” pipe and a high outlet float valve through the concrete floor and fills up an internal reservoir of about 40 l (~ 10 gallons). Only a small quantity of this water, which is protected inside the plastic case against the heat in the summer and the frosty weather in the winter, flows to a basin at the outside, which is accessible by the horses. As the whole item is mounted on a concrete base of about 80 x 80 x 40 cm (31.5 x 31.5 x 15 3/4″), it rarely gets dirty by the horses and works real fine up to 10°C (14°F), as stated by its German manufacturer.
On the second floor over the stable is located the barn for the hay and straw, which can collect 130 round bales, which are lifted with the help of an electrical winch.