Making Do: Three Abreast Mowers
by Ken Gies of Fort Plain, NY
Making do is an honored tradition in farming. Making do… with quirky horses, ancient machines, and fields with wrinkles and dents. I think that for seat-of-the-pants style making do, nothing beats the blending of flesh to iron to earth that occurs on a mowing machine. The wide sky, the horse sweat, hot leather, warm oil, hay sap, and sun-baked iron swirl together in a mix of making do and getting it done that few outside of workhorse circles can ever hope to experience.
Making do has been my way every year I cut hay. It often seems that I have the wrong horse inventory for the machine inventory! A number of years ago I wrote about the potential of one horse in “One Horse Haying.” Since then, I have mowed with one, two and three horses on one and two horse mowers. I have seen a four abreast mowing too! In this tradition of making do, I want to show and tell what I have done with what’s at hand.
Hitching a motley crew of horses to a motley assortment of mowers has taught me a lot over the years. I have learned how to set the tongue height. I have also learned about that funny little part, the draft rod, that runs from the inside corner of the cutter bar up to the tongue. Then, I learned about finding the draft point. Along the way, I learned about setting the tension of the hold down clips on the sickle bar and timing it too.
First I will give my own experience regarding how much horsepower is needed for a given width of cut. I started with King, a 1600 pound, honest horse. He mowed my whole 10 acre farm for several years until his late teens. I had a McCormick #7 with a sickle bar cut down to 4 feet. That is about 400 pounds of horse for a foot of cut. After he retired I used three 800 pound Haflingers on the same mower. They never worked a sweat, so when I found a 5 foot #9, I snagged it. Every once in a while the ponies would blow.
That was about 2400 pounds of pony pulling. That is 480 pounds of horse for every foot of cut. Nearby, an Amish man uses 4 Haflingers on a 7 foot, #9 mower. That is 3200 pounds of pony pulling 7 feet of cutter, or 457 pounds of horse for each foot of cut. This gives you some idea of the possibilities as far as horse weight to mower ratios. I have been leaning toward more horsepower on a mower as I get older and presumably wiser!
The first photos show a little shaft cart I used with King. The mower had previously been pulled with a tractor and had a cut off tongue, so I used my cart and merrily went on my way. There were few problems until I encountered a fencepost and bent the brace bar, because I didn’t have a draft rod and equalizer connecting the cutter bar and the tongue. I had to remove the brace bar and use a friend’s hydraulic press to reset the bend and correct the lead. Then the timing was off, so I had to redo that too. Now I connect the draft rod every time I modify a mower tongue.
I used the shaft cart thinking it would be easier on King if he didn’t have to carry the mower weight on his back. He was a good, quiet, horse but once he turned very close to the cutter bar and since then I have used a rigid tongue. My belly button curls up tight at the thought of horse legs connecting with an active cutter bar.
I did much better on the second go around with my 3 abreast of Haflingers on a 5 foot #9. I added a bracket to shift the hitch point to accommodate the triple tree. The equalizer was moved to the side of the tongue about half a single tree width and a long rod was inserted in the original equalizer bolt hole and run out to the tip of the triangle frame. Then the equalizer was lined up with spacers. The next photos show how I rigged the mower. The angle bracket is ¼ x 3 inch angle iron. The bottom of the clamp is 2 inch channel iron and the bolts are 5/8 inch. Crank these bolts tight or the bracket will shift and twist! I used some lighter iron at first, but it bent down from the pull of the draft rod. Actually I have been using chain for the draft rods; it is easy to adjust. The triangle shape is very strong. There is a hole in the casting by the oil can holder that I bolted the back corner of the triangle to. I used it for several years without hassles before I sold it and scaled down to a one horse mower.
I have a thought on the 3 pony hitch. I used a jockey stick and buck back rope on the far left horse. Sometimes that horse would step out of the traces when resting. I had to climb off the mower, reposition the horse and traces, and hopefully get moving without a repeat. Steve Battisti, a local farrier and horse trainer, suggested putting the middle horse in a set of shafts and using 2 neck yokes so that the third horse couldn’t back out of the traces. I never tried it, so I really don’t know how well it would work, but it is a worthwhile thought.
The reason I bought the one horse mower is I really like driving a 2 horse team. I figured that a pair of ponies would run a one horse mower just fine. It may take longer to cut the hay, but time never really factors into my thinking as far as horses go. I enjoy what I am doing and want it to last longer!
The next few photos show my setup for a team on a one horse mower. This is my second one horse mower; the first one was an older version and pretty shook up. However, it worked well enough that I bought the second one as soon as I found it. Since then, a matching machine for parts has come home. The first mower was a learning exercise, but the second one went right together.
The tongue and draft point were realigned by adding a pair of brackets to offset the tongue to the left by the width of half of a single tree, about 14 inches. This put my right hand horse close beside the uncut hay, but not on it. The hitch point was moved to the left under the new tongue where the ponies would be centered. Then the equalizer was installed at the hitch point and the draft chain, which replaces the original draft rod, was attached.
It is important to have an equalizer and flexible connection between the tongue and the cutter bar because the bar moves up and down as the ground undulates. Also, the lift doesn’t work right if there is a rigid connection between the tongue and the cutter bar. Without the draft rod, excessive strain is applied to the brace bar and the timing can be thrown off too. The interaction of the equalizer and the draft chain (or rod) provides the flexibility needed on uneven ground. It also removes some of the strain from the brace bar which angles forward from under the left rear of the machine to the right front and actually holds the cutter bar in place. I modeled my equalizer after the stock ones found on most mowers.
I never got a photo of the Amish 4 abreast on a ground drive mower. It was a 7’ #9 and the ponies were hitched with two on each side of the tongue. Nothing on the mower was modified from the original. The four-horse evener was simply hooked in the place of the double tree. This placed one pony in the uncut hay. From what I saw, and he said, the trampling was minimal and wasn’t noticeable after the field was cleared.
Ultimately, it is always possible to modify machinery to any specific horse. Sometimes a simple adjustment will do the trick. Other times, some reversible change in geometry or bolt-on parts will make things workable. Sometimes a machine has to be permanently modified to make it work. In the case of mowers, it is possible to make changes without attacking the metal. I hope that some will find a new idea here. Maybe your summer will be filled with horse sweat and hay sap as you make do with what you have!