My First Team of Workhorses
by Paul Birdsall of Penobscot, ME
Some will have read “A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses” earlier and thus will know that this series of reprints from Farmstead Magazine were made possible by George Frangoulis, founder, publisher, and later editor of Farmstead which was so helpful to those of us going back to the land in the 1970’s and 80’s.
What actually got me going on this reprint idea was a telephone call from a gentleman in North Carolina who was trying to locate one of the original Farmstead articles. I thought, why not call Small Farmer’s Journal about reprinting the series, and they were kind enough to approve the project. I hope that sooner or later, the article he was looking for appears in these pages.
To reprise, we came to the farm in 1973, and now represent three generations actively involved. We do represent mixed power, but horses do most all the work on the home farm.
In “A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses“, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. Since then, another horse, a 1600 pound Belgian mare named Trixie, has been paired with our old roan mare to make a team. If Lady had given such good service, why did we go to the added expense and trouble of acquiring an additional horse, and the different harness and equipment required for a team? What benefits might compensate for the added trouble and expense? What is it like to work a team as compared with a single horse?
It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw. Perhaps, too, the fact that Trixie had spent part of the previous winter in the barn with Lady, that they had been worked in company with each other, and finally that in the spring Trixie became available – all had something to do with the decision to use a team. As a matter of fact, Trixie’s owner and I had often speculated as to what kind of a team they would make, and one day, we had even reined them in side by side and had been impressed with how well matched they seemed in size and gait.
It might seem that these were my only reasons for taking such a step, but this was far from being the case. All along, there were good solid reasons for going to a team operation. A neighbor, with a team which he uses on his woodlot, had told me that only with a team would I have the necessary power to get the wood to a point where it could be loaded on to a truck. From almost every direction on our place, wood must be taken uphill before it can be loaded. In addition, slopes have a way of icing, and two horses as a team learn to lean a little on each other where a single horse will slip and fall.
There were other reasons why a team would meet our needs better than a single horse, I thought. In field work, there is some machinery which comes fitted only for team use, such as a manure spreader, grain drill, two-row planter, and riding or sulky plow. Thus a team would enable me to perform a greater variety of tasks, and some double machines such as a mowing machine with a six-foot cutter bar are far more efficient than their single horse counterparts such as a single horse mower with a three-foot bar. Some tasks are simply beyond one horse, such as pulling a hay wagon with a wheel driven hay loader behind. Two horses are company for each other and therefore are usually more contented and easier to deal with. A team is less likely to take off, because with double reins connecting them, they both must go at the same time and in the same direction or not at all, (though I’ve had it happen, both single and double).
My reasons for trying a horse, originally, were that a horse would be more compatible with the goals of our farm than a tractor. However, it seemed worthwhile also to see whether a greenhorn could learn to use a team, for any significant revival in the use of work horses as a low energy alternative would have to involved the use of teams on larger farms.
The day came when we were ready to try Trixie and Lady together. Harness parts had been secured with which their single harnesses could be converted to double horse use. In addition, and more important, I had an experienced horseman, Trixie’s former owner, to help me out. Lady, at 17, was still in good shape, though Trixie outweighed her by a couple of hundred pounds and was half her age as well. On the other hand there was not so much difference in size and conformation as to make it appear difficult for them to work together. (Sometimes the most ill-assorted seeming pair will work out very well as a team.) Also, differences in strength and pulling power may be compensated by adjustment of the trace chain length and by moving the point at which the evener is pinned toward the stronger horse. In any case, we harnessed them, hitched them to a stone boat, and held our breath. Somehow the chemistry was right, and the two walked off as though they had worked together for years. By that afternoon, they were hard at work pulling the manure spreader. Better yet, very soon we were able to use them on the sulky (two way) plow, something which often must be postponed for a new team because of the extra precision required. One factor which must have helped to make this transition as smooth as it was was that each hose had had team experience at some time in the past.
The team got off to a good start, harrowing and spreading a six acre field which had been plowed earlier that spring before the team was available for such tasks. I had little to complain about, or so it seemed, as the team finished off work on the field by pulling the grain drill which seeded oats and timothy at the same time. The horses were obedient, easy to handle, and were good about standing when left alone. So I was looking forward to haying season in which the new team could play a major part, but it was not to be. The difficulties which we experienced early that summer show that owning and working horses is not always an easy thing. Some things are learned only through rather painful experience.
The incidents which limited our haying with the horses were two, the first of which put Trixie out of commission for several weeks. The second almost cost us Lady’s life, and it resulted from my own carelessness. Early in haying season, after having had a chance to mow only a little with the team, Trixie turned up lame. To consult the section on lameness in a horse book is to open Pandora’s Box. There are pages and pages devoted to the subject, and none of them did us any good so far as a diagnosis was concerned, until by tapping the hoof lightly with a hammer we determined that Trixie had a hoof infection. The cause was either a horseshoe nail in the quick or a small piece of gravel which had worked its way up between the inner and outer hoof layers. In any case, there was little to do but remove her shoe, give her injections to combat pain and infection, and soak the hoof daily.
Meanwhile, haying continued with one horse. We pulled the mower with a tractor, but used Lady to pull the hay rake and the wagon, sometimes alternating her from one to the other. Then one night, I failed to latch the stall door properly, and Lady was lost to us for a week. The two horses got into the main part of the barn and into various kinds of grain that were stored there. If you ever get horses of any kind, for goodness sake make certain that they never get into grain. It is a rare horse who knows any restraint where grain is concerned, and stomach overfilled with the heating grain, the horse cannot regurgitate what he has eaten. If a blockage develops and the grain cannot pass through, the horse will die. In addition, the horse may develop black water, a muscular involvement which causes lameness which may be permanent. Beyond that, a horse’s hooves may founder or delaminate up to several months after such an incident.
What followed was a nightmarish experience which included getting Lady up (it took four of us), walking her for several hours to get things moving, we hoped, and then staying up with her all night to make certain she did not lie down for very long. My penance was capped by a trip to Belfast the next morning to get medicine. By this time it was clear that Lady was going to survive, but right along she showed clear signs of blackwater in a rear leg. So, when late the next afternoon Lady got up and walked off without showing any signs that anything had happened, we cheered our good luck at getting off so easily.
We finished haying with one horse, and by early August, Trixie had recovered from the hoof infection and had been shod again. And here, by the way, might be the place to discuss hoof quality. Generally, the horn of horses’ hooves is either dark or light, and the color is usually an indication of how hard the hoof material is, and of how well it will hold shoe nails. Lady’s hooves are dark and they are so hard that her shoes usually stay on the regular three month term with very little re-nailing required. (This is the kind of hoof to look for when you are buying a work horse. And make sure that no one has used some artificial coloring to obtain this effect, either.) Trixie’s hooves are quite light, and the horn does not hold nails well. This also means that she must be kept shod all the time, for otherwise she will break up her hooves, making it more difficult to nail a shoe on.
It was for this very reason that it had been difficult to re-shoe Trixie after the hoof infection, and the farrier told me that we would be lucky to keep the shoes on for six weeks. Sure enough, the first shoe came off, and I called to see about having it put back on. Now, it is good to know how to do this sort of thing yourself, so when it was suggested that I give it a try, in fear and trembling I did so. That first time it took fully three hours to reset that shoe, and I was in a lather by the time it was done. What took so long and was so exhausting is now more or less routine.