My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

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.

Although I had now learned to keep Trixie’s hoof problems under control, I had not reckoned with the consequences of the hoof infection which were to ensue almost a year later. Where the infection had broken out above the hairline there later developed a horizontal crack which appeared on the side of the hoof as it grew down. This was perfectly normal, but represented a shoeing problem, as we had to make certain that, in shoeing, the crack would be prevented from continuing around the hoof with the possibility of breaking away much of the outer horn. We managed to work around this problem until late in the spring when the crack had grown down almost all the way. Then what we had feared happened, the shoe loosened, and before we could take steps to reset it, it broke away, taking much of the outer hoof material with it and leaving very little to nail a shoe onto. There was very little protection left for the inner sensitive portion of the hoof, so it was either come up with a special shoe that would protect the hoof while it grew out, or face the distinct possibility that she would go lame and be unable to work.

I won’t go into all the details of making a model shoe out of wood and sheet lead, fitting it to her foot, and then duplicating this arrangement as nearly as possible by having clips welded to the shoe. To these clips were attached sheet metal clips which practically covered the hoof, and which bolted together across the front. This special shoe with a few changes and reset a couple of time has been on ever since – with the result that the hoof is now practically normal. Part of the general hoof problem here is related to diet, and we are feeding a diet additive called “Drive” to promote hoof growth. Thus Trixie’s hooves are growing out, and I do not see this as a serious problem from here on. I tell this story not because I think that many people will encounter this sort of thing, but because it is a good idea to check hoof color and condition when you look at a work horse.

After fourteen months or so of uninterrupted service by the team, it is time to review what they have accomplished. Plowing and harrowing, especially the latter, are the most difficult tasks they face, and certainly they wouldn’t win any races with a tractor. In 1974, we plowed four acres of new ground with horse-power and seven acres with a hired tractor, but of the latter amount, five were plowed in the early spring before the team was available for service. This year the team has been used to plow six acres of new ground, some away from our place. A borrowed tractor with tiller was used to break up five acres of blueberry ground which, in view of the difficulty of the task and the time limit of government cost shares program, could not have been done by the horses. In addition, the horses are now hard at work turning over land which was under cultivation this year, having done some three acres so far. This is a task which horses accomplish more easily and rapidly than breaking new ground. We feel that the sulky plow we use compares favorably with a tractor plow in turning a neat furrow. We stick pretty much to horse harrowing, too, because the difficulty of the task is offset by the fact that with about five feet covered with each pass, it doesn’t take long to do a field. Moreover, we avoid that compaction of the sub-soil which results from tractor use. Also, there are times when we can get on our fields with horses to plow and harrow when it would be too soft and wet for a tractor. Now that all the tillable ground on the farm, except horse and sheep pasture, has been broken at least once, we foresee using horses exclusively (except for outside fields, where for logistical reasons, we will probably have to rely on a tractor some of the time).

While the ground is being prepared for planting by use of the plow, disc harrow and spring tooth harrow, the horses are also used to pull the manure spreader, perhaps the single most important piece of equipment on the place. We try, when bringing back an old field, to fertilize all at one time by putting an even layer each of rock phosphate and granite dust on top of each spreader load of hen manure, so that the contents of the spreader are, we hope, mixed and distributed evenly over the field.

With the ground all prepared, it is time to plant the crops. This year we used a horse drawn grain drill to plant eight acres of oats. (Last year this machine was used to plant timothy with oats as a nurse crop on a five acre piece.) It is a pleasant feeling to sit on the back of the drill as the horses move steadily along. All the hard work of plowing and harrowing is over, and this is easy and relatively fast. The drill covers over seven feet at a pass. You can see the grain spilling out of the metal chutes into the furrows just made by the discs only to disappear instantly under the heavy plank drag which buries the seed. It takes about thirty minutes to drill an acre of grain, and with the newer grain drill it will be possible to fertilize as you sow if desired. Another occasion this year on which we used the drill was to sow a newly tilled piece of blueberry ground with winter rye as a cove r crop for green manure which we hope to plow under next spring.

Last spring the horses found themselves planting a little over two acres of dry beans with a two row “King of the Cornfield” planter. As the name implies, this machine will also plant corn as well as other row crops. Here the rate is about forty minutes to the acre, and the machine is easily managed by the team. As with the newer drill, fertilizer can be put down with the seed. The planting done, the horses pulled a riding cultivator through the bean patches to keep the weeds down. The horses and the two banks of cultivators straddle the row, and in addition to guiding the horses with the reins, the teamster must steer the cultivator with foot pedals. Occasionally, if hand and foot coordination are not good, you are likely to wipe out part of a row of corn or beans before getting back on course again. (It helps if the teamster guided the planter on a straight course to begin with.) Our plans call for expanding the acreage in dry beans, for we feel that the horses will make it relatively easy to plant and take care of a much larger crop than before.

With a sound team for haying this year we got a better idea of what horses could do. Using a double horse mower we cut eight acres of hay on the farm twice. Each cutting took less than a day. In addition, the horses did almost all of the tedding and raking. For picking up the hay in the field we used a hay loader for the first time this year. (With this marvelous machine you can even pick up the hay without windrowing it if you are pressed for time.) We established that the horses could pull the hay wagon with loader on behind so that all that was needed was someone to build the load on the wagon as the hay came cascading over the back. For unloading hay in the barn we set up a hay fork on block and tackle. This too may be horse powered, although last summer we used a pickup truck. Thus the entire haying operation may be performed by horses. In practice, however, we found that in extremely hot weather and if we were pressed for time to get the hay under cover, it was better to use the hay loader behind the truck. I might add that putting up hay with a hay loader and hayfork compares favorably with the modern method of baling so far as time and effort are concerned, unless in addition to the baler you own equipment to handle the bales automatically both in the field and in the barn. We plan to use horsepower, at least to the extent described, in future haying operations on the place, but, as in the past, haying off the p[lace will involve some use of tractor power.

While we feel that considerable progress has been made in bringing tillable ground back to fertility and crop production in the last two years, it is the woods work in the winter time which has generated most of the farm income, and in this the horses have also played a vital part. Last year two of us cut and brought out with the horses some 85 cords of pulpwood between early December and early April. In addition, we spent week a week on a salvage cut of pine logs representing trees which were dead or dying. We also spent a week removing a blow down of spruce trees some eight miles away from the farm. We rigged a loading ramp for the one-ton truck and took the horses down and back every day. We heat (and cook, in the wintertime) entirely with wood, and it is with the team that we get the next year’s supply out during the winter.

We feel that the horses give us a great deal more effective power and flexibility in woods operations and for a much lower cost than would be the case with a farm tractor. Farm tractors are dangerous in the woods unless rigged with a protective frame over the driver; they cannot match horses for traction or ability to negotiate rough terrain; and they tend to suffer damage in such use. The skidder has great traction and will take out great amounts of wood, but the small woodlot owner will think twice before he lays out $25,000 or $30,000 on a machine which will tear up his land and destroy much of the timber which sou7ld be left, and which will be expensive to keep in repair. Much has been said recently about the increasing value of wood as a resource. The efficient utilization of our woods resources can only occur if the small and medium sized woodlots are properly harvested and managed. I believe horses may have a part to play in this because the skidder operator depends on clear cutting large lots as the only way to achieve enough volume to meet the time payments on his machinery. As a matter of fact, we hope to offer our services and those of the team as an alternative to skidders in harvesting small and medium sized woodlots, and I fully believe that as the cost of machinery and the required fuel continue to go up, more and more horses will appear in the small and medium sized woodlots of Maine.

In the early part of the winter, if there is not snow on which to use a woods sled, we use a scoot, a small sled with hardwood runners flexibly assembled so that it goes easily on bare ground and over stumps and rocks. With stakes, a good load of four-foot wood, pulp or firewood may be taken out this way. On the wood sled four foot wood may also be carried, and with the removal of the body, logs may be rolled up length-wise on the sled bunk and held with stakes, and chain and log binder for removal to the skidway or yard. A good sled load would be one or one and a half cords (they used to take two in the old days), and 500 or so board feet of logs (perhaps six or eight of them). In addition, when logging, the team may be unhitched from the sled and used separately or together to twitch the logs out – depending on the size of the logs involved.

Far from the roar of the skidder, a man has time to think a little while the horses pull the loaded sled toward the yard through the sunny woods, their heads tossing and their nostrils steaming in the wintry sunshine. How have we gotten so far from our heritage of using draft animals in the woods and on the farm? In part, at least, the answer has to be cheap energy. Machines can do the work and then stand silently rusting and unattended until used again. No one has to feed them, water them, brush them, or give them pieces of apple or lumps of sugar. To work with and care for a team is a continuing, and to me, rewarding commitment, one that cheap energy has enabled fewer and fewer to enjoy. Whether we have gained anything in the process is of course a matter of opinion.

Now that the future of cheap energy seems uncertain, is there anything useful to be derived from our heritage of using draft animals? This depends a lot on your economic situation. For those who, like us, have a farm and woodlot and thus can use the horses productively year round, and at the same time raise their fee, such a course is most likely to make sense. If you should decide to try horses you will find that some of us greenhorns have taken the plunge, and that we, as well as some of the old-time teamsters, will be glad to help you all we can.

My First Team of Workhorses


Looking back to early spring 1974, when I bought Trixie to go with my first workhorse, Lady, this was certainly a good team for a beginner. They were small and manageable (1,200 – 1,400 pounds) and each had had plenty of team experience. They seemed to like working together, and there was no sign of Lady’s previous uneasiness at working single, doubtless occasioned by being overworked and abused as a twitch horse. They were probably the most handy in the woods I ever had. The only problem was that Lady was a lot older than I had been led to believe, and she would have to be replaced in just a few years.

This raises the question of “how many”. Obviously the size and nature of your farming operation will determine that. Since everything produced on our woodlot had to come up hill to the farm, and we planned several tilled acres for vegetables and other crops, not to mention haying for the horses and a flock of sheep, there was no way we could have done it with a single horse.

Another question arises concerning a single horse, what if you have to replace him? Some time ago there was an article in this publication about a very carefully planned single horse operation. The horse had to be especially well trained, and had to be in a certain size range to be able to do all the work. It might be hard to find a suitable replacement on short notice, as not all horses are trained to work, single.

At the same time, if you are relying on a team, and one horse is out of commission, at least a borrowed horse would be likely to be trained double. A Maine farmer who raises market vegetables had just such a problem last year, but was able to borrow a broke horse in the area. He was fortunate that such a horse could be found nearby, whereas in the old days, there were horse dealers, and most farms had horses.

AS the accompanying article related, there were times when I had trouble fielding two horses in the early days. Trixie had soft feet and had to be kept shod “just right”. Once we got to the point of working three horses, having one out of commission was not such a problem.

This might be the time to get into a little detail as to how the number of horses increased, and why. Certainly the new convert to using workhorses can get a little too enthusiastic, and wind up “over horsed”. I can admit to having this tendency, and of course we now have six, the product of putting two teams in the field on a fairly regular basis. This was possible because we began to have apprentices who could be trained to drive a team, and now that my grandson Drew is working horse on a regular basis.

Anyway, getting up to three happened pretty quickly as our tillage acreage increased and I found that even a single disc, set aggressively and well weighted, would go a lot better with three. Perhaps another reason was we now knew that the original mare was way older than I had been led to believe. The third horse, Pat, had belonged to a neighbor, and he was young, well trained, and very easygoing. He could be a little lazy, but his former owner taught us how to snap a twig in our hands behind him.

However easy it was to get up to three workhorses, it proved to be a struggle to stay there, as we were to lose the aging Lady. The first replacement, a Belgian gelding was well trained and agreeable. But there were times when turned out that he would stand with his bead pressed against a wall. Finally it was determined that he had epilepsy, and I was warned that while the head pressing seemed harmless enough, something more serious might occur in harness. Indeed, one day while headed down the highway to some distant farmland, his pace began to pick up to the point that I had to rein them in. This happened repeatedly in a kind of mechanical runaway, so when we reached the field, I tied them and went for help. There was nothing to be done but put him down.

Another replacement, a big Belgian mare named Queenie proved workable but had some strange habits occasioned I was told by attempts to make a competitive horse out of her at a fairly early age. She improved a lot, but when plowing some difficult ground had to be warmed up by plowing in the soft garden soil beforehand. I finally concluded that while she was fairly satisfactory, I had better sell her, as she was not suitable for apprentice use. I held my breath as I encouraged her to skid a couple of logs for the benefit of the potential buyer. She was the only horse I ever made money on.

Another solution was to borrow a mare whose weanling filly I had already bought, and who was to foal in May, I had already contracted to buy the foal, so it meant that I could bring the two home to the farm. (By the way, this was the beginning of the team consisting of Bonnie and Mayday, half sisters who were the subject of an article in the summer 2002 issue of this publication.) Since this arrangement worked out very well, the next season I borrowed another Belgian, a gelding who was only four, and who wound up going with Trixie to MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair

By this time, having the two half sisters just mentioned indicated the potential for adding two horses who would be raised and trained on the farm. While this process was going on, however, I still had to find a third horse to work with Trixie and Pat.

Can’t remember where the next candidate came from but we called her the Bay Mare, and speculated that she was a Morgan-Percheron cross. She was short and chunky, still relatively young and had a good disposition. However, I was used to the Belgian temperament, and it was clear that I still had a lot to learn. Of her runaways, two are especially worthy of mention. I had her and a promising young Belgian mare on the spreader, and as I was ready to start, I heard Albert Cutting, a lifelong teamster say, “Watch out when you turn the beaters.” AS they started to run, I managed to turn the beaters off, and throw myself on the load of horse manure. With feet braced against the front of the spreader, I managed to stop them. It was not comforting to realize that I had endangered the promising young Belgian filly.

On another occasion, she was single on a homemade forecart, when I saw my wife Mollie heading for the garden on her bicycle with our two Corgi’s at her heels. Knowing what was coming, and disgusted with the mare, I did a slow roll over the side as she took off. Passing between two big elm trees, the forecart turned over, shedding a shaft, and freeing the mare to continue running with the whiffletree slapping her hind legs. (We re-hitched her right away to try to ensure she could be hitched again.) Later, happily, we found that working her with the slow and easygoing Pat was the solution to the problem, and we found that her true gait matched Pat’s. They were an excellent plow team. (I didn’t usually train horses with Pat, as he was a little lazy.)

Next to come was Emma for whom I traded the Bay Mare. She was an excellent mare, but not young and with poor conformation, not to mention what probably had been a hard life, made her prone to arthritis. I liked her so much that I used her name Emma for the first Suffolk horse born on the place.

At this point, I have to mention a great horseman in our area, Billy Tapley. He was brought up farming and logging with horses and also traded in horses. For some years he had the concession at Wildwood Stables in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. This meant that he needed work horses in order to give wagon rides on the Park’s roads. So he would spend time in northern Maine, New Brunswick, and Quebec looking for good horses, usually Belgians off the farm. These he brought back, checked out, and used on wagons at Acadia for a summer.

The following winter, these horses would generally be sold into the community, and it is notable how many of these horses found their way to Horsepower Farm later on. There were seven of them in all, not counting two horses that I borrowed, each for a season. Also notable is that all these horses turned out well, whereas most of the horses I get elsewhere did not.

I only bought one horse direct form Billy, a Belgian mare named Betty. Ironically, she started running on me, but he had warned me about her and it was through my carelessness that she got started. On another occasion, I asked that he bring up a gelding to team with Trixie. Instead, he hitched the gelding beforehand with a rugged Clydesdale he used as a breaking horse. The gelding reared, and hung some of his harness on the hames of the Clyde. Although it just worked out that way, it is clear that he preselected the good horses which I bought. Thus any success I had working horses in the early days must be credited to Billy Tapley and his very considerable skill with horses. It was always a pleasure to visit him because you learned so much in a short time.