Plowing with a Draft Horse

Plowing with a Draft Horse

by Paul Birdsall of Penobscot, ME

Plowing demands more skill and precision from the teamster and the horses than almost any other farm-related task performed with a team. This is true whether you use a walking plow or a wheel-mounted sulky plow. This discussion will be limited to the sulky plow, both because the wheel-mounted sulky is easier to use and my experience is limited to this type, except for one disastrous attempt with a single horse walking plow described in “A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses” (Farmstead Magazine, Spring/Summer, 1974).

The reason that the sulky is the easier to use is that it takes less strength and skill to control the depth and direction of the furrow with this implement than with the walking plow. The sulky is controlled by driving the team with reins, and with various levers which adjust the angle and depth at which the plowshare travels. The walking plow must be directed both by rein control, and by steering the plow with the handles. This takes considerable strength and agility. There are also risks that the plowman may receive a stunning blow under the jaw from a plow handle, should the walking plow hit and be tripped by a large rock.

The two-way sulky plow consists of a frame mounted on wheels with two plow beams, from each of which a plowshare, with its plow point, is suspended. Each beam is controlled by a hand lever which enables the teamster to raise and lower the share and adjust it to the proper running depth. The team draws the plow with an evener, or “double tree” and whiffle trees.

The evener has a clevis which slides on a rod between the two plow beams. Although there are two plowshares, only one share is in the ground at a time, as the other share is for plowing in the opposite direction, but still turning the furrow the same way. The clevis for the whiffle trees and evener must always be slid over to bring the draft directly on the plow beam and plowshare in use. If your sulky has only one share, it will be capable of plowing in one direction only; this is a “one way” plow rather than a “two way” plow. The advantage is with the two way, at least in our irregular New England fields, as it permits turning furrows one way and working steadily across a field in one direction, instead of having to figure on making a “headland” at each end, separating the directions of work.

The team steers and backs the plow with the pole which runs between the horses. The pole is attached ahead of the horses with a pole yoke or “neck yoke”. The pole, which is mounted so that it may be swiveled to either side by lever or foot pedals (depending on make), serves not only to steer and to back, but also to adjust the angle of the plowshare to the direction of travel. The sharper the angle, the wider the bite of the share on each pass, and the wider the furrow turned. So this angle must be adjusted and readjusted to changing conditions, if satisfactory results are to be achieved.

If your sulky has a seat support, but lacks its seat, chances are it didn’t just fall off from excessive wear or from supporting too heavy a plowman. The farmer probably thought it best (especially for the hired hand) to walk behind the plow so that stones could be picked up, and incompletely turned sod turned over by hand. There is nothing so frustrating as to look back at a section of partly turned sod and see a kind of chain reaction as a long section gradually rolls back into its original, unplowed position with a kind of wave effect. Also, the riding plowman may be rather suddenly elevated from his seat or rather quickly tipped sideways off his perch if the plow point catches on a large submerged rock. I have even had the sulky turn upside down, though with no ill effects to machine or rider. So there is a case for walking. I compromise, and ride when re-plowing old ground which has been under regular cultivation, and walk when plowing new, unbroken ground which may contain unknown obstacles. In this respect, horse-drawn plows suffer by comparison with tractor plows which usually are designed with a “breakaway”, or spring-loaded release feature, to ease shock and damage when striking an immoveable object.

Obviously, the type of farming conditions you encounter will determine how much you can do plowing with a team, or even whether or not it is practical to plow with horses at all. Over the past four years we have brought back to fertility an old farm with perhaps 25 acres capable of being tilled. The soil is a sandy loam, and is relatively easy to turn the first time, and quite easy to replow under regular cultivation. You may find with very heavy clay ground, that plowing with horses would be too slow or difficult to make it practical. Or suppose that you are using mixed power, that is, you have an old tractor as well as a team, and you are keeping mechanical problems and expenses to a minimum by using the horses whenever possible. Of all the tasks which might be best relegated to the tractor, plowing is the most logical since it is the slowest of those performed by horses. A man who had spent much of his life helping his father farm our place replied, when asked how much you could plow in a day with a sulky and team, “About an acre, if you can stand it.”

We have been plowing up to 10 to 15 acres a year, and with up to nine acres of outside leased or borrowed land we will probably be plowing about 20 to 25 acres annually in the future. But bear in mind, this is all re-plowing on ground which has been broken before. Although we did all the original plowing on the home farm with a sulky, we find it practical to hire a man with a tractor for the initial plowing of outside fields. We even custom hire re-plowing of outside fields if we find that we are too far behind to do it with the team.

If, after considering your soil type and the requirements of your farming operation, you plan to do all or part of the plowing with a team, here is a quick step-by-step description of how to go about it. If this all sounds too technical, remember that the best way to learn is to go out with an experienced plowman to guide you, and with sufficient practice, the results should get more and more acceptable. Another suggestion; do not go out to learn to drive horses and to plow at the same time. You should have the basic skills of the teamster reasonably well in hand before you attempt the art of plowing, with all the demands it places on the driver as well as on the horses. Also, do not expect green horses, which have not worked together, to be able to plow satisfactorily.

First, size up the field you plan to plow. If you plan to work from the east side of the field to the west, then the sod will be turned to the east on each pass. A sulky will turn a furrow uphill and you may want to do this to counteract the drift of soil down a slope from the washing of rain and from harrowing. We have one field with a ridge in the center. We start from the ridge and plow to the west, and after completing this section of the field we return to the starting point and work to the east, throwing the soil uphill each time. Obviously, it makes sense to plow the longer dimension of the field, and eventually you will learn to make adjustments for any irregularities in the shape of the field, especially in New England.

Bring the sulky and team up to the starting point of the first furrow. If the direction in which the field is to be plowed is north-south, and the progress of the implement across the field is to be east to west, the sod will be turned to the east. If the direction of the first pass is south, lower the left-hand plow beam and share and make certain the clevis, which is the point of attachment for the team, has been slid over on its bar to pull on the plow beam you plan to use. Normally the lever adjustment of plow depth will be determined by depth of furrow desired and observation of results. However, the sulky is designed to plow with the wheel adjacent to the working plowshare running in the last furrow that was made. Since this will be the first furrow, both wheels will be up on the surface of the field, and the plow frame will be correspondingly higher. On your first furrow, the plowshare must be set all the way down in order to turn a furrow effectively.

One more adjustment is necessary before you can start the team ahead. With lever or foot pedals designed for the purpose, swivel the pole to the left. This sets the plowshare at an angle to the “land”, or sod to be turned, so that it will cut a furrow of the desired width. Again, trial and error will help you determine satisfactory adjustment. Now with depth and angle set, urge the team ahead slowly. Try to plow as straight a furrow as possible, and watch for any signs of trouble. Troubles might include: plow point running too shallow, insufficient sod or dirt being turned, width of furrow too narrow or too wide, and insufficiently turned furrow with sod falling back in place. In any of the cases the plow must be readjusted to make a proper furrow.

At the end of the first furrow, trip the foot or hand control on the plow depth adjustment lever, and a wheel drawer ratchet will raise the plow beam and point out of the ground. Then reverse the angle of the pole to the frame with foot pedals or the lever provided, and make ready to turn the team away from the direction in which the last furrow has been turned. This turn is one of the most demanding maneuvers for all, for the team must be sidestepped around gradually so that the inside wheel remains more or less stationary. After the turn, the inside wheel should be in line with the end of the last furrow. It takes some doing to get your team to turn evenly and in a relatively relaxed manner so that they do not step on each other, with resulting damage to hooves and horseshoes. Once you are turned, proceed as before, lowering the opposite share. This share does not need to be as deep, because this is the second furrow, and the wheel adjacent to the share will have a furrow to ride in. Probably your first field won’t represent a very even plowing job, but the time will come when you and your team will look out with pleasure on an expanse of neatly turned furrows.

Although they are not plentiful, sulky plows still turn up in useable condition at sales. It is encouraging to note that a small Midwestern metal fabricating firm (D.A. Hochstetler, R # 2, Box 162, Topeka, Indiana) is currently making sulky plows, although these are often the one-way type, with but one share. If you get a used plow, it is a good idea to get a back-up plow of the same make and type, from which to take spare parts, since the machines have not been made for years and it is almost impossible to get parts from dealers. However, we have not found that there is much breakage or need for repair on this type of equipment, with the exception of plow points. We generally break one or two points a year when we encounter immoveable %$&XCV@#+-^!!! objects in the field. Unfortunately, the number of spare plow points available from a junk plow are only two, one for each share. So, though we have experienced a good deal of trouble and anxiety regarding a future source of plow points, our fears have been relieved. There is a small concern making plow points, I assume for most of the well-known makes of horse-drawn sulkies. R. Hershel Manufacturing Co., Harrisburg, PA is the distributor for these points. Undoubtedly, the demand which has kept this concern going has been from the Amish and Mennonite farmers, who for cultural reasons have never abandoned horses and mules for farm use.

Another choice of equipment exists for those who cannot locate a sulky plow and who do not wish to use the walking plow. A trailing single bottom plow for a tractor may be hitched to a fore or pole cart. A fore cart consists of single axle and wheels, pole, seat, and a drawbar hitch behind. The Amish use this system not only for single bottom plows, but for two and three bottom plows as well. More draft animals would be needed for each additional bottom. The two-way feature would not be available with this kind of equipment.

Well-known makes of sulky plows are Oliver, John Deere, and International, although all of these makes are now obsolete (not manufactured anymore). We have two Oliver plows in working condition, as well as junk plows for parts. One thought we have had considering that we have three horses, is to adopt one of the plows for a three-horse hitch. This was done in the past, and may be accomplished by moving the pole over to the right on the plow frame and incorporating a special evener. The two-way plow feature would be lost, but more work could be done since less resting time would be required for three horses.

Some people may wonder why we go to the trouble of farming with horses, let alone plowing. Certainly it is more work than using a tractor. There are good reasons for doing so over and above the satisfaction involved in working with horses. People tend to forget that 60 years ago American agriculture competed just as favorably with the agriculture of other nations as it does today. At that time, energy for agriculture was based almost completely on draft animal power. With draft horses, you have more control over the energy inputs into your farm. You can avoid mechanical problems and tie-ups involved with more sophisticated tractor equipment.

If you prefer mixed power, you can make that old tractor go longer and better than would be the case if it had to bear the entire burden of powering a farm. With mechanical equipment the more you use it, the more you wear it out; any use causes wear on mechanical parts. With horses, as well as with your own body, the more regularly you use them to their limits, the better they perform. Tractors also find it hard to have babies.


A lot has changed since “Plowing with a Draft Horse” appeared in 1978. Some updating is needed, and there are some corrections as well. These plows are, of course, obsolete, but I still think they are relevant. They last a long time, so there are probably more in use than one might think. (Mine were acquired in the mid 1970’s, and I know at least four other farmers in Maine who use them, at least occasionally. In fact, one appears on page 57 of the summer issue of the Draft Horse Journal, and I can even make out the name Oliver on the rear side of the cast moldboard.) Another reason for their continuing usefulness is that one can still order the cast shares from Midway Repair Shop in Dalton, OH. Their viability is enhanced by the fact that complete new bottoms, left and right, are available from White Horse Machine in Gap, PA. Because the share is steel rather than cast it is longer lasting than the original, and it is an “off the shelf item”. (I replaced both bottoms on one of my Oliver plows only a couple of years ago.) I am not sure just how much the above information applies to the other makes of two way plow, of which there were a number.

One vulnerability of the two way became apparent upon hitting a rock, with the result of a bent plow beam. This has only happened once, and I was fortunate enough to find a “junk” plow from which to take the needed part. The junker proved to be useful in yet another way. Its main problem was rust, probably from spending most of its life outside. Clearly, it hadn’t done much work, as when the levers were freed up after considerable effort, everything seemed a lot tighter and less worn than on my original Oliver 23A. So I proceeded to restore the junk plow using such parts as I needed from the original.

The two way plow was developed because one way plows leave a dead furrow, and are a problem when plowing on the contour and on hillsides. They permit turning the furrow in one direction by alternating plow bottoms when reversing direction, thus permitting turning the furrow reliably uphill. This counteracts, at least in part, the movement of soil downhill occasioned by virtually any operation, be it tillage, planting, or cultivation.

A lever on each side controls raising and lowering of its respective plow bottom. There are two foot pedals, each of which engages a power lift (wheel operated) for its respective bottom, and another lever to the left changes the angle of the horse pole relative to the frame. Moved forward, this lever moves the horse pole to the right for plowing with the right hand bottom, and moving the lever back moves the pole to the left for employing the left hand bottom. (A handy thing to know when plowing a steep slope is that the downhill lever may be lowered slightly to level the frame of the plow and better turn the furrow uphill.)

These plows were designed to plow both ways not only with two horses but with three, contrary to what I said in the original article. For Oliver plows, in order to plow with two, the horse pole and brackets must be on the left side of the stub pole, while to plow with three, they must be shifted to the right side. For complete information on the use and adjustment of this plow, you should consult Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing, L.R. Miller, starting with page 83. (Please note, however, that the caption for Fig. 231, page 84 states the reverse of the above, so far as placement of the horse pole and brackets relative to the stub pole is concerned.)

I had some problems plowing with three, perhaps attributable to the fact that I may not have had the plow beam clevises properly adjusted. When plowing with two, the clevis to which the evener is attached tends to slide over ahead of the plow that is in the ground because the rod on which the clevis slides forms a sharp angle with plow beam in use. With three, I found I had to adjust the plow the opposite way with the consequence that the clevis did not tend to remain on the proper side because the angle between rod and plow beam was too open and did not tend to hold the evener clevis in place.

Later I learned of an arrangement to permit the mounting of two poles which allowed me to plow successfully with three. This consisted of a “T” shaped member made out of 4” x 4” hollow steel. With the original pole shortened, the single projection of the “T” shaped member was slid on over the end of a shortened horse pole and locked in place with a pin. Projecting forward from the ends of the “T” were additional members which permitted the insertion and pinning of the two poles, much as one might mount the two shafts for a single horse. With this setup, the pole could be angled as though plowing with two and the evener clevis would stay in place ahead of proper plow beam.

We now have an Oliver one way sulky plow with 14” bottom, made for a tractor, which we use behind a forecart with three horses abreast. The plow bottom has just been replaced with a new one available from Pioneer Manufacturing in Dalton, OH. So far as a breakaway system is concerned, the release consisted of a spring mechanism in the hitch. Not liking to separate suddenly from the plow and then have to back three horses up exactly to the hitch point to re-hitch, I substituted a regular pin hitch. Without a breakaway system on either type of Oliver plow, I guess I count on the fact that with horses the impact of hitting an obstruction is a little less destructive than with a tractor.

We do virtually all the plowing on the home place with the horses, except, possibly blueberry sod with its matted root system, amounting to possibly 25 acres of tillable or potentially tillable soil. (We are still clearing fields.) The 15 acres 1.5 miles down the highway is a different story, as with time constraints involving moving horses and machinery, sometimes it is easier to use a tractor. The alternative, hiring custom plowing has never proven satisfactory.

It is helpful having the two types of plows, one with 12” bottoms, and one with 14” as this gives us a lot of flexibility in relation to the soil conditions we experience. The good ridge soils which predominate are all glacial till, and are quite mellow and easy to plow in the spring and early summer, but are drier and more difficult to plow after midsummer. On fallow fields, we like to have a summer cover crop, usually buckwheat, which necessitates more plowing, although sometimes a disc will do. (We probably plow too much, though often we plow very shallowly.)

The subject so far, has been largely the Oliver two way plow, and the fact that there are two of them is no accident, as we like to have two of most types of machinery, probably reflecting the more ready availability of inexpensive horse drawn machinery 35 or 40 years ago. Thus for many types of work we can put two teams in the field if pressed for time, and in an emergency, you can always scare up a spare part. Thus, in addition to the plows we have two McCormick #9 High Gear mowers, two manure spreaders, two hay rakes, four riding cultivators, and two aged hay balers. Having the two mowers has certainly proven practical, although I & J Manufacturing Company has brought out a new ground driven mower which is far superior, there are still shops selling rebuilt #9 mowers, parts are available, and some rebuilt mowers are even exported. Thus this mower remains a good option. Interestingly, they even lend themselves to single horse use by mounting shafts in place of a pole, and shortening the cutter bar. With two machines in the field, we can mow four acres in a little more than two hours. Having two obviates the concern expressed recently in these pages that with only one mower, you risk its condition when you use it for purposes other than mowing hay, say mowing crop residue.

I enjoy as much as anyone the process of rebuilding and keeping old machinery going, but sometimes you experience diminishing returns. Our ancient manure spreaders are a case in point. (I bought one used in 1974.) I was spending too much time repairing them, and they were producing unsatisfactory results in the field, so we bought a new one, and are keeping the better of the two old ones as a spare.

We keep four riding cultivators going, including three McCormick-Deering and one John Deere, and these are proving satisfactory for the long term. I might even pick up another McCormick if one became available. Having extra riding cultivators permits us to keep some of them more or less permanently set up so far as tools are concerned, saving a significant amount of time changing poles.

Putting up hay for storage is a difficult issue for those of us raising market vegetables because it comes at such a busy time. (At one time we relied on a custom operator to cut and bale hay on the fields distant from the farm.) Given that our early hay is put up loose with a loose hay loader, and put in the barn with a single horse on a hay rope and block and tackle, most of our hay we bale with whichever one of our antique balers is feeling the less cantankerous at the moment. Usually one is reasonably cooperative, but last summer things were a lot worse than that. The last piece we cut amounted to about 500 bales, and with an untimely breakdown, we finished just about as the rain started. Several months ago, I was having a pleasant conversation with the late Russell Libby, Director of MOFGA, about the joys and frustrations of keeping old horse machinery going. When I mentioned the baler problem, he suddenly got very serious, and said that we should get a serviceable and reliable baler, which we are already in the process of doing. Speaking of Russell, I know he always enjoyed his MOFGA farm visits, and I like to think he particularly relished riding the forecart with me behind a good harrow team while visiting Horse Power Farm. It should be noted that we in Maine agriculture (and probably many others) owe Russell Libby a great debt.

Given that there isn’t much of the old horse machinery around our options are improved by the growing amount of increasingly innovative horse machinery produced by the largely Amish array of shops and factories. As has been noted, this machinery is of very high quality, and is well designed. I have previously stated that a lot of items are available in the form of old ground driven tractor equipment, of which I have quite a lot. Having both forecarts and a tractor, I ordered the new spreader with a pin hitch for a tractor, even though it could be had set up for horses. Unfortunately, such items as grain drills are no longer available, at least of a size useable on the small or medium sized farm.

But I think we can take heart that articles appear regularly in these pages by Anne and Eric Nordell relating to innovative machinery and farming systems. Another reason for optimism is the growth of Horse Progress Days over many years which showcases new horsedrawn equipment. I can’t believe that this trend can be anything but a reflection of the increasing relevance of draft power and of the growing numbers who are using these fine animals.