Such a One Horse Outfit
by Robert Wright of LeRoy, MI
Like so many people during the sixties and seventies I was motivated to live a more simple and basic lifestyle. I bought forty acres of wooded land in northern Michigan and moved north in pursuit of self-sufficiency. Encouraged by Mother Earth News I was confident that with all that wood I’d never go cold and surely it couldn’t be all that difficult to grow most of what we needed. Little did I realize the vast variety of skills and knowledge needed to even come remotely close to self-sufficiency!
Growing up, I had always wanted a horse and with all that land what better time to own one. Purchase one saddle horse, new saddle and a little bit of hay. Yup, you guessed it, a whole new learning process. For a couple of years that old horse and I rode many miles on the trails of the State Forest adjoining my land. After a while it started to get boring riding alone over the same trails day after day. I certainly was getting experience with my partner and the responsibility of caring for him, but I felt a need to accomplish something practical with him. I needed justification for owning a horse.
One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.
Shortly thereafter I sold the saddle horse and purchased a team of Welsh out of Morgan from a horse dealer. I took them for a short test drive and was satisfied they could do anything I asked of them. The day after the dealer delivered them I harnessed up with great anticipation and was shocked to discover that during the past couple days they had developed two speeds, wide open and stop!!! Whoa wasn’t all that easy to accomplish a lot of the time. I plowed my first two furrows with that team! I hitched to a small poplar stump one day and when they popped it out of the ground they got all buggy eyed and drug me and the stump across the yard at a dead run with me hanging onto the lines screaming whoa and leaving two furrows where my elbows drug through the earth. One horse on the North side and one on the South side, they tried their best to take down a maple tree. I spent a week trying to get that harness back in shape! A neighbor of mine just had to have them and was sure he could work it out of them. A couple months later one got tangled in a rope and killed himself; the other was sold immediately,
A while later I approached an Amish farmer that had recently moved into our area. I visited him one afternoon and explained my inexperience and inquired if he had a good horse for a novice to learn on. He said he had just the horse but she won’t go cheap. A little Belgian mare that was broke the best and was due to foal the following spring. That Belgian mare taught this greenhorn a new lesson each and every time I hitched her. How excited I was every time Maude and I accomplished a new task. It didn’t matter how small or trivial the task, it made me feel that I was making progress without the fear of loss of life or limb! That old mare demonstrated more patience than should ever be expected from any animal. As time passed I became more and more attached to her and she to me. We slowly came to know each other and my skill and knowledge increased with each day. Without Maude and The Work Horse Handbook I don’t think I would have kept on. But a broken marriage resulted in the sale of Maude and her filly foal, but I had been bitten. It would take years for me to fully realize just how badly! Maude had engraved something into my soul that could never be erased.
I ended up moving to Hawaii and landing a job with the military. I was working for the government, living in Hawaii, making fairly good money. Had a very small apartment on the third floor and drove an acceptable car. I suppose just the Hawaii part would fulfill a lot of folks dreams but to me it had become just another big city complete with all the negative social problems and stigma that lifestyle comes packaged with. The worst of which I was living in a small apartment building that reminded me of a bunch of rabbit cages with neighbors passing each other every day but never getting to know each other. If one got too friendly they were treated with suspicion.
I’m not sure why we humans cling to what we know, what we are comfortable with, when we are taken from that comfort zone. It has been said that it is a sense of survival, but I know it is a slight nudge from the loving hand of my Lord trying to guide a lost old man down a previously chosen path. In fact there have been a few times it was a bit more like a push. But whatever the explanation, I continued to cling to the few country things that were available in the city of Honolulu. Things like the fair where the locals were fascinated by a real cow or baby chicks. Most importantly, the Small Farmer’s Journal! But there were times when even that was depressing as it gave me something very similar to home sickness!
Early one morning back in 1998 I was sitting in my office and was supposed to be preparing for the arrival of my crew. I was feeling depressed, out of place and unfulfilled. You see, I had just received the latest copy of the SFJ and that issue opened a floodgate of memories, smells and sounds of trace chains and Maude. For those of you that have read “Henry and The Great Society”, I was Henry and I didn’t like it one little bit. At that very moment I decided to write Lynn Miller a letter. I briefly explained my situation and asked if he and any readers thought it was feasible to farm ten acres with a single. My letter ran in the Summer 1998 issue. It wasn’t long and I started receiving letters from all over the United States and Canada. All were using or at one time had used a single for a wide variety of farm work. Every one emphatically stated it was not only possible but all were, or had at some time, farmed with a single horse. I did not receive a single letter that discouraged my dream. It was then that I realized that I had not only subscribed to a magazine, but had joined a family of like-minded people. Plain, simple people that were not only willing to help a greenhorn but eager to do so! It was a real good feeling at a time when I needed it the most.
Just a short time later Clinton started making cutbacks and reorganizing the military. I was informed that my job would be eliminated but would be given an opportunity for a buyout. None of my co-workers could comprehend why a man could be so elated that he had just lost his job and career. But it was so very obvious that the hand of God had once again intervened in my life and my prayers had been answered.
My wife, daughter and I caught a plane that fall and returned to Michigan to find some land. I was shown some of the finest cedar swamps in northern Michigan. One day we accidentally drove past a ten-acre plot. We were running out of time and had to return to Hawaii, so we bought that ten acres of poor hilly soil. Not really what I had envisioned, but it would be home. In 1999 we moved back and started building our home. We were then and still are determined to avoid debt so we build as we are able to afford.
It was late March, there was snow and the ground was frozen. It would be months before we could start building and we were all starting to feel a bit of cabin fever. We all needed some diversion, some activity. One night I came across an ad for a draft horse sale in southern Michigan. I asked the wife if she would like to go to her first horse auction and we were on our way! Before the sale was over I was the proud owner of a Belgian gelding! We didn’t have a house, but we sure did have a horse. We didn’t have any harness or equipment, but we had a horse. Mark is a mixed breed horse 18 hands and close to 2000 lbs. Just like his owner, not too pretty, no special blood lines, a bit smooth mouthed, but when asked, he’ll get the job done or break something trying!
That day began my never-ending search for equipment. The first piece was a work sled I saw in SFJ. The local High School welding class put it together as a project. Next I purchased a small fifth wheel wagon that had been a luggage wagon at a small airport. It was a perfect size for a single and required minimal work to attach a set of shafts. Best of all, it only cost $100.
Later I purchased a Pioneer forecart with snow blade from Gateway Mfg. located in Clare, Michigan. Because we get our share of snow here in northern Michigan, I knew this purchase was almost a necessity. I was a little concerned if Mark would be able to plow a heavy snow with a six-foot blade but when the time came, he could roll snow over the top of that blade like it was nothing.