I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.
We have tried a workhorse, and for our needs he has proven quite satisfactory as well as satisfying to use. Thus we feel it is possible for someone with little or no experience to learn to care for and use a horse or a team for farm and woods work, although, obviously, this is not a process to be undertaken lightly. One of the basic aims of the farm operation for us is self-sufficiency, and we thought that the horse would be more efficient than a tractor in achieving this aim.
Horses that are used to being in a herd have a few things in common: they do not like being separated, they are jealous when one leaves, and they almost always are at the gate to welcome the leaver home. Knowing this, I should have seen the red flags flying all over that steep, rocky hill. Instead, I merrily plunked my saddle in the back of my car, turned the mare out, locked the gate, and headed down the hill. It was then that I saw what was to turn this day completely upside down: two horses were jauntily trotting down the old railroad bed, straight for busy Highway 8 and Main Street, Troy.
When I was 10 my parents acquired a small acreage in a canyon up a creek near Salmon, Idaho, and 2 years later started buying the neighboring ranch. This was a dream come true, because now our family had cattle and horses. During my teen years I worked on the ranch – irrigating our hayfields with water ditched from the creek, building fence, riding range to look after the cattle – to earn some cows of my own. The annual calf crop from my small herd helped pay my way through college.
As a great way to finish off the century, Clyde Keyes had the idea to compete horses and oxen against each other, the same day at the same fair, in the same drawing ring. Clyde is well known throughout New England and beyond as an organizer and announcer of such events. He also had his own team of horses 42 years ago. He’s now planning retirement and thought this competition would be a unique way to highlight his career. The teams of heavyweight horses were already scheduled to attend so Clyde arranged for six teams of powerful oxen to be on hand.
I have been questioned (even criticized) about my slow, gentle, repetitious approach “taking too much time” and all the little steps being unnecessary when one can simply “hitch ‘em tied back to a well-broke horse they can’t drag around, and just let ‘em figure it out on their own.” I try to give horses the same consideration I would like if someone was teaching me how to do something new and strange.
For a claustrophobic animal like the horse, being confined to a small box while speeding down the highway at 60 miles per hour is a mighty unnatural experience. Luckily, equines are adaptable animals and are likely to arrive in good condition – if – you make preparations beforehand and take some precautions. Here are some tips to help your horse stay healthy, safe, and comfortable while traveling.
After moving the drop ring on the other side down we went out to the round pen for a test drive. The difference in how she ground drove and turned was amazing – not perfect, but real sweet. With the lines at that level a right turn cue on the line obviously meant go right to her, and a left turn cue meant left. After we drove around for a while with me smiling I couldn’t resist moving the drop rings back up to the line rings – Bam, back to the old confusion.
In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.
When we ask a horse to follow us in the round pen we can help him succeed by varying things a bit – changing direction and speed frequently, stopping periodically to reward him with a rub (“a rub” or two, not 100), picking up a foot, playing with his tail/ears/mouth, etc. In other words, working at desensitizing or sensitizing him by simulating things he will experience in the future (trimming and shoeing, crupper, bridle over the ears, bit, etc.).
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:
My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.
The problem resulting from wolf teeth are due to the bit hammering on them or bouncing over them and banging into the much larger premolar teeth behind. This causes varying degrees of aggravation and pain to the animal. The problems that result range from minor irritation (often unapparent due to the wonderful and tolerant nature of many horses and mules) to dangerous reactions and behavior.
Simon and his elder sons Simon, Keith, and Ian, with their Belgian Ardennes horses, work good timber in bad places. The felling and extraction operation at the Lake District beauty spot of Tarn Hows was done in often appalling weather, and in the full glare of publicity. It must rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of horse logging, or indeed of commercial horse work done in these islands in recent years.
On Saturday, March 30, 2013 in Orange, Virginia, members of the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association (VDHMA), Old Dominion Draft Horse and Mule Association and Virginia Percheron Association trailered in to support Bob Brennan’s annual Farm Day. Other teamsters traveled from various parts of Virginia as well as North Carolina, West Virginia, Massachusetts and New York to demonstrate their skills in tilling a large field supplied by one of Bob’s neighbors for this public event.
Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.
Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.
We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.
Combining late winter/early spring grazing with pasture renovation seems to work best when we let these sacrifice areas rest for the remainder of the grazing season. If time permits, one or two mowings helps to set back the less desirable grasses and weeds while the sun-loving clover gets established. Applying minerals, such as rock phosphate and lime, along with a mulch of strawy horse manure, also increases the chances for the new seedlings to take off and thrive in these long neglected and infertile patches of the thirty-year-old pasture.
A couple of questions at this year’s small group tour made us realize that we had not thoroughly cultivated the topic of work horse costs in this column. Tom Padua, recently hired to manage a CSA in New Jersey and convert it to the bio-extensive system, wanted to know how much hay, grain and minerals we feed our work horses. Miriam Gieske, a research intern at the Rodale Institute, took Tom’s questions to the next level. After browsing through the SFJ handouts at the end of the day, she wanted to know which costs more, farming with horses or tractors?
Establishing the age of farm animals through the appearance of the teeth is no new thing. The old saying, “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth,” is attributed to Saint Jerome, of the fifth century, who used this expression in one of his commentaries. Certainly for generations the appearance, development, and subsequent wear of the teeth has been recognized as a dependable means of judging approximately the age of animals.
It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.
The first wire we tried was a small gauge steel wire which was not terribly satisfactory with horses. Half the time they wouldn’t see it and would charge on through. And the other half of the time they would remember getting shocked by something they hadn’t seen there and would refuse to come through when we were standing there with gate wide open. We realized that visibility was an important consideration when working with horses.
Tall fescue is the most widely grown forage in the southeastern United States. Fescue toxicosis is the result of an endophytic fungus on tall fescue. A toxin produced by this endophytic relationship is absorbed into the digestive system of livestock that forage on the fescue. Unfortunately, the toxin remains active in cured hay as well. Research data from Experiment Stations in the southeast show serious production losses occurring in cattle. It is now also known that fescue toxicosis is causing critical reproductive problems in pregnant mares. Mares receiving most of their daily nutritional needs from fungus infected fescue tend to be agalactic, producing little if any milk. Although their foals are usually born live, they are often weak. Most do not survive long, due to lack of food intake or absence of the immune protection normally provided by the mare’s colostrum.
This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.
These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.
The first step to a successful training session is to decide ahead of time what it is you wish to accomplish with your horse. In the wild the horses in a band require the strength of a lead horse. Your horse needs you to be that strong leader, but she can’t follow you if you don’t know where you want to go. On the other hand, we need to retain some space within ourselves for spontaneity to respond to the actual physical and mental state of our young horse on any given day.
In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.
By waking up so fully to the tasks at hand we are empowered to be more present, more available, and thus able to offer a compassionate and skillful response to the needs of our horses even as we ask them to accomplish heavy work on the farm. It is not up to the horses to trust us; it is up to us to prove ourselves worthy of their trust. What the horses can offer to us are new avenues to freedom and resilience, sustainability and hope.
The serviceability of the work horse may be increased or decreased according to the care which is bestowed upon him. If he is groomed in a perfunctory fashion his efficiency as an animal motor is lessened. On the other hand, if he is well groomed he is snappier and fresher in appearance and is constantly up on the bit.
Dinnertime rolled around before we could get people and horses off the field so that results of judging could be announced. I learned a lot that day, one thing being that people were there to share; not many took the competition side of the competition very seriously. Don Anderson of Toledo, WA was our judge — with a tough job handed to him. Everyone was helping each other so he had to really stay on his toes to know who had done what on the various plots.
En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.
Well-known for his long association with draft horses and his driving abilities in multiple hitches, Harry Campbell took on a new and rather unorthodox endeavor a couple of weeks ago. Invited over to Victoria on Vancouver Island to assist Doris Ganton to hitch and drive her ‘four,’ he was rather taken aback to discover that her four consisted of “Major,” a 2400 pound Belgian, “Shan,” a purebred Arabian, and a matched pair of Hackney mares! His initial reaction, “Weeell, they don’t exactly match, do they?”
For the last ten years, I have made hay mostly with a single horse. This has not necessarily been out of choice, as at one time I had hoped to be farming on a larger scale with more horses. Anyway, it does little good to dwell on ‘what if ’. The reality is that I am able to make hay, and through making and modifying machinery, I probably have a better understanding of hay making and the mechanics of draught.
From reading the Small Farmers Journal, I knew that some people are equally happy with either model, but because McCormick Deering had gone to the trouble of developing the No. 9, it suggests they could see that there were improvements to be made on the No. 7. Even if the improvement was small, with a single horse any improvement was likely to increase my chance of success.
In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.
Over the last few years of making hay, the mowing, turning and making tripods has settled into a fairly comfortable pattern, but the process of getting it all together for the winter is still developing. In the beginning I did what everyone else around here does and got it baled, but one year I decided to try one small stack. The success of this first stack encouraged me to do more, and now most of my hay is stacked loose.
If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.
When hitching to the mower, first make sure it’s on level ground and out of gear. The cutter bar should be fastened up in the vertical or carrier position. This is for safety of all people in attendance during hitching.
It is more difficult to keep some horses in a respectable condition than others. The slab-sided, upstanding type of draft horse requires more grooming than the more compact, chunky individual. The latter is usually an easy keeper in other ways than grooming. It is not considered good practice to groom too heavily during shedding time, for the new coat is generally a trifle coarse if the old hair is removed too quickly. All grooming should be done when the horse is dry, especially thorough cleaning and grooming to remove dirt, sweat, and falling hair, otherwise sore shoulders will follow.
Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.
One of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring teamsters is “how many horses will I need for my farm?” Judging from the following circle letter responses to this very topic, three horses – a team and a spare – would be ideal for a market garden, and four to eight work animals should be sufficient for a livestock operation, where a significant acreage of hay and field crops are harvested.
An understanding of the desirable and undesirable conditions found in horses, together with a knowledge of their relative values, will enable the purchaser to select a better animal, with a considerable saving of time, inconvenience, and expense. A thorough examination for the various forms of blemish, vice, faulty conformation, and unsoundness in a horse is absolutely essential if serviceableness is to be secured, and a definite method of procedure should be adhered to in making the examination, which should correspond to the order in which the various steps most conveniently present themselves.
Late one evening as I sat, sleepless, wondering how on earth I’d be able to pull it off and manage to hold on to this chance at my own farm, a little door opened in the back of my brain and an idea crept in … “work horses … THAT’S IT! I’ll do it with the horses … Just for this year, or as long as it takes to get started. Sure it’ll be hard work, maybe longer hours, but this is the chance I’ve been waiting for. I can do it! I’ll make it somehow. Horses, yeh that’s it, horses!” Until that time I had been playing with my team of Belgian mares – plowing contests, parades, wagon rides – they were an important hobby for me. I had a few odd pieces of horsedrawn farm equipment. So I made a decision, out of necessity, I was going to farm that first year using horses in harness rather than a tractor.
Just inside the barn door hangs a coil of blue and white rope, and a big scary lesson. The rope is one of those things that doesn’t have a specific job, yet does about everything. It has been used to drag logs, pull cars out of mud, guide a falling tree in the right direction, or be threaded through the come-along on butchering day. It was the first thing I grabbed when Jacinth, our filly, went through the ice.
The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.
Owners want the best for their horses as demonstrated by the amount of money they spend on feeds, facilities, tack, equipment and veterinary services and supplies. Therefore, it is amazing that some owners who want to do things right for their horses use them improperly. As spring approaches, thousands of horse owners are chomping at the bit to hit the trails and show rings. Whoa! A horse owner needs to wait a minute and take stock of the horse’s condition.
The past two summers I loaded my three Kiger mustang mares into the stock trailer and drove from my home in Beavercreek, Oregon down to Dorena, Oregon where I spent the summer at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis, owned and operated by Walt Bernard and Kris Woolhouse. Walt and Kris employed me to do work for the market crops. They grow mainly vegetables in twelve hoop houses and in the fields. I did everything from sowing seed in the propagation house to tying up tomatoes to weeding to digging potatoes, to harvesting. They also hired me to do some field work with my horses. When I wasn’t being paid to do the farm work, I trained my horses or canned some tomatoes and fruit.
With his team of horses in hand, Spencer first started cutting firewood off Forest Service land and selling it to the public. In 1985, after four years of cutting firewood by horse logging, the Forest Service, seeing what he was capable of doing, put up a small timber sale in a campground. Today, the Forest Service and land owners see horse logging as a nice tool in managing the land.
We are blessed who are active participants in the life of soil and weather, crops and critters, living a life grounded in seasonal change. This talk of human connection to land and season is not just the rambling romantic musing of an agrarian ideologue. It is rather the result of participating in the deeply vital vocation that is farming and knowing its fruits first hand.
Why horses? We are knee deep in threshing oats and rye when I find after lunch that the tractor won’t start. Press the ignition switch — nothing; not even a click. I cancel the day’s threshing and drive thirty miles to the tractor store and pick up a genuine-after-market IH part. Come home, put in the new ignition switch and still nothing. When we need the horses they start right up, without complaint — every time.
The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses.
Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.
Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.
The first mini I bought was a three year old gelding named Casper. He taught me a lot about what a 38 inch mini could do just by driving me around the neighborhood. He didn’t cover the miles fast, but he did get me there! It wasn’t long before several more 38 inch tall minis found their way home. I presently have four minis that are relatively quiet, responsive to the bit, and can work without a lot of drama.
In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. 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.
Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.
The Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association hosted their 50th Anniversary Plowing Match at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center in McMinnville, Oregon on April 9, 2016. Small Farmer’s Journal was lucky enough to attend and capture some of the action to share.
There are hundreds of plants that can be toxic to livestock. Some grow in specific regions while others are more widespread. Some are always a serious danger and others only under certain conditions. Poisoning of livestock depends on several factors, including palatability of the plant, stage of development, conditions in which they grew, moisture content of the plant and the part eaten.
If you look at most old photos of horses ploughing, certainly from the British Isles, most of them feature a pair of horses. If photographs had been invented before the 1860s there would have been a greater variety of hitches, with three abreast, three in line walking down the furrow, three yoked bodkin fashion, and fours hitched in line or in two pairs. In the middle of the 19th century there was a big movement to improve the function and decrease the draught of ploughs, so that on farms where four horse hitches were used, they might then manage with three or a pair. By the time photographs came more common in the early twentieth century, on all but the heaviest land two horses could pull the plough and this became the most common hitch. By comparison, images of a single horse pulling a plough are relatively rare; perhaps those who could only afford one horse could not afford to have their photograph taken either, but the big plough manufacturers in Britain all produced light ploughs for the single horse, or even for a pony, and there were many small holdings which only supported a single horse.
His name was Possum — perhaps he got that name because he was lazy and often pretended to be asleep. He was owned by a teenage girl who was buying a younger horse. Possum was a bay gelding with a white face and a blue eye where the white marking surrounded the eye. He was calm and gentle (some people would say lazy) and accustomed to being handled by children. He’d been retired from a riding stable in a larger town, purchased by a family with young children. He was resold when those children grew older, and resold again. It would be hard to guess how many children had learned to ride on him.
High summer temperatures can present special problems for horses, especially if they are exerting. Temperatures above 80 degrees F can greatly increase the chance for trouble if relative humidity gets above 50%, with no breeze, making horses more susceptible to heat stroke. Under these conditions, a horse has difficulty cooling himself, since sweat does not evaporate when air is humid. Extremely hot weather can cause problems, even in a horse that is not exerting. One advantage in a dry climate is that humidity is generally low. Horses can usually cool themselves adequately by sweating, unless they become dehydrated by having to sweat too much, too long.
Becky Zeune keeps about twenty miniature horses, a couple of donkeys, two llamas and an assortment of barnyard poultry on her family’s farm near Danville, Ohio. Becky is not into breeding commercially or showing, she is one of those individuals who find that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a person.”
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.
In 1925 Slim Moorehouse drove a hitch of 36 Percheron Horses pulling 10 grain wagons loaded with 1477 bushesl of wheat through the Calgary Stampede Parade. It is out intention to honor a man who was a great horseman and a world record holder. The hitch, horses and wagons, was 350 feet in length and he was the only driver.
Mares are not the major emphasis in the fall since they have performed their task of foaling, lactating and being re-bred. After foals are weaned, most breeders tend to focus on weanlings and yearlings that are being prepared for shows, sales and/or performance in the case of long yearlings. Fall management of broodmares is far more critical than some breeders realize and can directly impact foaling and re-breeding successes next year.
In the morning we awoke to a three quarters of a mile long swath of old growth mixed conifer and aspen trees, uprooted and strewn everywhere we looked. We hadn’t moved here to become loggers, but it looked like God had other plans! We had chosen to become caretakers of this beautiful place because of the peace and quiet, the clean air, the myriad of birds and wildlife! Thus, we were presented with a challenge: how to clean up this blowdown in a clean, sustainable way.
The horse’s head is large, with eyes set wide apart at the sides of his head; he seldom sees an object with both eyes at the same time and generally sees a different picture with each eye. In the wild, this double vision was a big advantage, making it difficult for a predator to sneak up on him. He can focus both eyes to the front to watch something, but it takes more effort. Only when making a concentrated effort to look straight ahead does the horse have depth perception as we know it.
Regular readers of this journal will be well familiar with the amazing work of Paul Schmit and Albano Moscardo of Schaff mat Päerd in Europe. Their in-depth articles on new continental innovations in animal-drawn technologies have set a very high bar for future inquiries into the discipline. This handsome and eminently practical addition to their Guidebook series covers hitches and hitching of both European and North American types. In addition to the directly practical nature of the information, there is here a subtle and intelligent comparison of two different cultural approaches to the working of horses.
I consider farms to be one of those interesting things I was talking about. Isn’t it just so lovely that a small, tilled plot of land can hold so much life? Food for humans, food for animals, bulk and produce, cover crops, an environment for domesticated and wild animals alike. If you were to pause time, think of all the things that would be happening! In the stalky field, a bleary-eyed fawn twitches tired ears. In the hawthorn hedge, a magpie pulls at a thorny twig, artfully constructing a masterpiece of a nest. In the barn, the scurrying of an evasive mouse catches the attention of the draft horses, slowly chewing their breakfast.
One day last fall, I fell in with a farmer wandering through the horse stables at the Illinois State Fair. Naturally enough we got to talking about the Percheron show. I was more anxious for an audience than anything else, and began unloading the story of the old mare in Virginia. I had no idea that I was talking to Dan Augstin. He lost no time in stating to me, in his own way, that bloodlines in Percherons have just as much significance as they do in Shorthorns, or any kind of purebred stock in which the pedigree goes back to Adam’s time. He took me to his stalls, and there told a story that dated back to the time of old Louis Napoleon, one of the first Percheron stallions ever brought to this country.
Warm barns make for cheery farmers but they are not so good for the animals. Furry farm creatures, especially ruminants, are suited by their natures for temperatures far lower than man finds comfortable. As has been observed widely, farm animals, given the choice, will often spend their time out of doors even at very low temperatures in winter. Animal shelters need only prevent the occupants from being exposed to draft and humidity, for it is these and not the cold, that lead to winter diseases in bird and beast.
Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.
Doc and Jim were a named team when we purchased them at auction in 1993, and they worked in tandem for the next seven years in support of our small dairy operation, answering to those very same names. Why would we change them? The two Belgians, already up in years, didn’t shoulder the full burden of what we needed in terms of horsepower. We used our tractors to harvest hay from all but the smallest of the fields we mowed, raked and baled each summer. Still, we regularly harnessed the team to mow that 5-acre field just west of the farmhouse, and to haul manure from the barn, firewood to the house and storm-felled trees up from the steep slopes of forested ravines.