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The Rhythm of Horses in the Landscape
The Rhythm of Horses in the Landscape

The Rhythm of Horses in the Landscape

by William Castle of Shropshire, UK

The exciting thing about going to new places and seeing different things is that you never know beforehand what you will get out of it. One such instance was my visit to the first British Festival of the Working Horse, where the weather was dreadful, the range of equipment a little disappointing, but the unexpected highlight was Henry Finzi-Constantine’s presentation to the mini conference, in which he talked about the introduction of a working horse into his Italian biodynamic vineyard. His wholehearted enthusiasm for the wine, the vineyard and the horse was both infectious and delightful, but for me at least, also slightly embarrassing, because in describing what the horse brings to his operation, there were no caveats, no ifs or buts.

Instead he explained why an active and carefully managed soil is fundamental to producing healthy crops and a high quality product. From a biodynamic point of view, the farm is seen as a whole, from the soil and water quality, to the plants, animals and people; but until the horse was introduced to the vineyard there had been no animals on the place. Once the horse arrived, it provided manure to fertilise the soil and power to cultivate the vineyard, with some of the work being done more quickly, and other jobs probably more slowly. But Henry’s main point was nothing to do with how useful a horse might be, but simply that it belonged in that situation. His most striking observation was that the whole atmosphere in the vineyard changed with the arrival of the horse, bringing a living focus of interest as the workers worked, and completing the circle between the plants, the soil and ourselves. This might seem a bit airy-fairy, but there is a fundamental truth underlying this observation, one I have witnessed on horse powered farms from seemingly austere Amish country to dour Yorkshire.

In the late 1980s, when farms which were open to the public were in their heyday, I was working on the farm of the late Geoff Morton in the flat low lying land of East Yorkshire. Geoff had farmed using horses both on this farm and on the smallholding where he had started his farming career, and the horses remained at the centre of the farming activities. Whilst the surrounding farms became more mechanised, Geoff adapted his operations to suit working with horses, much of the land growing cereals, both the wheat and the rye producing straw for thatching house roofs. For harvesting small grains in the traditional manner horses were ideal, both when cutting the crop and when loading it onto vehicles. The binder that we used was made by JF in Denmark, and featured a pneumatic drive wheel which was so small that it wasn’t necessary to have elevator canvasses, so the crop went straight from the bed canvas into the packers. This light weight machine which cut a swath of only five feet and had a minimum of moving parts meant that it could easily be pulled by a pair of horses, though we still did change teams every few hours. Because the binder was designed in the 1940s it could also be used with a tractor, some models being driven from the tractor PTO rather than from the land wheel, but using horses meant that it could be operated by one person, freeing up another body to help stook [shock] the sheaves. Although a tractor would go faster, when using a tractor, the binder needs to be driven out in a loop at the corners before coming back to cut the next side of the field, but with horses the light binder was easy to turn on the spot, and whilst you held back a sheaf with your left foot so the horses would not tread on it the next time they came round to the corner, the horses sidestepped and in a few seconds you were back at work again. When the sheaves were dry enough to stack, again the horses came into their own, stopping every few yards at the next stook whilst the sheaves were forked onto the load.

Harvest was not just the busiest time of year for us, but it was also the busiest time for visitors coming to see what we were doing. Some of them just wanted to see the horses and let the children stroke the horses’ noses; then after a few minutes they would wander off to see something else. But others were interested in what we were doing, wondering why we were using horses and why we were harvesting in the old fashioned way. Frequently we would get people who had stooked sheaves or had led a horse from stook to stook when they were young, some having grown up in rural areas, whereas others had been evacuees from the city during the war. Occasionally some of them fancied having a go and would fork up a few sheaves onto the load. Whereas most people tired after a few minutes, there were a delightful few who had obviously done the job before and would fork the rest of the load, landing every sheaf the right way round and just where you wanted it. Then there were the people who had interesting stories to tell, often related to rural life, farming or horses, and others who knew that they were witnessing something special and were intrigued to know how horses work in a modern context. From all these people we gained snippets of information, another view on life, and, as they went on their way, an added impetus to keep on at what is a hard job.

I can only guess at what these visitors got out of their visit, but few can have failed to realise that the horses were not some last minute addition to provide a tourist attraction, but were an integral part of the whole farming operation. This is a crucial difference. For the visitors, they were not seeing a staged microcosm of yesteryear, but were witnessing experienced working animals doing a real job like it was no big deal. For those who work horses the difference is more profound, because although in some respects horses are just another source of power, when you work horses all the time you initiate a series of changes which when added together constitute a fundamental alteration in the life of a farm.

The Rhythm of Horses in the Landscape

When the horse puts his foot down on the soil, that bit of soil is squashed, but in between the footmarks the soil stays just as it was. By contrast, the wheels of a tractor leave a continuous band of compressed soil behind them and smear the soil as the wheels slip, forcing the soil’s open crumb structure into a paste which dries into a hard impenetrable layer. With repeated passes of heavy machinery, it takes increasingly greater amounts of time and power to get the land back into a suitable condition to sow seeds, and the land needs to be worked more deeply to ameliorate the compaction. If that deeper cultivation includes ploughing, the upper layers of soil with all their bacteria which thrive near the soil surface are buried, whilst the less biologically active lower levels are put on the top. When horses are used for working the land this level of compaction does not occur, so the cultivations only need to be shallow, even ploughing being shallower than ruts created by tractors. This means that less power is need to do the job and fewer passes are necessary to make a seed bed. Nonetheless, when working at slower horse speeds, the work must be spread over a longer period of time, so the option of growing crops where all the work comes at once or of putting the whole farm into one crop is unrealistic. Choosing the right mix of crops so the work is spread out over the year avoids excessively busy periods with the risk of overworking the horses, and keeps the horses active in slacker periods. Unlike a tractor, horses need to be fed when they are not working, so the more days they are actually at work, the more economical they become. If they are in regular work, even if they are only working half days, when busy times do come they are fit enough to meet the challenge. With fit horses the time needed to rest them is reduced so you can get more done, and because the dirt and dead skin are loosened by sweating and by brushing, when they are fit you don’t need to groom them much either. When they are worked regularly they go in and out of the stable on their own, they stay where you put them and stand quietly while you harness them or hitch them up, so your job is quicker and easier.

When growing a variety of crops, you end up growing them in rotation, and with a healthy soil the occurrence of disease is reduced because the diseases have less chance to take hold from year to year. Because you need grass for the horses, you probably introduce a temporary grass ley as part of the rotation. While the grass is growing, the earthworms remain undisturbed and build up in numbers, incorporating the organic matter into the soil and producing a stable crumb structure. This allows water to percolate between the large spaces whilst retaining moisture in the smaller ones, so the land becomes less prone to both drought and waterlogging. To use the grass to best advantage, you probably add some cattle or sheep, which when grazed with horses lower the worm burden, because many of these parasites are species specific. This in turn lowers your worming costs, and with a wider range of crops and livestock you are less exposed to fluctuating prices and poor yields of one crop. By the time the grass ley is ready to be ploughed up, the foals which were dropped when the grass seed was sown are now working half days, and in a year or two can be sold as experienced working horses or can replace an older horse. Those horses should keep working for another dozen years or more and provide you with more foals, whilst your machinery, pulled at horse speed, will last even longer. This will save you money, but not as much as avoiding buying new tractors and endless tanks of fuel, [including the tax and the oil company’s profits.] Instead the ‘fuel’ for your horses will be grown on the farm at the cost of growing it; and rather than the waste being toxic pollutants, your horses’ waste goes back to the soil to grow the next crop and to feed the worms whose work will make your plough pull more easily next time.

These are just some of the many interrelated reasons why we should use working horses, and why we might want to use working horses. However there is a much more simple reason, a reason recognised if not always understood, even by the casual observer – it is because they belong in the landscape. The reason it looks right and feels right, is because it is right.

The Rhythm of Horses in the Landscape

A landscape devoid of animals is a lonely place. We know that we can grow crops using chemical fertilisers where for endless miles there are no animals to be seen, but there is no joy in that. So in the spaces between fields where there are a few trees, ponds or patches of weeds, we delight in the birds and butterflies that do find a home there. Once we have cattle and sheep in fields between the arable crops we have a focus for our attention and a landscape which is not only more interesting but also more dynamic because of the beetles, grubs and worms which feed on the manure, and the birds which feed on them, and the other birds which feed on them. Whilst grazing animals help to bring us closer to nature, working animals bring us closer still, because we spend more time with them. Whilst we are working we see their exertions so we notice how the ground conditions change, we see their ears and heads move as they focus on a distant or questionable object so we learn a greater awareness of our surroundings, and because the work is done at a walking pace we are brought back to our own natural walking pace.

Appreciating any environment is best done slowly, because there is time to observe, time to think, time to realise that a steady, continuing approach is the appropriate way to react with nature and natural processes. It is this pace, this steady manner that is neither flashy nor glamorous, which people intuitively recognise as being of deep-seated value; and when they witness the draught horse leaning into the collar they see the embodiment of this approach. Just by doing what it does, by putting one foot in front of the other, the draught horse thus exemplifies what is needed in rural life and rural policy – a stability based on continuity and an interest in the future, an allegiance to place and a connection to the natural world.

That stability, that connection, however, does not appear out of nothing. It grows when we put down roots, when we respect our surroundings and trust our neighbours, with the hope and expectation that they will do the same. This takes time, a steadfastness of conviction, and an imagination that allows us to envision a future that is better than the present. If, for instance, we can imagine the trees from which our unborn grandchildren will pick fruit, if we can visualise how our local landscape would look with orchards around every corner, and if we know which plants the bees need to keep them in nectar when the trees are not in bloom, then we understand what stability involves; and with it, beauty and hope for the future.

The building blocks of stability are commitment and understanding, imagination and the ability to work together, which by obvious coincidence are the very same capabilities that we need to effectively work horses.

The strong resonance which working horses have in our hearts and minds, whether we are involved with them or not, is because these same capabilities, although we may know them by different names, are also the most cherished part of human life. Although narrowing our focus, making quick decisions and working hard may be useful in a competitive world, it is through involvement and kindness, creativity and community that we are of greatest value to our fellow human beings and where much of the joy of life is to be found.