Treadmill Horse Power Units
by Khoke and Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
Since the art of working horses has been around since their domestication, one tends to think that what can be accomplished with horsepower has surely plateaued. That we are just relearning and reusing what has been established in time past before it is lost. A subconscious belief that what can be learned, has been done, that the horizon has been reached. An arrogance that threads through each new age.
Yet just as surely as machinery developed over the course of time, it continues on today. The mainstream use of draft animals may have subsided, but in the circles where they continued, the machinery they are yoked to has continued to develop as well.
Over Labor Day weekend last year, we saw an old one-horse treadmill running the smallest threshing machine I had ever seen at the Old Threshers Reunion. The idea of treadmill power is not new, and their development didn’t die out completely when the tractor became agriculture’s new darling. It has been growing and developing quietly out of sight.
We were jolted out of our reverie of routine when my friend Regina Bambrick-Rust tipped us to check out a Missouri Mennonite community and the treadmill horsepower units they have. Khoke took a day in March (of 2022) and rode with Ammon Weeks, Nathan Miller, and Jordan Hale, 4 hours south to Rich Hill, Missouri, to check it out. They visited the shops of Mose Troyer and his son Danny which were run by treadmill horsepower.
They went to Rich Hill because we were interested in powering equipment that required higher rpm such as a corn sheller, trip hammers, planer and as a possible alternative for powering our laundry house outbuilding. Treadmill horse powers are more compact than the rotary ones we use and it is easier to put them under cover. The rotary track is also harder to maintain against the weather. The treadmill HP seemed to be a solution for all the problems that can come with a rotary: muddy tracks, can’t work in all weather, belts slipping, and having to have so many pulleys just to get your machine to run correctly. But for everything you gain with something new, something else is lost. We wanted to find out what the tradeoffs are.
One of the things that really stood out as a positive was what they were able to run in their shop with what is called flex shafts. These were used to run equipment such as hand grinders and screw guns, previously only powered by electric or fuel motors. This technology may not be new but it was new to us and it was exciting to think of all the versatility it added to a draft power source.
This past October, armed only with how much we didn’t know, Khoke and I went on a trip with Ammon Weeks and Jordan Hale, to check out other communities using these treadmill units. Without the support of mainstream manufacturing, a couple of these communities have built shops where they build treadmills from scratch with the standard bearings and gears that one can buy. We also met several individuals who had built their own treadmill units at one point or another.
At a glance the treadmill horsepower unit looks like a horse trailer with a tilted platform for a floor. At the head of the platform and beneath the planks is a drive shaft with a circular drive plate on each end. This drive plate has semi-circles scooped out of its edge. These are to fit and catch the roller bars that are on either end of the shaft stationed between each plank. The oak planks are to bear the weight of the horse(s), and the steel shaft between each plank has two roller bearings on each end of it that fit in and turn the drive plate as they pass over it.
These drive plates have a shaft that connects them and also extends just beyond the plate onto which a large sprocket is attached. This sprocket wears a roller chain and steps up at least twice (maybe more) to raise the rpms on the power shaft that bears the pulley(s). This shaft also has a flywheel, governor and a brake. John Brubaker put a 540 PTO spline on each end of his so he can have a PTO (power take off) option as well.
The pulleys and PTO can both be used to connect the treadmill to whatever it is powering. The flywheel helps maintain momentum and consistent speed. The governor manages the speed of the track/platform. It keeps the platform from going faster and faster. The brake stops the platform and releasing the brake initiates the horses beginning to work. The brake can be manually turned on and off. A lot of the shops have it set up to where the brake is controlled by a winch that is operated from inside the shop.
RPM and Torque
Treadmill units generate a higher rpm than the rotary horsepower units with much less step-up required. But the tradeoff is torque. With a treadmill, the horse is pulling nothing except its own body weight against gravity. They are just climbing a mountain.
The more body weight (mass) the horse has, the more torque the unit can generate. With a rotary horsepower unit, the horses can just pull harder to add more torque, this is not so with a treadmill. If a piece of machinery requires too much torque for a treadmill it can actually stop the treadmill track. It sounds kind of funny to say it this way, but the harder the machinery is on the treadmill (bogging it down) the easier it is on the horses, the platform slows and can stop. The bigger (heavier) the horses are, the more torque they can provide. Meaning the heavier equipment can be run, or the rpm can be maintained better.
When we were visiting a wood shop and metal shop in Delano, Ray Zimmerman said that a rule of thumb to go by for general equipment in a shop like that is one horse per person working the shop. Meaning it generally took only one horse to run each piece of standard equipment in a regular woodshop, but to run jointer and bandsaw at the same time, you’d want to torque from two (full size draft) horses.
There is equipment large enough in a few shops we visited that required two horses to run; like most of the equipment in Mervin Hoover’s metal shop where he built treadmills. But Mervin’s big metal shearer took the power generated from four horses, so he had two 2-horse treadmills set up side by side. Here a 2-horse treadmill was able to supply enough power to run his 15 HP equipment. Somehow that is supposed to make sense. I am sure someone out there has figured out how “horsepower” converts to true draft power. Yet that draft power would be dependent upon the size and condition of the draft animal.
The treadmill units built in Scottsville, Kentucky, have their power shaft spinning at about 240 rpms. From there they are geared up to whatever the rpm necessary to run the equipment. The treadmills built in Athens, TN are built to put out a higher rpm running at over 500 rpms. They also have gearboxes available to jump the rpms up to speeds between 1750-3600.
The best safety precaution a person can do is regular maintenance, especially to treadmills with regular use or one that has been bought used. There are a few things that need to be maintained for efficiency and a few for safety.
You may notice that the wooden planking on the treadmill platforms are covered with a strip of belting. The tough belting protects the planks from being chewed up by the horses’ hooves, particularly by those that are shod. These planks are important to maintain because they bear the weight of heavy horses. You absolutely do not want a plank to come off or break in half because if a horse puts his foot through the platform floor it will break his leg. So, these planks need to be checked every so often to make sure they are secure and that they are not somehow wearing thin.
Another place to pay attention is the roller chain. If either of the roller chains break, it disengages the regular brake. This would be an unhappy situation with a runaway treadmill track if someone did not have an emergency brake of some kind. Most of the treadmills we saw had a secondary emergency brake that they installed if the treadmill didn’t come with one already.
Where the bearings roll will need oil. The governor needs to be checked in on now and then to make sure it works well. The manure that naturally builds up needs to be cleaned out to keep it from adding resistance to the moving platform.
Connecting the Treadmills
Treadmills tend to put out high rpms and whatever torque the weight of the horse(s) generate. In order to run some equipment, multiple treadmills can be hooked together to generate enough power: the torque required to maintain the rpm, for machinery such as a silage chopper and blower, a sawmill, thresher, or other heavier equipment.
When we were at John Brubaker’s we were there for the occasion of silage chopping. This took five 2-horse treadmills strung together to operate. This was to not only run the chopper, which was taking bundles of green corn stalks and chopping them down to 3/8-inch pieces, but also the blower blowing them 40 ft to the top of the silo.
If you look at the picture of the 5-treadmills taken from above, you will notice the irregular placing of the units. John’s treadmill with the flat belt pulley is in the center with elbow room between it and the units flanking it. This is because these 3 are connected by PTO shafts. Their placement is more flexible.
The two outer treadmills are sitting really close to their inside neighbor. This is because they had to be joined by v-belts. These were much more difficult to connect. They had to line up just right so the v-belt wouldn’t come off and they had to be spaced just right so the belts were tight enough. Definitely trickier to set up.
As we traveled, we saw many treadmills used for many different things. Most of these were 2-horse treadmills which seemed a little more versatile than the 1-horse units. Many farms had a treadmill unit they used to pump water for irrigation from a nearby pond or other water source.
In Scottsville, there is a bakery that has a large dough mixer that is powered with a treadmill. Treadmills are a popular unit used to power wood shops and metal shops. Sam Stoner made high quality knives in his 2-horse treadmill powered blacksmith shop.
Since these units are readily portable, they can be moved easily from one shop to another or even from one farm to the next. We saw this at the Brubaker’s farm in Ohio. Their 2-horse treadmill could be used to power their hammer mill grinding flour, or their woodshop, or John’s metal shop. When they were ready to chop silage, their neighbors brought over their treadmills to string five of them together to generate enough power for it.
The treadmills built in Athens, Tennessee, have found that some of the treadmill units bought from them have found more than utilitarian uses. People who show or train horses buy them to keep their horses fit and muscled up. Round pen exercises can overdevelop the muscles on the legs running the inside of the circle, whereas the treadmill works the muscles more evenly. Others have found that they can use a horse power treadmill to power a small generator.
The beauty of the treadmill is that it does not require only horses to power them. A person can use oxen on them as well.
There are some interesting differences between treadmills and other horse powered equipment. One of which is the distinct absence of harness. And as far as that goes, sometimes even halters. The horses load as though onto a trailer and when the brake is released the weight of the horse(s) engages the platform to move down causing an automatic response for horses to begin walking.
The workload is really quite mild, the horses pull no weight but their own, albeit uphill. Although the work is not strenuous, it still is work and they need to be rested every 2-3 hours. The steeper the pitch the sooner the resting period. Sam Stoner told how treadmills help keep horses in shape and physically fit throughout the year. Horses are like people in that they can lose muscle tone from inactivity and get out of shape. But regular treadmill work helps them keep up condition even outside the regular growing/farming seasons.
Sam told of a horse he bought several years back who was somehow windbroken. He would wheeze badly under any heavy field work. Sam bought the horse to work on his treadmill as it is much lighter work than field work and didn’t cause the wheezing. After a couple years Sam found himself short a horse during hay season somehow and realized with regret that he was going to need to use the wind-broken horse. He thought that maybe if he took it easy, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. He said he ended up using that horse all day and he never wheezed once. Sam realized with surprise that the regular treadmill work had created the conditions in which this horse’s lungs could heal. He’s never had any trouble since with any kind of work with this horse.
Mose Troyer from the Rich Hill community told of a couple of cases, both with mules, who had figured out how to stop the treadmill on their own. The mules would walk to the top of the treadmill, lock their knees and ride down until their backside hit the stopgate at the bottom. The braced legs would then stop the platform. Smart indeed and humorous when it is someone else’s story.
Never leave an active treadmill fully unattended. Should anything happen, like if a drive chain were to break, it could cause a runaway platform that goes faster and faster until the horses cannot keep up. Most of the newer treadmills have an emergency brake system to help keep this from happening. A lot of treadmill owners have installed their own emergency brakes on treadmills that were bought without one. Another good precaution is that most of the horses I saw operating the treadmills were not tied at all. This way they could just push open the stopgate at the back of the treadmill if they found themself on a runaway platform. Accidents are uncommon but are best anticipated to help prevent them.
Flex shafts are a cable encased in rubber that offer the flexibility of mobility and can operate a wide range of high rpm tools such as hand drills, sanders, and grinders. What previously needed an electric cord or battery could now sever its umbilical attachment to the grid. This is not to say that one could simply pull out their DeWalt battery and plug in a flex shaft (which would be a handy convenience). Rather, the flex shaft has many different heads that can be attached to it, you would buy the ones that you need.
The Treadmill Shop
In the Scottsville, Kentucky, community, Mervin Hoover has a metal shop where he makes the treadmill horse power units. This shop is quite a long way off the paved road and after following several ever-narrowing gravel roads, we took the wrong driveway. Then after nearly high centering the vehicle I relinquished the steering wheel to let someone else back out of that impossibly narrow pitted driveway. So, we parked out by the road and walked in. About a quarter of a mile in, we came to a fork where the lane we walked on met the driveway that obviously everyone else in the world uses to get to the Hoover house. Deciding that travelers need to walk whenever they can anyway, we walked the remaining quarter of a mile back to his house and shop.
The treadmill shop was not open yet. Mervin’s primary income comes from farming. After the growing season is done, he works from November through May building treadmills as an off-season income. He can build about 25 treadmills in these 5 months.
The shop had a wide range of metal working tools. Many of the machines were originally powered with a 15 HP motor. Mervin said he has found he can run these with a 2-horse treadmill. However, his big metal cutter takes two 2-horse treadmills connected to power it. It isn’t uncommon for machinery to come with a larger motor than necessary. When you are powering a larger machine than what is rated for the horse power unit, you sometimes have to run the machine more gingerly so you don’t bog the unit down.
Inside the shop stood a large frame taking up a lot of his open space. This was the unfinished 6-horse treadmill he is making for Enos Swartz who plans on using it to power a sawmill. I asked Mervin what the benefit was to having a 6-horse treadmill vs. connecting three 2-horse treadmills. He said that the extra pulleys, and bearings from connecting the treadmills can cost you some of the power. However, having a bulky power source like the 6-horse treadmill would be less versatile than the smaller treadmills which can be moved easier and set up for different types of equipment. The 6-horse treadmill will likely be set up for the sawmill and not oft moved. But then, Enos Swartz is capable of surprising anyone.
The cost of a treadmill horsepower is highly subjected to current metal prices. Mervin Hoover said he was able to sell his 2-horse treadmill units for $4,500 a couple years ago, but now they cost $6,000-$6,500 because metal has gone up so much.
I would like to list some resources for buying treadmills and parts for those who are interested. There may be more places that make treadmill units but these are the only ones that I know of.
Mervin Hoover Treadmill Shop
1011 Jack Towe Td.
Scottsville, KY 42164
600 Eagle Way
Spencer, TN 38585
The Athens treadmill shop is a branch off of a company called Wildcat Gear. This is a foundry that specializes in casting spur, helical, and bevel gears. Wildcat Gear has the same address and phone number as Athens Treadmills. They offer a range of quality products. Write or call them for more information on their products and services. Athens Enterprise treadmills has a flyer that they can mail you.
Replacement parts and accessories can be bought fairly easily for these treadmills. Since they are being built without much custom manufacturing, most of the parts can be found or ordered at auto parts stores, farm equipment outlets, or mill supply businesses. I am sure replacement parts can also be bought through the aforementioned treadmill shops.
Other supply resources include:
15736 Burton Windsor Rd.
Middlefield, OH 44062
DJM Sales has 2 catalogs, one is a V-belt catalog with literally hundreds of sizes of belts. The other catalog sells a very wide range of flex shaft tools and attachments.
S.E. Drive Shafts
6100 South Carr Rd.
Apple Creek, Ohio 44606
This company offers a wide range of flex shaft tools and accessories including coupling tools, flex shaft hookups, and the flex shafts themselves. They manufacture their own flex shafts and can custom cut them to the size you need.
A Past Not Asleep to Tomorrow
Necessity begets innovation, but sometimes you have to choose to need something. Especially in this day and time. You can choose to need your horses by creating a life for yourself that needs them. If you have a tractor, you need equipment to go with it. If you choose draft powered farming, you need equipment to go with it too. Then how far do you go with it? With the possibilities that these treadmills open up there is a world of opportunity to be explored and expanded.
For most of the agrarian world, treadmills became a part of history, museum pieces, their practicality expired. Only it didn’t. Maybe it only paused. Those who have kept it alive have continued to develop it quietly out of sight and the treadmills have expanded to meet a wide range of the needs we meet in today’s world. At least, sooner than later I foresee them meeting some of the needs in my world. In the life we are choosing.
Khoke and Ida