by Jeff McFadden
It’s hard to say why I chose a walking plow. My neighbor tells me they make them with wheels. They make chairs with wheels, too, but I’m not anxious to own one.
Land size figured in, and price, and working order, and things said by farmers old and young. I didn’t flip a coin, but I might as well.
Land size. No sane person would try to farm these hills and valleys. We do have some good upland soil, scattered on the ridge tops and among the gentle slopes and tiny bottoms. The ground is folded, and gardens and fields must be looked for patiently and worked carefully to keep them out of the creek. We plow along the contour in strips, leaving grass to slow the water and always turning hillside land uphill. Even on the small level places no field can be very large, no furrow very long. A walking plow seems well-suited to this kind of work. A two-way plow might go better for turning the land uphill, but we plow one way and rest the other, and the work goes well.
Price is obvious. Sulky plows in seemingly good order are often reasonable, but good walking plows are downright cheap. And sulky plows in seemingly good order sometimes aren’t. During the last transition, many of them were pulled with a tractor and the beams sprung. They still look like plows, but they won’t plow. I didn’t want to wonder if my trouble was my ignorance or the condition of my plow. With the walking plow I had no such question. I knew, beyond a doubt, that my trouble was my ignorance.
A walking plow gives a man patience with his horses. It’s easy to sit on a plow and rail at lazy animals, out of breath already, when you aren’t even walking. A walking plow leaves the hard work on the shoulders of the horses, but walking in a furrow will help you to understand that they might be tired, even that they might have come by it honestly.
I decided to start with a walking plow, and at the Small Farmers’ Gathering in Missouri in 1987, I found just the one; a John Deere 16-inch plow with good wood handles. It had been plowcoated when it was last used, probably 40 or 50 years ago. I took the plowcoat as a good sign, but I should have looked a little closer at it. The plowcoat was petrified. I don’t have any idea what the plowcoat was, but whatever it was it had not excluded water very well. As the plow rusted and the coating petrified, the whole mass had bonded together, possibly at a molecular level. I spent a week of evenings with power-stripping tools, and finally managed to expose most of the surface of the plow to daylight. It was dull and pitted, and had a hand-sized spot on the moldboard that had resisted all efforts at stripping, but most of it looked to be made of steel. I took this as a good sign, as I had been suspecting that it had been carved from a rock.
Maybe I should have gone out immediately and fall plowed. No doubt I should have, but I wasn’t ready. I had been working horses about two months, and I wasn’t ready to tie the lines together and drop. them over my shoulders, not at all. The horses and I spent the autumn and winter learning to work, getting a last cutting of hay, mowing weeds, hauling stones and doing anything we could think of as I got a grip on this awesome business of driving and as they got used to my inexperienced hands on the lines. At last spring came, and I thought I might be ready to try this awful plow.
I had spent the entire winter studying the Work Horse Handbook. About walking plows it says, “If you are plowing for the first time without help, it will seem an impossible task to master.” Tell me. He goes on, “Experienced horses, a helping teamster and a clean furrow would be ideal circumstances for the beginner. If this is not possible, try at least to have some of the first furrows started for you. If that is not possible, have someone drive or lead the team until you have a good clean furrow.”
I have since found a few teamsters who live close enough to have helped, or they have found me, but I didn’t know where any of them were last spring. I had the experienced horses, anyway. I wanted to plow, oh how I wanted to plow. I wanted to plow so bad that I was out trying before the ground had thawed deep enough to be plowed, but it wasn’t the first time I ever made a fool of myself.
At last the ground was ready. Lacking an experienced teamster, I got Tara, my neighbor, who was 16 at the time. She claims no expertise about work horses and knows nothing at all about plowing, but she has driven my team, she’s already breaking saddle horses for people, she has a natural touch with horses and she’s always willing to help if she can.
We tried this and that. First Tara tried to lead the team while I followed with the lines and the plow. They wouldn’t follow her lead if I gave conflicting instructions with the lines, which I couldn’t help doing. Next she tried to walk beside me and drive, but the horses knew that we were in over our heads and it was no go. Eventually Tara decided that she wasn’t being any help and went home. The horses and I went on.
In desperation I fired up the old Ford, hitched up the two 14’s, and plowed a starter furrow up the field and back. Back to the field went Sherry, Amanda and a by-now-worried me.
Amanda is furrow horse. She has shown me how good she can be. When we mow hay she follows the edge of the swath as though she were on rails. We get a cleaner field if I relax and give her her head than if I carefully drive her exactly where I want her. She is also a little too fat, a little too lazy and a little too smart, although she can play dumb with the best of ’em. She knows some tricks.
The team and I had worked together two half days with this curse-worthy plow and all we had to show for our efforts was one serpentine scratch wandering across one small field. Across this twisted mark were two reasonably straight, tractor-plowed furrows. Now the trick would be to get Amanda to recognize the straight furrows and play along.
Again I tied the lines together. Again I put them over my neck and under one arm. Again we dragged the plow to the furrow, started Amanda in the furrow, and lifted up on the handles. Again the plow dug in, turned into some king of wild, squirming animal in my hands, and went careening across the field. I twisted to fight the plow, my shoulders turned, the lines pulled, and Amanda and Sherry headed, as far as I could tell, for the coffee shop.
It was getting v-e-r-y h-a-r-d to keep my temper. It wasn’t the horses’ fault – they go where the driver tells them to go. It wasn’t my fault – I was drowning in a sea of ignorance. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I was mad anyway.
I put the plow on its side, sat on it, and practiced breathing. At last an idea came to me. I would learn to drive the horses in the furrow with my shoulders, and then I would learn to drive the plow.
Again we went to the furrow. By now Amanda and Sherry were more worried than I was. We started down the furrow, dragging the plow on its side. Down the furrow, all the way, and back up the other side. Down one furrow and up the other, over and over and over. The horses settled in, walking and nodding. The lines came to fit my shoulders. I learned to lean back on them, turn a little to correct. One hand or the other would rise naturally for a turnaround. We walked and walked until we had worn the furrow smooth, dragging the plow all the time.
At last, as we turned around and settled into the same old furrow, I reached down, grabbed a handle, and stood the monster up. It sucked down into the ground as the horses kept walking. It struggled and squirmed, but I was calmer now, and rather than try to turn it I leaned it one way, then the other, and got it settled into the groove. Yahoo! We’re plowing!
A walking plow works like a bicycle; you don’t really turn the handlebars, you lean it around corners. It’s a backward bicycle, though. You lean it away from where you want it to go. Raise the handles to make it run deeper. Lean it to the right and it goes left, lean to the left and it goes right. This comes to feel normal, but it doesn’t start that way.
We plowed that whole field before day’s end, Field is a rather extravagant term for this little plot. It’s an old garden, about half an acre that has been cultivated for a few years. With a wild plow in my hands and two winter-bored mares wrapped around my neck it looked more like a half section than a half acre, but by the end of the day it was, well, plowed. More or less. I wouldn’t have invited anybody to come and look at it, but the dirt was all stirred. I felt victorious. It was another great victory to make it back to the house standing up.
The next time out, we took on a couple of acres, a long skinny field running along the ridge top. This, too, had been cultivated the year before. This year I wanted to plant it to fuel for these oatburners. I had already run starter furrows down the middle of it with the tractor and I thought it might be a little easier. Har har.
As I look back I remember reading, in an old SFJ, a comment made by John Cookson at a Maine Teamsters’ Round table. He said, “You get a good mare, she’s terrific. But every mare, they’re all alike. They go when they want, they stop when they want, and when they go they go like hell.” Amen, brother.
These mares had been on light duty all winter. Actually, compared to the mixed dairy farm where I bought them, they have been on light duty since they got here, and probably will be until they die. Still, they’d been on very light duty all winter, and plowing the first little field had just whetted their appetite to move. They were just itching for something to do, something to do FAST.
We plowed fast. We roared down the furrow with me flapping in the breeze, hanging onto the plow handles, tripping over clods, falling down and struggling to my feet. When a strip of furrow slice fails to turn over, and flips down on your toes, it’s like sticking the ends of your water-skis in the lake, like having an NFL tackle hit you at the knees. There’s no staying up.
As time has passed I have prevailed upon Amanda and Sherry to slow down when I do, but it was not yet so when we plowed this field. By the end of the third or fourth round, I thought that starting this today had been the mistake that killed me. I sat down on the plow gasping, unable to catch my breath, unable to hear anything but the roar in my ears, the whistle of my breath, and the pounding of my heart. I’m on the wrong side of 40 for this sort of foolishness, and visions of my mortality were dancing before my eyes. I lived, so back to the plow.
Throughout the whole ordeal, I kept one picture in my mind, a picture of a Canadian plowing contest. Don Nevius was plowing, walking down the furrow behind two beautiful, mannerly Belgians – geldings, if I remember correctly – and he was calm, cool and in control. He looked like he was pushing an empty grocery cart; he wasn’t working hard enough for it to be a full one. He’s older than me, and he might even be fatter. As I held onto this picture, I was flapping in the breeze, taking the beating of my life, and telling myself this would be easy if I just lived long enough to learn how.
Somehow we finished the field. Not all in one day, although at the pace they were going we could have finished it before lunch if I could have kept up. The whole thing is a blur. I remember laying the plow on its side at the end of a furrow only to have it hit a clod, jump up and turn one shin purple. I remember falling into the furrow and bouncing along hollering whoa. They stopped. They may go too fast, but they stop.
Since then we have plowed whenever there was the slightest excuse. We plowed gardens after crops burned up, plowed between crops, plowed, plowed, plowed. The mares have new bits, which is another story altogether, and they only go as fast as I am willing to go. We have learned to start furrows in plain turf, which goes much better if I take a mower and draw a line on the grass. We have learned to adjust the plow.
People say that if you adjust a walking plow correctly it will run straight in the land and plow without even a hand on the handle. Like many things that men say about things men made, this is not altogether untrue. Neither is it altogether true. In mellow soil, free of weeds and in uniform good tilth, a well-adjusted walking plow will run straight and true, no hands. Why plow it? When I get ground like that I plant something in it. Weedy ground is another story. Foxtail, for instance, will wad up under a plow beam and lift the bottom right out of the ground. If you adjust the plow to run deep enough to stay in through heavy weed infestations it will sink so deep in clean ground that the horses can’t pull it. It is better to adjust for normal ground, and make it stay in through weedy areas by holding up firmly on the handles.
Adjustments on the walking plow work on the same backward principle that steering one does. To make the plow run deeper, raise the hitch point higher from the ground. To make a plow run farther to the left, move the hitch point to the right, to make it run more to the right, hitch it farther to the left.
The part which makes this right-to-left adjustment possible was missing from my plow when I bought it, and has been missing from nearly all the plows I have seen at sales. It is a short, wide clevis with several holes which allows you to fix the connection point right or left of center. See the photo for detail. If you don’t have this clevis it shouldn’t be very hard to make one out of scrap steel, and it is very important.
This clevis originally hitched to the double-tree through another special clevis with a swivel in the middle to allow the plow to be laid on its side for transport to the field. I’ve never managed to get one of these, but I find two regular farm-supply clevises to be an acceptable substitute.
Even with your plow properly adjusted you will find that it runs deeper or shallower with differences in soil tilth, depth and texture. Many tractor plows, such as three-point hitch plows, are designed to automatically compensate for the resultant changes in draft by raising or lowering their depth of cut. You can do the same thing for your horses by raising or lowering the handles on your plow to make it run at varying depths as the soil changes. Otherwise, especially in good soil with a strong turf, the draft could become so great that your horses couldn’t manage it.
Strong roots below woody sprouts or below perennial weeds like ironweed can drive the plow suddenly deeper into the land. This is caused by the share sliding along the root rather than cutting through it. Some heavy woody sprouts may have to be dug out with an axe or grub hoe unless your plow is equipped with a root cutter at the front of the moldboard, but you can plow right through many root masses simply by being ready on the handles, and steering the plow a little toward the furrow to compensate for its momentary rush toward the land.
I enjoy plowing with a walking plow. It has been one of the most challenging skills I have ever tried to teach myself, and was painful and exhausting during the early stages of learning, but as I have developed some skill it has become a comfortable exercise, as sports are to some people. I sleep well after a day on the plow. My body is tired and my mind is rested. A clean straight crown furrow is a thing of beauty and a source of quiet pride, and looking back, at day’s end, over a field laying like ropes in the waning sunshine, gives me a feeling of accomplishment. It is comforting to walk along the furrow listening to the plow hiss through the ground and watching the curl of soil at the moldboard, turning and relaxing into the furrow behind Amanda’s big feet. If I get too hypnotized, Amanda senses it and she brings me back. She cheats. She knows she can step out of the furrow, up onto the land, which pulls the plow out of the land and it slides down the furrow until “Amanda! Stop that! Good girl.”