Working Horses and Mules for Our Future
Working Horses and Mules for Our Future

Working Horses & Mules for Our Future

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Humanity is at risk. It needs full-time productive work, hands on rewarding work, preferably with and within nature. Each human and all of humanity needs to understand and accept its obviously small but no less vital part to play in a healthy and fertile biological universe. Humans need to learn to step lightly but with traction. Such lessons are accessible through the examples of and partnership with working animals. That available union brings with it harmony and balance.

For the working:

First light – one morning fifty years ago, cold, wet, grey, mold green, dank, still didn’t stop me from pushing through to the loafing shed by the barn to let my four draft horses into their tie stalls. Two came free, Bud and Dick, unhaltered, looking side to side, but no less certain of which double stall they belonged in, which was ‘theirs.’

Shutting the loafing shed gate behind them, I followed into their stall to halter and fasten as they chewed their hay. The next two were allowed to the swinging gate opening one at a time. This set it up; their determination to get to the morning feed helped me to halter them, one at a time. ‘Goldie’ was dominant and I knew she would be first at the gate. Knowing where and how to stand, my right boot holding the bottom of the swinging gate to create a ‘soft’ chute just the width of the mare, she came forward to me and slipped her nose into the waiting open halter. Taking hold of her lead, I let her through the gate, maintaining the narrow chute with my foot, and turning her to face the anxious oncoming gelding. Mare’s lead loosely held in my left hand, I slowly slip another lead rope behind ‘Flash’s’ ears and gather the two ends with my right hand while turning my back towards his withers. I don’t look him in the eye, not now, because I feel him tense further when I do. I gently release ‘Goldie’s’ lead rope to the barn floor and pull the gelding’s halter free from where its throat latch is stuck in my back pants pocket. Nonchalantly I work it up to around the gelding’s nose pulling both throat latch ends up around and the one behind the ears. ‘Goldie’ has realized she is not tied and, head sideways so she doesn’t step on the dragging lead, walks to the open double stall. ‘Flash’ haltered gets fidgety. I release the gate, it swings wide open and, lead in hand I turn to face him, my eyes averted from his. This stops him from bolting forward. Holding the lead at about three feet of length, but with no slack, I turn around and speak quietly to him of nothing in particular, asking (no ‘expecting’) that he walks with me quietly to join Goldie in the stall.

Raising and training your own work animals results in the best teammates. If you are handling them every day with the essential criteria that your needs are communicated and understood, you are training each and every moment. And, as work demands, repetition is your helper. If five days in a row, you stand a certain way, present yourself as the one in charge, and always allow that your requirement of the animal be the easiest choice they can make, you are training. And then there is the bonus: these repetitions make of you a better person as you learn economy of action, a decided thrift to your emotions (for anger and excitement are never to be brought to willing workmates casually), and how to untie yourself from time. If you have to repair a horse or mule’s behavior within a short time frame, you are working against yourself. If instead you go to the animal each day with a need to get work done safely, the repairs and corrections follow, they always follow.

For the thinking:

Optimal success with training comes of immersion in the rigors and particulars of actual work done; immersion in the structure of the work and workings. It comes when the thoughtful teamster applies extra care and attention to what are new experiences for the animals.

Back in the mid seventies, Bud and Dick were my go-to team. For former owners these geldings were only slightly successful at competitive pulling. Half Percheron half Shire, they weren’t giants, not in physical stature anyway. But for me they were champions when it came to all things farming. They were an absolute joy hitched to a riding plow, or corn planter, or seed drill. Straight ahead, steady, matching every step one to the other. Slow and precise on the corn planter, brisk on the grain drill, they quickly picked up on the needs of the implement and the day. They weren’t my first horses but they were the first that felt so naturally to be an extension of my arms, my head for the work, my breathing at effort, my heart rate. They gave me the belief in the instrument that working horses might/should become.

In my case, coming to some small mastery of the craft of working horses required a fortunate blend of environments. First came an over arching hunger to acquire the skill, then came associations and friendships with teamsters I admired, then access to examples of failure as well as success, and then – to bind it all together – came a farm and farming that needed a working horse system to win out. Add in experienced work horses and their daily needs and make of it your immersion, the place you wanted to be, the work you wanted to succeed at, the talent you were in search of.

Working Horses and Mules for Our Future

That farming part:

Horses or not, at a small hands-on scale the farming succeeded best when you paid close attention to the demands of each procedure, each job. Plowing? There’s the plot, land or field, and the grid it suggested you adhere to: crown just so, headlands adequate for the turning, shape listened to, dead furrow applied as drainage or forgiven in the filling. Tillage? What’s the objective? Will this be a fallow field this season or need it be prepared for the finest and most valuable of seedings? Will it eventually become a Nordellian miracle of long term market gardening? Will it receive a grain crop, or a nurse crop, or a green manuring crop? Weeding? How, why, when and with what? And on and on. But for this discussion, all I needed was to share a glimpse into the choices which then narrow to the procedures.

First Steps second steps:

Were you to choose work horses or mules and have selected a plow and chosen a plowing layout, please find your additional good fortune with knowledgeable people to point the way for you. Ray and Charlie helped me when it came time to plow with Bud and Dick for the first time.

Ray said, “They can do it. Might not have done it before, but they can do it. Trust ‘em. Those two, they belong together. Bud will help Dick every step of the way.”

Charlie said, “Some idiot spoiled them in the pulling ring. You need to hold them back and make them walk. The furrow will help, that and having to work all day. But you let them go gang busters and they won’t make a full day.”

Ray added, “First time you ask them to start with that plow they might be remembering the pulling sled, they might want to lunge at it. You need to hold those lines tight but forgiving. You want them to ease forward, so use the lines to let them know what you want. Hold them back for an instant in the beginnng and then, if they go as you wish, ease up on those lines and talk to them. It’s like you want those lines to be just a whisper ahead of them, letting them know what you want. You can do it, let them trust you.”

Charlie retorted, “Don’t be lilly-livered. Hang on and stick it out.”

Me, no choice in the matter. Everything depended on making it work. But it was insanely frustrating, those first couple of hours plowing. Now I know how fortunate I was to have Ray on my left and Charlie on the right, each of them in different lands on my new farm, each helping me to get the plowing done. First off I didn’t notice them much, just knew they were there. But keeping my seat on the Oliver sulky plow and holding my team to a walk was intense work. Then I heard Charlie holler, “Hold ‘em back damn it!”

As process began to forgive me my nervousness, and the team settled down to the repetition, I hazarded looks, either way, at Ray and Charlie. Ray bit down on his cigar and grinned, nodding to me, and I felt like I had joined a glorious fraternity. Looking the other way, Charlie scowled and ignored me. Not only did I have their direct assistance, they and their horses were on both sides of me reassuring with each step that this way of working worked.

Day in day out:

Bud and Dick, oh my gosh, what a team. After that first day-in-day-out season of farming, most importantly culminating with my first two-row corn and bean planting run, the next spring all the field preparation work advanced smooth as silk with my boys enjoying the calm working-walk pace. Then came a day when I needed to drill ten acres to oats. I had my six foot wide Van Brundt steel-wheeled horsedrawn seed drill. In my brain, the look of the sky and a forecast for rain by sunset, a big week-long farmer’s rain on the way, was worrisome. Could we plant that field in just one day? It was Monday and the team had enjoyed the weekend off. They were fit and willing. So we went out on that excellent tilled field, the one they had prepared, and made the first round. All was as it should be but I knew, at this leisurely walk I might not get the work done before the storm. So I spoke to the boys asking them to step up, careful to keep the pressure on the bit just ahead, informing but not punishing, and making sure all they gave me was a walk. We moved into second gear slick as can be. After a bit, watching the sky, I dared to click them up a notch further and I could feel their confusion – then anxiety – as they flirted with trotting. I brought them back down and we played a game; ‘show me you can walk just a tiny bit faster – no trotting,’ and by golly we made it. And we sustained it. We took an hour off for lunch and drill-filling plus tunings. When we went back, all three of us tested to see if we could find that perfect brisk walk once again, and there it was. It took us ten and one half hours and we got that ten acres planted in the nick of time. That was the day I understood how profoundly rewarding this teamster’s craft could be. WE did it.

Working Horses and Mules for Our Future

Forgive us our debts…

It didn’t always go well, this working horse business. There were setbacks, tragedies and disappointments, but at least in my case, those early years the wins far outweighed the losses. And the wins? They gave me health, solid identity, purpose, vigor, musicality, fertility, humor, and a map of my soul. The ‘outside’ world, the world in service to the laws of economics and industry? That world stripped and strips each and every individual of that long list of wins.

But an aside please: the ‘laws’ of economics aren’t laws. They are the straight jacket of rules in place to keep us in place. To keep our membership behaviors in line, the behaviors and restrictions the so-called ‘real world’ uses to keep us in service to the artifice of ‘economics,’ to assembly lines, to the requirements of banking, credit, marketing, purchasing, political theater, fashion, and convenience.

We don’t need those marketplace, media place, digital place, things. We need each other, and nature, and the tonality of husbandry at the interface of sustenance and forgiveness. Hands-on craftmanship and make-it-workedness in communion with an abiding sensitivity to our place in nature – that’s what carries us with smiles and correct skin, clear through a long life time.

…as we forgive our debtors.

On one of my early horse buying trips to Iowa I purchased a big beautiful team of red sorrel Belgian mares and loaded them and other horses into my gooseneck stock trailer and, tail end of winter, drove two thousand miles back to Junction City, Oregon. It was arduous. Bobbie and Carol, the red team of mares, had lived their working lives on a Minnesota farm where their teamster frightened them every day. But unbeknownst to this young buyer, they had earned a reputation as runaways. It would be two years before I would learn of this. For me, from the minute I took them in hand with lead ropes, they were quiet and responsive. I loaded and unloaded them many times during that return trip made longer than planned by a killer blizzard in Nebraska.

Now in retrospect I know we had two unplanned realities work in their healing favor from the minute they stepped off the trailer in Oregon: fatigue and Herman.

Working Horses and Mules for Our Future
Herman Daniel, graphite on paper, LRMiller

My dear friend Herman Daniel, a retired gentle gentleman with an earned love affair with and mastery of working horses, took care of the farm in my absence. While I had been gone Herman had been plowing and discing the market garden patch for me. It was a fine April morning when we pulled in the driveway. Herman was waiting with a big grin. Stepping out of the truck cab I saw all the work he had done fitting the field. “Wow, beautiful job. How can I ever repay you?” Herman had already opened the back gate of the trailer. “I know a way. Will you humor me? Let’s take these two beauties out, harness them up right now and see how they be.” I offered a slight objection remarking that they and I were exhausted by the trip and needed to get our legs under us. “Humor me. Let’s use that. We won’t work them hard, just fifteen minutes or so.” So I let him do his thing. I went to the house and Herman spent twenty minutes grooming and fitting a harness to the pair, then he ground-drove them out to the field, hooking to two sections of spike tooth harrow, which had been joined at the back by a 2 x 12 plank upon which he could stand.

When I finally made it to the field, Herman was standing on the board, lines in hand as those two mares walked quietly, combing the soil. Herman had the grin of a man who considered himself well paid.

Next day I took the mares out to test them on a walking plow and discovered that big Bobbie seemed to gain comfort when walking down in a furrow, and Carol just wanted to be in step with her sister. They were grand. Along with our other five horses they fit in from the very first moments. It was a few months later that our vet, in a checkup, told me Carol was pregnant. So I contacted the Minnesota farmer who had consigned her to the auction asking if I could get a breeding certificate from him. He chuckled and said, “You’re kidding, that mare is barren. How you getting along with that pair, anyway?”

“Fantastic,” I said “we use them for everything here. Use them in the lead of four and six when plowing.”

“You’re a liar. That team was a runaway and will always be.” And he hung up.

Long story severely shortened, on a subsequent trip to the midwest I went to this man’s farm to insist on the breeding certificate and discovered a whip-wielding yeller and that all of his string of Belgians were terrified of him

Then I was reminded yet again of what a gentle magician Herman was. On that first day he must of sensed something from Bobbie and Carol, as they stood in the trailer. He also knew they would be leg weary and that walking quietly in loose ground pulling a harrow would set a tone and be a perfect first time with us. He also trusted that both he and I would bring our appreciative quiet manners to them. I remembered Ray’s words, “You can do it, Let them trust you.” Bobbie and Carol never even offered to run away with us.

And it comes to this…

I’m living my future today, and, just as for these many years past, trying to make choices that support my grandchildren’s future decades from now. This, my today future, though my age and infirmities (and theirs) prevent me from working my horses, this time was given me by those fifty years I spent in the field and woods with my working teammates. My mind, back, arms and hands still work moderately well but my legs are made of wood and the joints are loose as a wore out old marionette’s. Each step is measured to avoid falling. None of that is shared as worry or complaint. This old farmer is insanely fortunate to be able to stumble through each and every coming day farm and field. And I give credit in large part to the purest joy I have experienced in decades of long years following along with Bud and Dick, Bobbie and Carol, Bob and Bud, Tip, Tuck and Barney, Red and Blue, Cali and Lana, Polly and Anna, Molly, Granite, Bob, Rex, Pat and Prince, Vic and Pepper. The list of workmates goes on and on.

Why list names. Same reason I share now a bit about my own frailty. These are touchstones. When I read or hear of someone’s long ago dear work horse friends, King and Ruby, or Streak and Barney, or Chester and Champ, even without having known them myself I feel the communion that speaker had with those animal friends. When I speak with dear old teamster friends, like my recently departed hero/friend Mac McIntosh, and learn that they have no regrets that time and age have slowed their working steps because all of getting to this point has been the grandest and most satisfying of adventures. Because it is who we are and who we have become.

That a future may exist of our best wishes.

Working Horses and Mules for Our Future

When measured across the disciplines of alternative energy, human engagement, sustainability, and biodiversity, the value of intelligent animal power cultures and systems to our bionomic-sensitive age is incalculable. Though it is but one option in the rapidly shaping arsenal of ecologically appropriate tools and approaches, systems and sources, it has the potential, within its accessibility and regenerative aspects, to involve and empower enormous portions of the world’s rural populations; to widen the scope of small scale farming communities and all of this while holding fast to clearest goals and intents for health.

There are many disciplines, applications, approaches, power sources and mechanical systems reasonably approachable in the effort to realign man with nature and thereby rescue humans, the planet, and biological balance. If it can be accepted that the scaling down of human endeavor is essential to rescue and correction motive animal power, especially as relates to agriculture, it is one superb, accessible option/path towards that goal.

The attractiveness and viability of animal power approaches rest within their easy, say essential, marriage to the beating hearts of craft and nature-based farming; rests with the opportunity it provides for balanced effectiveness of agricultural pursuits; rests with the hope it provides people. Rests with the key it might offer to humanity, a key towards a behavior of right livelihood so essential to a sincere plea for Nature’s forgiveness.

The actual and implied inherent humility of the model of animals as motive power feeds cultural inertias with lyrical, persuasive, and adorned dynamism.

Humanity is at risk and needs to be rescued from its bionomic insolvency now. Today this planet needs rescue from the ecologically bankrupt mass of humanity, disengaged as it is from nature and natural process.

Teachers, farmers, stockmen, spiritual leaders, nurses, doctors, lawyers, grocerymen, gardeners, teamsters, mothers, fathers, brothers, and uncles – gather these ideas, methodologies, seeds, and principles and offer them to formative minds while there is still time.