Spring is in the air and your draft horses are chomping at the bit to get back to work. As you select seeds for your crops and outline a schedule for fitting the fields, stop to consider the care your draft horse(s) need.
Even if you’ve kept your horses working through the winter months, spring is a good time to evaluate their health, inspect their harness and check equipment for any damage or wear.
In Hartland, Vermont, Stephen Leslie and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, look at spring as a time to prepare their Fjord horses for upcoming work in the CSA market garden. The couple has developed a springtime maintenance routine to keep their working horses healthy and sound all year.
In the article that follows, Leslie offers spring-prep expertise to help you start your season off on the right hoof.
Similar to people, horses should receive an annual wellness exam. During a physical, the veterinarian evaluates the horse’s overall well-being and makes sure the animal has maintained weight through the winter. During this visit, the veterinarian can also make recommendations for a worming program, administer vaccinations and complete an oral exam.
Until recently, rotational worming programs, which included six treatments a year, meant that horses received dewormers year-round. Due to increasing parasite resistance, many veterinarians now recommend a deworming program based on the individual horse, with spring and fall being the most common time for dosing.
“Our horses see the veterinarian regularly for updates on rabies shots. We do all immunization shots ourselves under the supervision of our vet,” he said.
Always ask your veterinarian for guidance as some vaccinations may require a veterinary certificate as proof they were given.
An oral exam can identify any sharp points or dental issues that may have developed. “Spring is when our horses get their teeth floated, which is when the teeth are filed and any sharp points are removed,” he added.
“Unlike a tractor, you can’t let your horses sit idle for months in the winter and then expect them to jump right into spring plowing,” Leslie cautioned.
You need to invent ways to keep them useful and active in the winter. Using your horses to clear snow, give sleigh rides, skid firewood, feed out hay to livestock and collect maple sap can keep them in shape in the “off season.”
Without winter chores to maintain fitness, you’ll need to build your horse’s stamina up slowly. One of the most common training devices is the stone boat.
“If you happen to live in a region of the country that has stony soil, then spring training with the stone boat can take on the very practical task of picking rock from the fields,” Leslie said.
He explained that at first, the sled is lightly loaded. Then, over several days and several work sessions, the weight of the load is gradually increased until it approaches the pull of the plow.
“Another excellent early spring work activity for the horses is going over pastures and hayfields with a drag harrow,” he said.
This is good steady work with moderate draft. Leslie uses a flex (chain) harrow and either walks behind it or hitches it to a forecart. On pastures the harrow breaks up old manure pies and on hayfields the harrow disperses fall-spread compost. In both cases, the shallow teeth of the flex harrow will lightly open up the sod to let in air and moisture and encourage grass roots to tiller out.
Building the horses up gradually can also avoid sore shoulders or ligament and tendon injuries and look forward to a healthy and successful farming season for both human and horse. Over exertion is only one of the concerns. Leslie explains that if you ask too much of your horses all at once, sores may develop under the collars or on spots where the harness typically rubs.
“It’s similar to when you break in a new pair of hiking boots, (the horses) might develop blisters on their feet,” he said.
Checking the horse’s harness is truly a year-round chore and should be done every time the horse is harnessed. “Leather harness needs to be on a regular schedule of cleaning and oiling,” Leslie said.
You can test a strap by holding it in both hands and turning and twisting to test for excessive wear and tear or dry rot. Any strap or piece that appears dry or cracked should be replaced.
Dry rot is not an issue for harnesses made from synthetic materials dry rot is not an issue. However, many harness sets made out of synthetic materials include some leather components (usually at the points of greatest contact such as on the inside of the breeching) and these parts do require cleaning and oiling to keep them supple.
“Leather harness has passionate advocates for many good reasons but synthetic harness is definitely low maintenance by comparison,” he said.
In addition to checking for damage, harnesses should regularly be checked for proper fit. Cloth collar pads can be used to a certain extent to adjust the fit, in particular if the horse loses or gains weight with the change of seasons.
Horses that are idle over the winter may gain weight. In this case, you may need one collar for spring work and another for when the horse gets back in shape with daily work.
“We take pains to manage the horse’s weight year-round so that it does not fluctuate much at all. This is better for their health and simplifies collar and harness fitting,” he said.
As long as the fit is right, you can exchange collars from horse to horse, but it is best to let each horse have her own. Over time the collar will assume the shape of the horse that wears it.
“Achieving a proper fit of bit, bridle, collar and harness is essential to attaining efficient and sustained work from your horses,” he said.
Read more: Can I Ride My Draft Horse?
Generally, you want to maintain horse-drawn equipment the same way you would any machinery used in the woods or on the farm.
“If you have a farm shop, winter is a great time to bring equipment in, give it the once over and make necessary repairs,” Leslie said.
Equipment that has a lot of moving parts, like a cultivator or mowing machine, should be greased and oiled throughout the growing season. The machinery will operate more smoothly, be less prone to breakage and be easier for the horses to pull.
The same is true for farm equipment that has shanks, teeth, plow shares, etc. When the parts designed to move through the soil are kept sharpened or replaced, they will work with less resistance and lighten the draft for your working animals.
“On pieces of horse-drawn equipment that have a wooden tongue these components should be on a replacement schedule,” he said.
Even if the wood appears sound it may be vulnerable to dry rot over time. Other safety considerations with horse drawn machinery pertain to hitch points. Bolts, hitch pins, etc., that hold the pieces together such as eveners and yokes should be checked regularly for wear.
“Even a really solid team of horses may get rattled if a doubletree suddenly snaps loose and slams into their fetlocks,” he said.
Good horse husbandry is a year-round process, but in some regions cold and snow can interrupt a good routine. Spring is the ideal time to get back to basics and take the time to prepare for a successful and safe farming season. Your veterinarian, other draft horse owners and educational events are good venues for learning more about caring for your draft horses. Leslie has authored two books, “The New Horse-Powered Farm” and “Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century,” which also offer detailed information to help your horse-powered farm running smoothly.
Read more: Do Draft Horses Need Dental Care?