FEATURES


Bringing Draft Horses to Your Farm

By Katie Navarra




Prior to bringing draft horses to the farm, the first thing to consider is whether or not you have a true passion for animals.
Photo by Pimmimemom/Dreamstime.com.

Long before there were tractors, living, breathing horsepower fueled the farm and provided the muscle for plowing fields, planting crops, moving firewood and other chores. When tractors came along, farmers leaped at the opportunity to use the equipment to accomplish tasks more quickly and more efficiently.

While farms relying on motorized equipment far outnumber farms using draft power, there are farmers - and not just Amish farmers - who prefer and choose to work the land with draft horses. Working with draft horses takes extra planning and a passion for animals, but it also provides solitude and a sense of accomplishment.

Aside from the countless joys of working the land with horses, fields worked with horses are full of soft soil and experience less compaction.

Getting started with draft power

Prior to bringing draft horses to the farm, the first thing to consider is whether or not you have a true passion for animals.

Jay Bailey, owner of Fair Winds Farm (http://www.fairwindsfarm.org) in Brattleboro, Vt., said it's important for someone who wants to use draft horses on the farm to really like and want to work with animals. "For some, incorporating horses into the farming operation will be a wonderful addition, and for others it will be hard work and may not be worth the input required," he stated.

Working with horses requires a willingness to accept a different pace for completing farm work, and in some cases additional chores to accomplish a task. "You can't just go out and turn the key and run down a row of vegetables," Bailey said.

Transitioning from gas-powered equipment to horse-powered equipment will likely mean a change in the farm's production. When Bailey and his wife first arrived on their farm 35 years ago, there was a Farmall Super A tractor to do the work. The couple knew they always wanted to use horses on the farm, but to do so, they needed to evaluate what crops were planted and the location those crops would be planted.

He explained that they designed the farm so they could do the work with horses, and avoided things they wouldn't be able to use the horses for. For the Bailey family, that translated into 20 acres of hay and 6 acres of vegetables.

The horses' work is not limited to cultivating crops; they are also used to haul firewood, move a shelter for the pigs, pull the manure spreader and other necessary tasks.



The key to successfully transitioning to horsepower is practice and accessibility.
Photos by Katie Navarra unless otherwise noted.

Even with a focus on the power of horses, motorized equipment still has its place. "We have regularly rented or traded for the use of a tractor with bucket loader to empty the manure shed in the spring," Bailey noted.

The tractor is used to load two manure spreaders. Once loaded, a team of horses pulls the spreaders to distribute the manure on the fields. Working side by side, the gas-powered engine and the hay-fueled workhorses are able to clean out a winter's worth of manure in two or three days. Without both, the project would take at least a week, maybe longer.



"There are many different good horses, and it takes looking to find them. Not every horse is good for a particular situation," says Jay Bailey, owner of Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro, Vt.

Selecting workhorses for your farm

Once the decision has been made to use workhorses on the farm, it's time to choose which type of horse to purchase. There are several breeds of draft horses, including Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire and Suffolk Punch, to name a few.

"There are many different good horses, and it takes looking to find them," Bailey said. "Not every horse is good for a particular situation." The workhorses may be registered with a national breed association or unregistered. Either way, the most important factor is to find a team to match the handler's level of experience. Bailey prefers Suffolk Punches, and his current herd includes horses that are the sixth generation born and raised on his farm.



Long before there were tractors, living, breathing horsepower fueled the farm and provided the muscle for plowing fields, planting crops, moving firewood and other chores.

Younger horses offer boundless amounts of energy, but can be unpredictable, whereas older horses tend to be more steady and easier to handle for less experienced individuals. Above all else, Bailey said, "They have to have the right eye and head, inside the head, and willingness and interest in trying to do what is asked of them."

Practice makes perfect

The key to successfully transitioning to horsepower is practice and accessibility.

Learning how to work with horses is crucial to your success in using draft power. Harnessing a 1-ton animal to a piece of equipment and accomplishing a task takes skill. "Get training at a workshop or with somebody with experience," Bailey suggested. "Work with them for a week as free labor in exchange for experience."



Younger horses offer boundless amounts of energy, but can be unpredictable, whereas older horses tend to be more steady and easier to handle for less experienced individuals.

For farmers seriously considering draft power, Bailey encourages them to attend the annual Horse Progress Days. The 2014 event is scheduled for July 4 and 5 in Mount Hope, Ohio. The two-day event showcases horse-drawn equipment and features field demonstrations, educational seminars and a parade of breeds. More information about the event can be found at http://www.horseprogressdays.com.

In addition to learning how to use the draft horses, where the horses are kept and how convenient it is to use them will play a significant role in a farm's success. "If you need to go out to the pasture and catch them every time you are going to use them, I bet you won't do it very much," Bailey said.

A barn with a clean stall or small paddock in close proximity to the harness and equipment is ideal. Having the horses nearby and ready for use encourages regular use. Bailey said, "Practice makes perfect. A regular pattern of having them very close by and then using them creates a routine."

Farming with horses offers countless benefits, from the solitude found while working the land to reducing soil compaction. Bailey noted, "One of the reasons I continue to really enjoy working horses over using a motor is being able to pay attention to the natural world around me. And I am convinced we have a monetary payback for not driving on the land for 30 years."

Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.