Four-legged horse power once provided the only fuel for transportation and farm work. Horse-drawn carriages moved people and goods from one place to another. Draft horses dutifully toiled in the fields pulling tillage equipment, manure spreaders and more.
When fuel-powered equipment emerged early in the 20th century, horses rapidly lost their place of prominence, especially on farms. Belgians, Shires and Suffolk Punches were turned out to pasture or traded in for John Deeres and International Harvesters.
A resolute group of farmers, mostly Amish, refused to give in to progress and continued to work their farms with horses.
“The Amish chose to stay with horse power in the 1920s as part of their faith. I consider that a gift to everyone,” said Dale Stoltzfus, marketing coordinator for the Horse Progress Days.
By the 1940s and 1950s large equipment manufacturers stopped making horse-drawn equipment, making it difficult to source needed farm implements. Farmers that relied on horses started small machine shops in sheds adjacent to their barns. They repaired, rebuilt and developed new horse-drawn equipment to suit their needs. Thanks to those innovators who were merely looking to preserve their way of life, the knowledge and equipment needed to work with horses has more than survived, it has experienced a recent resurgence.
While the Amish have long appreciated the benefits of farming with horses, they are being joined by a growing group of young people interested in the way of life. “There is a renaissance taking place. Young people are leaving engineering and corporate jobs to start CSAs and farm with horses,” Stoltzfus said.
Today, newcomers and farmers steeped in generations of farming with horses unite at the annual Horse Progress Days. This yearly event offers horsemanship, horse care training and access to equipment that has allowed horse farming to continue into the 21st century.
The 23rd annual event scheduled for July 1-2 is guaranteed to be jam-packed with informational workshops and activities for the whole family. Organizers anticipate attendance at the Michiana Event Center in Michigan, Indiana, to be approximately 20,000 people.
What is Horse Progress Days?
The Horse Progress Days is an annual multiday event that promotes the horse farming way of life. The event location rotates between facilities close to Amish communities in Ohio, southeast Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Attendees are treated to in-field demonstrations of modern-day horse-drawn farm implements, horsemanship clinics and other activities.
“One thing that makes Horse Progress Days unique is the demonstration of newly manufactured horse-drawn equipment,” Stoltzfus said.
Other events focus on antique horse-drawn equipment. Instead, the Horse Progress Days features the most current equipment available to help established and new farmers stay on the cutting edge. “It’s kind of an oxymoron putting the horses next to progress, but it is intentional to demonstrate how horses and horse-powered equipment is moving forward into the future,” he said.
Field demonstrations showcase a “Produce Patch” and traditional field work. “In the spring, local coordinators plant sweet corn, tomatoes and other small vegetables,” Stoltzfus said. “By the time the event rolls around in July, the fields are ready for demonstration.”
Although Horse Progress Days is led by a board of directors, local leaders are tasked with coordinating each year’s event. “The strength of local planning is that something unique to the location is added each year. The new addition becomes a fabric of the event,” Stoltzfus said.
For example, in 2011, Pennsylvania organizers added a homemaker’s tent that featured food-preparing seminars, soap making and more. A few years ago, Michigan event planners introduced a Pony Express Parade that has become a popular favorite. Kids are invited to bring their pony in harness and hitched to a cart. They drive around in front of the crowd and then line up to show off their turnout.
Horses are front and center during the weekend-long activities. Nearly 200 horses, representing a variety of draft breeds, pull shuttle wagons and are used in demonstrations. All draft breeds are welcome, but the majority of horses represented are often Belgians and Percherons. Suffolk Punch, Clydesdales, Shires are also often present. Occasionally, North American Spotted Drafts, Norwegian Fjords, Halflingers and draft ponies make an appearance.
The event’s reputation has spread far and wide, drawing attendees from as far as Europe, Australia, South America and Africa. “We have established meaningful friendships with many of the people who travel from near and far to attend the event,” he said.
Draft horse farming exploratory classes
As the Horse Progress Days has evolved, horsemanship and training have become an important part of the annual gathering. “The seminars feature harness fitting, hoof care, feeding horse health, training and more,” Stoltzfus said.
The purpose of the workshops is to help those who might be interested in farming with horses. The three-day series begins on Thursday, before the official start of the event on Friday, and concludes on Saturday. The first part of the day on Thursday is spent on topics like horse psychology, grooming, collar and harness fitting, before actually hooking a team to a cart and driving.
“There’s lots of hands-on handling of the horses, but ample time is spent in preparation,” he said. “There is no place other than the annual Horse Progress Days where one could expect to find this level of expert horse and equipment knowledge and the opportunity to learn about it and practice it.”
Friday continues with additional horse care basics ranging from anatomy and grooming to horse psychology, harnessing safety, collar fitting and hands-on driving. Participants also can learn about manure hauling and experience real field work with horses and equipment.
The final day wraps up with additional field work, specifically plowing and time in the Produce Patch.
The Draft Horse Farming Exploratory Classes require a reservation and have a separate $500 registration fee. (Questions can be directed to Ferman Wengerd at 330-988-3596.)
History of Horse Progress Days
The inaugural Horse Progress Days was held in 1993. Prominent draft horse people who were members of a national Draft and Mule Horse Association were committed to promoting and preserving the use of draft horses in farming.
At the time, that organization was led by folks like Maurice Telleen, founder of The Draft Horse Journal; Ralph Chattin, a mule man from Tennessee; Elmer Lapp, a horse farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Eli J.C. Yoder, a long-time draft horse promoter from Sugarcreek, Ohio.
The association itself struggled to retain membership. But before the association folded, Draft Horse Training Schools and Horse Progress Days emerged.
Draft Horse Training Schools were held around the country and taught the fundamentals of working with draft horses. “These two- to three-day workshops are still held by independent farmers and trainers today,” Stoltzfus said.
The Horse Progress Days was an idea put forth by Lapp. “His farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is not far from the White Horse Machine shop and he offered to host the first event at his farm,” Stoltzfus said.
Through the Draft Horse Journal, Telleen published a lengthy article about the initial Horse Progress Days: “This should become an annual event, and like the big farm progress shows, move around the country, giving farmers in different areas a look at what our Henry Fords and Thomas Edisons in the horse machinery business are up to.”
Little did Telleen know that his readers and attendees at that inaugural event would be so committed to helping the event flourish.
In 2000 and 2001 the Horse Progress Days was officially established as a nonprofit entity, by-laws were created, and an official bank account was established. Over the years the local movers and shakers in the various communities where the event is held have been given free reign and encouraged to take responsibility for the event.
A can’t-miss event
As the Horse Progress Day website reports, from the original idea of getting people together to see demonstrations of the horse farming equipment coming from Amish shops, Horse Progress Days has grown into an event that, with utmost integrity, enthusiastically supports, encourages and promotes the use of horses (animal power) to farm.
“While western farmers and agri-business people have made the word ‘innovation’ into something that is mainly used to market the latest and the greatest, the word is also appropriately used to describe the farming equipment the shop lads have come up with for use with horses,” Stoltzfus said.
Much of the equipment used by today’s horse farmers is superior in its materials and design to that which was offered by John Deere and Cyrus McCormick back when they and others were pumping out piles of horse-farming equipment. This is true since there have been improvements in the components used to make it. And the makers of horse-drawn equipment have put a lot of time and effort into improving the way it works.
For more information and directions to the event, visit http://www.horseprogressdays.org.
Read more: Working Horses: Working Soundness
Photos by: Horse Progress Days