If there’s one piece of equipment the working draft horse farm needs, it’s a stoneboat. As the name implies, it originated to haul rocks and stones from fields that were being prepared for farmland or pasture, or to haul rocks and stones to where you did want them, such as for lining drainage swales and building stone walls.
A stoneboat is a low-profile drag. It utilizes a flat area of wood or steel, but does not have runners, skids or wheels. It’s used with a singletree and chain hooks and does not require shafts or a pole. It’s designed for use on soft, mostly flat ground, gravel or snow. Stoneboats cannot be used on hilly or slippery terrain. Additionally, its force of drag means you cannot back a load with a stoneboat. Its use is limited for some folks, but for others its unique maneuverability makes up for any perceived deficiencies.
Stoneboats are designed to be about the same width as your singletree, 30 to 32 inches. If designed for full-grown drafts, they’re usually 60 inches long, with planks made of 1.25-inch oak. If well-designed for work on gravel or stony areas, they will also have steel wear plates on the bottom of the faceplate. The faceplate is rounded at the top and squared where it attaches to the wood. The front half of the faceplate also curves up from the ground at a slight angle to assist with maneuverability and to avoid small obstacles. In the center top of the faceplate is a 2.5-inch hole to provide for the chain to the singletree.
Most modern stoneboats are flat and made of steel and wood, and they sometimes include a small edging on the sides to help keep loads in place. A hinged version of older designs can still be found. The hinge allows the boat to be opened and placed behind and along the sides of a large rock. A chain hooks both sides together, and then tightens under the rock as the horse steps forward.
The maneuverability of a stoneboat is unmatched by other devices used for draft power, especially if you train your horse to excel at pivoting on a hind leg. A stoneboat turns in place in whichever direction you pivot. As long as a horse has enough room to walk past the stoneboat, you can easily turn around in most barn alleyways. This makes a stoneboat ideal for hauling hay into a barn or for delivering anything almost anywhere on your farm. One note of importance: A draft skilled with working a stoneboat, much like a skilled logging horse, is not at all concerned with chains against or rubbing on its legs.
Variations of a stoneboat are easy to achieve if the need arises to use one for hauling short firewood, tubs of soil or loose hay. Shorter and slightly narrower stoneboats are common for working ponies. And one farm favorite, a few bales of hay stacked to form a seat, makes the stoneboat an ideal workout for conditioning horses for more strenuous or longer workdays.
It’s a wise and caring teamster who is aware of the resistance of the ground to the stoneboat and is conscientious enough to not overload the stoneboat in relation to the horse’s ability to pull it. Overloading not only works to discourage a horse, it may cause them to lose their willingness to work. With young or unconditioned horses, it’s often the cause of nervousness or unpredictability, especially when asked to start the load. Always work to ensure that the weight of the load you ask your draft to haul is matched by its physical and mental fitness, as well as its training.
Ground conditions affect a stoneboat differently than sled or skid-type equipment. Stoneboats offer greater flotation, and their larger surface-to-ground weight ratio allows for less soil compaction. Sleds and skids have more grip, but result in increased sinkage in softer soils. Stoneboats, on the other hand, do not sink in softer soils, but offer little friction or grip. Great care must be used when moving across a slope with a stoneboat. Plan your routes and working paths accordingly.
Working with a single draft and a stoneboat can be exceptionally productive and rewarding. While it may take a little time, attention and practice to balance the efficiency of your loads with your horse’s ability, the range of chores that a stoneboat can assist with are well worth the investment.