Farming With Horses

by Wendell Berry

A team of horses, living olf the hay and grain it helps to produce, is an embodiment of the life of the farm—which, under good care, is perpetually self-renewing. A team is therefore not only a much cheaper source of power than a tractor, but it is also a source that in the long run will be much more dependable. And whereas thv. wastes from a tractor's engine only pollute the air, a horse's bodily wastes will enrich the ground from which he feeds, thus significantly reducing the farmer's dependence on the fertilizer companies.

And horses, unlike tractors, can reproduce themselves. Many small farmers will find it possible to raise a pair of colts a year from a team of work mares. If the quality of the colts is good, and if the horse market stays favorable, the work team may earn considerably more than its feed bill, and thus provide the farmer with a year of free labor, plus some profit.

In the work itself, horses have certain advantages over tractors. They can be used safely on steep ground, where a tractor would be either dangerous or useless. A horse farmer can get into his fields

On the decline: as power equipment like this one-row corn harvester took hold, the significance of the draft horse began to fade. American Society of Agricultural Engineers

On the decline: as power equipment like this one-row corn harvester took hold, the significance of the draft horse began to fade. American Society of Agricultural Engineers more quickly after rain than can a tractor farmer. And horses do not pack the ground as much as tractors. It is generally acknowledged among the tobacco growers in my area of Kentucky that the work of horse-drawn cultivating plows has never been equalled by any tractor.

Beyond these practicalities, there is the satisfaction that one gets from working a good team. A tractor may be handy, always ready to use, untiring, enormously powerful; but it is not alive, and that is a great difference. To work all day with a wel--broke and willing team is a pleasure as well as a job: it is a cooperative venture, a sort of *'>cial event. And when the days work is finished, to stable the team and water and feed them well, or to turn them ot t onto good pasture, is a comfort and a fulfillment. Between ;t farmer and a team there exists a sort of fellow feeling that is impossible between a farmer and a tractor, and for me that rates as a considerable advantage.

Another thing I like about working w:*h horses is their quietness. When you work with a tractor you hear nothing but the tractor; it is a kind of isolation. With the engine roaring in your cars all day, you lose awareness of the other life that is going on around you. With horses, unless you are using some noisy implement like a mowing machine, you hear the wind blowing and the birds singing and all the rest of the stirrings and goings-on of the countryside.

And so there is a good deal that can be said in favor of farming with horses. There are, ¡n fact, a few widely scattered farmers who still do farm exclusively with horses. There are many more who keep a team or two for part-time use. And of course-there are the Amish, for whom farming with horses is a community ideal and a way of life. Nevertheless, it woidd be irresponsible simply to recommend to anybody who owns a farm that he should sell his tractor and buy a team. There are difficulties

The draft horse farmer should be prepared to work a little harder physically than his mechanized neighbor. Here a team of blacks gets started on a morning's disking.

The draft horse farmer should be prepared to work a little harder physically than his mechanized neighbor. Here a team of blacks gets started on a morning's disking.

in the way; it is important that I should now mention them, and that interested readers should consider them with great care.

1. In many parts of the country a good team is difficult to find. And though a good team is less expensive than a good tractor, it will still be costly. At present the price of horses is high, and rising. Most horse-drawn equipment has been out of production for many years. Some tractor equipment, of course, is fairly easily convertible for use with horses.

Horses are not standard. No two are exactly alike in looks, size, conformation, or disposition. It is therefore extremely unwise for an inexperienced person to attempt to buy a team on his own. I have said that a good team is a source of pleasure. It is now time to say that a bad one is a curse, a nuisance, a liability—sometimes a danger. Some horsemen will take pride in selling good stock and in satisfying their customers. Some will sell poor stock with extravagant praise.

Most important: It is not easy to work with and care for a team. It cannot be learned easily or quickly. A person who can drive a car can probably teach himself to drive a tractor in a short while. To learn to drive a team well, you need a teacher, and you need experience. An inex perienced teamster tan easily injure or kill his team and can easily get injured or killed himself.

5. Obviously, then, a person inexperienced with horses who wants to farm with them is much in need of the advice and instruction of an experienced teamster whose intelligence and judgment can be trusted. And this brings us to the final difficulty: such people are getting scarce. The last generations that grew up working horses are dying out, and their knowledge is dying with diem.

Fortunately, there are some experienced horsemen scattered over the country who have had these problems on their minds. And because of their efforts there begins to be some promise of help for the would-be or the novice teamster.

First, 1 want to mention, and recommend, The Draft Horse Journal (Route 3, Waverly, 1A 50677), edited by Maurice and Jeannine Telleen. This magazine is an assembly point for all sorts of information about sales, breeders and dealers, suppliers of equipment, and oiher items of interest. There are articles on the history, breeding, and care of draft horses. And in the short time that I have been a subscriber, there has been an increasing number of articles on the use of horses for farm work. Anyone interested in farming with horses would find this magazine both a pleasure and a valuable investment.

In the Summer 197$ issue of the Journal, I was much interested to see an article which announced the first session of a Teamster's School to be held at Indian Summer Farm in Cabot, Vermont. According to the article, Ted Bermingham had undertaken to set up the school on his farm with the hope of preserving and passing on the knowledge and skill of "the last full generation of working teamsters." For this purpose Mr. Bermingham had rounded up a faculty of experienced horsemen to teach the disciplines of farming and logging with horses. Tuition was $150. This paid for all instruction, stall and board for a horse or team (if any), supper on Sunday night, and three meals a day, Monday through Thursday. Daytime instruction involved working at the chores of farming and logging. Study of the various tools and techniques always took place amid the practicalities of actual use. Students drove their own horses or horses furnished by the school under close supervision of the teachers. They also took part in the necessary stable work. The night sessions consisted of talks on such topics as horse husbandry, logging techniques, breeding, .equine genetics, veterinary medicine, horse trading, and shoeing.

Mr. Bermingham and his staff are well aware, of course, that the teamster's art is complex and dependent upon experience, and that no novice could hope to become proficient at it in a few days. The school is meant to offer as full an introduction as possible to skills that the beginner can then practice on his own. There is no doubt that a few hours of work with an experienced teacher can save many hours of expensive and dangerous self-instruction by the method of trial and error. The students 1 talked to all believed that the school had been thoroughly worthwhile. So did their teachers—and so did I.

I hope that such schools will soon be undertaken in other parts of the country. They would be good for the draft horse business, and they would be good for fanning.

The school was sponsored by the Draft Horse Institute, established in 1972 by Ted Bermingham, to collect and maintain the working knowledge of farming and using draft horses before it was lost. For information on the future sessions planned for coming seasons, you can write to Mr. Bermingham at Indian Summer Farm, Cabot, VT 05647.

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