Working with Draft Horses on a Small, Sustainable Farm
Real Horse Power: What's So Great About Working with Horses?
I started driving horses and using them for farm work a little over two years ago now. In fact, I learned to drive a horse before I learned to drive a tractor.
No, I’m not Amish, just for the record.
Now that I’ve seen what just a single horse can accomplish, I can’t imagine switching to a tractor-only operation. There’s something really special and unique about having a living, thinking animal as your co-worker and buddy.But why would I choose a horse over a tractor?
There are lots of benefits to working with horses, not least of all the fact that it makes the work more fun and interesting.
The good news is that farming with horses is becoming more popular... again. I can personally understand why - seems our farmer-ancestors weren't suffering much without the tractor.
Don’t forget that the horses will also provide great compost for any farm that grows anything! Horse manure just needs to be aged properly, and it will supply plants with a rich but gentle source of nitrogen, among other important nutrients.
The Small Farm and the Working Horse
If you’re dealing with small acreage, something like 300 or less, draft horses could prove to be worth their weight in gold. A smaller operation, say, maybe a 30-acre vegetable farm, is a perfect candidate to profit from the use of horses. A good two-horse team can plow (turn over the soil in a field) 2 acres per day. The same team should be able to cultivate about 7 acres of row crops.
Small dairy operations that make their own hay can benefit from the use of horses rather than solely relying on tractors. Using a sickle bar mower to cut the hay will save on fuel costs.
If you have a small market garden, five acres or less, and you live somewhere that allows you to keep a horse or two, you should definitely consider the option. Plowing, harrowing, discing and cultivating can all be done with horses.
Organic farm operations especially should consider the use of working horses. Cutting back or elliminating the use of tractors, tillers, and other fossil-fuel burners is a great benefit to the environment, and using animal draft power supports sustainable agriculture.
Hauling with Horses
Logging and Other Types of Hauling
Horses can do other work besides field labor. They can also be used for logging - dragging logs out of the woods or simply moving logs from one location to another. In fact, many logging operations in northern New York State still use trusty Belgian horses to haul the logs. These horses are so well-trained that they don’t even need to be driven. Sure-footed horses and draft ponies make excellent logging workers, and these animals are able to access places in the woods that no truck could get to.
I often use our horse for hauling stumps of wood that need to be split. We also use her to pull logs out of the woods. I’ve seen her manage slopes that seemed awfully steep to me, but were no problem for her.
Horses can haul just about anything you need them to, provided the load is not too great. Wheeled implements, also called rolling stock, like wagons and carts help a great deal in increasing the load-pulling capacity of a horse. They can haul stone, hay, straw, feed, other equipment, or just about anything that needs to be moved from A to B.
The average tractor performing a crop-related task uses 7 gallons of fuel per hour.
Horses do need fuel in order to work properly – but it comes in the form of grasses and clover, hay, and grain. Almost all horse-drawn farm implements do not require any gasoline or diesel fuel.
Switching from gas powered equipment to horse powered equipment is beneficial to the environment as it will lower your carbon footprint (carbon dioxide emissions). Using horses or other animals for power is more sustainable in the long-run, as it is inevitable that man will burn up all of the planet’s fossil fuels before they can be replenished. As fuel shortages and high oil prices continue to be an issue, utilizing horse power will continue to be less expensive than running a tractor.
The Cost Factor
A brand new tractor costs as much as a nice house. In fact, you have to practically take a mortgage and rent the thing. You can purchase used tractors for $10,000 or more, maybe a little less in some cases, but you had better know how to work on them yourself and be prepared to pay for, or build, replacement parts. Oh, and get ready to spend some serious money on fuel.
A team of well-broke, trained, seasoned horses, aged somewhere from 4 to 8, typically costs $1,700 in Pennsylvania. Yearly veterinary costs, excluding emergencies, are about $300 per horse depending on how much care you are able to give the horses yourself (shots, vaccines, dewormers, etc.). Draft horses don’t need to be shod (wear shoes) unless they will be traversing a lot of paved or gravel roads. They do still need to have their feet trimmed by a blacksmith or farrier a few times a year, which usually amounts to a yearly cost of about $400 per horse.
A horse can cost up to $2,000 per year to feed if you are buying hay. Cut it and cure it yourself (with the help of the horses and a sickle bar mower) and feed costs drop dramatically. Draft horses don’t need expensive pelletized feed or grain. In fact, they are prone to obesity, so grain should be limited to what the horse really needs. Mineral blocks and salt licks should be provided, of course, and you may see a rise in your water bill as you scrub and refill a 100 gallon water tank every three days or so.
Bottom line is, even if you are buying hay, you still haven’t spent $10,000 in one year on your team of two horses. Tractors also don't make very nice pets, while good horses will quickly become your good friends.
Personal Enrichment and Enjoyment
You can’t imagine how peaceful it can be to harrow a field with a horse until you’ve done it. You hear nothing but the wind, the horse’s breathing, your own breathing, the unique sound of the soil as you work it. Plowing, though harder work if you’re using a walking plow, can be just as enjoyable.
When you plow with a tractor, you can’t hear the earth turning away from your plow; you can’t appreciate the knife-through-butter beauty; you can't hear anything but the tractor.
If you want a real experience with the world, if you want to feel truly connected to what’s real, I would recommend above all else that you plow a few furrows with a horse.
- Draft Power: Using horses, oxen and mules on the farm - Grow Northwest
Another great article on farming with horses
- Green Living Journal
An article on organic farming and horse power