How To Farm With Horses

If you want to eschew fossil-fuel-powered equipment, draft horses are the way to go.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Sterling College/Flickr

Farming with draft horses is an almost inherently attractive idea. It evokes a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, it embodies bucolic life, and for those of us seeking to improve our sustainability, they are essentially tractors that create their own fertility, multiply, and run on grass not gas.

However, there may be many reasons we might not act on our interest in farming with draft horses. Draft animals generally get work done more slowly than a tractor, and without access or relation to other farmers who use draft animals, it may just seem entirely out of reach—too unfamiliar, too foreign, too big of a hill to climb. That’s why we’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to draft horses for anyone who is interested, but may not know where to start. If farming with draft horses is your dream, you should be able to pursue that dream with confidence.

Choosing Breeds and Buying Draft Horses

The breed of draft horses you choose to purchase should be based on how you want to use them and on what breeds are available locally. Draft animals are a bit like plants in that they do better in the area they are adapted to, though another notable advantage to acquiring horses locally is having someone close by who can mentor you in this farming technique.

Your first horses should be experienced horses. Trying to “break a horse” before you have your “horse sense” can be difficult. Your best bet is to get some training, and then when you’re ready, find a local breeder or horseman and let them get you set up.

Here are draft-horse breeds you may consider:

  • Clydesdale: A beautiful, iconic breed known generally as a show or performance horse, the Clyde (as it’s sometimes called) is fairly heavy, well-tempered and good for pulling carts and trailers.
  • Belgian: Among the heaviest of draft horse breeds, the Belgian is known for being stocky and strong. It can be slow and sometimes shaped awkwardly with a short neck, but it travels well and is generally docile.
  • Percheron: Not quite as large as the Belgian but perhaps slightly larger than the Clydesdale on average, the Percheron breed is known for its ability to move well. The Washington State University Extension’s excellent draft-horse handbook, describes the Percheron breed as “good at both the trot and the walk … trot is characterized by a snap and boldness not ordinarily displayed by most of the other draft breeds.”
  • Shire: The Shire is one of the largest and most powerful horses in the world. Appearing like large Clydesdales, their feathering make them good for transport and carting, but not as good for field work.
  • Mule: Mules are a cross between a horse and a donkey, and can be very strong. However, they are sterile by nature, so they can never be bred. That said, if you have a mule breeder nearby, a mule may be worth the investment.
  • Suffolk: A good and energetic field worker, the Suffolk is strong, powerful and eager to work. It’s very stout, strong and focused.
  • Norwegian Fjord: Perhaps among the shortest of draft animals—which has its advantages—the Fjord breed is strong, stout and compact. It’s great for field work and riding or showing.

Jobs Draft Horses Can Do

Although they obviously don’t come with front-end loaders, there are few jobs draft horses can’t do. Like tractors, draft horses can mow, rake, bale hay or simply mow the lawn. They can haul carts or people for hay rides. They can work in small gardens or on large grain operations. And they can pull logs outs of dense woods and up hills that tractors would need a road to access—that may come in handy when building a cabin, cutting shiitake logs or simply hauling firewood to the house. So long as you have the right equipment, a draft horse will be a dependable worker

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Equipment To Use With Draft Horses

Implements are important not only to the culture of draft farming, but to the effectiveness. First, decide what you want to do with your horses, and then choose your implements and harnessing equipment accordingly. Because whole books could be written on which tool to use for which job, we will stick to the basics. Keep in mind that some companies, like Pioneer, produce equipment that is easily adaptable—basic forecarts on which many different implements may be easily attached. This all-in-one equipment may be the ideal place for beginners to start.

The Basics

  • A Forecart: In his book Horse Powered Farming for the 21st Century (Chelsea Green, 2015), Stephen Leslie calls the forecart a “universal joint” that allows horses “to pull and hold back any farm implement that would otherwise hitch to the drawbar of a tractor…” These handy attachments can be fabricated or purchased, may be equipped with PTO shafts, and definitely can come in handy if you already have a lot of adaptable farm machinery.
  • Harnesses: Different farming goals may require different harnesses. Plowing, may require a stronger harness than carting, for example. In Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing Equine Power for Farm & Show (Storey, 2008), authors Gail Damerow and Alina Rice write, “A driving harness allows the animal to move under a lighter weight, while a heavy work harness is built for strength and durability.”

For Garden Work

  • Plows: Buy your plow based on the power of your horse or team, not solely on the job needing to be done.
  • Discs: Discs are essentially tillers, nice for working-up plowed garden soil.
  • Row Cultivators: Look for adjustable row cultivating machines, preferably those with hiller/furrower attachments.
  • Harrows: Harrows do a light cultivation on large surfaces.
  • Manure Spreaders: Dump carts are a good place to start, but you may want to work into a ground or PTO-driven spreader.

For Making Hay

  • Mower: There are many types of mowers, but a good sickle-bar mower will serve you well.
  • Rake: This implement fluffs the hay and places it in a windrow, which is very handy for baling.
  • Baler: Although the price of a baler may be too prohibitive to begin with, there are implements available for draft animals.
  • Wagon: This, of course, will be necessary for hauling hay, but you’ll find plenty of other ways to use it around the farm.

Benefits Of Farming With Draft Horses

For the extra effort that may be required to get started with draft horses, there are plenty of benefits in the long run. Draft animals produce manure, which is a free source of fertility for your gardens. They eat renewable resources, like grass, which will cut down on feed bills. If you are up for keeping a stallion, draft horses can reproduce. (When was the last time you saw a tractor do that?) They’re lighter than most tractors, thus produce less soil compaction. And among the more underrated benefits, they are quiet.

Drawbacks To Draft Horses

The most cited drawback to working with draft animals is speed. Between harnessing and working, they simply aren’t as efficient time-wise as tractors. Draft horses also get tired; they cannot work at night and can easily be subject to heat and weather pressures that tractors may be OK with. Draft horses can also be spooked by loud equipment, noises or stings, sending them momentarily running off with you or the equipment. They don’t have many disadvantages, but the ones they do have need to be taken into consideration.

Costs Of Using Draft Horses

The studies done on the economic differences between a tractor and draft horses are either inconclusive or not entirely relevant. However, here are some things we do know about the cost of keeping draft animals that you should consider:

  • Draft horses multiply. Tractors only really ever depreciate in value, whereas a horse can be bred and produce a foal every year.
  • Gas will go up in price; grass never will. Although winter feeding can cost a little money or labor, grass will grow as long as there is water, soil and sunlight—a low-cost fuel source to keep your “machine” up and running.
  • Horses have higher labor costs. In some studies, almost double the amount of labor was required per acre for draft horses than for tractor farming. Not quantifiable in this sense, however, is the exercise or well-documented therapeutic benefits of working with animals.

Draft Horse Resources

Before running out and buying a team of horses, it is never a bad idea to attend a class or two on farming with draft animals. If you can do a year apprenticeship first, even better. There are many events across the country throughout the summer, such as the Horse Progress Days, where you can talk to other farmers or maybe even get some hands-on training. Then of course, there are several great books. Pick up The New Horse Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, by Stephen Leslie. The aforementioned Draft Horses and Mules, by Gale Damerow and Alina Rice is another great beginners guide. Download the excellent “Draft Horse Handbook” from WSU Extension. Also read this helpful interview with Stephen Decater from Live Power Community Farm. Hopefully, this collection of information and resources should help you get started!

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