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  • by Chris Stewart

Farming Without a Tractor - Teaching a Young Horse Old Tricks

Tractors replaced horses on the farm years ago. Today, only television shows like Little House on the Prairie offer a glimpse of the bygone days when equestrian-power hauled wagons, plowed fields and took crops to market. Instead, tractors, pick-up trucks and other pieces of mechanized machinery have taken over, leaving most horses without much to do except graze in the meadow, swat at flies, and wait - like anxious baseball fans - for something to happen. For them, life isn't very exciting.

Luckily, not all horses are put out to permanent pasture before they have a chance to develop their natural skills. Here in the North Country, where growing numbers of small, labor-intensive farms have appeared in recent years, more and more horses are finding that their services are once again in demand. If there were horse psychiatrists, they would certainly describe this unexpected spin-off of the "Back to the Land" movement as a positive development. In any case, more horses are working.

Dan, a 1,700 pound Percheron horse owned by Peter Booty of Jackson, is one of the fortunate few who lead an active life on the farm. Similar in stature to the Morgan and Clydesdale breeds, Dan earns his keep just as many of his ancestors did - by cutting hay, skidding wood, and pulling a plow. Teaching these skills to Dan, as Peter explained, has required a lot of patience, since learning takes place only with the combined and repeated efforts of horse and owner. Fortunately, because of his background, Dan is an ideal pupil. "He hasn't got a whole lot of bad habits to 'untrain,'" Peter said, "and he is a smart horse."

Despite Dan's willingness and Peter's patience, things don't always run smoothly on a horse-powered farm. During times when a new piece of machinery is tested or when a new task is undertaken, the first results aren't usually poetry in motion. Last Saturday afternoon's work showed how frustrating this leaning process can be.

Hitched up for the first time to a single horse mower, Dan seemed out-of-step and hesitant, and although he responded to each of Peter's commands to "ho," "back up" and "go," the cutting was slow. "As soon as he adapts to the mower," Peter noted, "he'll be a fine puller. It will take a while for him to get accustomed to this machine since he has never pulled one before." Though Dan had mowed on a tandem machine with another horse, the loud noise of this machine and the unfamiliar feel of the mower's wooden shaft bumping against his flanks made him uneasy.

Several times, in the midst of cutting a row of grass, Dan pauses to get his bearing, an action which slowed the mower's teeth and clogged the machine. After each of these pauses, Peter calmly disengaged the mower, led Dan out of the grass, and began again. "It's difficult at the start," he commented, "but it still beats using a scythe."

Even if Dan had known exactly what he was doing that day, the mowing still would have been tedious and time consuming. "One of the interesting things about farming with horses," Peter noted, "is that you're often using a piece of equipment that someone else gave up on years ago. Every time something breaks down, you can look and find the exact spot where the same break had been fixed a dozen times before." The 75-year-old McCormick Mower Peter used proved the point. "It broke for about the 18th time today," he said, "and you just learn to expect that sort of thing."

Run by horse-power, the McCormick Mower can be an efficient machine when all its parts function together. That, however, doesn't always happen. Designed for simplicity, the mower cuts when its wheel turns a shaft, which turns three gears, which then slide a set of 20 teeth back and forth across a flat, four foot long bar suspended off the side of the mower. When a tooth snaps or when a gear slips, Dan has his turn to be patient. "The reason I wanted to use this mower was because of its low-gear ratio," Peter continued. "It has a very rapid cutting action."

On Saturday that action proved hard to sustain. Old and rusting - like much of the available horse drawn equipment - the mower broke twice in the morning, and twice Peter drove to town for a visit at the welder's. Those unaccustomed to these delays might be frustrated, but Peter has learned to cope with these recurring set backs. He has collected eight additional toothed mower bars and knows where he can find whatever else he needs for plowing, harrowing or other work.

At first glance, his set of farm implements resembles an outdoor antique store more than anything else, yet each machine works. "Some of the pieces are real relics, 50 years old or older," he explained, "but all of it is local and a lot of it is borrowed. Many old timers aren't willing to sell their equipment, but they will loan it out if you take care of it." For Peter, learning how to operate these machines has been more difficult than finding them. "Since I didn't grow up on a farm, it has taken me longer to figure these things out," he said. "It took time to learn how to use and repair a plow, for example. Yet each machine - once you understand how it works - is really very simple."

Fortunately, in the year since he has owned him, Dan has proven to be the ideal horse for the work Peter does. For one thing, unlike many other horses of his size, Dan wasn't trained as a puller to compete in county and state fairs. Those horses are taught to jerk-pull extravagantly large loads for short distances," Peter painted out. "Once they've learned to pull like this, it is hard to retain them for logging or farming where what you want is an even, steady pace." Having been raised as a work horse, Dan knows what's expected of him.

"What work he did as a youngster was logging," Peter noted, "and he's an extraordinary logging horse." Unbridaled, Dan hauls logs down the skidder trail to the road without being led. "You can holler, "ho", from three hundred yards away and he'll stop." Peter added, "It's amazing. After we haul several logs down the same trail a few times, I can unhitch him and he'll plod back up the trail to where we're cutting all by himself' I'll just follow behind. He's a real partner in the woods."

Aside from the proper training and his innate intelligence, Dan also possesses a kind temperament. "He's even natured and unusually gentle," Peter said. You could even sleep under him and hot worry about being stepped on." These characteristics help to make him a willing pupil as well. "It's not so much a matter of training as it is experience," Peter continued, "But you can't forget that he's a horse." Although not forgetting this can be difficult when an animal behaves as well as Dan, Peter stressed the importance of keeping watch over him. "In a way, horses are like babies," he said. "They'll jump or bolt if something scares them. It's your responsibility when you have a horse to make sure that things don't startle or scare them." For this reason, Peter added, he was taking his time in teaching Dan to pull the mower since its noise alone could easily cause him to bolt.

This concern for Dan's well being carries over in the other ways Peter looks out for his horse. During last winter, when he took Dan across Jackson or into Bartlett for logging work, Peter was careful to plan his schedule so that Dan walked the shortest distances possible, since pavement is hard on the animal's hoofs. In addition, to protect Dan from the elements, he built make-shift canvas shelters stocked with hay and water.

In spring and summer months, when plowing, harrowing and haying often require labor under the hot sun, even more special attention must be paid to a work horse. "Haying is the hottest job horses usually do," Peter said, "so you have to be certain that they get plenty of rest, shade and water." By treating him properly, Dan should be working for another 13 or 14 years. "He's seven years old now, which makes him the equivalent of a young adult," Peter continued, "With the correct care and exercise to make sure that his legs and lungs stay in good shape, he can expect to work until he's about 20."

While judging how Dan feels about his active life is difficult, watching the ways he reacts to Peter indicates that he seems to enjoy his lot. "We've worked well together from the beginning," Peter explained, "and part of that is because I like to work with horses. To have a good rapport with horses, you have to be confident, horses know instantly when you're not."

With the blossoming of clover and Timothy grass, Peter and Dan have devoted most of their recent working days to haying when the weather permitted. Thus far, they have gathered four-and-a-half tons, enough to feed Dan for a year, and hope to harvest even more. Two sheep and two goats, new additions to the farm, must also be fed. "It's ironic," Peter explained, "I wouldn't need all this hay if I didn't have a horse to feed, and of course, I couldn't do the haying without Dan."

Peter is the first to point out that the type of farming he has chosen isn't for everyone. Coupled with the satisfaction derived from working toward agricultural self-sufficiency are long hours and hard labor, and although horse-farming requires less of a cash outlay than conventional farms, its peculiar demands make it a unique challenge.

"If you're going to work with horse-drawn farm equipment you have to get used to break-downs," Peter warned, "and you also have to collect a lot of spare parts. But it's hopeless even to consider doing this unless you love horses. That's the basic requirement of the job. You have to have a feel and desire for it. If all you want to do is raise crops, then you'd be better off buying a rototiller. It's less work and you'll be happier."

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