Rural Heritage Horse Paddock

Horse Power vs. Horsepower
by Gail Damerow

Looking for a lifestyle that gives you more time to smell the roses? Nothing will do that for you quicker than working your land with draft animals. While doing fieldwork you'll have plenty of time to notice the natural world around you, and without the constant smell of gasoline or diesel exhaust clogging up your nostrils. Sure a draft animal will "exhaust" occasionally, but the brief odor only serves as a reminder that your soil's fertility is being boosted.

Teamsters who work their gardens, fields, and woodlots with draft-animal power cite many reasons. Among them:

Draft animals tread lightly on the land. Compared to machinery used for farming and woodlot management, they do minuscule damage.
They help plant and harvest their own "fuel," making you less dependent on fossil fuels.
They cost less than mechanized equipment (both to purchase and to maintain), they don't depreciate as rapidly, and they don't break down as often.
They work well in hilly terrain that defies a tractor.
They can work soil that's wet enough to bog down machinery.
They let you easily work without human helpers—a properly trained team will pull ahead on voice command while, for example, you haul hay, clear a field of stones, or gather up firewood.
Their slower pace gives you plenty of time to think while you work, making you less likely to get hurt in an accident compared to operating fast, noisy, powerful equipment.
They offer companionship. No one develops the rapport with a rototiller or a tractor that a teamster inevitably has with a team.

Lest you get the romantic notion that working with draft animals is nothing but a bed of roses, here are a few things to consider:

They require training. Even if you acquire a team that's already well trained, they need to adjust to their new teamster.
You, too, must be trained. Agreed, you have to go through a learning curve when you first operate a tractor, but with draft animals you never stop learning.
You need patience. If an animal doesn't want to, it doesn't want to. Usually there's a good reason, but the animal can't tell you what that reason is. You have to get into the animal's head and figure it out for yourself.
Draft animals must be worked regularly to keep their bodies in condition and to remind them of their training.
Draft animals, like the family cat or dog, require regular health care, veterinary checks, and vaccinations.
They need frequent hoof trimming and maybe shoes. You can learn to clean and trim hooves yourself, but shoeing requires the skill (and expense) of an experienced professional.
Draft animals eat, even when there's no work to be done. You can't just drain the fuel and store them away for the season.
You have to be there—every day—to feed them, to exercise or work them, and to make sure they're okay. If you like to be away from home often, you'll need to find a reliable friend, relative, or neighbor willing and able to take care of your livestock.
Draft animals require land—land to live on, and land to work. If you have only an acre or two, you don't need a pair of heavy horses or hefty oxen, but you might do nicely with draft ponies or mules.

The bottom line is that working with draft animals involves a trade-off of expense vs. time. Your rewards are the satisfaction that you are living closer to nature and the serenity that comes with taking more notice of the natural world around you.

Horse

Gail Damerow is former editor of Rural Heritage magazine.
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09 April 2010
19 October 2011 last revision