Get Ready For Spring

by Stephen Leslie
April – May 2017

Tips for getting idle draft horses back into action.

fallen oak tree
Our Fjord Horses enjoying some winter downtime. Photo by the author

Horse Health Care

From a horse husbandry standpoint, the needs of draft horses are similar to any horse that has a regular occupation. Your horses should see the veterinarian regularly for updates on rabies shots and for getting teeth floated (when they are filed to remove any sharp points). At our farm, we do all immunization shots ourselves (under the supervision of our vet). The horses are wormed in the spring and fall. We worm our horses just before letting them back onto grazing paddocks in the spring and again when they are back into confinement after grazing is done in the fall. Occasional fecal testing for parasite infection will help you to target for specific infestations. If you are able to manage your horses in a rotational grazing system, there may be times when test results show it is not necessary to give them wormer.

We trim our horse feet on an eight-week schedule. If your horses are shod but idle over the winter, you may decide to keep them barefoot over the winter. This could add up to considerable cost savings. The mitigating circumstance is if the horse’s winter paddock is icy, in which case you may want to put cleated shoes on their front hooves to help them avoid potential injury from a fall.

Spring Training

If a farmer or logger doesn't use his or her work horses during the winter months, they will need conditioning before beginning full-time work. Unlike a tractor, you can’t let your horses sit idle for months in the winter and then expect them to jump right into spring plowing. You will either need to invent ways to keep them useful and active in the winter — clearing snow, sleigh rides, skidding firewood, feeding out hay to livestock, collecting maple sap — or build them back up gradually to a physical condition capable of taking on the plow. One of the most common training devices is the stone boat. If you happen to live in a region of the country that has stony soil, then spring training with the stone boat can take on the very practical task of picking rock from the fields. The strategy is to start out loading the sled lightly. Over the course of several days and several work sessions, the load the horses are asked to haul is gradually increased until it approaches the pull of the plow.

massive oak tree
Children in a Farm to School program help us to pick rocks from the market garden.
Photo by the author

Another excellent early spring work activity for the horses is going over pastures and hay fields with a drag harrow. This is good, steady work with moderate draft. We use a flex (chain) harrow and either walk behind it or hitch it to a forecart. On pastures, the harrow will break up old manure pies. On hayfields, the harrow will help further disperse fall-spread compost. In both cases, the shallow teeth of the flex harrow will lightly open up the sod to let in air and moisture and encourage grass roots to tiller out.

If you throw too much work at the horses all at once in the spring, they may develop sores under their collars or on spots where the harness typically rubs, in the same way that people hiking in new boots might develop blisters on their feet. If we take care and build the horses up gradually, we can also avoid sore shoulders or ligament and tendon injuries and look forward to a healthy and successful farming season for both human and horse.

garden prep with Fjords
A Flex harrow used for garden preparation. Photo by Margaret Fanning

Harness Inspection

All harness and equipment should be on some kind of inspection and maintenance schedule. It is important to look for signs of wear. You should also be vigilant in inspecting the harness and equipment while you are in the act of harnessing and hitching. Achieving a proper fit of bit, bridle, collar and harness is essential to attaining efficient and sustained work from your horses. The horses can’t speak to us in our own language to tell us what level of comfort (or discomfort) they are experiencing as a result of the way in which we have fitted them to harness. But if we follow some general guidelines and observe our horses closely at work, we can learn to understand their body language and begin to fine-tune our harnessing to make sure each horse has a custom fit that will allow her to express her very best effort while at work.

As long as the fit is right, you can exchange collars from horse to horse, but it is best to let each horse have her own. Over time, the collar will assume the shape of the horse that wears it. Cloth collar pads can be used to a certain extent to adjust the fit, in particular if the horse loses or gains weight with the change of seasons. Horses that are idle over the winter may gain weight. In this case, you may need one collar for spring work and another for when the horse gets back in shape with daily work. We take pains to manage the horse’s weight year round so that it does not fluctuate much at all. This is better for their health and simplifies collar and harness fitting.

Leather harness needs to be on a regular schedule of cleaning and oiling. Any strap or piece that appears dry or cracked should be replaced. You can test a strap by holding it in both hands and turning and twisting to test for excessive wear and tear or dry rot. With harness made of synthetic materials dry rot is not an issue. Leather harness has passionate advocates for many good reasons but synthetic harness is definitely low-maintenance by comparison. However, many harness sets made out of synthetic materials include some leather components (usually at the points of greatest contact such as on the inside of the breeching), and these parts do require cleaning and oiling to keep them supple.

Equipment Maintenance

Generally, you want to maintain horse-drawn equipment the same way you would any machinery used in the woods or on the farm. If you have a farm shop, winter is a great time to bring equipment in, give it the once over, and make necessary repairs. Equipment that has a lot of moving parts, like a cultivator or mowing machine should be greased and oiled regularly throughout the growing season. It will work smoother, be less prone to breakage and be easier for the horses to pull. The same is true for farm equipment that has shanks, teeth, plow shares, etc. If the parts designed to move through the soil are kept sharpened or regularly replaced, they will work with less resistance and lighten the draft for your working animals.

Horse-drawn equipment that has a wooden tongue should be on a replacement schedule. Even if the wood appears sound, it may be vulnerable to dry rot over time. Other safety considerations with horse drawn machinery pertain to hitch points. Bolts, hitch pins, etc., that hold components together such as eveners and yokes should be checked regularly for wear. Even a really solid team of horses may get rattled if a doubletree suddenly snaps loose and slams into their fetlocks.

percherons hauling timber
Fjord Horses in plowing condition at Cedar Mountain Farm. Photo by Jenna Rice

Final Thoughts

As I grow older I realize that every farmer is given a set number of harvests. I hope these few suggestions will help you cover the bases as you prepare your work animals for another growing season on the homestead or farm. May everybody have a safe and productive year. May we make the most of each day we are given, cherishing the strength and intelligence of good horses. rh house logo


Stephen Leslie, along with his wife, Kerry Gawalt, and daughter, Maeve, manages Cedar Mountain Farm; a Fjord Horse-powered CSA market garden and Jersey cow dairy, located at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, Vt. Stephen is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, both from Chelsea Green Publishing and available on our online bookstore.

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    This file last modified: March 27 2017.

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