When I decided to learn to plow, I had a hard time finding out how or where to begin. I was fortunate to have many old horse farmers in my circle of friends, some of whom cut their teeth on plow handles. They know a lot about plowing and many other things, too. They were and still are an invaluable resource. I have asked these men questions and they have shown me things that parallel the answers to the universe. Well, at least my universe.
I learned to plow behind the barn, where not many could see. It was a good thing, too, because my first attempts were better left hidden. With persistence and good teaching I finally learned to plow [see Rite of Passage]. In later years, I competed in plowing contests against my former teachers. Many times I finished ahead of some of them, and once managed to come out on top of them all.
I would like to pass along some of what I have learned in the field, using a 12" Oliver 504 right-hand walking plow. I keep it always under cover with the moldboard and jointer lightly oiled or greased to protect it from rust. My plow has a steel beam with wooden handles. I bought it from one of my mentors. I believe he was as glad that I have it as I was to get it.
The first step to begin plowing with horses is to assess yourself, your team, and your equipment. Consider, too, the ground to be plowed. Assuming you already know how to harness, hitch, and drive, your skill as a plowman will come from one thing—time spent behind the plow, between the handles, and in the furrow.
The horses you use for plowing must be a quiet, well-behaved team. They must stop when told, turn when asked, and walk slowly while pulling steadily. Plowing is a process requiring the plow to slice through soil, roots, and vegetation while gently turning the soil sod-side down. Rocks must sometimes be dealt with, and other natural barriers negotiated.
Your horses need to lean into their collars a bit more when going through roots or tough sod, and when rolling out a tough stone. They should do it without balking, or worse, jumping into the harder pull. If your horses stop suddenly without being told, you may suffer a great charley horse when the stopped plow handle plunges into your forward traveling thigh. If your horses suddenly jump into a load, you will be jerked off your feet and up over the plow handles.
Hitch your horses to the plow. Step them ahead until the traces are tight, and stop them. Tie your lines in a knot. Slip the lines over your left shoulder, against your neck, and under your right arm. Wearing the lines in this manner will help keep you from being dragged if you get into trouble—just lean over and let the lines slip over your head. The team may run off, the plow handles might get broken, but you should be able to escape. Scary? You bet. Even quiet horses can get spooked if they plow through a nest of ground hornets. Be careful, stay calm, and use common sense.
You can adjust the distance from your shoulder to the bits by moving the knot in the end of your lines. Make sure the length is right—too loose and the horses will walk too fast; too tight and the horses will pull you forward, making it hard to walk behind the plow. Once you start plowing, you may have to adjust the length of the lines. I usually adjust mine a bit short in the beginning of the day when the horses are fresh and want to walk faster. All I have to do is lean back to slow them down. As the day wears on and the horses tire, I lengthen the lines a little to give them more comfort. Experiment with the length until you get it right.
Most likely you bought your plow at an auction or from some old farmer. The plow will have been sitting around and will be covered in rust. If you try to plow with it that way, dirt will stick. The plow will be hard to pull and guide, and won't do a good job of plowing. Scrub away the rust using a brick, wire wheel, or auto body grinder.
This first scouring will take long enough to try your patience, but it doesn't end there. The friction of dirt as you use the plow will continue to scour the share, jointer, and landslide to a fine shine, but if dirt sticks, the plow won't scour. You must therefore scrape off the dirt at the end of each row until it stops sticking. Use a wide putty knife, trowel, or other scraper you can easily carry in your pocket.
Eventually the share, jointer, and landslide will develop a mirror-like shine and dirt will slide off, enabling the plow to glide along slicing the earth into neat strips. The more you plow, the better the shine. The better the shine, the easier the plowing.
Once your plow is scoured, keep it well greased, oiled, or painted. The oil or grease may be wiped off before plowing, while the paint will wear off as you go. A plow may accumulate a small amount of surface rust just sitting in the field overnight. This minor rust will scour off as soon as you begin plowing. Deep rust from sitting between seasons, on the other hand, causes heartache. The best way to avoid this heartache is to not let rust accumulate in the first place. Coat your plow with grease, heavy oil, lard, or paint before storing it between seasons.
When I finish plowing for the day, I start the next furrow and leave my plow buried in the dirt about 3' from the headland. Leaving the largest part of the plowshare, jointer, and landslide covered with dirt helps keep out air and thus prohibits the formation of rust. This short term fix should be used only when you'll be plowing in the next day or two. If the weather turns bad or you won't start a new field for a couple of weeks, grease up the plow just as you would at the end of the season. The time you take to mess with grease will be a lot less than the time needed to scrub away rust.
The plow's handles need to be serviceable and free of cracks. Replace the handles if need be. The beam, if wooden, should be inspected the same as the handles.
Once you are satisfied that you, your horses, and your equipment are ready to plow, it's time to strike out. A good beginner's trial plot is a rectangle about 50' wide by 100' long. A piece this size is big enough that you won't spend all your time turning around, yet small enough to see timely results in your progress. A small garden-size plot is not good for a beginner, as the horses, eveners, plow, and plowman stretch out 17' to 20' feet, and that's a lot of equipment to get in and out of the backyard. Horses just starting out may get nervous by all the stopping, starting, and turning, and it's hard to keep the traces straight and the horse's feet between them with all that turning. After you've spent some time in the furrow, plowing a small plot will seem like child's play, but avoid it until you gain experience.
Before you take the horses out, lay out your 50' by 100' plot. Measure the 50' width and put a stake in the center at 25' from both ends of the field. Make sure your stakes are tall enough to see from either end. Paint the tops or tie a rag on—anything to make the stakes clearly visible. To make your first furrow, plow from one stake to the other. The horses need to walk straight without benefit of a furrow to guide them.
Start with the point of the plow right at the 25' stake on one end of the field. Pull the stake out and look to the stake on the other end. Keep the stake at the opposite end of the field in view by looking between your horses. Walk slowly (it is not a race), trying to aim the plow at the stake. Look down field, not at the plow, but at the stake.
Don't fight the plow. Raise the handles slightly to get the point to suck in or go deep; pushing down will cause the plow to come up out of the ground. To steer the plow to the right, raise the right handle; turn left by raising the left handle. Controlling your plow requires only a gentle touch, so don't jerk or wrestle with it.
Upon reaching the stake at the far end of the field, stop, tip the plow over to the right and let it ride on the plowshare and the right handle. Turn your horses around to the right. Make a big circle or pull the plow back out of the way as you turn. Stop the horses right alongside the upturned sod from your first furrow. Your near horse should walk next to the dirt about 3" away from it. Start your horses for the other end of the field. The strip you are now turning over should lay right next to or just slightly on the first strip. Congratulations, you just opened up your field, also called striking out.
Turn your team to the right every time you reach the end of the field. Put your near horse in the furrow, look up the furrow between the horses, raise both handles slightly, and start your team. The plow slicing through the earth will create the next furrow by laying the strip sod-side down against the preceding one. Walk in the furrow you are making, while your near horse walks in the furrow you are covering. Continue turning to the right until you reach the edge of your plot. You have just completed one land.
Plowing in this manner results in no land to finish or ditch (dead furrow) to make. A dead furrow occurs when two lands join together, and may be deliberately incorporated to drain water. As you gain experience you will learn to lay out your fields to have back furrows (the place where you strike out) and dead furrows spaced evenly across your fields. Once your fields are laid out, begin each year of plowing by creating a back furrow in last year's dead furrow. Begin by putting your near horse in the small ditch and plowing as when striking out.
In working the second land and always turning to the right, as before, you will come closer and closer to where you last finished. Keep plowing round after round until the green strip between the two lands is about a foot wide. Even though the plow is designed to plow 12" wide, don't try to take out this small strip in one pass. Split the strip. If it is wider in some spots than others, steer the plow to take a bigger bite out of the wide spots. After splitting the strip, let your horses rest a bit. Horses spend themselves a little pushing on each other while trying to stay in the close furrows.
Start your horses walking slowly, tip your plow a bit by raising the right handle, and remove the remaining strip. Take your time and stop your horses, as you need to. If the plow jumps out, stop the team, back them up while dragging the plow backward, and restart the job of finishing.
Your first back furrow and dead furrow may not be as straight or as clean as you would like them to be, but keep trying. You will soon learn to gauge your progress, steering the plow rather than fighting it.
As a beginning plowman, consider striking out on your next land after your horses have worked awhile. With the edge worked off they will walk slower and pay better attention. Keep in mind that this skill, like any other, becomes much easier with practice.
Plowing is an art form requiring skills, just as any other expression of art. It is relaxing and enjoyable, and comes at a time of year when weather and the changing seasons make the job a pleasure.