Draft Animal Equipment






History of Horse-Powered Farming in America

by Sam Moore
In colonial times a large percentage of Americans scratched out a living by tilling the soil. "Scratch" is an appropriate word to describe the efforts of these early farmers. A few had a single draft animal, often an ox, to pull a crude plow, but most did all their work with hand tools.

During the first half of the 19th century hundreds of inventors, many of them farmers weary of the grinding toil of subsistence farming, built and tinkered and experimented with machines they hoped would make their work easier. Some of these men, such as Jerome Case, Cyrus McCormick and John Deere, became wildly successful, founding huge farm equipment manufacturing concerns that are still in business today. Others died poor and forgotten, although many of their designs were later improved by others and ended up forming the basis for successful machines.

By 1900 sophisticated farm machines became available that embodied the principles of many of today's modern implements. They performed nearly all the tillage, cultivation, or harvesting operations on progressive farms of the day. In some areas steam traction engines were being used for threshing and plowing, but they were too large, heavy, and expensive for most farmers. The new implements were virtually all animal-powered. Even after the introduction of gas tractors, automobiles, and trucks during the first decade of the 20th century, the horse and mule population in the United States continued to grow until it reached an all-time high of 26.4 million animals in 1918.

Agricultural colleges, county agents, and tractor manufacturers spent the next 20 years urging farmers to buy tractors and get rid of their draft animals. Millions of farmers complied. By 1950 the use of horses and mules for farming had all but disappeared, except in a few localized areas.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s farm equipment manufacturers stopped building horse-drawn equipment, leaving horse farmers no choice but to make do by repairing and rebuilding old implements, along with adapting tractor machines for use behind horses. Eventually most of the remaining old implements wore out. At the same time sustainable and organic farmers began discovering that farming with horses does less damage to the land than farming with heavy machinery, and working with horses reduces the demand on fossil fuels. As years passed, patching together old worn-out implements became more and more difficult. The dire need for new implements, coupled with evolving farming practices, inspired a host of local entrepreneurs, most of whom are themselves horse farmers.

Modern farming methods called for new and better horse equipment. Just as the original American farm revolution of the 19th century was sparked by farmers who improved existing machines or built new equipment, present-day horse farmers have met the need for modern machinery by designing and building their own implements, or by having them custom built. Innovative ways have been devised to adapt modern, high-tech tractor implements for use behind horses and mules.

This growing demand, especially in areas of the country where horse farmers are concentrated, has resulted in the emergence of local manufacturers who develop and build modern horse-drawn machinery. Some of these companies have grown to the point where they now sell their products all over the United States and Canada, and even overseas. Horse Progress Days began in 1994 as a way for these manufacturers to showcase their equipment. The annual modern horse-powered farming trade show offers farmers the opportunity to see implements in use and to talk to the men who design and build them. rh horse logo

Author
Sam Moore's video and DVD tours of Horse Progress Days are available through mischka.com, publisher of Rural Heritage magazine.

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