A Bi-Monthly Magazine
Borrowing From Yesterday To Do the Work Of Today
Offering Resources to Promote Self-Sufficient & Back-to-the-Land Living
Things I like about shires: Their drive is a big thing for me. They are not dead heads. You must drive them. Their work ethic goes right along with their drive. They will work. They can walk a good pace and cover ground to get work done.
A good Roman-nosed horse will have plenty of smarts about them. They will learn quickly and retain their knowledge. There used to be a saying around here: “If you want some fire get a Shire.” That fire and determination are what makes a great Shire horse, no matter the actual size of horse.
I can take my Shires and work the ground, mow hay, go to a show and then enter the pulling competition with one team for all of it. They will work their hardest for you at everything you ask them.
Bridger Valley, Wyoming
This winter I'm feeding 245 mother cows. Some of them belong to my brothers, but I run the place for them while they teach school. We sell the calves in the fall to highest bidder. Usually they wind up in Japan — Known Source Program. I also have an AI (Artificial Insemination) program and sell some breeding stock. I break horses in winter as an extra income as well. I have 14 horses and mules. Most of them wear harness for a living. I was raised with horses. We fed cattle with a team and used them for other chores. Also on a scatter rake in hay fields when putting up loose hay. I have taken it a few steps further, though.
I have to admit I thought of Clydesdale (and Shire) horses as hitch animals for the show ring. The notion was stuck in my mind that they were not much but fluffy feather and a lot of wasted motion in their gates. Serious work was to be done with the more common Belgian or Percheron horses. They also had the reputation, in my mind at least, of being somewhat flighty critters to boot. To be fair to myself, this was all based on working one mare that belonged to my dad as a young lad. We did not get along.
Fast forward a few decades and I found myself working some horses with Clydesdale blood flowing through their veins. I just happened on to the first pair through a friend, and it wasn’t long before I owned them. I was surprised to find how much these horses pleased me and not just in looks. Good, honest, using type horses. Not long after the first pair, came another. These were purebred black Clydesdale horses. I have put them through the whole routine on the ranch. Everything from feeding cattle to haying, and don’t find them lacking at all. While feeding cattle isn’t always the hardest job, it is steady work for months on end. They have held up to that kind of work, no problem.
We have been most pleasantly surprised when we put them on the haying equipment. Mowing and raking hay in the heat of summer is hard, sweaty work. I put up enough hay to feed 185 cows, plus some yearlings, and the horse herd. We’ll cover from 260-320 acres of ground, depending on the year.
In doing so, we will work four to five teams of horses and mules. The Clydesdale horses have been right there alongside the Percherons and mules, doing their share of the work. In fact, I see some positives for the breed in this kind of work. They seem to have a good, long stride. A horse slightly lighter muscled and with more freedom of movement is a good fit for moderate loads of a long duration, as in mowing and raking hay. Right up the alley for the Clydesdale horse.
In the end, I have to say that the Clydesdale horse has proven itself as a breed, to me, as a legitimate horse for ranch work. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone that’s interested in working horses. Clydesdales are not just for looking at.
The Belgian horse is currently the most popular breed of draft horse in North America. The American Belgian was first developed in the Upper Midwest in the late 19th century by crossing valued farm horses with imports of the Flemish, Brabant, and Ardennes breeds. These European ancestors of the modern American Belgian draft horse are shorter and stockier, with more feathering on the legs. Their calm temperament, hardiness and strength made them ideal work partners for every kind of farm work. The American Belgians were consistently selected to produce a sorrel type with flaxen mane and tail, along with a white stripe and socks. These horses tend to have more height and refinement than their European forbears and soon gained renown among stockmen for their stout body mass and immense pulling strength. Many contemporary horse-powered market gardeners employ Belgian horses (the ones bred for work, not for the show ring), finding that their relatively compact mass and somewhat smaller hooves in comparison to the Shire or Clydesdale make for a horse of great pulling power but with sufficient agility to perform well in more confined spaces.
Bred for the furrow — the Suffolk Punch of East Anglia bears the distinction of being the only member of the heavy draft breeds that was developed exclusively as a farm horse. These sorrel horses tend to be a little shorter than the other drafts, with thick necks, stout limbs, short backs, and a lower center of gravity. Pound for pound they are reputed to be the most powerful and efficient of the draft horse breeds. Their low center of gravity makes it easier to establish the ideal line of draft. By the mid-20th century the demise of horse-powered agriculture caused the Suffolk’s ranks to fall to perilously low numbers. With the resurgence of interest in farming with horses over the last few decades, the Suffolk has begun to enjoy a modest comeback. This mighty titan of the draft horse breeds makes an excellent breed of choice for the small to midscale market garden.
In the following report, we will hear from a woodsman and farmer who has devoted his life to promoting good land stewardship practices in partnership with draft animal power. Jason Rutledge not only practices what he preaches, through an established apprenticeship network, he has also trained many novice teamsters to work competently and sustainably in the forest with horses. Jason is the owner of the Environmentally Sensitive Logging Company and is a founding member of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation and Draftwood Forest Products initiative.
Ridgewind Farm, Cooper Hill, Virginia
The Suffolk Punch is the rarest of the major draft breeds. They also have the oldest registry and breeding records in the draft horses of the western world. They're second oldest worldwide, of all breeds, to the Thoroughbred, which is only a few years older than the Original Suffolk Stud book in England. This breed was developed by farmers of the East Anglia, Suffolk County, England region, in what amounts to be the plains of the country. They were the primary power source for hundreds of years. The original studbook traces all of the horses as starting from a Chestnut Stallion called Crisp's Horse of Ufford, England. They were expressly developed for farm work by the same farmers that developed Suffolk Sheep and Red Poll cattle as foundation breeds of useful livestock. The Suffolk was a third member in the "Trident of Agriculture" that came out of that area and era.
Historically, there were 30,000 Suffolk horses farming in the fields of the most productive land in the British Isles. Today, there are around 300 in the entire homeland country. Keeping, breeding and showing the Suffolk horse is subsidized in the U.K. to preserve rare breeds. There are at least twice (some say three times) that number of registered Suffolk horses in North America today. Due to the purity of the breed, they have remained very true to type. They always breed true to color as chestnut of various shades. The English spelling leaves out the "t" in chesnut. The name Punch is an English colloquialism for "round all over."
This breed has many unique characteristics. The most powerful is their temperament and disposition. They are extremely willing to please and the epitome of tractable and easy to train. Their conformation is built for work in heavy clay soils. The Suffolk cannon bone is generally shorter in front and rear than most modern draft breeds. This makes for a longer forearm and a more flat shoulder and collar seat. The low set knee makes the horses efficient in movement by not having any extra action than that necessary to walk in a furrow or, in my case, over forest debris. They tend to be based narrow and low withered as a criticism, but that translates into a deep body with a big heart, lungs and muscular development to fill the frame. The body is well sprung with rib cages that are flat and broad proportionately. They are famed as truly easy keepers and hard workers. They often are the smallest of the draft breeds averaging around 16 hands high and 1,600 pounds fit. There are several bloodlines available in North America that produce somewhat larger Suffolk horses being over 17 hands high and a ton fit. Most of the English horses are larger than the American Suffolk Punch.
I have been raising and actually working this breed longer than anyone I know in the country — for more than 30 years. Before that, I worked all the other major breeds. This is the hardest pulling, longest working, easiest horse to get along with. When folks ask me why I chose Suffolk, I tell them it is laziness. If one decides to do the hard work of working horses — why not at least have the easiest horse to work with? These horses are loyal, kind and responsive. They have that sought after characteristic of "heart." They will try over and over on heavy loads or light, just for the asking in the language of a horseman.
We currently have a 5-year-old imported English Stallion named Eyke Sovereign 3396-S ASHA ES 9035. We keep two teams for our logging business and some farm work. We usually breed around a dozen mares a year in the community and have some horses in various levels of training as time allows. Most of the horses move along quickly to "on-the-job" training and soon become contributors when given a chance.
I am a fan of all draft breeds. They are all more alike than different, yet each one an individual. I just happened to fall in love with the Suffolk Punch early on.
Other draft breeds of note are the American Cream Draft Horse, the North American Spotted Draft Horse, and the Canadian Horse. These are the only three breeds of draft horses that are indigenous to North America (though it could be argued that the American Belgian also belongs in this category). Like the Suffolk, the Cream and the Canadian almost perished with the demise of horse-powered agriculture in the mid-20th century, but through the efforts of breed conservancies they have been brought back from the brink. The Spotted Draft traces its heritage back to the Indian ponies of the Nez Perce. It is a relative newcomer that is highly favored in the show ring, parades, and for commercial transport, on account of its extraordinary appearance.
Many contemporary horse-powered market gardeners find that draft horses crossed to saddle horses can result in excellent working stock. The Standardbred trotter is commonly employed by plain families as a buggy horse. When crossed with any of the major draft breeds they produce progeny with strength, size, and endurance that can make them valuable assets for a horse-powered market garden — as long as one is an experienced horseman — as they can be a little more high-strung than the average draft horse. And too, horses that are not from purebred stock are often more affordable. For the horse-powered market gardener of today the only compelling reason to purchase purebred registered horses is if the farm business will also be involved with raising registered foals for sale. Otherwise, good conformation and temperament are all that are truly important. The sale of registered stock can be a moderately lucrative income stream, but it is a business in and of itself and will require significant inputs of time and infrastructure to breed, raise, train, and market young horses.
Education Director of Doc Hammill Horsemanship, Eureka, Montana
Initially, I chose to purchase Norwegian Fjord Horses because my research told me that they would be versatile animals. I wanted horses that could do harness and pulling work around my small place and that would also work for pleasure driving and as saddle horses as well. The Norwegian Fjord Horse is found in a variety of sizes, typically ranging in height from 13.1 hands high to 14.3 hands high, and 900 to 1,200 pounds, with individuals off the scale at either end. Fjord horse conformation ranges from the lighter type sought for saddle, carriage, competitive and show driving, to the heavier draft type often desired for farm, ranch, and logging work. There is also a range of temperaments displayed within the breed; a generally higher-energy type Fjord ranging to a generally lowerenergy type Fjord. I have owned Fjord horses for more than 10 years; my initial studies about the breed led me to choose individuals that suited me, heavier boned and muscled with calm demeanors. I have become very fond of horses of this breed over time and have sought out information about Fjord horses as well as interaction with many individual Fjords horses and their owners for several years now.
Doc and I live on a ranch in northwestern Montana, where we and our horse partners do ranch work that includes mowing, raking, plowing, discing, harrowing, and other tillage, log skidding, buggy, cart, and wagon work. We also use sleds and, in snowy winters, use equipment that is on runners. We work horses as singles and in teams of two or more. Sometimes we take the time to ride our horses. We own and use 10 horses. My original two Fjords still live and work with us, and we have since added three Norwegian Fjord horses.
We earn part of our livelihood holding workshops that teach people to drive and work horses in harness in a comfortable and safe environment. Being instructors in our workshops is the most important work our horses do! While we never have students in our workshops work alone, we must be reasonably certain that horses we use in our educational workshops are safe and dependable in many different situations. We like to work with horses that have quiet temperaments. Many Fjords have the drafty conformation we want, heavy bone, heavy muscle and they also have quiet temperaments that work so well with farming, ranching, and logging/woods activities and especially with students who are sometimes new to horses and are certainly learning new activities with horses.
What do I like about Fjord Horses, and why do we partner with them for our ranch work and educational activities? I like everything about them: their strength, their robust health, their determination, their good feet, the way they look, their manes and primitive markings, their energy efficiency, and their personalities. We have come to realize that there are many good reasons to have smaller equines (and often single horses) to do the work on a small scale farm. Smaller equines are more economical to feed (we have calculated that the largest Fjord eats about 60 percent of what our largest Suffolk Punch horse eats, remembering that Suffolks and Fjords are generally both easy keepers). The Fjord's smaller stature may be a positive factor for many: there is economy in providing living space, food, farrier work, and grooming for smaller rather than larger horses. Harness does not cost much less for a smaller horse than it does for a larger horse, however, a smaller equine's harness weighs less than the larger animal’s, and this fact can be a consideration for the teamster. Above all else, I like our Fjord’s calm temperaments. The Fjord horses we own and many others we have come to know through our work have a willingness to learn, to learn new jobs and to learn them in new ways; they are smart and very tractable. They have a willingness to accept me as the trusted leader while they are learning and working at their jobs. They are calm; they have patience and tolerance for what may be encountered in their work of the day. For our horses that might mean that they will be driven by as many as seven sets of hands and listen to seven voices giving commands in one day, and still they keep their wits about them. This work takes exceptional calmness and tolerance, and only specific individual horses, from any breed, are well suited for it.
Here on the ranch, we have 10 equines; four Suffolk Punch Draft Horses, five Norwegian Fjord Horses, and one Welsh Pony. There is a range in personalities and temperaments within our herd. They are each suited better for some jobs over others. This is not breed specific, rather personality and temperament specific. A person looking to acquire a horse would do well to select a horse based on the desired qualities they want in an individual, regardless of the breed they are considering. As in most breeds, including draft breeds, humans have created, through selective breeding, within the Fjord breed a continuum of individuals from lighter bodied, lighter boned, generally higher energy type Fjords through to heavier bodied and heavier boned, generally lower energy type of Fjords. All types are loved and appreciated by their respective owners; all have different jobs that they are suited for.
The Haflinger is another noteworthy draft pony breed that is enjoying a modest degree of popularity on small horse-powered farms. Comparable in size and conformation to the Fjord, the Haflinger was developed in the late 19th century by crossing a native Austrian mountain pony with an Arabian stallion. The breed combines the rugged qualities of the mountain horse accustomed to the harness with the dash and endurance of the Arabian. The traditional Haflinger is an animal of stout conformation but has a refined head, often with the dished profile that reveals its Arab heritage. Because of their popularity in the show ring some breeders of Haflingers in North America have favored a lighter and leggier progeny. As a result, we can see in this breed a growing distinction between a more traditional “draft” type and a modern “show” type. There are approximately 18,000 registered Haflingers in North America, which means in practical terms that they are more widely available and usually more affordable than the Norwegian Fjord; there are approximately 6,000 Fjords in North America, and this relative scarcity is often reflected in a higher asking price.
For my wife, Paulette, and I, the decision to use Haflingers on our farm was a deliberate one, one that was made based on the horse’s efficiency and our ability to care for them efficiently. Being a smaller farm, around 60 acres, we had a hard time justifying a larger team for multiple reasons. We primarily use our horses to harvest hay and Haflingers on the mowing machine. firewood, with sporadic tasks like plowing the garden, grading the road and brush hogging fields. To make a profit on a small New England farm one must be “tight like a Yankee;” there is no room for inefficiencies. We have found the Haflinger breed to not only be thrifty but hardy and hard-working; they have proven to be the perfect contributor to our farm. The Haflinger has a reputation for good feet and for our purposes, we can keep them barefoot — which saves a bundle not having to get them shod. We can use standard work horse-sized equipment which, when purchased used, can be had at an affordable cost.
On our farm, we focus on raising market lambs; the size of the flock we can produce is directly related to the acres of forage we can provide, so grass is at a premium. Haflingers are cited as economical eaters. We have found that to be very true. At one point, we were feeding my wife’s old warmblood broodmare more than we were feeding two of our working Haffies. This past winter, we had been working three in the woods and feeding the entire group with two fair-quality small square bales a day. Each gets a handful of high-mineral grain daily but that is just because the hay I have been feeding is pretty coarse. During the growing season, they are given pasture for no more than a couple hours twice a day. Because their genetics originated from ponies, they do really well on feed that would most likely starve other horses. One of the largest problems I have is finding poor quality forage for them; high quality forage tends to be harder on their digestive system. I would never try it, but I bet one could let them run loose in the forest, and they could make it through a hard Maine winter.
Their hardiness traits pass through to their work ethic as well. I typically work two at a time, but a good-size single can do a respectable job twitching logs in the winter. A team of two can use any implement a “full size” team can, however, the duration tends to be shorter. Because they are a smaller animal we like the larger size geldings, with the ideal size being about 15 hands high and 1,200 pounds. I have heard on multiple occasions that those who work Haflingers alot (read Amish) have found working three-abreast can do the work of a fullsized team but for less feed. I don’t have much work requiring that kind of power, but I am not one to be contented with things being the way they are, so I am sure I will have a chance to test this idea. Perhaps I will use a longer bar on the mower or longer log behind the arch. If I am feeding three, it doesn’t cost me anything to increase my efficiency
Rounding out the list of efficiencies is “horse size.” Equipment like trailers and harness is cheaper; an old bumper tow horse trailer is really cheap. While I run our guys barefoot and trim their feet myself, a farrier visit is less expensive than for a full-sized draft. A smaller runin shed is more than enough shelter for them. We don’t even own blankets for them.
The Haflingers we keep on our farm have proven to be excellent contributors. Their good work ethic and easy-keep will most likely keep them here for some time. It is nice to be able to come back home after mowing or logging all day and have little more than removing harness to keep you from dinner. They certainly do fit into our small farm very well.
The mule has a long and storied role in the history of North American agriculture. George Washington was the first Southern planter to employ mules in this country after he was presented with a gift pair of Catalan donkeys by the King of Spain. Harry Truman was also a proponent of the mule, having been raised on a Missouri farm where his father bred mules for sale as part of the family income. The mule swiftly became the preferred plow animal in the South. They were highly valued for their ability to withstand flies and heat and to thrive on rough forage. The mule was also favored as a wagon train and pack animal by the U.S. Army and the prospectors and settlers of the American West. Mule aficionados will tell you that this animal is a highly intelligent, versatile and personable working companion. They claim that mules show more patience, are surer-footed, hardier and longer-lived than horses, and they are considerably less obstinate, fastergaited, and brighter than donkeys. Today, many Plain farmers, particularly in Southeast Pennsylvania, prefer mules bred out of Mammoth Jack donkeys crossed to Belgian dams over horses and regularly employ hitches with six to eight draft mules.
Among the best, and certainly the noblest, teacher I have yet had in my horse-driving career was an old gangly brown molly mule named Becky. During the year that I spent on a North Idaho ranch that old Becky mule taught me more about driving than any other person or equine since. When she was treated with kindness and respect, she was a sensible and compliant animal. Despite my lack of driving experience, she never once tried to kick me or threaten me in any way. She was forgiving of mistakes, tolerant of indecision, and willing to patiently stop and stand if she sensed danger in a situation until I figured out how to make it right.
Eco-Justice Center, Racine, Wisconsin
I am a beginning draft animal farmer. I've been able to use my team of miniature donkeys to disc, harrow, and cultivate in my 1/2-acre food plot over the past two years. So far, I only trust my mustang mare enough to pull a tire around the arena, but the donkeys have been very reliable and safe. I sure love those little guys! I first built them a forecart, but I think it wastes a lot of their effort so I don't do much with it. They have a tandem disc I built out of a 30-inch Brinley garden-tractor disc and they do great with it. They also do well with a 3-foot spring tooth section. Either one of my donkeys can pull a walk-behind cultivator, but I keep the teeth very sharp to reduce the draft as much as possible. I suspect that a pair of standard donkeys (not minis, not mammoths) would be almost ideal for cultivating in a market garden. They would have plenty of power for everything except plowing sod, and the speed they walk at would be real good for cultivating. I taught single-row cultivating to my guys in about 20 minutes, all alone. I just drove them up and down a row a few times, hooked up the cultivator, and went to work. We also got a riding cultivator last year, and that worked well, too. Standard donkeys weigh about 500-600 pounds, eat little, live forever, and they are a dime a dozen from the Bureau of Land Management. Also, donkeys remember things and don't seem to need a lot of off-season work to be ready in the spring. Good for farmers who don't have a lot of equine experience. Safer, too. If I ever get a bigger place I will get a pair of BLM donkeys and try to prove this!
We have completed our introductory survey to the major breeds of draft horses. In the third and final installment of this series we will lend an ear at the teamster round table, where the discussion is focused on the best qualities to look for in a draft horse that works in the market garden.
More Articles in this series:
Part 1 History of the Horse takes a glance at the history of the equine species and the cultural forces that shaped the modern draft horse.
Part 3 Best Horse for the Market Garden joins in with several skilled horse farmers for a “teamster roundtable” concerning what qualities make for the best work horse in the market garden.