Market Gardening

Work Horses in a Market Garden: Part 3
The Best Horse for the Market Garden

draft horse team laying mulch
A steady team of horses demonstrating the E-Z Trail mulch layer at HPD 2014. Photo by Stephen Leslie
by Steven Leslie
In the second installment of this three part series we completed our introductory survey of the major breeds of draft horses. Now it is time to hear from the teamster round table, where the discussion is focused on the best qualities to look for in a horse that works in the market garden.

Teamster Roundtable

The Best Horse for the Market Garden

Our first teamster in this discussion is Erika Marczak, who along with her partner, legendary plowman, Sam Rich, operates a working farm in Connecticut where they do a lot of their work with six Percherons and a team of working steers (not quite old enough to call oxen yet). They use their animals to hay, log, produce maple syrup, grow vegetables, and pretty much anything else that comes up on the farmstead.


Erika Marczak
Rabington Grown, Abington, Conn.

Percheron plowing
Sam Rich plows with two of the Percherons at Abington Grown farm. Photo by Erika Marczak.
I am not convinced that there is a best breed or type. There are good qualities to instill in a garden team. The ability to follow the teamster’s directions is important, but I also like a horse to have a little autopilot capacity, in other words, horses that you can keep loose line contact with while they follow the rows without wandering and stepping on crops. Maintaining a consistent speed when working is a good thing to practice, as is stopping and standing patiently while a teamster works on equipment. I like a handy team that will take a step in any direction when asked and doesn't hesitate to walk ahead when asked. There is so much involved in choosing the right animal to suit your farm, but the result really comes down to the teamster’s personality and how one goes about shaping a good animal for the market garden.

Next we hear from Klaus Karbaumer, who along with his wife, Lee Ann, manages 17 acres in Missouri using only draft horse power and lots of human ingenuity. Klaus brings more than  50 years of experience with draft horses to the table.

Klaus Karbaumer
Karbaumer Farm, Kansas City, Mo.

Percherons plowing
Klaus Karbaumer is pictured here tilling potatoes with a team of Percherons but has used a wide variety of horses over the years. Photo by Sarah Bryant.
What I am looking for is a quiet, cooperative horse which is willing to follow commands and is physically able to do what is requested. Depending on the soil type and the size of equipment used, that can be any breed and almost any size. For cultivation purposes, the horse's width of stride has to fit into the rows or the row width has to be adjusted. Many of today's high-strung show type draft horses do not fit that description, but then there are always exceptions. I do not think a single breed can be preferred or declined over others if the individual horse meets the demand. I have worked with Norikers, Haflingers, Kladrubers, Belgians, Percherons, Bavarian Warmbloods and even with a Shetland pony. The remarks above reflect my experience with all these horses.
The next teamster at the table humbly describes himself as “just a homesteader,” but his long years of devotion to the small farming craft are reflected in his pithy observations.

Mark Gillenwater
Providence Farm, Renick, W.V.

Suffolk team
Mark Gillenwater's team includes a 18-year-old Suffolk stallion that he also uses as a single when planting potatoes or cultivating row crops. Photo by Mark Gillenwater.
Just as a riding horse has gaits, a garden horse needs gears. In the spring when it is time to turn the soil, my team likes to walk somewhat fast at first, hitched to the Vulcan 13 or Oliver 40 walking turning plow, but soon they settle in. It may be okay to walk fast to the patch but when cultivating tender crops, a steady, slow walk is desired. I use a single horse to make my rows for dropping in potatoes and to cultivate my crops on our small farm. The single horse I use from my team is a Suffolk gelding going on 18 years.

Next up is a teamster who gives us a window into the draft horse farming scene in Europe, where a small but determined contingent of modern-day farmers continue to innovate with appropriate scale technology for a better tomorrow.

Jeroen Vos,
Jardin de l’Espérande, Gardes-Le Pontaroux, Charente, France

This is a discussion which always makes me smile. It is the analysis and the stories behind the choices which I find most interesting. In my case, I owned a breed (Brabançons) and started my market garden after moving to France. A team of 2,000-pound mares in the tiniest of market gardens may look a bit silly when starting, but I soon found out they can do anything if you can do it. Mine are not a matched team, one is speedy and pulls the cultivator like a big tree, so we take the other one for the delicate weeding of young plants. She walks slowly and, more importantly, puts her front feet down in a way that she does not throw up too much dirt on the young plants. Mrs. speedy gets her share of work on the forecart hauling manure to the garden and produce back. We use them as a team for plowing, and, after a while, they go well together. In winter they both go logging, where the added power is handy. Next year I hope to be working in the vineyards too, which will be interesting regarding their differences.

Brabant cultivating garden
Jeroon Vos owns an unmatched team which, when split as singles, provides versatility for a variety of tasks. Here, a Brabant clutivates. Photo courtesy of Jeroen Vos.
Our next teamster brings to the table a lot of experience working with both horses and mules of various shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Donn Hewes puts up a lot of square bales with his draft animals. Hay making is a farm task that requires a lot of long, repetitive hours of driving, giving the teamster ample opportunity to connect with and understand his animals very thoroughly.

Don Hewes
Northland Sheep Dairy, Marathon, N.Y.

I am not a professional market garden person myself (primarily a grass and hay farmer), but we are doing a little cultivating each year. Obviously, if I am only going to cultivate for one or two days a year, and I will be looking between my legs trying to figure out which pedal is which, I will want my quietest slowest horse. But fast-forward a couple years to when we have increased the acreage – as well as our skills as teamsters and skills with the cultivating tool. It is hot, and there are still two acres to go; in that situation you will want a horse with a little more eagerness.

I don’t think size is the key, although I suppose  someone could make a case for a certain size horse matching a certain size operation. Finally, I think good cultivating horses will come from careful study of the animal and task, and dedicated leadership to show them what we want.

four abreast combining
Donn Hewes uses four abreast to combine grain on his New York Farm. Photo courtesty of Donn Hewes.
The next teamster in line gives us a deceptively simple opening statement that holds volumes of experience underneath. Working with live horse power over a number of years can have a leveling effect on the teamster. Our human hubris tends to have us place ourselves at the top of the order over the rest of the animal kingdom. As has been said before in many times and places: to manage draft animals safely, the human must be the dominant partner in the equation. But to be the dominant partner is something quite distinct from being the unmitigated master. To be a partner suggests that our ears, eyes, hearts, minds, and hands are open to a continual two-way dialogue with our animals. To be successful, we must gain at least some insight into how horses “think.” Rather than simply imposing our will, we are constantly seeking to learn how to sensitively persuade our animals to behave in ways that achieve our desired ends while giving them the “option” to make good choices. With such an approach the emphasis is on rewarding “good” behavior rather than punishing the horse for what we deem to be incorrect. If our goal is an efficient and prosperous horse-powered farm, achieving that end with positive reinforcement is not only good for us and our farm customers, it’s also good for our horses.

Carl E. Lyndaker
Crystal Creek Ranch, Lowville, N.Y.

Horses are just like people: each one is different. They will do certain things better than others, and another horse will be just the opposite. Not that you can’t plow with a hitch horse or hitch with plow horse, but they will do one or the other a lot better. I know you can barrel race a draft and you can mow with a quarter horse, just not as good or efficient. It doesn’t have to be different breeds, just their temperament and actions can make a big difference. That being said, you can train just about any horse to do what you want, just maybe not as good or efficient as another horse.


Brian McGinness
Riverbound CSA, Mandan, N.D.

Speaking as relative beginner who has been market gardening full-time with horses for four years, my opinion is that the best horses for me were older, very settled, been-there-done-that horses that knew the ropes. Cultivating is obviously a touchy operation, and your hard work in the greenhouse, on the transplanter, etc., can easily be destroyed with a little drift out of line. It’s my favorite job with the horses, but that’s because my horses are steady, will go slow, and aren’t afraid. They’re not brain dead or anything, but they follow the leader. Mine happen to be Belgians, and I am trying out some smaller-footed mules this season, but the key for me getting started was work with 18-year-old horses who knew how to be driven.

For the final word, we have a teamster and blacksmith who brings the perspective of legacy to the table. By legacy I mean all the invaluable collected wisdom and mostly “oral history” that those old-timers who were raised in a world where working horses were a natural part of the everyday landscape have passed on to the current generation of teamsters.

Michael Wilson
Horse logger and blacksmith, Bluemont, Va.

Forty years or more ago, a savvy old man (late 80s then), who had a feed and grain warehouse, and tack and harness store in New Milford, Conn., shared some information with me that I have never forgotten. Perry Green had lived through the peak and the nadir of draft horses in America. Even during the worst times, he always had good heavy harness for sale, one of the few who bothered.

At that time, 18 hands high horses were still considered very large. He said, "Michael, America was farmed, logged, and freighted with 1,200 to 1,400-pound horses." He thought that the quest for ever bigger horses was ridiculous, particularly for practical working and hobby  models. They were too expensive to keep, too hard to harness, and did not do enough more than smaller horses to justify their use. Today, although it is hard to find a 1,500-pound, 16 hands high or under Belgian or Percheron, one can find good Suffolks, Fjords, working type Haflingers, and crossbreds that will get the job done. And they are not worn out at the end of the day just from carrying their own big bodies around. If you have been led to believe that performance is commensurate with size, I'd suggest that you compare loads pulled at the pulling contests by lightweight teams compared to the open division horses.

Think twice about “big” horses, and consider the many attributes of the “big little” horse. Smaller work horses can make up for what they may lack in brute strength with stamina and hardiness. You may find that, in comparison to a great little team, a pair of bruisers may turn out to be too expensive to keep without getting any more production.

I believe a pretty clear consensus has emerged from our teamster roundtable:

the “Best” horse for the market garden is not a matter
of breed, nor size or conformation. It boils down
to temperament, tractability, and willingness and
leads to questions about a particular horse’s
character and the teamster’s personal chemistry
with that character.

As in many questions dealing with real life and living beings, there are simply no simple answers.  

We use our horses, we expect them to do the work for us, and we expect them to behave for us. However, in the course of our day-to-day commitment to running our farms with draft horse power, we also become fond of them. We can become quite attached to horses that have been with us for a long time, and, when they pass, they leave us with many great memories. I have heard of a theory that posits that all horse owners have a chance of finding a “lifetime horse.” Once in a lifetime, if we are very lucky, we find a certain special horse.  

When we work with a tractor to till our land, the powers and limits of that machine’s functions are pretty much a mechanical-given inherent to its design. Some equipment operators will be more skilled than others, but, when we sit down on that tractor seat and turn the key, we pretty much know what we can and can’t do with it. Not so with a horse or a team. If we are open to the adventure, throughout their working life our horses will continue to surprise us with how much they can develop and sharpen their abilities and skills, how they can master new skills, how they can help train in young horses and even help train novice teamsters. And, we may even say, how they are able to acquire their own equine brand of wisdom.  

Although I have been working draft horses most of my adult life, I struck gold early in my career. My “lifetime horse” is one that I have had since the first year I began driving horses more than 20 years ago. We brought this mare to the farm when she was a 4-month-old weanling, and she is still with us. She is honest, dependable, willing, not an overly demonstrative animal, even aloof at times, but always ready to do her best when the collar and bridle come out. We know what to expect from each other, and that simple fact, the result of years of working together, creates something very potent that just can’t happen with a tractor. You could say that I love this horse, but, more to the point, she has earned my respect.  

Farming with draft animals persisted in back waters of North America for several decades after World War II. Then the “back-to-the-land” movement of the 1960s and 70s stirred a renewed interest in the utility of animal traction on the small farm. Certain brewery companies have played an important role in keeping the tradition of the draft cart horse in the public eye, as have urban teamsters that drive their draft horses on public coaches and carriages and sleighs. The role of avid hobbyists, and all those who bring draft horses and oxen to shows, parades, pulling contests, plow matches and county fairs has also been a noteworthy factor in keeping the knowledge and skills of the teamster trade alive. And, of course, the tenacious persistence of Amish and Mennonite communities in farming with draft horses has been, and still remains, an absolutely crucial reservoir for preserving (and continuing to develop) the culture of the draft horse. In our times, concurrent with the rise of organic farming, there has been a small but steadily growing number of farmers who choose to go “beyond organic” by farming or ranching with horses, mules, or oxen.

As a species, our association with horses extends back across countless centuries. Our ancestors left traces of this fascination in pigmented contours brushed upon the cave walls of southern France some 30,000 years ago. Even in this age, where diesel-guzzling mechanical behemoths can get the work done so quickly, there is still something embedded in our DNA that compels some of us to want to entwine our lives and labors with these denizens of the wind. rh horse logo

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 2 Draft Horse Breeds takes a look at some of the most popular breeds of draft horses in use today on North American farms, with an eye towards the characteristics best suited to work in the market garden.

Stephen Leslie, along with his wife, Kerry Gawalt, manages Cedar Mountain Farm (; a 4-acre Fjord Horse-powered CSA and Jersey cow dairy, located at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, VT. Stephen is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm from Chelsea Green.
This article appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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