Discing in the Fall - Another shot of horses' rears...

Discing in the Fall – Another shot of horses’ rears…

We use draft horses here at Salt of the Earth, for both field work and forestry.  We do so because it is a joy and pleasure, they fit in well with our scale, and they make sense economically.

Currently, we keep a pair of Percherons out on the farm: Molly and Glad(iator). They’re easy, willing, if not somewhat inexperienced. They still need another fifty hitches before I think we can really call them a “team”.  Oh, and they’re big.  Really big.

Glad and Molly, their first day at Salt of the Earth

Glad and Molly, their first day at Salt of the Earth

Glad is a six year old registered Percheron: we have the papers to prove it.  He is also a gelding, which is to say, his testicles left him a long time ago (and makes his registration rather pointless).  With a name like Gladiator, I believe it was hoped that he would end up as a super stud (literally), and go on to be a prolific stallion.  But, the reality of Glad’s disposition is that, well, he’s a little dense.  He’s friendly, to a fault, docile, sometimes to the degree of laziness, and all in all, acts more like a big old dog than a work horse.  Which is why, I believe, they castrated him.  Oh well.  He’s easy to get along with, and is generally a steadying influence on his teamate…

Molly.  Molly is a mare, which is a to say female.  And as is so often the case in male-female partnerships, she is decidedly the brains of the operation.  Where Glad is the end of his line, Molly, being ten, still has the better part of a decade left of breeding in her.  And she is the sort of horse that the small farmers of this world need more of.  She is smart, willing, and very alert.  She is the type of horse that can be tricky to get a hand on out on pasture, but once’s she tied and has the harness on, she is 100% steady and obedient.  Such is her intelligence.   I wish I knew of a draft stud in the neighbourhood…

I learned (this is Charles writing) to use Draft Horses out in Nova Scotia, where there is a small religion still surrounding the beasts.  I did not receive a terrible amount of instruction from any humans, but rather, got myself a horse and teacher in one, from right around the corner.  Her name was Dixie: a cross between a Newfie Pony and a Percheron.  She was raised by a father/son team, who are horse whisperers in the most rugged, backwoods sense.  She’d done nigh ought everything a horse can do by the time she was sold to me: barrel racing, ploughing, competitive pulling, and ‘twitching’ wood in the forest.

Dixie teaching Joel Huntley to plough at the first NFG

Dixie teaching Joel Huntley to plough Glenmont Loam up on the North Mountain at the first New Farmer’s Gathering.

She was wickedly smart, had no patience for foolishness, and could walk straight as a laser.  Over time, I got with the program; it took several runaways, when she would always return directly to my neighbour’s barnyard from whence she came. “We shoulda brought Dixie over blindfolded!” they joked with me.  But in a couple years, Dixie and I were in sync, and I could not have had a more advantageous start in horse farming.

When I later moved on up to a real farmy farm farm down in the Valley, to go with nice little Dixie, I got a pair of big Belgians: Dan and Kailee.  Same as the team I got now: a dumb gelding and a sharp mare.  They showed me the differences in how horses act, based on how they’re raised, and the fact that there aren’t too many like Dixie out there.

Discing some early Woodville Sandy Loam in the Annapolis Valley

Discing winterkilled oats on a knoll of early Woodville Sandy Loam in the Annapolis Valley

So, I have to admit, Dixie gave me a little thing for the greys… Probably the main reason I picked up Molly and Glad.  That, and the price.  And, of course, you get what you pay for.  So, we will see how straight my rows are next year…  And after all, a team is only as good as the dude on the end of the reins; while I may be enthusiastic about draft horses, I am far from expert.  Always easiest to get them started on gear like a chain harrow, where the straightness of the path is of no relevance…

Chain harrowing some VERY rough ground the day before garlic planting started.

Chain harrowing some VERY rough ground the day before garlic planting started.

As much as we enjoy, and believe in using drafts, we are also not religious about it, and when the circumstances necessitate it, have no qualms with hiring or borrowing a neighbour’s piece of gear to get some work done in a hurry.  To get started on such short notice, we got big help from Joe Oomen, Charles Forman, Ted Kirkby, as well as Mike and Christa over at Farewell Farm this fall, to have the fields chisel ploughed, 40 tons of compost hauled and applied, our pond dredged, not to mention some bush hogging and rototilling as well.  Thanks, guys!

So, as great as horses are, they are also many things they can’t do.  They are good at pulling things overland, and draggin pointy stuff through the ground.  They lack, however, power take off (PTO), that magical spindle on the back of a tractor that powers everything from sprayers, to balers, to grain grinders, snow blowers and shit spreaders.  They also lack hydraulics.  The compressed oil in hydraulics power those big buckets on the front of tractors, that make handling things like gravel, manure, and round bales very convenient.  Hydraulics also lifts heavy tillage gear up off the ground, and drives handy stuff like wood splitters.

And so, in the long run, if we are going to have this wonderful, mixed farm I am dreaming of, we are going to need a tractor.  Use the horses for the stuff horses are good at.  Tractor for the stuff it’s good at.   I will resume this distinction in another post…