Draft horses saw their heyday in the United States during the 19th century’s Agricultural and American Industrial Revolutions when draft horses pulled iron plows on farms and hauled materials for railroad workers. Today, draft horses offer an enjoyable and sustainable way to farm.
Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine will hold an Introduction to Draft Horse Driving and Logging-Beginner Course starting on Saturday, February 23. The Workshop is open to a maximum of six participants ages 18 and up. Cost is $450 for the entire course (four days 8:30 am.. – 4:00 p.m. plus a private lesson). For more information contact Eric Tadlock, Director of Education email@example.com (207) 865-4469 x106.
Participants will learn all aspects of managing a wood lot using draft horses, including working with the horses, and learning about all aspects of their care and management. Participants will explore the difficulties, limitations / advantages, and opportunities involved with draft horse logging, while they refine their equine sense and approach to horses. Care instruction will include, fitting horses for tack and harness (determining which tack is best for the animals you will be using), and proper feeds for the horses you’ll be working with.
All participants will learn ground driving with the horses (when horses are walking in front of you and you are controlling the lines), twitching with a single horse (when the horse is pulling a log) and become familiarized with much of the equipment which can be used in the woods with horses. Other topics covered in the four-class program include financial aspect of keeping horses; costs of shoeing, feed and other housing needs. Tree ID and chainsaw safety (including felling trees) will also be covered in this program.
Jonathan Sawyer, the course’s instructor, a horse logger, and longtime owner of draft horses paused from his work to share his knowledge of working with draft horses with The Root.
How and when did you choose to work with draft horses?
I have worked with draft animals (horses and oxen) for a good amount of my life. I choose to work with horses because I love this type of work for the historical factor and because it is fulfilling. It relaxes me and gives me the satisfaction to know that I am creating less of an impact on the ground and environment that I am working on instead of using machinery. Please don’t get me wrong because I am not against machinery there is a time and place for it. I feel that I build a bond between myself and my horses when we work and spend so much time together. My customers are also very pleased with how the horses impact the land and quality of job that they can do. I can get on a very small piece of land to larger tracts of land.
Who taught you how to work draft horses?
I have worked with many different individuals from around the country. They have come from the show horse hitches to the Amish to your backwoods farmer, and each one has taught many important techniques, ideas, and tools on how to work with horses. One of the biggest things that I have learned is to ask many questions and work with many different individuals that can show you different ways of handling horses. My advice is to never stop learning we never know everything.
How would you sum up your experience working with draft horses?
My experience with draft horses has and will be a lifelong journey, that has had its ups and downs but I would definitely do it over again in a minute. It is an amazing feeling to be driving a team of horses with so much power and will to work to do something you love and that the horses love.
What are things that could (and do) go wrong during a day of working with draft horses?
Most of the time nothing goes wrong because you are always in tune to your animals and paying attention to details that help make sure that all of you tack and equipment is all in good working order. This is very important in preventing a wreck so that something does not go wrong. You never know what is going to happen weather a horse spooks to an accident the teamster needs to know his or her animals and what can and can not go wrong so that you prevent injury to you animals, yourself, and anyone else. Everyday that I work with the horses I need to watch their behaviors and actions witch will clue me in so I will know if they are having a bad day and what I need to do to be proactive if there is a possibility of something going wrong.
Horse Care 101
Apprenticeships – A good mentor is essential in achieving a successful working relationship between a novice owner and his/her draft horse team. This person should be experienced with draft horses and sensitive to the trainee’s learning style and interests. In addition to hands-on experience with draft horses, the apprentice should learn about logging and farming with draft horses. Depending on the length of time required, this could be like an unpaid internship. Contact Jonathan Sawyer at firstname.lastname@example.org regarding his availability, advice on apprenticeships, and leads. Rural Heritage provides the Good Farming Apprenticeship Network (five locations in Maine are listed: Hebron, Livermore, Penobscot, Stow, and Mapleton).
Clinics – Sawyer recommends contacting John Brown in New York about private clinics. He said there are also listings of clinics online, but in those cases always ask for references and follow-up with those references.
Classes – Check with the Maine Organic Gardeners & Farmers Association (MOGFA). In the past they have held a Draft Horse Show at the MOGFA Common Ground Country Fair.
Sawyer also recommends Troika Drafts run by Vicki Schmidt and Frank Walker in Maine for driving instruction for single and multiple hitches.
Check out/join – Maine Farmers Draft Horse, Mule, and Pony Club
Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing for Equine Power Farm & Show by Gail Damerow & Alina Rice includes in-depth chapters on harnessing and housing. The book also includes an extensive Resources section with books, periodicals, DVDs, and a listing of breed associations. At $24.95 a solid investment if you are serious about draft horses!
Rural Heritage is a website and magazine dedicated to draft horse care, and a good resource for horse sales, vet reports, and events.
Small Farmer’s Journal – Sawyer likes Lynn Miller’s books . The site also has links to associations for different working horse breeds.
Purchasing your first team – Sawyer recommends an older team that has been worked a lot and knows what to do. He also suggests going with a single first. For beginners he likes Haflingers and Suffolk Punch. *Suffolk Punch draft horses are on the American Livestock Breed Conservancy’s critical list. Horses can cost between $1000 – $20,000. Sawyer advises not purchasing a horse from an auction (aka “dumping ground”), but said there are exceptions such as the Harrisburg, PA Draft Horse Sale. According to Sawyer, Paul Birdsall of Horsepower Farm was one of the premier breeders of Suffolks in Maine. His son runs the operation now, and could be a great resource.
Always ask for health records (is rabies current, has it had a Coggins test, should have been wormed in the past year…but not too frequently either i.e. not every 2-3 months), check out the conditions the horse is living/being kept in, how shiny is the coat (does it look healthy), tap on the horse’s feet – Sawyer said if it pulls its foot away quickly and the leg is warm there could be something wrong. Ask about the temperament of the horse – does it spook, how does it handle, is it nervous, does it kick or bite, and how is it with children.
Daily grooming – in addition to keeping up appearances, this also helps develop your relationship to the horse and provides an opportunity to monitor the horse’s health closely (wounds, external parasites…) Tools needed: currycomb, pulling comb, hoof pick, shedding brush (otherwise known as a medium grooming brush).
Harness components – this includes driving lines, toggle chain (or “tug”) and trace (pulling system), breeching (breaking system), and other necessary hardware (cost est. $400 – 1500/harness set up) John recommends Pioneer Equipment (based in Ohio with Amish dealers in Maine).
Shelter and fencing are requirements for keeping draft horses. John said (and yes, this may seem like common sense…but) stay away from barbed wire. A horse’s first instinct is to flee when in danger. Make sure fencing is sturdy! There are three kinds of recommended housing for horses: run -n sheds, tie-stall barns, and box stall barns. Keep in mind the climate (Maine winters equal the chance of a blizzard) and subzero temps (so shelter would ideally be draft free) and consider more than a three-sided shelter (or run-in shed). Sawyer prefers tie-stall barns (an open area large enough for the horse to stand tied to a halter with enough rope to prevent tangling, but allow the animal to lie down). Box stalls have four walls and a door so the horse can move freely. No matter the type of shelter, horses should have access to grain, hay, and water.
Photos by Sharon Kitchens.