Real horse power on the American farm means the Suffolk draft horse. (See the Suffolk draft horse chart and horse photos in the image gallery).
"Come up, gentlemen," says Jason Rutledge. The two red draft horses heave forward into their collars. The field cultivator—called a rear-end wiggler—lurches into motion.
Rutledge proceeds into the cornfield, drawn unerringly down the rows by two Suffolk Punch geldings. As each tautly muscled leg moves and plants a round hoof in the soil, it presses 1,600 pounds into the ground. A prodigiously powerful step, but delicate as these things are measured.
Rutledge holds the reins firm. "You've gotta stay in touch with a draft horse all the time," he says, and they move quietly through the cornfield while Rutledge tells them how well they're doing. Three thousand feet up on Copper Hill in the mountains south of Roanoke, Virginia, where he lives with his wife. Sally, and two youngsters, Rutledge "orders up" all of his 76 acres with these chestnut horses. It is quiet on the mountain, and the team, plodding through the cornfield, evokes idyllic memories, old photographs, times gone by.
But Rutledge will have none of that.
"I don't want to give the impression that I'm a complete eccentric," he says as the draft horses stop for a breather. "These animals have a place on the modern farm. Look down there."
Between the rows of corn the soil is soft, loose, moist. "Practically no soil compaction," Rutledge says and, satisfied he's made a point, sets off again behind the team.
An intense, muscular man of 36, Rutledge talks eloquently and often about the place of the draft horse on the farm today, especially the place of this particular kind of horse—the Suffolk Punch. Today he is one of the major breeders of this rarest of workhorses—there are fewer than 400 in the U.S., with another 200-odd in England. He owns more than 20, including a stallion and 12 brood mares. He points out that they're the only workhorses specifically bred for the farm. All the others derive from animals bred for military work—hauling knights in armor and, later, cannons.
Rutledge himself was in the military, the Navy, when he saw his first Suffolk. He was in England and saw a little boy leading a huge chestnut workhorse along a country road. Years later, he recalled the sight and felt driven to find out more about that powerful but docile horse.
What the sailor saw was a descendant of Crisp's horse of Ufford, a stallion foaled in 1768 and the foundation horse of the breed, making Suffolks among the oldest known breeds of heavy horses—certainly the breed with the oldest continuous studbook. They arose to fill the needs of farmers in the then remote area of England comprising Suffolk and Norwich counties, a region bordered on three sides by the North Sea and on the fourth by a boggy region called the Fens. For many years, there were practically no sales of the horses outside the area, so the breed remained pure—and relatively unknown.
What kind of draft horse did frugal English yeomen breed to take on the rigorous task of plowing their heavy, clay soil? For one thing, they look different, even to the untrained eye. They run true to color. They are all chestnut. The official association for these animals won't register one that isn't within some seven hues of chestnut, from gold to liver, or one that has any other color on it (except a small white blaze or star or a splash of white on the ankles or fetlocks). Compared to the Percherons and Clydesdales you've seen hauling beer wagons, these horses are smaller and rounder (hence the British word punch ). In a sense, they look friendlier.
An expert notices that they seem short of back and short of leg, with especially heavily muscled forearms and thighs. The shoulders are upright—positioned for power, not speed. Also, the forearms and thighs are comparatively longer than those of other workhorses. As a result, to extend their legs forward, Suffolks need to lift them two and a half to three degrees of angle less than another horse, a modification that promotes power and movement with less action. These are horses that aren't likely to get stuck in the mud. Too, their coats are smooth down to the hooves: no long hair near the ground to collect mud and dirt. A special advantage is that, being smaller, they eat considerably less than other breeds of heavy horses.
It was 1978 when Jason Rutledge and his wife. Sally, dreamed their "Suffolk dream" and bought a few mares from "the killer man," at the ominous place where horses stop off before becoming horse meat. One of the mares turned out to be pregnant, and two years later Jason and Sally found an Amish man who traded them a stallion for the colt.
Rutledge was born to farms and farming—he learned land lessons from his "grampaw," known as Uncle Willie and now in his 80s. "Farming's made up the majority of my income for 15 years," Rutledge says. "Hay's one of my main crops ... cabbage, tobacco. Got a little orchard, apples and some peaches." And, he adds, "I breed and sell Suffolks." He gets around $2,500 for what he calls an average purebred, but in truth, he says, "I'll take all the traffic will bear."
How powerful are the relatively small Suffolks? Rutledge takes some of his horses to pulling matches around Virginia and the surrounding states. Weighing in at about 1,600 pounds, they tend to be above the cutoff point (which is exactly 1,600 pounds), so they usually have to compete with the much larger heavyweights. So far, Rutledge's horses have not won in that class, but one of his teams has come in second, hauling 7,000 pounds of dead weight the required 26½ feet in the required time, only a few hundred pounds behind the winners.
Rutledge goes to the contests to make the breed better known. Suffolks almost disappeared in the 1950s when mechanized equipment virtually wiped workhorses off the farm altogether. Also, he confesses, those contests are "my kind of hot-rodding. You get those animals pulling 7,000 pounds, screeching along the ground ... that's a power trip."
Is it bad for the horses? "It can be, if you overdo it," says Rutledge. "Or if you don't have the right equipment." Each of his horses has its own collar, painstakingly fitted to produce the least friction on the animal's neck and shoulders—the same collar for pulling or farm work. No antiquarian, he uses specially designed nylon and leather harnesses. "Leather for where you need the harness to have a memory; nylon for give and strength." The nylon stretches, relieving the sudden shock in pulling, and it lasts longer.
Once, a woman came up to Rutledge to scold him for mistreating his horses by entering them in a pulling contest. Feisty as ever, he put his fingers in a circle on the horse's haunch. "See that?" he asked. "That's about the size of an Alpo dog food can. That's where this horse would be if he weren't out here. Do you suppose he'd rather be out here pulling and entertaining people or in the Alpo can?" Rutledge has pulled out of contests when he thought the conditions were wrong. "I don't ever want to hurt these animals." One of his Suffolks, obtained from another breeder, has a bobbed tail, a cosmetic custom that evidently makes the horses haunches look larger and more powerful. "That's just plain stupid cruelty," he explains in anger. "That's the end of their spinal column those (bleep) people cut off."
Rutledge speaks often of natural law, of every natural thing having a purpose, but has few good words to say about flies; he knows a horse without a tail suffers worse from them. He points upward to some turkey vultures circling an adjoining pasture. "See them? They eat carrion, clean up the place, sure, but did you know that anthrax bacillus can't make it through their digestive system? Everything has its role."
Weeds are a case in point. "You can't get rid of them, you can only control them." And because horses create the least amount of soil compaction, they are, to Rutledge, the best way to mechanically control weeds. Indeed, horses are a crucial aspect of all of those parts of the cycle that involve the central resource, topsoil. And Rutledge is a topsoil freak—for the very good reason that there isn't much of it on Copper Hill. Traditional moldboard plows—even though fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson invented them—are anathema, but the relatively gentle effects of cultivating fields with horses preserve topsoil against erosion.
It takes about 50 years to create an inch of topsoil, he points out, and weeds themselves play an important role—if the farmer adapts to their cycles. In the first place, some—like morning-glory and ragweed—are actually good for corn. But they also demand crop rotation. The first year, Rutledge says, after a field is freshly tilled from sod, you can get away with one cultivation. The second year you need to cultivate twice; the third, three times. Then the handwriting is on the wall. Let it go fallow. "Those weeds will grow up and down, and their roots will help bring nutrients up to the topsoil." And in the natural course of crop rotation, planting a field to pasture not only helps the land, but it grows the fuel needed for the horses.
Meanwhile, the horses are producing manure. "Manure isn't good for anything until you compost it. Then you've really got something." And once you reintroduce the workhorse into the equation, you are into a different kind of agricultural economics altogether. It's nearly impossible to assign certain costs of horses to any traditional (or recently traditional) category of farm economics. Take manure. Once you have the horses in the barn, Rutledge says, you've got to get the manure out of there. Is that a health-maintenance cost (like keeping a tractor greased)? When you take it out to the field, is that a transportation cost (the horses are going out there anyway)? And once it's spread on the field, is that a fertilization cost or a waste disposal cost or what? A horse is no perpetual motion machine, of course, and it may be more labor intensive. But if it does a significantly better job, Rutledge says, it pays for itself.
He's the first to point out a horse's limits. "For heavy tillage, a tractor is more efficient. But for most of the rest, on a small farm, horses will do the work and add value to the land. That's what I call appropriate technology." They become most efficient in extreme situations—and Rutledge shares the biblical wisdom of all farmers that an extreme is always around the corner. In times of drought or in times of heavy rains, the horse is at its very best, even for the occasional odd job. Rutledge speaks self-deprecatingly about the time he got a truck seriously mired thanks to a lapse in attention. The tractor was useless in the deep mud, but one of his Suffolks hauled the truck onto dry ground in minutes.
Furthermore, he points out, "you can use a horse on any land where it can stand up. A horse does fine on land that's got over a 12% slope. Use a tractor there and you can end up field pizza." Toward the end of a day, Rutledge hitches up a team of two-year-olds to a large wooden sled he built. "These boys don't know nuthin'," he says. "They're the equivalent of two 15-year-old kids."
Nevertheless, under Rutledge's guidance, they proceed with what could pass for horse wisdom along the edge of a field. Grinning, Rutledge scoops something up from the ground and holds it up. It's a wren's nest, made in part with chestnut colored hair. "See, it's a rare Suffolkbird nest."
Further along, beside a forested slope, are a dozen mammoth logs. "Sally counted the rings on that big oak. It's 158 years old. These boys hauled it out of there—up the slope—without any trouble." He stops to examine the slightly disturbed ground where the logs had been pulled out of the forest. "Horses are best for selective logging," he says, and indeed they are still widely used for that purpose. "Logging roads and big skidders just wreck the forest, especially in hilly country."
Thunderclouds begin to unfurl in the west, and the sun drops down. On the way back to the barn, Rutledge stops the horses every few yards and hops off the sled to collect the quartz rocks that dot the pasture.
As he tosses the large rocks on the sled, he summarizes his case for the workhorse. "They create fertilizer, not pollution. When you use horses, you get to keep what you made. You grow your own fuel. And a horse appreciates in value. They get better each year for nine years, then they level off till they're about 12. That's a lot different from a tractor. Soon as you get a tractor out of the sales room, you've lost money. And you don't ever get up in the morning and go into the barn and find a little baby tractor there, do you?"
He pauses and leans one elbow on a chestnut haunch. The sky begins to sprinkle lightly.
"These horses," he says. "They can be part of the job of stewardship. They'll leave this land better off than when I came here. We don't need any more mining of the soil. And they're one way of getting back to an old idea. It's called independence."
Back on the sled, Jason Rutledge and his young team set off toward the barn. He tells them what a good job they've done, and a visitor realizes another benefit Rutledge derives from his horses. Out in the fields, working in the quiet of his mountaintop— "playing with his horses," as his wife cheerfully puts it—he is never alone during the long day of the farmer.
Jake Page lives and writes in Waterford, Virginia. His latest project is a book about the Navajo, which will be published by Abrams.
The Suffolk is the only draft horse bred for farm work.
1. It has a docile temperament and a great willingness to work.
2. The short back and legs give the horse a good build for pulling.
3. Shoulders are upright—positioned for power, not speed.
4. Forearm and thigh muscles are especially long and strong.
5. An efficient keeper, it does more work on less feed.
6. The smooth coat on the legs doesn't collect dirt and mud.
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