Firsthand Report: Homesteaders with Horses

On this Vermont farm, these homesteaders have taken to horses.

| February/March 2007

My husband, Ted, and I live on a farm in Peru, Vt., near the top of a mountain. Part of our land is a sugar lot, a section of woods that we tap for maple syrup. We keep six horses on our farm: two riding horses and four Brabants, an old-fashioned breed of draft horse. Before I met Ted, he lived on the farm by himself, driving and riding his horses, and sugaring with them in season.

I studied plant pathology and tree fruit diseases in graduate school, and when I met Ted, I was a research assistant for a laboratory at Cornell University. When we got engaged, I left my job in New York to move to the farm. I have a passion for agriculture, and in the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve planted a large vegetable garden and started improving the orchard. I’m also learning how to drive horses.

Old-Fashioned Draft Horses

We end up putting more work into the horses than we get out of them, but that’s OK because we enjoy them. Brabants are the ancestors of the modern American Belgian draft horse: They are shorter and stockier than the American Belgian, with more feathering on the legs. Their calm temperament, hardiness and strength make them ideal work partners for our Vermont farm, where the winters are long, cold and snowy.

Ted bought his first team of Brabants, Millie and Donna, when they were young and green. He sent them to a local man to be trained to drive, and Ted took draft horse driving lessons. Now, he uses them for work and driving on the farm, and sometimes even ventures onto the local roads and trails in our carriage.

After six years of working with Millie and Donna, Ted wanted more Brabants, specifically a young team he could raise and train himself. There aren’t many Brabants in this country, so the American Brabant Association organizes group trips to Belgium to visit farms and import horses. In 2000, Ted went on one of these trips and found two horses to bring home, John and Louisa — or, to use their official names, John van de Vosberg and Lowies van de Lindehoef. They were yearlings when they arrived on the farm, and Ted could wrap his arms all the way around their bellies. Now they weigh about a ton each. Ted worked with them every day when they were young, and I think his efforts are evident in their trusting demeanors.

When I moved here, I signed up for a driving clinic in Brattleboro, Vt. At the end of the five-day course, I could get the harnesses on and off and hitch up the horses with confidence.

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