My Pony-Powered Gardens Work!

| 9/2/2020 9:41:00 AM

Dolly and I working the field 

Who doesn’t love ponies? I get all teary-eyed when there’s a horse scene in movies, and horses have been a big part of my life since I was 9 and took my first bareback riding lessons on a 35-year-old palomino gelding. Thirty-plus years later, my love of horses has translated into using horsepower on my homestead. Duke and Dolly are retired Amish ponies who can plow, cultivate, pull a cart, and teach humans how to communicate clearly and kindly. Even though they are too old for the heavy-duty work they have done all their lives, they have no problem keeping our acre-plus of garden in good shape. They know the ropes, and I did not have to do a bunch of training to get them used to the equipment. It’s more like they are training ME to work well with the tools and horsepower.

Connect with Tradition with Draft Animals

Why use horses? Honestly, because they are fun and make me a better human leader.  I won’t deny that the actual tasks could sometimes be accomplished by a machine more swiftly or with less cash cost than using the horses. But that’s really because gasoline is so weirdly cheap at this point in history. The TRULY cheapest fuel source is the grass that grows on my very own pasture. My horses are solar-powered tractors. They are voice-activated, they can reproduce themselves, their exhaust is fertilizer, and they are fully compostable when their lifespan is up. I’d like to see an electric vehicle beat that.

Most of the world’s farmers use animal draft power, not tractors. So I’m in good company when I hitch Dolly to the cultivator and ask her to walk through my field of buckwheat to plow in the stems of this cover crop. She and Duke cultivated the field where corn stands 8 feet high now. Why is the corn so tall? Might have something to do with the composted horse manure we slathered on the field.

Duke and Dolly, at 51 inches tall, are a little big for my small fields. Nutmeg the miniature horse is gearing up to be a work horse, and donkeys make awesome draft animals. Let’s not forget the mules, those champions of sensible farm work in hot weather. There’s no need for a giant draft animal if you’re working a small amount of land — and it’s really best to get the size of animal you are willing to feed (and clean up after!).

Advice for Farming with Horses

The man I got my ponies from grew up driving enormous Percherons, then switched to Shetland ponies. “Just as much fun, and a lot less feed,” he said wisely. I wouldn’t keep a single horse, because they are so much happier in a group. Having at least two also gives me a backup if one horse is out of commission for any reason. Duke is old and steady, perfect for teaching a youngster or testing a new harness. Dolly is eager to do serious work, so she’s the one who does most of the heavy lifting. I can use both horses together for some tasks, but for the most part I drive them singly, which is safer and easier for a new driver like me.

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