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.
Whatever your equine of choice (okay, I know oxen are great, too), working with draft animals presents safety challenges. When I started, I knew just enough to get myself in trouble, and it’s only the previous training of my team that saved me from mishap. I treasure working with a mentor like Doc Hammill, who can look at a video or pictures and give me advice based on decades of experience. With a flight animal tied to pieces of metal, it’s worth having some wisdom on board. Take things slowly, especially if you are working with an animal who’s not trained to hitch.
I can’t even scratch the surface of training animals, and recommend you look up an experienced trainer who isn’t boasting about how many wrecks they’ve survived. I’d rather hear about how many wrecks they’ve prevented. My goal is for the animals to be safe and happy while they work. I get a thrill from the sweet smell of moist soil under the teeth of the cultivator, the clink of the harness and the smooth response from a well-trained horse, but horse farming is not for die-hard adrenaline junkies. Peaceful hours of work at the walk make for relaxed horses and fit farmers!
I was thrilled to find two retired Amish ponies who knew the ropes literally and figuratively. They must have grown up all around farming equipment. Their bodies show signs of hard use — knots and white hairs left by scars — but they are easily able to cope with my farm’s light work. I have saved hundreds of hours by not having to train a young horse, so don’t overlook the oldsters. They deserve a good home where they can teach new people to farm safely.
Reaping the Benefits of Horse-Powered Gardening
What tipped me over the edge into investing in horse farming? Knowing that I would be able to introduce young people to the art. Horse farming is like a video game but real. You can actually eat the results of your labors after you have guided a pony between rows of corn or onions! Farming with horses gives me immense satisfaction and a real marketing edge when selling produce at our farm stand. Everyone wants to take a picture with the ponies. Folks who want a change from riding lessons can come help me harrow a field, which keeps the horses fit and pays for some of the hay bill.
As Duke clip-clops down the road hitched to his red cart, or Dolly leans into her collar for another pass around the buckwheat patch, I know that horses bring joy and satisfaction to my life. I’m a better human by taking care of them. Horses are patient, open-minded teachers, and when I consider all that horses have done for humans throughout history, it’s only fair that I do my best by them. They will be hauling firewood and providing compost for years to come, and if the idea of horse power intrigues you, I encourage you to look into this ancient and timely way of accomplishing true teamwork.
Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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