Walking Plows: Plowing with Horses, Mules and Oxen

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If you choose a horse for your plow animal, it is important to ensure that the harness will not slip and strangle the animal if the plow gets caught.
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A properly harnessed plow horse should have a bellyband to stop the harness sliding around, as seen in the last illustration.
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The collar picture here connects to the plow harness that drapes over the horse's back.

Despite the fact that our energy-intensive “modern” agri biz now does almost all its field work with internal combustion engines; at least one back-to-the-lander figures that it’s still kind of nice to hitch up a draft animal and go off following the plow. 

SPECIAL NOTE:This is the first half of a two-part article. More about walking plows will appear in the May/June 1974 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

My mate, Theo, and I believe the problems of the “rat race,” in so far as we ourselves are concerned, can best be solved by our acting less “ratty”. We’d like to flee to our favorite place in the beautiful Ozark Mountains but, since this is impractical (except for a few days at a time), we’ve decided to make our escape by standing still and living the simple life right here on our sandy hill farm in northern Louisiana. This has meant going back to older methods of doing things and educating ourselves on how to live exclusively from the land.

First we bought a wood-burning cook stove, then a hand gristmill to grind our flour and corn meal and a treadle sewing machine to make our clothes. We learned to make soap, to can our food rather than freeze it and to wash our clothes on the rub board. (All these changes took place in piecemeal fashion to temper our spoiled, soft bodies. If you think it’s no big switch from an automatic washing machine to hand scrubbing, you should try it sometime.)

Now we’re working our garden and patches with a walking plow drawn by a horse. We agree whole heartedly with whoever said “There’s no surer way of making a living than between the handles of a plow” and we’re giving it a try.

Why a Walking Plow?

In doing research for this article I found little or no material in the library on plowing with an animal, just as if there’d never, never again be a need to till the soil with a horse or mule. The best source I found was an old school textbook we have at home, from which I’ve taken some of my explanations and on which the drawings with this piece are based.

This lack of interest seems to be general. We discussed with a neighbor the idea of plowing with a horse and teaching our sons the art. He looked at us as though he questioned our sanity and said, ” ‘Long as I can afford gasoline, I’ll use my tractor.” (Billie Hardaway wrote this article before the beginning of the current and unpleasant fuel shortage. By this time her neighbor may be thinking that those oddballs with the walking plow aren’t so crazy after all. -MOTHER. )

That’s a prime example of how most people feel, yet gasoline is, in many respects, the least of the tractor owner’s problems. The prices of parts and tires are sky-high, for one thing. And when the machine breaks down, you have the trouble of finding a mechanic to repair it (plus the cost of his unbelievable fee when you do run him to earth). Oh, the aggravations we’ve suffered would fill volumes: The frustration when we so badly needed the tractors or plows and had to order them from a thousand miles away . . . the desperation that goes with the breakdown of a baler in a field of overripe hay under a solid cloudy sky . . .  we’ve known them all.

As troublesome and expensive as the upkeep of the tractor is, there are still other, perhaps more important, reasons why we’re on our way back to the plow horse: The machine’s noise is unkind to the ears-ours and those of our animals-and the only part of the body that gets any actual exercise is the arms. The rest of you gets jostled about but the circulation is not improved at all by the bouncing of a tractor seat as the machine pulls a plow.

Actually, this, to us, is what the search for a better life is all about: improved health, less congested minds and a keener awareness of nature. We believe that with today’s medical knowledge and yesterday’s hard work, good food and contented attitude, there’s no reason why we can’t all live to be a hundred if we want to.

To repeat an old cliche, “The fittest survive.” We want our sons to know the art of plowing with an animal. I should say right here that if I sound like some sort of expert on plowing, taint so. I’m speaking on the authority of a seasoned plowboy, my husband, whom I’ve asked a myriad of often senseless, sometimes downright stupid questions. He’s cast more black looks in my direction since I began this article than in all the years of our marriage combined, and I’ve suffered silently. But, when I read the finished manuscript back to him, he gave me his slow, steady smile, the one which won my heart many years ago. So it has all been worth the candle.

Choosing a Plow Animal

The Mule: We think the mule is really the best plow animal and we’re in the process of buying one (or maybe a pair) right now. Mules are better adapted to hot weather than horses or oxen and they never overeat or over drink, as the other draft animals often tend to do. Mules are also freer from digestive complaints and can be fed cheap, coarse food if necessary. Then too, they’re less nervous than horses and will accept hard work and poor handling if that’s all that’s available.

When the plowing is finished, the mule still has energy left to pull a sled filled with anything that needs hauling, or is ready to go to the woods and snake out a log or two for fuel. You can also ride this slow, dependable animal . . . if you aren’t in a hurry, that is, and if you aren’t timid about what your neighbor thinks. Remember that the few times Jesus of Nazareth afforded Himself the luxury of riding, He chose the ass or donkey, which is first cousin to the mule.

The breeding of mules dates back to pre-Biblical times, when they were considered more valuable than horses (probably for the aforementioned reasons). The beast is a hybrid, the offspring of a donkey and a horse and hybrid animals, like hybrid seeds, can’t reproduce themselves. (One mule in a million may be fertile, but there’s no living proof of this.) That’s why we want to be sure the critter we buy is young. It’ll never be a mama or a papa, and when its working days are over, its replacement will cost money.

In the mid-1960s the United Nations guesstimated that there were some 15 million mules alive in the world. If that was true, there still ought to be one for you and one for us. You can buy these animals at most cattle auctions, or by watching ads in farm magazines and bulletins. Around here, good plow mules are advertised for about $150.

The Horse: If a mule is the ideal choice for field work, the horse is probably the most versatile. He’s fast, “showy” so to speak, and can reproduce his kind. In our parts a fairly good plow animal that can also be ridden costs in the neighborhood of $135 at the same sources of supply I’ve listed for mules.

Beauty, our riding and plowing horse, was born on this place twelve years ago and we consider her almost a member of the family. In fact, she’s more spoiled than our three remaining children (the other three having already reached their majority) and, like them, doesn’t especially care to work. She’s not very good to ride since her gaits are quite rough and you feel like churned butter afterward. And she’s not good for plowing, either, because she’s nervous and walks too fast.

The trouble is, my husband Theo is the unhurried, deliberate type . . . slow, steady and a Capricorn. He can outwork any man I know, but don’t rush him. Beauty rushes him. She’s not particularly disobedient, just fast. She simply can’t slow down. If horses conformed to human physical types, our mare would be a mesomorph. I suspect that this “unmeeting” of their minds makes Beauty go even faster and Theo try even harder to slow her pace, so that by sundown man and beast are totally exhausted from pulling in opposite directions. Hence our plan to buy a mule.

The Ox: Oxen include domestic cattle, water buffalo, bison, musk oxen, Brahmans, yaks, banteng and all other members of the bovine (cow) family. These creatures have heavy bodies, long tails, divided hoofs and the habit of chewing the cud. When domesticated they give milk, meat and leather and, in some parts of the world, still serve as beasts of burden. Cattle were, in fact, among the first of all animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes. It was probably the invention of the wooden plow, some 3,000 years ago, that first led herdsmen to castrate their bulls so the animals would be docile enough to harness for field work.

In Mexico, as recently as the late 60’s, we saw many oxen in use as plow animals, and there are a fair number in southern Texas and Florida. I can’t give any prices or sources of supply, but anyone who was seriously interested in getting a yoke of work cattle could probably do so by advertising in the farm bulletins published in those areas of the country where such teams are common. I don’t know much about what the critters are like to plow with, except that the ox’s convenient hump makes his harness much simpler than that of other draft animals. I also understand that the Brahman has many advantages, such as sweat glands and an immunity to tick fever and other insect-borne diseases. (For the most definitive article on working oxen published anywhere during the past 100 years, see John R. Scarlett’s illustrated piece about working oxen. It includes sources of supply, driving tips, etc. -MOTHER.)

Be Kind to Your Animal

Whichever creature you decide to buy, be sure it’s broken to the plow. Otherwise your purchase is worthless (unless you have the spirit and inclinations of a cowboy and want to break the beast yourself). You should also determine the animal’s age and whether or not it has any bad habits such as kicking, biting or downright stubbornness.

Theo says you must never allow a plow animal to get the upper hand. “An iron fist in a velvet glove” is the right line to take. If you allow the critter disobedience in harness, it will take advantage and will eventually dominate you. Then you’re better off farming with a hoe, for such a brute can be a real menace.

I believe Beauty behaves as she does because she knows we love her and will let her get away with it. Our good neighbor, Blondell Ware, can plow that horse without a minute’s trouble . . . a real pleasure to watch. But then, Beauty doesn’t know that Mr. Ware won’t beat the tarnation out of her if she speeds with him. He wouldn’t, but she can’t be sure.

Once you and your new helper have established a good working relationship, you’ll have a real treasure. When all else fails–as it did during the Great Depression-the man with a little plot of ground, a plow animal and a few farm tools may be the richest of all. He can be assured that his family won’t go to bed hungry. He may have to barter for seed and fertilizer (or catch the latter from his horse or mule) but the earth, like a mother, will give him much more than she receives. To me, the mule – more than any other draft animal – is a symbol of security, even if in a small measure. He doesn’t need gasoline, tires or spare parts . . . just a little coarse feed, a few kind words and shelter from the weather, and he’ll perform for you until he drops. He can truly be an instrument of your peace of mind. To the high geared, material-minded individual this statement may pass for humor, but the new breed, who knows how to assess the real values of life, will know what I mean. Of course, you’ll want to take good care of such a valuable creature, a job that’s made easier because the animal can plow the crop that feeds him and then give the feed right back to you in manure, one of the most valuable fertilizers around. A tractor surely won’t do that! Your locale will determine what crop you raise for fodder. Around here it’s mostly corn and hay. When we’re plowing with Beauty we feed her hay at noon and corn at night, and keep plenty of fresh water available for her. But we have to be careful because, like most of her kind, she has no sense at all about when to stop eating and drinking. We once lost a wonderful horse as a result of colic.

There’s no need to put shoes on your animal unless it will be traveling a hard-surfaced road, but you will have to spend a few minutes every two or three months trimming its hoofs. And oh, how it will love to be brushed! This is the plow horse’s or mule’s one luxury in life.

Every animal on our place – horse, chickens, cows, hogs, dogs, goats (nine of ’em) and especially our cat-  enjoys being spoken to and responds to our words in its own way. If your voice is kind and you have compassion for your fellow creatures, you’ll have no trouble with your plow animal.

How to Harness a Plow Animal 

I asked Theo to tell me exactly what he did when he got Beauty ready to plow. He ginned and said, “What’s the first thing you do when you want to cook a rabbit?” When we stopped laughing and got down to business again, I answered, feeling rather foolish, “You catch him.” Right! That’s what you do first. Sometimes it can take a while (especially when Beauty decides she doesn’t feel up to plowing that day and would rather run through the clover and jump bubbling brooks and do all the other things horses like to do when they’re free). Eventually, though, the mare is caught and bridled. For the sake of those completely new to this game, the bridle is a set of leather straps which secure a metal contrivance called a bit in the animal’s mouth and allow the operator to control the critter by means of the attached plow lines.

The rigging around Beauty’s neck in the illustrations with this article is – not surprisingly – the collar, which connects to the harness that drapes over her back. The hames are fastened to this collar and, in turn, the trace chains are attached to the harries (you’ve heard of someone “kicking over the traces”, haven’t you?) which pass through loops in the back hand and bellyband and are hitched to a plow’s singletree.

Every piece of the aforementioned gear is necessary for a regular saddle horse, which is how Beauty is classified. A mule, which is built quite differently at the shoulders, might not need a bellyband unless a heavy wagon was to be pulled. A horse does need that safety device because otherwise, if the plow or other load hits a rough spot such as a root, the entire harness could slip over the animal’s curved shoulders and choke it. You can get the idea from the accompanying illustration of Blondell Ware posed in his potato patch.

Blondell is a natural with horses and loves them all. These days he also thoroughly enjoys plowing, but as a child, when he had to keep at the job from sunup until dark, he hated it. Blondell recalls that one day when he was a boy, his father told him to water the mule. Now, young Mr. Ware was having a playful tussle with his brother Glenn at the time and didn’t want to stop. He went, nevertheless, mumbling on his way, “I wish that old mule would die!” Unfortunately, his father heard him and proceeded to do what parents used to do when their children committed an infraction of the rules.

Afterward, the elder Mr. Ware asked his son whether he still wanted their mule to die. With tears streaming down his face and his backside burning, Blondell said, “I hope he lives forever!”

Read the continued walking plow article here.