The return of the draft horse

I have a deep and abiding love for horses, and I particularly love draft horses, as these gentle giants are so lovely to look at, and so strong, and so pragmatic. In recent years in the US, they’ve been kept primarily as show animals or beloved riding animals, but we’re seeing a growing return to their original purpose: As working farm animals that cooperate with farmers to help manage fields and other needs around the farm. It’s exciting to see this happening for a number of reasons, and especially heartening to see some agricultural schools and colleges either starting or reviving draft horse programmes that are getting increasingly popular.

From a purely economic perspective, as Modern Farmer points out, draft horses are generally more cost-effective than tractors, although they can’t manage tilling on the same scale that a commercial tractor can. That makes them most suited to small or medium farms, which are also growing across the US — another exciting trend as more people are interested in getting their hands in the dirt and restoring a long tradition of family farms, pulling us away from large-scale conventional agriculture. Many of those farmers are a younger generation learning about old farming techniques, reviving them, and building families around farming. We’re changing the landscape in a back to our roots movement that has real implications.

Traditional farming techniques are slower and more thoughtful, but they’re also better for the land, especially when done well. They’re less destructive to the soil, reducing soil loss and nutrient pollution. They’re better for the environment, and they’re more likely to contribute to the growth of robust ecosystems that work in harmony with farms, rather than being treated as combatants in a war of farmer versus nature. They contribute to the growth of communities and the production of heritage produce (about which more in a moment) and farmers are really encouraged to pursue low-water farming and other techniques that care not just for their farms, but the larger environment.

Once consequence of the explosion of industrial agriculture has been uniformity, because variation is expensive and inefficient. That means that we’ve lost countless cultivars of a huge range of crops, which is a culinary pity but also an ecological one — if mass-produced crops start to develop vulnerabilities to fungus, insects, and other problems, we don’t have ready replacements and robust stock for cross breeding. Plus, lots of heritage varieties taste better or are just plain cool. We’re also starting to lose many heritage farm animals. In a strange twist, raising animals for food actually preserves their breeds, as odd as it sounds. We need small farms to do this work because they’re catering to speciality audiences and they can afford to invest time, energy, and care in raising animals and crops that may have smaller yields.

Small farms serve an important cultural and historical role in addition to this ecological one, and it’s one reason I’m so pleased to see them thriving in many regions despite obstacles. It’s hard to compete with commercial produce and animal products, farming is a notoriously unpredictable and financially grueling industry, it’s highly physically and emotionally demanding, and farmers are out in all weather at all hours. Crops and animals alike don’t wait or work on a schedule at the whim of farmers, whether they’re racing to protect crops from unexpected frost or attending a lambing in the wee hours of the morning.

Draft horses play a role in this as well. Draft horse breeds were dwindling as demand for them also shrank, and few were trained using traditional methods for farming because that need was vanishing. The thing about unused skills — like draft horse training — is that they quickly disappear, and in another generation, they could have been lost entirely. Instead, the revival is leading for a call for more heritage horse breeds, which is lovely, because some are beautiful, unique, stunning animals that deserve a new chance at thriving in the world. It’s also creating a bigger demand for trained horses and farmers with the training and experience to work with them.

The bond between human and horse is a long and powerful one. When you’re growing food with a horse as a partner, that creates a really intimate interrelationship in which both of you have an investment and you’re tied more deeply to the land. That may sound like a lot of hippie hooey, but it really reflects more conscientious and thoughtful land practices. Farmers with those kinds of ties treat the land with deeper respect, even if it means taking more time to work it. When you plough with a horse, you have to be alert for stones and other problems. You have to make sure your horses are healthy and not fatigued, stressed, or dehydrated. You have to pay attention to the subtle signals in the world around you. Being with horses is peaceful, deeply contemplative.

I hope that we see more and more working draft horses in the coming years. I really do. People may dismiss small farming as impractical, hobbyist, not applicable to the larger world, but I hope this changes as well. Small farms, forgive me, plough their work back into the surrounding community, creating a sense of collectivism rather than isolationism, and that’s important. The interrelationship of food producers and structures is important, and it builds stronger communities. For the working class, this is so critical, and small farmers are decidedly working class, as are their horses.

Image: TS Lane, Flickr