Become a Horse Farmer
(It's Never Too Late to Fulfill Your Dream)
Ralph Rice is about to live his life-long dream — to become a full-time horse farmer. At age 56 years, Ralph is on target to retire from his in-town job when he reaches 59 and run his Ohio homestead as a full-time horse-powered farm.
Why, in this age of fully-equipped tractors that don’t eat when they’re not being used, would anyone think of working the land with draft animals? “They are eco-friendly, easier on the soil, and replace themselves in many cases,” Ralph explains. “They force you to slow down and work efficiently. As animals they are living creatures that need a break now and then, just like we humans. The only advantage a tractor gives me is that it doesn’t need to stop and catch its breath—but I do!”
Ralph is far from alone in embracing draft animal power. Thanks to the local food movement, market gardens are springing up everywhere, many of them maintained with draft animals. Varying in size from one to 10 acres, family run market gardens offer a realistic source of income.
Noting this trend, Stephen Leslie remarks in his book The New Horse-Powered Farm: “A quiet revolution is occurring out in the heartland. Largely dismissed by industry and government and most often ignored by the press, thousands of small farmers across the nation are bringing workhorses back onto the land.”
When most people think of draft horses they think of the big Budweiser Clydesdales. But the word draft represents not a specific animal breed or species, but refers to any animal used to pull a load. Originally spelled draught, the word means to draw, drag, or pull. Accordingly, draft horses can be any size from heavy horses weighing 1,600 pounds or more, to light horses, ponies, and even miniature horses. And horses aren’t your only choice in draft animal power. Other possibilities include mules, donkeys, oxen, goats, and dogs.
Indeed, I once met a horse owner who hauled hay to her snow-covered pastures by hitching her energetic Rottweiler to a small sled. Another woman I met used a miniature horse and cart to gather produce from her market garden and to offer tours to visiting customers. For a beginner, a team of minis can be less intimidating than full-size horses, especially for a child or an elderly novice teamster.
Although Ralph uses Percherons on his 74-acre Ohio farmstead, he has in the past used Welsh ponies. “A good broke team of any breed is more important than what kind they are,” he says. “I was lucky to have owned a real good team. I went through quite a few to get those great ones, but I did have three awesome workers.
“However, I would say that on a small acreage a better choice would be a single horse or ox, rather than trying to find a perfect pair of ponies. For the novice, it will be much easier to find an older quiet draft gelding than a pair of good working ponies.”
Stephen likewise emphasizes matching horse power to both available acreage and teamster experience. “The teamster should determine the maximum acreage he or she expects to farm,” he says in his book. “If the operation is to be solely confined to a market garden in the 1- to 10-acre range, heavy draft horses may not be required to carry the workload. With their smaller feet and quicker, more nimble gaits, draft horses crossed with saddle horses, as well as draft ponies, are all well suited to the confined work spaces of the market garden.
“The draft pony types such as the Fjord and Haflinger are renowned for being thrifty and will not require as much feed as a draft horse. On the other hand, because these smaller horses can sometimes be a little livelier in spirit than their larger draft cousins, it may require a stronger and more experienced hand to drive them. For this reason, a well-trained middle-aged team of draft horses or mules might be the best fit for the novice teamster simply based on consideration of temperament.”
Considerations of temperament are important for the teamster, as well. “A person should be quiet, calm and sensitive,” advises Ralph. “The teamster needs to be confident but not cruel; a caring person, yet strict enough to make the horses listen. ‘Whoa’ means stop right now! Not coast a couple more steps.
“The teamster needs to be the same every day. Commands need to be issued clearly and the same every time. Horses have excellent hearing, so yelling to them is not necessary. Just crisp, calm commands that mean the same thing every time, every day.
“A good teamster should know his horses’ moods. They have good days and bad days just like we do. You get to know the animals like you would any other workmate. You can tell when they have a bad day, don’t feel good, or are feeling mischievous. A good teamster will learn to understand his horses and get the most out of them. Time spent together strengthens the bond between man and beast, which leads to a horse trying with all its heart to please the man. A tractor will never do that.”
On the other hand, says Ralph, “If you are always in a hurry, use a small tractor and save yourself and the animals a lot of trouble. High strung folks with little patience have no business working animals. People with loud voices and quick movements should either leave the animals for the calmer folks or change behaviors before attempting to work with them.
“Draft animals take a lot of time. That time is precious and makes great animals, but if you are not willing to invest the time, you will be unhappy with the predictable results. People who don’t like animals or the amount of care that goes with them should avoid draft animals.”
Ralph currently operates a mixed power farm, meaning he uses both draft horses and a tractor. The tractor, he explains, is a concession to time he must spend at his off-farm job. “I sometimes use the tractor to catch up on farm work,” he says, “but I prefer to use the horses.
“I use my horses to cut and haul wood for our maple syrup operation and to gather maple sap in syrup season. They pull logs out of the woodlot for building projects. They plow for crops, haul 100 percent of the manure generated (by Ralph’s horses, pigs, sheep, and cattle), and plant many crops. They spread soil amendments like fertilizers, as well as mow pastures. They mow, rake, and bale hay, as well as haul it to the barn. I use them to brush hog the field edges, haul round bales of hay, and pick corn with a one-row picker. Horses need to be worked almost every day. The more they are used, the better they get.”
Ralph is luckier than most aspiring teamsters in having learned many of his skills from his grandfather, who ran a mixed power farm with horses and a John Deere tractor. “My great-grandfather farmed with a tractor, but longed for the days when he had horses. Both men talked about the niche horses fill and the value they bring to a small farm. As I grew, I also got inspiration from local Amish farmers who farm with horses. I knew that for horse farming to work out, I had to find a way to use them to be profitable.”
One of the ways Ralph’s horses are profitable is in their ability to produce some of their own feed and bedding. “These things need to be figured into a business plan,” he says. “They are costs of doing business. When I lived in town I bought my hay and feed. I used to figure I needed 400 bales at 50 pounds to feed my horses for a year.
“Feed was a little harder to figure because it depended on what we were doing. When we were on an everyday logging job, the horses got a 10-quart pail of feed three times a day. When they were idle, they got a level one-gallon scoop at morning, then again at night. Idle for my horses means no heavy work, just wagon or sled jobs around the homestead.
“It takes a little more than one acre of good pasture per horse during the grazing season. Good pasture means exactly that, not a bunch of weeds and nutsedge. I graze my horses at night, but prefer that most of their feed is dry hay and grain. Grass makes them sweat much more and the old-timers would say it makes them weaker. Their manure should be a rich brown color, not greenish or black.
“It takes about four acres of good, first cutting timothy hay for the horses. I also grow spelt for their grain needs and the straw from the spelt for their bedding. I usually plant three to four acres, because that is the size of my paddocks. The grain fills my (four by six by 16-foot) bin and a binful lasts all year.”
In figuring the minimum number of acres that makes a team of heavy horses practical, Ralph adds a market garden of three acres or more to the two acres of pasture, four acres for hay, and three acres for spelt. “I’m thinking the minimum size small farm for heavy horses would be 15 acres or so. If the hay and grain are purchased, the size can be adjusted. Growing and harvesting grain and making hay takes farm equipment. If the equipment isn’t available, then purchasing the feed is probably a better option, even if it is a bit pricey.”
All told, the start-up costs of a horse-powered farm are relatively low in comparison with a tractor-powered operation, which is one of the attractive features of horse farming for Stephen Leslie. “A team of heavy horses can do the work of a 20 to 25 HP tractor. A good team of trained middled-aged workhorses can be purchased for less or at the same cost as a used 25 HP tractor (prices on tractors can vary widely depending on age and condition). A tractor-powered market garden of six acres or larger will commonly have two tractors: a heavy one for primary tillage and a light one designed for cultivation. In comparison, most horse-powered market gardeners of a similar scale will have three or four horses.”
The necessary number of horses depends, in part, on the market gardening system. While Stephen manages a four-acre market garden with a team of Fjords, he tells of other market gardeners working six to seven acres who require four or five head of heavy horses.
“As with all facets of farming,” Stephen cautions, “working with horses might look easy from the sidelines — but it actually requires a great deal of acquired knowledge and subtlety to function as an effective means of traction on the farm.” So, lacking a mentoring grandfather, where does the aspiring horse farmer attain this knowledge?
The first step would be to learn as much as you can by reading books, such as those mentioned under “Resources,” below. The single best location to find books, as well as a wealth of other information on working draft animals, is the annual Horse Progress Days trade show, to be held this year on July 3 and 4, in Daviess County, Indiana.
“Horse Progress Days is a wonderful show for the novice and experienced teamster alike,” says Ralph. “It’s geared to horse farmers, put on by horse farmers, and attended by many horse farmers. They trial all types of small farm equipment so you can see it work. You can ask questions, climb all over it, and get acquainted with anything you are interested in. You can talk with teamsters, harness makers, and equipment fabricators of all kinds. Attending Horse Progress Days will open your eyes to what the future holds for draft power. Despite having worked with horses for almost 30 years, I learn something new every time I go.”
Once you’ve made a positive decision to embrace draft animal power, the next step would be to attend a driving school or, if possible, engage in an apprenticeship. The Good Farming Apprenticeship Network at ruralheritage.com maintains a list of draft animal internships offered throughout the United States and Canada.
For Stephen Leslie, the decision to embrace draft animal power “really boils down to whether you consider farming a job or a lifestyle, which is not a value judgment but rather a philosophical question.” As Ralph Rice and others have learned, the decision involves a trade-off between time (learning to be a good teamster, training and conditioning your team, and working close to the land) versus expense (purchasing and operatng heavy machinery).
“Horses and oxen are cost effective even at today’s prices,” says Ralph. “My tractor is 50 horsepower and my three Percherons draft horses out pull it and out power it. I can’t wait to retire from my off-farm job so I can sell the tractor. From a profitability stand point, I am much better off using horses. Draft animal power is the future of small farming.”
Gail Damerow is co-author of Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing Equine Power. To follow Ralph Rice’s farming ventures, visit his blog at ricelandmeadows.wordpress.com.
- Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing Equine Power by Gail Damerow and Alina Rice, Storey Publishing (2008), 262 pages, 8 x 11 paperback — an introduction to
all the things you can do with draft horses, starting with advice on choosing your ideal team, then clearly explaining how to feed and house them, maintain their health,
communicate with them, and train them to accomplish a variety of tasks, with many profiles of draft owners and their animals.
- Draft Horses, an Owner’s Manual by Beth A. Valentine, DVM, PhD, and Michael J. Wildenstein, CJF, Rural Heritage (2009), 238 pages, 81⁄2 x 11 paperback — an in-depth look at what it takes to maintain a sound and healthy draft horse, including how to assess your heavy horse’s health, satisfy the horse’s distinct dietary needs, recognize disorders that affect drafts, and properly care for a heavy horse’s hooves.
- The New Horse-Powered Farm by Stephen Leslie, Chelsea Green Publishing (2013), 368 pages, 8 x 10 paperback — how a team or a single horse or pony can replace the role of the tractor in a small to mid-size market garden, with a comprehensive review of necessary considerations, including breeds, training systems, and economics, illustrated throughout with profiles of successful farmers and market gardeners who exemplify trends in modern draft-animal power.
- Implements for Farming with Horses & Mules by Sam Moore, Rural Heritage (autumn 2015), 288 pages, 81⁄2 x 11 paperback — a complete guide to agricultural implements available today for use with draft animals, not only describing each piece of machinery, but also showing how to use it, adjust it for good work, and maintain
it for reliable use in years to come; both an excellent introduction to farm equipment for the beginner and an indispensable owner’s manual for the experienced teamster.
- Horse Progress Days, Daviess County, Indiana, July 3-4, 2015 (horseprogressdays.com)—annual trade show where draft equine and oxen enthusiasts from around the world gather to see draft animals at work, watch demonstrations of animal-drawn implements in use, witness animal training sessions, attend lectures, participate in workshops, chat with equipment and harness retailers and manufacturers, and network with a vast assembly of draft power users covering the full spectrum from wide-eyed novices to seasoned experts.