Saturday, December 20, 2008

Back to basics ... draft horses

I have always been intrigued by draft horses. One of my earliest memories, when we were still living in a small town, is of watching coal being unloaded at the neighbor's from a wagon pulled by a team of big black draft horses.

When we moved out to the ranch, most of the ranch work was still being done with a team of draft horses. We raised all of our own hay for 80 to 100 head of cattle and since there was no irrigation, all of the hay meadows were along the creek that ran through the home place. My grandfather did all of the mowing as there were lots of little bends of the creek and banks to watch for and he knew every foot of the ground like the back of his hand. Once the mowing was done, the hay was raked into winrows and it was ready to start stacking. It was my grandmother that drove the team to the buckrake while my father and grandfather stacked, not an easy task, as the seat for the buckrake was over a single wheel in the rear, the horses were separated by the running gear of the buckrake and the sweep was ahead of the horses, the hay pushed ahead of them, so it could be loaded onto the overshot stacker to be thrown up onto the haystack.

Then all winter that same team hauled the bobsled with a hayrack from the stackyard to the feed ground to feed cattle, sometimes in blizzards and 3-foot snowdrifts and at temperatures that could reach well below zero. I loved to go feed, as once we were on the feedground, I got to hold the reins and "drive" while Dad and Grandpa pitched hay off to the cattle. I held those reins in a death grip and listened for every word from my grandfather, thinking I was really helping, but of course the horses knew exactly where to go and what to do and were reacting to my grandfather's directions, not to anything I was doing.

When my children were young, we had a small black pony that was trained to drive to the cart and we drove quite often. For several years the kids' birthday parties were quite the neighborhood attraction because we always had pony cart rides for everyone.

That was my last real experience with a driving horse or pony until recently. After the move to Kentucky, it was obvious that a lot could be done on this small, hilly, wooded acreage with a draft horse that absolutely could not be done any other way. I didn't feel I'd had enough experience with driving horses to be able to train a draft horse but there are several Amish communities in the area where all of the field work is done with horses ... and the search was on.

I first "met" Dolly when she was responsible for taking the owner's daughter to the church to be married. She was trained to ride and to drive single and double and had done just about everything that can be done with a small draft horse. She was exactly what I'd been looking for.

That winter was particularly difficult, unusually wet and warm, so the mud just got deeper and deeper around the barn, corrals and up in the pastures. We were tearing up the pastures trying to get in with hay for the horses, so we made what we term the "mud toboggan" for Dolly and started feeding with her. It isn't nearly as fancy as her buggy was but she seems not to mind the come-down in status.

She is invaluable for snaking logs from the "tree pastures" down through timber to the area where we cut our winter wood supply. When we start haying the horses in the fall, she comes in on a full time basis, is hitched to the mud toboggan morning and evening and hauls loads of hay to the pasture horses. She has been used to harrow the pastures and this coming year I plan to design a packsaddle arrangement that will hold weed sprayers so I can get back along the fences and keep the briars and weeds down. With so much rain and such heavy vegetation, on the rough ground you cannot get into those areas with a tractor and it is just getting too much for my 60-plus year old body to carry the sprayers and fight through the briars to do it on foot.

She puts up with being driven by a very inexperienced "teamster" ... handling being driven without blinders with perfect aplomb. If I turn too sharp and she ends up stepping over one of the traces she stops and waits for me to sort things out, though the look she gives me is definitely one of long-suffering patience. I'm sure she thinks I am very difficult to train!

She is placidly willing to give visiting non-riders a taste of what it is like to ride a horse and she is gentle and careful with any visiting child. She is always the one who poses for pictures for everyone, though as a model, she does expect payment ... grain is best but a handful of green grass will be accepted.

She can be picketed out on a line and is a wonderful lawnmower and edge trimmer so saves many hours of lawnmowing, which I hate. I have a definte aversion to loud, noisy machinery which may explain some of my attraction to draft animals. From Dolly's point of view, she obviously much prefers her summer work schedule to the winter schedule.

In other words, Dolly is the ideal small farm draft horse for the inexperienced teamster, quiet, patient, willing, very well trained and not inclined to take advantage of inexperience. We very often tell visitors that she will be the absolute last horse or pony to leave this farm ... and will go only when we are no longer able to be here. The farm wouldn't run without her.


Ron said...

Nice story about Dolly. And the mud tobaggon is a great piece of engineering! "see" ya around. Ron

Jo Castillo said...

I love your horse story. They have such personalities.