Horseplay

Betsey with Red (L) and Abby on the wagon.

 

It was a gorgeous January Sunday — sunny but chilly.  I made my way out to the Bainbridge farm on my bike to visit Betsey and lend a hand as she took her two-year-olds out on the road for the first time.  The babies in question are Abby and Red, a pair of young Suffolk draft horses that Betsey has in training for farm work to replace her dear departed Samantha. The horses are young, but they’ve had a year of intense training under their belts from Betsey’s horse mentor, John Erskine.   They’ve done a lot of hours of pulling heavy objects around the farm.  This was to be their first time leaving the farm and going on on the road, in traffic, pulling an actual wagon transporting Betsey and myself.

The babies stood, still and attentive, while Betsey harnessed them and hooked them up to the wagon.  Betsey was excited to get started, so she hopped aboard and kissed the horses forward.  Standing behind the wagon, I saw them take about two steps at the walk and then… ohcrapwhattheheck, they’re bolting like a bat out of hell down the farm road toward the winery.  This was not part of the plan.  “Woah!” Betsey yelled,  “WOAHHHHHH!”  Nobody woah-ed.

I stood there helplessly as Betsey and the naughty horses careened around a curve and up a bumpy,  grassy hill at the edge of the vineyard, toward a stand of tall trees that they would not be able to penetrate.  The horses got to the trees and stopped.  Whew.  Betsey’d had the presence of mind to drive them that way on purpose.   I hurried over.   Betsey’s hat had flown off and the horses were breathing hard and throwing their heads around, but everybody was okay.  I grabbed the lead rope off of Red’s harness and helped Betsey maneuver the whole contraption *backwards* down the hill and back onto the road.

We walked slowly back to the barn.  Betsey only let the horses take two or three steps at a time before commanding them to Woah.  She was doing what she later realized she should have done in the first place:  making the horses pay attention to a more complicated series of commands, making sure they were not moving their feet unless she told them to.  Horses should not be thinking for themselves when they are working for a human.  They need to feel that the person is completely in charge of their movements.  If a horse feels like he is left to his own devices, he gets uncomfortable and scared very easily.  If he does feel that the human is in charge, he will very easily trust that human to make all the decisions about what to do and when.   The person needs to earn that trust by directing the horse consistently, confidently, and appropriately.  You need to be absolutely present at all times and when something gets by you, it can easily escalate.

I have a lot of horse experience from a very young age, although it’s all been with riding.  I adore horses and get a high from interacting with them!  I’m super excited about the fact that horses and farming can be combined; I love that Betsey is doing it and I daydream about farming with draft horses myself one day.  But experiences like the one that morning remind me that once again, it’s not all fun and games.

There is a huge amount of interest in farming with draft animals these days!  A lot of people are realizing that horses can be a “greener” alternative to tractors for many aspects of farm work.  A lot of young people I know who are interested in sustainable farming see draft horses as being part of their ideal future farm.  While I think that’s great, I also want to tell people that it’s not easy.  People need to take the time to learn about horses before buying a 1700-lb animal with a mind of its own.  Horses are a prey animal so a fright/flight reaction is embedded deeply within their nature.  Heavy horses tend to be calmer than lighter riding breeds, but even they can get spooked from very little and they can do an awful lot of damage if they get out of control.

Riding a horse in an arena is a bit more of a controlled environment, with fewer distractions, than plowing in an open field.   You have more parts of your body in contact with the horse, so you can feel sooner when the horse gets tense.  Unless you get tangled in your stirrups or reins, when riding you’re able to bail out pretty easily — we all learn an “emergency dismount” that can be done even from a running horse with minimal damage to the human.  The horse will come to a stop eventually and be collected once it has calmed down.  Adding farming implements, however, creates a new layer of complication.  These are heavy, often sharp, metal and wood objects that are very securely attached to the animal and can do immense damage to horse, person, or property if they get out of control.

Betsey has plenty of stories about runaways she had in her early days with Samantha.  John Erskine has his own stories of almost-disastrous goof-ups when he was a young lad.  I’ve had to use the emergency dismount myself several times thru my years of riding and I’ve also gotten injured from getting bucked off.

But back to my story about the babies.  We continued driving them around the farm and they walked quietly.  “Something seems off,” said Betsey, and we got down to check the harness.  A part of it looked like it was hanging too low, bumping into the horses’ knees when they stepped forward.  “That’s no good — that might have been part of what spooked them.”  So we tied up the animals, then Betsey whipped out her electrical tape and shortened some straps and chains.  Things looked much better.  We continued on around the farm.

Ms. MacGyver fixing harness with her electrical tape!

“They’re doing fine.  Let’s get them out on the road,” says Miss Betsey.   I was thinking to myself that, um, really, maybe we ought to just call it a day?  They could always go out on the road another day, right?  There was no need to push it?  But the babies had been behaving themselves, I felt that Betsey was in control, and I understood the need to make sure we didn’t let fear dictate our course of action.

So we walked out the driveway onto the road.  Up the hill, down the hill, through the subdivision, past the barking dogs and moving vehicles, all the way to the coffee shop where we stopped for a hot chocolate!  We were out on the road for at least an hour and the horses were 100% completely and totally calm and collected the whole time.  Abby raised an eyebrow at the barking dog, but Betsey just said her name and her mind was back on her work again.  The trust was there.

The lesson I learned was: You never know what will happen, so don’t be stupid.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew expecting that things will turn out exactly the way you picture them.  But also, just as importantly, when things do go wrong, adapt and persist.   Be smart about the amount of risk you are taking, but don’t let apprehensions get in the way of trying something new.   Don’t get stuck in “paralysis by analysis.”   At some point you have to get out there and do it.

If Betsey had quit in fear after the run down the road, the horses would have learned that running away gets them out of doing more work.  Instead, they need repeated, consistent work on walking calmly and paying attention to commands.

So, I still want people to be excited about working with horses!  Be realistic about the time & effort it will take.  It’s important to know what you’re doing and pay attention to safety.   But working with horses can be so rewarding when you feel like you’ve made a connection with the animal and that you understand each other.  It’s magical.  And farming with draft horses gives you an intimate connection to the land that you don’t get with a tractor.   Every time I got to work with Samantha last season, I would get a euphoric feeling of accomplishment, like “now I’m *really* farming!”  I finished up that Sunday with the babies on the wagon with a feeling  of love for the horses for doing such a good job, and renewed trust in Betsey after watching her handle the situation.

I’m really interested to hear from other farmers out there, especially young/beginning farmers, who are giving draft animals a try.   How is it working out for you?  What are the problems you’re running into?  What are the benefits?  Stories of runaways?  Humorous anecdotes?  Drop me a note!

 

Betsey and her friend Lisa up front on the wagon; baby horses navigating a four-way stop in traffic!

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Pictures of Sam

A dearly loved Belgian draft horse passed away last night.   Betsey’s 27 year old mare Samantha was fine on Friday, we got home from the farmers’ market on Saturday and she was clearly ill, and by 9pm she had died.  Betsey was able to be there to help her through her final moments and I was honored to be there to assist.

It was  a good long and rich horse life.  Betsey tells many stories about her experiences learning to drive with Samantha and taking Sam camping on wagon trains throughout the state of Washington.  Betsey wrote a blog post the day after Sam’s death that recounts some of these stories.

Countless people, including all of us interns and elementary school kids from around the corner, got to try their hand at driving Sam – she was smart but tolerant and good with newbies.  Sam will always be the horse that taught be to drive and I’m happy to have known her if only briefly.   Here are some pictures!  We’ll miss you, Sam.

 

Betsey and Samantha - both amazing teachers in their own ways. In their 20 years together, Bets and Sam have given many people a chance to learn about draft horses and how they can be used for farm work.

Betsey talking with Erin about how to operate the discing machinery. Erin and I got to be a part of Sam's last field work, one week before she died.

Me cultivating beetween the rows of crops with Sam.

Samantha enjoying her pasture in the sun.

 

Trip to the Small Farmers Journal Auction

Our second week on the job, and we get to take a vacation! We all headed down to Madras, OR for four days to attend an event I would have never known existed: the Small Farmers Journal Horsedrawn Auction and Swap. Betsey gets sooo excited about this event! It’s a special thing she does every year and I think it’s awesome of her to share it with us. She really throws herself in and helps out with the auction and everybody there knows her, so we were known by extension, as “Betsey’s brood.” It was a totally new experience, listening to the auctioneer’s chant and watching people bid. I learned some about harness types and “single tree” vs “double tree” hitches and different types of implements that horses can pull and the difference between driving “four up” and “four abreast”. We got to help on the auction floor by doing the Vanna White and pushing wagons around. There was a fantastic bluegrass/folk band and dancing on Friday night.

The range of people there was really interesting. Mainly older men with big mustaches and cowboy hats and lots of horse knowledge they were eager to share with me. Then there was a small group of excited young farmers. It was an interesting dichotomy. The young folks of course are very idealistic and talking about how important small farming is and the changes that need to happen in society to give farming the credit it deserves. The old guys have been doing this a long time and have seen back-to-the-land movements come and go so they are understandably a bit more reserved. But I felt like they weren’t critical of us young upstarts. Instead they seemed willing to take our questions seriously and talk about their experiences. I surprised myself with the emotion I felt when a gentleman to whom I’d been chatting about my apprenticeship looked me in the eye and said “I’m proud of you. It takes courage to do what you’re doing.” My eyes welled up at the genuine validation of a choice I’m still uncertain about. I don’t think I’m doing anything courageous, but I have been worrying that I’m not taking this seriously enough and no one would ever take me seriously. Am I just playing at being a farmer because of some romantic notions I had? Making a living farming is hard work – who do I think I am to waltz in and think I can do it? These doubts have been dancing around in my head, and I am grateful to Larry for that little bit of support. It made me feel like it’s ok for me to be exploring and doing what I’m doing.

My horse passion also got a lot of rekindling on this trip. Betsey’s horse mentor, John Erskine, and another horseman named Doc Hamill gave a little clinic on Thursday morning and the deeply thoughtful horse stuff gave me chills the way it always does. I’m realizing that what I have always loved and craved about working with horses can be gotten in ways other than riding. All the same communication happens when driving horses in harness, and it’s even up a level if you are working multiple horses at a time. Using horses for farm work is really starting to intrigue and attract me. It seems like an art and it is easier on the land (less soil compaction). More importantly, it seems like you’re more intimate with your land when you work it with horses instead of tractors, in much the same way as I feel a connection to city neighborhoods I’ve biked more than the ones I’ve only driven in. So there I go getting all romantical — certainly it doesn’t seem particularly practical to farm only with horses. But if I have a passion for both horses and farming it seems awfully wondeful to be able to combine the two.

Pics from the auction are on Flickr at
http://www.flickr.com/photos/warnerbecky/sets/72157623767076685/

Here are a couple to whet your appetite. Go check out the rest!

Look, Mom, I’m farming

Betsey took this awesome picture of me getting ready to attempt cultivating the garlic with Sam a couple weeks ago.   That mid-March day was warm and sunny t-shirt weather.  For my moving day tomorrow, it is shaping up to be 45 degrees and constant drizzle.   Oh well!

Working with Sam has been really fun.   She is very calm and attentive and knows how to do her job.  I’m looking forward to learning more about using draft horses and also watching the development of the two young fillies that Betsey has in training.  Cool stuff.

Next time I write I’ll be living at the farm!

Pictures of “my” farm!

fields

At Betsey's farm: garlic field in front, vineyards behind

I brought my camera along yesterday when I went and spent the day with Betsey.  So here are a couple of shots of the scenery and animals there at the Day Road farm, where I’ll be living and working starting in April.

It’s been great working there so far, kind of like being in school except the classes are something along the lines of: 10am-1pm prune grapevines; 1-2pm coffee and lunch break at Rolling Bay Cafe (Betsey: “This is pretty much what we do  – go for coffee and talk about farming”); 2-3pm plant onion seeds; 3-5pm more pruning.

While we were dropping the onion seeds into the trays of potting mix, Betsey told me some stories about learning to work with draft horses for plowing and mowing hay and such.  She got her instruction in this from some old cowboy types in Montana – one of them named “Bulldog.”  I have lots of horse experience but never done anything like this before and I reallllly cannot wait to check out the harness and plowing equipment and give it a whirl with Sam (Samantha), Betsey’s old Suffolk mare.

ponyface
Fuzzy! adorable! as yet unnamed 2-year-old Suffolk filly that Betsey bought recently to take over the farm work as Samantha is getting older.   This little one was very curious and wanted to play with me.

Most of the day was spent pruning grapevines in the vineyard.  There are over 12,000 grape vines on the property.  It’s a good thing I don’t have to prune them all because it would take about 12,000 hours… luckily Betsey is about 10 times as fast at it as I am!  Basically what has to be done is chop off last year’s “arms” – the thick wood at the bottom of the plant – and choose two of last year’s thinner canes to become this year’s arms.  The canes that you choose get tied down into a “Y” shape at the bottom of the trellis and the rest of the canes get lopped off and thrown away.  There are many criteria that go into making this choice, so it takes me a while of closeup examination and weighing the options before I decide which canes to chop off and which to leave.  Betsey of course can look at the plant out of the corner of one eye and know exactly what to do and make the cuts all in about 2 seconds flat.  But I had fun and got a couple rows of vines pruned during the afternoon.

future wine

Rows of grape vines to prune

On the downside of the day…. lest I give the impression that everything is idyllic and perfect… at the end of the day I got a closer look at the house where I and the other apprentices will be living for the season.  It is pretty old and decrepit and needs a *lot* of fixing up and cleaning before it is going to be liveable.  So I have my work cut out for me there for the next couple months.  To close, here are a few more images from the farm!

bees and seeds
chickies!