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.
“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!