Horsepower: Taking the Reins
Written onSeptember 01 , 2009
So much of what I love about agriculture is exemplified by draft horses. Like small farms, they have continued to exist, sometimes in spite of us, and often despite what is popular. They accept the seasons and adapt to them, growing heavy coats in the winter and glistening ones in the summer. True localvores, they eat what the land produces and find pleasure in the small yet important things, like the taste of new grass in spring.
What’s more, their needs reflect the needs of the farmer: they require rest, quiet, nourishing food, steady work, and companionship. Still, most farmers I meet, even those committed to organic or biodynamic agriculture, question my enthusiasm for the horse as a viable source of power on the farm.
I grew up riding horses, but became progressively more fascinated with draft horses as my interest in small-scale agriculture grew. I did not think I would easily find an opportunity to work with draft horses; to the untrained eyet, these so-called “hold-outs” in the age of tractors are hard to find. Somehow, though, in my search for the perfect college, I found an unusual school that would enable me to reach beyond ordinary academics and attempt to connect classroom with field, forest, stream, mountain, and, serendipitously, the draft horse.
Sterling College’s draft horse program is small: three horses, one teacher, a few acres of garden to cultivate, a sugar bush to tap in the spring, and a woodlot to harvest. Still, it seems that almost all students, even those who do not take the draft horse classes, develop an interest in the horses and in their place on the farm and as part of the college. Sterling runs this program because in some way, I think we strive to be a homestead college. For us, it makes more sense to combine learning with work, which is why we do not automate the farming process by using tractors. Our work connects the art of farming with the science of farming, and the horses make this relationship possible. I cannot plow a field with a team of horses without smelling the earth, feeling the wind on my face, and noticing the day-to-day changes in the land around me. An education in soil science, ecology, and natural history grows organically out of these experiences.
Before arriving at Sterling, I had spent the better part of two years working on biodynamic farms. While one of the farms had draft horses, the farmers considered the horses impractical in the education of their apprentices, since it was quicker to teach us to drive a tractor than to handle a horse. Although there is some truth to this, in my view the horse wins the argument for practicality. One of the greatest mistakes in agriculture is the total reliance on super-human ability. Neither horse nor tractor are completely reliable (what is?) but the horse is localized in its needs and energetically more dependable than a tractor that requires expensive fossil fuels, factory-made parts, and various middle-men suppliers. The growing need and enthusiasm for small farms meshes incomparably well with the horse’s abilities. And it’s so much more satisfying to speak to a horse who pricks up her ears at the sound of your voice, than it is trying to talk to a piece of steel that could care less whether you are you or someone else.
I began my first class in draft horse management at Sterling confidently proud that I could drive a tractor with wheels wider than I was tall. I was impressed with myself.
Then I stood behind a horse. Not just any horse, either. This was Lincoln, a Belgian more than 18 hands tall, with hooves twice the width of my hand and a temperament that seemed to promise trouble. As his giant hindquarters danced to and fro in front of me, I stood paralyzed with the lines in my hands, remembering the warnings I had received from my riding teachers in the past to never, ever stand behind a horse. I clearly saw, in my mind’s eye, his powerful hoof making contact with my forehead. I shed a few tears of terror.
But I overcame this initial shock. While driving our team, Lincoln and Rex, around the Common some time later, I suddenly felt a connection between the horses and me. Their ears perked up, their step became more confident, and my hands on the lines sensed that we had begun to forge an understanding. All three of us relaxed. Since that day, I have become attached to them. Now, as the “Clerk of the Works” for the draft horse program, I make the chore schedule and research project ideas, but most important, I have time to spend with the horses every day. Sometimes I work, going into the woods to haul logs to our sawmill or to plow a potato patch with my teacher. Other times I simply stay around the horses, watch them eat, groom them, muck out the stalls. I am very lucky to have such a job.
This past winter, I began interviewing local Craftsbury women for a project on female farmers. Most of these women were over 70, and all had grown up on horse-powered farms. While it was their generation that started to bring tractors onto these tiny hill farms, all the women felt that this automation of agriculture progressively brought on many of the challenges we face today. It was refreshing to hear their perspective, although it was sometimes a disillusioned one; they were honest and spoke from true experience. These women had gained enormous wisdom by watching a farming community change. They grew up in a time when work was still regulated by the hours that nature kept; light meant sunshine and a rainy day meant a day spent by someone’s fire with busy hands, exchanging news. Most people were farmers, and most boys in the local high school strove to keep farming once they had graduated. Roads that now have one big farm on them had 15 little ones just a few decades ago. The women told me about long hours and hard work, prices falling and rising, hard, dark winters, wet summers, and runaway horses; but none neglected to mention the sense of fun and the importance of celebration that had pervaded even the hardest times.
Working with draft horses has given me a new understanding of labor. While these horses are so much bigger and stronger than humans, their sensitivity, as well as their frailty, enable us to deeply connect to the delicate and strenuous nature of our own work in the fields. My work with the horses serves both as a muse to my vision of homestead agriculture and a reminder that this kind of farming is not just a process of grueling labor, but a fruitful harnessing of the creative spirit that all creatures possess. I do not know when I will have my own piece of land, how I will get it, or where it will be, nor do I know when I will have a team of horses. I do know that the horse, real or metaphoric, plays a key role in my ideal vision of agriculture, and will help me lead a life that feels more purposeful.
Photo of Schirin R. Oeding courtesy of Sterling College