Draft Horse Power for Specialty Crop Production – April 17, 2015

Plowsong Farm, Sequim WA

It was a blustery day near Sequim, WA as 15 farmers gathered at Plowsong Farm to learn about draft horse power for crop production from expert, John Erskine. Together with his wife, Heather, John sustainably farms the 30 acres of Plowsong with their horses. The farm is currently home to seven Shires, two Percherons, six head of beef cattle, a dozen chickens and a grumpy old barn cat. For over 40 years, John has been training, breeding and working with draft horses. He considers himself fortunate to have been mentored by several of the legendary teamsters of the draft horse world. Attendees of the workshop were definitely in the presence of invaluable knowledge! Plus, two farmers and students of John’s, Chandler Briggs (Hayshaker Farm) and Betsey Wittick (Bainbridge Vineyards), were in attendance to share their experience in using draft horses and to help teach people the basics of driving horses in the field.

John began the workshop with a common question: should I use a tractor or a horse? Though it may seem like the obvious question a farmer should ask when considering using workhorses, John explained that it is the wrong one. The true question that needs to be answered is “how do I want to live my life?” Horses are a livelihood more than a simple production tool that requires care and a relationship with the farmer outside of the field. John pointed out that horses have a 360-degree awareness, which is how a person must live and work with them. He shared that the relationship with a horse is a rewarding one – something no tractor or rototiller will ever provide. Building that relationship is something that starts day-one of interacting with your workhorse. When finding a workhorse, John explained that the most important thing to pay attention to is the horse’s temperament because that defines everything about the workability of the horse. Of course it’s important to find a healthy horse as well, but it’s not important to pay attention to the breed or color. At the end of the day, a farmer should find a horse that has a willing temperament that wants to do the work you have for it.

Not surprisingly, horses require care much different than a tractor. John went over the basics of feeding a draft horse, housing, health, and general maintenance. He also touched on the economics of using draft horse power, which boils down to scale. A person could pay thousands of dollars to outfit themselves with top-of-the-line everything, but John explained that there is no need for that. There are plenty of places to find decently priced new or used equipment and implements. Further, there is a great community of teamsters in the Northwest to get opinions regarding options for a farms particular need – whether the homestead or production scale.

Before everyone had the opportunity to practice driving horses, John explained the basics of the teamster-horse connection.  The farmer is there to provide the support the horse needs to get the job done, which is accomplished by controlling the horse’s brain. A horse will respond to the farmer’s mood and emotions, so John said it’s important for a person to be aware of “the little guy behind the belly button”. If a farmer is not in the right state of mind to work with their horse, the horse will respond to the hesitation or mood, potentially making a difficult working situation. John went on to explain that horses learn by repetition and respond to a pressure-release. The pressure-release is physical, mental, and verbal. For a horse, the reward is the release of the pressure. However, you first have to ask the horse to do the task and it should never be something that they cannot accomplish. With that, if you ask them to do something you must make sure that they do it.

After breaking for lunch, attendees joined John outside to learn how to properly harness a horse, hooking equipment to insure proper draft, and finally how to drive a single horse. Attendees were first able to practice with a horse with no equipment hooked, then with a horse pulling a sled, and finally practice in the field with a plow. It was fascinating to understand a bit of the relationship and connection that must be developed to work with a draft horse. John iterated that no person can learn all there is to know about working with horses in one-day or in a lifetime for that matter. Nevertheless, John gave excellent insight in to the dynamic nature of using draft horses in farming and the bright future there is for their use on farms.

This workshop summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator. To view upcoming workshops and read other workshop summaries, visit tilthproducers.org/programs/workshops.

This workshop funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.