2015 25.3 Draft Horse Power for Specialty Crop Production

Summary of the Springtime Workshop at Plowsong Farm, Sequim, Washington

It was a blustery April day 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. For over 40 years, John has been training, breeding, and working  with draft horses, offering Farm Walk  participants access to invaluable knowledge. Two farmers and students of John’s, Chandler Briggs (Hayshaker Farm) and Betsey Wittick  (Bainbridge Vineyards), were also in attendance to share their experience with 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. 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. 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.

Before everyone took the opportunity to practice driving horses, John explained the basics of teamster-horse connection.  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, the horse will respond to the hesitation or mood potentially creating a difficult working situation. John went on to explain that horses learn by repetition and respond to a pressure-release.

After breaking for lunch, participants 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 reminded participants 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.

Summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator.

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

Tags: Horses, Specialty Crops, Workshop