2010 saw the addition of draft horses to the Saugeen River CSA. A team of Belgian mares, Molly and Bert, were purchased from an Amish farm near Chesley, ON. These horses were very well trained and accustomed to daily farm work. This was essential, as I needed to have a team that could teach me alot.
As animals are a central aspect of a Biodynamic farm, from the beginning of my apprenticeship, I thought draft animals would be a sensible thing to pursue. The importance of it was not evident until 2009, when the question of energy use on the farm became more in the focus, and the issues of peak oil and climate change sunk in. I drummed up the courage to embrace the changes that would be needed to begin integrating horses into the farm. I took a three day draft horse workshop, and what surprised me was being around the integration of human and animal, with the harnessing and hitching of the horses, I experienced the joy and singing of the nature spirits involved.
The past two years with the horses has been both extremely rewarding and challenging. When Molly and Bert arrived, they had spent the summer working hard and coming from a farm where daily work was what they knew. Handling them was pretty easy. They were willing to do anything I asked. The main challenge in the beginning was coming up with enough work for them to do. I didn’t have much equiptment, and didn’t have a clear grasp of the best way to work with them. I started realizing though that once I got set up, one team was likely not enough to do all the work. I was approached by some CSA members who wanted to have some horses for their daughters to ride and work with, and support the farm, so offered to buy another team. Two Percherons, May and Pete arrived in the winter. I really didn’t have enough for two teams to do in the winter, and didn’t realize what impact that would have. Pete began to take advantage of my lack of experience and became impossible for me to handle.
By the spring, Pete was traded in for a temporary old mare, Bess, who was basically May’s companion for the season. I found I could not manage keeping the two teams working, so May and Bess had a lazy summer. By the fall a permanent workmate for May was found, another Percheron named Prince.
After a winter of not having much to do, and being very excited by the spring, Molly and Bert also became more challenging for me to work with. I wasn’t ready for this, and didn’t know how to handle it. After a couple of runnaway experiences, with me on the wagon pulled by the horses galloping and me not able to stop them, I really started doubting what I was doing. The garden was not set up for working with horses, and the equipment I had was not doing what was needed. I ended up spending much more time on the tractor than I had wanted, with the horses just on pasture. As I felt the pressure to get the farm work done, I got into a bit of a spiral of not working the horses enough, which makes them harder to work with, which makes it harder to do the work with them, so I wouldn’t work them enough… At one point Molly bruised her leg on the neck yolk due to my impropper hitching, and she was limping just trying to pull an empty wagon. I had to just pasture them, and go back to 100% tractor work. Initially, this was such a relief. Everything was so much easier.
This was July, one year after having horses come to the farm. I was determined not to give up, but realized I was doing just about everything wrong… The farm was just not set up to work with horses. I borrowed a DVD by Ann and Eric Nordell about their horse powered market garden. I knew of the Nordells from my apprenticing days and had seen a couple of presentations by them over the years. I had always based my garden rotation a bit on theirs, but always with the idea of doing the work with a tractor. Now when I saw their presentation with whole new eyes, it gave me a clear direction on how to make things work with horses.
The first thing was to change the set up of the garden. We had always worked with 150 foot raised beds. These beds were clearly too short for the horses. By the time they got into the pull, they had to turn around again. So I figured out how to create 250 foot beds. The other important change was to create blocks of half acre sections, half of which would be in production, and half in rest each year. The rest areas allowed intense covercropping, but also allow for fallow periods. There are two important aspects to this: One, having fallow areas allows weeds to be worked out of the soil, decreasing the weed seed bank. But more important to me at first, was that it gives large enough bare areas to do regular tillage with the horses that is clear for them to understand. Having this regular work settles the horses right down, and makes all the other work with them easier.
With the system that I could now work with, I was also excited to have a clear idea of the equipment that could work. So after getting most of the tools lined up, and the garden laid out in a more horse friendly way, the next spring was way easier. The regular work gave the horses plenty to do, and I found myself enjoying working with them. What I was still holding on to was using the raised beds. Now, I realize I will have to let that go for now. Although I have been trying to figure out how to do the raised beds with the horses, it isn’t working yet, and to make them with the tractor requires alot of tractoring – from the pre-ground preparation, to the making of the beds, to then knocking them back down. So next year I plan to move to a 36 inch row system, which should allow for better weed control, and more work for the horses….
Click on the PDF link below for how these experiments are going.