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Horse Power

A practical suggestion that would transform the way we live

by Dick Courteau

Published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Anthony Israel

The jingling of trace chains is a gentle sound, cheerily soft and unobtrusive, like a muffled musical background to thoughtful silence. The chains are attached to traces, which are attached to hames, which are strapped around the horse collar, that device that harnessed the power in grass and grain and changed the history of the world. Thousands of men and women yet living were born into the quiet surroundings where only a jingle of chain, a creaking of leather, and the plodding of hooves marked the flow of that power from beast to burden, from the collar to the wagon, to the plow, to the harvester or the construction implement that sustained their world.

BY 1900, BIO-POWERED HORSE MACHINERY had revolutionized life in rural America over the course of just two generations. Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, invented in the 1830s, had multiplied eighteenfold man-hour production in wheat. Stationary units powered machines to thresh grain, grind feed, or express juice from cane. Roads were built and maintained by horse-drawn scrapers and graders.

On the Minnesota farm where I was raised in the 1940s, McCormick’s reaper was still drawn by two big Belgians and a Percheron, Sally, Dick, and Rex. A similar machine cut and bound cornstalks. Hay was cut by the new gear-driven mower with its reciprocating blades, and gathered by the ton with a supremely efficient, high-wheeled rake employing a mechanically powered, foot-activated dumping mechanism. Wagonloads of hay were hoisted into a tall, round-roofed barn by means of a track-and-pulley arrangement powered by horses, and, out in the field, an overshot stacker thrust its wooden arms high into the air and slammed huge loads of hay down onto the tops of stacks.

We were in a horse-powered technology, but not a primitive technology. That horse-drawn reaper in my childhood cut the oats, gathered them into precisely measured bundles, wrapped the twine around them, then automatically tied the knot, cut off the twine, and kicked out the bundle. Our radio seemed to me not more mysterious. America was deeply into the Machine Age.

The farm I grew up on used both horses and tractors. An agricultural textbook I used in college in the 1950s still had chapters on the care and use of workhorses, and, on the Montana ranches where I worked during those years, teams of horses brought feed to the big cattle herds during the winter. In northwest Arkansas, where I live now, we used mostly horses and mules to skid logs out of the forest until about thirty years ago. In fact, here and there around the nation today, animals are still used to skid logs, especially where people are concerned about protecting the remaining forest. And then, the sturdy Amish, those peerless custodians of tradition, have never seen the need to motorize.

So there are a few holdovers and holdouts, but by the end of World War II or thereabouts the use of animals in harness or under yoke had been all but abandoned. Americans, and most of the Western world, had simply walked away from traditions six or eight thousand years in the building. At farm auctions, buggies sold for as little as fifty cents. Harnesses hung useless on their pegs, and those old wooden-wheeled wagons stood rotting in the fields. Big workhorses were sold for slaughter by the thousands for twenty-five dollars or less, including gentle Sally, Dick, and Rex. Some farmers were saying that soon you’d have to go to a zoo to see a horse. Those of us who continued to work horses to skid a log or plow a field began to feel like eccentrics. We sensed that what we did was perceived as a kind of quaint, playlike work for show.

Today, there seems to be a solid resistance to acknowledging animal power as a serious topic even for light conversation. It goes like this. You’re enjoying drinks among friends of like political persuasion who share your dismay at how consumerism, corporate greed, runaway technology—all that stuff—are ravaging the environment and heating up the planet. All agree that oil and the internal combustion engine are principal agents in this catastrophe, so you suggest that a partial return to animal power, in agriculture at least, might—just possibly—take some of the pressure off. Your friends fidget and avert their eyes, then change the subject. Recently, one staunch environmentalist acquaintance assumed I had to be talking about harnessing methane gas. Her line of inquiry might be more congruent with the times than mine, but I forge ahead.

A dozen years before I was born in 1933, the United States was the most self-sufficient of all industrial nations. Given the variety and abundance of our natural resources, it’s hard to think of a single item truly critical to the national well-being that we did not or could not produce within our own borders. We had coal for steam, and rural America was powered mostly by its 26 million horses and mules, while another 2 million worked in the cities. But to deliver our energy we had chosen the internal combustion engine. Now, eighty-some years later, we are fighting a war to keep that engine running.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, warns of the potentially fatal consequences of too much dependence on other societies for critical resources. Might this be the proper moment for a septuagenarian who has spent a lifetime trying to hold back history in his own little corner to talk a bit about horses?

THE STARTING POINT FOR ANY DISCUSSION of horse power in modern agriculture would have to be a measuring of the horse against the work to be done. Could horses farm the farms that feed the people?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the land grant colleges and universities began conducting extensive research on farm plants and animals back in the nineteenth century. Much of this research from two continents, well over a hundred studies on horses alone, is summed up in F. B. Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, the stockman’s bible. One of the more interesting studies, conducted in 1929 for the USDA on 735 Corn Belt farms, compared the costs of keeping horses on three different classes of farms. What startled me were the acreages involved. The farms using two teams of no more than three horses cultivated an average of 137 acres of cropland, those using a tractor and four horses farmed 196 acres, but those using only horses—eleven horses in big hitches of four or more—tilled an average of 252 acres. Could horses farm the farms? Apparently they could in 1929.

Arthur L. Anderson of Iowa State University, writing in 1943, estimated that one workhorse was needed to cultivate about 25 or 30 acres of land, and stated categorically that a farm should have more than 75 cultivated acres before replacing horses and mules with a tractor. Since the average farm at that time consisted of 174 acres with about 58 of them cropland, it is clear that, under his recommendations, there wouldn’t have been a rush to motorize.

Why then did the beautiful world of my childhood collapse? The reasons most frequently given for converting to tractor power were the cost of feed, convenience, and ease. But more likely it was simply the ethos of the age. Social philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote in 1933 of the “religion” of the machine, which for two centuries had driven society “toward mechanical development without regard for the actual outcome of the development in human relations themselves.”

One thing is certain. Horses were not abandoned because they were no longer up to the job. There seems no reason to suppose that horses could not again till the acres they tilled earlier, were the considerations only technical. All advocates of horse power, whether animal scientists or rural dwellers like myself, put forth much the same arguments.

A main attraction of horse power is that it runs on homegrown fuel—hay you’ve raised yourself or maybe purchased from a neighbor. At worst, you feed grain raised in a neighboring state. In my native Minnesota, our workhorses stayed fat and healthy over the winter eating the coarse wild slough grass that would otherwise have gone to waste, along with leftover alfalfa from which the dairy cows had taken the better parts. Oat straw, another waste product, sometimes formed an important part of winter rations in those northern states, and horses everywhere have often been grazed on rough or irregular pastures that have no other use. The essential point is that they draw their energy from the surroundings, or at least from within the nation—not from Saudi Arabia or Nigeria.

Once used, energy from fossil fuel is lost forever for all practical purposes, but the horse returns to its surroundings raw materials for future energy. The manure, and its critical value in maintaining soil fertility, is one of the chief reasons given by the Amish for clinging to their horse power. Completing this cycle of life, and the argument for live power, are the babies. This power unit replaces itself. If you don’t need the colt yourself at weaning time (five or six months), you can sell it to someone who does.

The argument for horses becomes stronger as the means for acquiring and maintaining complicated machines grow more slender, as would happen through a critical curtailment of oil supplies. The anvil I bought secondhand when I was seventeen and have used to shoe horses this half century and more has the date 1875 stamped on its side. It’s not an antique, just an old anvil. Wagons and harnesses were passed down from generation to generation. By contrast, during the great changeover to mechanization from 1930 to 1950, capital investment in farm machinery increased 350 percent.

Though advocates of horse power have such numbers in their support, in the end their arguments fall back upon the less ponderable. We all like the horse’s versatility. He is an endlessly adaptable power unit that can perform a surprisingly wide variety of tasks. On the same day, you might haul a load of feed up a steep muddy hill to unload at the barn, where you pick up a few bales of hay to take out to the cows and a load of firewood for the house. After lunch, you move some trash and maybe plow the garden, then split the team and drag some poles out of the woods with one of them while your wife gives the kids a ride on the other.

The horse’s performance is affected little by mud or snow, and cold-weather starting is never a problem. Horses also tolerate heat very well and, hot or cold, stay comfortable in the most rudimentary shelter. They can function in very rough terrain and will pull a wagon wherever the axles clear and it won’t tip over.

A horse’s usefulness is bounded only by our own ingenuity in devising ways to apply his willing strength. On our own farm, we once cobbled together a very successful power sprayer, with the noisy Briggs and Stratton that powered it popping off right at the horse’s heels as he dragged the contraption between rows of tomatoes in our two-acre commercial field.

It’s the choring, though—the hauling and dragging and skidding around the farm—where horses not only excel but are positively superior to any motorized device. Small horses and mules, even donkeys, are especially handy at these tasks. You don’t need a team of Budweiser Clydesdales to bring in a few armloads of firewood. This choring, by the way, is especially profligate of gasoline if you’re going automotive. You fire up the pickup a few times to jaunt here and there around the farm, and first thing you know, you’re running on empty.

Among the points put forth in favor of the horse runs a common thread—the liberating joy of independence. Independence from the banker, from the implement dealer and the parts man, from temperamental ignitions and carburetors, from the caprice of weather—I wish I could convey the sense of quiet confidence that settles over the man or woman who holds the reins of a good team as a storm moves in—and independence, above all, from the fuel pump and from the intricate supply system, now stretching worldwide, necessary to keep complex machines running.

Failure in some part of an industrial system is always a real possibility. I remember the scramble to get rolling on synthetic tires during World War II, when Japan took over the natural rubber supply of Southeast Asia. Could a modern, mechanized society survive a failure in a major part of its supply system?

It’s a question to which we have, in one case, a more than hypothetical answer. Cuba, after the collapse of trade relations with the Soviet Union in 1989, could no longer obtain new machinery or parts or fuel for its by-then highly mechanized agriculture. By 1990, only 10 percent of its tractors were running, and the country was suffering a severe food shortage. The ministry of agriculture established an emergency program for the acquisition and utilization of draft animals, and to breed up the necessary ox population. The few old men who knew how to work oxen—the boyeros—were sought out to train a new generation of drivers.

By the end of the 1990s, a revamped Cuban agriculture was successfully powered mostly by oxen, and the acute food shortage was a thing of the past. Soil scientists approved, mainly because compaction had become a severe problem on Cuban soils through the excessive use of tractors and other heavy equipment. Others—among them some farmers, administrators, and economists—were less enthusiastic, seeing the use of oxen as a regression to the past, useful only as a stopgap measure. Now that Venezuela is supplying cheap oil, farmers are reportedly drifting back toward tractors. So maybe that is the shortest answer to the question, why was animal power abandoned? Human beings don’t weigh the pros and cons very closely for the long term. We just do what seems easiest at the time.

Today, conventional farms in this country depend on oil for virtually 100 percent of the energy employed in tilling fields. Already fuel costs are a close second among farm expenses and have started to put a crimp in farm operations, and even the best-case scenario is one of ever-tightening oil supplies. With the food supply for 300 million people at stake, shouldn’t a responsible government be putting some backup measures in place?

To start with, stop paving over some of our finest agricultural lands. And as a horseman I propose that we foster the breeding of draft animals, so that we have reservoirs of genetic material scattered around the country for when they might be needed. European governments long financed and presided over the breeding of horses, promoting superior lines, and we have our own precedent in the Remount program of the U.S. Army. As late as 1937, the Quartermaster Corps had 652 stallions placed with ranchers who had agreed to breed mares to supply the cavalry and artillery.

Skills that were once taken for granted all across rural America will have to be reacquired. When forced back to animal power, the biggest hurdle for Cubans was that they didn’t have nearly enough oxen, nor enough individuals who knew how to handle them. Their old boyeros became a national treasure. Certainly we should have programs around the country for training cadres of young workhorsemen and -women. Our land grant colleges and universities should begin offering classes, next semester, in workhorsemanship. I submit that instruction in how to harness, drive, and care for a plowhorse follows more closely than many of the things we presently teach the original mandate of the Morrill Act, under which the “leading object” of these schools was to teach subjects “related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

In fact, Michigan State University has begun a slow but hopeful revival of its once-vibrant draft horse program, defunct for nearly a half century. A few private schools offer short courses, and Tillers International, a Michigan-based nonprofit, gives seminars in working horses and oxen. At the annual Horse Progress Days held at various locations in the agricultural heartland, Amish, Mennonites, and “English” mix amiably to watch pulling contests and farriers at work, to see demonstrations of training techniques and new horse equipment, to buy and sell horse trappings and new machinery, and to just celebrate the horse.

We’ll want to give some forethought to machinery. Fortunately, a few small manufacturers are reappearing—mostly, I believe, to supply the Amish, but also for the hobby workhorse people and a few scattered farmers and loggers who just prefer doing it with horses.

These initiatives won’t require billions for groundbreaking research, only a little knowledge of very recent history, and they can be put into place immediately. Even if they prove never to have been needed, their cost will have been a pittance as insurance against catastrophe. Right now, the USDA, which spends more than $90 billion a year on its various programs, has no research or funding specifically to support animal traction (the current term).

IT IS TEMPTING TO SPECULATE ON THE SHAPE of American agriculture should an acute oil shortage make us turn back en masse to animal power. My father-in-law, a World War II veteran, is fond of quoting an obscure writer who declared, “You can’t just do one thing.” A large-scale return to animal power would necessarily entail a train of other changes. Horse power requires people, and the people have gone to the cities, their lands mostly joined into holdings too large for one family with a few good horses. The agricultural labor force would have to be greatly increased and farm size drastically reduced, or some system worked out for putting more people back on the land.

But working a horse is not just another activity, it’s a way of life. To start with, horses do have to be fed, and somebody has to be home to feed them. They require care, and therefore regularity and stability in the life of the family that cares for them. All across those northern states where I was a youth—Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana—the young men danced and drank beer late into the night on Saturday, but the horses got fed and the cows got milked on Sunday morning.

Since commercial fertilizer, a product of the petrochemical industry, would be prohibitively expensive, our methods would become again almost wholly organic, and crop production and livestock raising more integrated, with animal manures kept on the farm to enrich the soil. Our diet would change as more food would be raised directly for human consumption and less would be processed through feedlots and factory farms. Transportation costs would encourage more production for local consumption.

The use of horses would not, in itself, protect against environmental degradation. Keep in mind that the Dust Bowl was raised by plows pulled mostly by horses and mules. Horse farming should, however, lead to a closer relationship with the land, to that husbandry that essayist Wendell Berry sees in the good farmer, the conservative attitude that keeps things small enough to be closely cared for. “Cut the cloth to fit the pattern,” I’ve often been urged by an elderly Ozark neighbor, passing along generations of wisdom earned in this grudging, fragile place. Accepting limits comes easier when you don’t have your hand on the throttle.

I’VE TRIED TO AVOID ROMANTICIZING, but working with our fellow creatures is romantic—if you’re content to farm a small acreage, if you don’t mind being tied down, if you have the necessary self-discipline and family cohesion, and, especially, if you like the smell of horse sweat, the jingle of trace chains, and the cozy munching sounds when you’ve pulled the harness off your tired team and thrown them their sun-drenched hay.

Stand beside a great team someday, heads high above your own, massive muscles in every part. Get your hands on the lines, speak to them softly and feel those tons of intelligent power surge joyously into the collars. Feel the strength coursing back through your hands as the furrow opens behind you or the great wheels move beneath their load, and surely you will ask, how could we have abandoned this? 

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Dick Courteau, assisted by daughter Jacqueline, writes between chores on his Ozark mountain farm. He still trains a few horses, and people to work them.

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