Horse Power

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?

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.


  1. Dear Mr. Courteau,

    I live in Arkansas and would like to know if you would be willing to teach me (and maybe another friend) the skills of farming with draft animals which you wrote about. I’d be willing to come and help out on your farm in exchange for the learning experience.

    Thanks. Oh, have you read the book “Entropy” by Jeremy Rifkin? If not, check it out. You might enjoy it.

  2. I call it hybrid haying–horses and tractors. We use four or five teams using mowers that are razor sharp and 2 horse drawn rakes. We bale with the Kubota tractor and a John Deere Bailer. Teams are hitched to the flat beds that pull 100 bales out of the field at a time. Chuck Bailey says that if you have to carry a bale more than two steps you are carrying it too far. It’s not a possibility it is the arrangement of the future. We could not do it without someone like Chuck Bailey who speaks fluent horse and knows how to make sharp corners.

    We are not the only ones. The Best of Sale of the 1980s draft horse auctions were the showy horses that looked like Budweiser horses. Now well broke Amish team bring the most money at auctions. Horses that someone like me that weighs all of 120 pounds can drive. There is nothing nostalgic about haying with horses; it makes sense. My 15 years old daughter is happy to drive the teams and my 16 years old son is happy driving the tractor with ACDC blaring under his earphones.

    We are returning to an era where we like all other species will consider the energy returned on energy invested. We didn’t just abandon draft horses, oxen or farming. We were bullied into cities, into factories, into debt to pay for monstrous tractors and expensive fertilizers. We are a nation of bullied people who don’t want to seem to hic, too old country, too traditional or too weird.

    When talking to old ranchers they often say “Yeah I helped my Dad hay with horses” and they pause as if wondering what happened to that way of life.

    But at the moment bailing with a tractor makes sense. We have to move the hay so hay stacks don’t seem reasonable. Pressing 80pounds of hay into a 4 foot packet is a good use of gasoline.

    We joke that the sad songs will now be sung about the abandoned tractors watching the horses go by.

  3. Dear Mr Courteau,

    I enjoyed reading your article.

    I am the friend mentioned by Amoz Eckerson in his recent post. If you’re ever interested in some free labor on your farm in exchange for instruction on working with draft horses, please contact us.

    I have lived and taught in the Delta region of Arkansas for three years, and eventually I plan to re-settle back in my home state of Kentucky. I plan to get involved in the local food economy / organic ag movement there, and I dream of one day developing a farm-school project in my community. I would like to educate myself about working with animals, and eventually be able to teach others, as well.

    Best of luck in the harvest season.
    Martin Mudd

  4. This is a great article. Readers may be interested to know about the 2007 Northeast Animal-Power Field Days Sep 29 and 30 at the Fair-grounds, Tunbridge, Vermont. There is a small but vibrant community of animal power loggers and farmers in northern New England. Check for information.

  5. I am glad to see that on-line that you list Small Farmer’s Journal as a resource. I was very surprised not to see it mentioned in the print edition. Small Farmer’s Journal has been promoting horsefarming for over 30 years. If you have not read this journal, I would highly encourage you to, it is more than just horsefarming! It will get you thinking and make you understand the importance of the small farm, as the future of our current agricultural system is at risk. I was glad to see Orion bring the importance of horse power to the front of the environmental movement. There are no easy answers… but we have been using horses longer than we have been using tractors!

  6. Dear Mr. Courteau:
    Thank you so much for the lovely article. While I have never farmed by horse, I spent my childhood as an avid equestrian and have lately been thinking quite along the lines as you. We need to return to at least partial use of horse power if we’re serious about wanting to stop relying on other parts of the world for our energy. And I’ve so been longing for a pony cart!

  7. I read the first page of this article in the morning before heading off for work at a small organic vegetable farm in Victor, Montana. All day long, while picking strawberries and tomatoes and green beans, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had read. I finished the article right away when I returned home in the evening. Thank you for your insight, Mr. Courtreau. I’m working on my Master’s Degree in Sustainable Food & Farming right now, and when I finish next year I’m going to look up some of the training programs you mention. Thanks again for re-igniting an interest of mine and bringing horse power to the table of environmental discussion.

  8. Thank you – What a wonderful article to see in Orion!

    Here in New Hampshire, and in neighboring New England states, there are quite a few folks using (and more that are learning to use) draft animals for farming and logging. The trend seems to be on the upswing, and has been for some years.

    I myself use my Percheron mare for working my woodlot, and for driving around with a cart. The Granite State Draft Horse and Pony Association is growing year by year, with many events over the seasons. Besides NH, I know many loggers and farmers in Vermont and Maine who work with horses. “Draft Horse Days” are held all over the place. I see more and more pastures with Belgians and Percherons in them throughout my travels.

    When the crunch comes, I believe that there will be an adequate reservoir of draft horse expertise to spread the knowledge.

    Meanwhile, I surely treasure “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.”

    Thanks again very much for bringing attention to this important subject…

    – Steve

  9. An excellent article Mr. Courteau! Thank you!

    I raised Shire horses for about 16 years in Washington State and Colorado. Life has its twists and turns and I’m doing other things now, but I dream frequently about getting back into it on a limited basis. I’m down to only two now but we had as many as twenty-four on the farm at one point. The two I have left are in their mid-twenties and I pray they will live another twenty.

    I’ve met many farmers and families who work their land with horses. They’re so attuned to the horses, the land, and themselves that the combination produces what seems to me a somewhat magical atmosphere of happy work. They seem at peace as do their exceptionally physically-fit work partners, the horses.

    We often talked of the value of horses in the near future as increasingly feasible alternatives to fossil-fuel driven transportation. If many more smaller farms were created around cities of all sizes, food would cost less and farmers would make better profits, not only from the lower input costs of horse-farming, but from being rid of agribusiness in the middle determining profit margins. Community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs) would likely become extremely popular all across the country, in my humble opinion.

    The resurgence of equine power could also help rebuild our rail systems across the country because horses can pick up and deliver from local depots at lower costs that trucking companies in many cases. I know somewhere in my files I’ve kept a couple of studies from many years ago that break down the various costs for comparison and demonstrated that the horse-drawn operations won depending on circumstances. Cities, counties, and States might find ways through free enterprise and public support to refurbish rail infrastructure and create new avenues for transfer of goods. Here in Tennessee, rail systems are being refurbished with such a new outlook, though not for or because of increased use of horse drayage. But one never knows that such a thing might occur in many towns later on.

    We need a return to our agrarian roots by a large number of our citizenry. Sure, we need the cities and hope that people want to live in them and not spread out and eat up the land, but so very many of us are “meant” to be part of the agrarian culture. Horses will be a big part of that return; I truly believe it is so. I’m not certain about the actual numbers, but it seems to me that at one time in the recent past there were about 30 or so States in which draft horse organizations existed. With a little looking around, one can find a great many operations of varying sizes—especially growers using strictly organic methods—that have horses helping the work the land.

    Again, Mr. Courteau, thanks for the great article and I hope you’ll give us the pleasure of follow-up articles about this needed return to the ways of yore.

  10. Wonderful story. It opens up another way of thinking on how to solve our carbon energy, corporate agriculture, and chemical fertilizer

    Thank you.

  11. Dear Mr. Courteau,
    Yours is a very pleasing and well written article on the possibilities and probabilities of horse farming. There seem to be a mix of breeds and grades of drafts in the pictures of Mr. Israel’s Suffolks and Belgium. Is that Jay Bailey of Vermont with the rasp on page 65 and one of his family’s teams pulling that great wagon on page 66. It looks like all young people enjoying being teamsters on page 66. We breed and work Suffolk Punch draft horses. We cannot say enough good about this breed. I agree with many of the writers before me that with the peak of oil production soon arriving we have to stop considering alternatives and MOVE immediately to other options. No better one in my book than the horse!
    Rex Miller

  12. Missed this article the first time around. Glad to see you’ve covered it well.

    Wes Jackson ran a farm using horses, and tractors powered by biofuels for ten years in Kandsas:

    I only plow my garden every year with my thoroughbred/paint cross. Still looking for a good team of Suffolk mares, Draft horses and oxen are getting more popular all the time They are an efficient and profitable way to farm.

    One of the goals of my life is to get to Horse Progress Days, which rotates between Amish communities in the midwest every year on the 4th of July weekend. Small Farmer;s Journal and Draft Horse Journal have details.

  13. Re “HORSE POWER”
    The author replies to correspondence:

    Thank you all for this lively discussion. I’ll try to address you and your comments individually, in no particular order.

    Janine, maybe “bullied into cities” is a bit strong, but I go along with the drift. “Deceived,” “lured,” “seduced,” come to mind, maybe seduced by ourselves. Sure the bait was laid, but did we have to take it so eagerly? We all sang the praises, we older folks, even back then, of the beauties of country living, but we wanted higher incomes, paid vacations, a college education, and a nice car too, and then�ah, weak flesh!�there�s always been that powerful drive, what some old sage put his finger on, sighing, “Eros, the builder of cities.”

    Robert, thanks for calling attention to Animal Power Days at Tunbridge, VT. How I wish I could be there to meet some of the leading lights of our movement, like Drew Conroy and Lynn Miller!

    Cindy, I’m glad I got you mollified regarding the Small Farmer’s Journal. I probably should have mentioned Lynn Miller’s book on training, but I didn’t find out about it in time for a review. I keep learning too.

    Melissa, thanks, and I hope you get that pony cart, but be careful, and get some competent, experienced help to get started. Ponies, too, are fast and powerful!

    Jessica, up there in Montana, the state I call my second mother, it’s good to see a mind and heart like yours in sustainable farming. And along with you, Bill, and with Steve from New England, and many others I�m sure, I thank the editors at Orion for seeing some value in my off-beat article and its quaint subject matter.

    And Steve, thanks for catching us up on the encouraging developments in New England. There is nothing like a good horse for working in the woods. Been there — a lot!

    Bob with the Shires, you write more eloquently than I of the spiritual aspects of working with horses. To your felicitous phrase of “magical atmosphere of happy work,” I might only say amen with words like “harmony,” “at one with nature,” even “love.”

    Amoz and Martin, I’ll try to get around to Rifkin’s Entropy, and maybe I’ll see you before long?

    Walt, your plowing with Thoroughbred paint cross shows that almost any breed can be harnessed. We have worked, as wagon horses, a misshapen, woebegone but willing little Appaloosa mare, a half Arab, a Morgan, an American Saddlebred hinny, and, years ago, my fiery, red-hot Thoroughbred reining mare (but novices, stay away from those Thoroughbreds — these great horses can be kind of crazy). We do best, though, by selecting from breeds with demonstrated aptitude, like those Suffolks that Rex Miller raises. Though quite new to the United States, their fame goes before them as strong quiet agricultural workers. The little Haflingers are a superb breed, rising stars on the smaller farms of this shrinking planet. And Rex, I can’t tell you a thing about the photos — Orion supplied all photography.

    Don Alfredo, down there in Argentina, thanks for sending us your own publications proposing a return to more animal power. It’s great to know of this internationally broad interest. Your experience and mine have been so similar. Though considerably younger than I (14 years), you too remember when horses were used in large numbers, yet your friends, like mine, could not hide a smile when we suggested some reliance again on a technology that had been immensely useful until so very recently. You state that every human society will have to respond to the coming oil shortage with substitutions, “according to its own possibilities.” Obviously, your fertile pampas, like certain of our rich soils, have tremendous potential for substitution, producing grass and grain to be run through work animals, not engines. You rightly suggest that a shift to animal power, only one change among many, would entail a total redesign of life at its roots. We agree on so much, but, whoa there, amigo mio! What’s this about biotechnologically powered horses? Are we talking genetic engineering here? Let our engineers exercise themselves building those lighter wagons you propose, but leave our magnificent horses alone! And by the way, now that we’re emboldened, let’s not hinge our argument too closely on just the price of oil. I’d work horses if gas were a nickel a gallon.

    I had expected at least some negative reaction, honest and sincere, to my ideas. Should we “converse the coin,” and I were in the audience, instead of at the podium, I would press the speaker with some hard questions. How about animal welfare? Don’t horses leave a heavy track on the planet too, and can’t they be dangerous? And how about the waste and inefficiency decried by those critics of yesteryear? We could turn this subject ’round and ’round. These are valid concerns, and I’m prepared to address them, but right now I gotta run. I have a couple of young Belgian mares in training that need work badly. Let’s keep talking though.

    Dick Courteau

  14. I’ve been saying for a long time that things will have to go back before they get better, and I would love to see more respectful use of horses etc.

  15. re Jaqueline/ Dick, #14

    Chester (rthe thoroughbred/paint) isn’t all that keen on plowing. He tends to be high strung, I haven’t had the nerve yet to hitch him to aything with wheels.

    Lynn Miller, editor of the Small Farm Journal has writen about treatment in his books. Some of the excesses of the past included working horses til they dropped and using rubber tires instead of a proper collar. His point is that today it’s a choice, no one has to use a hores. That may change as we move past peak oil and we’ll need to keep it in mind. There’s also the human safety issue, it is very easy to get hurt if you are not careful working with such powerful animals.

    And Wendell Berry has pointed out that farm land has been ruined by farmers plowing with horses, oxen, and using digging sticks. Horses are not a panacea, we still need to relearn old ways and leaven them with new scientific understanding if we are to farm sustainably.

    I wonder at folks who spend their recreation time running noisy, throbbing appliances such as jet skis, ATVs, and dirt bikes. It seems stressful to me, and I admit I don’t understand them. Mowing a field with horses is a much nicer experience than using a tractor. But to me, so is riding a horse (or hiking) down a trail instead of on an ATV.

  16. Great article and I agree with most everything in it. In the fifties I saw draft horses used to build bridges for the Forest Service in Montana, and some of the ranchers still mowed with horse outfits.

    Today draft horse are used by people who love horses, and it’s a matter of choice. If it becomes a matter of necessity, everything changes, and I fear for the horses. Even Dick Couteau’s “gentle Sally, Dick, and Rex” went to the slaughterhouse for $25 a piece when they no longer paid their way. If you read much history, you know the treatment of horses has been abominable. On the Russian Front alone in WWII the Germans lost 25,000,000 horses, and that wasn’t long ago. Today in Third World you can witness the ruthlessness with which animals are used in farming and transport, and it was never any different here in the USA back in the horseback days. Why would it be any different in the future?

  17. What an excellent article. I agree that caring for horses is a way of life. In this age of too much to do and little time to do it, getting back to basics is more than just good for the Earth. It is good for people too.
    We have a small farm with three pleasure horses and chickens that supply our eggs. The next horse we own will be a draft cross that I will use for work around our farm and some local transportation. Farm life is new for our family of five, but its benefits are innumerable. My goal is to become less dependent on outside sources for food and energy and move toward more sustainable living practices. I have made the choice to work from my home so our family can experience this great way of life. We love the slower pace, and the physical work, and the interaction with our animals as well as time together as a family. We are fortnate to have many Amish neighbors (Lancaster County, PA) who will hopefully be willing to help us learn to use our draft horse for work. Another benefit of this lifestyle… learning to know your neighbors and working together!!

  18. Nothing could encourage me more than to entertain the possibility of the USA returning to Horse Power.

    Recently, I almost wrote a thesis on returning to horse power, but chose the subject of impeachment instead. My argument would have been against the slaughter of horses in the USA exactly for the reason Mr. Courteau explains: it has been the horse, throughout history, that has transported man to greater heights.

    The magnificent horse, unequalled in the animal kingdom. Intuitive, intelligent, and with heart and soul surpassing most human beings, the horse again will lead us to a new and fruitful phase in evolution.

    When our culture wakes up to the realization that it is the land that sustains us, not government, not organized religion, but the very planet we pave over by the thousands of acres in order to “get there faster”. The trouble is, nobody knows where they’re going anymore. As raunch culture rapidly approaches its demise, we must remember, as it has been said, “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” Bring back the Beligians, Percherons, Clydesdales, and the love and affection these kindred spirits bring to human lives that passes all human understanding. What could bring about a more amazing revolution, and revelation, than the return to Horse Power?

    Thank you for a wonderful article. You’ve made my day.

  19. This article reminded me of my desire never to operate an internal combustion engine when I was a teenager. Times changed and necessity made it necessary to drive a car.
    In the interim I have had the pleasure of working with a man that was a mechanic who chose to return to the land with a pair of Clydesdales.
    I have pleasure horses, although I know how to drive and believe that there will be a return to horse power (albeit slowly) by the educated ‘small’ farmer. I quite honestly don’t know what the large corporate giants will do. I have always found it interesting that the Amish in our state make money on their farms regardless every year because they don’t have too much land, huge tractors, etc.
    I also know that horse abuse may increase as more are needed. Hopefully those that embrace using horses will do it humanely.
    Thanks for writing an article that reminded me of my childhood dreams. Now about buying a draft horse, I will have to convince my husband that it is necessary.

  20. This is a wonderful article! If you’ve not read any of S.M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” series, you’re in for a treat. “Spacebats” rework fluid dynamics and end electricity: no power and no powder. It’s 1400 again. Those horses look might darned good!

    Thanks for your work on this.

  21. With the rising fuel and energy price, the use of draft animals could become an interesting alternative.

    We can feed them with hay and the excrete can be used for compost, of course, the side effect it may slow down the agricultural process

  22. We are trying to re-introduce heavy horses to roadwork in England. The time is right but the skills are fast becoming extinct. We hope that we can interest young people and authorities in looking at horsepower as more than an anachronism.

  23. Dear Mr. Courteau
    Thank you very much for an excellent expression. Infact, for the whole humanity, the best way out for agriculture and goods transportation is the use of the animals, especially the horses and the oxen. In terms of the health of the tillers, the land and environment, the quality of food etc. there is no match for the animal power. Of course man has to do some labour. That is in his benefit. I am a student of Vedas also. As per the Vedas, use of animals is the optimum way for men for economics, environment, health, spirituality etc. It is not a sign of backwardness or underdevelopment. I hope the governments should realize this very soon and make it a law. Infact, the town planning is faulty through out the world. If it is done as per the Vedas, energy won’t be a problem. Many of the law and order problems, and diseases will vanish. Please visit the site “”.
    Thanks again,
    Niranjan mangla.

  24. great article – does anybody know if horse power is more efficient than biofuels ie would I use more land feeding my horses than feeding my tractors? Beautiful comment ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ I have always interpreted this to mean our humble return to a simpler life. I am glead o hear someone else is thinking exactly the same.

  25. Every case is different, but in general the land required is very similar, 25 to 30 percent of the land farmed. Horses, if treated well offer vet bills that are lower than cost of maintaining the tractors, they replace themselves and also offer up a product for sale, extra foals. As a side benefit- more humans are employed in a horse driven economy- who wants to work at Wal-Mart?

    See the Sunshine Farm Project at the Land Institute

  26. Infact, it is the oxen that must be used for farming. Horses are better suited for transport of men. Again transport of heavy load should be done by the oxen. The advantages of the oxen are: safe environment, fertility of land, less susceptibility of the farmers to liquor due to the inner satisfaction obtained in tilling the land using oxen,independence from the complicated tractor and the oil. The oxen and the horses make the best use of the solar energy by converting grass to power. The grass and other plants are the solar machines making use of every bit of solar energy. Global warming is not a problem. At present, the cows are used for milk and the oxen are useless. We are wasting the naturally available gift and earning sin by killing the oxen. In some parts of India people are still using the oxen for farming. Yes,the sustainable solution is the use of the oxen for farming and horses for transport of men. A tractior or a car cosumes that much of oxygen in a short time that an horse consumes in its whole life time. An horse vehicle can easily run at 45km/hr. It would take same time in places where the speed lmit is 45 km/hr. In highways, it will take more time but we can plan in advance. What a man does in reaching earlier to his destination? Most of the time he wastes his time in useless activities.

  27. I have no problem with oxen, they move slower and that’s better for many farm tasks, we’ll need al the help we can get. They are also considered more edible here in America, leading to better sustainability. Most Americans do not realize Oxen are steers.

    There are issues. Yokes are not as available as horse harness and poorly made can e cruel (as can a poorly fitted horse collar). There are fewer folks skilled at driving oxen here than there are teamsters. Also, oxen are usually led, requiring a second person of the drawn implement most of the time.

    Many folks also don’t realize that the large draft breeds were usually used pulling wagons on the road, not in the fields. 1200 pound horses move more nimbly and step on fewer crops than the big drafters. In hot areas, mules are often preferred.

  28. Can anyone reading here suggest where I could go to find the approximate cost of a team of working farm horses around the turn of the century (19th to 20th!)?

  29. Excellent post by Dick on Horse power I am sure its a practical suggestion that would transform the way we live and it really work!!! great discussion

  30. Great article. I agree, using a horse on a farm is a very “green” way to get the job done. gas, or might i say grass is cheaper than gas! plus then you can use the manure for farming.

  31. Would you happen to be the Richard Courteau that lived at Maxwell, Ne?
    We’ve wondered about you and your family. Janice Yost

  32. I have a very nice small farm complete with draft horses, horse drawn equipment, buggies, wagons, horse drawn haying equipment as well as plows, harrows, planting and plastic mulchers, etc.
    My full time job does not allow me to pursue my passion. The farm has a large following of friends and paying customers who buy our eggs and produce. we would like to find someone who would take over the small farm business. We farm with Percheron horses, and we have a small flock of sheep, cows and 240 laying hens. This position will require lots of hard work and determination and a huge passion for truely living off the land. Our farm is rich river bottom land with an abundance of available water for irrigation if needed. We are located at the foothills of the Appalacian mtns. in a very friendly community that is really excited that we utilize early american principles of farming.
    This is not a paying job, but an opportunity to take the fertile land, horses and equipment and carve out a meager living. References and background checks will be conducted on the ideal candidate.

    If you want to get away from the rat race and live off the land,… this may be the right opportunity for you.

    Contact us by Email

  33. Me, my wife and son farm 322 acres in the plains with horses. We do quite well both financially and are extremely happy people.

  34. For the past thirteen years I have had a horsedrawn trash and recycling pickup route in the village of Bristol, Vt. I make over 80% of my income using horses so have first hand experience that horses are a viable alternative to trucks and tractors.

  35. The public is invited to visit our web site that promotes the use of draft animal power as a superior technique to address human needs for forest products. We have been at this for a long time and will continue onward knowing that animal powered techniques will always be superior in certain applications. We train apprentices through a network of mentors as funding is available. Thanks for this great article.
    Please contact us if you have any questions or thoughts.

    Jason Rutledge, President BOD
    Healing Harvest Forest Foundation

  36. May I suggest the quarterly, “Small Farmer’s Journal”? The editor, Lynn Miller, has published many books for the beginner horseman and also complete volumes on haying, plowing and farm impliments. These books detail every aspect of their subject. May I also suggest “Horse Progress Days” to be held in Pennsylvania this year over the 4th of July weekend. Details are online or on the Rural Heritage Magazine website.

  37. I want to learn about how to train draft horses, is somewhere books online, where i can get information. i have a little experience of training horses (riding, puling a cart), but it was 2 yrs ago, so i need to renew my mind.

  38. Interesting well written article but you are preaching to the choir in this case, thankfully there is a team eating their hay in the pasture. If people would have heeded the voices crying in the wilderness for mixed power farming we would not be in a lot of the mess we are in!

  39. I was born in 1931, in SW NY on a combination dairy & truck farm. I lived with my mother & grandfather (born in Sicily), where I lived all of my younger years. I was raised with the daily usage of teams of horses in ALL of the farm work. I remember the old dump rake, the hay loader pulled behind the hay wagon; the riding plow, the horse drawn disk with which we increased its potential by loading large rocks on top of it! These are memories that will stay with me as long as I live! And, oh how I wish I could return to such an environment!! Thanks for reading this!

  40. Dear Mr. Courteau,

    I lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for seven years, a transplant from studying Film and working in Manhattan who decided when I was pregnant to raise her child in a calmer atmosphere. Now I am back in my more native California –– but I have to say my observations of my Amish friends’ life and the way of existence there led me to consider what you say quite seriously on my own. I have proposed this! Especially since I subsequently lived in France and they too use a lot of horse manure on crops to good effect!! I think it’s a brilliant idea! Good for you!!

  41. I see no future without draft animals, at least, no future that I would want to be part of. Fossil fuels have given humans monstrous power and have allowed us to unbalance the planet. Draft animal power has many benefits, not the least of which to my mind is that it limits the amount of damage a person can do. Beyond that, accomplishing useful work with draft animals requires that the human connects and works with a fellow creature instead of treating all the rest of creation as an obstacle to be overcome. I plan to spend the days (or years) left to me in increasing my understanding of bio-energy (human and animal power) and in sharing what I learn with anyone who is interested. not because I expect it to save us but because it is the right thing to do.

  42. I recently bought a farm in Central Kentucky. Mostly hills.
    My intention was to do work mostly with horses–light logging, harvesting, building, since much of the farm is inaccessible to tractors. I even plan on using goats for transporting groceries, small building materials and creek rock. I have retro-fitted my old bicycle trailer to fit a large goat.
    You’d think in Kentucky, this would have been received with less raised eyebrows.
    I started with a Percheron. I’m moving towards the Tyrolean Noriker–a slightly smaller, stouter, hardier, more compact draft, however.
    I am learning the ins and outs of importing breeding stock right now. Anyone interested?

  43. Interesting article – I work horses in the UK (mainly logging) and agree with all you say. I think that in the USA you have enough land to make the horse powered farm work economically – and maybe the climate too? Over here I own just 7 acres and it is not viable to farm that size of land with anything, not even tractors. Maybe I should move to the USA…..!

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