Written by: Liz Brown
Working horses can still be found on the farm and elsewhere doing traditional work efficiently and often more successfully than machines.
Using horsepower to farm, log and manage cattle may bring to mind century-old images of pioneers and cowboys, or maybe thoughts of Mennonites in small rural pockets, but there is another group of people that are using horses for more than showing – and making a living at it, too. These people believe using horsepower is the better way to do things and will lead to a more sustainable future.
Jason Rutledge has been logging and farming with horses for more than 40 years and runs the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation – a Virginia non-profit that helps develop community-based sustainable forestry initiatives that use animal power. He’s made it his mission to educate the public about horse logging and helps connect expert horse loggers with would-be apprentices who want to learn the skill.
When I told him I wanted to write an article about how people are using horsepower for work in modern times, he said “I hope you won’t write a piece that frames this as a quaint, anachronistic pursuit.”
Anachronism – something or someone not in its correct historic time – is a word Rutledge has contemplated for nearly 30 years. “I was on the cover of Mother Earth News in 1987 (talking about horse logging) and at the end of the article they had a panel of experts they asked ‘What do you think of this guy who’s logging and farming with horses in the 20th century?’ and one USDA expert said ‘It’s fine, but he’s an anachronism.’
“At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, so I looked it up. And it meant that someone was out of time, in the past. And I brooded on that for many years and, at some point, I had an epiphany where I was sitting and resting my horses in the forest and it came to me – I’m an anachronism because I’m in the future and they don’t see it yet. That’s the point of all of us.”
It’s a bold statement, but Rutledge makes some good points. “This is a valid skill that should remain in the human toolbox for survival in the future. We shouldn’t dismiss or displace it with 75 years of cheap energy in the form of oil. This was the way – and the norm – for hundreds of years. This is the permanent method. What’s happened over the last 75 years is the experiment,” he said.
What follows here are three examples of ways people in Canada are still productively using horses to help them earn their livelihood and ensuring this kind of horse knowledge is passed down to future generations.
Farming with Horses
At a small organic farm near St. Thomas, Ontario, Ken and Martha Laing have been growing crops since 1979. Ken admits he does use a tractor at times, but since they began using horses on the farm in 1980, they’ve been incorporating them more and more into the operation.
Currently, they have 70 workable acres of farm land, which includes vegetables, cereal grains and hay, and all of their tillage is done with the horses. The only jobs the tractor is used for are baling hay, clearing areas with a bush hog and using a small combine for grain harvest. The horses cut the hay, rake it and haul it to the barns.
For the Laings, it was both an ethical and economical decision to move to horsepower. “It was a concern about the environment and the use of petroleum and also, horses can avoid some costs. You don’t have to buy fuel for them – they can eat the pasture, hay and cereal grains we grow. They’re also a source of revenue. We’ve bred a lot of foals over the years,” said Ken Laing.
In the beginning, the Laings used Belgian horses, but then switched to Suffolk Punch horses. “Having a rare breed like the Suffolk makes it a seller’s market for the foals,” said Laing.
He said he also likes the breed because it hasn’t changed the way other draft breeds have over the years. “In North America, a lot of draft breeds have been bred to be big and showy and of a more nervous temperament, so they look flashy in the show ring, but those aren’t necessarily good farming horses. You want pretty steady horses that aren’t going to frighten easily,” he said.
He also likes the size of the Suffolk Punch, which he says on average are around 15.2 to 16 hands. “That’s a lot easier to harness every day than an 18 hand horse,” he said.
The Laings are able to make a living with their horses – they run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where families buy a share of the garden each season in exchange for a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. According to Laing, the farm generates between $150,000 and $175,000 in gross income each year, about half being net income. “It’s a reasonable income from a relatively small farm,” he said. He noted, however, that in order for a CSA to be successful, it needs to be located near an area with enough families to support it.
It isn’t always easy farming with horses, either. Laing said it can be hard labour and that there’s an economy of scale with horse farming and CSAs. “You have to be big enough to make a living, but you can’t be so big you need to hire full-time employees, because you’re going to have trouble finding employees with the right kind of horse experience,” he said.
Laing also runs an apprenticeship program and said every summer there is a waiting list for people who want to stay at their farm and learn how to work with the horses. “There’s quite a bit of interest in it because CSAs can be a good way to make a living.”
On the south shore of Nova Scotia, a little south of Halifax, Tristan Kelley works with his horses in Petite Riviere Bridge. In the summer, he farms and, in the winter, he takes logging jobs. Kelley, 34, has had horses for most of his life. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like the idea of having to lug everything by hand, so I trained my pony to harness. From the time I could walk, I was either riding or driving horses,” he said.
He began earning his living through horsepower right after high school. “I was about 18 and needed work. I had horses and I had a chainsaw, so I just started working,” he said.
When the market was better, Kelley subcontracted for people who had their own wood lots to do primary extraction. Most of the jobs he does now, however, are to go into forests and remove single trees, which are then hauled by the horses to a point where a truck or tractor can take it to a mill. “By doing this we’re using the horse for what it’s meant for – short distances because they’re flexible and fast,” he said.
Kelley said that the Acadian forest in Nova Scotia is well-suited to horse logging because it hosts a high diversity of tree species and has an uneven aged stand (different age groups of trees). “To remove a large tree or a tree that’s compromised in some way, there can be a lot of smaller trees around it that you want to save and protect,” he said.
To take a machine in to do the job can mean making a wide road through the stand. “You could end up cutting young trees that could otherwise be saved for future removal to remove just one tree,” said Kelley.
Horses have a much less significant impact on the forest because they can manoeuvre around the stand as they remove targeted trees. “Basically, we use the horses for efficiency and quality of work,” he said.
But there are some drawbacks to using horses – for one thing, it’s intensely physical work that can be dangerous. Kelley used to be a triathlete and says the physical fitness you need for horse logging is comparable to being able to complete a triathlon. “To maintain that level of physical fitness is difficult,” he said.
“When you’re a horse logger you work your day in the woods, then you come home and take care of your horses. And then before you start your day, you look after your horses. There are a lot of people who get into it with this romantic ‘back to the land’ expectation of what the lifestyle will be. But the reality is that it’s long, cold days and to be efficient at it you have to have been around horses for most of your life so you are fairly self-sufficient – you’ll probably have to shoe your own horses,” he said.
In a strange juxtaposition, Kelley – like his American counterpart Rutledge – is active on Facebook, posting plenty of pictures of him working with his horses. “One of the reasons I do this is because when I was young, there wasn’t a lot of information for me to soak in. I used to subscribe to Draft Horse Journal and that’s how I connected with Jason Rutledge,” said Kelley, who says that he and Rutledge stay in touch over Facebook. “When I saw Rutledge, I thought, you know what, there’s a guy making his living at this somewhere in the world. That made me want to try,” he added.
Kelley said that with the internet, he hopes he can inspire other people to get into the lifestyle. “But I have my doubts whether it’s going to continue on, for the reasons I’ve already talked about – it’s physically demanding and it’s not an instant gratification lifestyle. The number of people who are going to gravitate towards it are probably less than previous generations.”
The Cowboy Life
Managing cattle with horses is probably the most common way equines are still used in a practical sense. But even in Alberta, some of the cattlemen are seeing a change in the cowboy life. “More and more people are using quads instead of horses,” said Jason Carmichael, a rancher and farrier in Madden, Alberta, 50 kilometres north of Calgary.
Carmichael runs about 500 head of cattle on 400 acres over the summer and does most of his herd management duties from the back of one of his three Quarter Horses. Even though some people have opted for the mechanical kind of horsepower to check on cattle, Carmichael said that using horses is still a popular way to ranch in Alberta. “It’s a lot easier on the cattle and they’re a lot easier to handle when you work from horseback,” he said.
Quads can scare the cattle and you can’t rope a cow from a quad, so the cattlemen who use quads often have to drive a whole herd into a corral that could be five kilometers or more away to separate out cattle that are sick or need treatments. “It’s a lot easier with horses because you can just rope the cow on the spot,” said Carmichael. “Eventually, the cattle will just follow the horses around. Horse and cattle just go together,” he joked.
Carmichael is confident this is one type of horse use that won’t ever fade away. “As long as there’s open country where you can ride, there will always be a use for horses with cattle,” he said.
Carmichael is even considering getting a few draft horses so he can feed his cattle hay by horsepower. He says he knows some ranchers in Saskatchewan who do this, one that feeds 500 cattle with horses and a wagon.
As Rutledge continues to educate the public about the pros of horsepower, he remains confident that these skills won’t fall by the wayside. “No one said this is the easy way. I still use some farm equipment, but I feel I have a responsibility to uphold this. It’s a standard that highlights my own perspective,” he said.
One way to integrate more horsepower into agricultural and forestry pursuits would be to raise the price of food – something that might now sit well with consumers – but Rutledge said would be necessary to farm with horses on a larger scale. “Modern agri-business wants to produce cheaply so people only have to spend a small percentage of their income on real-life necessities, so that they’ll have more money to spend on mindless consuming,” he said.
It’s a strong opinion, but one worth considering. Horsepower can minimize our impact on the environment and give people an opportunity to spend more time outdoors, developing a partnership with their animals. How would life be different, if we better valued locally-grown produce, free-range meat and small-scale timber products – all produced with the help of horses?
SEARCH AND RESCUE
Policing bodies have long recognized the benefits of using mounted search and rescue teams for locating missing persons. Horses can cover ground more quickly than people on foot and can give a human searcher the advantage of a higher vantage point for a greater viewing range. Plus, aside from their power, agility and stamina, horses bring their keen senses of hearing and smell to the job.
One such group is the Rideau Mounted Search and Rescue team located in Lanark County, Ontario. On-call volunteers work alongside the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) when their services are needed. Volunteers and their horses must be fit enough to travel 35 kilometres per day for three days in a row and must maintain this fitness year round in order to be able to head out on a moment’s notice.
Any potential volunteer horses must pass a series of suitability tests, including the ability to load into a trailer within five minutes, stand quietly alone on a lead for 20 minutes, be ponied by another rider, cross water and be able to cross a wooden bridge.
Taking this one step further are people who use horses for air scent detection (similar to the way dogs are used to follow scents although dogs are more likely trained to follow ground scents). Terry Nowacki, a horse trainer in Minnesota, offers clinics that help people train their horses to detect scents. Last year he did a clinic with the Bismarck Mounted Police in North Dakota and California’s El Dorado County Search and Rescue group, among others. According to Nowacki, horses can detect things like narcotics and locate missing people.
It’s an equine skill North American First Nations people took advantage of to help them locate herds of bison. According to historic accounts, Theodore Roosevelt hired a hunting guide in the 1880s that “followed his horse’s nose to buffalo.”
There’s more modern proof it works, too. Two years ago, the Oregon Live reported that an Appaloosa gelding took just two minutes and 20 seconds to find a hidden volunteer in a 13-acre, semi-wooded field. The event was organized by a group in Oregon who wants to use horses in the way bloodhounds are used for search and rescue missions.
The Facebook group American Equine Scenting Association has more information on horse scenting clinics, if you’re feeling a little – ahem – nosey about this skill.