Life in the slow lane: horse-drawn farming

As agriculture becomes ever more reliant on technology, horse-drawn farming seems consigned to a bygone age. But working with horses reduces the reliance on fossil fuels, cuts soil compaction, and can be economically viable on a small scale, writes Eleanor Paddock, from her farm in the shadow of Dartmoor using real horse power

In an age when most people probably think of horse-drawn farming as a charming bygone, and farming is becoming increasingly mechanised, in our small corner of Devon we’re working hard to make sure that a new generation of farmers has access to the traditional skills of working horses.

We manage our 35-acre farm using a team of 20 mixed breed horses – and no tractors. Most of our horses are taken out of the food chain, where they are destined to go to slaughter, and given a new lease of life as working animals. They pull a wide variety of antique and modern machinery, ploughing, cultivating, drilling, hoeing and ultimately bringing in the harvest from our two acres of organic vegetables and oats. Last year they made more than 700 conventional small bales using an Amish hitch cart without a drop of fuel. The cart uses ground drive, so when the horses walk at three and a half miles an hour, it produces 540 rpm out of the prop shaft, enabling us to power normal tractor machinery. So, no fossil fuels are required!

Business is on the up as more people look for solutions for the future of farming

We have now been open for nearly 18 months, providing tuition and work animals to small farmers who have a real interest in sustainability, or those who just want to have a go. Business is on the up as more people look for solutions for the future of farming – including looking back to how things used to be done.

So why would anybody give up their comfy tractor seat to take on this kind of challenge? It allows small famers to be more self-reliant: they can carry out their work when it suits them, and not have to worry about when a contractor can fit them in. Farmers can also cultivate their land little and often as they need it. Working horses reduces soil compaction when compared to a tractor, which can improve soil quality and its natural fauna, and they also produce manure which makes great compost.

Many small farmers are acutely aware of environmental issues and keen to reduce their impact on the natural world. Horses are a great way to improve their farms’ environmental credentials and act as a good conversation starter when engaging others in discussions about these concerns. They can also be a farmer’s best salesperson at local markets if they’re selling produce off the back of their wagon. And horses offer a slower pace of life than working with machinery, giving farmers time to appreciate being out in the open on their land, while also being productive.

Horses offer a slower pace of life, giving farmers time to appreciate being out in the open on their land, while also being productive

Horses also have a special role to play in some areas of therapy and education. We recently sold a horse to Ruskin Mill College which specialises in teaching learners with complex needs. Carol Phillips, who teaches students using the horses, says horse sessions provide an “incredibly powerful experience”.

They help students with communication skills, as they have to stick to very specific instructions, speaking loudly and clearly, in order to get the horse to respond the way they want it to. It’s also an opportunity for the students to focus on body language, both their own and that of the horses, and it teaches them to respect boundaries. The traditional skills used in working horses require focus and coordination – both areas students commonly struggle with. And for some, the relationship they build with the horse through everyday care and handling is beneficial on its own, providing its own stimulation and rewards.

Horses are not without their drawbacks when compared to machinery: you can’t switch them off and go on holiday, and you can’t always expect the horse to behave. This can result in some tricky working situations and some squished vegetables. My favourite working horse, Opal, is particularly fond of taking large bites out of the cabbages, if you are not paying close enough attention.

You have to commit a lot more time and skill to the task then you would using a tractor, and they can’t help you load the muck spreader! But, for daily stimulation and challenge, the benefits and enjoyment to be gained are huge. I love working with these charismatic forces of nature.

Featured Image: Eleanor Paddock

Eleanor Paddock owns Hitch-In Farm, a working farm and horse centre in Devon

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