Horse Drawn

by | August 2010

Honest work at Essex Farm

I think of the day the horses arrived as the day the farm came back to life. It was seven years ago, midwinter, and Mark and I had moved here that fall. We weren’t married yet. We were still in that hazy phase of new love—with each other, and with this new farm we were starting together. We had come with idealized visions of both. By the time winter set in, those ideals were being challenged by cold, exhaustion and fear of the enormity of the proj­ect we’d undertaken.

I’d met Mark at a farm he had started in Pennsylvania. I was a writer in New York City, with a professional interest in the local food movement. I went to interview him one day, and fell. We hastily rearranged our lives and moved together to these 500 acres in the North County, with plans to start a farm that would provide a full range of food year-round—from meat and milk to grains and vegetables—to a group of annual subscribers. Mark had a degree in agricultural science and 10 years of farm experience, mostly growing vegetables. I was a city person, agriculturally ignorant. I was not prepared for the difficulty of starting such a diverse operation from scratch, nor for farming of any kind.

But there were horses in the plan. Mark had farmed among the Amish in Pennsylvania and had seen how well draft horse-powered farms could work. The idea of growing food without absolute reliance on fossil fuel appealed to him. As for me, I’d never outgrown my horse-crazy girlhood, and in the city, I’d felt starved for them. The promise of having horses again was what kept me going as I went through the painful process of breaking myself to hard physical work.

The land we’d moved to, just outside the hamlet of Essex, was home to a 50-acre streak of nearly perfect soil—deep, rockless and light in a region where stone and clay are more common. Farmland this good does not go unnoticed. Our town was founded in 1765, and it’s hardly a stretch to think that these would have been among the first acres cleared and worked. The hegemony of the tractor reaches back in our region only 60 or 70 years. For the most part of these centuries, it was animals doing the work. When you look, you can see their ghosts. The farm’s west barn was built of hand-hewn beams with high ceilings to accommodate big horses. We found scraps of dried-out harness hanging on a nail in the corner and a dusty collar with straw sticking out.

Farm horses were still very much alive in the memory of our older neighbors, a generation of farm men who had grown up with leather lines in their hands. Ben Christian was one of them, an eyewitness to the changes that the tractor brought. He was among the crew that had converted that west barn from a stable to a dairy, pouring a thick pad of concrete over the packed dirt floors. He described to us the way the stalls had been arranged, straight tie stalls for the working teams and a few box stalls for horses recovering from injuries or mares ready to foal. His parents had farmed a few miles away, with Percherons, and then Belgians. As a boy he’d owned a team of Morgan crosses, small horses, he said, with big hearts, that could hay alongside the larger horses all day in the summer without tiring. One of his jobs as a child was to take the teams to the blacksmith shop down the road after a day in the field, to have their hooves trimmed and their shoes refitted. All this in living memory.

We bought an older team of Belgian geldings, Sam and Silver. They stepped off the trailer on Valentine’s Day, so big their backs were higher than my head. Mark and I led them into the west barn, and they raised their heads and snuffed at the unfamiliar air. When they were settled, pulling hay from the mangers we’d banged together for them, I watched them, leaning on Mark, speechless. It wasn’t just that they had finally come, but that they had finally come back.

We found many of the horse-drawn tools we needed in the back of neighbors’ barns, or dumped in the hedgerows, or even, once, from the front yard of a local bed-and-breakfast, where a John Deere two-horse cultivator was being used as a lawn ornament. Some of these tools had had their long tongues whacked off so they could be pulled with a small tractor. When the tractors got bigger, so did the tools, and this small-scale equipment was retired. It’s easy enough to replace a tongue, and unlike an engine, a horse-drawn tool can spend a few dec­ades in a hedge­row and only require a day or two of fiddling to put it back into working order. It was much more difficult to recover the skills and the knowledge we needed to use those tools with horses. I’d ridden horses all my life, but I lacked the deep understanding that Mr. Christian had of a working relationship with animals.

As the days grew longer, I learned how to harness and hitch, to harrow and cultivate. There was always more to do than there was time to do it. The learning curve with the horses was sharp and steep. Sometimes, a little too steep. One hot July afternoon, I was raking hay with Sam and Silver. We were toward the end of a long stretch of fine weather, and the horses and I had relaxed into the repetitiveness of the work. That day, we were raking the 50-acre field that overlooks Lake Champlain. There was a fresh breeze coming across the lake, which kept the flies from bothering the horses. We were past the hottest part of the day, the shadow of the hedgerow lengthening across the green field. I was very nearly asleep, listening to the drone of the rake’s spinning teeth, and so, I think, were the horses. If I had grown up with this work I would have recognized the danger of that seemingly peaceful moment of inattention. Without warning, Silver leapt and kicked as though he’d been electrocuted, and Sam kicked straight back. Even before the words for the reason, wasp nest, had passed through my sleepy brain’s synapses, both horses had gone from a plodding walk to a dead gallop across the open field.

The next word in my head was runaway, and it stayed there, a big red flashing banner. Standing, I leaned hard against the front bar of the forecart and levered the lines in to stop them, hauling straight back. But they had the jump on me. I used everything, all my strength plus the jolt of adrenaline, and I might have been a mote or a fly for all the notice they took of me. The rake fishtailed behind us, spinning at a crazy speed, and I knew that if I bailed out or was pitched it would run me over with its spiky teeth, an ugly thought. They—we—were running down the middle of the wide-open field, in the direction of the barn, which was almost a mile away.

There was no stopping the team, not even a chance of slowing them. The best I could do was to try to direct them somehow, and so I hauled on my left line as hard as I could, pressing my hips into the jolting bar of the forecart so hard I had dark green bruises for weeks. The horses turned a few degrees, and then a few more, and then we were headed toward the woody edge of the field instead of open turf. Our speed was breakneck, even as the trunks of the trees loomed close, even as we plunged through the first brushy edge, and then they did stop, their noses pressed up against saplings. They stood trembling, with their flanks heaving, and I stood and trembled too, and waited, leaning my weak knees against the bar of the forecart, until I was steady enough to disengage the rake and the glaze of panic had left the horses’ eyes. Then I backed them up and turned them around and walked them back through the field, and skipping the place where the whole mess began, returned to the job, and finished raking the field.

A lot has changed on this farm in the last seven seasons. Sam and Silver, the horses that taught us so much, are both dead now—Sam from old age, and Silver from an accident in the pasture. The farm has grown in several ways. We have about a hundred subscribers now who come to the farm each week to pick up their share of the meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, grains, flours and milk we produce. We have more people farming with us now, four full-timers, four part-timers, and a shifting roster of seasonal workers. This summer we have 75 acres under cultivation, in grain, cover crops, forages and vegetables. Instead of two horses, we are working eight—four are ours, and four belong to the farmers who work with us. Our family has grown, too. Mark and I got married at the end of that first long season, and our daughter, Jane, is about to turn three. This summer I’m pregnant with our second, expected in September. I’m too large and awkward now for a full day of haying, but not for a recreational turn on the mower with our trusty older team. I listen to the snicker-snicker of the blades, and the soft thud of the horses’ hooves on turf, and smile at the knowledge that this baby will be born to this work, those sounds already familiar to her ears.


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