Equipment for working with horses on a small holding
Some organic farmers, particularly on the continent are now seriously considering draft animals as an economically viable alternative to fossil fuel powered machinery for some jobs. Horses are a particularly interesting option for small acreage farms producing high value crops, such as market gardens or vineyards. In that sort of setting, they often make economical as well as ethical sense as the manure that the animal produces can also be used to fertilise the land, adding another attraction to the draft animal option. This has led to a vast increase in the availability of modern horse drawn equipment, and in this post, we will look at some of the equipment needed to work with draft horses on a small holding.
Assuming you have a horse that is trained for draft work, the first thing you will need is a harness.
There are two main categories of horse harnesses, with breaststrap or with collar and hames. The breaststrap type of harness, while cheaper and more adjustable, is only suitable for light work such as driving a trap. For farm work, only the collar and hames type will do. The most commonly used type of collar nowadays is the American (sometimes called Amish) collar. It is a proven design (there are lots of work horses in America!) and the cheapest option, but they are other types, such as the Scandinavian harnesses. While they are more expensive than the American ones, they are easier to put on the horses, (you just open the collar at the bottom and lift it onto the horse’s neck) and are practical for field work as well as driving. With their hand made wooden hames, they are certainly beautiful, and if looked after properly, should last a lifetime. However, at 1500 euros for a full set, they are more than twice as expensive as an American webbing harness .
Whichever type of collar you use, the harness, and particularly the collar must fit the horse perfectly. A poorly fitting harness can injure a horse or at least make it very uncomfortable, so if you are not absolutely sure how to fit a harness to a horse, get someone to show you, or at least get advice from the harness manufacturer or reseller.
Once you have a trained horse and a harness, you pretty much have your tractor, and you can start working (well, you will need a swingle tree, I made mine for less than 50 euros).
The most common way to start is to get a few pieces of vintage horse drawn machinery in working order. Equipment was built to last, in those days, so there are plenty of rusty ploughs and harrows in Ireland that can be got quite cheaply and put back to work pretty much right away.
Jim Cronin, who works 1.5 acres in East Clare with a team of Percherons started in this way, and he reports that he still uses regularly a vintage spike harrow and a grubber, alongside more modern equipment imported from the US. The local free ad papers usually carry a few ads with vintage horse drawn equipment, although it is not always in working order!
However, there are now many manufacturers of modern horse drawn equipment. In the US, where the Amish have always kept working the land with horses, there are a number of companies manufacturing modern horse drawn ploughs, harrows, manure spreaders and forecarts, the best known of them being the Amish company *Pioneer*. Of course, shipping costs are high, but Jim Cronin brings a container full of equipment from the US every year.
It is also worth mentioning that chain harrows designed for quads can also be pulled by horses!
At Macalla farm, we looked closer to home and recently imported a Kassine from France. The Kassine is a modern horse drawn tool carrier specifically designed for market gardeners and made by a small company called *Prommata*.
The Kassine is very light (with most tools it can be worked by a single donkey), robust and very versatile. It can be fitted with a variety of tools, including a cultivator (scuffler), a variety of hoes, two different types of ridgers, a potato digger, a subsoiler, two different sizes of ploughs (the small one can easily be pulled by a single horse) and two different types of harrows, surely enough to meet most needs. With a full set of tools, it will cost around 3000 euros. Being chain drawn, the Kassine, if needed, can be drawn by a pair. *Prommata *also manufactures a smaller (and slightly cheaper) tool carrier, the Kanol, which is equipped with shafts and therefore can only be drawn by a single animal and a larger, but far more expensive tool carrier, the Polynol, for field work.
Another task that the horse can do on a small holding is move manure, compost and garden produce around the farm. While it is still possible to find old horse drawn carts, in most cases they are usually badly infested by woodworm and can only be used as garden ornaments. An inexpensive option which works fine fine for small distances on reasonably level ground is a type of sledge call a stone boat, which could easily be home built. Pioneer makes one of these if you don’t want the bother of building one. A more expensive, but probably more useful alternative is a handy little horse drawn tipper cart made in France by a company called Tract’horse Equipment (email email@example.com). It is designed to be pulled by a single horse, and it’s very light (70Kg), but it will still take a 500Kg load, and at just over 4 feet wide, will fit in most gardens. Prices start at 1350 euros (ex work) for the most basic model without brakes, although their “deluxe” model, with torsion bar suspension and brakes is probably a better option if you are going to do some heavy work. Another French manufacturer, *Agritrait * offers a variety of horse drawn four wheelers which could be used for moving manure, etc., with price starting around 1800 euros. Jim Cronin uses a traditional four wheeler drey for this, a good option if you can find a good one.
And of course, you will probably want a trap for Sunday drives with the kids….