Horsepower on Small Farms

Paul Schmit has gone from building his own farming equipment to creating an international guide for small-scale farmers and gardeners. Now he is bringing new life to the underrated art of farming with horses.

Pair of draft horses pulling man on plow

“Our world has changed a lot, and without respect for animal welfare, sooner or later our cause, the modern use of draft horses, will lose its right to exist.”

Photo by Fotolia/skmjdigital

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Even while bigger and better technology seems to be overtaking every aspect of our world, there are those fighting for new, simple methods to maintain old traditions. Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century (Chelsea Green Publishing 2015), by Stephen Leslie, is the collaborative effort of some of those fighters — farmers, manufacturers, enthusiasts, and advocates for efficient alternatives to modern tools. The new developments these farmers have envisioned and created are helping agriculture become truly regenerative, in large part by working with horses, donkeys, and mules. An up-and-coming staple in agricultural guides, this book shows how to run various aspects of a small farm with draft animal power, and includes contemporary farm profiles from those who have found success, descriptions of new tools, and stories of the growing season from tilling to seeding to harvest. For experienced teamsters and beginning horse-powered farmers alike, this book is a valuable resource in the benefits of harnessing horsepower.

You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century.

"On the Land of my Grandparents" by Paul Schmit; Schaff mat Päerd, Luxembourg

My grandfather, born in 1894, gained his life by farming and serving his neighbors as a local blacksmith in our village Téinten, located in the middle west of Luxembourg. He ceased his farming activities in his late 60s and didn’t make the transition to tractors after World War II. My parents haven’t been in farming, but my desire since I was a small boy has always been to become a farmer.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, I spent all my free time during school vacations at my great-uncle’s farm in northern Luxembourg. At that time this farm was a tractor farm because they stopped working with horses in the late 1950s, but horse farming was still in their memories, and a lot of stories were told during the evenings. I was always fascinated by these animals.

As both farms were very small and couldn’t be seen as a viable basis in the 1970s, my great-uncle advised me to learn something else and do farming on the side. That’s what I finally did: After having learned the skills of a machinist and later finished my university education in mechanical engineering in Germany, I found employment as a teacher at a technical vocational school in Luxembourg, and in 1998 bought my first draft horses for farming.

My wife, Cathy, and I actually farm on the land of my grandparents, which we enlarged a little bit. At present the farm consists of 28 acres of grassland, 6.4 acres of arable land, 4.2 acres of woods, 1 mile of hedges surrounding the fields and meadows, a garden having 0.25 acre, and a small orchard counting 15 fruit trees. The soil is light to medium heavy, and our land is more or less flat, which is very suitable for working with horses.

Currently we have five Ardennes horses (three French, two Swedish) of the smaller type, standing 15.1 hands. However, as both of us are working during the daytime outside the farm, and the time for the farming activities is always short, for two years now we have also owned a tractor, which is a great help with its front-end loader, especially during hay time.

The hay is fed to our own animals (horses, sheep, and goats) and also sold to other horse owners. On the arable land, we’ve grown field forages for four years, and we’ve used some as biodiversity plots for green manure production for five years in order to meet the EU regulations about preservation of grasslands and protection of water sources. The yield of the garden and orchard is for our own consumption.

In the beginning we used horse-drawn equipment made in the UK and United States. This didn’t prove to be successful under our conditions — especially not given the low efficiency of the ground-drive PTO forecarts, as well as the heavy weight of the other equipment mainly built for bigger hitches.

Therefore I started building my own equipment and evaluating the implements by electronic measurements, which allow us to register (via data loggers) the draft force and working speed of each implement during fieldwork as well as measuring the effect of various hitch and harness combinations on the load of the draft horses.

Because it would not be helpful to keep all this information under wraps, Schaff mat Päerd (SmP; the name translates as “working with horses”) was founded. Its primary goal is to generate synergies and transfer technologies about new implements, improved harness designs, and new methods of communication with horses that aim at improving the living and working conditions of draft animals.

For this purpose SmP published articles in the past in different draft horse magazines and will go online with its own webpage in 2015, focusing mainly on new implements and harness components, field test reports, and other research findings. In 2014 we also started publishing beginner’s guidebooks in four different languages (English, French, German, Italian) for sharing new information on the subject of animal traction equipment and the welfare of draft animals.

I started Schaff mat Päerd as a private initiative in the beginning of 2012. In order to give it a broader base and intensify the international contacts, it was decided together with Albano Moscardo of Italy at the end of 2013 to form a governing body and register SmP as a nonprofit association in Luxembourg.

I first met Albano at the Pferde Stark event in Germany in late August 2007 (the European equivalent of Horse Progress Days). While there I discovered a well-engineered hydraulic round bale loader from Italy. In February 2008 I visited the Fieragricola fair in Verona in order to get in touch with small farm equipment and parts manufacturers in Italy. This was also my chance to visit the builder of the previously mentioned round bale loader, Albano, who as it happens lives in Verona.

After we spent a day together discussing horse-drawn machinery and harnesses, Albano clapped me on my shoulder as I was leaving his farm and said that he would like to collaborate with me in the future. Since then we’ve been exchanging on a nearly weekly basis not only our experiences and information, but also parts, which we manufacture or buy for each other, depending on our personal skills and contacts with other manufacturers or suppliers. Over the years this collaboration has proved highly encouraging and useful.

The primary goal of SmP is not to create commercial products, but to develop new prototypes, which should allow us to evaluate how well various modern technologies can be applied to animal traction implements. In 2010, for example, on request of Luxembourg’s Nature and Forest Administration, Albano Moscardo and I created a bracken roller to be used in the forest. We designed this implement together; it was built by Albano’s company Equi-Idea in Italy and tested in Luxembourg before it was delivered to the authorities. A copy of this roller was also sold two years later to a horse logger in Belgium.

Because there were a few laser-cut frame parts left over from this project, in 2011 I started building a prismatic roller to be used for farming and gardening. During tests with market gardeners in Germany, this implement proved to be very useful, which inspired me to add a seeder to the frame — and the prototype Séi-Roll (seeder-roller) was born. In the meantime, a covering harrow was added, and the implement now serves us for seeding green manure as well as for new and reseeding of grassland.

As there are enough manufacturers of plowing and tillage equipment on both sides of the Atlantic that sell good implements, we actually focus on equipment for seeding and planting as well as for spreading organic manure. Another prototype consists of a single-wheel forecart that was designed to lower the support and steering forces of the horse. Called Mono-Rad (single wheel), this forecart is used in combination with various implements like a compost spreader or a minimum-tillage disc seeder but will also be coupled with haying equipment that’s still in the planning or building stage.

Currently I’m working on the new disc seeder; I also plan to finish a spike-tooth harrow with a weeder kit and trailing crumbler-roller before next spring. I think about making this type of implement in two sizes, which will allow us to evaluate the efficiency of single and pair hitches by measuring the corresponding draft forces. The same will be done next spring with a weeder harrow, which we use on the grassland in order to have more data to analyze.

Yet another project in the works is the Spedo potato planter. My plan is to start with a single unit as my trials and errors of the past have taught me that it’s better to start small. I see no problem in using a single horse with a one-row planter because the implement marks the next row while planting. I think two units will get too heavy to pull. The Spedo planter will be modified by changing the wheels to a bigger size, probably 21 inches, and by adapting a steerable prismatic roller in front with a loose hitching device for the single tree. The coulter in the front and both discs at the rear will be lifted by a handle at the headlands.

Europe’s agriculture is very much diversified, with intensive farming methods in central Europe and farming at a more modest scale in the Alpine or Mediterranean regions. Especially in the latter countries there is rising interest, especially among younger people, in healthier food production that respects nature and animal welfare.

These people also show an interest in organic farming and market gardening based on animal traction. However, this approach is still in embryo stage compared with the so-called traditional farming methods in Europe that call for high inputs of fossil energy and chemical products, dependent finally on public subsidies.

In the Scandinavian countries, mainly covered by forest, draft horses are primarily used for logging; especially in Sweden there has accumulated a rich experience of innovation concerning the use of horses in the forest. Actually people there also show interest in small equipment for working with horses during summer in gardens or public green spaces. Since 2008 I’ve also been in close contact with Morgan Andersson of the Österby Smedja Company, a manufacturer of draft horse equipment, as well as with other horse people in Sweden interested in the SmP projects.

The information published by SmP has always been and will always be considered open source, which means that copies of our prototypes are in use in German market gardens. I see our activities within SmP like planting small trees: You probably won’t see the final result during your lifetime. Albano Moscardo always says, “If it’s not for this generation, it will surely be for the next.”

In the beginning, I mainly used a team hitch and even tried to work with a three-abreast hitch, but the more horses I hitched, the more I was missing the sensitive contact with my animals.

There are people who simply use horses and others who try to work with them. Even if this seems, at first sight, to be the same, it makes a huge difference to me. The name of our association describes not just an activity, but more an attitude. Draft horses are not tractors that are controlled by mechanical commands. They are living beings and merit our honest efforts to establish adequate communication with them during work.

We see the horses as working mates. I actually feel very comfortable working with just a single horse, which establishes a better communication and a better working comfort for the animal. Regretfully, in the “bigger is better” mentality of today, the efficiency of a single hitch is often neglected. My grandfather owned just one horse to cultivate all his land. For heavier work, like plowing or mowing, the neighbor’s horse was borrowed and vice versa.

Furthermore, SmP focuses on single hitches because our target audience is small-scale farmers, wine growers, and gardeners, whose economics and working conditions — such as small plots or terraced fields — don’t offer the possibilities for bigger hitches found in other regions of this world.

I started with a Canadian-made belly-backer harness and with that also used blinkers. Traditionally, draft horses in bygone times were also worked with blinkers in Luxembourg. After a while I started experimenting and combining various harness parts from different countries. Actually we use blinkerless and bitless bridles on all of our horses, which allows us to establish painless communication with the horses during work, wherein verbal as well as nonverbal commands play an important role. My wife, Cathy, is responsible for training our horses and collaborates in this area within SmP.

With this kind of training, it is considered essential that the horse can see not only its surroundings, but also the person and the implement behind it. We believe in the horse’s draft power but also in its mental power during work; the less you restrict the animal, the better it is. Our experiences over the last years have shown that horses are more relaxed with this bridle setup. This isn’t just a question of animal protection, but finally also of a higher efficiency. The bridle, like most of the other new harness parts, was manufactured to dimension by Swedish harness makers.

Working bitless has nothing to do with “horse whispering;” it’s just another form of communication between human and animal. We don’t live in the beginning of the 20th century when people had no other options than using draft animals, apart from the Amish in the United States. Today in Europe, most of us work with animals because we want to. Our world has changed a lot, and without respect for animal welfare, sooner or later our cause, the modern use of draft horses, will lose its right to exist.

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Reprinted with permission from
by Stephen Leslie, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century