The horse has always been and still remains a great favorite with some who work with draft animals. It is widely in use among the Amish, and it has enjoyed the attentions of homesteaders and small farmers of all stripes in recent years.
While heavy horses are the ones commonly thought of as draft horses, these breeds are not the only option. A good, sturdy pony can be a suitable draft animal for a truly small farm.
Common horse breeds that can perform some type of farm draft work include:
- American Cream Draft.
- Cleveland Bay.
- Icelandic Horse.
- Suffolk Punch.
- Low cost of good animals. Compared to some of the other draft animal options, horses are relatively easy to come by, which makes them less expensive. If you are looking at starting with a team that is already trained, you will particularly notice the price difference between horses and mules.
- Relative ease of finding supplies and information. Likewise, because horses are still comparatively commonly used for draft purposes, finding resources should be quite doable. Even if you live in an area where equipment and expertise are not locally common, the Internet has made draft horse resources widely available.
- Sized for all purposes. Whatever you want to pull, there is likely a horse of the right size to tackle the job. For a very small farm that produces nothing but vegetables and firewood, a pony may be all you need. For field work and logging, there are the tried-and-true draft horses. And then there’s just about everything in between.
- Docile temperament. Although not as easy to train as oxen, compared to mules and donkeys, horses are far more amenable and less independent-minded. This is particularly true of the large draft breeds. The horse can also tolerate more beginner mistakes than a mule can. A good draft horse may not be the fastest-learning animal on the planet, but it more than makes up for this in willingness.
- Moderate heat tolerance. While the horse cannot match the heat tolerance of the mule (can anything?), it is far more suitable for summer work than oxen. Horses are a good fit for all but the hottest climates.
- Speed. The horse is the fastest draft animal. If you are farmer who likes to hustle, this may be the best bet for you.
- Dual-purpose transportation. Of course, this depends on the size of the horse and the size of the rider, but many draft horses can make surprisingly good saddle horses due to their kind, gentle dispositions.
- Spookiness. Out of all the draft animal options, horses are the most prone to panic. Needless to say, this can present some very dangerous situations for both team and teamster. Breed choice (heavy breeds are the least skittish), careful selection of your new team, and proper training will all go a long way toward preventing mishaps.
- Health issues. Ideally, you will evaluate the soundness of any draft animal you are considering purchasing before bringing it home. That said, there are problems that can turn up after years of work, and injuries do occur. Horses are probably the most delicate of all the draft animals. Lameness and hoof problems are things to watch out for. There are also a number of genetic defects rampant in heavy breeds that, while not necessarily always fatal, may have a negative effect on their working ability.
- Short working lifespan. In keeping with their more delicate physique, horses often have shorter working lifespans than either mules or oxen.
- Complex harness. If you are interested in horses, you will need quite a bit of gear to make it all work. This means a greater up-front cost to get started, and a longer time spent harnessing in the morning before you can actually start work. The harness will also require considerably more maintenance than an ox yoke.
- Feed needs. Compared to the other draft animal species, horses require the most inputs to perform draft work. This means high-quality pasture for certain. Most working horses need supplemental feed, too (although not as much as you would expect given their size, and they can provide the power to grow their own grain).
- Shoeing needs. Fortunately, many draft horses do not require shoes to work. Unfortunately, many do, primarily owing to soundness issues that have resulted from a heavy emphasis on breeding heavy horses for looks in recent years. If you happen to have a team that needs shoes to avoid hoof problems, be prepared for hefty farrier bills—shoeing such large horses costs considerably more than shoeing mules or even saddle horses due to the large, specialized shoes that have to be made for them. For safety, some farriers also insist that draft horses be shod in stocks, a special restraint system something like a milking stanchion.
- Less stamina. Horses get tired more quickly than mules or oxen. If you expect to put in long, grueling days of work, you may want to consider another option.
- Poor self-preservation instincts. Donkeys and mules are pretty good at looking out for themselves and will simply refuse to be overworked. Those who choose to keep draft horses must do the monitoring. Keep an eye out for exhaustion, overheating, colic, and founder from drinking too much water too quickly.
First off, it should be noted that some people keep draft horses because they love them. No mule, donkey, or ox will suffice in this case. This is not entirely due to the beauty of horses, but often largely due to their personality. The difference between a horse and a mule in loyalty, obedience, and trainability has been likened to the difference between a dog and a cat. Many people find the former of each pair easier to work with.
Second, there is a great deal to be said for horses if you have no prior experience with draft animals. There is the temperament factor as already mentioned, but there are many other considerations. Horses are often the easiest of the draft animals to come by, and there are more people out there who have experience with them who can mentor you. Harnesses for horses are also relatively easy to find.
But working horses require maintenance. They need high-quality pasture to carry out the demands of farm work, and they may require supplemental feed at least seasonally. Shoeing them, while not always necessary, is also quite expensive. Care must be taken to prevent them from being overworked or going lame. And they have less stamina and shorter working lifespans than other draft animals. All this adds up to make the horse a less-than-ideal fit into a truly low-input operation.
However, this is one of those cases where each individual teamster will have to weigh the pros and cons for himself. Are horses readily available to you? Are there the necessary resources, equipment, and knowledge in your area to make the project feasible? Would you benefit from working with a less independent-minded animal? Do you just love horses? Depending on your answers to these questions, the benefits of horses may more than compensate for the negatives.
Next week: Mules
Horse & Donkey Breeds
If you have decided that horses are right for you, it’s time to choose a breed! Our guide covers the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of America’s favorite horses.