One of the sad signs of “progress” in Southern Appalachia in the 21st century has been the decline in draft horse culture. Well past the middle of the last century, horses and mules played important roles in agriculture and the lumber industry, but as more and more gated communities and golf courses have replaced farms and woodlands, work stock have lost their place. Since most mountain residents must work a public job rather than make a life from the land, those who still farm and cut wood have turned to tractors, tillers and ATVs.So when Robbie Potter called me from the Mitchell County Cooperative Extension office to ask if I would hold a workshop at my Buladean farm for folks interested in draft horses, I felt compelled to agree to host the event. Potter is in charge of 4-H Youth Development for the agency, and a longtime friend who shod my horses for several years. Fellow extension agent Jeremy DeLisle helped to organize the Draft Horse Field Day, choosing March 27 as a day when, with luck, snow would have departed the mountains. After he sent me a copy of the press release that promised “Beginners will learn how to get started working with draft horses, while those with more experience will learn how to work a draft team for specific jobs like pulling a sled, skidding logs, and plowing,” I realized I better recruit some help for the day.
I asked Mike McKinney to bring a team of mules, and he got Johnny Reed to bring a team of young Percherons. I figured I could use my small horse, Mac, a Haflinger/Quarter Horse gelding to show how to work single and to demonstrate harnessing and unharnessing. My wife, Pam, volunteered to fix a lunch for the visitors, and my photography intern at Lees-McRae College, Brooke Loftis, agreed to help take pictures. I had a team together to undertake the day. I cut down some ash and poplar, and trimmed the branches to have logs ready for skidding, and prayed for good weather.Winter came and stayed this year in Southern Appalachia, dumping snow and maintaining freezing temperatures from the week before Christmas until late March. For two days before the event, the first real spring rains fell, drenching the fields and woods, but also washing away the last of the snow.
Saturday, March 27, dawned downright cold at 24 degrees with a layer of frost coating the pastures and rime ice silvering trees on ridges. I fed, checking the frozen ground, and locked the horses up. I ate breakfast, then brought Mac down to the yard to groom. I curried him and brushed him, then recruited Brooke to take over while I checked my cameras. About 8:45, I heard trucks and vans rattling up the road, so I ran over to open the gates to the upper pasture. Mike McKinney and Johnny Reed drove up into the loading area behind a collapsed barn, and turned the trucks and vans facing the gate so that when the ground thawed they wouldn’t be stuck in the mud. Mike had a team of his mules, four-year-olds, and Johnny had a team of grey Percherons, three-year-olds. They got them out, hitched and began driving around. I hurried home to get my Nissan truck to take up the harness, grabs, etc., then walked down to get Mac. I rode him up to the pasture, after sending Brooke ahead to get some pictures.
The sun had not yet climbed above the steep eastern ridge, so we were in shadow, the ground still frosty with a hard surface.A Buladean neighbor, Willie Street, and one of his friends drove up behind me, and, as I tied Mac to a tree, Johnny and Mike came down the cove dragging some of the ash logs I had cut for the workshop. I took some pictures, and asked Mike to wait until some more people came up, but Johnny went right on with his team and the big butt log, taking it over to the barns. Meanwhile, Willie Street had retied Mac for me because he was cutting up, angry that strange horses and mules were in his pasture.
Johnny rested on a chopping block talking with Brooke, as vans and other vehicles began to arrive. County Extension Director Jeff Vance and Jeremy shuttled folks from the elementary school in the valley up to my farm. I went down and met some others who had driven up to park at the house.
Now that most of our field day participants had arrived, I sent Johnny up to get some more logs, and got Mike on the move, as I directed the visitors to head over to our middle pasture to follow the lessons. When I got back, I found Johnny dragging a large poplar down. I asked him to wait for more people to get there. Soon we had a crowd, both teams, and Jeremy DeLisle, the ag agent responsible for the day. Jeff Vance also came up. Jeremy introduced me, and I gave a brief welcome and talked about working horses, the whys and wherefores.The first questions folks asked dealt with which was better, horses or mules. Mike came down on the side of mules; Johnny said both were good and had their strengths and weaknesses. Then we had a general discussion of what you can do with horses or mules: logging, gardening, pulling sleds and wagons, mowing, etc.
One woman asked about logging, saying that she had been told that anyone who dragged logs for long would end up breaking a leg or other limb. So I said that I had been dragging logs for 25 years and had never broken anything. Johnny, a professional horse logger, said always to stay above the log, and Mike mentioned keeping the crotches in the logs to prevent them from rolling. Since I had left crotches on several of the large logs, he demonstrated how a simple solution works. I then told about clenching a small log with the large, round one to prevent it from rolling. I further explained that when I was younger, I rode on the logs and jumped back and forth across them as the situation demanded. These days I am a bit less acrobatic, but stay safe nonetheless by using my head and eye rather than relying on my legs and agility to keep me out of trouble.
Seeing the crowd gathered, Pam came out to meet the people, invite them for lunch, and give me my schedule for grilling burgers and hotdogs. I still carried my camera at this point, taking pictures when I got the chance.Mike and Johnny then dragged their logs down to the barns while folks watched. I went down with Johnny to have him pick up my sled. He hooked it to his team, then loaded a bunch of tourists on and away he went. He spent about 45 minutes providing rides for everyone. He gave a good demonstration of the versatility of the simple vehicle and the power of his team of young Percherons, Ben and Jimmie. He powered up steep trails, cut across hills, slid precariously close to a gurgling creek and sloshed through a mud pit.
Mike brought over his hillside plow, tied his driving lines to slip over his head and plowed a row and back with his mules, Ruth and Deb, doing fairly well, but not perfect. He said that he did not have much practice with a turning plow, so an older man stepped forward, offering to take the plow. And off they went, he plowed a straight row, showing not only expertise but a real affection for the job. Soon I asked for volunteers to take turns on the plow, while Mike drove.
I then went down to harness Mac to go up the cove to hook a log to drag down.
I left Brooke to photograph the plowing and to help organize the bystanders to see that everyone who wanted to got a turn to plow and ride the sled. She passed on the plowing herself, but couldn’t pass up a
As I harnessed Mac, a small Tracker drove up with an older man and his granddaughter, who came running over to pet Mac. The grandfather was worried, so I took the girl up to the horse and let her rub Mac’s nose, then finished harnessing him, while I directed them to go over to the plowing and to see if they could catch a ride on the sled.
My most peaceful moments occurred as I drove Mac up into the cove to the logs, drove in the grabs and brought him back down. He did fine, until we stopped so a couple of men could show me pictures of their horses they wanted to sell. As I looked at the photographs, Mike reached the end of the row with his mules, and Mac jumped, popping loose the grabs. One of the men took the grab skip hanging on the hames, banged in the grabs and hooked the spreads when I backed Mac, and we were off.
The sun had by this time melted the frost and turned the frozen soil to mud. I took Mac through the muddy gap as I slipped and slid, caking my boots and coveralls with the thick mud. But we made it fine, although mud caked the log. I dumped it in the pile, then put Mac in his stall with his harness on. Pam was calling me to start grilling, so I checked on the plowing, where Jeremy DeLisle was cutting a pretty straight row, before hurrying down to ignite the gas grill.
Pam had spent the morning preparing baked beans, coleslaw, brownies, cutting tomatoes, lettuce and onions for the burgers and dogs, and getting the cups, plates, napkins and drinks ready. A fairly steady wind whirled unanchored plates and cups around, keeping appetites keen even as the sun poured warm
As I cooked 15 hamburgers and eight hotdogs at a time, I talked with some of the visitors. Arlen Henson was impressed that I had antiques that I used. At first I was a bit puzzled, until I realized he referred to the harness, plows, neck yokes, singletrees, sled, disc and teeth harrows I had. He said he knew lots of people who collected antiques, but not many who actually used them. I had never thought of myself as an antique collector, much less a remnant of some antique culture. I work horses because I enjoy them, I need the brute strength, and I do not want, nor can I afford, a tractor. I enjoy the quiet, the companionship and the physical activity of working horses. I need wood to heat my house. I have three stoves, one fairly large, stepped heating stove in the house, one heating stove, a small Jotul, in the trailer where I have my library and office, and a Baker’s Choice cook stove in the kitchen.
The first crowd of diners came up to tables set up in the driveway, about the only fairly level place on the property, another table was set on the paving stones leading to the house. I dished out the first set of burgers and dogs as I added another round to the gas grill. As I cooked, Pat Tompkins, a woman interested in green agriculture, came up to ask when I was going to demonstrate how to harness and unharness the horse. I said I would be happy to after everyone had something to eat.
I noticed Brooke taking pictures of the folks eating. Mike tied his mules across the road, then came to sit on a chopping block as he devoured his well-earned lunch.
Brooke fixed me a plate, and I ate as I cooked.
Johnny had discovered an old International Harvester mowing machine that I had bought a few years ago, thinking I would take to mowing my pasture, but in the nature of things that never come to pass, the rocks and other impediments proved more permanent than my resolve to clear them away. He came over, offering to buy the piece. Trading is bred in some horsemen the same way love of the beasts is.
By this time several people had asked about the harnessing exhibition, which I promised to start soon. As I flipped the last burgers onto their raw sides, the flames flickered in the gas grill, so I unhooked the old tank and replaced it with a full one, then blazed through the last burgers and hotdogs. Anne Beam was waiting for a well done dog, so when the casing split on a swelling hotdog, I dished it out to her, finished the last of the burgers, and looked around to see what was happening. Most of the folks were well on the way to finishing up, so I walked out to the barn to get Mac for the harnessing lesson.
People, mostly women, crowded around as I undressed, then dressed Mac, explaining the function of each piece as I proceeded first to remove, then to install the harness. I fielded lots of questions, which I answered as best I could. I noticed, as I suspected, that the novice draft horse owners and prospective owners were curious, but also intimidated. People that will buy a car with hundreds of moving parts run by a computer and explained in a 200-page manual without hesitating, feel unsure of their ability to put a simple harness and collar on a horse. We have travelled too far from our organic roots.
One woman took me over to her car where she had a complete set of harness in her trunk. The trace chains did not have boots, but the rest would work. She lives near Brevard, North Carolina, and is looking for someone to work with her and her horse, but can’t find anyone. She said that she had contacted the ag agency, but they couldn’t help. I suggested she contact The Draft Horse Journal to see if the staff could refer her to someone in the area; surely there must be subscribers in Transylvania County.
By now Mike was hooking up the mowing machine to move it to the trailers, and most folks were saying their good-byes. I drove Mac back to the barn, then went over to help Mike and Johnny load up.
The number of participants surprised me. A mixture of old teamsters and farmers, novice draft horse owners, want-to-be draft horse owners, back-to-the-landers, and the just plain curious, the visitors to our valley spurred thoughts on how I live, and how my friends live, and how most of the rest of the country lives. I do not have to work horses; I could pay for my firewood, buy a gas-powered tiller or hire someone to plow with a tractor. I could buy a gas or oil heater and make my stoves true objects d’art rather than functional appliances. But I would lose something, a bit of my independence, a bit of my attachment to the soil and to the living creatures that share it with me, and my sense of place reinforced by the necessity of caring for the horses and chickens twice a day even on the busiest days.
I am 60 years old, although as my son, Dylan, wrote in his card to me on my last birthday, “Don’t worry Pa, I hear that 60 is the new 55.” I still use my horses for pulling logs from the woods, for hauling manure (and creating the manure) for my garden, for plowing, discing, harrowing and cultivating. During this long, cold winter when my four-wheel drive pickup trucks could not get me up into the pastures, much less the woods, the horses had no trouble getting through the two feet of snow and pulling down the wood that I needed to heat the house.
I did not hesitate to encourage the field day participants to step back into the age of true horsepower for whatever portion of their lives they want to devote to living physically in cooperation with other of God’s creatures. We still have the ability to live without roaring engines in our gardens and depressing fuel bills in our mailboxes, if we do not lose the knowledge and if we take the time to learn the skills.