Horse power: Using draft animals in the 21st century

DRIVING THE MILL: Horses and other draft animals historically powered many of WNC’s farms as late as the mid-20th century. While many farmers have since switched to tractors and mechanized equipment, several continue to turn to draft animals as a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly way to keep their operations up and running and preserve their heritage. Photo courtesy of Doubletree Farm

It’s one of the iconic images of rural America’s past: the farmer behind the plow, guiding it across an empty field behind a team of draft animals, furrowing the earth in preparation for the spring planting.

While tractors and mechanized farm equipment have now largely replaced draft animals, a small but passionate contingent of farmers in Western North Carolina continues to rely on them to help with the daily work around their farms and as a source of extra income at times.

Drawing on the knowledge of longtime farmers and Amish farming communities, these contemporary farmers hope to keep the tradition of draft animals alive and inspire the next generation of farmers.

Old ways

As late as the 1950s, many farmers in WNC were still relying on draft animals, says Buster Norton, a native of Madison County who grows corn, tobacco and sorghum.

“We only had horses when I was growing up, until I was 10,” Norton says. “It used to be everybody had at least one horse, and they would double up when they needed teamwork and borrow each other’s horses.”

Despite owning five tractors, Norton continues to keep a team of draft horses for light work around his farm and select tasks. “If I’m in a real big hurry, I use the tractor, but if I’ve got time, I like to use the horses,” he says. “There’s a few jobs they excel in, such as pulling the cane mill, getting wood off these rough hills or plowing on steep land where the tractors can’t.”

Next door to him, Cathy Guthrie, the owner of Doubletree Farm, relies solely on her horse team to run her sorghum operation, from which she makes molasses. A native of Kentucky who grew up around horses, she says her love for the animals was rekindled while working on a friend’s farm outside Greeneville, Tenn., in the mid-1990s.

“A neighbor came by with his team of horses on the road going to do some work — it completely blew my mind,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a plan as an adult to do anything with draft horses, but when I saw this old man and his team, I immediately sought him out, and we became friends.”

After moving to Madison County in 1999, Guthrie decided to eschew a tractor in favor of draft animals. “It brings you in touch with a lot of history, both agricultural and [technological],” she says of her decision. “If there’s any reason I’m still farming, it’s because of the horses. I don’t think I could do it behind a machine.”

In 2015, Guthrie co-taught a class on draft horses at the Organic Growers School in hopes of helping more young farmers recognize the potential of choosing draft labor over machines. “I think there is a lot of interest, but I’m always amazed that more people aren’t trying to do it,” she says. “With all of the people that are wanting to be sustainable and organic, it surprises me nobody’s taking that extra step and doing a draft horse-powered farm.”

Past meets present

Over in Swannanoa, however, Warren Wilson College is trying to further that mission. The school keeps a team of draft horses for use on the college farm and garden, and to assist in forestry work, says Ben Mackie, Warren Wilson’s garden manager and horse crew overseer.

“Last spring, I’d say close to 80 percent of our field work for the garden was done by the horses,” he reports.

Using draft-horse labor, Mackie continues, offers several distinct advantages over machinery: “You’re able to grow most of your own feed [compared to buying fuel for machinery], depending on what cropping you have and if you have pasture space. They’re also producing manure every day, [which is] a great source of fertilizer and can be integrated into an effective composting system to provide nutrients back into the fields.”

For young farmers just starting out, draft animals can be an economical alternative to buying expensive machinery. A 2015 article in Modern Farmer pins the cost of purchasing draft horses at roughly $2,000 to $3,000 per team, as opposed to nearly $30,000 for a four-wheel drive tractor. Additionally, Modern Farmer estimated the per hour cost of draft horses, based on specific examples, at approximately $3.39 per hour, as opposed to a per-hour cost of $21.21 for a tractor.

“That’s a big deal these days because a lot of younger farmers are not looking to go purchase that [expensive]  tractor and be farming for the bank for the next 20 years,” Mackie notes. “It frees you up to make better choices on your farm.”

In addition, draft horses are often used for wagon and carriage rides, which can bring a farmer extra income, as well as timber work. “We did a lot of logging with them here in the forest, because you don’t have to clear a big swath of the forest to get in a skidder or a tractor,” says Mackie. “It’s a lot more ecologically sensitive and allows for easier regeneration and more understory growth there.”

Beasts of burden

Warren Wilson graduates Kevin and Kate Lane, who founded the Homemade in Marshall dairy farm with a friend in 2009, have taken this idea in a slightly different direction. Unsure what to do with the male calves born on their farm, Kevin decided to try them out as draft animals.

“We’ve raised up a couple for meat, but it kind of dawned on me that maybe they could do some work for us,” he says.

STEERING THE TEAM: Homemade In Marshall’s Kevin and Kate Lane hope that the young oxen they’re raising on their farm will eventually provide a cheap source of muscle for them to experiment with different types of crops and operations on their dairy farm in Madison County. Photo courtesy of Kevin Lane
STEERING THE TEAM: Homemade In Marshall’s Kevin and Kate Lane hope that the young oxen they’re raising on their farm will eventually provide a cheap source of muscle for them to experiment with different types of crops and operations on their dairy farm in Madison County. Photo courtesy of Kevin Lane

If the use of draft horses on local farms is rare, using oxen for work is nearly unheard of in the modern day. While it may seem archaic, Kevin asserts that the steers offer him the freedom to experiment with different farm projects without making the large investment of purchasing farm equipment.

“It makes sense because it fits into our holistic goal,” he says. “In the winter, we can do firewood and pull out logs with them; in the spring, we can try to work with them to plow some sections. The steers give me the opportunity to try things I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”

Practice makes perfect

While using draft animals may be a cheaper, lower-impact alternative to mechanized equipment, it’s not easy. “It takes a lot of sweat to work horses, especially in these summer days,” Norton says.

Teaching the animals to pull a plow and follow commands takes patience and perseverance, he notes, as well as a fair amount of mutual trust.

“Horses learn by repetition,” Norton explains. “They have to get used to the plows and the traces against their legs, and if you’re doing mowing and raking, that makes different noises, so they have to learn to be tolerant of those noises and the different vibrations.”

A farmer must also be aware and respectful of the power of the animal itself. “It takes years to learn how to handle the animals and make it something you can do safely,” says Guthrie. “Once you put a leather harness on a horse and hook it to a giant piece of metal, you are potentially putting yourself in a really dangerous situation if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Many local teamsters rely on the skills of the Amish to help train draft horses and design new equipment. Mackie says that Warren Wilson purchases its draft horses from an Amish community in Ohio, where the animals are taught how to do the work expected of them. “We’re kind of gleaning that knowledge, through a horse, from the Amish,” he notes. “They have that breadth of knowledge required to train horses, which is kind of falling away in modern culture.”

For those who might think using animals to pull heavy plows or timber is cruel, Guthrie says that work is part of a draft animal’s nature. While cases of mistreatment, as with any domesticated animal, do happen, she says that is not the norm in the modern day.

“I think most people these days that are depending on their animal to get the work done are going to be giving them the best possible care,” she asserts. “That attitude of wanting to do it fills you with a sense of love for your animals and for your choice to live a certain way.”

Passing the reins

Events like Warren Wilson’s biannual Plow Day, coming up on Saturday, Sept. 3, provide a chance for farmers to educate the public on proper use of draft animals and demonstrate how the farmer and beasts cooperate to accomplish their work.

“It’s celebrating the draft horse community that has persisted in the region and promoting it through demonstration,” says Mackie. “The main event is plowing, but there’s also demonstrations, wagon rides, music, and food and craft vendors.” Admission is free and open to the public.

Norton says he takes the opportunity to participate in as many Plow Days as he can, and he also hosts wagon rides at church and school events around Madison County, to share the traditional farming culture he remembers from his childhood.

While he is doubtful draft horses will ever become as popular as they once were, Norton says he’ll continue to use his team, if for no other reason than the sense of calm he gets from it. “I just do it because I love to use the draft horses,” he says. “It’s peaceful around them.”


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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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2 thoughts on “Horse power: Using draft animals in the 21st century

  1. think critically

    It is true that horses and other draft animals historically powered many WNC farms. It is also true that slaves did a lot of work, too. But we turned the page on human slavery, and we should do the same on animal slavery.

    • boatrocker

      What? Comparing humans to a farm animal? Anthropomorphize much?
      Goodness, it was only a matter of time before the PETA types got involved.

      Shall we play what if?

      What if all horses who humans keep were suddenly set free to make their own way tomorrow?
      Yeah, they’d have such a good life being hit by cars on highways, shot for wandering around a Bed Bath and Beyond when they took a stroll.

      Believe it or not, humans who tend to and live with horses are actually concerned with their welfare.

      The PETA types think any and all domesticated animals should be euthanized as some strange form of ‘mercy’.
      Merely log on to PETA’s website and discover for yourself how many animals that they ‘adopt’ to their Richmond, VA HQ are actually adopted. Don’t let the chilluns see that as they will cry.

      We live in a society where certain domesticated animals do exist due to human/animal symbiosis for a thing called the Agricultural Revolution, and will not simply go away if we ‘set them free’.

      How many dead dogs, cats, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, etc would make PETA happy to see in a ditch?
      Yep, they sure have a better life now.

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