Pale golden stubble gleams under a blue November sky. A man is following two horses as they draw a plough steadily up the gentle slope of a hill towards a line of trees, sharp-cut and leafless on the horizon. Rooks and a gull or two pick insects from the black earth turned over by the ploughshare. This apparently timeless scene could be seen right across the British Isles from Domesday until the 1930s. Then, came the great change. Within a decade, the majority of horses had been replaced by tractors and the skills accrued over centuries by the teams who worked the land began to be forgotten.
The ploughman and his horses would once have worked silently and in isolation in this landscape, moving back and forth steadily and slowly in march with the seasons. Today, though, he is accompanied by a lively and informative commentary coming over a speaker system to an enthusiastic crowd who are watching him at work. It’s the 17th of November 2012 and we’ve come from all over Scotland to observe, learn and perhaps apply some of the knowledge and skills that are on display here at this Working Horse Day organised by the British Horse Society (BHS Scotland).
What’s encouraging about this event is that it has not arisen from a nostalgic desire to revisit the past. It’s been organised because a substantial number of people have requested it. They want to learn about working horses because they are considering using them on smallholdings, market gardens and farms. They see a future for the working horse, not just a past.
Whilst Mr Allan Thomson and his son adjust the ploughshare ready for their team to begin, another pair of horses are drawing a harrow across the field. The day provides a glimpse into the immense range of specialised horse-drawn equipment that was available to the pre-1930s farmer. Ploughs and harrows are core implements of course, but there were many ingenious individual engineering companies producing seed distribution boxes, muck and fertiliser spreaders, mowers, cutters, reapers and hay-rakes. And, appropriately for a country whose national bard is the ploughman-poet Robert Burns, Scotland led the way in a farming revolution for nearly 150 years. Burns witnessed the start of this revolution, but in his day following the plough was still largely a communal affair, with several people required to lend their weight to a massive iron-edged wooden implement drawn by teams of four oxen, up to six horses, or a mixture of both. Some younger members of the family would be needed to pick up stones from the path of the plough, whilst others would crumble the larger clods of earth manually and everyone would help in the pulling up of tough weeds and grasses.
Iron was used sparingly in the production of the cutting parts of the plough until late 18th century developments resulted in the first entirely iron-framed plough, made by William Penny in 1800. It wasn’t just the expense and difficulty of the production of iron that had held back this development. There were superstitions about cutting the earth with metal and some believed that too much ironwork in a plough, other than the share, would poison the ground and affect the crops that were grown in it. Then, of course, there was the issue of keeping the ploughshare sharp.
Whilst Penny is credited with the production of the first entirely metal-framed plough, James Small, who preceeded him, was one of the most significant contributors to its development and is a major figure in the history of agriculture. Small, a Berwickshire man, devised a one-piece iron mouldboard and share that would create a much deeper slice and turn over the earth from the furrow onto the land beside it, which successfully suppressed the weeds and turned them into additional fertiliser. Crucially, this new design could be drawn by a pair of horses; at which point, also in the late 18th century, enter that legendary working breed, the Clydesdale. The image of the ploughman, his team and the ploughshare seemed indelibly impressed on the Scottish agricultural landscape. And the Clydesdale, that powerful, willing giant of the lowlands, not only worked the land, but was ubiquitous in the cities, delivering goods, drawing corporation and council vehicles, carrying items to the docks and railway stations for transport all over Scotland and “down south”.
It was not indelible, of course. The day of the working horse was drawing to an end in the 1930s and was virtually over by the 1950s. Certainly, one or two councils and larger companies – mainly breweries – held on to a pair or two, conscious of the eye-catching appeal of their magnificent turnouts – and, perhaps, conscious that there was an environmental aspect to it too. Horses could still hold their own in deliveries over short distances, but by the 1970s the sheer quantity of motorised vehicles on the roads made it dangerous and difficult for them to do so. Those were the years when we came closest to losing the working horse tradition altogether. The few members of the working horse breeds that survived seemed fated to a life as show-ring exhibits and little else.
“If it hadn’t been for the Co-operative – and Irish horse breeders,” says Mr Thomson, “there would have been no working horses at all.” At that time, he was involved in forestry work using horses and was finding it extremely difficult to find any suitable workhorses. Finding equipment was difficult too. “Things are a lot better now,” he continues. And, certainly, the day proves that there are some excellent working horses about, including those showing off their skills today. There are several fine Clydesdales present but a working horse can also be just a good ‘type’. For the work of the smallholding or garden centre, there’s no reason why a good working pony should not excel.
Harvey, one of the pair that Mr Thomson and his son are using today, is Irish-bred and started out as a trekking pony. He’s clearly a character and has taken well to his job as a plough horse. Mr Thomson explains that both he and his ploughing partner Nero are now in their early twenties and “we’re just getting them the way we want them.” This is, without a doubt, the greatest thing I have ever heard from a horseman. It takes time and patience to build the relationship, whether you are teaching a horse to draw a plough or perform in the Spanish Riding School, whose horses are also often in their prime in their teens and twenties. Be ready for the long haul, put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with long term success. And treat your horses kindly, as partners, not slaves or machines. That was the message of the old horsemen, who believed they and their horses were one.
Allan Thomson gives us a quick overview of the harness, including the blinkerless bridles – “I use open bridles, I prefer them” – and the plain, thin snaffles that are attached to them. Chains are used to link the collars to the swingle-type attachments in front of the plough and the thin ropes used for guiding are known as ‘lines’. A rope is laid on the ground to mark out that very important first cut and the pair are off. We watch as the cut opens neatly and earth turns over onto the land, as cleanly and impressively as slicing a well-baked loaf. As the plough swings round and returns, there is one horse in the furrow and one on the land. Mr Thomson explains that during the first world war, with man – and horse – power in short supply at home, the two-furrow plough, drawn by three horses but needing only one ploughman, became popular.
On the rare occasions when farm horsemen had time off, their horses were still involved in their lives. Beautifully turned-out individuals and pairs of working horses were popular exhibits at agricultural shows and there was a great deal of rivalry in the show ring. Undoubtedly one of the most popular sights of the Working Horse Day is a magnificently turned out young Clydesdale, decked in traditional manner in chrome, blue, white and red. He is wearing the high, pointed collar with gleaming chrome hames that is associated with Scottish tradition. The commentary explains that originally the intricate harness decoration was coloured blue and white for the Saltire of Scotland; and that red was added after the coronation of the current monarch. A crown is now one of the symbols included in the decoration. We learn that it takes hundreds of hours to complete the decoration on the harness and that there is now only one man in Scotland with the knowledge to do the complete turnout.
And this becomes the lasting legacy of the day, for some of us. Let us not let this working horse knowledge and experience disappear. It deserves not only to be remembered, but also to be practised. Let’s make sure that the working horse tradition continues, in the hope that in the future our horses can work alongside us as partners, in the methods of the best of the horsemen of the past – and present.
Horseback Historian would like to thank Mr Allan Thomson and friends (and horses) for sharing their knowledge and experience during the course of a very memorable day; and thank you to BHS Scotland for organising the event. I hope that there will be more.