Timbah! Forestry offers working horses room for growth

It's no teddy bear's picnic down in the woods; it's a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s no teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods; it’s a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There goes one fast pony!

There goes one fast pony!

Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.

“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she's soon in the swing of it.

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she’s soon in the swing of it.

Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself.  Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of  flexible options suited to individual needs.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.

Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.

Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”

“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”

“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.

DSCF3311Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.

Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”

And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.

To find out more about forestry work using horses, contact The British Horseloggers via their web sites, http://www.britishhorseloggers.org or http://www.britishhorseloggerscharitabletrust.org

To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.

Equine boom – and bust

When I was very young, I lived in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England. Newcastle lies at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and it has a long and interesting history. It has always been an industrial – and industrious – place. In Tudor times, coal from Durham and Northumberland – a major national commodity – was shipped  from Newcastle to London. Newcastle flourished during the 19th and early 20th century; and like all major cities, part of the reason for its success was the labour provided by thousands of work horses.

Whenever we drove through one particular part of the city, there was an appalling stench.

“That’s the glue factory. It’s where they send all the horses when they die,” said my father, glancing across at me slightly anxiously. He knew I loved horses.

“That’s horrible!” I said. I think I was pragmatic about it, though; I understood that horses grew old and died and that something would have to be done with their remains.

The full significance of what he was saying did not really strike me for decades.

A world of horses

Horses were part of my life. There were always horses; ponies in the riding school whose customers trotted over Newcastle’s Town Moor, the city’s green lung; ponies on the beaches of the seaside resorts along the coast of Northumberland where we went at weekends; ponies tied up by travellers on patches of common land – the sweetest, most well-behaved ponies I have ever known – and, yes, even a few horses that still pulled vehicles around the city streets, mostly belonging to the “rag and bone men”, the urban recyclers of the mid-twentieth century. At that point, a few ponies were still in use in the mines of the north, Scotland and Wales. Even the shepherds on farms along the Border used horses or ponies, not quad bikes.

Our coal was brought for a time by horse and cart. The old horse, named Cassius (probably after the boxing legend rather than the character in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”), had a bad temper but still received an apple or some sugar from me. Whenever we went to a cafe, I would raid the sugar bowl for paper-wrapped sugar cubes, taking as many as I dared, because I knew there would always be another horse to feed. The story of the first time I’d been on a horse’s back – that of the milkman’s horse, Spot, when I was a toddler – had become family legend. As late as the 1970s people could still relate to Benny Hill’s ludicrous ditty about the showdown between Ernie the milkman “who drove the fastest milk-cart in the West” and his rival “Two-Ton Ted from Teddington” who drove the baker’s van. Horse-drawn in both cases, of course. Did you know it’s one of the favourite songs of both David Cameron and Earl Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana? They both included it in their “Desert Island Discs” selections. Bizarre but true; and it shows how deeply the tradition of the working horse is still embedded in the British psyche.

There were showjumpers on the telly and horses in westerns. There were books about ponies and gymkhanas – a world away from the one I lived in, but one I always envied and to which I aspired. There was televised racing from Sandown and Uttoxeter and elsewhere and I couldn’t understand why one horse called “Bar” seemed to be in every race until it was explained to me. There had always been horses. There always would be horses…

In fact, during the 1960s and 70s, there was serious, pessimistic talk about the forthcoming “extinction” of the horse. Those rag and bone men still jogging round the cities of Britain on their worn-out old carts, with their strangled, almost incomprehensible street cries “Raaaaa-aaa-booooone!” were just about all that remained of the working horse tradition. The desire of the young to escape the shackles of the past was encapsulated in the well-observed television comedy, “Steptoe and Son”. Aged dad Albert, with his fingerless gloves, junk-filled house, horse-drawn rag and bone cart and memories of World War I, symbolised everything that his aspirational son Harold wanted to escape – or even bury. However, Harold was fond of Hercules, the horse; and the references to him were always filled with warmth and humour. The scenes with Hercules were touching and sometimes moving.

I didn’t understand at the time, but my father had been telling me that the stink from the glue factory was the stench accompanying the last gasp of the working horse tradition; the betrayal of centuries, millennia in fact, of human dependence on equine power.

Horsemeat: by-product of technological change

When little Miss Combustion Engine, wiggling her sexy exhaust, walks onto the block with all her family – the juggernauts, the 4W-Ds, the vans, the limousines – humans can’t move fast enough to send their loyal horses to the knackers. Horses become an embarrassment, like an aged relative drooling dementedly in the attic. In  Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, Dublin’s famous horse market at Smithfield was quickly moved out of the city centre. Horses are dirty and demanding. They are too slow. They aren’t powerful enough. They are expensive. They are dangerous and a nuisance. Logically it could be said that cars are also expensive, dirty, demanding, dangerous nuisances; and if you’re stuck in city traffic or a motorway jam it doesn’t really matter how fast or powerful your car is. And there’s many a farmer who is overwhelmed by the debts accrued from purchasing and maintaining tractors and other equipment. However, this isn’t about “logic”. It’s about “progress” and “convenience”.

The change from equine to motorised power (and the resulting collapse of established industries, to be replaced by new ones) provided an important example for the work of the economist Schumpeter, whose theory of “creative destruction” described the consequences of rapid and extensive technological change. Old industries collapse, but others arise from the ruins.

The most important aspect, for me, of the recent “scandal” over horsemeat in the UK came to light during investigations into the origins of the meat. It appears that the sudden influx of horsemeat on the market is due to horse-drawn vehicles being banned from main roads in Romania. In other words, it marks the the end of another working horse tradition, in this case in eastern Europe. When the tradition came to an end in the USA and UK, the carcasses of the slaughtered horses were used for pet food and the remnants were rendered – hence the glue factory.  Now, in a global economy, the end of the working horse means the production of a commodity – horsemeat “stuff” – that has the potential to end up anywhere.

I don’t eat meat but I’m not being smug about this. If you eat meat, I don’t see why eating horse is different from eating any other kind of meat. What I don’t understand is how unconcerned some people are about what they are eating; and that somewhere along the way, someone has lied. There is a difference between eating meat that has lived in the wild, or originated from well-documented sources which show the treatment, food and medicine that animal has received – and eating meat stuff that is just that – “stuff” – without knowing – or caring – what it really is or where it came from.

The equine boom…

The horse didn’t become extinct, of course. What saved the horse in several parts of the world was the rapid emergence of the predominantly female leisure rider. For some, aspiration didn’t consist of getting rid of a horse, but was expressed through acquiring one. The boom years of the leisure rider (in the UK) began in the 1960s and probably peaked in the 1980s, when women (and men) from many different backgrounds started to keep horses simply because they wanted horses in their lives. They weren’t necessarily wealthy. They didn’t necessarily come from families with a long tradition of equestrianism. They just had a bit of money and some leisure and they intended to spend both on horses and with horses. And boy, did it boom!

Equestrian clothing manufacturers, saddlers, rug makers, horse breeders, show and event organisers, horse trainers, riding schools, livery yards, magazines, specialist publishers and authors, societies, farriers; horse feed, hay and haylage producers; vets and veterinary products: all benefited from the boom. In the mid 1990s, it was estimated that the equestrian “industry” in the USA was worth 15 billion dollars annually.

I was part of the boom. I bought my first pony, became a journalist specialising in equestrian subjects and spent a lot of my time participating in, observing and commenting on the equestrian leisure boom. Some of its aspects were a bit silly, it seemed to me. I called it the “pink bucket” phenomenon, as a range of supposedly girly equestrian accessories hit the market. Horses hadn’t become extinct, but they had certainly changed. The working horse tradition had been largely, if not exclusively, a male world. Now, horses and ponies were mainly kept by women and girls. Along with the silly accessories and over-emphasis on performance in the showring, there were some good times and indeed some great times. And when all is said and done, it was mainly women who kept equestrian traditions alive and supported the “industry” through that time. Horses survived, thanks mainly to the money and energy of women. Also, to those who were dedicated to horses for other reasons, some horse breeders and working horse centres for instance.

…and bust

In 2013, the equine boom in the UK is clearly at an end. There is a welfare crisis as people desperately try to find homes for horses and ponies they can’t keep. For some, it’s a cost they can simply no longer afford. Others perhaps feel older and wiser after years of horse keeping and just want a change. They don’t want to spend their time and energy on horses any more but on something else instead. Riding schools are closing because of the costs; and, allegedly, because of the risk of hefty insurance claims and the restrictions of health and safety rulings. In Egypt, too, there’s an equine welfare crisis, for different reasons. The collapse of tourism after the Egyptian revolution means that many of the small businesses in Egypt depending on horses – particularly the ubiquitous tourist site carriage drivers – are in dire straits. In the 1960s, people were saying that the horse would be extinct by the year 2000. Did the equine boom simply delay it by another decade or so?

I don’t think the horse will disappear entirely. There will always be some people who will dedicate themselves to horses despite the costs in terms of time and money (and the emotional cost, too). They’ll take the odd looks and the critical or joking comments about horses being a waste of space, grit their teeth and carry on, because horses are what they do and horses are part of who they are. Sometimes they’ll wonder why the hell they’re doing it and then, on a bright day in summer, their horse will come cantering across the paddock towards them and they’ll remember.

A future?

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the possible return of the working horse. That’s what it’s been mostly – talk; but not entirely. In the 1970s, television director and producer Barry Cockcroft made his famous documentary about Geoff Morton, one of the few remaining people in Britain to still use horses on the farm. A book, “Princes of the Plough” further chronicled Morton’s life and that of some of his contemporaries. It spoke optimistically about a future for working horses. A few councils and large commercial organisations used – and continue to use – working horses for deliveries; and to turn them out impeccably for shows. Sometimes this is because they are aware of the promotional opportunities horses provide, but in some cases the organisations simply never stopped using them. And there are others; the journalist Paul Heiney, having learned about working Suffolk Punches for a 1980s reality TV show, decided to buy some working horses of his own. Working horses are still used by the British Horse Logging Society. There are a few individuals, both men and women, still using horses in farming and in other businesses. Carriages for weddings are particularly in demand. Horses are used in television and film work – where would a Jane Austen series be without a carriage and pair? How would the “Lord of the Rings” movies managed without Shadowfax? Gimli walking along behind Gandalf making clippety-clop noises with some coconut shells, Monty Python style – that’s how; though I suppose CGI could fill the gap.

Ought there to be a major return to working horses, anyway? After all, when they did all the “lugging and dragging and straining”, to quote H.G. Wells, their lives were often nasty and short. I suppose I’m still pragmatic about this, because it seems to me that when humans don’t have a need for something, they don’t care much about it: therefore the best future for horses might be as working animals. And perhaps, there are reasons to be “cautiously optimistic” about this future, as I’ll discuss in the next blog. “Cautious optimism” seems to me to be better than boom and bust, anyway.

Miriam Bibby

Punches, rarefying, gals and the Horseman’s Word: views on our working horse past

If there is one characteristic shared by all farms which have steadfastly used heavy horses come what may, it is a sense of timelessness. They look, smell and sound like farms should look, smell and sound and are far removed from the proliferating agricultural factories where the nose is assaulted by the latest wonder chemical and the ears ring with the incessant whine of machinery” – Barry Cockcroft, Princes of the Plough, 1978

Lately I’ve been reading a trinity of books on related topics. It’s a trinity, rather than a trilogy, because they are all by different writers and each one is very different, but what they have in common is that they are about working horses. The three of them have meshed together strangely well. I’ve read them with a real pang of nostalgia for a past that is only just within my experience and my memory.

A cast of equine thousands

I’ve owned the first book, Kingdom of the Workhorse by A.J. (Tony) Dampier, for a long time. It was a while since I’d read it last and I suddenly realised what a true gem it is. It was privately published and is clearly a labour of love that grew out of Dampier’s immense knowledge of the subject of working horses in north west England.

Ailse o' Fussers and one of the last of the pack animals

It’s a history, true; but it’s also a story with a heart: a cast of characters, equine and human, beginning with Ailse O’Fussers and her team of lime-carrying “gals”. You can hear the snort of humour as Dampier explains that “gal” does not mean girl, as some have assumed, but is short for “Galloway”. It’s an evocative word for those who know about this gallant northern breed, or type, of horse, the Galloway and the important role it played in our history. That’s something to which I will definitely be returning.

Until the 1940s, horses were still present in every aspect of daily life in Manchester. Vanners delivered bread and milk; dignified plume-clad funeral horses bore the dead through the streets to the cemetery; council-owned horse-drawn carts took away rubbish to the dump; and of course there were mounted police and horse-drawn fire brigade vehicles. Cities were still geared for horses and it showed in many ways, from metal-edged curbs on the pavements to the drinking troughs and fountains where the animals and their drivers could find fresh water. How quickly that changed.

“The declaration of war in 1939 caused something of a mini-boom in horse trade as petrol became rationed, but the end was in sight,” writes Dampier. “And when it came it was as swift as it was merciless. 1947 was the year of the equine holocaust.” He quotes an estimate from Keith Chivers’ book, The Shire Horse of at least 100,000 slaughtered in 1947 and the same number the following year: “…it is pretty safe to say that 40 per cent of these were under three years of age.”

Punches and “Rarefying”

These were dreadful times for those who had spent their working lives with horses, but Dampier also shows the other side of the years of the “Kingdom of the Horse”; the casual violence to both man and beast, the exploitation, the poverty and swindling. He describes, for instance, a fight between the notorious “Bullet” Hathaway, horse dealer, and a butcher who felt he’d been cheated: “The fight started at 12 noon prompt, at the Flat Iron Market Place. Bets were taken, lookouts posted (for the bobbies) and referees appointed….[the butcher] took ‘Bullet’s’ blows for 27 rounds before he collapsed in a green field on the Saddleworth Road, 12 1/2 miles, as the crow flies, from where they started…”

Dampier also describes, in a section relating to horse whisperers, the arrival in 1857 of the famous horse tamer, John Solomon Rarey from the USA. At Bell’s Equestrian Palace in Manchester, Rarey gave his demonstration of “Raryfying” a horse when he struggled with a notorious stallion, named Hue and Cry. The Manchester Guardian reported: “Mr Rarey had a terrible, nay severe fight with an Entire horse, who smashed straps, rode over grooms, bit at the spectators and, in fact, proved a demon for an hour – tact conquered brute force and Mr Rarey delivered a speech from his back.”

And the reference to horse whispering brings me on to the next book in the trinity I’ve been reading, but before moving on I must mention this:

The last of Manchester’s working horses went up for sale in 1962 at Ardwick. Dampier recalls that all nine horses for sale that day were bought by Jimmy Sommerville O.B.E. of the Blue Cross Society and Arthur Thompson of the Humane Education Society and sent to good working homes. (They would almost certainly have been bought by the knackermen, otherwise.) And the author relates that one of those horses, Major, who was too old for regular work, went to Dampier’s own home to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

Tony Dampier, your book is a classic on the working horse and I salute you for that and for your kindness to Major. These things will not be forgotten if I can do anything about it.

The second book I’ve been reading would almost certainly be rejected from an academic reading list, more’s the pity. The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, is quirky, delightful and informative. It’s also an important piece of social history that really puts into perspective just how much life has genuinely changed in the past fifty years (always a subject for debate) and what we have lost.

“The bonny plooman laddie”

The Society of the Horseman’s Word flourished in 19th century Scotland and continued into the 20th century. Its membership was drawn, in the main, from those who followed the “ploo” (the plough) although it did also extend to others in the horsemen’s fraternity, such as farriers. Secretive and mysterious, it was feared and mocked in equal measure, but very little was known about the true nature of its activities until the 20th century – and possibly the publication of this book. And perhaps even now – who knows? – there might be a few secrets remaining.

The key to the Society I would say, does lie in the word “fraternal”. Part trades union, part Masonic-style ritual, part initiation ceremony for new apprentices to the “ploo”, its knowledge was concealed in word play, pranks, symbolism and a particular mythology drawn from ancient sources specifically for the members. This potent combination – and the way it was administered – would ensure loyalty and continuity in the ranks of the horsemen. Of course, securing good pay in return for specialist knowledge and experience was part of the reason for its existence, but it was more than that. The skills of the ploughmen were greatly admired and they were often imbued with a princely, even magical aura, for who could live without the corn they grew? As one of the songs in “The Society of the Horseman’s Word” says:

“The tailor he cries out wi’ haste
I pray of this don’t make a jest;
Oh I can make coat, trews and vest
Far better than a ploughman.
Oh tailor, ye may mak’ braw clothes,
But where’s the meal for to be brose?
Ye might close up baith mouth and nose,
If it were not for the ploughmen.

Success the ploughmen’s wages crown;
Let ploughmen’s wages ne’er come down,
And plenty in Scotland aye abound,
By the labour o’ the ploughmen.
For the very King that wears the crown,
And the brethren o’ the sacred gown,
And Dukes and Lords of high renown,
Depend upon the ploughmen.”

It was only in the 1950s that the last members of the Society began to open up, as recounted in the book. One member, Jimmy MacBeath, talked to the well-known folklorist and collector of traditional songs, Alan Lomax. He explained that one of the members of the society wanted a horse to refuse to move: “…they did something tae the collar, it was not tae the horse that they did something, it was something tae the collar they did.” Rubbing something with a particular scent onto the collar would cause the horse to freeze to the spot.

The real secrets

Scent, body language, confidence and genuine care and respect for the horse – those were and are, the secrets of the true horseman and woman. Changing technology meant that whatever closely guarded secrets the Society had kept and that had served them so well, by the 1950s and 60s had seemingly lost their value because it appeared so certain that the day of the workhorse was over.

The full text of an interesting article from 1920, written by a police officer, John Ord, is also given in the book. Here is a quote from it: “A ‘Horseman’ who fulfils his obligation will never wilfully ill-treat a horse. On the other hand, I have known a member of the society to appropriate some of his master’s corn to feed his team when he thought the animals were not receiving sufficient nourishment…In many cases the food supplied to the farm servants was of the very poorest quality, but if the skim milk and oatmeal cakes were fairly good a complaint was seldom made.”

In other words, along with the ribaldry and bawdiness, indeed obscenity, of some of the Horsemen’s rituals, there was a consciousness of what was just for man and horse. What was right for one, was right for the other.

The last horsemen?

The last book in my current reading “trinity” is The Last Horsemen: a year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden. I found this book by chance in my local farmers’ shop, hesitated briefly and then bought it; and so another treasure has landed on the bookcase.

This is the story of Northumbrian horsemen and ploughmen, the farming families the Dodds and the Wises. When the tractor was making its apparently inexorable march over the land in the middle of the 20th century, they simply didn’t stop using horses. And they still haven’t stopped.

At Sillywrea (“Quiet Corner”) Farm, the endless cycle of the agriculture year turns around the horses as it it did a century and more ago. Most of the equipment dates from the heyday of the working horse, a testament to its construction and to the maintenance that the family has provided. At Sillywrea the circle has not been broken by the roar of the tractor engine or the massive combine harvester. Mucking out is a manual activity as is removing stones from the field to avoid damage to the ploughshare.

Sillywrea then and now: a timeless scene

Those northern favourites, the Clydesdale horses, carry out a range of tasks on the farm, not just ploughing. Grass-cutting, hay turning, harrowing and “scrubbing” (breaking up the ground); drilling seed and carting muck; hauling out timber and drawing a roller across the fields. Days out for the family tend to be confined to farm and livestock sales, a change being as good as a rest. Sillywrea is a magnificently traditional mixed farm with livestock, grassland and arable and there are very few of those left on a small to medium scale. Throughout the year (2001) we follow not only the fortunes of the family, but also those of the young horse Sandy as he is introduced into the work team.

Lest this sound too lyrical, and it is an evocative book, there’s plenty of information about the sheer hard work and constant effort required to work a farm with horses. There have been family tragedies and great losses over the years. Consistently though, the horses have been there; and somehow, with them, through them and by them, storms have been weathered.

Tom Forster (now deceased), ploughman, horseman and friend of the family, began as a labourer and ended as head horseman on a famous estate. When he said, of some of his early employments: “Like damned slaves, that’s what we were. Damned slaves. Some farmers treated their dogs better than their men,” he was speaking from bitter experience. Some horsemen may have found better treatment when they left their horses for machines. But they also knew what they’d lost. The slow, regular pace of farming with horses, the work that could not be rushed or pushed, the sense of pride and nobility in their knowledge of horses had gone: but not at Sillywrea.

Working horses: the future?

Who better to comment on the possible future of the working horse than John Dodd of Sillywrea Farm? In 2001 these were his thoughts: “‘We’re too far down the road of mechanisation,’ he says. ‘I can’t really see horses coming back. We’ve reached the point of no return.'”

Periodically, people do talk about the return of the working horse – but mostly, that’s what it seems to be, talk. I remember, years ago, writing a magazine article about Sue Day, a horsewoman who has spent most of her life working with horses in various capacities, including farm work with traditional horse-drawn equipment. At the time she recalled “People used to say I’d be worth a fortune when the oil ran out. It didn’t run out!” For Sue and others like her, it’s not about making a fortune.

A similar theme ran through Barry Cockcroft’s famous 1970s book, Princes of the Plough. The tag line was: The Return of the Heavy Horse. Geoff Morton, Yorkshire horseman, commented: “Everyone thinks that I did make a deliberate choice to use horses instead of tractors, but I looked at it from the other side. I’ve always felt that the question ‘why horses instead of tractors’ was really the wrong one. Horses have always seemed the proper thing, the logical thing to me, so I think the right question should be ‘why tractors instead of horses.'”

There seems to be a yearning for a less frantic way of life but, as a professor visiting Sillywrea points out, no-one is really prepared to give up what oil has given us, the cars, the televisions, the holidays, the cheap clothes, the cheap food; and there’s no doubt of the demanding nature of keeping horses, whether for work or leisure. And, would we want to go back to the days when horses were often little better than slaves, rather than working partners, themselves?

James Howard Kunstler, who argues in his book The Long Emergency that the age of oil is coming to an end, thinks that we will have to return to horsepower, and perhaps sooner than we like: “The American scene further into the twenty-first century will have to include more working animals…Obviously relations between humans and working animals can range from respectful and loving to careless and cruel, and social norms of decent behavior towards them will have to be reestablished. We are likely, however, to find ourselves living in a world in which this kind of cruelty is more visible.”

This blog has proved to be a long journey, but without quite so many turns, perhaps, as are made by the horse in the furrow and the horse on the land. There follow the details of the three books I’ve been reading and not a web site in view! If you only have the time or the inclination to read one, might I suggest you choose “The Last Horsemen”, remembering that it is about life today, not in the past? I hope you enjoy it.

And finally; I am a woman on a mission! Do you know of any farms using horse power to perform at least some of their tasks in the UK? Are they still using original horse drawn farm equipment? How difficult is it to find new machinery? And what happens outside the UK? Let me and others know by posting a response to this blog. I’d love to hear from you.

The Last Horsemen: A year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden, pb published 2011 by Andre Deutsch. ISBN 978-0-233-00323-8

Kingdom of the Workhorse A.J. Dampier, Countryside Publications pb 1987 ISBN 0 86157 226 2

The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, ISBN 978-0-95637-130-0

Princes of the Plough, Barry Cockcroft hb 1978, Dent ISBN 0-460-04320 x

Pulling Punches: A Traditional Farming Year by Paul Heiney, Methuen 1988 ISBN 0-413-17010-1