A couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to take part in a 4-day course at Tillers International about working with draft horses and I wanted to share some of my thoughts about it. Looking at the big picture, Tillers International is an incredible organization which offers courses on everything from blacksmithing to timber framing, making sorghum syrup to draft animals (both horses and oxen). They work extensively in Africa and other countries around the globe to provide resources and skills to improve people’s ability to farm successfully and sustainably with limited resources.
I was part of a small group of students and Tillers interns who worked all day with these horses (let’s face it – the horses did all the hard physical labor; our end was mostly mental). We harrowed an already-plowed field, seeded it into oats, plowed up the better portion of another field, pulled logs, and hopefully helped contribute to their own farm (our rows were only slightly crooked at times). I often say to folks that draft animals are the wave of the future – higher gas prices make machinery less and less attractive, not to mention the noise, pollution, and destructive impact on the soil.
My time at this workshop really taught me two major things – first, you really can get a lot done with a team of horses and it is such a positive experience compared to tractor work. Second, draft animals are already very much the present-day reality for countless farmers across the globe, including in the United States, and the knowledge of the teamster (i.e. one who drives draft animals) is so important to preserve, share and improve upon as we enter an uncertain age. Many thanks to the Tillers staff for their great work, and particularly to Duane who served as an excellent instructor for the course – humble, patient, demanding, direct, and keenly focused on ensuring that future teamsters are well-equipped to provide a safe and positive working environment for themselves and the animals alike. For a glimpse into the world of working draft horses, check out this video from the most recent Horse Progress Days in 2011: