Alan Sorensen’s “field of dreams” has always been full of horses hitched to vintage implements. Part of that dream included using multi-horse hitches to plow his fields. Making that dream a reality fueled his search for just the right plow. The rest was just dumb luck.
“My John Deere sulky plow was the first one that I bought,” Alan says. “It was in the late 1970s when I was at an auction at a local farm. Down toward the barn, while I was wandering through the lines of equipment for sale, I spotted a horse-drawn plow in the trees. It was easy to see it had been there a while because a tree was growing up through it.”
After the sale, Alan approached the farmer, inquiring about the possibility of purchasing the plow.
“What do you need for it?” he asked.
“Well, if you can get it out,” the farmer answered, “I should have $10 for it.”
Plows with a reliable design
A few days later Alan – who lives near DeSmet, South Dakota – returned with a saw and a cable to pull the plow out of its longtime resting place. The farmer, watching over the entire project, told Alan he thought he had another plow, “if I can remember where it’s at.”
After a bit of searching, the two found a John Deere 212 gang plow sitting on the side of the farmer’s stock dam. Alan shelled out another $10 and loaded the second plow.
“At the time, I had an Emerson plow I had used,” Alan says. “But when I turned on the end of the field it always seemed tippy to me. I was happy to find these John Deere plows for a reasonable price because I knew they were very popular in their day and had a reliable design.”
In the 1970s, much of the vintage farm equipment found in Northern Plains shelterbelts or tucked behind barns and other buildings either sat where it was last parked or was sold for iron. Alan says he was fortunate that iron prices were at a low level when he found those first plows.
Sulky plow vs. gang plow
The number of plowshares distinguishes a sulky plow from a gang plow. Regardless of the brand, a single-bottom horse-drawn plow is referred to as a sulky. Any horse-drawn plow with two or more shares is called a gang plow.
“The size of the plow lay determines whether a gang plow is a 212, 214 or 216,” Alan says. “The plow that sat on the side of the farmer’s dam was a 212 gang. The number of horses you put on the plow varies from farm to farm depending on soil types, moisture levels, number of horses available and the farmer’s preferences.”
The first time Alan used his 212 gang plow, he hitched four horses to it, two-up (two horses in the lead and two horses right behind them). Horses can be hitched side-by-side (abreast), but that configuration can lead to buildup of body heat for the horses in the middle of the hitch.
“We have real sandy soil here and I wanted to scour the plow lays in those first couple of rounds,” Alan says. “My horses weren’t used to plowing and I didn’t have a lot of experience at it either. But it all worked.”
At the outset, for both buying and using the plows, Alan relied on his father’s experience as well as the insight of a longtime horse trader and very knowledgeable horse-drawn equipment trader, the late Praben Lee.
“My dad did a lot of plowing, planting and cultivating, starting when he was a kid,” Alan says. “Praben was one of few farmers around here who hung onto his horses and horse equipment long after his neighbors brought tractors home.”
After Alan found that the John Deere 212 was narrow enough to put some stress on his big draft horse gelding that had to walk the narrow furrow the plow made, he started watching for a plow with a bigger lay.
“Praben had a John Deere 214 gang,” he says. “I had a plow I didn’t want to keep, so we traded. I still have the 214.”
The 214 opened up another possibility: plowing with a 6-horse hitch. “By the time I bought the 214 I had six Belgians I had raised and trained by using them in the field,” Alan says. “I’d seen multiple horse hitches and really wanted to give that a try.”
It took Alan, his wife and father to hitch the horses the first time, three-up. The project not only meant getting the right plow, Alan also had to make sure his lines were long enough to reach the lead team, and harness on every horse was adjusted so the draft of the plow wouldn’t pull or push horses the wrong way.
“We plowed with six for about three years in a row, skipped a couple years and then hitched the six again,” Alan says. “Right now I only have four Belgians so I couldn’t use that hitch again unless I found two more good horses.”
A plow to match a dream
After gaining experience in hitching the six horses to the plow, Alan had the opportunity to assist a friend with a 9-horse hitch. Nine horses could handle a 3-bottom plow. That experience sparked a new dream.
“In the back of my mind, I thought it would be great to add three more horses to my plow, but I needed the plow first,” he says. “It didn’t take that long to spot one north of our place at DeSmet.”
When Alan stopped to inquire about the 3-bottom plow sitting in a pasture along the highway, the owner told him his father had parked the plow there in 1919. “When I found it, in the 1980s, that plow was probably at least 80 years old,” Alan says. “I’ve had it now for over 30 years.”
In order to hitch nine horses, Alan also needed appropriate eveners. He used some he had and bought others to create the appropriate equalizing-hitch. Few teamsters plow with that large a hitch anymore because it takes horses that will work together, as well as a keen understanding of how to adjust harness and lines so the horses aren’t pulling against each other or being pulled in the wrong direction by another horse.
“With a 9-horse hitch, the distance from the plow seat to the head of the lead horses is some 40 feet,” Alan says. “So it takes some know-how to have all the straps and lines adjusted just right and some good horses to make the plow work like it should.”
Mastering the details
None of the plows Alan’s acquired had any original paint on them. Typically, the plows were stored outside and maintaining the paint job was far from farmers’ minds. “All of the plows I’ve brought home were rusty and had some parts that were stuck,” he says. “I used penetrating oil to loosen them up, polished off the shares and greased the wheels.”
Over the years, Alan has gleaned tidbits of information about how Northern Plains farmers used their plows, including how they decided what size plow would best suit their needs.
“It was a rule of thumb that, before he selected a plow and went to the field, a farmer would consider how hot the weather was, how dry it was and how old his horses were,” he says. “He also had to determine what shape his horses were in and how much power they could put into pulling a plow.”
In the Northern Plains, Alan says, a rule of thumb for farmers was hitching one horse for every acre they wanted to plow in a day. For example, four horses would plow four acres, five horses plowed five acres and so on.
“If you used a hitch as large as six horses, you wouldn’t have to stop and rest horses as often either,” he says. “That meant you could plow your acres in less time.”
Know your horses
Plow design has changed little from the basic design John Deere came up with decades ago, Alan says. “Modern plows are larger and have features like hydraulic lifts now,” he notes. “But the basic principle of how they work is still the same.”
Individual preferences dictated how horses were hitched to a plow and whether they were spread across the front of the plow or strung out in teams of two or three. When horses are strung out, the teamster must know which ones are fast walkers and which ones are more willing to walk in the furrow. Getting it wrong can mean that the back team bumps into the front team, tangling harness, eveners and the teamster’s nerves.
“If you hitch strange horses together, they might kick or bite at each other,” Alan says. “If they’re too rambunctious when you turn on the end, they can tip the plow, and that’s a real mess.”
When they’re hitched to a plow, whether it’s straight across or strung out, horses learn the “crack the whip” characteristic of completing a square turn. The teamster will be occupied not only with managing the horses, but using the foot lever to bring the plow up out of the ground for the turn and then setting it back down before starting down the field again.
Making subtle adjustments
One concern in getting the plow to the field and turning on the ends of the field is having the plow push forward and cause the eveners to hit the horses in the back of the legs.
“On a sulky plow, it was often a practice to chain a wheel so it would slide on the way to the field, slowing the team down,” Alan says. “On the ends, gang plow lays can be raised up just enough to turn but close enough to the ground so they drag a little, reducing the chance that the plow will run into the horses.”
It’s critical to understand how to hook eveners so horses aren’t pulling against one another but rather put their energy into pulling the plow. The plows have front wheels that can be adjusted to make furrows straighter or to work with a particular way the horses are hitched.
Poles used in the plows must also be adjusted to work with the way horses are hitched. Each brand of plow provided means of moving the pole to the left or right to accommodate the horses.
Lean on experience
Alan hasn’t used his 3-bottom plow yet. And he has another plow – a David Bradley wooden beam walking plow – that’s just for display.
“A good friend gave me the David Bradley plow to add to my collection,” Alan says. “It dates to the late 1800s and has been well taken care of over the years.”
In the spring of 2017 Alan used his sulky plow to get a young team of horses used to working in the field. “I hitched three across,” he says, “using the young team and a seasoned gelding I use as a hitch horse.”
“I’m not sure why I ever had a desire to plow with horses,” Alan muses. “For anyone who does it for the first time, I highly recommend finding someone with experience who can help or serve as a mentor. If you have problems, you need someone who can help with the horses while you work with the plow. Old timers with a lot of experience could do it alone, but that’s not a good way to start out.” FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.