Farm Collector

Farming with Horses

What was it like to farm in the era before mechanization on the farm?

Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on horses. I have ridden saddle horses and, as a kid, drove a hay wagon pulled by a team of horses. Nevertheless, although my heart and interests lie with mechanical horsepower, I have long wondered what horse farming was like.

This prompted me to consider that there may be other readers of Farm Collector who may also wonder what it was like to have only “live” horsepower on the farm. The following account is based on research I have conducted. Perhaps this will prompt an old-timer, or a reader who has firsthand experience, to add some knowledge in the form of letters to the editor.

Setting aside 5 acres of productive land for every work horse

The earliest history of farm power probably involved the horse. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and Adam found that his sustenance had to be wrestled from the ground by hard work, he likely harnessed his friendly horse to help him. From then to present times, horses, donkeys, camels, oxen, mules, elephants and dogs have been pressed into service to pull, carry and tread.

Mechanical horsepower began appearing on the farm scene in the form of the steam engine in the 1850s. These were not for your average farmer, but something to be rented for a particular job, like pulling a stump. Owners of the vast California wheat ranches were among the first able to afford purchase of one of these steam monsters.

These ranches – some as big as 60,000 acres – worked as many as 1,000 horses and mules. In Wheels of Farm Progress, author Marvin McKinley notes that, “The gas tractor (at the turn of the 20th century) placed in the farmer’s hands the means of directly reducing production costs. Horses were not only expensive to buy but also costly to maintain.”

black and white illustration of three horse drawn wagons side by side with four horses…

“Each growing season, about 5 acres of productive land had to be allotted to every horse in the barn, for raising oats, fodder, hay and straw. Further, the farmer’s work was usually a race against time. Supplementary teams were necessary because of weather and other delays. The horse’s weakest point was its endurance; a typical animal could not be relied on for more than 15 miles of pull or more than six hours per day. And then, each horse required 27 minutes of a man’s time each day in harnessing, unharnessing, currying, watering, feeding and bedding and generally caring for the animal.”

Tack tailored to the animal and the job

Just what was involved in transmitting a horse’s power to an implement? For horses, donkeys and mules, harness (or tack) is a complicated system developed over time. The two main types of harness are the breast strap and the breast collar. The former is for lighter loads, such as carts and cutter sleighs. The latter is used for heavier loads, like plowing drawing heavy wagons and “dead loads” like stump pulling.

A heavy load on any pulling animal needs to be imposed on the shoulders, then carried straight down the backbone to the strong hind legs to exert force to the ground. Of course, the front legs also contribute to the tractive effort, much like four-wheel drive.

With a breast collar, the padded oval collar goes over the animal’s head and rests on its neck and shoulders. Attached to and wrapping around the collar are hames, usually made of metal, to which the traces (or pulling straps) are attached with some kind of clip. The hames also extend upward, ending in a ball (or knob) one on each side of the collar. These function to keep the reins in place over the animal’s back.

The traces extend back to a whiffletree (or single tree) that keeps the animal from getting fouled in the traces. It is then attached to the load. Other harness features include the breech strap, which passes around the horse’s haunches under the tail. The breech strap keeps the load from overrunning the horse and allows the horse to back the load.

The utility part of the harness is that which goes over the back of the animal, holding the rest in place, often called the harness saddle. A girth strap goes under the belly. “Tugs” are fittings, generally included on the breech (or girth) to receive the tongue (or tongues) of a wagon, cart or implement.
The breast strap harness is similar, except that instead of a collar, a strap around the animal’s chest is used to provide the pull.

Animal power slowly but surely replaced manpower on the farm

When manpower could not adequately supply farmers’ needs, McKinley noted, farmers relied on animal power and ingenuity to multiply their own efforts. Over the years, many mechanical aids were developed, most of which required animal power to operate.

Plowing was the first chore that helped spawn the farm equipment industry. First came the walking plow, usually a small, one-horse outfit. For more depth and a wider cut, a two-horse team was needed.

black and white illustration of an adjustable pole whiffletree

Next came sulky (or riding) plows, with up to two 16-inch bottoms and four (or more) horses. Plowing often required switching to a second team at noon, especially during spring plowing when horses had not seen much exercise since the previous growing season.

Then came soil preparation tools: discs, harrows, drags followed by mechanical planters. Next, a multitude of haying implements, cutters, rakes, hay wagons and hay loft tools.

The evolution eventually advanced to harvest implements, the binder, thresher and combine. It was the combine that led to the multiple-horse teams, sometimes consisting of as many as 40 or 50 horses. It was the impracticality of these menageries that led to the introduction of mechanical horsepower in the form of steam engines.

black and white illustration of a man pouring corn in to a horse powered mill…

Mechanization posed multiple challenges for the horse farmer

Of course, mechanical horsepower did not come cheap. In the 1870s, a small portable steam engine cost roughly $1,200 (about $25,000 today). Fuel and enormous amounts of water represented additional expenses.

Fuel was a constant challenge. On the prairie, straw was often the only available fuel. Wood was a good source of energy, but sparks in the exhaust presented a hazard. Coal was the best option, but it was seldom easily available in rural areas.

Runaway multiple-horse combine teams led to fatalities among teamsters at the end of the 1800s, but surprisingly, the number of those disasters was nowhere near the number of fatalities resulting from boiler explosions during the same time period.

Early, small affordable gas tractors often failed to solve the problem. Farmers knew and understood horses, but carburetion and ignition were mysteries. Even today, mechanical failures in the midst of harvest season can try men’s souls. I know a 1,000-acre-corn farmer in Illinois who orders a new International Harvester combine every year to replace the previous year’s model. He says if that combine fails during harvest, the dealer brings a replacement immediately.

full page black and white advertisement for a draft mower with three illustrations of two…

“and we’ll throw in a plow”

The advent of the Nebraska Tractor Test Law in 1920 went a long way toward the elimination of shoddy tractors. The 1922 tractor price wars, which erupted when Henry Ford – whose factories were turning out 300 Fordsons per day – found that his dealerships were full and would take no new deliveries in the economic downturn following World War I.

Ford had to do something: He first cut his price to $620, from $795. Other manufacturers cut theirs by similar amounts, so Ford countered by cutting his price again, to $395. Most other manufacturers folded, but International Harvester’s crusty general manager, Alexander Legge, stood firm.

Legge cut the prices again, saying, “and we’ll throw in a plow.” Thus Henry Ford and International Harvester’s Legge made good tractors affordable to the smallest farmers and tractor sales soared over the next 10 years, until the advent of the Great Depression.

black and white illustration of a fordson tractor

An emotional end to a way of life

World War II finally drove the majority of horses from the fields. Farms prospered during the war, and when it was over, veterans returned to farming with a wide selection of attractive new tractors available at reasonable prices. And the horses were put out to pasture.

Parting with Jake and Joe and their mates was always traumatic. Some could not, keeping the team for Granddad to care for and maybe pull a hay rake or wagon. Farm horses were part-family member, part-employee and part-pet. Many old photos showing farm families posing in front of the farmhouse included one or more teams of horses. Especially for the farm youngsters, the sign of the last team being led down the road, tied to the tractor dealer’s delivery truck, was heart-wrenching.

Closing thoughts:

Tractors do not replace themselves.

A tractor becomes obsolete in less than the working life of a horse.

A tractor does not greet you when you enter the shed.

Tractors do not generate fertilizer.

Tractors depreciate; horses gain value as they mature.

Tractors don’t help in growing their own fuel.

Tractors get stuck in soft and muddy fields.

Tractors compact the soil.

Tractors make a lot of noise.

But at the end of the day, you can shut off the tractor and head for the house. FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

  • Published on Nov 29, 2021
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