Looming in at about 18.2 hands high (with a hand being 4 inches), they truly are the giants of the horse world, and with their large white feathers, they are an eye-catching sight at county shows. Indeed it is on the showground that these animals are mostly seen, for the people who actually work horses on the land are few and far between today. Working horses can be seen at ploughing matches and heritage centers throughout Britain, and many of the large breweries still have draught horses pulling their drays at events, but for the purposes of publicity rather than actual transport.
In the past, large farms in the U.K. (especially those in the flatter and more temperate parts of Britain) worked teams of big draught horses, breeds like Shires, Clydesdales or perhaps the shorter, chunkier Suffolk Punch. But here in the hills, where the farms are less arable, a shorter-legged and more general purpose horse would have been commonplace.
On my grandfather’s farm, just up the lane from here, they used a horse up until the early 1960s, partly due to the fact that the limited income of the Welsh hill farmer did not allow for the cost of a tractor. In those days, farming what was essentially the side of a mountain wasn’t as much a business as it was a way of life, which, if you were lucky, might just about put bread and butter on the table.
The other reason my grandfather carried on using horses was because he had worked with horses all of his life, even during his time serving in the Great War. Horses were what he knew and he wasn’t in any hurry to give them up. Prince, the horse my grandfather owned, was a large cob-type animal (heavily built, medium size), probably of mixed breeding, about 16 hands in height.
When a second horse was needed, they borrowed one from a neighbor, and in return they would lend out Prince as required. Prince was used for all manner of jobs: pulling a cart, ploughing, hoeing potatoes and extracting timber.
My father learned to plough with horses, and the plough he and his father used was a swing plough. The swing plough, essentially a plough without wheels, is about all you can use on uneven and stony land. You can plough shallow with a swing plough, and it is easier to keep the plough in the soil over uneven ground, since the ploughman controls the depth as he goes along. But it is by no means as easy to keep furrows straight with a swing plough. You need a lot of skill to plough well with one. Ploughing matches in Ireland and Scotland still feature swing plough classes.
The day dawned when even my grandfather had to face the fact that tractors were here to stay, like it or not. With a bit of pressure from my father, he bought his first tractor, a Fordson Model N. Of course this was before I was born, but my older brother tells a story about the day Granddad tried to drive the tractor for the first time. Apparently, as the Fordson chugged off across the field, my grandfather shouted “Whoa!” and tractors being tractors, it didn’t respond. He then simply stepped off the back, shook his head in exasperation at the stupid machine and turned to walk away, leaving my brother to run after the tractor. We continue to tell this story because it’s funny, but joking aside, I can deeply empathize with my grandfather. His skill was with horses: He had never driven anything in his life, and it must have seemed like everything he knew and understood was disappearing from under his feet.
So when the Fordson arrived, the swing plough was put in the hedge in the corner of the field, no doubt to fill a gap where sheep were getting through. And there it remained for 50 years, until my brother Dafydd became interested in learning to plough with horses and decided to resurrect the old swing plough.
Initially he started ploughing with a pair of heavy cobs of about 15 hands high, but he found the pair was rather too fast moving for ploughing matches. The trouble with the cob is that it is a jack of all trades: It can turn its hand (or hoof) to a great many different tasks, but it is unlikely to be an expert at any one discipline. Dafydd’s cob, Sam, can be ridden and driven, but when it came to ploughing, he was simply too lively. Despite several seasons of work under his belt, he wasn’t showing any sign of perfecting the art of the slow walk, an essential gait for farm work and ploughing competitions. Dafydd decided he needed a specialist – namely a big, chunky, slow-moving horse – in other words, something that was quite happy never to break out of a slow walk.
Some people in the U.K., Dafydd among them, believe the Shire horse has been spoilt as a breed. Selective breeding with the showground in mind has resulted in a horse taller and leggier than it ever was, and with a tendency toward foot problems (due to flat feet the size of dinner plates). Also, since the breed hasn’t worked for a living for some time now, the Shire – and other breeds like it – has been bred with appearance in mind rather than aptitude for work.
At one time it didn’t matter all that much what a work horse looked like, as long as it did its job properly. But now the most nervous, highly strung creature can be sought after and bred – as long as it looks the part in the show ring. The bottom line was that Dafydd wanted a quiet natured equine that was smaller and stockier than a Shire horse, and it became clear through looking at books of horse breeds that he might have to look outside of Britain for such an animal.
There are several European draught horses shorter in height than a Shire horse, but what Dafydd opted for was the Comtois, a lesser-known breed. Comtois horses are generally a chestnut brown color 14 to 16 hands in height. They are quiet natured, extremely hardy and put on weight very easily – an important factor to the French, since they raise Comtois horses for meat.
After some research Dafydd found the address of a French farmer who had dozens of Comtois horses, and with the help of a friend who acted as an interpreter, Dafydd arranged to travel to France to look at (and hopefully purchase) a pair of youngsters. Dafydd had never traveled abroad before and couldn’t speak a word of French; Monsieur Vienot (the farmer) couldn’t speak a word of English. This meant conversation was limited to sign language.
Of the fields full of chubby chestnut horses Dafydd pointed out two of the heaviest built and gave Monsieur Vienot the thumbs up: That was easy enough. Then he had to ascertain whether the pair of males he had chosen were castrated or entire. This resulted in Dafydd having to make a scissor action at his groin area to try to make Monsieur Vienot understand the question, which, thankfully he did. His response of “Ah non!” helped Dafydd confirm that he was indeed buying a pair of stallions. Since they are meat animals, the price of the pair was calculated by their weight alone. They weren’t expensive to buy (though transportation costs can’t be overlooked), but it’s fair to say the harness they wear today cost more than the horses did.
After a long journey, the previously unhandled pair arrived by lorry one dark and frosty night. How large they seemed that night, with their heads and tails up, snorting and calling out to the other horses. I wondered then at the gamble Dafydd was taking. Although they looked the right shape for ploughing, they were, of course, straight out of the field and there was nothing to say that they would end up having the right temperament for the job.
Three years later, I’m happy to report the gamble paid off. Dafydd worked very slowly with the pair, getting them used to wearing the harness and walking in long reins for a long time before harnessing them to any implement. They have proved to be quite unfazed by most things, proving that a laid-back attitude does have an awful lot to do with genetics.
Now they are regular competitors at ploughing competitions across the U.K., having won locally (and taking fourth in the British National), pulling a Ransomes Match plough. The prize we are all most proud of though is the first that Dafydd won last year at an Irish National match, where he won with our granddad’s old swing plough. FCJosephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.