Finding the Right Horses

Third generation swing plough requires easy-going team

| March 2009

Here in the U.K. the most commonly seen draught horse is the Shire.

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.

A way of life

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.

Swing plough designed for uneven land

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.

Finding the right team

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.