A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Hayburners Make a Comeback. Horsepower Drives Economic Viability for Small Farms.

by Anne Pyburn Craig   
When tractors became affordable in the 1920s, a lot of small farmers shrugged and went right on harnessing up the team. The decline of horse-powered farming didn’t really happen until the 1940s and went hand in hand with the rise of Big Ag. Fossil fuels were more cost-effective for vast expanses of monoculture.

Horses at Great Song Farm. Photo by Jesse Turnquist.

But it’s questionable whether a tractor has ever made much sense as the primary power source on a small farm. Tractors depreciate; horses learn by doing. Tractors produce fumes; horses produce fertilizer, and more horses. Tractors drink gas or diesel; horses graze and eat farm products. Chet Kendall, a fifth generation fruit farmer and an economics professor at Brigham Young University of Idaho, produced a comparative study in 2005 that led him to conclude that “the draft horse may, and perhaps should, be seriously considered as a choice of traction power for our small to medium farms.”


The front-end economics do make enormous sense. A mid-sized farm tractor is a $25,000 to $50,000 investment, even before any attachments. A fine, trained draft horse or mule can be had for well under $10,000. But talk to farmers for whom the horse is the traction power of choice, and economics is not the first subject that comes up. A host of intangible benefits are even more interesting. 
At Apple Pond Farm in Sullivan County, Sonja Hedlund and Dick Riseling have been eco-friendly since they began their operation in 1973, and their horses have played a major role. “I had no background, I had no idea what I was getting into, but I was entranced after the first year,” says Riseling. “I studied up on the French theories of haute ecole—the way they relate to horses in dressage—and foundational principles from materials like the Bhagavad Gita as a conceptual framework. With horses, it’s how you have to be. You cannot make a 2,400 pound animal do something—I’ve never tried—but they will offer to do what you ask.”

Over the years, Riseling bred, trained, and sold 143 horses to other farmers, some in places like Virginia and others as far away as Europe. “Along with the woman in my life, horses are the best love affair I ever had,” he says. “Horses have brought me great joy, constant surprise—just the highest possible reward. Horses help you find your authentic self. Many more people should use them. It helps the bottom line and speaks to people’s spirits much better. It draws them in. Horses are the best company in the world all day long and pay for themselves all day long. You can’t say that about a piece of motorized equipment.”

Indeed you can’t. When tractors were first being mass-marketed, advertisers took care not to diss the noble equine, knowing that such a tactic would turn farmers off. In the third millennium, some farmers couldn’t care less what the tractor sellers say—the product itself is turn-off enough. In fact, horsepower—a commonplace unit of measurement equalling the power required to lift 33,000 pounds one foot in one minute, used for motorized vehicles such as tractors—was originally defined as the amount of power that a strong horse could provide.

“The first two farms we apprenticed at used tractors instead of horses,” says Mark Stonehill of Full Circus Farm, a community-spirited vegetable and fruit tree operation near Pine Plains. “While we loved both of those farms, the experience of being on the tractor for many hours a day didn’t speak to us. The fumes make Miriam feel nauseous and the constant mechanical battle (small farmers without capital inevitably have old, broken tractors) didn’t appeal to either of us…Feeling as though tractors took some of the fun out of farming for us, we took two apprenticeships together [at horsedrawn farms] on the coast of Maine.”

Stonehill’s partner Miriam Goler says that while tractor fumes do make her nauseous, the decision to work with Halflingers Sandy and Sunshine is a practical one. “Tractors are super heavy; they compact and damage your soil. Horses do less harm. And they allow us to get onto the fields after a rain, when a tractor would be damaging and useless. They’re part of a cycle of nutrients here; we feed hay, they provide manure. It’s important to us to have animals that are providing benefits for the vegetable side of the operation.”
“Riding on a tractor, I was up off the ground, often high up, with a loud motor, exhaust fumes, fuel, hydraulic fluid that dripped in the fields,” says Anthony Mecca of Great Song Farm, an organic and biodynamic farm near Red Hook. “Working with horses allows me to walk with feet on the ground, see and hear the tool I am working with from a different perspective.”

Horses at Full Cirucs Farm.
It’s a gentler, quieter way of taking care of business, and the teamsters (a term used for horse-driving farmers since before the union got its start) say it nourishes the spirit. “Working horses is an opportunity to form an intimate relationship with an animal to accomplish a great amount of work together,” says Mecca. “There are few chances today to make such a deep and important connection. It certainly helps me grow as a human being, as I have to work on my struggles to communicate clearly and be compassionate and help these animals through some arduous and unsettling (at first) situations. They are very willing to work and seem to enjoy it quite a bit.”

“I work at a different pace when I’m working with horses,” says Goler. “It becomes all about your relationship with the horse, rather than what work you are getting done. I move slower, find myself walking slower. It’s a different place in my head. It’s really beautiful. And horses make you more aware of your surroundings. If you’re driving a tractor, it doesn’t get startled and turn its head when it hears a noise; in fact, you probably won’t be able to hear anything. The horses let me know if something unusual is going on. I’ve learned to try to be aware and find whatever it is first and let them know it’s okay. It makes me more connected to our surroundings and to the world.”
“You form a relationship with them that is based on love and admiration, mutual respect and trust,” says Stonehill. “That’s beautiful stuff!”

The lessons learned carry over into other parts of life. “Working with horses made me a much finer teacher,” says Riseling. “It’s done wonderful things for my powers of observation. The most important faculties of a horse are smell and hearing—their vision isn’t their strongest point—and I have found surprising ways to use those even in the classroom.”

“My off-farm job is at an after-school program,” says Stonehill, “and I think I love working with children for some of the same reasons I love farming with horses. They help you see the world a little differently. They have an interesting and valuable perspective on the world. I love keeping animals on the farm, because they’re kind of like having low-maintenance children.”

People are catching on: Sterling College in Vermont has offered a minor in draft horse management since 2002. Farmingwithhorses.com does a brisk business in animal-powered equipment. A Facebook group dedicated to draft horse and equipment trading has nearly 10,000 members. It’s hard to get exact numbers, since the Census Bureau quit counting in 1960, but the art and science of animal-powered farming is clearly experiencing a renaissance.

Apple Pond is now an ecotourism retreat and apprentice training operation that’s 95% off-grid thanks to wind and solar power, and features a renewable energy education center. Riseling and his team are no longer on active plowing duty. “I’m 74 and they’re 28,” says Riseling, “I guess we have a few steps in us yet.”

Meanwhile, younger farmers following in Riseling’s mixed hoof-and-boot prints wouldn’t change, unless in the direction of more animal power, less fossil fuel. “There’s a tractor on the farm—we don’t own it, but we have the use of it for things like turning compost and things that require hydraulic lifting,” says Goler. “Although I have seen pictures of hay bales being lifted and stored using hay hooks and pulleys and horses…” She sounds intrigued by the idea.

“They’re living, breathing, dynamic animals,” Mecca says, “which means they may have something upsetting their stomach, or the wind or the other horse or flies are bothering them.  Some days we get out there and we need to work a few things out together before we can actually get to the work.” 

Just as the horse’s hoof turns and aerates the soil, rather than crushing it like a tractor tire, that very working-out process seems to aerate the soul. “After a couple times around the field, I give the horses a rest,” says Mecca. “Everything is quiet and still as the horses stand and catch their breath. I can feel the freshly worked soil under my feet, smell the soil and the plant life, observe the insect life in the soil and air—a moment to really take in what is happening in the field to help me with what might need to happen next.”