Yes, that's Alayne and me driving our two Belgian draft horses, Bill and Bob.
As many long-time blog readers know, one of the main reasons we moved to this new location in New Hampshire was because of rising fuel prices, which made the remote ranch in Montana an increasingly expensive place to operate from (taking an animal to a vet clinic was a 140-mile round trip). We said at the time of our move that we expected oil prices to continue rising in the years ahead -- the long-term trend would be up, up and up.
This view on energy prices had also led us to start thinking about how we could use less fossil fuels in general, not only for transportation but also for general ranch work. We'd been interested in using draft horses for quite a while, and in 2009 back in Montana we had acquired two "Spotted Drafts" -- a cross between a Belgian and a Paint horse -- named Pete and Paint, who had been used for pulling wagons. We wanted to use Pete and Paint for hauling water and feed out to pastures ... in addition to not using fossil fuels, horse-drawn equipment is a lot easier and lighter on the ground than driving tractors or other vehicles. But before we even got started, we made the move to New Hampshire.
Once here, we realized we wanted to do even more with draft horses than simply haul wagons around -- we could use them for farm work, like plowing, cultivating, and spreading manure. And we get so much rain here that the ground is often too wet to use a tractor to spread manure during many months of the year, something I've learned to my consternation. (Welcome to lush and green New England!) But while a tractor might be too heavy to use in certain conditions, a horse-drawn manure spreader would be light enough that you can still get out and get the manure spread on the fields without tearing them up.
Alayne, Kate and I attended some local draft horse workshops this year to learn how to do this kind of work. (Kate was already an experienced "teamster," having driven wagons and sleighs for a local hotel, but hadn't done farm work.) One of the key things we learned, though, was just how important it was to have the right temperament in your horse team. Pulling a quiet wagon is very different from pulling noisy machinery clanging and banging behind you, and requires a team of horses who are suited to that kind of agricultural work.
As we worked with other draft horses at the workshops, we began to worry that Pete and Paint might be a bit too "hot" for farm tasks. At one of the draft horse workshops we attended we met a wonderful horse trainer named Neal Perry, who lives just about an hour away in Vermont and has been farming with horses most of his life. We asked Neal to assess Pete and Paint for us to see if they were suited to farm work. (We figured we should know before having a wreck.) After a week at his farm, trying them out with various implements, Neal concluded that they were really not well-suited to the kind of work we wanted to do. For hay rides and wagon rides, they were great ... but for pulling a manure spreader or chain harrow or other implements, they were too excitable and not the right kind of team. Neal told me, "You guys need a quiet, solid, experienced farm team that's already done it all."
As luck would have it, a few weeks later Neal was able to arrange the perfect match -- he found someone looking exactly for a team like Pete and Paint, and located a semi-retired Amish team of Belgians named Bill and Bob. I say "semi-retired" because the Amish work their horses pretty hard and tend to retire them from heavy farm work at about the age of 12. But that's still young for a horse, and the amount of work we'd be doing would be a lot less than any Amish farmer. Bill and Bob had been in semi-retirement for the past few years, pulling wagons on occasion, but they had indeed "done it all."
The day I went up to Neal's to take Bill and Bob for a test drive, we hitched them up to a chain harrow to drag a field. The harrow was spread across a pile of rocks, and so it made an enormous clanging sound as Bill and Bob started pulling it. Pete and Paint would have jumped out of their skins, but Bill and Bob just leaned into their harnesses and started going. We went around and around the fields; I'd say "whoa," and the two boys instantly came to a stop. Neal and I would get off the cart, leaving them unattended, and they just stood there, going nowhere. This ability to stand still is important in farm work, because often you will be by yourself, and you need to get off and check something or hitch something up ... so you want your horses to stand right there and not move.
It was clear that these two boys were what we needed, especially given our limited skills with draft horses. We wanted horses who were so experienced that they could -- and would! -- ignore our rookie mistakes. Years ago we had become comfortable being around, and handling, horses this size because of the two enormous Belgians, Beaver and Rooster, who had come to us from the National Park Service in Montana. Though we had since lost them both to medical issues, our comfort zone with big horses is still there. But actually using draft horses for real work was new to us, which is why a pair like Bill and Bob were ideal.
So a couple of weeks ago I brought Bill and Bob back to the farm, and then yesterday we hitched them up here for the first time. We had been waiting for the forecart, which is the equipment you attach various implements to. That arrived a few days ago in a box, and Kate and I assembled it yesterday morning. After lunch, we groomed the boys, put their harnesses on, walked them over to the cart, and hitched them up.
Then, Kate and I set off for our first trip with the boys, who are now known collectively as "Billy Bob." Alayne took this photo when Kate and I had just come back down the road -- Kate was driving:
That's Bob with the red halter and Bill with the green halter. (Click on photos for a larger image.)
Then it was my turn to drive as Alayne and I headed out:
And up on to some pasture ground:
Here's the smiling couple:
Bill looks a little suspicious -- Alayne said Bill and Bob were probably whispering to each other the whole time, "Say, do you think they know what they're doing back there?"
Then it was Alayne's turn to drive:
We'll keep you posted on our progress with The Billy Bob Boyz, but yesterday was an exciting first day. This is something we've wanted to do for a long time, and it felt really good to start doing it.
$1,000 Weekly Winner Again -- Thank You!
Because of all of your votes, we were the weekly winner for week 3 again in the Shelter Challenge -- and that brought in another $1,000 gift for the animals here! Thank you so much!
The new Shelter Challenge started October 3rd and ends at midnight on December 18th. Grand prize in this round is $5,000, plus $1,000 for weekly winners and $1,000 for state winners. There are also other categories ... please see the Shelter Challenge website for details.
And remember, you can vote every day, so consider bookmarking the voting page to make it easy.
You can vote in the Shelter Challenge here.
Please note: Use Rolling Dog Ranch for our name and NH for the state and our listing will come up. [Yes, we are still listed as Rolling Dog Ranch for the purposes of the contest, not Rolling Dog Farm.]
Please help us win more money for the animals here by voting every day, and by encouraging your family, friends and colleagues to vote every day, too. Thank you!