Horse Powered Farming

Bali pulling an old German military cart. Lead by Thébeau.

Horses were domesticated about 5,500 years ago and used for agriculture for the last 1000 years. Only a little over a century ago, 90% of all forms of transportation was horse powered. Yet, within a decade after the introduction of internal combustion engine, we shifted dramatically away from the humble animal.

From this week, I’m at a farm in Ariége that practices horse powered organic farming. With increased awareness of fossil fuel emissions and peak oil, there appears to be small but growing number of communities dotted around the globe trying to sustain this valuable thread of knowledge.

The horses are powered by hay which in turn is powered by the sun. The cultivation of hay encourages growth of perennial crops that protects against soil erosion and build the top soil. Horse exhaust is manure that fertilises the soil. Their lighter weight does not compact the soil – a common problem with industrial tractors. Tractors also never make mini tractors by themselves but horses do.

Advocates of industrial farming claim that without factory farms not enough food would be produced to feed all of the people in the world. The factory model of agriculture is often quoted as the most efficient way to produce cheap food; in fact, this could not be more untrue. What advocates of factory farms do not tell us is that the low cost of food does not take into account the true cost of production. Some of these hidden costs include degradation of our water, soil and air, damage to our health, and any of the impacts that are felt by the communities in which industrial farms are located. None of these costs are paid by the owners of factory farms but rather by the people who live in these communities. Billions of dollars are spent to mitigate problems created by agricultural industrialization. Damage to the air, water, and soil can only spell disaster for our species and no amount of money will be enough to fix the problem. Converting back to horse-powered methods will be a challenge but the cost will be far less than if we continue on the path of industrial agriculture.
Ancient horses drawn with charcoal on Niaux cave

The two horses at the farm came from a local Castillonnais breeder in the valley of Castillon-en-Couserans. The beautiful ancient breed specific to this valley almost became extinct but was brought back in the 80’s by local supporters. These small but hardy mountain horses are thought to be descendants of horses depicted in 14,000 year old Niaux cave paintings pictured above.

A wide selection of the old and new tools.

Thébeau, the farmer, told me that in the 40 years since the revival of horse powered farming in this area, there has been gradual modifications of the tools available to pull, with some allowing attachment of modern tractor tools. Many farmers that practice this type of farming learn to weld so that they can fix, modify and create new tools.

What’s the Catch?

Some of the challenges, he says, are horse flies. During summer, wild horses or those that can roam around will stay under shade in pairs or more, with each horse facing the other way and using their tail to blow flies off the other horse’s face. But a draft horse must stay in the sun, and have no access to other horse’s tails that could blow flies away, and apparently it drives them nuts. So during the hottest months, Thébeau may start the day early at 6am and finish before the heat of the day.

Horses are intelligent living creatures and training and building a relationship is an integral part of horse powered farming. A small incident could undo the training and may require long, patient rework on the skills. I’m not familiar with horses but it was absolutely fascinating to see the communication between Thébeau and the horses. There’s something really amazing about this kind of high level mammal to mammal dialogue, which of course doesn’t occur with a tractor.

The Significance

As the supply of fossil fuels begin to diminish, while global demand continues to rise, the price of oil will inevitably hike. Currently, conventional agriculture relies heavily on petroleum, not only to power their machinery but for pesticides and fertilisers which are also petroleum based. At the current marginal profit margins of conventional agriculture, with heavy government subsidies, depleting top soil and aquifers, we may be setting ourselves up for a rapid agricultural collapse – our food source.

Perhaps nuclear fusion may give us unlimited clean energy in 30 years time, and we may see massive fleets of automated electric powered tractors working the land. But we often forget the hidden (and not so hidden) environmental costs of mining metal, limited supply of rare metals for batteries or large scale mono-culture. When we begin to use the term ‘sustainability’ not as something that will keep us going for mere 100 years, but for 10,000 years and more, horse powered farming starts to feel like a serious possibility. For anything to be viable for 10,000 years, it must work within the confines of nature.

Horse powered farming and other important threads of knowledge passed down generation after generation for centuries, can and have disappeared beyond retrieval within a single generation. Thanks to Thébeau and other small scale farmers, thin strands still remain. Let’s support and strengthen these threads of knowledge for the benefit of our descendants seven generations ahead.

For Further Reading

I have read the book to the left at Thébeau’s place. A very good, comprehensive book with plenty of colour photographs and examples of pretty high end horse powered equipment to very DIY old school tools. I have not read the book to the right but it is from the same publisher and aimed for the small market grower. Check them out and help us continue to write relevant blog posts.

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