HARTLAND — It was a perfect day for plowing, a little overcast with a cool breeze. You could hear the sound of the birds, the chink-chink-chink of the harness.
Stephen Leslie, an artist and former Benedictine monk, guided two Norwegian Fjords down the field. The walking moldboard plow, a 300-pound curving steel blade, cut through the soil and sent it curling over itself in dark, crumbly waves. He stepped quickly, leaning back into the lines he kept looped around his shoulders so his hands were free to guide the plow.
“Stay haw, stay haw,” Leslie said in a low, calm voice, reminding the dun-colored horses to bear right as they neared the end of the field. Fully grown at 14 hands high and 950 pounds, these powerful animals can be dangerous if they are startled. But compared to Clydesdales or Percherons, which are twice as big and can weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, they look like big, muscular ponies.
“Gee now, gee,” he said, urging them left as they stepped onto the unplowed grass at the edge of the field. “Easy now, easy.”
Farming with horses is a complicated dance in which timing is all. But Cassima, 19, and Tristan, 14, have been with Leslie for most of their lives (Fjords can live as long as three decades), so years of trust bind them. Theirs is also a breed that wants to work.
“These guys are really easygoing compared to a thoroughbred, or even a Morgan horse,” he said. “But they’re lively, and they can be willful.”
Leslie, 52, and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, 38, use a tractor to haul manure and do other heavy jobs on Cedar Mountain Farm near Vermont’s border with New Hampshire. When it comes to working the land, though, they use four Norwegian Fjords. Their farm is one of some 400,000 operations in North American that use draft horses in some capacity, estimates Lynn Miller, the editor of the Small Farmer’s Journal, in Sisters, Ore., who has farmed with horses for more than 40 years.
After World War II, when farmers traded in tens of millions of horses for tractors — “There was no place for the horses except the glue factory,” Miller said — the use of draft horses plummeted. By the 1970s, some of the breeds that had been the most popular were down to the thousands.
But “since then, the number of work horses and draft mules has steadily climbed,” said Miller, who has written more than a dozen books on the subject. “People are attracted to the way of working with animals, of being back in touch with nature, of regaining a kind of rhythmic elegance to our lives.”
Leslie voiced a similar sentiment in “The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower,” published last month by Chelsea Green. In it, he writes, “I envision a day when live horse power will be joined in tandem on farms with new and cleaner technologies that will include tractors and delivery vans that will run on alternatives to diesel such as recycled vegetable oil, locally and sustainably produced biofuels, and solar-powered batteries, just as the glory days of horse power in North America and Britain coupled advances in horse-drawn implements with stationary steam-powered engines.”
With their strong, arched necks and stiff, clipped manes — white with a black stripe down the middle — the Fjords look like proud warriors, their big heads bobbing in concert as they keep pace down the field of winter oats. These nimble-footed horses, which hark back to the Vikings and are still bred by royalty in Norway, plow and disk the fields here, spread manure and cultivate rows of vegetables, mow the hayfields in summer and pull logs out of the 30-acre forest in winter. On that recent day, they were plowing in a cover crop to feed the soil with nutrients and give it good tilth, as farmers say, referring to moist, well-aerated earth teeming with microbes.
Across the fields, the cluster of barns and hoop houses was part of the same working landscape, in which animals — sheep, milk cows, beef cattle — and constantly rotated crops aimed to achieve what sustainable farmers call a closed-loop system. Cover crops and manure from animals enriched the soil; solar-powered buildings reduced energy consumption; and hay, vegetables, milk and cheese, beef and lamb from the farm provided most of what the animals and humans consumed.
It is an idyllic life in many ways, but it isn’t for everyone.
“Not everybody is geared toward having the patience and sensitivity to work with animals,” Leslie said.
But before the tractor, all farmers had to work with horses, he added, whether they liked them or not: “Back then that was what was available, even if you were an impatient and hard-driving person.”
Leslie seems particularly well suited to this life, although his path was a circuitous one.
He studied painting and drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early 1980s, he said, “but I didn’t really see what I was making art for.”
Then his interest in Eastern and Native American spirituality led him to the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist, and he spent seven years at the Weston Priory in Vermont. He not only learned to garden there, but was also politicized by the monks’ trips to Mexico and Guatemala, where they helped indigenous communities set up health centers and farm collectives, and escape persecution.
The light goes on
Soon, though, he realized that farming was his true calling.
“I wanted to be an organic farmer because I had this sense, even back in the early ’90s, that our society was hurtling toward a cliff in terms of the unsustainability of systems we’ve put in place,” Leslie said. “I wasn’t really an activist, but I’m an artist. I like to do things. There’s not that big a disjuncture between wanting to paint a canvas and wanting to work a piece of land.”
And after he read about draft horses in the Small Farmer’s Journal, a light went on.
“From an ecological standpoint, it’s just so clean, versus burning fossil fuel, and the compaction you get with a tractor,” he said. “But on that other level, there is just this unending learning curve that keeps you engaged. It’s a window into an instinctual world that is also entirely present. When I’m with the horses, they are entirely present to me and to the task at hand. `Here we are, this is it, this is what we’re doing.’ And if I’m not grounded, things go off in the wrong direction.”
For plowing up heavy ground, he uses a tractor, but still, he would rather be with Cassima and Tristan. “Bouncing around on that tractor, craning my neck back, I get off feeling awful,” he said. Whereas, after plowing with the horses, he said, “I get done with this, my blood’s going, my heart’s beating, I’ve been with my friends here, it’s just such a different experience.”
The horses are key to the life he shares here with Gawalt, whom he met 20 years ago while they were working as apprentices at Hawthorne Valley Farm, a 400-acre biodynamic farm in Ghent, N.Y.
They and their 6-year-old daughter, Maeve, are part of the 60-member Cobb Hill co-housing community incorporated in 1998. It was the brainchild of Donella Meadows, the late environmental scientist and an author of “The Limits to Growth,” an influential 1972 book that used computer modeling to predict the future of the Earth if the population continued to expand and consume limited resources.
Twenty-three houses cluster on a hill overlooking the farm, situated for the best solar gain. There are two Garn wood-burning furnaces that provide heat and hot water in winter; solar panels that heat the water in summer, when the sun is strong enough; compost toilets that require no water or septic fields; and shared equipment like lawn mowers.
Leslie and Gawalt bought one of the houses in 2001, with help from the Cobb Hill Community and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and signed a 20-year lease for the land they farm with Cobb Hill. (The community sold its development rights to the Upper Valley Land Trust, to preserve 270 acres for agriculture, and used money from the sale to subsidize housing.)
Plowing the field, Leslie will occasionally hit a rock with his steel blade and the plow will pop out of the furrow, dragging him with it. But he never loses his quiet, conversational tone, although to an observer it looks like a train car jerking off the tracks. He simply rights the plow and clucks his tongue, as the team stands waiting patiently, and off they go again.
It wasn’t always so. One winter’s day, about 16 years ago, when Leslie and Gawalt were farming in New Hampshire, they hitched up Cassima and another horse to a sled to practice pulling logs in the woods.
“Cassima was a very young horse,” he said, “and they got scared by something and broke into a runaway. I couldn’t stop them and got bounced off the sled.”
Gawalt, who had helped hitch up the horses, was in an adjacent field, and the horses, in a blind panic, ran straight at her.
“She wasn’t able to get herself up off this fence, and she got struck by the sled, which broke the tibia on both legs, in the same spot,” he said. “It was a disaster.”
After Leslie got his wife into an ambulance, he went looking for the horses. They had shattered the sled trying to run through a gate, which had snagged their harness and brought them up short.
“Fortunately, none of them was hurt,” he said, “because they could have been destroyed, too.”
He unharnessed the team, took them back to the barn and then forced himself to take them out again three days later. He knew he had to face his fear if he was going to continue working with them.
Even so, “for the next four or five years, every time I hitched up a team of horses, I had butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “But I knew what could be done with horses. I knew the mistakes we had made. It was a wake-up call.”
He found an experienced teamster with whom he could train Cassima — and himself. Within months, Gawalt was dragging herself into the market garden to tend her crops, although it took her a couple of years to fully recover.
“This is their moment,” Gawalt said, as Leslie let the Fjords out of their stable into a green field where they trotted about like colts before lowering their big heads to the soft grass.
But Fjords are so thrifty metabolically that they can get fat on too much grass, so they aren’t allowed to graze for long. “I like to keep them fighting fit,” Leslie said, patting Cassima’s muscular flank.
A tractor might break down occasionally, but it doesn’t eat anything other than gas and oil. And it doesn’t have moods. Horses do, and they can pick up on yours in an instant.
“If you are feeling under the gun, like, `I gotta get this field done,’ they pick it right up,” Leslie said. “That’s the Zen practice you have to work on yourself: Take some deep breaths, create some sense of calm.”
And as he and Gawalt learned the hard way, you have to work for years to learn how to handle horses in various situations.
“The biggest mistake we made was starting with young horses,” Leslie said. He advises greenhorns to apprentice themselves to an experienced teamster and start out with an older, settled team. “Until you know what you’re doing, find that team that knows it all.”
That morning, as he brought Cassima and Tristan out of their paddock, every move was a ritual. He tied them to the hitching post and gave them an alfalfa treat. Then he brushed them and cleaned their feet, an act that required an astonishing degree of trust on both sides, Gawalt observed.
“Horses are all about instinct and routine,” she said, as Leslie put on the halter, the bridle, the collar and all the various straps and lines that make up the harness.
These Fjords go barefoot because their feet are strong, and they are more agile without iron shoes nailed to their hooves. But that means Leslie must inspect each foot for stones or minor cuts, and clean out mud and manure, before starting to work.
Still, this elaborate routine provides the sort of connection to living things that Leslie believes people today are longing for — and it is why he is convinced that farming with horses will have a real renaissance.
“I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality,” he said. “That leads to a deeper self-understanding.”
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