Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tension, pressure, and control

We never believed that farming with horses was going to be the easiest, or fastest way to farm the land here. But when we came to the decision to use a team over a tractor, it was because it made more sense to who we envision ourselves to be and the way we want to live in the world. This week has been a real challenge to see if we are made of the stuff to farm with horses.

A few weeks ago, we bought two plows. The team was coming around nicely to ground driving and riding on the fore cart. It's about the time of the year when you need to turn sod, and begin planting. So then last week, we started looking to have them just move the plow around a bit, get used to the sounds and weight. And that's when near all hell broke loose around here. Our pleasant afternoon drives ground to a halt. Suddenly, the pair refused to do anything. There was no convincing them to keep moving the plow around. And it just got worse. We were stuck in reverse, backing up constantly- not heading commands. Then Nataya, our usually calm mare was attempting to t-bone Sunny.

We were frustrated, furious, and down right stuck. We kept at it, but things were regressing at a rapid pace, the weight of the season was coming down on us. Still is. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, or fast- but we certainly didn't anticipate it would be impossible.

After that morning where we couldn't even get the team to ground drive, let alone any thing else useful, we needed to re-group. We came inside, deflated and really worried about our upcoming year. After all, this decision we made to use horses was all fine and dandy- but we had vegetables that had to get planted and trying to find another way could be costly and very time consuming.

Luckily, we got a few good pieces of advice. After consulting with another friend and draft-pony owner, we got the recommendation to start some serious ground work. Remind the ponies that we make them move, and not the other way around. Then we had a good long phone call with the person who owned the team before hand. He asked a serious of thoughtful and knowledgeable questions, including about their diet. As it turns out, oats are crack for ponies. We had been feeding them oats (along with some other things). We had consulted a few sources before giving them grain, but ended up making the decision to give a bit, since we needed them to work through the season...bad decision. Haflingers Do Not need grain. In fact, it makes them bat shit crazy and fairly unmanageable. At least ours have that response.

I guess it makes sense though-- Imagine giving a toddler two espressos, and a candy bar and asking them to do anything. Sure, the kid would have energy- but no focus and too much zip. That's what was happening (partially) with the team. So we cut them off. Only hay from here on out.

Yesterday, we tried to find some zen before we went out. We practiced the ground work that our friend recommended (thank goodness for friends also with ponies who like to be the boss and don't mind giving advice). We took our time grooming the team, and getting them hitched. And low and behold- we got them moving. Now, it wasn't graceful, it wasn't seamless. But it was a far cry from the absolute disaster that was the day before. We ground drove them in the first of the year hot sun until they were sweaty and clear that we meant business. There were moments where we bid them in one direction and they resisted, ending in us spinning them in circles until they realized it was easier to move forward. But we worked it out together. We adjusted the tension on our lines. The amount of tension you put on the lines of a draft horse is paramount to your success. Too much- you end up pinching your team, and confusing them about what you want. Too little and you have no control. You want the lines to be a firm but reasonable communication, at all times.

We worked them again today, this time getting them hitched on the fore cart and working until they were drenched and tired. It wasn't easy, and again- we had some moments where they thought they would call the shots about our directions. And truth be told, Nataya is still fighting the idea that she has to have a job on this farm. She'd prefer to have an easy retirement, rolling in hay and eating oats. But that's not what kind of place this is- everyone, animals included, have a roll. She will step up to the plate. Sunny is more eager to work, she likes the weight of a collar and knowing her place. I love that about that horse.

I knew when we started this adventure that it wasn't going to be smooth sailing. We weren't going to walk into the field and plow up the earth like it was butter. But these ponies are teaching me something. You've got to really be committed to farm with horses. There is nothing mindless about it, it's focus, attention, and communicating what you mean- always. It's controlling your frustration and never, ever rushing. It's the complete opposite of most of modern society. It demands me to be better. Be smarter. And ask for help.

So yes, it would be easier to get a tractor. But, I'm not sure that owning a tractor would make me a better person, or a more attentive farmer. And I think these ponies will.

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