Draft Horse Revival

These four-legged mega-workers are super efficient, economical and much more beautiful than standard farm tractors.

Klaus Karbaumer fixed his gaze beyond Norman’s and Sam’s heads and prepared for a turn.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, barely above a whisper. The two draft horses—a Belgian and a Percheron—stopped at the end of the furrow, and Klaus shifted the lever on his cultivator, which he adapted with discs. The horses, having done this dozens of time, made their turn to start on another row of potato plants. “Walk, walk, let’s go,” he instructed.

“Right now, we are hilling the potatoes,” Klaus said, waving his arm across the field, “so the potatoes have more loose soil to grow.”

Horsepower
Klaus, 66, and his wife, Leann, 64, are among a growing number of small farmers who are shunning tractors and other gas-powered machinery in favor of live horsepower. None of their 17 acres outside of Platte City, Missouri, just minutes from the Kansas City International Airport, is touched by an engine, not even a mower. Horses are used for plowing, disking, mowing, logging, cutting hay, spreading manure, and even giving fun-loving wagon rides in the fall.

Klaus uses a hand scythe to keep the grass under control. and Leann’s goats take care of the brush. More than 150 free-range chickens keep the bug population down and even help aerate the compost pile. Klaus plants 2.5 acres with 50 or so organically grown vegetables. He also harvests his hay fields and logs his woods all with the help of his four horses. Leann takes care of the business side of the farm, writes newsletters to regular customers and keeps five beehives for honey production and pollination.

Making A Comeback
“There is a tremendous draft horse revival in this country, unbeknown to people who are afflicted with technomania,” said Klaus, who came to the U.S. from Bavaria in 1991 solely to pursue his lifelong love of farming and horses.

“If you love horses, then you like to work with them,” he said.

These horses are bred for hard, heavy work. Different breeds have different characteristics, but all share common traits of strength, patience and good temperament, which made them indispensable to generations of pre-industrial farmers.

In addition to two Belgians and a Percheron, Klaus also has a Haflinger, named Gandhi, who, because of his smaller size, is able to work in tighter spots such as woods. Other breeds suitable for farming are the Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch, American Cream and the Shires.

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Pick A Winner
Although farmers have their own breed preferences, Klaus said that the individual horse is more important. So his advice to young would-be farmers is to choose their horses carefully. Farmers who have little or no experience working with draft horses should choose older ones, whose experience can be a help to novice farmers. Knowledgeable people can buy their draft horses at the many auctions held across the United States, but farmers new to draft horses should buy trained teams from reputable breeders.

Klaus has led many seminars and workshops for farmers interested in working with draft horses. He said that many websites help connect younger farmers with older teamsters.

Horses have been powering farms for hundreds of years, but their heyday in the United States was during the 19th century, when they helped millions of farm families settle the new land. Their number in the United States peaked in 1925, with about 26 million horses and mules. From then, the number shrank and fell dramatically after World War II. Today, among the 10 million horses in the country, only about 1 million can be ranked as work animals.

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Practical, Not Romantic
For the Karbaumers, farming with horses is not driven by romantic notions of reviving a bucolic past; it is both practical and economical.

“You can feed horses from farm products, and they deliver what the farm produces,” Klaus said. “They also deliver manure and increase the soil’s fertility.” Their hooves cause much less soil compaction than do tractor tires, a crucial difference for organic farming. Healthy, loose soil does not require chemical fertilizers.

Farming with horses also requires a different set of skills.

“Horses force you to plan and look ahead,” Klaus said. “You cannot just say, ‘OK, I’m going to do this and that’ without thinking what steps have to be taken.” Hitching and unhitching horses is hard work and takes time; planning each step of a task can prevent unnecessary work.

Know Your Horse

Horses also require farmers to be considerate. Farmers have to sense how much they can take.
“If you know the horse has not been exposed to big traffic, you cannot take her down the road to the other field,” he said. Horses should be slowly eased into unfamiliar tasks or settings.

Horses teach you to pace yourself. A farmer who relies primarily on animal power has to cultivate patience, Klaus explained.

“You cannot just say, ‘OK, I didn’t do it yesterday, so we’ll work until after midnight,’” he said. “Horses are not machines, even though they can do a lot of work.” The work is at a slower pace than on a tractor, but it’s more satisfying for Klaus.

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Other Benefits
Horses would not be practical on mega-farms that specialize in one or two crops but are ideal on small-scale, diversified farms. Klaus cites Maurice Telleen, who, as publisher of the much-revered Draft Horse Journal, did much to revive draft-horse farming in the United States. Because draft horses encourage small-scale, diversified farming, they also inspire the creation of strong farming communities. The Amish, for example, have been successful draft-horse farmers for generations and continue to live in thriving agrarian communities.

Before settling in Missouri, Klaus visited Amish farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana and was impressed with the number of horse-powered farms in the region and easy availability of horse-drawn equipment, from plows, to mowers, to manure spreaders.

Although he has been, as he put it, “horsin’ around” since he was six, Klaus did not always farm. He taught German, history and geography at the high school and college levels. Leann retired to the farm from her career in psychiatric social work for Johnson County, Kansas.

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Market Day
While Klaus hilled the potatoes, Leann led families with children on a tour during pick-up day for the farm’s guild members. She pointed to the onions, radishes, kale, spinach and other crops being grown. But one of the youngsters, Brandon Reynolds, four, was more interested in getting a chance to pet Norman.

“We’re going to pet Norman when we go back up, OK?” Leann assured him gently.

With the guild, farmers and customers get to know each other. The Karbaumers’ customers get assurance that their vegetables are organic and their eggs are from free-range chickens. Meanwhile, farmers get to know their customers’ preferences. Seasonal tours of the farms are encouraged.

The couple have been operating as a CSA (community-supported agriculture), in which families pay the farmer at the beginning of the season for a weekly share of the fresh, seasonal vegetables the farmer harvests. But they recently started offering their customers a market-day approach, in which members visit the farm on market day to pick up that day’s harvest.

Petting Norman
After finishing their work, Klaus led the horses to their stable, and, standing on tiptoe, unharnessed them, wiped them down and fed them the grass he had scythed that morning. He and the horses then took time to visit with families on market day. Brandon finally got to pet Norman, and Leann let the half-dozen visiting children try on horse collars to show them how heavy horse tack can be.

“How would you like to carry that around while you’re working?” Leann asked Hannah Mand, seven, as the Platte City girl tried on the horse collar. Her parents, Kelly and Michael, who’ve been coming to the farm for years, looked on and snapped photos.

Unfair question, Klaus responded. “Look at the difference in size between horses and kids.”