Eyes on the Land: How Horses Knit a Farm Together

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., talks gently to her horses Luckie and Max when maneuvering a log they were pulling on Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther carries harnesses to her barn after working with her horses on her farm in Corinth, Vt., on Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., prepares a log for her team, Max and Luckie, to pull up her driveway at her farm on Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After pulling logs, Max and Luckie start in on hay after Liz Guenther takes their halters off in Corinth, Vt., on Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sam Pollard on Mike in 2005. photo courtesy Liz Guenther

For the Valley News
Published: 11/20/2018 10:00:04 PM

Saturday, November 17

For weeks, cool, wet, windy weather carpeted the barnyard with the silvery green leaves of the towering black locust trees that encircle it. Then, suddenly it was white. Just in time, the cows came down from the high field, the pigs came in from the farthest corner of the home pasture, and the chickens, who’d followed the pigs all summer, came home to roost.

Each November brings this homeward migration, down from the high pastures and in from the edges, a happy time when the farm seems to gather in its creatures. Like theirs, our lives turn inward, and we are less active than in summer, more ruminative. Our tasks keep us closer to the barnyard and the kitchen.

Our two small work horses move to a slightly different rhythm, however, and keep me connected to another side of the farm. As long hours of haying and moving fences for grazing rotations come to a close for the year, I have time to harness our team and step out with them into the woods to pull firewood and sawlogs. Their place in the farm is perhaps less obvious than that of the cows and pigs. But horses were fundamental to the very formation of this farm, and they continue to play a valuable, multifaceted role here.

From 1991 to 2008, almost all the hay we made we mowed and raked with horses. The long, long hours on the mowing machine behind the horses and just inches off the ground, knit horses and fields together in my very bones. But even deeper in me has been the connection between horses and the woods. It was there that we worked consistently with the horses early on, and where we continue to return.

Our farm is nearly 80 percent forested, so notwithstanding the time and effort we devote to establishing and improving pasture, which is the foundation of our pasture-based creamery, the woods are essential to the character, the health and indeed the survival of the farm. Hardwood forests shelter us from prevailing north and west winds in winter, and dense softwood forests beyond our pastures slow the winds that race up the valley. Where trees populated old pastures we are now reclaiming, we welcome the shade, comfort, and considerable and varied browse they offer all of our animals.

As for firewood, there is more than we will ever use. even if we salvage only the dying or fallen ironwood trees on Hurricane Ridge. The forest has been thoughtfully managed since it came into our family in 1975, and continues to generate healthy softwood and hardwood sawlogs. We have had professional loggers in on several occasions, to handle certain jobs that were impractical or infeasible with horses — large volumes of low-value pulpwood when we undertook to clear an extensive area of former pasture, or long, uphill skids of very large logs — but most of our work in these woods has been done with horses.

In our first year, our small Belgian workhorse, Mike, and a modest, 35-horsepower tractor with a brush hog cleared the first few acres of what was then roughly 200 acres of forest and overgrown pasture. Young Mike did the lion’s share of the work, drawing whatever good pine and spruce logs we could cut from among the abundant bushy pasture pines to a portable sawmill. With this wood we built a shed for the horses, and two years later, our small house.

Shortly after Mike came to us, we bought Bill, a steady, experienced Belgian, who taught Mike, and us, a lot. We were lucky also to have among our friends some excellent horsemen who generously shared their knowledge with us, and saved us and our horses from a great deal of danger and discomfort.

Our neighbor Randy Snipes had been working horses for years. I’ll never forget the day he pointed out a simple harness adjustment that made all the difference for the horses’ necks when they were hooked to something heavy like a mowing machine. Bob Capobianco, a horse logger from Washington, Vt., watched over my first few skids down the hill with some good-sized maple logs, and I have always been grateful for his careful eye and sound advice.

Years later, I drove sleighs and wagons with Earl Silloway. In a very short time working for Earl, I took in some of the most important lessons in teamstering safety I have ever learned. “Put ’em on a pole, get ’em organized!,” Earl growled fiercely at me one winter day in 2012, when he was helping me here with a wily team of Percherons I had bought after Mike died. “I just don’t want you gettin’ hurt!,” he said then, still gruff, but kind. That was Earl’s way, and I am still thankful. He taught me a lot, and he was right about those horses.

Early on I discovered the tractor was often no match for the team in the woods, winter or summer. In summer, any wet weather threatened deep tire ruts or a stuck tractor; in winter, deep snow presented similar problems, while ice was dangerous or impossible to cross while pulling wood, even with tire chains. Shod with metal shoes roughened with borium nubs for grip, the horses were nimbler and safer on ice, and never got stuck, though they pulled log after log uphill, sometimes through deep snow, to the sawmill.

In the woods we could work in much tighter spaces than with the tractor, and make do with much narrower skid roads. The dips and hummocks characteristic of second-growth forests were not always easy for the horses to negotiate with a log behind them, but they were often impossible to cross at all with the tractor. The work was tiring. But the capacities and endurance of the horses were impressive, and the light track they left behind them was encouraging.

We were ground skidding everything at this point, walking behind the horses, and carefully to the side of the sliding, rolling logs. I had spent my whole life riding horses and competing in three-phase events, but driving and maneuvering among trees with 16-foot logs behind a lively horse was a whole new dance to learn. The feel of the lines in my hands was second nature to me, from years of studying dressage, as was a lot of the horses’ behavior. But the dynamics and physics of pulling logs, especially when they were often just inches from my ankle, were unfamiliar, and to be taken seriously. Mike and Bill were patient and generous, and the work went very well.

Later on when the horses were deeper in the woods, pulling hardwood sawlogs for our own use and for sale, they were hitched to a rugged bobsled. We would roll the butt end of a log up onto the sled’s single bunk, lifting the front of it off the ground or out of the snow so that it skidded more easily, helping the horses to pull the heavier loads.

These days I am working with our new team. Luckie and Max are relative newcomers here, having come to us just last May from very generous friends in South Randolph. Handsome and black, they are Canadians, small horses about 15 hands tall at the withers. (A hand, the standard unit of measure for horses, is 4 inches.) Cross-bred from draft and light riding horses, Canadians are not as heavily boned or muscled as the Belgians and Percherons we have previously worked, but are still rugged.

For the past 10 years or so, these two have worked lightly, and they are decidedly lively in harness. They were well-trained as youngsters to draw carriages and sleighs, however. So even now, years later, they tolerate loud machinery, tight quarters and difficult footing calmly. They are quickly becoming responsive to my cues, and we are settling in together.

Currently we are pulling hardwood trees from along the fence lines, for firewood. We select and fell cherry and ash trees that are crooked or that lean out over the pastures, and poorly grown and forked maple trees apt to split when they get big. I fell the trees with a moderately sized saw that is quick to notch and bore cut a tree, forming a hinge that will control the direction in which the tree falls. Sam runs a heavier saw that is excellent for bucking the tree into lengths the horses or tractor can skid. He makes the larger cuts, and I limb the tree tops, keeping branches down as small as 2 inches in diameter, since we cook as well as heat with our stove, and need lots of small billets for a quick, steady fire. The finest branches we leave to mow or break down naturally, adding lignin to the humus in the pastures.

Skidding firewood has been a nice way to begin conditioning the horses, because we can cut the trees to whatever lengths suit the horses and the terrain they have to cross: if it’s steep uphill, or the tree is large, we cut shorter hitches. And since we are still mainly working along pasture edges, there’s plenty of room to turn around and hitch up, and to pull the wide branchy tops we want for firewood without having to navigate a narrow twisting woods road.

Before May, the prior year and a half was the only time there were no horses here at the farm, and while we had been busy getting the creamery rolling, I had greatly missed them. I am delighted to be back at work with them, and pleased to notice how they help the farm on several levels.

The recent spate of wet weather followed by snow has left the ground messy, and tender to skid across. On a recent afternoon when I had the tractor out, I decided to pull in a small locust log I happened to be right near. The three-point hitch easily lifted the front of the log off the ground, (tractors are not the ideal or the safest way to skid logs, but we do use ours for very small, simple hitches on even ground.) But I had only gone 10 yards, across the slightest slope, when the tractor, although it was in four-wheel drive, began to slide sideways and dig right into the soft soil beneath the snow. I got out easily with the log, but I left my mark! I didn’t go back for the other logs.

The next day I was back, this time with Luckie and Max. The outer barnyard where the locust logs lay was still soft, covered with about 5 inches of wet snow. The logs were not so large, but being locust they were still very heavy, though we felled the tree months ago. I had bevelled the logs where we bucked them so that the leading end of the log, dragging behind the horses, had a 45 degree slope at its outer circumference. This step takes only about 30 seconds with the chainsaw. It is a tremendous help both to the team, and to the land, when the ground is soft, or rough with stumps and roots, or when there is no cart or sled — or hydraulics — to lift the butt of the log.

I gathered up the lines and stepped behind the horses, who stood facing the log to which I had just attached my chain. I lifted the evener, which attaches the horses’ harness to the chain around the log. Holding it in my left hand, the lines in my right, I stepped around behind them to the right, and spoke clearly and quietly, “come around haw,” and they pivoted in place, to the left, so that they stood just in front of the log. “Back,” I said simply, leaning back a little on the evener, but not the lines, so as to stay off their mouths.

I slid the chain through the grab hook, hooking it as short as possible so the end of the log would come up ever so slightly as the horses stepped forward. We paused a moment to organize, and so they won’t develop a habit of stepping off as soon as they hear the chain in the hook — a common habit, and a dangerous one. “Max,” I said, briskly, because he is inclined to let Luckie do the hard work of starting the skid. “Step up,” I spoke, more quietly, and we were moving easily over the snow, no muddy trail, their tough, barefoot hooves finding traction but not slipping at all, or digging up the ground.

At the gate I spoke, “Whoa.” One word, once. They halted, glad for the rest as they started uphill toward the driveway and woodshed. We stepped through and I closed the gate. I paused again. I gazed up at the great twisting branches of the locust tree by the barn, then shut my eyes and listened. No engine thrumming. Just the harness flapping as Luckie shook himself, and the horses’ steady deep breathing. I stood with them a moment longer. “All right boys, step up!” And we were off, their necks arched, stepping lively and together, harnesses jingling, the log sliding easily over the hard driveway. We came back for the rest of the logs, and left the barnyard smooth and white behind us.

Liz Guenther lives and farms in Corinth.

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