The heavyweight grafters of the equine world were the backbone of industry for centuries, yet are now fighting for survival. Ellie Hughes discovers some working horses bucking the trend with renewed, sustainable purpose
If you chanced upon Nobby on one of his average working days you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time. The 18.3hh Shire is a common sight criss-crossing central London’s parks and green spaces, often dragging a set of harrows behind him. He is one of a team of eight working Shire horses that make up Operation Centaur – an organisation set up to promote working horses in urban spaces in modern times.
Working horses – the heavyweight grafters of the equine world – include many of our most-treasured heavy horse, draught and native breeds. From the Shires and Suffolks that pulled ploughs and fought battles to the coal horses and pit ponies that powered the industrial revolution, these horses have shaped Britain’s physical, cultural and economic landscape for centuries. But as machines took over and jobs for horses dwindled, so the numbers of some of these breeds, especially the heavier ones, have slumped alarmingly.
According to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), which monitors the fortunes of endangered farm animals, the Suffolk is on the priority list in category one (critical), the Clydesdale is in category three (vulnerable), while the Shire is category four (at risk).
What does the future hold for these horses? Do working horses really still have valid roles in today’s society or are we saving them purely for ornamental purposes?
According to Tom Dixon, head horseman at Operation Centaur, the demand for horsepower is growing year on year.
“An increasing number of London councils are recognising the value of horses and are using them for sensitive environmental management work,” he says. “Unlike tractors, horses are low impact – they don’t compact the ground and they are much better for flora and fauna. Just a month or so ago we discovered a species of wildflower in a central London park that ecologists thought had disappeared for good.”
Two hundred miles west, in Port Talbot, south Wales, horse logger Polly Williams and her Ardennes gelding Hamish and Welsh cob Archi are working around the clock to shift 320 tonnes of timber from a 20-acre plot in the Margam Forest, where a selective thinning programme is underway.
In this area of the country, horses are much more adept than machines at wending their way through forests and negotiating steep terrain.
“Much of the land in south and west Wales is impossible to access with machinery,” says Polly, who undertakes all kinds of work with her horses, from logging to ploughing and potato ridging to bracken rolling.
The latter, in particular, is a practice that is “considerably better for short- and
long-term conservation if it’s carried out by horses,” she explains.
Bracken management with horses involves dragging a roller over the bracken to weaken it, which then fools it into thinking it has released its sap, allowing it to die back naturally without the need for heavy machinery or pesticides.
“Unlike a tractor, which obliterates everything in its path, you can steer a horse around trees and flowers, avoid ground-nesting birds and young saplings will just spring back into place,” continues Polly. “If you do the same thing over consecutive years you can see a real difference in the amount of regrowth [which is far less].”
Frankie Woodgate runs a commercial woodland management business, Weald Woodscapes, and undertakes work for councils, environmental organisations and private landowners in Kent and Sussex with her four horses – two Ardennes and two Brabants.
“Ancient woodlands, in particular, contain so many vital resources in terms of biodiversity, timber and carbon [in the soil], all of which need desperately to be preserved,” she says.
Organisations such as the Forestry Commission, National Trust, Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts are increasingly employing the services of horses to manage environmentally sensitive and difficult-to-access sites, and their skilled handlers are tapping into a boom in eco-spirited enterprise.
Chairman of British Horse Loggers Kate Mobbs-Morgan, who also runs her own logging business, Rowan Working Horses, says: “The buzz words at the moment are low impact and sustainability, so everybody’s looking at alternatives to machines. There is currently a strong interest in the industry, which is good news because the future of some of our heavy horse breeds depends on the demand for them to perform working roles.”
At Higher Biddacott Farm in Devon, Jonathan Waterer produces organic wholemeal flour from an ancient wheat grain with the help of his team of Shire horses. He has coined the slogan, “Flour by horsepower”, and sells his grain to a local miller for bread.
Jonathan, who uses four or six horses at a time to maximise productivity, is the only farmer in the country to rely solely on horsepower and he has been farming in this way since the early 1980s.
“I learnt my trade on a ranch in Canada where everything was done using Percherons,” he says. “When I settled back in England I decided I wanted to farm in the same way using Shires, so I bought a motorised four-wheeled cart, a corn drill dating back to the 1930s and a 1963 combine harvester. I also use the horses for weddings and funerals, and I take in youngsters to break in for riding and driving, but the farming side is still a reasonably profitable business.”
Jonathan uses horses at every stage – from cultivation through to harvesting. “Farming organically with heavy horses is kind to the land, conserves the soil and is beneficial to the environment,” he says.
Some breeds of horses are better suited to certain jobs than others – stockier breeds like Ardennes Brabants and Welsh cobs – can nip in and out of trees and under low canopies, while taller Shires and Suffolks are more suited to agricultural work, where their longer legs allow them to cover ground more quickly.
“There is very much a place for working horses in both forestry and agriculture, but we need to make sure we have good breeding stock,” warns Kate Mobbs-Morgan. “Nowadays Shires are usually bred for the show ring, so they tend to be taller and leggier than is ideal for a working horse. There are certainly lots of jobs for other native breeds like Suffolks, Welsh cobs and Dales ponies [who are also on the Rare Breeds critical list].”
Farmers and land owners have come a long way in recognising the important work horses can do in certain environments, but just as important is having a skilled next generation of handlers ready to take over their reins.
“There are young, enthusiastic people coming through, but there is a general lack of awareness about the role of working horses and woodland management forestry and agriculture in the 21st century,” says Frankie Woodgate. “But the national psyche is shifting and people are beginning to realise that we need to give back to the environment and not just take from it – and low-impact management is central to this.”
Opportunities for working horses, it seems, are there for the taking. How the next chapter ends for our heavy horse and draught breeds is – like the chapters before – very much in our hands.
Not just a plough horse
Heavy horse breeds are becoming an increasingly common sight out and about under saddle – and are holding their own, according to enthusiasts.
The hashtag #notjustaploughhorse has been popping up on social media, used by riders like Bruce Langley Kim, whose Suffolk stallion, Jensen, has been cross-country schooling and hunts with the Cottesmore, and Sally Bates, who competes her two Suffolk mares – Dusty and Miri – in affiliated dressage.
“In my opinion Suffolks are hugely underrated as ridden horses,” says Sally. “They have the most incredible temperament and work ethic, and they are so trainable and level-headed, which is a huge asset in the arena.”
While Sally has contested Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) qualifiers, prelim dressage and competed in endurance rides, her son, Toby, jumps the mares and has his sights set on hunter trials for Dusty.
“So long as you get them fit they love any job you give them,” she continues.
Fellow Suffolk aficionado Claire Kilburn (pictured, below) admitted that nerves had almost caused her to hang up her boots until she chanced upon Ernie, her 17hh Suffolk gelding.
“A Suffolk has all the advantages of a big steady cob, but without the feathers or the need to rug or clip,” she says. “As the average weight of the population is increasing, I really do think there is a place for them.”
Sally adds: “Breeding responsibly to meet this increased demand is going to be the key to their long-term sustainability.”
Saving Scotland’s treasure
While the future of some heavy horse breeds is looking positive, for others there is still a large question mark over their long-term sustainability.
Clydesdales, famed for hauling Budweiser beer, are on the verge of what many call the “vortex of extinction” in the very place where they were first bred – Scotland.
When Scottish graphic designer and leisure rider Janice Kirkpatrick (pictured) set her heart on owning a Clydesdale, she was saddened to learn that there were no black bloodlines – the most sought after – left in the country.
“Genetically it is so important to preserve our native breeds,” she says. “Once we lose a gene pool it’s gone forever.”
Janice imported a black gelding from Oregon and two black fillies from Canada. She has since set up a small stud in the Clyde Valley and has made a film for Canada’s Documentary Channel about her quest to save the Clydesdale, entitled Saving the Greatest Horse. While demand is low for Clydesdales as working horses, Janice believes their value as driving and riding horses should not be underestimated.
“Clydesdales are the most beautiful breed – they are gentle, clever and will look after you all day long,” she says.
Janice believes it is partly the responsibility of breed societies to help secure the futures of vulnerable breeds, especially after the disbandment of the Working Horse Trust in 2017.
“Organisations like the RBST and individuals like Tullis Matson of Stallion AI Services are doing brilliant work, promoting and preserving bloodlines, but breed societies need to do more,” she says.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 December 2020
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