June 06, 2020

Plow horses still pulling their weight in Maine

FARMINGTON – John “Sonny” Richards, at 61, sits on the antique sulky, quietly clicking and whistling to his draft horses to begin plowing.

“Gee. Haw. Stand back. Whoa.” The matched pair of 7-year-old Percheron geldings, Mike and Mikey, step carefully, one horse walking in the rut cut by Richards’ plow on the previous pass.

Slowly and nearly silently, the sod is overturned.

Deep, rich Maine earth is exposed by the 1940s plow first used by Richards’ great-grandfather. The band of dark soil widens: A good horse can plow two acres in a day, said Richards, who has been using draft horses for farm and woods work for more than 30 years.

One of the best teamsters in New England, Richards is followed across the field by two Belgian geldings, Bob and Bailey, being driven by Gary Sweetser of Ashland. There is no plow here – Sweetser walks his team because he is a novice. Bob and Bailey are still getting the feel of working as a team, and Sweetser is still learning control.

Friday was the first day of a two-day Draft Horse Field Day held at the Maranatha Acres Farm of George and Diane Weeks in Farmington. The event provided instruction for novices like Sweetser and teaching opportunities for experts like Richards. For the horses, it provided pure pleasure in getting back to work after a long winter break.

The backdrop for the plowing was breathtaking: the western mountains towered in the distance while the fields rustled in a breeze sweeping up Hammond Hill, a ridge crisscrossed with ancient stone walls.

As he cut across the field Friday afternoon, Richards could have just as easily been working in 1902. “I sometimes feel like I was born 100 years too late. It’s all about a man, his team and the serenity of the experience,” Weeks said.

“No it’s not,” said Richards. “It’s about straight rows.”

What both men could agree to is that the art of using draft horses is as much about pleasure as business. “Weeks needed his land plowed, so a bunch of us get together and plow it. It’s like golf or watching football for other people,” said Richards.

But along with having a lot of fun, the teamsters gathered in Farmington also use their horses for business: sleigh rides, hay rides, plowing fields and removing rocks. “If I were 30 years younger,” said Weeks, “I could have all the work I wanted and more.”

Many people prefer hiring teams to plow their fields, said Steven Akeley of Damariscotta, president of the Farmers Draft Horse, Mule and Pony Club. “Horses don’t have that rolling pin effect on land that tractors do,” he said. “Our goal or mission is to show the public that there is a place for working animals in the world today.”

Akeley works a pair of Norwegian Fjords, 17-year-old draft ponies Tori and Sham. Akeley’s pair of ponies was dwarfed by Sweetser’s Belgian gelding Bailey, who stands 18.3 hands high and weighs about 2,000 pounds.

“You can ride them too,” said Sheila Leavitt of New Vineyard about the massive animals. “You feel like a princess on a big, comfy couch.”

Draft horse plowing or sleigh riding “is an art, an art that is going to be lost if we don’t pay attention,” said Akeley. More than 130 teamsters across Maine belong to the Farmers Draft Horse, Mule and Pony Club, and Akeley said many of those members are working their horses full time.

Weeks, 58, said he first bought his team of Belgians, Ruth and Job, “because I needed something to slow me down. You can only go as fast as the horses.” Even the farming custom of taking the big meal of the day at noon is because the horses need to stop, rest and eat.

Six miles of trails through the woods on Weeks’ 65-acre hay farm provided plenty of practice for sleigh rides, but the farmer said Friday he was also a novice to plowing.

His fervor for the horses extends to the equipment. He restores hundred-year-old sulkies, or plows, that can be ridden, and helps repair walking plows, with their tall wooden handles for holding on tight.

The passion for these horses can be so overwhelming that entire lifestyles are turned upside down. One teamster sold his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to devote more time to drafting; another sold his stock car to finance his team. A good draft horse can cost $2,000 to $5,000. The extensive harnesses and collars, plows and sulkies add even more.

Sweetser is a retired Maine forest ranger who now spends weeks at a time as a ranger at Allagash Lake. “This is something my wife and I can do together. The horses are in the back of your mind all day.”

It’s impossible to separate the work from the hobby, said Richards. “When you are working the land, you are pursuing your hobby,” he said.

Weeks said the experience of working with the horses brings him immeasurable contentment. “When you get down in the woods with the sleigh, you hear nothing in a new snow. The sled just goes whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. There’s a lot of peace in that,” he said.

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