Archive for the ‘Suffolks’ Category

Aries and Aedan profile pic

My how time flies when we’re having fun!  Seems like just a few weeks ago (was it really May?) my sister and I raised a little horse barn on the knoll behind the Big Pond,  and here it is the end of August already, with days getting short and the list of projects to complete before the seasons turn again getting longer.

Yes, the horses made it here, and they are wonderful.  They are getting along just fine in their new little herd and eating like elephants, like starving, ravenous elephants.  I am already planning to set up another auxiliary paddock to add a week’s recovery to their grazing rotation schedule.  My goodness.

We’ve had plenty of rain, so the pastures have grown well following the cowherd’s grazing.  I failed to document specific paddock rotation dates so I’ve quite lost track of how many times we’ve been around the pastures.  Seems like at least 4 times already. (Seriously, I do keep track.  Four times at about 45 day intervals, starting beginning of May, although some sections got skipped.)   Judging by how everything is recovering, we might make it all the way around twice again before the sward goes dormant.  I’d like to say I’m seeing radical improvement after all the fertilization and hoof impact.  Hesitant to call it that since I’ve never seen these pastures grow through a season, much less grazed, but I am pleased by the density and vigor of what springs back up following a paddock shift.

The closest alligator to the boat these days is getting the cows bred.  Sans a bull, that means AI, and we are closing in on pulling the trigger on the very first Bear and Thistle fertility clinic – a wee bit later than I’d have liked, but I’d rather get it done right and be a little late than dork the whole evolution up completely.

It’s worth an entire blog post to describe the strategy I’ve undertaken, but here’s the very very short version:  1) find an AI technician (check), 2) get quality semen shipped (check), 3) upgrade corral area to add adjacent working alleys, squeeze chute, palpation cage, and crowd pen (nearly done, check), and 4) procure the meds and assorted materials required to undertake a forced fertility regimen, to trigger estrus on all 10 candidates at the same time (check).

Wish me luck.  The AI guy is an old hand at this, and I’ve got my vet’s ear for any technical assistance needed.  I hope to start the 7-day protocol no later than Thursday, which means we’ll be inserting semen on the 5th of September; so if all goes well we should have calves hitting green grass mid-June next year.  I’d have rather have had them born end of May, but I’m not going to beat myself up about getting two weeks behind.  Mid June is just fine, and we can edge the dates up each year until we hit the mark, so it’s all good.

After we get the cow herd bred, focus shifts to laying in hay for both horses and cattle.  Then there’s the Fall frost seeding for all pastures, along with the 1.6 acre finishing pasture that has been cultivated clean all summer and will get sown to a high-sugar grass/clover mix for the slaughter beeves’ last 4 weeks.  Yum.

And now the garden is covering me with produce that needs to be put up, though I’m not complaining!   Was supposed to make pickles, can green beans, and roast tomatoes tonight, but only got the tomatoes roasted.  Wish there were more hours in the day…


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Siding on two sides B&T

My field of dreams has had a team of Suffolk work horses in it for many years now.

Although I’ve had a life-long love of horses and have owned a few saddle horses in my time, the use of workhorses on a small diversified farm grabbed my interest hard about the same time I realized that farming was my calling.   Many if not all of a small holding’s pasture, road and field maintenance as well as woodland work can be done with actual horse power; in most cases better (and quieter) than a tractor, with far less negative impact on the land.  Horses also contribute nutrients with their manure, and lawn-mowing can be a side benefit if you are so inclined to set up moveable paddocks where you want grass nipped short.

Yes, they are slow.  If you have 50 acres to plow, mow or till, you can get it done with horses but you’ll need more than two and lots of good weather.  And yes, it is a lot of work to care for, train, harness, and actually use a team of horses to perform useful tasks.  Yes, they do get sick or hurt and need veterinary care.  But on the flip side, tractors break down, guzzle endless gallons of diesel fuel, oil and lubricants, and their weight compacts the soil.  Furthermore, as my dear friend Jason Rutledge has noted on many occasions, you will never find a baby tractor waiting for you in the barn one morning.  Horses reproduce themselves, which is a long-term proposition for the teamster, but then so is everything else about running an ecologically sound small farm.

I can’t really say how I became enamored of the Suffolk Punch breed.  I did a lot of reading and research, and liked what I learned about their temperament and suitability for farm work.  The Suffolk was developed specifically for farm work in 16th century England and became quite popular by the mid 20th century, just before the mechanization of farms brought about the decline in common use of horses for agricultural power.   Short and powerful, with a good temperament and work ethic, the Suffolk.  Not as many of them around as, say, Belgians or Percherons.  A well-trained team of Suffolks is hard to find.

I found a mother-daughter pair several years ago, and set about having them trained and worked during the last few years of my military service, aiming to have a reasonably-experienced team ready to join me on the farm after my retirement in late 2011.  Those mares didn’t work out, to make a long story short.  So I’ve been waiting, and looking, and biding my time, getting the cow herd started and the farm operation up and running.  Getting my first year under my belt.

A little while ago, as Winter passed into Spring, something told me it was time.  Time to get ready for work horses.  Didn’t have any good prospects, wasn’t really eyeballing a particular team for sale, but the need to prepare was very strong.  I’d finally decided on a good stock trailer and purchased that.  Then, when my oldest sister said she’d like to come out in between season jobs and help with whatever project I had going at the time, I thought, let’s build a pole barn.

For the Suffolk horses.  That I hadn’t found yet.

But I did soon after.  Not a trained team, but a brood mare with colt foal at side and her yearling colt from last spring, from a breeder up in New York that is dispersing their herd.  With any luck she’ll be re-bred before I go pick them up; another generation on its way.  Not sure and not expecting how the youngsters will turn out.  There’ll be a future team of workhorses in the mix one way or the other.  Time for all that to happen and unfold.  But the barn idea started the ball rolling, and the barn is well on its way to being built, and in a few short weeks I’ll be headed up north to load and trailer some very nice Suffolk horses back to Bear and Thistle Farm.

Because I decided to build their barn.

Cass and Aedan

High Meadows Cass and Aedan of Bear and Thistle

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Big J’s been out in the Virginia woods for some real-world logging training with the rest of the working crew this month, along with Jason’s young gelding Chain; two beginners learning from the best, both men and experienced workhorses.

He’s posted photos on his FB page, the first of many, I hope.

J turned 10 on Sunday.  She’s in foal to Rudy, Ridgewind Farm’s standing stud; her third pregnancy that I know of.  I bought her and her daughter from a guy in Michigan two January’s ago and shipped them to Jason’s farm for training and, it was hoped, to be subsequently used by a couple of apprentices as a starter team.

They were two big, beautiful Suffolk mares completely herd-bound to each other, hardly even green-broke, and sorely in need of patient, constant handling to develop ground manners, as well as basic training as future workhorses.  They got lots of both, but the pair of young horseloggers needed a team to start their business long before my two girls were ready to pull their share of the load, so the original plan changed.

Then changed some more, last Fall, when we decided to split up the mother/daughter pair after realizing the 5-yr-old’s temperament – disruptive, flighty, nervous, and protective of her mother – would always  prevent the two from becoming a well-mannered, quiet, dependable team.   It’s a common problem with a pair of horses left to themselves as these two were, and the mother-daughter bond only makes it worse.

Another Biological Woodsman logging with Suffolks in southwestern Virginia took a liking to the bred young mare, an offer was made, and she has moved on to work for him and get him started as a Suffolk breeder.  And I’ll be looking for a big, broke Suffolk gelding next summer to match up with Big J, who is becoming a wonderful workhorse under Jason’s tutelage.

And so the months go by, and the work of training a horse to pull logs out of woods continues, as time and opportunity permits.   I am so very grateful for all the effort and care and experience that is going into this endeavor.   The hope is to have a well-trained team to begin with, when I move to the farm and start working in earnest on all that needs done.  I have a neglected forest to manage, trees to cut for barn timbers, and pastures to mow and maintain, just for starters.  My team of Suffolks will eventually do all the field and forest work, leaving the tractor to scoop manure and compost, lift heavy things, and provide power in the barnyard.  We’ll start slow and small, of course, and having a team trained by Jason to train me as I learn will be worth its weight in gold.

Lessons in the woods - resting is a reward

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lady-horseloggerHere is Mel at work, skidding logs in late March at this year’s Open Woods Day in Floyd, Virginia.

She and Adam are apprenticing with the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation to become Biological Woodsmen.  They’ll head back up north to their farm soon, to start operating their own restorative forestry business  there, and will train, work, breed and care for my mares for a little over two years, until I can get boots on ground at the Farm in Kentucky.

It is my hope that the contribution of living capital, both the horses to use and the foals they’ll keep, will help them get a good start.

Mel’s a quiet girl, but intense and passionate too.   Were you to meet her on a busy city street, you wouldn’t guess she works in the woods with horses and chainsaws and huge, heavy logs.  Having done a myriad of non-traditional jobs my whole life, I can really appreciate another woman who fearlessly chooses to follow her heart into the woods and the fields and do work like this.  It isn’t just for men, and it’s a lot of fun, and we can be very good at it.

These two young people are very special, and very important, to their community and to the world at large.  Not afraid to roll up their sleeves and learn a complex craft that defies the conventional mindset of profit over every other thing, and that gives back to the Earth and her future generations.  They give me hope and remind me that good, honest dreams built of hard work are still all some folks need to be happy in this life.   Makes me feel good, that.

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  It takes a lot of time, effort and patience to train two big, beautiful, spoiled hay-eating machines to be actual workhorses.  There is nothing in either of my mares’ life experiences that prepared them for life on a working farm, being around other horses, noises and distractions, or doing anything other than lounging together in a big pasture and having grain and hay brought to them in abundance without any exchange of effort for it.

The transformation is being accomplished slowly, sometimes in small steps, sometimes in leaps and bounds – but it is happening.  This picture of 8-year-old Justice in harness, dragging fresh-plowed garden soil with a smiling Mel on the lines and Jason grinning as he removes the lead for the horse to take her first working steps, shows the progress they’re making and how pleased they are with it.  It choked me up a little when I first saw it, seeing the joy on their faces as they turned to show me through the camera how far they’ve come with the project of making these fine mares into workhorses for Mel and Adam to use.

I can see that horse’s mind working, too, which is the part of all this that I am the most in awe of.  This big, young mare has never done anything like this in her life – suited up in harness, responding to signals on the reins and bit and commands from the two-legged alpha, doing what she’s asked to do – this is as alien to her as walking upright would be, yet at the same time, it isn’t strange at all, and you can see her becoming, right before our eyes, a workhorse.  Two months ago she was skittery and lacking manners and herd-bound to her daughter; now she is much less all that, much closer to the skilled, experienced workhorse she will be in the years to come.  And it is happening because she’s figuring it out, and has good coaches, people who know her potential and know what is required to get her there.

There’s still much to be done and a long way to go.  Jason wrote yesterday that he’d bought a new sulky plow and is planning to hitch the girls between the two geldings they are pastured next to and have grown accustomed to, so they can learn to work by their example, alongside horses that know to move when asked and stop when told and stay still in between.  That should be a mind-opening experience for both of them.

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  The horses have been at Jason’s for a month and a half now; not all of that time in training, of course – work schedules and weather take precedence as they should – but they’ve been getting schooled in all the basics and have really come a long way.  Mel and Adam have handled them nearly every day and worked with Jason on all the lessons so this is a real team effort.  I am glad we were able to get the horses to them well before they were finished with their Biological Woodsmen apprenticeship, so they are part of the girls’ training right from the start.  It will make for a very strong bond between the young horses and handlers, I think.

The weather was cold and nasty as January finished out, so they spent time in the barn, introducing them to bits in their mouths and simply handling them a lot on the ground including mane and forelock thinning.  They discovered J didn’t like being touched on her poll or top of the head, and would fret and shake her head, so that had to be worked through.  Adam is very tall (he makes her look small in the photo above but she’s really a brute) and exceptionally patient, which helped a great deal. 

Next they sacked them out with an old bridle, and put the harness on them.  More bit familiarity, learning to be comfortable with it in their mouths, eat around it, and yield to pressure as a signal.   Jason wrote, “They are getting better manners every day, and we will keep up their handling toward the end of them being productive working animals.”  I’d remarked they were like kindergarten students, to which Jason replied they were more at an elementary school level – such good news to hear. 

Hooves were trimmed the next week, and the horses did very well – all the daily handling had paid off.  On February 5th Jason wrote, “I think they did very well with the foot work.  Having good control on their head and teaching them about standing still, respecting our space and being rewarded for submitting to our handling of their feet is important.  They are tractable.  We will make great horses out of them.”  

They are spending time in separate box stalls during the day, which is making them braver and less attached to each other as a herd, and better animals all around.  School is going well.

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We arrived at the girls’ new home in southwest Virginia around 3 pm – a little later than planned for, as the 7+ hour drive from Kentucky turned into more like 8 with a few wrong turns and all the winding roads to navigate through.  We’ll surely plot a more straightforward route for next trip, but it was scenic and took us through some beautiful country we’d never seen before.

After hello’s and introductions, Jason took us straight out to the barn where J and L were waiting in box stalls, getting brushed by Melanie.  She led them out one at a time, to stand there in the corridor near the open door, for me to have a look.  Oh, what horses these are.  Tall and thick, with legs like oak trees and densely muscled haunches and shoulders – they’ll be pullers for sure, once trained and used to it.  For now they are very good at one thing:  eating hay, and have not learned to stand still, and are maddeningly attached to each other, as you would expect a pair of horses kept together and not worked to be.

I had asked if we could see them move in the round pen, and the late afternoon was not too cold, so we took them up js-first-lesson_girl-in-motionthere one at a time, to see their response to Jason’s gentle requests, loose in the corral with him.  They started out distracted, but moved out well when asked, and connected with him in just a few minutes – a good first lesson, I think.

We led them back down to the pasture in front of the house, and went in to the warmth for a wonderful evening of  conversation, endless stories, and delicious home-cooked food.  I was sorry we only had the one afternoon to spend there.  But it was good to meet everyone, and see the horses, and know they are in good hands.

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Delivered, finally










 Yesterday afternoon the seller emailed to tell me the horses were on their way.  They left late Tuesday, and he said they looked so good, those two big horse butts in the trailer with their pretty new (warm) blankets on, ready for the ride.  He expected them to get to Virginia Wednesday afternoon, which they did.  Jason emailed yesterday to say they made it; they were good big mares for sure, and the filly was silly but not mean or bitchy like the one he’d had to contend with the first time this woman tried to haul, when she brought just her own two down and left mine waiting in Michigan.

So he just posted a quick note to tell me they were there, and said he’d write more later and outline his proposal for this project.  I am delighted to know the transfer from Michigan to Virginia has finally happened, the horses are safe, and they’ve made a good impression on Jason, who will be training them to harness and work. 

The “project” is just that – these horses were imprinted at birth but handled very little since then — they were up for sale as having “potential” for working in harness, which they have, based on their bloodlines, all good working animals there — but they’ve had absolutely no acceptance training, no fundamentals at all yet, so they’ve a ways to go.  We weren’t looking for green horses, we were looking for a team already started, that could jump right into the logging jobs he and the apprentices are working this winter… but I moved too fast on this deal, and so the original plan is more complex, will take longer and cost more,  for my haste. 

We’d already agreed we wanted these mares for their breeding potential,  though, and when their lack of training came up I bridged the sticking point by making clear to Jason he would be paid well for the service, if he had the extra time and inclination to take the project on.  I’m not looking for “something for nothing” here, I understand the task involved and since I’m not there to do it myself, and he’s been training horses for many years (and I’ve seen his horses in action; the results are fabulous), I can’t pass up the chance to get my horses started right, no matter what the cost.

I’ll tell you this much:  run the tape ahead three years, to the day I haul them home to Kentucky myself, and begin my own round pen work and basic driving exercises with them – me, a beginning teamster, with work to get done so not a lot of time to start from scratch and patiently progress both myself and a beginner team to significant working capacity.  Instead, I’ll bring home a team of horses that have been started well by a Master with the best training for their working purpose I could possible hope to give them, and who’ve had several years of working in the fields and woods under the tutelage of good horsepeople trained by the same individual… that’s a hell of a deal, just what I’m looking for, and will be worth every dollar spent.

It’s a new year, folks, and this is a great start to it.

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Moving Horses










 First, I have to tell you about the horses.

I wrote this guy who logs with horses and teaches folks to do the same, and who’s been breeding and working Suffolk draft horses for more than three decades now.  Emails followed, a conversation was struck up, I told him my intentions for working my farm and woods with horses, and somewhere in there the question arose, how soon would I be looking for my team of Suffolks?

I am never one to wait until the last minute to do or learn to do or get the things I’ll need to do, anything.  So I said, I’ve got the money right now, I would just need to find someone who could use them and work them for three years until I finish this Navy gig and finally move to my farm.  Thinking to myself, that would take a lot of planetary alignment to make happen, but what the hell, I’ll mention it.

The conversation continued, and a couple of emails and phone calls later, we were discussing a team of Suffolk mares he’d pointed out for sale down in North Carolina, and he said he had a couple of young apprentices training with him there in Virginia that would be good candidates for the sort of arrangement we were talking about.  The idea in essence:  they use and work my team as their starter team, breed them both and keep the foals, then return them in three years as an experienced team for me to begin my work on the farm with, rather than me having to find and buy a green or barely-worked team and struggling with my learning curve as well as the horses’ that first year.

Well, the North Carolina horses didn’t work out – the seller got cold feet when my conversation turned serious and I mentioned the need for a breeding soundness exam (they were both maiden mares, 9 and 10-years old).  But I’d already emailed another fella up in Michigan, who was getting out of raising Suffolks because his heart surgery had slowed him down, and had a younger pair of mother-daughter Suffolks for sale.  They were big and built right, with good feet and the kind of conformation that would add a lot of good foals to the dwindling gene pool of this endangered breed of American work horses, and the only other buyer interested was an Amish farrier who would not have bred them, just worked them.  So I bought ’em.

And now we’re trying to get them hauled from Michigan to Virginia.  And it’s winter.  And the ex-wife of the seller who agreed to get them there by the end of November, has had some issues and is only just now able to do the haul.  We’ve got a three-day weather window this week, with clear skies and next-to-nothing precipitation forecast, but I’m here in Africa unable to be reached by phone with only email to coax this process along.

So today, or tomorrow, this will happen, or it won’t.  I am waiting to hear.

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