Power-mad. That’s me. That’s why I’m a horseman. I’ve got used to the conversation, had it a thousand times. People who tell me that the real attraction of the horsey life has to be power: boots, spurs, whips, leather, controlling, being the dominant partner – know what I mean? And they’re absolutely right: power is the heart and soul of horsemanship.
So there I was, not riding but walking, and before me, a landscape of pure ginger. There was hardly a thing I could see that wasn’t ginger: the twin backends of two vast Suffolk horses, their combined weight more than two tons. Between us, we were harrowing a field, a task that one horse that size makes light of. So it’s nothing at all when two of them go at it together.
In my left hand, a rope. My right was there to do the slightly crucial task of steering. And I asked them to go. They are trained to listen to human voices: “Walk on, boys. Walk on.” A flicker. Nothing more. The horses stood still. An unfamiliar voice, a shared uncertainty as to who was behind them and whether or not he knew what he was doing.
But I have dealt with reluctant horses about a million times and, in these moments, the instincts cut in. Unembarrassed, forgetting to be self-conscious, I put some expression into my voice: “Get on, men! Walk on!” And suddenly we were off and walking, suddenly the horses were leaning in their two bits, suddenly my hands were filled with a power I have never felt before in the horsey life.
Not my power. The power of the horse. That is what matters. It’s not that you have power over the horses: rather, the horses lend you their power. It’s not about domination, it’s about cooperation. And I was using my hands and my voice to get them to settle; to work in a calm, easy, strong and forward fashion; and they shoved their mighty shoulders into the great oval collars and started to do their best for me.
I was drunk with the joy of it, drunk with the power, drunk on the generosity of the vast beasts who chose to share their power. And it wasn’t like throwing a switch either – I needed to make a thousand small corrections, needed to talk a good deal to keep the horses attentive. I had to walk as well, matching my stride to theirs, checking back when the horse on the offside tried to beak into a trot, correcting when the horses anticipated the turn rather than walking to the end of the field. Shortcuts are not acceptable.
Now I have ridden a grand prix dressage horse and felt its extraordinary balance and athleticism; I have ridden champion endurance horses, which could canter to the ends of the Earth; I have galloped on racehorses and felt the wind of our progress whip tears into my face; I have ridden Western cutting horses and felt their aggression; I have ridden in events and leapt over fiendish cross-country jumps when stoned blind on adrenalin.
And this morning with the Suffolk Punches was up there with all of those peak experiences: the feeling of the power shared with this pair of rippling chesnut giants. All Suffolks are ‘chesnut’, and always without the T. Who wouldn’t want to be with these creatures? Who wouldn’t want to fill the countryside with them? Who wouldn’t want to transform the countryside back into a land of horses?
How crazy a dream is that? Crazy or not, there are people trying. I was at Westwood Park in Essex, where they are mad to keep Suffolks and what’s more, to make the Suffolk horse a part of the future. And I was with Nigel Oakley, who has farmed his 73 acres of Suffolk with Suffolk horses for 20 years.
Powers of persuasion
I had my first lesson in handling Suffolks from Chris Pratt, head horseman at Westwood Park. He had begun his training as an electrician; but now, aged 27, his life is all about heavy horses. He is an easy man with quiet manners, traits you often find in stallion yards, and they obviously work with the monsters Pratt works with. If you bring too much of a fighting ego into your dealings with big horses, you tend to come second. Far better to use persuasion to gain cooperation.
A future: that’s what they’re working for. At Westwood Park, I met teenagers who were doing their National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in heavy-horsemanship. Chris Clarke and Kim Abell interrupted a stable management lesson to tell me how good it was, and how great the horses were.
Jake Kluss, aged 15, was doing a few weeks of work experience and hoping to get a place to study here next year. He’s little more than hock-high to a Suffolk, but with the natural confidence that comes from a deeply horsey childhood. The ancient arts, then, will not be dying out with the last of the ancient heavy-horsemen
Oakley has relished being a part of this change. He also continues his own establishment, where he has 13 horses, 11 Suffolks and two shires. He managed to farm, just with his horses, for years. But then foot and mouth hit in 2001, he was no longer permitted to have school visits, and when this income dried up, he had to make alternative plans.
Many modern farmers find themselves diversifying, and holiday lets and other forms of tourism keep Oakley’s show on the road. He is a civil engineer by trade, and always managed to subsidise the farm and his horses by taking on engineering jobs. His horses can still do jobs that tractors can’t. They are brilliant at timber extraction from nature reserves and other fragile places: horses can do the job with minimal impact, leaving big, benign hoofprints rather than miles of ruts.
An acre a day
Horses can do more than they used to as well. Modern technology and modern materials have improved the tools the horses pull behind them, making them lighter and more manoeuvrable. Much of this technology has been developed by the Amish, the American religious sect that avoids many forms of technological progress.
But one of the most ancient truths of the countryside remains: that an acre – about the minimum size of a football pitch – is still the amount of land a pair of horses can plough in a day. “And that has to be pretty light soil,” Oakley said. A modern tractor can plough 55 in a day.
There is still a future for these great monsters, and it lies in love. This is not a love that is dying: on the contrary, as the teenagers NVQing at Westwood Park will tell you. A return to a horse-powered countryside is not going to come this side of the final crisis in fossil fuels, but some people will continue to work them for the love of it, and others will come along to be a part of it, or just to watch. The idea that there are horses still working the land simply feels good, feels right. It is something most of us would cheer.
Meanwhile, we move from one oil crisis to the next, and now we must wonder when, rather than if, we will run out. I eased my pair of giants to a halt – “whooooooa, men!” – and wondered if this fine experience had put me a century behind the times. Or about 20 years ahead.
The heavy horse today
Until the First World War there were perhaps 2.8 million draft horses employed in agriculture in Britain. There are, currently, approximately 5,000 (mixed breeds) but only some 400 Suffolks. Heavy horse fans and societies are hopeful that heavy horses will have an economically valuable place in the countryside in future – and not just as living museum exhibits. These are some of the areas they are currently working in and may be used in the future.
Horses are still used regularly in forestry work throughout Britain, particularly where conditions are steep or awkward for mechanical extraction. Heavy horses can extract timber effectively and safely through existing woods without causing any damage to the standing timber, compacting the soil, or causing damage or disturbance to the flora and fauna. For more information visit Heavy Horses or British Horse Loggers.
- Draught-work in cities
Some market traders and brewers use heavy horses for hauling goods through city streets. The brewer Wadworth in Devizes, Wiltshire, is famous for delivering beer barrels and collecting empties to and from the town’s pubs using a horse-drawn cart. Young’s in Wandsworth recently ended this long tradition in west London. Though there is no strong economic reason for using horses over petrol-driven lorries in cities, the horses are a familiar and much-loved part of the local scene.
- Environmentally sensitive areas
Horses are often used to farm in environmentally sensitive sites such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and nature reserves, where a petrol spill would be disastrous. Nigel Oakley has used his horses to tow drilling rigs for a wetland environmental project for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to provide habitat for the rare great raft spider. King’s Lynn power station recently employed heavy horses to mow and harvest on land unsuitable for machines.
- Hauling freight on canals
The Horseboating Society exists to preserve and promote horse-drawn canal boating. From the mid-18th to the early 20th centuries, horse-drawn boats were one of the main forms of transporting goods inland – until the rise of the combustion engine. But with increasing congestion and rising fuel prices, canals may once again become commercially viable and horses may have a role to play.