Hay is Biofuel: Animal Power


The pair of oxen stood by the information booth looking bemused, and surrounded by curious Amish farmers, their wives in stiff bonnets, and small sons in suspenders and straw hats. One of the oxen lowed, softly, and the sound travelled below the noise of the rural Ohio horse show, below cracking bullwhips (the toy of choice this year), hissing hoses, beeping trucks, clanking farm machinery and roaring mules. Perhaps it was looking for other cattle, some allies in a sea of horses.
It was the oxen‘s first time off their farm in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but despite their wide-eyed curiosity, and despite their black tipped, right angled horns, there were no reins holding them. Their handler stood beside them, holding a long dressage whip that she used to wave, point or occasionally tickle. The liver chestnut, white-speckled bullocks were joined by a wooden yoke that sat over their thick necks and looped under their dewlaps. Other than a halter, they were naked, in contrast to all the horses on site, who were trussed from nose to tail with leather or nylon harnesses.
The oxen were attending the 21st Horse Progress Days this Independence Day weekend at the grounds of the Mount Hope auction house, Ohio. What began as a means of sharing new horse-powered farming technology developed by Plain People has become an annual event that draws up to 20,000 to eat maple candy, watch hay-making demonstrations, catch seminars on running a market garden for CSA customers, size up horseflesh and assess polytunnels. I’d travelled from Berlin to be in a place where horse power is a growth area, not just because the Amish population is expanding rapidly, but also because horses make economic sense for small-scale farming – especially organic and sustainably minded concerns. I wasn’t expecting cattle.
Horses are, as Jason Rutledge of the Virginia-based Healing Harvest Forest Foundation pointed out, “solar-powered” (his team mate’s t-shirt read, “Hay is bio fuel”), their waste product – be it manure or flesh and bone – is fertilizer, and they reproduce themselves, unlike a tractor which depreciates the moment you roll into the home field. In the 1950s, the family farms that mechanized hit the wall. The Amish survived, sustaining the knowledge required to work horses for later generations of farmers, who are now swapping tractors for big-rumped Belgian draft horses. I saw a pair of these haul a 7,000lb loaded sled with such a starting torque that it lifted a foot off the ground, and twelve big blond geldings hitched to a single plow that left a wake like a harbor ferry. Elsewhere, a bolshie Haflinger pony circled, driving the crank for an ice cream churn, and a relaxed looking paint gelding climbed perpetually on a noisy wooden treadmill, and turned out enough electricity to power a refridgerator.
Nobody at Mount Hope equated “horse-drawn” with antique, even if they were proud to call teamster skills their heritage. But the oxen were a throwback. Mammoth draft horses are the products of the European Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions – “living technology,” as one 1980s French government report called them. Oxen come from an era before the Clydes and Percherons, when horses were too expensive to buy and keep, and they were domesticated long before the first wild horses. The yoke predates the collar harness – you can’t use a yoke with horses, as their necks are too long and their windpipes get impaired. Even though they were slower than horses, oxen took a long time to be phased out in Europe – they may not be as sophisticated, but they’re low maintenance. And like horses, they run on biofuel, generate fertilizer, and don’t compact the soil as aggressively as tractors.
But although they might be a rarity in Europe and America, oxen make up more than half of the 400 million draft animals in use world-wide – one in five of the world’s bovines. “There are two million ox owners in Ethiopia,” Richard Roosenberg of the NGO Tillers’ International told me, “That’s more than there are farmers in America.” A softly spoken man with a gray beard and glasses, he was manning a booth in one of the barns at Horse Progress Days. In his twenties he spent three years in the Peace Corps working for the FAO in West Africa, where he saw local farmers taking to ox-draft with ease. Sleeping sickness had prevented them from using large draft animals prior to the 1960s – Ethiopia is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa with a deep history of using oxen for draft, and Africa usually defaults to human rather than animal labor.
Roosenberg returned to the United States and “dug in. We needed to relearn what our grandparents knew. We organized Tillers’ to be a bridge between older Americans who still had the skills and younger international aid workers.” Tillers’ International took on their first American students for overseas work in 1981, and welcomed their first foreign students in 1982.
At home in Michigan, Tillers’ run courses in working horses or oxen, beekeeping, coopering, timber framing, masonry, rope making, blacksmithing and smallholding, as well as some more folksy skills like scything and wool spinning. Not all the clients are aid workers – most are just civilians who want to learn a craft or become more self sufficient, or else curators at historical or folk museums. But it was Tillers’ work in Africa that was promoted in Ohio. Quaint though some of Tillers’ ethos might seem – no laptops for every child or solar-cell cookers in every home – the classic American self-sufficiency dovetails beautifully with modern aid work, which emphasizes local materials, independence and building an economy from the grassroots up. The oxen were in full compliance with this ethos.
“We’re not opposed to working with tractors,” Richard said, “but we don’t have the capital to buy them and the farmers don’t either, so we get serious – we want to get to work now. It’s usually the government ministers who want the tractors, not the farmers, and we try to work below the political level.”
“We had no animals because of the war,” said his colleague Boniface Okumu, referring to the 30 years of conflict that devastated the economy of his home country, Uganda. He was Tillers’ project manager in Uganda, heading a staff made up entirely of locals. “I grew up doing hoe farming, so I know how hard it is to dig by hand. When I could see what animals could do in a day I realized there was something good about the technology.” He’s been training farmers for Tillers’ since 2006, going fulltime in 2012. He’d worked in the neighbouring Congo, too, and the Ugandan base was hoping to later expand to Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and maybe Rwanda.
“Some of these places don’t have oxen – they might have donkeys instead. Some have them but don’t use them as draft.” The courses lasted one week – two if the local oxen were not trained. One week was all it took to have the oxen responding, free of reins, to the gestures of its driver. “The Amish were asking about that,” said Boniface, with a grin. A good draft horse can take weeks or even months in basic training, and still be skittish for some time before it’s considered “well broke.”
Tillers’ brought a Ugandan vocational teacher called Bob Okello to the United States in 2009, and he attended the Horse Progress Days. Both he and Boniface have also visited Pioneers, an Amish firm that dominates the horse-draft equipment market, and who shared their designs with the men. Bob scaled down one of the plows he saw and adapted it for use in Uganda, where the Zebu oxen are just 500lbs each – well below the standard 2,000lb American work horse.
He’d been unable to attend this year’s gathering in Ohio after a visa snafu, but Boniface brought over the plow, folded down to suitcase size, and had demonstrated it in the top field at Mount Hope, plowing in the same line up as the mule and horse equivalent of a top of the range John Deere. Faced with a large audience, the oxen had a little stagefright, but recovered with honor.
The plow and yokes are all built by Ugandans trained in carpentry and blacksmithing by Tillers’. Boniface told me they were developing more pieces of equipment for ox-powered cultivation and transport. Last season, the Mozambique operations trained 1,979 farmers and 131 artisans. In Uganda they started off 202 farmers and 33 blacksmiths and carpenters. The oxen didn’t just power a plow, but artisanal industry and innovation.
Boniface counted off the crops Ugandan farmers were now growing on small plots: groundnuts, maize, beans, soya, peas, sim-sim, rice, potatoes, cassava and vegetables. “Where I am now every household has oxen, so they have food in the house at every time of the year. Sometimes there’s just one pair of oxen per village, and there’s too much work for those that have the oxen, so fields go unplowed.” There were not enough trained drivers and oxen in some areas to keep up with demand. Farmers who had no draft animals hired freelancers, but Boniface said that often the hired hands had no time to reach them.
The answer was to step up training. He added, “We look to women because most of the work in Africa is done by women. Animals can bring water supplies and carry produce to market, so the women have less work to do. One of our trainers is a lady, and she’s very smart with the animals. We’re hoping more will join.”
All this industry did not come at the expense of the oxen. Roosenberg said that the local and sustainable focuses were layered over with animal welfare principles: “We do low stress cattle trainings. Oxen that might be throwing their heads about in agitation have calmed down enough after two days to be brushed and handled by children.” The Michigan headquarters had recently hosted a Swiss cow whisperer who’d demonstrated special massages for the oxen‘s legs, and had won their instant obedience and devotion. These skills, too, would be passed on to Tillers’ overseas bases.
When I left the fair, high-stepping buggy horses with braided manes were heading for the closing parade at a spanking trot, and kicking up clouds of dust. The oxen were plodding slowly back toward the barns in the opposite direction, in perfect step with one another, still pondering their surroundings as their handlers gently reassured them.

Do Horses Prefer Female Riders to Male?


“He’s a woman’s horse.”

“Women are more sensitive riders – they’re much better at handling horses.”

How often have you heard  this? I think the Victorian era might be the period when this notion became established. Writers like Trollope believed that “rarely [do men] have such hands as a woman has on a horse’s mouth.” When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I wanted to stress that there was nothing biological in the fact that women currently dominate horse sports in many countries – I wanted to trace the social and cultural history behind the phenomenon instead.

Because of the “snob” value of equestrianism, women (of certain classes) were allowed to ride alongside men, and it gave them an outlet that was rare in a fairly repressive society. When it was clear that many women could ride well or even out-ride men, riding became even more appealing to women, and perhaps less so to some men. Now in some places this has become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, with boys pushed out by pink equestrian accessories and assumptions that horses are a “girl thing”. Nothing to do with anything physically innate in women.

We all know of men who are superb, sensitive riders, and of women who have hands like meat hooks. What about horses themselves? Do they distinguish between human genders in their responses? Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna set out to test this.
They sent male and female riders out around a jumping course and measured the stress responses of their mounts. They decided to test the stress responses of the riders, too. Their press release explains the results:

The results were unexpected. The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva increased during the test but the increase was not affected by the sex of the rider. The horses’ heart rates also increased as a result of taking the course but the increase was irrespective of the human partner in the saddle. The tests on the riders gave similar conclusions. Again, the level of cortisol in the saliva increased but there was no difference between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up when the horses switched from a walk to a canter and accelerated further during the jumping course. But the heart rate curves for male and female riders were close to identical.

The full journal article is here, if you’re curious to learn more. Thank you to Andrew Curry for the tip off.

Talking Horses: Honhy, Honhy, Hon! A Victorian Policeman is Saluted.


Street-cab horses drinking from half-barrel of water provided by the A.S.P.C.A. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Street-cab horses drinking from half-barrel of water provided by the A.S.P.C.A. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). Note hat on right-hand horse.

In his 29-year career as a policeman in Victorian London, John Pegg oversaw over 1,300 convictions for cruelty to horses. This poem was written “on behalf” of those horses by George H Hutt in 1892. Read more about Hutt – “the police poet” – and Pegg here, along with a collection of other “horses’ letters” on Christopher T George’s ripperology blog.

“A Horse’s Letter to Ex-Police Constable 365 John Pegg”

Dear Mr. Pegg, you’ve proved our friend,
No one can deny,
By oft detecting cruelty
While others pass it by.

Your life has been devoted to
The ailments of my race,
And when the tongue was devoid of speech,
Yours kindly took its place.

Before we had your kindly aid
Our pleading proved in vain,
And often with a heavy load
We’ve struggled on in pain.

While drivers in their ignorance
Have vowed that we did shirk,
And though we have been weak and ill
Have urged on to work.

‘Tis you and only such as you
Who mark the mute appeal,
Of us poor helpless quadrupeds
When indisposed we feel.

I’ve had the horrid toothache, Pegg,
And fast I could not go,
But as a medicine received
A cruel, stinging blow.

Again I’ve stood hour after hour
Till corns have made me kick,
And blamed for vicious temper been
Belaboured with a stick.

Sometimes a drunkard held the reins,
And muddled, did not think
That I as well as he required
A cool refreshing drink.

He loitered, tippling on the way,
Till working hours were past,
Then homeward thrashed me, and all night
Left me, unclean, to fast.

But dear old Pegg, you found it out,
And when ’twas brought to light,
You had the rascal punished well,
While Sangster set me right.

Now nearly thirty years you’ve been
An agent of the law,
And through your tact oft saved us pain
By finding out the flaw.

And though we are but helpless brutes,
Without the power of speech,
Yet in our gratefulness, dear Pegg,
A moral we can teach.

So horses, mules, and asses, too,
Their wishes to you give
By neighing “Honhy, honhy, hon!”
Which means “Long may you live.”

May those who have the care of us
With your kind acts agree,
Then animals of every class
Will better treated be.

Dutch Stables: Horses in the Heart of Amsterdam

I went to Amsterdam last weekend to see friends I hadn’t seen for far too long, and ended up doing a little unscheduled horsey tourism. I hadn’t planned it, honest! I had no idea that Amsterdam had a nineteenth century riding manège right by its main park, nor that the building was still home to horses. And I didn’t realise until I wandered into the Van Loon House museum on the Keizersgracht that there was a beautifully preserved coach house and stables tucked away at the end of its garden. Maybe it’s the canals and narrow streets – boats and bikes dominate – but Amsterdam is not Venice, and there are plenty of cobbled streets once traversed by the thousands of horses that made the city on the Amstel function in the nineteenth century and earlier.

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

This palladian construction sits at the end of the garden of the Van Loon family’s townhouse. The house itself was built in 1672 and the wealthy Van Loons moved in in 1884, only departing in 1945. The coach house was home to up to six horses (cared for by two grooms, a coachman and a footman) and was enough of a source of pride for the family to take guests to view it. They also had country estates, and the stable has now been reconstructed using mangers from one of these homes. When in town, the family’s equestrian activities were probably confined to the Vondelpark, where they could ride or drive as the fancy took. There are some photographs of the family sleigh in the park, and the sleigh itself is sitting on the old brick floor, opposite a cabinet of harnesses decorated with the family colours:



And this is the charabanc, from the French for “wagon with benches”, also in the family colours (yellow and black). One of the Van Loons was hunting master to King William III, and his hunting horn is strung up on the stable wall, along with a black-and-white photo of a Van Loon lady leaping sidesaddle over a hurdle on an affable, old-fashioned-looking grey.



There’s also a model of the stable as it once looked – a family children’s toy, complete with saddles hanging on the partitions and horses with plaited tails. If you look closely you’ll even see the nameplates over each stall. I bought some postcards with old images of the stables, horses, grooms and coachman. The horses look just like Gelderlanders – chestnut or bay with backs as long as fire dogs.

Children's model stable

Children’s model stable

Mention of the Vondelpark led me to the Dutch Equestrian School Museum on a leafy, blossom-lined street just yards from the park itself. The large detached houses give way to this façade:
IMG_0953Slip under the archway and there’s a potent whiff of horse and horse by-products, a long corridor with a red carpet and a large door that opens into the Hollandesche Manege,  originally founded in 1744 and in its current form since 1882. It’s still in use as a riding stable and still hosts “carousels”. Here are a selection of blurry cameraphone shots (no flash) of the hall, foyer and stables: the grand staircase with its treads worn down by 130 years of riding boots, the loose boxes and their friendly (and hungry) inhabitants and the stucco decorations, with some visual depth added by a layer of manège dust. The foyer is the most beautiful riding “club house” I’ve ever been in (although most of the riding club houses I know where full of janky old heaters, dirty tea mugs and folded up horse blankets, but I digress). Alongside the pony club summer camp adverts, copies of Black Beauty and old plates of “Equitation Around the World”, is a huge nineteenth-century gouache drawing of gentlemen in top hats playing at quintain and running at rings. One of the information cards provided says that women were very much involved at the reopening ceremony in 1882, and there were sidesaddles for sale and on display. My ticket included a free cup of tea, so I sat on the balcony and watched the current crop of riders go through their paces before wandering out to the crowded Vondelpark and hunting for old bridle paths.

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To Bridle the Horses of St Mark

The copper horses of St Mark's Basilica, Venice

The copper horses of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo: Rosemary Forrest.

Emerging from somewhere unconfirmed in classical Greece or Rome, this quadriga of horses lived in Constantinople until it was sacked by the Venetians in 1204, and they were carried off to stand guard over the Basilica of St Mark’s. Like many horses, they experienced literal upheavals in times of war, and were stolen by Napoleon in 1797 for a Parisian triumphal arch, and only returned in 1815. To Venice, that is, not Constantinople. In anticipation of damage in World War One they were taken by barge all the way to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome for safekeeping, and in the Second World War they were also packed up before being restored to pride of place. Air pollution achieved what global war could not, however, and in the 1980s they were moved into the interior of the church, and replaced with replicas.

“. . . the four bronze horses which stood for 700 years upon its façade, and which so impressed Goethe that he wanted to get the opinion of  ‘a good judge of horseflesh’ on them. No pampered thoroughbred, no scarred war-horse has enjoyed so romantic a career as these. . . .[they] became so symbolic of Venetian pride and glory that the Genoese, when they were at war with Venice, used to boast that they were going to ‘bridle the horses of St Mark’ . . . I can hardly bear to think of them shut away out of the sunshine, because they always seemed to me, as to generations of Venetians, truly living creatures, animated by the genius of their unknown creators. For all their wanderings, they used to seem, up there on their proud pedestals, ageless and untired. I often saw them paw the stonework, at starlit Venetian midnights, and once I heard a whinny from the second horse on the right, so old, brave and metallic that St Theodore’s crocodile, raising its head from beneath the saintly buskins, answered wtih a kind of grunt.”

Venice, by Jan Morris. 1993 Faber edition. Thank you to Mum for the photo.