Speed the Plough

Another day, another form of horse racing. This is Hokkaido, Japan, where the descendants of heavy European draught horses imported for agricultural work in the nineteenth century now fight it out in Ban-ei races. They drag an iron sled over a course of deep sand a couple of hundred yards long, and climb over ramps and bumps on their way. They are flogged by their jockeys in a fashion that would definitely see them hauled up before the stewards in the UK. Every now and then, one driver stands up and hauls back with all his weight on the horse’s head – perhaps to make it plunge forward when released and throw its weight into the collar.

They start competing as two-year-olds. More from this 2006 New York Times feature:

Draft-horse racing was officially established in 1946, and racetracks became self-contained worlds where stablemen and jockeys spent most of their lives.

Mr. Sakamoto, the 53-year-old jockey, came here when he was 18 and lived for 15 years in an apartment attached to the stables. When the horses kicked the stable walls, he felt the reverberations. “Horses and human beings become one — well, maybe it’s not that simple,” he said. “But that was the goal.”

“I’ve been here all these years,” he added. “I can’t make it out there. Horses are the only thing I know.”

Heavy Horses: Peak Oil

The 1960s and 1970s saw a surge of interest in heavy horse breeds just as the animals were vanishing on British farmland, replaced by the tractor and the truck. People began to start working with horses again, keen to “preserve the old ways”, and heavy horse visitor centres sprung up where tourists and locals could watch Shires, Punches, Percherons and Clydesdales being put through their paces.
In 1979 George Ewart Evans published an oral history called Horse Power and Magic, drawn from a series of interviews with horsemen and women working with draft breeds. The various oil crises of the 1970s gave his interviewees much food for thought, and, with peak oil either looming close or well behind us, depending on the expert you consult, I’m very glad that Faber have (hurrah!) added this wonderful book to their print on demand list, Faber Finds.

Harry Burroughes (born 1908) was a farmer living at Chediston Grange near Halesworth in Suffolk, where he was keeping five Suffolk Punch geldings to keep him entertained in his retirement. He told Ewart Evans:

“I believe there’s a chance of the horse coming back in some degree. I don’t say that it will come back – not to regularly plough in the field, but there’s a chance it might come back  around the farm, marginally. Talking to – I was talking to some young farmers when the petrol scare was on. They said:

‘Well, of course, you couldn’t do it with horses now. You couldn’t get through the work.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if the oil dried up it won’t be a case perhaps of you couldn’t do it, you’d have to do it. It would perhaps  be going right back not only to ploughing with horses but to ploughing with bullocks. For without the oil what would you do?’

I sometimes think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if there was some sort of grant just to kee the horse as a stand-by because you never know how the job is going to work out.”

He goes on to point out the useful qualities of horse manure, which is far better for soil than exhaust fumes.
Roger Clark, a horseman nearly forty years younger who worked Suffolk Punches with his wife Cheryl, told Ewart Evans about another advantage:

“An interesting thing happened just at the back here. I wanted to practice ploughing for a ploughing match. Well, we’re on an estate here [Weyland’s Farm]: and they are very good: I’ve only got to ring up a man and say: “Can I do a bit of ploughing in such and such a place?” and I can carry on. Well, there’s a piece on this corner, about three-quarters of an acre and it’s very wet. I ploughed that with horses, not very deep on the stretch [a section of ploughed lane] – made narrow stretches of it, and finished it to the end. Later the tractors came along and started ploughing where I finished. Then they pulled that field down and drilled it; and when the corn was so high [about six inches] and you looked at it from the road, the bit that was ploughed with horses was far greener and denser and taller, and looked a lot better than the piece that had been done by tractor. You could see where the horses finished and the tractor started.”

The tractors compacted the soil despite ploughing it while the horses had left it aerated. Clark goes on to say that horses are more efficient for general jobs around the farm, like carting fodder for livestock – “one man can do it with a horse where you want two with a tractor.”

Heavy Horse Week: Opium for Shires

How to Manage a Vicious Horse so as to do anything with him

[a recipe from horseman Jack Juby‘s notebook of horse cures]

Take Oil of Fennel, oil of Cinnamon, oil of Thyme, oil of Rosemary, Tincture of opium, Tincture Arnica, illontara, oil of Nutmeg, oil of Anniseed, one ounce of Lunas powder.

Take a little of the powder and put a few drops out of each bottle on it so as to make a paste and the air must be kept from it after you have made it. Rub a little on your whip and on your hands and stroke them over the horse’s nostrils a few times. This must be all kept in separate bottles.

From My Life with Horses, The Story of Jack Juby MBE, Master of the Heavy Horse, by Alison Downes and Alan Childs.

Heavy Horse Week: Jack Juby

Jack Juby MBE, who died in 2004,  was one of the last of his breed. “Groom” doesn’t begin to sum up his work. “Horseman” he certainly was, and a trainer and master of heavy horses in Norfolk – a service for which he received his MBE. He was employed by the Peacock family for most of his working life, and also kept his own ponies and a show jumper who was so successful in local shows that Alan Oliver tried to buy him.

He only had one holiday before his retirement, going to the Isle of Wight for a week before returning hotfoot to Norfolk and his beloved horses.

“When I got home and I turned in from Attleborough and come down by Paterson’s corner, as I come down to ‘the Laurels’ I saw the [Percheron] stallion up at the farm. I went indoors and was just making a cup of tea and I nearly jumped out of my skin when the telephone rang. It had been put in when we were away! It was Mrs Peacock and she said, ‘You’re home then, you’ve been home nearly twenty minutes, haven’t you?’

I say, ‘Yeah.’

‘We knew,’ she say, ‘we knew because that stallion has been shrieking his head off and the mares up on the meadow they are calling! I ran indoors and said to mother, “Jack is home, I bet he’s home,” and that’s when I called you.’

I’d been away a week and they knew I was home. As I turned into Waterloo Farm, Mrs Peacock came out and said:

‘For goodness sake go and see to Fen Admiral. We have been worried about him all week, he hasn’t eaten anything.’

My bales of hay still laid there. I went up to him and patted him on his neck. I gave him his usual mint and said:

‘You silly old bugger, you.’ He turned round and started tucking into his hay. Mrs Peacock wouldn’t believe it.”


From My Life with Horses, The Story of Jack Juby MBE, Master of the Heavy Horse, by Alison Downes and Alan Childs.