The case for returning to real live horse power

by Charlie Pinney, draught horse farmer and researcher

Replacing tractors with horses would enable farms to significantly reduce their fossil energy use. Growers who have already made the switch report reduced soil compaction, increased yields and improved harvesting times.

In the past few decades, while the search for new energy sources to replace fossil-based fuels gone on, some people have continued to use a self-replicating, intelligent, user- and planet-friendly, environmentally appropriate power source that has been known about and taken advantage of for at least 8,000 years.

These people have been farming, logging and doing a wide variety of jobs using draught horses. As long as the grass grows, and their horses and other stock continue to recycle that grass to fertilise and grow the next year's crop, then oil scarcity or energy price hikes will leave them unscathed, they can become increasingly smug about their minimal-pollution farming methods and reflect that soil compaction and erosion problems on their farms are minuscule in comparison with those of their tractor-driving neighbours.

Is theirs a naive and simplistic approach to a very serious problem facing us all? Perhaps, but there are some valid reasons why animal draught could and should be re-evaluated now as a serious proposition.
Bailing hay with modern horse-drawn equipment
It is important for us to consider all the effects, environmental and economic, that both horses and the internal combustion engine have on the supporting ecosystem.

Ironically, the widespread nostalgic appeal of the draught horse often proves to be the biggest hindrance to its popular acceptance of its serious worth as a farm, forest and transport tool. Whenever you approach an individual or a government to suggest that the working horse can make a worthwhile contribution to a sustainable future for us all, you are almost invariably greeted with scorn or disbelief. You are dismissed as a dreamer, an idealist with no grasp of contemporary realities, an equine-obsessed Luddite who is actively spurning all the miraculous advantages that the scientific development of agriculture has bestowed upon us. The reason for this damning rejection is simple enough: the cart horse is invariably presented to the public at shows or in the media as a piece of living history, a relic from a museum of country life, a be-ribboned dinosaur lumbering out of the mists of our collective past.


Fortunately, it is not too difficult to marshal some convincing arguments in favour of living horse power to dispel this backward-looking and limited view. Any energy source intended to reduce reliance on the world's finite resources of fossil fuels should not only be viable in the long term but offer immediate benefits as well. Here the cart horse towers with noble head and powerful shoulders above all other power sources on offer. Being a naturally-occurring living organism, albeit selectively bred (without resort to genetic modification) during domestication for special purposes, the draught horse manufactures its own replacements even while at work, a process that tractors cannot attempt. Better still, a horse can be bred and fed locally, using locally-produced sources of renewable energy - grasses and cereals.

The horse has a long working life during which 1/3 of the energy it consumes as food is reusable as manure whereas 2/3 of the fuel energy used by a tractor is lost as heat and exhaust fumes 1 . The cart horse usually starts productive work at around three years old and continues until its mid 20s, after which its carcass is recyclable as meat and leather. Few of today's highly complex and sophisticated tractors will survive as long without major and expensive repairs. And to recycle the metals in a scrap tractor is itself an energy-costly process in comparison, though it may have a less adverse impact on social sensibilities in some countries.

It is sometimes argued that if horses were to be used again in large numbers on farms and elsewhere, then an unacceptably high proportion of land currently used for the production of crops directly consumable by the human population would have to be given over to the growing of food for the horse. While it is true that a working horse needs high-energy cereals as part of its diet - an amount varying widely according to its workload and breed characteristics - it is interesting to note that there are roughly similar numbers of horses in the UK today as there were in the 1930s, yet large areas of arable ground are non-productive set-aside.

Of the approximately one million horses in the UK (the figure cannot be more precise as horse owners are often even more reluctant to complete census forms than farmers) it is estimated that 98% are leisure horses and 2% "workers", an almost exact reversal of the relative proportions that existed 80 years ago 2 . One study 1 suggests that when horses were prime movers on the land, 18% of locally-produced crops were devoted to meeting their gross energy requirements. To what extent that proportion would be acceptable in the future, when perhaps the horse is again a key component of any form of agricultural activity, is open to debate. Put another way, if and when conventional fuels become unavailable or too expensive or even too tightly rationed for agriculture to continue to rely on tractor traction alone, then the price to be paid in terms of cultivatable ground resources allocated to maintaining a horse-powered alternative may, in reality, be not so unacceptable. There may be little choice.

Taking the Republic of Ireland as an example, one can calculate the approximate area that might be needed for feeding horses if agriculture were to employ large numbers of them once more. This figure will be pretty speculative because it does not take into account the improved productivity of horses using modern and different types of machinery, a factor that will affect the old, accepted horse-per-hectare ratio. Nor does it allow for the horses that would be needed outside agriculture for local transport or forestry work which would also need to be fed from the land. The estimate also fails to distinguish between mainly arable and mainly livestock farms although the theoretical horse-per-hectare ratio for each farm type is very different. A livestock farming region is likely to have fewer horses than an arable one.

For what it is worth, the calculation for mixed farms goes like this. When farm horse numbers were at their highest, the generally-accepted horse-per-hectare ratio was around one pair per 10ha., with that number increasing by one horse per each 10ha increment in farm size. If the average farm unit is 40ha it therefore needs five horses.

Each horse needs around 0.89 ha for maintenance 1 but this figure is not set in stone as so much depends on soil fertility, fertilisers used, crops grown, horse size etc.

Thus, taking the Republic's good quality grassland and arable area as 3.9 million ha, we have 97,500 farms of 40a, on which 487,500 cart horses are trundling around, ploughing, harvesting, carting things and so on. These horses will need 433,875ha for their fodder requirements, or 11.12% of the total hectares.

An interesting side to this is to recalculate using a recommended stocking rate for modern organic farms where the optimum livestock unit/ha is 500kg/ha. 6 . The organic route may become obligatory if artificial fertilisers become unavailable. If we assume the farm horse will weigh 750kgs - a figure experience suggests is the best balance of weight/power output - then each horse will need 1.5ha for fodder and grazing. In an artificial-fertiliser-free Republic, 731,250ha (18.75%) of its best ground would be have to be committed to our equine assistants. However, this rather gloomy figure does not take account of the real world, in which a large proportion of the grazing requirements of the horse population could be met from marginal or lower quality ground, thus releasing some of the better soils for other cropping purposes. In other words, horses can make good, productive use of land which may not be suitable for arable use. Horses happily graze hillsides that tractors can't climb.

Suggestions have been made that tractor fuels could be economically sourced from biomass production such as oilseed rape, but this scenario would also remove land from human-consumable food production. Biomass fuels may prove to be an option of limited value for two reasons. Firstly, every process in the transformation of energy into some other, more useable form consumes energy itself. In the case of the growing, harvesting, refining and then using of biomass-sourced fuels in a tractor, the number and complexities of the transformation processes are significantly higher and more wasteful of overall energy reserves than a horse munching grass. Secondly, when you add in the energy costs of mining, refining and processing iron ore to make the tractor in the first place, you begin to wonder why on earth - literally - we bother with tractors at all, if we are genuinely concerned with responsible use of the total resources available to us within the global biosphere in which we all live.

So if it is accepted that a sensible aim for the future is to make the most efficient use in the least polluting way of the sun's energy, in whatever form, to power our agricultural prime movers, then the horse, even if simply viewed as a mechanism for turning one form of energy into another more accessible one, has a lot to offer. It can directly transform the photosynthetic reserves available in grasses and cereals into useful work with the least number of energy- wasteful processes. It is easily and relatively quickly multiplied to supply the units necessary according to demand. We already are expert in the production, feeding and utilisation of the horse. Although there is considerable scope for refining and developing some details of these aspects of horse work, such research will be vastly less expensive and time-consuming than the development, let alone the practical implementation of, other, non-fossil fuel dependant alternatives.


A horse, compared to the smallest of tractors, is a low-powered device able to deliver a high proportion of its body weight as power for a very short period but only around 15% of that weight as a sustainable tractive effort. The classic example of the initial power of the horse was demonstrated at the Shire Horse Show in London in 1924. Two 16 cwt shires, Umber and Vesuvius owned by Liverpool Corporation, were hitched to a dray weighing 18 tons, which they moved easily. Not content with that, they were later harnessed to a dynamometer in tandem. Umber started to pull before his companion got going, and registered a pull of 50 tons before breaking the dynamometer's needle. 3

Horses get tired, though, while tractors don't. Horses need regular feed breaks and rest periods but a tractor can be driven continuously with the briefest of refuelling stops. Horses have one, relatively inflexible speed - the walk - most commonly employed in heavy draught work, whereas the tractor has a wide speed range. Tractors, when idle, happily depreciate in a shed unsupervised, but horses need feed and care on a daily basis whether they are working or not. Horses need specialist training and handling to maximise their draught potential while almost anyone can drive a tractor.

But the horse is intelligent and able to learn routines where it is capable of remote control by the use of the voice. This is extremely useful, especially in stop-start work at which the horse excels. Tractors don't start, turn or stop no matter how loudly you yell at them. The horse is infinitely more manoeuvrable than any tractor so, for example, headlands and turning areas can be very small, leading to a greater number of crop plants per acre. It is well-suited for row crop work. Many farm and horticultural activities are best performed at a low forward speed - harrowing, rolling, hoeing, planting and the like - so the tractor's higher speed is not always a pre-requisite of an efficient work rate. The horse is ideal for forestry thinning where it can manoeuvre between standing timber in a way impossible using mechanical harvesting methods. Its impact on the forest environment is minimal. The horse is inherently stable, with a low soil compaction effect and has permanent "four wheel drive" enabling it to work on steep, wet or otherwise difficult terrain inaccessible to conventional systems. It can also to perform some operations at times where soil conditions would not permit the use of heavy machinery.

Two studies 4 undertaken in the 1980s suggest that for short-haul delivery work in urban areas, a pair of horses and a wagon, and a small motor lorry cost much the same to operate. It is interesting to note that the average traffic speed in London is now lower than when all that city's transport was horse based. Also, it is recognised that continuous stop-start traffic movements, such as are now common-place in any urban environment, cause the maximum pollution of the environment and wear and tear on the vehicles involved. The horse, with its high starting torque, low speed and limited radius of operation is ideally suited for city work. Indeed the by-products of its combustion processes are often eagerly sought after by the urban population in contrast to those of the motor vehicle.

Critics of the use of horses in agriculture, forestry or industry usually base their arguments on the low work rates of the horse compared to a mechanised system. Horses are usually seen to be most efficient in relatively smallscale operations. It would be absurd for example, to attempt to run a large arable farm of an agri-business type using horses in today's economic climate. The skilled labour needed, the requisite number of trained horses and the associated machinery necessary could not easily be obtained at present. And today's agriculture is inexorably moving, for reasons of economic and political pressure, towards ever larger units on which it would be extremely difficult to employ horses.

However, such large-scale intensive agriculture relies heavily on fossil-based energy sources for its mechanisation, fuels, fertilisers, sprays and so on. If we look at a scenario where such energy sources are diminishing in availability and quantity, it is likely that the nature of agricultural policy and practice will have to change radically. If the movement of produce over long distances becomes too expensive, if low labour input but high energy consuming mechanical and chemical-reliant practices become impractical, then farming may have to revert to higher labour input, smaller holdings selling produce locally. For example some crops may have to be weeded by hand or hoed by horse instead of drenched with herbicides - the sprays being too expensive or unobtainable.

Any reduction in the present high level of mechanisation on farms would lead to more people having to work the land to maintain its output. Such a change of scale and management system would of course have widespread social implications but need not imply per se a return to a primitive, impoverished and exhausting lifestyle for the population thus affected. Indeed it could be argued that a return to a less frenetic lifestyle incorporating the steady plod of a cart horse might be welcomed.

A recent study shows that both horse and tractor systems "use nearly the same amount of energy to generate any given amount of food but the quality of the energy source and its impact on the environment differ a lot" 5 . Importantly, a horse-based system could rely on 60% of its total energy needs (including fodder, labour, equipment) from local renewable sources; a tractor-based system only 9 %. - its locally bred driver and mechanic! 1 The implications of these figures are clear if nonrenewable sources of energy are in increasingly short supply.

There is a large body of evidence - mostly anecdotal at the moment although an important university research project is currently assembling data 5 - which suggests that even today, when the draught horse is viewed with sceptical nostalgia by some, that those farms relying on living horse power do function as economically viable units. They would not remain in business long if they didn't. It is not a case of special pleading. The reduced soil compaction, increased yields and improved harvesting times on one large vegetable farm in Germany are all directly attributable to a recent change-over from tractors to horses. 5 . In the U.K. and the rest of Europe there are farms (mine and many others), market gardens, forest management enterprises (particularly in England, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg) and urban delivery networks (such as those of the breweries) using horses in various ways. Horse work is therefore successful even in today's hectic, highly mechanised world. And if such work is possible and profitable now, how much more so will it become when the fossil fuel dependant element of life as we know it is threatened or eventually disappears altogether ?


What examples exist today from which one can get some idea of what horse-based agriculture might look like in the future? The small but steadily increasing number of operations in Western Europe which use horses to a greater or lesser extent as a power source have one important feature, apart from the horse, in common - they receive much popular support. Whatever the theoretical, economic objections to horse work, the reality is that vegetables grown on a horse-drawn farm are in great demand. People love to see horses extracting timber without destroying the forest fauna and flora. Urban delivery horses are given carrots and caresses throughout the working day. The evident benefits of animal traction for the care and maintenance of conservation sites are greeted with enthusiasm by local ratepayers. There is no reason to suppose that if such activities were to become more widespread, the approval of the voting public would diminish - something which might give heart to politicians teetering nervously on the edge of giving official encouragement to horse-based alternatives.

The gradual increase in horse use in Western Europe has led to and in turn been stimulated by a range of new specialised horse machinery being developed and produced for sale. Some of these machines are purpose-built, single function implements such as rowcrop equipment or timber handing machinery and others, such as the hitchcart, provide a means of linking the horse or horses to existing tractor tooling. While it is true that multinational tractor manufacturers are probably not quaking in their shoes at the prospect of their products being displaced by huge numbers of glossy horses pulling shiny new machinery for the present, it is worth noting that serious, and successful, efforts are being made to bring the draught horse up to date even in high-tech European society.

In addition, the Amish and similar communities in the USA and Canada farm large tracts of land very effectively using horses as the prime mover. However, there are certain dangers in taking the example of the Amish communities as a role model for a modern world in which the horse is the main power source. There are many differences, social, climatic, soil type, cropping possibilities, field size and so on between this agrarian, mid-western, highly organised religious society and the current norms applying in Europe, which make the blanket imposition of an Amish blueprint for a horse-drawn future inappropriate. The differences are complex and fascinating but to detail them here would be outside the scope of this paper.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. Though relying on animal traction, the Amish farms are at least as productive as their conventional neighbours. The use of horses as prime movers does not result in a lower level of output. Indeed, although in part this is attributable to their unique social structure, the Amish are a prosperous and expanding community in contrast to many "normal" American farms. In general, the Amish farms are not specifically geared to organic food production using old implements and methods. On the contrary, they have developed ways of adapting the very latest of modern cultivation and harvesting implements to be pulled by horses and they have to compete with conventional farms for their share of the market place.

In many cases, this adaptation, like some of the new European developments, involves the use of small petrol or diesel engines to operate an implement while a team of horses actually pulls it along. This is instead of using "ground drive transmission", the rotation of the wheels to power the mechanism as traditional horse machinery used to do. This seemingly contradictory or even illogical combination of living and mechanical horsepower actually works very well. The size of the power unit involved is considerably smaller - and cheaper to buy and run and less polluting - than the engine unit that would need to be used in a heavy, complex tractor which has to haul itself along as well as the implement it is attached to. But if in the future even these small auxiliary engines cannot be used because the fuel to run them has run out, then a return to ground drive technology would be necessary. In any case such technology would be an appropriate and logical integral feature of future exploitation of the environmental and fossil-fuel free benefits of the draught horse.

But it has its limitations, like any physical system. Ground drive renders some of the modern farm equipment whose development has profoundly affected modern farm practices virtually unworkable. Some implements seen as key tools on modern farms need to continue to be powered when stationary, and require a very high initial torque imput to start them up and cope with fluctuating loadings. Neither of these requirements can be met easily by ground drive alone. For example, if the power to the working parts of a round baler stops when the horse pulling it stops, it's not possible to wrap the formed bale with its netting. Also, ground drive transmission is liable to speed fluctuations as a result of the horses tiring and slowing or encountering difficult terrain. This drop in input speed can result in speed-sensitive devices not working at all.

So, if we are to use draught horses in an agricultural context where fossil fuels are of limited availability, and we cannot therefore afford to supplement living horse power with an auxiliary engine, then this will inevitably change, or at least powerfully influence, those current agricultural practices which depend on some of the latest advances made in implement technology. It may well be that new crop management techniques, and the machines to work them, will have to be developed - or even reinvented - to exploit the strengths and limit the weaknesses inherent in "pure" animal draught work. But compared to managing the vast social and economic upheavals implicit in future reduced or non-existent availability of fossil fuels which at the moment offer inexpensive and effortless transport, food production and a host of different aspects of our daily lives, a re-think of farming practices along horse lines will be comparatively straightforward. It should be remembered that present production methods have been developed under conditions of economic expansion, population growth, expensive labour and plentiful energy. A change in any one of these factors will affect these production methods. We should address this issue now and develop the appropriate machinery while we still have the industrial capacity to do so easily and cheaply.

Another practice frequently employed on Amish farms is the use of big teams of horses to pull large implements. In Europe historically, the normal working unit was one man and a pair of horses. This became established when labour was cheap and plentiful but today if one suggests to a farmer that he should, let alone could, pay a normal farm wage to a ploughman whose efforts yield one acre of ground ploughed per day with his team, the answer will usually be negative, if at all printable. However the Amish and others have developed ways of hitching together teams much larger than we in Europe are used to, under the control of one driver. Here the output per man is immensely greater, if that should remain an important consideration in a future society where more of the labour force may be obliged to be employed directly in food production. For example a 12 horse team, generally accepted as the biggest that can easily be hitched and driven single handed, will plough in excess of one acre per horse in a working day and operate other machinery at a similar rate. A limitation of such hitches in Europe at present is often simply the availability of sufficient trained horses and, in certain areas, the physical sizes and shapes of the fields.

However, this extreme example makes a vital point in favour of the horse compared to the tractor. The tractor is a single, indivisible device, capable of performing only one task, however complex, at a time. A big team of horses can together perform startling amounts of work one day and on the next, be subdivided into much smaller units to carry out a large number of different tasks at the same time, provided of course there are sufficient drivers available. The inherent flexibility offered by the big hitch system could be of immense value to future developments in horse farming. It is not too difficult to imagine local groups of small farms, each equipped with their own horse numbers adequate for the routine work on the individual holdings, combining those horses together to work as big teams to cover large tracts of land at key moments in the farming calendar such as harvest time or when big acreages have to be ploughed and sown. Farmers working together? Perhaps an unlikely scenario today, but it might be a necessity in the future.


At present it is probably idle speculation to attempt to describe in detail what life would be like if we once more were to use large numbers of that pleasant, companionable, self-sustaining, eco-friendly, agile and appropriate power source, the horse. However, certain implications are clear and some suggestions worth making.

Firstly, the infrastructure required. On a national level, we should now be researching, designing and manufacturing the implements and other equipment necessary for the most efficient use of the horse in the future. Such designs should obviously be made with both the characteristics of horse draught in mind and also, importantly, the possibility of sustained manufacture when existing production methods are affected by the inevitable changes in industrial energy and other resources which will take place in the foreseeable future. Possible climatic change and predicted energy resource change (limited supplies of fuels, fertilisers and sprays etc) will inevitably alter agriculture as we now know it anyway, and so we should be looking at ways in which we can best diminish the adverse effects and maximise the positive ones by developing agricultural practices that fulfil population requirements in conjunction with methods of farming that are possible with horses. An upsurge in demand for horse traction should be addressed nationally too, as well as on a local level. The selection and breeding of appropriate types and numbers of horses, from heavy draught horses to lighter, faster ones for delivery and transport purposes should receive government support and funding, although the practicalities of the business should be left to expert horsemen and well away from bureaucratic interference.

Locally, there will be an increase in labour demands to care for and work the horses, labour which will need training as well as recruitment. The migration of labour away from the land as society has changed from an agrarian one to an industrial one may be reversed in the future. If there is a signicant change in the relative costs - let alone the ready availability - between oil and labour, then this will have an impact on agricultural strategies 1 . Harness makers and farriers will have to increase in number too and appropriate training programmes put in place to make these skills far more widely available than they are at present.

One dramatic effect of decreased fossil fuel availability will be the effect on personal mobility and the cheap movement of goods and products, a feature of life so much taken for granted today. Here there may well be a lesson to be learnt from the past. The upsurge in draught horse numbers in the UK from the mid 19th century to the early years of the 20th was stimulated largely by the development of the railways. The railways needed a locally-based transport system to transfer goods and people to and from the national network, and relied heavily on draught horses to carry locally-made products to the stations for onward transmission and to deliver other products from the stations to local consumers. A similar strategy could work once more. The draught horse could collect and distribute people and goods locally to and from a national network of long distance, high speed transport systems be they rail, road, sea or air, thus offering economies of scale and resource use which may become a pre-requisite of a society whose current high levels of dependence on non-renewable energy sources will be severely curtailed in the future.


We should be debating whether a renaissance of the draught horse, prompted by a crisis in the supply of cheap fossil fuels and by a desire to limit pollution, is a realistic, sustainable option, and moreover one which should be evaluated now when there remains time available to put in place the necessary infrastructure to optimise such a change.

At some point, we are going to have to decide how we are going to use the last barrel of oil. Are we going to turn it into fertiliser so we can grow more food or use it for some other process where it cannot easily be substituted? Or waste it as fuel to power a tractor when there is a perfectly good replacement for the tractor looking patiently at us over the farm gate?

No one should have any illusions about working with draught horses. It is physically demanding, and has to be highly skilled if it is to be effective. It is also labour intensive. A proposition that the agricultural industry, already in crisis prompted by other factors, should give up its cost-saving machines, sprays and fertilisers will be greeted with groans of despair and snorts of cynical disbelief. It may seem unwise to suggest that a larger portion of the population may have to become involved in food production at a time when manual labour of any kind is increasingly viewed as unacceptable by some segments of society. In fact to invite our highly mechanised western world to seriously contemplate using a wilful, feeble, mortal device in need of constant care and attention, one who is subject to as many fits, sulks and diseases as its handler and moreover one which can kick, bite or merely tread heavily on you, when press-button tractor technology is freely available, at least for the moment, might appear to be a mere flight of fancy.

But these facts are clear and beyond dispute: living horse power is cheap and readily available. We can breed horses, without limit, without endangering the planet. We know a lot about them and how to use them. They can pull things for us, carry us, help support our society, feed it and enable it to function. They can do so far better than they did so in the past if we take advantage of some of the technical advances made in agriculture and machinery design. They can be fed from our fields. They don't destroy the environment but enhance it. They create employment, not replace it. They are a source of companionship in the workplace, a source of pride and pleasure when seen to be working to perfection in harmony with man and his surroundings.

So why on earth don't we use them, then?


1. Agriculture, Energy and Sustainability. Jan Jansen. Doctoral thesis. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Uppsala 2000.
2. British Horse Society.
3. Diana Zeuner, editor, Heavy Horse World. Personal communication.
4. Heavy Horse Haulage in the 1980s: report of the investigation into the comparative costs of horse and motor transport for local deliveries. Pub: Shire Horse Society .Webster, I.C. 1981 & update 1985.
5. Peter Herold. University of Witzenhausen. Personal communication
6. Handbuch für den biologischen Landbau. G.E.Siebeneicher. Augsburg 1993.


History with a future ed. Keith Chivers. Pub: Shire Horse Society and Royal Agricultural Society of England. 1988.

Heavy Horse World, editor Diana Zeuner. U.K. draught horse specialist magazine. Website:

Rural Heritage, editor Gail Damerow. U.S.A. magazine specialising in animal draught farming and logging. Website:

Starke Pferde, editor Erhard Schroll. German draught horse magazine. Website:

Carthorse Machinery, Europe's longest-established manufacturer of modern draught horse equipment, supplies and training courses. Website:

Univecus, a German manufacturer of new designs of row-crop horse machinery. Website:

Hypro AB, a Swedish manufacturer of modern horse and tractor logging equipment. Website:
A single horse used for mowing hay with a mower mounted on a Pintow platform.

This is one of almost 50 chapters and articles in the 336-page large format book, Before the Wells Run Dry. Copies of the book are available for £9.95 from Green Books.

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