Farming with horses was an integral part of my childhood. In the 1930’s, the Great Depression was in full swing and small farmers just barely eked out an existence. The aftermath of the depression lingered into the 1940’s. Larger farms had tractors, but a lot of small family farms still could not afford tractors. In Appalachia, another consideration was that many hill farms had fields that were too steep to farm with a tractor, which could upset easily, especially with an inexperienced driver. Therefore it was understandable that many small farms continued to farm with horses in the 1940’s. One of the rites of passage, while growing up as a farm boy, was to be entrusted with a team of horses.
My father was born in 1892 and farmed for years in partnership with my grandfather, in the hills of West Virginia. I lived in a small Ohio River town until I was thirteen. Then my parents and I moved to a small Appalachian hill farm. The farm home had no central heat, no running water except a hand pitcher pump in the kitchen, a wood cook stove, no electricity and a bath with a path.
My father had farmed with horses all his life and was very comfortable with them. Upon moving to the farm, I was introduced to our team of grays, Kate and John. Kate was a very intelligent horse. John was somewhat mentally challenged but had his endearing qualities. Photo #1 is of Kate.
Learning How to Harness a Horse
An important part of the rite of passage for a farm boy, was learning to harness a horse. The horses would be kept in the barn overnight so as to not waste time catching them in the pasture field in the morning. The cardinal rule was to first call the horse’s name and then pat them lightly on the rump. Unless the horse was a habitual kicker, you would then be safe. Most horses would not kick unless startled. You would put the horse’s head through the collar and place it firmly against their shoulders. Next, you would place the harness on the horse’s back. The two hames were each a metal rod curved to fit the contours of the collar. One would be placed on each side of the collar. The hamestring, a metal strap with a device for tightening the strap, would hold the bottom ends of the hames together and snugly against collar.
There is a wide, strong, reinforced leather strap called a trace or tug, fastened to each hame. A short chain is fastened to the rear end of the trace, to fasten to the singletree on the equipment being pulled. On a 2-horse piece of equipment, each single-tree would be fastened to a double-tree which would be fastened to the equipment.
‘”Don’t Bust a Hamestring”
The colloquialism, “Don’t bust a hamestring,” is probably from the upper mid-west. I could not find a meaning on Google. I believe it probably means don’t exert so much effort that you cause your project to fail. If the hamestring breaks, the hames would rest on the horse’s bare shoulders and the horse could no longer pull the load.
A wide leather strap called a girth, encircles the horse’s body just behind the shoulders and front legs to secure the harness to the body. There are straps over the rump fastened to the traces on both sides to hold the traces at the right height. A small strap called a crupper fastens under the tail to keep the harness assembly from sliding off the horse sideways.
The bridle is a network of straps secured to the horse’s head. The main purpose of the bridle is to hold the steel bit in the horse’s mouth. The bit is a horizontal piece of metal, sometimes hinged, which is placed in the horse’s mouth behind the teeth. The two reins are attached, one to each side of the bit, and they pass through a ring on top of the harness, and then back to the driver’s hands. The bit may seem rather cruel, but is necessary for the control of the horses by pulling on the reins; right turn, left turn and stop. Image #2 details the harness parts. Even though I was never kicked by a horse, it was always a relief when I finished the harnessing.
Blinders on the Bridle Were Very Necessary
The bridle will probably have blinders by the eyes to prevent the horses from seeing objects to the side or rear. Some horses will panic easily if they see something new and different that they don’t understand. They are also very reluctant to cross a bridge or any surface that sounds different when they walk. You can imagine how they reacted when they saw their first steam locomotive. When really panicked, horses will race down the road at top speed, oblivious to the driver’s attempts to control them. The driver would be fortunate to escape without an overturned wagon or buggy.
Kate’s intelligence was readily apparent when cultivating corn, which was one of the main tasks for a horse. We used a one-horse cultivator which could be adjusted for the width of the row. Kate was so smart I didn’t even need reins to guide her. An occasional “gee” or ‘haw” was sufficient. She rarely stepped on a hill of corn. The only problem was that she needed a wire muzzle on her nose when the corn reached the height where she could bite the top out of a stalk. At the end of the row, I would need to turn her around and start her down the next row.
John was a different story. He would go lumbering down the row stepping on a lot of the corn. It did not recover very well after being squashed with his massive hoof. Trying to guide him with the reins did not work well either, because it took both hands to guide the cultivator. Needless to say, Kate got the job of cultivating corn.
Weeds are Like “Poison” to the Corn
We did not have weed killer in those days which, while ecologically a good practice, required that the corn be cultivated about four times during the growing season. Weeds greatly reduced the corn crop by smothering the corn and competing for nutrients needed by the corn. The last two cultivations, the corn would be higher than your head. It was very hot because the dense corn restricted the breezes. Cultivating corn has two hazards for the driver. The edges of the corn leaves or blades were so sharp they could cut your skin. The other hazard was corn worms; not the kind that burrows inside the ear of corn, but the kind that chews on the corn blades. They were short, stubby, green worms with a brown spot in the middle of the back and with nasty stingers on both ends. The intensity of their sting strongly resembles that of a wasp or bumblebee. As hot as it was, I always wore light-weight, long-sleeved shirts for protection against cuts and worm stings, but I drew the line at gloves, due to the heat.
Normally, during planting, the seed corn grains were just drilled in the row several inches apart, by the corn planter. If the ground was extra weedy, the corn would be cross-checked. A chain with a knot about every 3 feet would be stretched the length of the field. The corn planter would hold the grains of corn until the knot on the chain triggered a mechanism that released them. The result was a hill of corn about every 3 feet with about 4 stalks in it. By exercising care, the hills would be lined up so the corn could be cultivated both horizontally and vertically.
I was always fascinated by the corn pollination process. The tassel produces a very fine dust which is the pollen. The corn silk protrudes outside the shuck at the tip of the ear of corn. Each silk is actually a tiny tube. A grain of pollen lands on the tip of the each individual silk and travels down inside the tube to the kernel of corn to fertilize it. If you find any kernels of corn on the cob that have not filled out or matured, it is because the bit of pollen failed to reach the individual kernel on the cob. When you cultivate corn during pollination, the cloud of pollen dust gets in yours eyes, your nose and down your neck.
A Killdeer Will Feign a Broken Wing
I remember when I saw my first killdeer nest in the edge of a cornfield. I saw an adult killdeer with what I thought was a broken wing. I walked closer but it always stayed ahead of me. .After we had traveled several feet, the wing miraculously healed and the bird flew away. I then realized it was trying to lead me away from its nest. According to a Bird Watching.com article, there are 2 types of baby birds. Quoting the article about the first class, “Robins are altricial, as are blue jays, cardinals and most other birds.” They are blind and confined to the nest for two weeks while the parents feed and protect them until they are feathered and able to see and fly. This superb article gives a fascinating account of the killdeer.
Photo #3 is of a killdeer nesting with her speckled eggs.
Birds are “precocial or altricial”
The other class is “precocial,” Quoting the article, “Precocial birds stay in the egg twice as long as altricial birds, so they have more time to develop. A one-day-old killdeer chick is actually two weeks older than a one-day-old robin nestling.” Due to this extra hatching time, “precocial” baby birds are born with open eyes and the ability to follow their mother around and eat seeds, bugs or anything that looks interesting, but they will still need her protection for two weeks because of their inability to fly. This class also includes “chickens, ducks, and quail.” The defining distinction seems to be that birds that nest on the ground, need the extra physical abilities to survive, while birds that have the relative security of a nest in a tree can take the extra two weeks to develop.
Although we acquired a tractor later, i will always remember Kate and John.. I believe my life experience is richer for having known them. I remember caressing Kate’s soft, velvety nose when I passed by. They were not just our team of work horses; they were also my friends.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be taken as professional advice. I am not a horseman. It is written for informational purposes only and is correct to the best of my knowledge, but I cannot guarantee the accuracy. I do not accept any responsibility for the results of actions on your part, taken or not taken, as a result of reading this article. All actions are taken at your own risk. I am just relating my own opinions and experiences and my opinions could be wrong.
Diane Porter/”The Precocious Killdeer”/Bird Watching.com