Farm Horizons, August 2011
Learning to slow down: Cokato man experiences farming with horses
By Jennifer Kotila
“This is my version of a mid-life crisis,” joked Steve Foss of Cokato about buying two draft horses to farm with last fall. “Some people turn 50 and buy a motorcycle; I bought draft horses.” He has been an avid motorcycle rider for 30 years, as well, he said.
Earlier this summer, Foss participated in the Best of 12 wagon train. He had planned to be with the train from the Dassel-Cokato High School to Waverly, but an ill-tempered horse that got loose from its pasture between Cokato and Howard Lake interrupted his run.
Because he was still new to driving a team of horses, and he and the team were still in the process of getting used to each other, he decided it would be best to head for home.
His team still received quite a workout that day, though. Foss drove them from his house, to the DC High School, and then with the train as it traveled into Cokato and headed towards Howard Lake, putting on 25 miles.
“It was fun to participate in,” Foss said.
As a matter of fact, the team and Foss have put in their fair share of work this summer. This spring, Foss kept three acres of his 80-acre farm for himself to work with his horses. He usually rents out all his fields.
“We’re both learning,” Foss said of himself and the Percheron horses, Karla and Fancy. “There is a much bigger difference than I was expecting between riding and driving a horse it’s been quite a learning curve for me.”
Karla and Fancy are an experienced team of horses who were 7 and 8 years old when Foss purchased them last fall, but Foss said he gets the impression they were not used to heavy work.
“They like going fast. Walking up and down in the field surprised them. They’d look back like, ‘put wheels on this!’” Foss said. “It’s been a challenge for them to slow down and pull.”
While some of the challenges Foss has faced are due to the horses getting used to doing field work rather than just pulling a cart or a sleigh on a trail, it has also been a challenge learning to use the equipment, or even finding it for that matter, Foss said.
Some of the equipment he uses is actually small tractor equipment he and his son, Nathan, have adapted to use with the horses. To make that possible, Foss has a fore cart, also known as a hitch cart.
A fore cart is harnessed to the horses and has a hitch to connect farm equipment to. It basically converts the horses into a tractor, Foss said.
Two pieces of equipment that have been adapted for use with the horses rather than with a small tractor are a disc and a grain drill.
Foss’ favorite piece of equipment to work with so far has been the rake for hay. Another piece of equipment he uses is a road grader, which is a two-person job with one running the team, and the other running the grader.
The three-acre plot that Foss planted this spring took several days, Foss said with a chuckle, something that would have taken a tractor a few minutes to do.
“I’ve never had a tractor meet me at the gate, but a tractor can sit for several weeks without being used. These can’t. They need interaction several times a week,” he added.
In the “olden days,” horses had work to do every day, Foss noted. Because neither Foss nor the horses were conditioned to hard field work, most days in the field this year were only a few hours long.
“You have to pay attention and give them breaks when needed,” Foss said, admitting he was not so keen to when the horses needed a break when he first started.
“Staring at a 40-acre field would be pretty intimidating,” Foss said. “I think that’s why there was such a diversity of crops back then. It spread the work out, using different crops that need to be harvested at different times.”
Foss’ goal is to get himself and the horses to the point where he can farm 10 to 15 acres per year with them, he said.
If there is no work to be done with the horses, Foss hooks up the cart or buggy to go for a ride so they get used and handled.
“This gives me an appreciation for the fact that at the end of the day, you can turn the tractor off and be done. The team is hot and sweaty, they need to be cooled, brushed, and given a little water,” Foss said.
One of the things the horses are teaching Foss is patience. “With a saddle horse, you have the tendency to force them to do what you want,” he said. “You get a hold of almost 4,000 pounds of horses on a team and they stop you’re not going to make them do it.”