Working horses: introduction

What are working horses?

Working horses are heavy (or draught) horses used for transport, managing agricultural land, and for the extraction of timber from woodlands. They can be used in agriculture for anything from land preparation to harvesting, including ploughing, sowing and haymaking.

Horse logging

Horse logging.

They represent a form of renewable energy that can be used directly, e.g. ploughing or pulling a cart, or indirectly in the form of a ‘land drive’ – the horse pulls equipment on wheels that turn and transfer energy to revolving parts via a system of gears and cogs – for example hayturners, muckspreaders, elevators or binders. The horse can also walk around static equipment to perform a job in the same way.

The muscular Ardennes horse, from which all heavy horse breeds originate.

British breeds of heavy horse include the Shire, Clydesdale and Suffolk Punch. The Percheron is French, the Haflinger Austrian, and each European country has its specific breeds. The Belgian Ardennes horse is the root of all heavy horses, in the same way that the Arab horse is the root of all lighter horses for riding. In the Middle Ages, native horses were bred with larger Belgian / Flemish stock for warfare and to carry knights in heavy armour. They became very useful in peace time too, on farms, and after the Industrial Revolution, for pulling barges on the new canals.

Cob is the generic term for pony-sized working horses such as the Fell or the Dales. Cobs are not as powerful as Shires or the other bigger breeds, but they are cheaper to keep.

In the States, the Amish people do all their farm work using horse power.

a couple of Shire horses providing human transport

A couple of Shire horses providing human transport.

What are the benefits of working horses?


  • horses impact less on the land than heavy machinery, which causes compaction and damage to soil and organisms, which means that they can be used in sites that have valuable flora and fauna. A week after a horse has been used for logging, there will be no sign that it has been there, but deep wheel ruts from heavy machinery can still be seen years after its use
  • they provide renewable energy using plants as fuel, rather than polluting fossil fuels
  • they reproduce themselves without requiring polluting factories
  • they don’t emit pollutants in use, but they do produce manure, an excellent fertiliser


  • because of their lower impact on the land, horses can be used in wet and boggy areas, and work with horses can start earlier in the year, when the land is wetter
  • because of their manoeuvrability, horses can be used on steeper sites than tractors, and at historical / archaeological sites
  • horses can’t compete with tractors in terms of speed, but can be used in combination with tractors, in boggy or steep areas where tractors would struggle
  • working with horses – especially horse logging – keeps you very fit
  • you’ll make friends, as people tend to love the concept, and will often come and talk to you
haymaking with a horse

Haymaking with a horse.

A hectare of grain can provide bioethanol to cultivate 10 hectares using a tractor (or 6 hectares if the land is producing biodiesel). The same hectare can feed 2 horses that can also cultivate 10 hectares, but without the pollution or the embodied energy of machinery or factories, and they’ll provide manure to produce more grain (The Land, issue 2). Farmers prefer tractors because of speed – time is at a premium because of the need the need to earn money due to rising land prices and the power of large supermarkets to squeeze their incomes. Systemic economic and planning change is required if farmers (and the rest of us) can live and work at a slower pace, more in harmony with nature, without being bankrupted.

NB: the benefits of working horses don’t extend to the expansion of pony paddocks in the UK. Working horses can replace machinery and fossil fuels for food production, but ‘horseyculture’,

Fell ponies originated in Cumbria and are a type of smaller, 'cob' working horse

Fell ponies originated in Cumbria and are a type of smaller, ‘cob’ working horse.

as Simon Fairlie calls it, pushes up the price of land and takes it out of food production. This makes it more difficult and expensive to feed ourselves, and so we have to import more food, which increasingly has to be grown on land that was previously forest or other natural habitat. The rise in horseyculture is a disaster for food security and for nature.

What can I do?

Working with horses is a way of life that can bring personal and environmental well-being. If your aim is to make lots of money, use heavy machinery or do something else altogether. If you don’t have friends or family with horses, you could attend a course to get to work with a horse. By the end of the day, you’ll know if it’s for you or not. If not, that’s a valuable lesson to have learnt.

A course is only a taster however. There is a huge amount of knowledge that has to be built up. This is a potential disadvantage, but it also means that it will keep your interest, as you’ll never stop learning. Experience of riding horses may be an advantage, but it’s not essential. If you decide to do it, you’ll need some land – a few acres plus stabling for your horses, and a few acres for hay and feed for the winter.

working horses have to be re-shod every 6-8 weeks

Working horses have to be re-shod every 6-8 weeks.

Getting horses

Talk to experienced horse owners about where to purchase horses. Also, look in your local papers, or in the classified section of Heavy Horse World. You’ll also need an experienced person to go with you to look at a horse. A horse may look fine, but have character problems – for example they may be extremely shy of traffic, and so can’t be taken on the road. They may also have health problems that aren’t immediately obvious. You need to see them run, and check their eyes, mouth etc. If you don’t have the background, there are lots of things that can go wrong. Also, make sure your first horse is an experienced working horse – it will then teach you. Bigger breeds are much more expensive to buy and keep than the smaller horses.

You can breed your own, but it’s unlikely to be cheaper than buying one. A 6-month-old foal might cost £1500-2000, but you could spend £400 on a stud fee, then there’s the cost of keeping the pregnant mare over winter, with vet’s fees if there are any problems – and then if the foal dies, you’ve lost all your investment.

horse pulling a narrowboat on a British canal

Horse pulling a narrowboat on a British canal.

Caring for horses

If they’ll be walking on roads or hard surfaces, they’ll need to be shod. Shoes are around £100 a set, and need to be replaced every 6-8 weeks. If they’re shod, they have to stay shod until they stop work completely. You’ll need a local farrier. Plus you’ll need grooming kit, water trough, feed buckets etc. – again from local papers or specialist magazines.

A big horse can eat a bale of hay per day in winter, at around £3 a bale, plus additional costs for dry feed such as oats.

Working with horses

First you need to get the basics right – getting the horse to stand still, walk forward and stop on a verbal command. Once you can do that well, you can start to think about putting implements or machinery to them. Working with horses can be dangerous, but experience will help you remove the danger element. You can’t remove the risk completely though – you’ll need to be fit and strong yourself, and have lots of common sense. The secret is to build layers of experience over time, and not try to do too much in one go.

a pair of Suffolk Punches pulling a plough

A pair of Suffolk Punches pulling a plough.

A basic harness can be very simple, depending on the job. For horse logging you’ll need a collar, a simple pulling harness, chains and spreader bar which will come to around £350. This can rise to £1200-1500 for kit for more complicated jobs, or for pairs of horses. You can make your own harnesses if you have leather-working skills.

If you’re doing work off-site for other people, you’ll need insurance and risk assessments. You’ll also need safety gear such as steel-toecap boots and a hard hat, and if you’re a novice, you’ll need someone working with you. For horse logging, you’ll need chainsaw certification and a felling licence from the Forestry Commission – even on your own land.


Thanks to Ben May of Forest Crafts for information.

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