by Jane Primerano
When most people think about draft horses on a farm, they probably picture the horses in the Hal Ketchum lyrics: “grandpa kept a Belgian team,” and the marks “the heavy horses made” on the stalls.
But not all draft horses on farms are as big as the Belgians and certainly they don’t have to be as huge as the Clydesdales or Percherons that pull enormous loads. The Irish have used the compact Connemara for many years for farm work, carriages and riding. Closer to home, the Amish use Haflingers which they raise and train.
Mac Mead, the director of the Pfeiffer Center in Spring Valley, NY, has been a biodynamic farmer for more than 30 years, and brought two Haflingers to the Rockland County farm several years ago.
“They’re like baby Belgians,” he said of Eva and Captain.
The Pfeiffer center is part of the Threefold Education Center, which also includes Green Meadow Waldorf School, the Sunbridge Institute teacher training center for Waldorf faculty and Fellowship Community home for seniors. The Pfeiffer Center is for the purpose of environmental education, biodynamic agriculture and organic bee keeping.
“Larger animals add soul,” he said of the horses. From a practical standpoint, the horses bring something else: fertilizer.
They also make it possible to get work done that needs to be done, he added, along with the five interns working there this summer.
Natasha Klemek worked the horses on a recent hot day. She is one of the few interns to have experience with horses. A native of the area she started riding at age 8 and knew Mead and his wife for years and worked with horses along with them.
“They know what to do, I’m learning a lot from them,” she said.
“We don’t work them every day,” she said. She said the intern on duty comes in each morning, mucks out the stalls and generally cares for their housing, grooms them and tacks them and walks them up the hill. Home is a run-in shed below the area being worked.
“They go up and down the rows,” Klemek said. ”then they are walked down, unhitched and groomed again.”
Most interns need more supervision than Klemek, but since Eva and Captain are experienced, it helps. “Untrained people and untrained horses is a bad combination,” Mead said.
The interns are also learning biodynamic farming, a practice based on the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. Steiner described his approach as combining insightful techniques for building up healthy soil with “a renewed awareness of all the forces at work in the farm organism: among and between the soil, plants, animals and humans, as well as the cosmos itself.” The program brochure touts the internships as helping develop skills that can be applied to large-scale agriculture.
The interns also work with Megan Durney, head gardener, who is also experienced with horses.
Biodynamic farming uses raised beds and Mead admitted the horses’ first instinct was to walk on top of the rows, but it didn’t take long for them to figure out where they should be. Mead uses a jockey stick to keep the horses five feet apart while working and a butt strap so they don’t go in two different directions when they back up.
Because the major mission of Pfeiffer is education, Mead uses the Haflingers as research into how ponies can be practical on a small farm.
They are actually ponies, standing less than 14 hands at the withers. “They can hold their own,” Durney said.
Eva and Captain work effectively singly, cultivating, or as a team, pulling trailers or a plow or disking as they have been doing in a buckwheat field.
William Day of the center staff explained the fields on this hill have been fallow for years. It was an old family farm, the Dureya Farm. When the family no longer wanted to farm, in the 1990s, they gave the land to the Pfeiffer Center but nothing was done until a Kickstarter campaign raised money for working it as well as for the restoration of a barn and for a run-in shed for the horses.
Day said Mead designed the implements used with the horses to fit the raised bed fields and to fit the animals. He also designed the beds with room to maneuver the horses. A two-stage fence works pretty well at keeping deer out, but not too well with groundhogs. The only effective weapon they have had was a Bernese Mountain Dog who lived on the property and “killed about 50 groundhogs one season.”
Mead recommended anyone looking for Haflingers to go to the Amish. “They advertise in ag papers when they have them for sale,” he said. “Other centers have them, but these are really well trained. They are bombproof.”
Eva and was 5 and Captain was 4 when they were purchased 10 years ago.
“For us they are in their prime,” Mead said. “I like their ages.” He said the Amish generally retire their horses just out of their teens because they work them much harder, but Eva and Captain will probably work until they are 25 or so.
“Captain is the alpha,” Klemek said. “Eva is more aware of her surroundings. She takes everything in. She can be more reactive to her environment. Captain is more goal-oriented,” she said.
by Jane Primerano