by Sally Colby
Farmers who use late-model, fuel-powered equipment for farm work might not think it’s “progressive” to use a team of horses or mules for pulling a brand-new field mower. But for those who rely on horses or mules for power in the field, there’s been a lot of progress.
The 24th Annual Horse Progress Days was held recently at the farm of Warren and Florence Nolt in Leola, PA. Event organizer Dale Stoltzfus said the two-day event drew a total of about 28,000 people, which he said is probably a conservative estimate.
Stoltzfus explained the equipment demonstrated during the event is made of the latest and best available components and equipment design is based on farmer feedback to the manufacturers. The annual event is important for manufacturers who are eager to learn about what plain sect farmers, as well as small-scale farmers who prefer to use horses or mules, need to maintain their operations.
“The heart and soul of the event is horse farming,” said Stoltzfus. “The equipment demonstrations in the field, behind horses in actual field conditions, is the heart of the event. I always emphasize that it isn’t ‘old time farming days’ — it’s horses and progress. We’re going into the future and we are seeing what’s available now.”
Stoltzfus mentioned that this year, equipment manufacturers brought prototypes of a plow, mower and manure spreader which aren’t yet available commercially. “They’re seeking feedback from attendees who use such equipment after these demonstrations,” he said. “These are in development, then they go back to the shop and make improvements and changes before they put the equipment on the market. Horse Progress Days has become a deadline for manufacturers to introduce new pieces of equipment.”
The ground on the Nolt farm was ideal for the event; mostly level, but with enough gently sloping hills that allowed farmers to see how well each piece of equipment performed under conditions similar to those on their own farms. Hayfields were ready for demonstrations on mowing and other components of haymaking and each piece of equipment was described as it was demonstrated.
One piece of equipment that drew a lot of attention as it was demonstrated several times each day was a treadmill. Some farmers may recall the equipment as a “horse power” because it requires a horse or a pair of horses to operate. It’s a fairly simple piece of equipment that includes wooden planks for the treads, a series of chains to keep the treads moving, sides to prevent the horse from falling off and wheels to make it portable.
“It’s old technology,” said Stoltzfus, describing the treadmill. “The man who designed this one is a talented engineer. The older ones were mostly belt driven. Someone who can use something like that keeps the horse exercised all year.”
The operation of the treadmill starts when the horse steps onto the wooden track of the treadmill, which is on an incline to take advantage of the horse’s tendency to continue moving forward when on a hill. As the horse walks at a normal pace, power is transferred to a system of belts and gears to operate the equipment it’s powering. A horse-powered treadmill can be used to generate electricity to power a refrigerator or washing machine, operate a log splitter, pump water for irrigation or domestic purposes, shell corn or sharpen blades.
Over the years, industrious farmers have invented various versions of treadmills to suit their needs and power various pieces of farm equipment. Most involved the use of a single horse, which provided one horsepower worth of power — hence the origin of the term “horsepower”.
Although people belonging to various plain sects from the Lancaster area were among the largest group in attendance, others who are interested in farming with horses were present to learn more about equipment and methods which are suited for horse-based farm operations. Many who operate small-scale farms or logging businesses find that horses are a reasonable alternative for their ventures.
While the field demonstrations drew huge crowds, numerous seminars were also well-attended. Penn State Extension specialists offered seminars on topics such as beneficial insects, day-neutral strawberry management and diagnosing vegetable disorders. Other seminar topics included beekeeping, grass-fed beef, working horses in Europe, mechanical no-till systems and raw milk.
Several horse-training seminars were standing room only and demonstrations on training a yearling, hoof trimming and New England D-ring collar fitting also drew large crowds.
The event rotates among six locations and the 2018 Horse Progress Days will be held in Clair, MI.
Stoltzfus says the key to organizing such an event is having a team of volunteers who are willing to work. “We had a group of about 40 to 50 people who met regularly,” he said. “The event was broken down into about a dozen areas of responsibility, and each area had a person in charge assigned to it. They had people working with them, and everyone did their part to make it happen.”
The history of Horse Progress Days is available online at