The Lands Where Heavy Horses Reign Supreme; Once the Agricultural Engine of the Region, the Advent of the Tractor All but Consigned the Heavy Horse to the History Books. but as Karen Dent Discovers, Working Horses Haven't Completely Disappeared from the North East Landscape

Article excerpt

WHEN John Dodd was a boy, farms all over Northumberland used heavy horse power. Now his is the only one that relies almost exclusively on horses to work the land.

Mr Dodd, who is approaching his 80th birthday, has six Clydesdales on his 200-acre farm at Sillywrea near Hexham. The livestock holding has around 30 acres of arable which is worked by the heavy horses.

"On a farm our size we don't need tractors," he said. "A horse can plough one acre a day; often you don't even get that done. You could get it done quicker with a tractor but as long as we get the work done there's no need to get one.

"I started ploughing when I was 10 or 11 years old. I just grew up with the horses. I left school at 14 and had a year with a joiner. Since I was 15 I've been working on the farm. Hard work never killed anyone - it's just the thought of it!

"Principally, I like horses, it's in the blood to work with horses."

It is a passion shared by his son-in-law David Wise, who works full time on the farm, and 19-year-old grandson Richard Wise, who was out ploughing with a horse this week while on holiday from college.

Although Mr Dodd calls in contractors and their modern machines for jobs like baling, the horses are responsible for all the ploughing, working the land and putting in turnips.

Sillywrea is believed to be last farm in England to rely on horse power and featured in the documentary and accompanying book The Last Horsemen by Charles Bowden.

"Quite honestly, I can never see horses coming back but there will always be one or two who keep them.

The young men don't know how much work a horse can do," said Mr Dodd.

"We buy them as foals, we found we could buy them cheaper than breed them. We start with a two-andhalf-year-old and you like to have them ready for spring work at three and full work at four.

"They work on average until they are 20 years old."

The word 'passion' keeps cropping up when you talk to people in the heavy horse world.

Farmer and surveyor Gawin Holmes, who farms at Park Nook Farm near Beamish, agrees that there is something very special about them.

"It is a passion really. I enjoy driving the horses, you get a great deal of satisfaction with them," he said.

"I can remember my father and men used horses to work on the farm when I was five or six years old. I started in 1991, I took a horse as a debt, I took it on and broke it in."

He now has five - three Shire and Shire-crosses and two Clydesdales.

They provide the power to maintain the 20 acres of grassland on Mr Holmes' 65-acre farm, mainly rolling and harrowing.

Unlike the Sillywrea Clydesdales, which are purely working animals, Mr Holmes also shows his heavy horses, travelling as far as The Royal Show in Warwickshire to complete in turnout competitions.

But he would love to see more horses working for a living - and points to the fuel efficiency of a horse versus a motorised vehicle and the added bonus that they are not emitting a constant stream of polluting carbon dioxide into the air. …


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