Hands on Traditional skills and where to learn them


Working with horses

What is it?Before the invention of the tractor, horses were used to plough and harrow land for sowing crops, to remove stones from fields, to spread manure, to cut and save hay or to haul timber from woodland. Recently there has been a revival of interest in using horses on Irish farms. The Irish Workhorse Association, formed last November, trains people in the practical skills of working with horses on the land. “People think working with horses is just for nostalgia, but using a horse for farm work is practical for people who have a small holding. Horses don’t compact the soil and damage woodlands in the way that machinery will,” says Sandra Schmid, who uses two Irish cob horses on her farm in west Co Cork.

How is it done?Farmers need to learn how to handle horses while on the ground. “What’s new for people who ride horses is exactly this: learning how to walk behind or between a horse and a farm implement. You need to think safety all the time and use your voice rather than your legs to control the horse,” says Schmid. Workhorses learn to respond to voice commands, and various exercises are used to get the horses used to movements on their backs, learning how to stop and go and turn around. “Working with horses looks easy, but it’s very complicated, and to do it well requires a lot of practice and patience with yourself,” says Schmid.

What breeds of horses are trained as workhorses?Traditionally, Irish draught horses were used on farms, but over time these horses have become lighter as their role has changed. Some farmers now use gypsy cob horses (traditionally used by Travellers for pulling caravans), Clydesdales or French breeds such as Percherons or Ardennes. “Most people who work with horses on their farms love caring for the animals and really enjoy the work itself,” says Jim Cronin, who has Percherons on his Co Clare farm.

Where do I sign up?Schmid runs day-long and weekend courses in working with horses on a smallholding near Bantry, Co Cork (horsepowerinireland. com). Forthcoming courses will teach skills for working with horses and horse-drawn tools (May 14th, June 11th, July 2nd) and training a horse to work with a harness (May 15th, June 12th and July 3rd). A weekend foundation course in August will cover all aspects of working with horses.

Jim Cronin (061-372685) will give a hands-on course in harnessing, driving and using machinery on his farm near Bridgetown, Co Clare, on May 28th, as well as a workhorse demonstration at the South East Clare Show, also in Bridgetown, on July 24th.

Christophe Mouze (ecofarm.ie) will give a two-day course in working and driving horses on Clare Island in September.

The Irish Workhorse Association (workinghorses.ie) is holding a workhorse day for members, in Cork, on May 22nd.