Any of our visitors who have taken a stroll over to Tregew in the last couple of weeks might have stumbled upon an unexpected sight: The countryside team has had the privilege of employing David Jones and his four heavy horses to plough one of our fields in preparation for sowing with barley.
We thought it would be very interesting to sit down with David, over a cup of tea, and learn about what it is like to still work the land with horses during an almost exclusively mechanized age and what it is that drives him on to do so.
Much of what follows is more-or-less in David’s own words and should hopefully serve as a written record of a skill, once widespread in Cornwall, and a part of history that is in imminent danger of being lost. Although he painted a fairly grim outlook for the working horse, David stressed that he is a realist and under no illusions about the withering nature of his trade. A story that could have been cloaked in romance and nostalgia turned out to be one that was both refreshingly clear-sighted and realistic, whilst neatly highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of the farming methods we have chosen to employ in modern times.
David is based near Camborne and is a farrier by trade. He stressed to me that he couldn’t make a living out of working horses on the land but rather, that it is his passion to be out with them and that he ties in other avenues of income to fund this one. ‘Make no mistake about it, working the land with horses is dying out – it is no longer viable and most ploughs that still exist end up in pub car parks’. David further summed it up in succinct fashion with, ‘4 days with a horse equals approximately one hour’s work with a tractor’.
As a result, there are now only a handful of people across the county who are actively ploughing with horses, ’20 years ago you would have competed against an easy eight or nine teams at a ploughing match whereas today you might get two or three’. Outside the county, David estimates that nationally there are approximately fifty people that continue to actively preserve this type of work. David further supplements the income generated through his horses by offering horse-drawn weddings, funerals and working demonstrations yet still estimates that horse-related work only makes up about a third of his income. He insists on being fairly self sufficient and has his own land at home for the horses. Encouragingly, he told me, ‘To work with a horse and be paid by an organisation like the National Trust helps fund this kind of work and keep it going’.
A typical day in the field
What might seem like an enchanting pursuit for some is, in reality, extremely hard work and very expensive to maintain. A typical day on the land starts at 7AM with the horses being fed and readied for work by 8.30AM. When the day’s ploughing has been completed, the horses must be fed, cleaned and tended once more before the working day is over.
It took four trips from Camborne to Trelissick to bring over all the equipment and horses needed to complete five days work, with David setting up a small camp and living on site for the duration. Over the week, the horses will drink 800 litres of water and will work for 2 1/2 hours before they will need to stop and eat – this is because they are naturally grazing animals and must always have something in their stomach to maintain energy levels.
David has a team of four cobs (a type of small, heavyset working horse) whose names are Bill (the elder at age 20), Bess (7) Ted (7) and Harry (5). Horses are measured for size using hands (four inches) and a cob will stand at between 14’2 and 15’1 at the wither (shoulder). Three of the horses have been ‘hogged’ which means their manes have been removed to avoid tangling with the harness but Bess is a Dales mare; a British native breed which is on the critical list with only 1,500 left world wide. She is the only one of the cobs not hogged and is left au naturel. According to David, the horses seem to really enjoy the work and ‘are happy to be doing something’. He recounted to me that his eldest horse (at 27) had seen him loading up the harnesses before he left for Trelissick and was desperate to come along!
I walked with David and his friend’s son Kaan, who was steering the plough whilst David shouted commands to the horses. Kaan has been helping David since he was 7years old (he is now 16) and will begin an apprenticeship as a farrier next year. The balance plough or ‘cock-up’ plough as it is known in some parts of Cornwall was a smart piece of kit – at the end of each row, the horses turn around and the working parts of the plough are designed to be flipped over so another row can be made in the opposition direction. The field was ploughed horizontally (or across the slope) to a depth of four inches deep and six inches wide which is far less deep than a modern, tractor-drawn plough and so well-suited for an archaeologically sensitive area like Tregew (owing to it’s proximity and possible connection to Roundwood).
David shouted colloquial commands like ‘gee off’ (go right) and ‘come here’ (go left) that he explained were only in use around Cornwall. At national ploughing matches, David said there were many regional variations of these commands to be heard and that this variation extended further to the names of the equipment itself, for example, the Cornish call the blinkers worn by working horses ‘mops’ whereas in the eastern counties they are called ‘dut fins’. These colloquialisms are left from when people didn’t travel beyond the nearest town or two and evolved in complete independence from each other.
A bit of local history
Ploughing is the first step of the harvest and its roots are lost in the annals of time. Nobody knows who invented the first plough but its basic design remains unchanged since the Iron-Age. These machines used to be constructed from wood and then evolved to be hammered out in myriad regional forms by a local blacksmith. It was not until the advent of the railway during the Victorian era that plough parts were made from castings and mass production began.
The horse-drawn balance plough, although not totally unique, is a very Cornish way of working the land. At their peak, there were two manufacturers making this type of plough – Davey Sleep of Plymouth and Ransoms, who even made a plough called ‘The Duchy’ because the intended market was Cornwall and because they sold in such large numbers within the county. The majority of ploughing from Truro down to the West of Cornwall would have been carried out with a balance plough, perfectly suited as they were for the steep, hilly fields of the region and cleverly designed to retain the precious soil. Pre-mechanization, a farmer would have started at the top of the slope and used his straight hedge as a guide. From there, he would move across the slope, throwing the soil uphill to counter soil erosion, despite the fact that moving the soil downhill would have made what was already a tough task much easier. This method proved highly effective and, even during heavy rain, the soil would be held and not washed out. Preventing erosion was obviously at the forefront of a farmer or landowner’s mind in those times – many tenant farmers had to plough four furrows at the bottom of their rented fields, shovel this into a tip-cart and re-distribute it at the top of the field as part of their tenancy agreement!
There are now no producers of horse drawn ploughs remaining. David informed me that he makes many parts of the harness himself because there is simply no one else left to do it. Making ‘cased hames’ which are the pieces that encompass the horse’s neck used to be a widespread trade in itself but is now totally gone, with David repairing and maintaining his own.
If one thing sounded the death knell for the working horse it was the invention, by Harry Ferguson, of the three point linkage on the back of a TE-20 tractor. Prior to this, tractors had been unwieldy, unreliable and expensive and were used primarily as a motive power -they were only a substitute for the horse in as much as they could used adapted horse implements. Tractors were widely considered to be a regressive step because many implements, i.e. a mower, could already be worked by one man driving a pair of horses whereas, with this new system, you would need one man on the mower and one man on the tractor. With one fell swoop, Mr. Ferguson came upon an invention that would change the face of farming, transform the landscape and virtually eliminate the need for working horses on a farm. But that’s another story….
Passing it down
As the conversation between David and I reached its natural conclusion and the need to ‘crack on’ was apparent, it became quite clear that his chief concern was the lack of anyone to pass this knowledge on to. David seemed to relish the fact that, with Kaan manning the plough all week and enduring ‘a steep learning curve’ he had the time and the opportunity to actually teach somebody from a younger generation how and why it all worked. His passion and enthusiasm were evident throughout our chat, but so too was the fear that, without anyone taking note or taking this on, a unique Cornish tradition will be lost forever.
Still, at the risk of getting all misty-eyed, David remained unsentimental and wanted me to close this blog with this statement:
‘The future of the working horse is in its past. It will never come back but also shouldn’t be forgotten. It should be preserved as part of the national and regional heritage.’
All photos by Clare Lemon
– The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford