Saturday, April 11, 2015

Step Up! Gee! Haw!

This weekend, at the Keith Schafer Farm, west of Odessa, WA, the annual Spring Plow was held. This is about the fourth year, I think, they've been doing this, plowing, what looked like, a 20 acre field just off of State Highway 28.

It was a very windy, but sunny, day. When we got home, though, I had dirt in my hair and spent about an hour, cleaning out the inside of our Explorer. Just west of the plow field, was a fallow field, busily pelting us with dust. There were some pretty big gusts, probably upwards of 40 mph.

That didn't stop the teams, though, and Gees and Haws were heard frequently as the teams maneuvered the field. Some were plowing, some were discing and some were harrowing. I think. I'm not a draft horse owner or a farmer, so I'm guessing, a bit.

 You might think that's some sort of foreign language (Gees and Haws) but you'd be......almost right.....or left. You see it's a language horses understand......and mules.....sled dogs, sheep dogs, and oxen. When you're driving six white horses, the lines to their bits are long and it's difficult to communicate very well with each animal. So you teach them voice commands. 

 "Step Up" means FORWARD. "Gee" means (in America) TURN RIGHT. "Haw" means (in America) TURN LEFT. In England, Gee and Haw are driving on the left side of the road. But, don't worry about that. You probably won't be driving horses, mules, oxen, sheep dogs or sled dogs in England this week.

This powerful five horse team looked like it consisted of four Percherons and one Clydesdale. I'm guessing, again, because crossbred draft horses can look totally like one or the other of their parents (sire and dam). Anyway, this team moved right along and were very animated.

I heard their young handler call the near front mare, Megan. Megan was busy looking around and forgot to "Step Up"!

Pretty soon, Megan got the message and went forward. This team is pulling a disc which is used to break up dirt clods.

Off they go! This type of arrangement, with three in the "wheel" position (next to the plow) and two in front is a sort of "unicorn" hitch, I believe. If there were six horses, there would be a single, lead horse, in front.

Passing the "unicorn" hitch on the inside was a team of four Percherons, I think. They might be dragging a harrow, but I can't be sure. Percherons are born black, usually, and turn dappled gray and, then, white, as they grow older. Some, however, remain black all their lives. They are quite tall and can actually gallop. 

If you would like to know more about Percherons, visit the Wagonteamster, Bob Skelding's blog. He's a third or fourth generation Percheron man who has driven teams all over the US, traveling from state to state. I saw him two summers ago in Dayton, WA.

Percherons, maybe.

Here's the Clydesdale-looking horse in the "unicorn" hitch. What a kind look!

And, Megan, in the same hitch. Lovely.

A beautiful matched pair of Belgians.

Teams or pairs are often full brothers or sisters (geldings or mares). Breeding the same mare to the same stallion, two years running, is one of the best ways to obtain a matched pair of horses (or dogs, or oxen or mules, etc.). Such teams often spend their whole lives together. Belgians are often so muscular, they can trot, but seldom gallop. The American Belgian, however, is lighter and less hairy than the Belgian Belgian.

This was a hitch of four mules. The two outside mules each had four white stockings and were, technically speaking, pintos or bred from pinto stock. Again, I'm just guessing. The mules move like cats through the heavy going and are quick and concise at all that they do......when they feel like doing it, that is. Mules and horses are different, which you may already have heard. I don't understand the main differences between horses and mules, but they are different. If you're interested in mules, you ought to read Bernie Harbert's blog. He rode a mule across the US, east to west. Later, he drove a mule from Saskatchewan to Mexico. Great reading!

This spectacular team is made up of three Brabants, I think. Brabants were the foundation breed for the Belgian we know of, today. So far as I could see, the Brabant is almost always a blue or red roan. Here they are, beginning to negotiate the left-hand corner turn at the bottom of the field.

The driver has moved them slightly to the the right in preparation for the turn. Such turns are often made in tight conditions where there is often a fence close by. Here, he positions the plow so that it is the pivot-point of the turn.

Then, giving them the "Haw!" command and drawing back on the reins, at the same time steering them with a tightened left rein, they niftily side-step (or pass) straight to the left, crossing their feet or shuffling. The plow turns, as if on a spindle, and the team continues forward down the next side of the field. See their ears, listening to the driver? Sweet.

They turn as one.

The plow is still plowing.

The driver positions the team so that the plow will plow new ground.

Then, they straighten out. Oh, I loved watching this.

Coming up behind is a pair of white (gray, technically) Mules. See how one walks in the furrow and the other walks on the new ground?

They are quick and very active and, again, catlike in their movement. The driver is getting them ready for the turn.

See the new ground on the right and the new furrow, cutting across in front of them? He collects them (shortens the reins) when he sees the plow is in the right position, while urging them forward at the same time and saying, "Haw!".

They begin the swing to the left. Again, the plow is stationary and turning as though on a spindle.

The plow turns neatly.

The driver positions the team again with one mule on new ground and the other in the last furrow.





This team looked to be a Clydesdale and a Percheron working together.

A lady was driving and very neatly, too. It takes strength and skill to handle a team.

There were about a dozen teams there representing almost all of the draft breeds. Next year, I'm going to volunteer to help out somehow. I just loved watching them. Hope you did too.

And I hope you'll have a look at the blogs I mentioned. There are still intrepid men and women in this world who love these behemoths of old.....Gentle Giants.


  1. Very interesting and informative ! Loved your descriptions and photos. (I can see why you might need some clean-up time afterward. And maybe need to wear a dust mask at the event.) Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm headed to the shower! I told my husband, we should keep some dust masks in our car in future. You never know what you might run into out there. Sure wish we had a horse and a cart. Wouldn't that be fun?

  3. Beautiful horses and what a fun thing to watch/participate in. Although dusty, I can see why you enjoyed watching and taking it all in!! Hugs

    1. I love quilting but, before all that, probably in the womb, I was a horse nut. As a youth, I rode hunters and jumpers and learned dressage. Ever since I can remember, I have loved horses. To me, they are the perfect animal. I also love cats and dogs and birds and fish and........but horses, best of all. Thanks for stopping by. I hope things are well with you. You're in my prayers, you two.

  4. oh wow, what a treat! I loved seeing these photos and that there is still ploughing done by horses in the world!! Well worth the dirty hair, I reckon!

    1. ....and dirty ears. I could have planted a crop in my ears! Like everything else that is old fashioned, we don't see enough draft horses and draft mules plowing.....unless we look for them. I can't remember exactly how I found the Wagonteamster's blog but I found Bernie Harbert's blog at Wagonteamster. Bernie built a wagon for his mule to pull but it was too he traded it to Bob Skelding for a biscuit. Searching for horsemen like Bernie and Bob, I ran onto the Long Rider's Guild. There, I discovered the story of Tschiffeley's Ride (Argentina to WA DC) in the 1920's; and the ride of two young women from California to Maine in more recent years. Amazing, really. Seeing America (or wherever) at the speed of a horse.

  5. Beautiful... in Klamath Falls, OR when I first moved there in the early 90's, there was a farmer near downtown who had a small field, 3 or 4 acres. He always used a single mule hitch and a singleton plow on that field. Every year at the Tulelake Fair, Labor Day, just south of Klamath Falls over the line into northern California, a local farmer runs a huge mule and belgian pulled trolley style car, ferrying people back and forth from the parking. He has mules that are crossbreds from the draft horses, so they are all over 18 hands, beautiful and gentle animals. I miss it! and I miss the antique tractor show every year in Bonanza, Oregon. Sigh... I know they have them here in Colorado , just have to get time to go looking! thanks for sharing... Sharon in Colorado

    1. Bob Skelding, who drove a team of Percherons and, later, Belgians, across America was centered in Colorado for a while. Now he's in Valley (?), Oregon....the Abert Rim country. You can find a link to him in the blog post. He's retired his current team of Belgians. You can read about them in Trip #5. Don't know if he'll go a rambling anymore. He saddles and rides his Percheron, Doc. Glad you enjoyed this little story.


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