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.
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-and- half-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.
"It’s a hidden resource we’ve got," he said. "I’d like to see more of these heavy horses, it’s a skill we’re going to lose."
Like Mr Holmes, Berwick-based John Fairbairn started with one heavy horse – and now has 13, a mixture of Shires, Shire-crosses and Clydesdales.
Mr Fairbairn, who farms at Marshall Meadows, said: "Me and my father went out and bought a Clydesdale filly 17 years ago and it escalated and we started breeding them. We sell the odd one and we have seven homebred ones.
"We keep our own stallion – Providence Max, he’s a Shire and he’s going for approval in February."
Despite being a farmer, Mr Fairbairn does not work the land with his heavy horses.
He said: "I train then at home, it’s just a hobby. We show them and do ploughing matches. We have won a lot with them at shows. We won the singles turnout at the Royal and the Highland shows last year."
In 2006, he won the Scottish, Welsh and British National titles for ploughing with two Shire mares but a back operation in 2007 means he was unable to defend his title in 2007 and 2008. However, he is hoping to return to ploughing this year and is preparing for his first show of the year, Northumberland County, over the May Bank Holiday weekend. It’s a skill that Mr Fairbairn and wife Christine are keen to pass on to their children – "horse mad" son John, two, and his baby sister Kate.
Both Shires and Clydesdales are now classed as rare breeds by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. There are now just a few thousand of each in the UK, down from their peak in the early 1920s when literally millions worked the farms, cities, the railways and docks.
John Dodd said: "Tractors were just beginning to come in in this area at the beginning of the last war. There wasn’t many had them, they mainly all had horses when I was a boy.
"They took over around about the 1950s and 60s when many horses went out. During the 50s they were just slaughtered wholesale, nobody wanted them. They never thought they would come back."
But to prove they are not just one trick ponies, heavy horses are now turning their hoof to other disciplines and are finding a new lease of life as riding horses.
John Fairbairn said: "Since they started riding them, demand’s growing. In the last three or four years, there have been riding classes at shows. It’s helped the breeds; they don’t all make driving horses."
And it’s a trend Mr Dodd has noticed too: "They have shot up in price this last two years. Ladies in America are using them as riding horses. It’s a new craze, the ladies – I think it’s a status symbol."