Tag Archives: horses

Set your hand to the plough



I have to start this by stating that I’m not a ploughman. Like a lot of livestock farmers I can get nervous if I see the ground, ‘brown side up.’ But every so often a grass ley will been renewing. So every so often we’ll plough. At the age of sixteen I learned to plough on a tractor with no cab, pulling a three furrow plough. My father learned to plough walking behind a horse.

The black and white photo was taken during the war but frankly the technology hadn’t improved much at our level in the following twenty-five years.

Ploughing with horses was hard work. Not only did you have to walk all that distance, you also had to wrestle the plough as you did so. If the plough started biting too deeply, you had to press down and bring the front end up a little to keep it level. If on the other hand, the plough was starting to come out of the ground, you had to lift the back end up to get the point of the plough share back into the ground again. At the same time you’d be shifting your weight on the two handles to make sure that the share went straight, left or right, depending on what you wanted it to do. Whilst the horse might be pulling, you were steering. And at the same time, you’ve got to keep the horse going in the right direction! Luckily the horse probably knew what to do.

This is the advantage a horse has over a tractor. The tractor doesn’t care and hasn’t a clue. But in reality you set the plough up so that your right-hand-side front wheel drops into the bottom of the previous furrow. So gentle pressure on the steering wheel (often from your knee) should keep it there. The rest of the time you’re looking behind you. The old horseman’s technique of using his weight or muscle on the handles has been replaced by frantically twisting wheels and turning handles to make sure the plough keeps running straight and level.

Getting a plough set up properly involves a lot of skill. I know men round here who before they went ploughing would take the tractor and plough and drive down to the beach. There they would spend half an hour ploughing the sand. This had three advantages.

Firstly the sand polished your plough shares and mould boards so that when you ploughed ‘for real’ the soil would run smoothly over them.

Secondly it gave you a chance to get the plough set up properly on a piece of level ground.

And finally the tide would come in and eliminate all evidence of the total bog you made of it whilst you struggled to get everything set up properly.
But once a plough is set up properly for the ground and the tractor, it’s amazing how much easier it makes doing a good job. I remember hearing a chap talk who’d been on a visit to one of the big state run farms in the Soviet Union. There was a party of them and one of them was a ploughman. They watched this Russian ploughing, using a big nine furrow plough. The problem was he was making a mess of it, and didn’t seem to know how to do it. Eventually the ploughman snapped. He walked out in front of the tractor, flagged it down and started setting up the plough. Then he rode with him a couple of times up the field to show him what to do. When he got off the Russian did a couple more runs up and down the field, then he got off and hugged the ploughman, because nobody had ever shown him how to do it properly.

Still ploughing could be awfully cold work. A lot of ploughing was done during February, and you were effectively sitting, relatively motionless, exposed entirely to the elements. At least when you followed the horse you could stamp your feet to keep warm. Somewhere I still have my late father’s ploughing coat. It was a really good, high quality heavy coat which he’d picked up from a van salesmen for a few shillings because it had left the factory with no buttonholes. That didn’t matter, just throw it on over everything else and tie it round the middle with a piece of baler twine and you’re ready for everything February can throw at you. I can see why so many of them would smoke a pipe. It probably gave you a comforting illusion of warmth.

As a side issue, it’s obvious that Christ was a horse ploughman. As he said, “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. The man ploughing with the horse doesn’t look back. All his concentration is on the job happening directly in front of him. The man ploughing by tractor on the other hand, is always looking back, concentrating on what’s happening immediately behind him.

But ploughing isn’t the end of it. Once you’ve got the ground ‘brown side up’ you then have to work up a tilth that a seed can grow in. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when we would hire somebody with a four furrow reversible plough to do the ploughing (Because they were almost infinitely faster) I’d still do the next phase.

First you’d go over the field with a set of disc harrows.

disk-harrow-250x250These slice the ground up and break up the sods. Then you do the field again, but at ninety degrees to the direction you did it first time. Finally we’d do it a third time, at forty-five degrees to the way you did it last. Finally we’d follow that with a set of spike harrows. These would both create a fine tilth and also they’d help level things up a bit.

After that you’d sow the seed and then roll it.

Now you can follow the plough with a combination seed drill and power harrow. Instead of covering the field seven times, you now need do it three times. Plough, power harrow and drill, and roller. The amount of fuel and labour saved is genuinely impressive!


The saving in fuel means that you’re releasing less fossil fuel derived CO2 into the atmosphere, and the amount of labour saved means that somebody else can have a well-paid job where they commute into the city and work in an air-conditioned or centrally headed office where they can worry about climate change.


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