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Work Horses - A Look Back
In the modern seventies the horse is regarded merely as a plaything, be it for show jumping, racing, or pony clubs; yet not so very long ago, the horse was an important form of tractive power, both on the farm and in the town. The era of the horse only finally faded out in Caithness in the early fifties. The two main breeds of workhorse used were the Clydesdale and the Garron pony; the Clydesdale being a much heavier draft horse suitable for heavy pulling work.
Work-horses were generally broken-in at around three years old, many hours of patience being needed to overcome the horse's fear of harness, chains, and rein control. For the following year after breaking-in the animal was treated with considerable care and caution, always closely controlled, and never left alone whilst yoked. After a further year of steady and varied work on the land many horses were then sold to work in the towns.
Farm harness was of two basic types, cart gear and plough gear, with some parts of the harness common to both. All horses wore bridles when in work, for on the bridle depended the control of the animal, through the bit and reins. Then came the padded collar which took all the pull, or traction, on the horses shoulders. The collar had to fit well, otherwise the horse would soon develop sore shoulders, which were often difficult to heal and led to jibbing (sudden refusal to pull). The hames were shaped metal additions to the collar, and when fitted and buckled to the collar took the chains of whichever gear was being used. Cart gear had a heavy saddle which buckled to the harness straps going round the horse's thighs, which in turn were attached to the cart shafts by short chains. This part of the harness enabled the horse to back the cart. A girth strap secured the saddle in position, but was not drawn as tight as with a riding saddle. The cart saddle had a transverse iron lined groove over the back to take the chain backband, or ridger, which extended from shaft to shaft. A broad leather bellyband prevented the cart from tipping backwards.
Plough gear had a transverse backband supporting the puller chains. These chains went to the hames on the collar In front, and to the amel or swingle tree behind. The amel was fixed to keep the chains apart, and prevent chafing the flanks of the horses.
Some implements such as the mower and the reaper were pulled by a pole. Plough gear was generally used, with the addition of two strong broad leather straps, threaded through the throats of the collars, and supporting the two ends of the cross bar fitted to the end of the pole.
In the stable the horse wore a leather neck strap or halter, the rope of which ran through a ring on the edge of the manger, and secured by a square of light wood on the end. This gave the horse some freedom of movement in the stall.
The staple feed of farm horses was oats and hay. The oats crushed, and the hay lightly damped down with treacle. The crushed oats were often mixed with chopped hay to make the horse chew the food slowly. A lump of rock salt was also placed in the manger and from time to time swedes, especially when the horse was not on grass during the winter stabling. A Clydesdale could generally dispose of about 16 lb. of crushed oats and hay, and 10 lb. of swedes daily. This diet could be varied by a laxative bran mash weekly, and only 10 lb. of oats on the day following.
The farm implements used during the horse era were basically similar in principle to the modern agricultural machinery, the only difference being of course the design, and method of traction. There were two types of plough, the shortboard and the longboard, and they were extremely efficient in the hands of a good ploughman. The harrows were used to break up the furrows and the soil in preparation for seed broadcast. They consisted of either a wooden or metal frame, of which there were various types, to which metal teeth 6" to 9" long were fitted. The harrows were merely dragged over the ground by a pair of horses a similar principle to the garden rake.
The grubber was an implement consisting of metal toes, which could be elevated to various depths, and was used to break up the soil, and loosen hard packed earth. It was a three-wheeled implement pulled by a pair of horses in plough gear.
The drill plough was used for ridging drills in preparation for the planting of potatoes, and sowing of turnips. Extreme accuracy was required on the part of the horseman in order to achieve uniform straight drills. Turnips were sown from a horsedrawn turnip sower, sowing two drills at a time. The sower consisted of two wheels, shaped to fit over the top of each drill; these wheels flattened the top of the drill in preparation for sowing the seed. The seed was fed into two containers, which in turn fed the seed uniformly down tubes fitted directly behind each wheel, and into the drill top.
The reaper, termed the back delivery in Caithness, was used for cutting both hay and oats. When cutting oats, flies were fitted to the reaper to ensure that the oats were fed uniformly into the cutting knife. This was a pole yoke implement, and only cut the oat crop into swathes ready for tying into a sheaf . Without the flies and modifications for oat crops, it cut in a straight square similar to a mower.
Quite a few smallholdings had their horse-driven threshing mill, and one was still in use in Bower up to 1949. The mill was driven by a horizontal gear wheel which was rotated by attaching a wooden pole pulled by the horse walking around a circular mill run. The mill run was usually constructed of stone built up some 3 ft. higher than ground level which gave the horse a clear walk without creating a quagmire. From the gear wheel in the mill run, a series of gear wheels and a shaft were connected to the mill in the barn.
There were various other implements in use - the box cart, the long cart, the tilter for raking hay, the turlag for rolling all now but a memory.
Up to the early fifties most of the town deliveries in both Wick and Thurso were carried out by horse-drawn vehicles. There springs to mind Wordie's railway lorries, Westerseat milk, McEwen's coal lorries, and indeed into the seventies one still remains - that of Mr. Mathieson, Wick, who still plies his trade as a carter with a lorry drawn by a Clydesdale horse.
The last horse-drawn cab was operated by Mr. MacDonald of Kirk Lane, Wick up to the late forties, and the writer well remembers a funeral in Bower in l943 in which the last horse-drawn hearse was used operated by Mr Gunn of Castletown.
This, then is but a brief look at life when the horse reigned supreme, coloured somewhat perhaps by nostalgia. What does concern the writer, however, is that action does need to be taken to try and preserve for future generations this part of our history.
There are at present, in Caithness, a number of these carts, horse lorries, and implements rusting in various corners. Given a few more years these items will disappear for ever, and there will be no material record of this era. It is the earnest hope of the writer that somehow, some action can be taken to preserve these objects before it becomes too late - time is the major enemy of preservation of these implements of the past.