Horses were indispensable on farms until the introduction of motor-driven machinery and tractors from the 1910s. By the mid-1950s, farmers’ transition from horse power to tractor power was almost complete.
Teams of draught horses, usually Clydesdales, were busy on farms throughout the year.
In spring they were hitched to ploughs, discs, grubbers and harrows, which were dragged across the soil to prepare it for planting crops. Horses pulled the seed drill for planting, and hauled the bags of seed and the fertiliser.
In summer they pulled the mower, tedder and hay rake for haymaking, and hauled hay to the stack. When the grain was ready, horse teams pulled the reaper-binder and transported the sheaves. After harvest, they were used again to lightly work the ground and sow it in pasture or a greenfeed crop.
In winter horse teams were busy carting hay for stock feed, or hauling firewood from the bush. They carted wool bales and bags of grain to town, and brought back supplies.
Many horses were required on large farms – some Canterbury and Otago estates had hundreds.
Horse on the hill
The work of Clydesdales in the development of agriculture in the Waimate area is commemorated by a statue of a white horse on the hillside overlooking the town. It was built in the late 1960s, made from 1,220 concrete slabs. Its head weighs more than 2.5 tonnes.
Caring for working horses
Compared to maintaining a tractor, looking after a team of working horses was a big job, and teamsters (people who drove the horses) worked hard. They started early in the morning to feed, groom and harness the horses, which took two hours, before heading to work. There were another two hours of feeding and grooming again at night.
Horses also had to be shod regularly. Some big stations kept their own blacksmiths, while others used a smith from the local township.
Horses ate as much as eight men or four sheep, so large amounts of valuable farmland were taken up in growing oats for them. Not surprisingly, the advent of the tractor was a great relief to farmers.
The packing team
Packhorses were often the only means of getting goods and stores to remote places. For example, fencing material had to be carried to the fenceline, as did materials for mustering huts, which were built in remote places on high country stations.
When it was time to gather the sheep for shearing or to bring them down off the high country for the winter, a packman, or packy, and his team carted out supplies for the musterers. In the morning the packy cooked breakfast for the men and, once they had left to muster the sheep, he packed up camp and moved on to the next hut or campsite to prepare the evening meal. Musters could last a month or more.
Horses and farming today
Horses are rarely used on modern farms, except on a few stations where the terrain is too difficult for four-wheel-drive vehicles or motorbikes, or where the farmer prefers working with horses rather than noisy machines.
Horses are particularly useful when working large mobs of cattle. On the country’s largest station, Molesworth, the property is so vast and the stock so widespread that horses are trucked to wherever they are needed.
In the 1990s there was a revival of draught-horse breeding. Today, several teams are maintained by enthusiasts throughout the country and feature in demonstration ploughing matches at events such as A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows.