“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…. For well I know that in the in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and commanding and carry most of the responsibility.” –Albert Einstein
I got to thinking about the past and future of draft horses after a visit with Gabriel, a noble Percheron owned by Linda McCall and her husband Ernest Monk of Ship Harbour. For over a century, draft horses played a major role, for jobs large and small, in Eastern Shore history and economy with dependable “Horse Power” transportation for the pioneer-era industries.
Gabriel is one of the last of these “gentle giant” work horses. The Percheron derives its name the French district of La Perche in the Huisne river valley, part of the former Perche province of Western France. In 1839, it was the first draft breed to arrive in North America. The Canadian Percheron Association was born in 1907.
Linda McCall speaks fondly of Gabriel, a white Percheron who was born on a farm in Quebec around 1999. Gabriel was working in Amherst, Nova Scotia, when she and her husband saw him and decided to bring him back to East Ship Harbour, where he quickly fell in love with the many apple trees in his field.
“For the first ten years or so, Gabriel helped Ern haul logs out of the woods,” McCall said. She laughed about one of Gabriel’s more famous logging incidents. “Ern and our volunteer firefighter neighbor Anthony Probert had hitched him up to a cord of wood, but he was being stubborn and wouldn’t move. Then Anthony’s fire beeper went off, and Gabriel took off for the wood shed; Ern and Anthony couldn’t keep up with him!”
McCall says she spoiled Gabriel by giving him cookies and treats, which he came to love. “We still talk about what I call the birthday cake incident,” McCall said. “Once I was taking a cake out to the car, and he chased me across the yard and under the fence, he wanted that green icing so badly!”
Although most of us think of the days of working with horses like Gabriel as long gone, we may need to think again. These gentle giants could supply the living horse power that will help Nova Scotia move forward into an ecological and economical sustainable future.
Already, concerned wood lot owners and advocates of sustainable development, emphasize the damage heavy machinery does to the forest floor. Some enlightened operators have reverted to the practice of using horses for select cutting, hauling out trees with chains and harnessed horses.
There is no denying that a team of horses can transport eight tons of wood a day. Draft horses tread lightly on the earth, and can work in wetlands where heavy machinery will sink. Horses hooves do not leave compaction “dams” created by a 10,000 pound tread skidder, so wet areas can recover unscathed.
And then there’s the question Belgian horse breeder George Rupp once humorously asked: “When they will make a tractor that can furnish manure for farm fields and produce a baby tractor every spring?”