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Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Among the interviews that have really stuck with me in the last year of writing this column, have been those involving a relationship between farmer and farm animals. So when I looked at the programme for the An Sanctóir food event, one talk that really piqued my curiosity was that on Working Horses by Sandra Schmid. Sandra lives with her husband Tim Rowe, in a fantastic eco-house in a sheltered glade in the Ouvane Valley near Ballylickey. Tim is a full-time beekeeper and is also speaking at An Sanctóir. They have a small holding of 5 acres with a few more rented but are not farming commercially, being content for now to produce a large proportion of their own food. Sandra is still learning about farming with horses but is convinced that they have a valuable role to play for some small farms, particularly as the cost of fuel and fertilisers continues to rise.

 

“We have two Irish cob horses, which people would know as a type of horse developed by Irish travellers. They are smaller than Continental and English work horses, but still have the short back and musculature of a workhorse. They’re more suited to working on a small farm like this and pick their way between potato ridges. They have a very grounded temperament and will stay pulling all day.” The Irish Cob is not strictly a formal breed and as such there are no records of bloodlines etc. They were developed for pulling caravans and as such are also ideal for most farm work. Without farm work, however, the workhorse characteristics they have developed are being diluted. With their placid temperament, cobs are now being interbred for use in riding schools, the resulting animals are taller and have longer backs for more comfortable riding.

Sandra uses the horses to take a lot of the manual work out of growing potatoes, their main crop, which they eat themselves and feed to the pigs. “We bring in weanling pigs for the winter. They root up everything and dig out the left over potatoes. They love rooting and grow nice and fat before they go to the freezer in March. They also leave us with a field stripped of vegetation and well fertilised. It means that we don’t have to plough the field, instead the horse can sort it out with the harrow to make it nice and smooth. Then we bring him in with a ridger to make furrows for the potatoes. Our project for next year is to restore a potato digger that we bought up north. Getting hold of good farm tools has proven to be a real problem. There are loads lying around, the harrow was here when we bought the farm. But most of what you find is only suitable for painting as an ornament and would fall apart in a field. In America some farm communities, like the Amish, have never stopped using horses and so have continued to develop and improve their new horse drawn tools.”

“I’m not trying to suggest to farmers that they go back to working with horses, in most cases it would not be viable. That said, I have read American research which concludes that horses are more economical on holdings up to 20 acres. But working with horses is right for me and for our home. I don’t want the noise that goes with tractors taking over this place. I have come from a place where I could always hear the motorway, so now I want to hear the birds singing as I work.”

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