Some events we attend might best be described as bittersweet affairs.
The work horse demonstrations held at Rama, SK. Saturday fit into that category for me.
Anytime I am around draft horses I am happy. There is something about the gentle giants I have always felt attracted too.
It could be that my father quit school in Grade 8 to stay on the farm and work horses, or maybe it’s because I’ve always appreciated history, and they have been a huge part of the agricultural history of this country.
That is one reason I very much appreciated Merlin Ford’s book ‘Horses, Harness and Homesteads: The History of Draft Horses in Saskatchewan’. It is a book which really shows just how diverse the roles were for work horses in the early days of the Prairies. They were more than power on the farm, moving freight and goods in urban settings, doing yeoman work in forestry, and frankly being an integral part of just about every undertaking you might imagine in a time Saskatchewan was moving from Prairie grass to farmland.
Ford’s work was also a timely one in as much as most of those who worked with horses on a daily basis are passing.
My dad, not long gone himself, was of that generation when horses were still important to farming, but their days were numbered. Tractors, which many thought would never replace the horse, did, and it was a change which occurred in a relatively short period of time.
And that left work horses in a predicament.
When an animal is bred to work, and that work disappears, then there is not much left for them to do.
So work horse numbers declined.
Today there are still those who hitch work horses and put them to laborious tasks. This spring I visited with Kristina Just who is fulfilling a long held dream by now feeding her cows on the farm not far outside Yorkton with a team.
It was a cool spring morning when I visited, but she was smiling as she did her chores with the help of two Belgians who also seemed to relish being put to a task for which they were bred.
And that was what Rama was all about. Teams were hitched to plows, cultivators, discs and harrows to ready a plot for planting.
It was like glimpsing an earlier time watching the teamsters put their horses to work. It was particularly poignant having seen several massive four-wheel drive tractors working in the fields on the way to Rama. The contrast in times was quite dramatic.
For me it was a great morning.
But I was left wondering who will carry on the traditions of working horses in the years to come?
The teamsters were all grey-haired, marking the experience of a lifetime harnessing draft horses, hitching them to all manner of equipment and putting them to the task. Who will know how to keep the horse plow and disc operational? Who will have the love of the big horses to keep them working a decade from now? Or two? Or three decades into the future?
We live in a time when the knowledge of our work is a keystroke away, yet the practical skills of the recent past may slip away if we are not careful.
Hopefully that won’t be the case for how to work with horses, because it is such a tangible connection to our collective past.
Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.