Well, OK… they have their perks. Columnist Kristen Kovatch takes an old-fashioned horse-drawn manure spreader for a test drive.
Casual passersby might have stopped in bemusement to watch us if it weren’t fifteen degrees Farenheit, way out in the snow-covered pasture bordered by pines and fencelines beneath a steely-gray sky promising more snow later. How did I find myself standing knee-deep in rotting manure, balancing on my pitchfork as the horses drew our broken spreader slowly around the field, you ask? I’m so glad you did.
The horse-drawn spreader has been my arch-nemesis for years. When I was still a student and taking the Introduction to Draft Horse Driving class for my phys-ed credit (true story) I managed to accidentally parallel-park the entire spreader in a narrow chute intended to be a back-up space. In the Level II class, I actually used it for its intended purpose, crawling up and down the road with full loads behind our old Percheron team, hauling down to the hay field where I made slow passes back and forth, shouting to the horses over the incredible racket of the beaters.
In the following years between when I was a student and became a teacher to take over the draft driving program, the manure spreader slipped a sprocket and broke down. One of our connections finally picked up the part at an Amish harness shop a few weeks ago and our facility manager Justin got to work making repairs.
My co-instructor, who prefers to remain unnamed, was excited beyond measure, coming from a background of working horsepowered organic farms. Driving from two hours away, he was clearly dedicated to the finer arts of horse-drawn farm implements and had already taken our students through a wide array of different line-driving styles and hitching methods, preparing them for working around various different machines in all sorts of scenarios. With this much enthusiasm to drive us forward, the Justin and I headed out on a cold and snowy morning to test-drive the repaired spreader, mere hours before Co-Instructor was due to arrive for class.
Already, we were off to an inauspicious beginning: the old wooden tongue had split at the end on the haul up from the facility shop. This problem was easily remedied but set us back a solid twenty minutes as Justin sawed off the split end, redrilled the hole for the metal yoke and reattached the spreader to the back of the tractor. I shimmied up into the driver’s seat on the spreader and waved Miss America-style to our barn manager who raised an eyebrow as we processed slowly by.
In the field, Justin motioned for me to fire up the beaters, which began to rotate noisily. I then threw the lever for the apron, the part of the spreader that pushed the load of manure back to the beaters, as Justin eased the tractor forward. There was a terrible metallic grinding of parts and a distinct lack of flying manure as I shrieked for Justin to stop.
We inspected the damage—the sprocket we had replaced had torqued somehow to an impossible angle, bending the shaft running from the back gears to the front—all I knew was that nothing was going to be happening, and I had about ten minutes to come up with a Plan B for Co-Instructor.
Except that I needn’t have bothered. As I explained the situation, he merely shrugged, laughed, directed our students to finish harnessing the horses and sent me after a pair of metal pitchforks. The full load of manure still had to be emptied somehow.
And that’s how I found myself there, tucked into my muck boots, trying to keep my footing on a load of slippery rich rotting manure as our team slowly drew us down the hill in the pasture, pitching heavy wet forkfuls onto the snow, swearing under my breath and weirdly having the most fun I’ve had in a while. There’s not much that horsepower and a little elbow grease can’t get done on the farm.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl