As someone who raises draft horses, I’ve been questioned countless times about how we can actually let our horses be sold as Amish work horses. It seems there is a misconception about the treatment of the horses that do the fieldwork for Amish farmers. Many people think Amish farmers literally work these horses to death. I can’t speak for all Amish farmers, but in my experience, this simply isn’t true.
Compare Amish work horses to tractors, if you will. Good farmers take care of their tractors. They tuck them away when it’s going to rain. They let them rest when they’ve done a lot of work. They fix the broken parts in a timely manner. And the Amish do the same with their horses. If the animals aren’t well taken care of, they are more-or-less worthless. And if normal work horses are like tractors, my family’s Belgian draft horses are like Ferraris. If you had a Ferrari, you wouldn’t lend it out to just anybody. And if your very generous friend lent you their Ferrari, you would treat it better than you have ever treated anything in your life. The same applies when we lend our show horses to Amish for use in the fields.
My family and the Amish families in our area have something in common; we both need something. At any given time of the year, we have around 25 Belgian draft horses on our farm. Though we only use a select few for show purposes, we don’t always have the time to get them in top physical condition. This is where the Amish come in. Horses (especially big, well-broke ones) are expensive, and Amish don’t always have the horse-power on hand to do their spring planting or other small jobs. So they come to us, and we say, “Take your pick!” After all, these horses are big and fat after a long winter.
So off they go to boot camp for the spring. But we don’t let them go just anywhere. They’re our babies! We need to know where they are going and how they will be treated. This happens mostly by word of mouth. Amish families who we’re close to will refer us to other Amish who are seeking horses for use, and we trust those families to only refer us to other good families. In recent history, we’ve been lending our horses to the same few families, and it’s been working out well. We give a team or two, and they come back to us as the Olympic power lifters we want them to be.
Our relationship with the Amish in our community is not an easy one. As a community that does not use modern devices, there needs to be a certain amount of trust in place between us. We can’t call them to check how our horses are doing, and they can’t call us up if something goes wrong. So we need to trust that they will take care of our horses as we would.
Additionally, we need to understand each other’s ways of life. We “English” people (their term for those of us who are outside their community) need to understand that Amish people essentially see their horses as machinery. They are going to work the horses harder than we normally would, and we need to recognize that the Amish in whom we’re trusting our horses know if a horse can handle the workload it’s being given. In return, Amish people need to know that the horses we’re lending them are prized possessions that need extra-special care and attention. They need to know that they can work our horses hard, but the horses can’t come back in poor condition, with their spirit broken (we still want them to be high-strung and spirited to a certain degree).
It takes time and lots of old fashioned face-to-face conversations for us to build up these levels of trust and harmony with each other, and that’s why we normally send our horses to the same families every year.
This year, though, we sent two of our favorite and best horses, Luke and Junior, to a new family. Luke and Junior had done some work in early spring at a farm where they’ve been before, but they didn’t quite shed all their winter weight, so we sent them off again. We didn’t know anything about this family; we had just heard that they were good people and were in search of horses. That was enough for us. We’re pretty trusting.
Little did we know that when we got these horses back, they would not look how we expected them to look—and not in a bad way. These horses were absolutely huge! We always expect them to lose weight while they are off working, but now they were bigger than they had been all winter. The sheer muscle and healthy weight this Amish man had put on these horses in a few short weeks was astounding. They were fat, strong, and had the energy of horses much younger than they. We could only conclude that Luke and Junior must have been in heaven. Having known these two horses since the day they were born, I knew how much they love to work and how much they love to eat. This Amish man gave them both those things. He treated them as the magnificent animals that they are and rewarded them (apparently endlessly) for the hard work they did for him.
Our beautiful Ferraris came back detailed and with a brand new wax job (luxuries they wouldn’t have received if they were just sitting idly at home). Needless to say, Luke and Junior easily made the transition from the field to the show ring this year and brought home a few blue ribbons along the way.