Updated: Aug 10, 2020
By Charles Cooley
Editor's note: Charles wrote this essay in 2006 for a blog called The Cooley Farm that was edited by his son Dan Cooley.
Horses were the only portable power we had on our farm during the depths of the depression (1930–1938). By "portable," I mean that the horses provided the energy to pull equipment that had to be moved to do work with it. Of course, there was a lot of muscle power produced by people that was used to do jobs that weren't mechanized yet.
At one time we had seven horses. There were two teams of draft horses. They were Percheron and Belgian mixtures as far as breeds were concerned. They were well trained, dependable animals, and they worked hard enough so that when in harness and hitched to a piece of equipment they would usually stand quietly and take advantage of the opportunity to rest. We had a rather oldish mare named Lady. Lady looked like she was a quarter horse and that seems most likely her breeding. We used her on a variety of light draft jobs such as the dump rake. She was very dependable and my father allowed children to ride and drive her if they had learned how. She was occasionally used to complete a three horse hitch by putting her between two of the draft horses but this was rarely done. She bore us three foals that we raised. One of them was a large half Belgian gelding that became half of a pair of draft horses. One of the others got struck by an automobile at night and her leg was broken. there was no way to save a horse with a broken leg then so she was put down.
The horses were very important to the farm and required good care. During hot weather they would sweat profusely and needed a lot of water, but we had to be careful not to let them gulp down too much cold water at a time because it might cause an upset to their digestive system. They also needed to have opportunity to rest and catch their breath if they were doing a job that required a lot of energy like mowing or pulling a load of hay up a long hill. In the field, pitching on a load, a child was often the teamster until the load was completed. My brother, John, was good with horses and drove them quite a bit at an early age. I learned to harness a team and hitch it to a wagon or other piece of equipment by the time I was 12 years old but I wasn't quite tall enough to put the heavy work harnesses on their backs until I was 14 or so.
As far as haying was concerned, the horses pulled the mowing machine, the hay wagon, and the rake. We also used horses to operate a system of ropes and pulleys to get hay into the barn after we had put in as much as we could by having the horses pull the wagon into the barn and using manpower to pitch it off. As the depression eased somewhat in the last half of that decade, more equipment appeared on farms, and our farm acquired a side delivery rake and a hay loader to make our efforts more productive. This equipment also used horse power. There were many other jobs that required horses for power but I will, for the time, focus on haying.
During haying season the two draft teams worked hard and required quite a bit of attention. The sweat would attract a lot of dust and dirt that had to be dealt with. It would collect on their coats and had to be cleaned off with a curry comb and a brush. Occasionally we would wash them with a sponge. Their harnesses likewise had to be cleaned and oiled to keep them from irritating the horses' skin. We fed them grain and some hay and put them out to pasture at night to graze. Our horses were seldom shod during the summer but their feet received frequent attention to keep them trimmed and healthy. A good teamster had to be patient and do a lot of work to keep his team healthy and clean. I don't recall a lot of yelling and shouting to excite our horses nor do I remember any whips or crops being used by the people driving them. Most horses that are treated well are sociable and friendly like huge dogs. By the time I was ten I had learned enough to drive Lady with the dump rake under supervision. My legs were not quite long enough to reach the pedal used to dump the hay unless I stretched out a bit. One day I was raking with Lady while my father was doing another job in the same field with a pitchfork. I was raking near a fence and got too close so that a wheel of the rake struck a fence post. The rake stopped so suddenly that I slid down behind Lady but in front of the rake. If Lady had reacted the way many horses might have, I would have been "raked up" by the rake and probably would have been badly hurt. However, Lady stood stock still while my father ran to us, and I got up no worse for the experience. My father finished raking the hay near the fence. I think he might have given Lady an extra quart of oats that night.