Saturday, 1 March 2014

“The Age of Mechanical Ploughing Has Arrived” - The Demise of the Trusty Draught Horse

Three of William Watson's rather handsome draught horses posing
inquisitively for the camera  in the yard at 'Mayfield', together with
 his brother James, taken around 1913. Their days of honest toil and
service in return for a daily ration of chaff and oats and a good
brush down were by now somewhat numbered. Due to injuries
received in 1898, James always wore a face mask.
[From my own collection]

The trusty and powerful Scottish bred Draught Horse had worked untiringly for their masters since this breed emerged around 1826, being a cross between Scottish mares from the Clydesdale region of Scotland and imported Flemish stallions.

By the latter decades of the 19th century, the Clydesdale were also a popular and well-established breed in New Zealand, being the back-bone of most day to day farming operations including the heavier work of ploughing, discing, harrowing, sowing and general cartage. For my own extended family living at Heddon Bush on the Southland Plains, draught horses coupled to a four-wheeled wagon were also used extensively for carting wool and other produce to the railway station as well as regularly carting coal from the mines at Nightcaps. From at least the early 1920’s my Father was regularly given the latter task. He related that once, fully laden with coal and coming down a hill out of Nightcaps, the normally sure-footed draught horses could not hold the weight behind them so panicked and raced but thankfully did not stumble. While road and stationary traction engines were in fairly common use, these were normally owned by contractors, being mostly used for specific seasonal operations such as threshing and chaff-cutting. I do note a 1908 reference to their being a local "Sentinel Road Motor" for "wool traffic". This would be a six ton steam powered wagon, such models then being extensively advertised and sold by Anderson's of Christchurch. 

How it used to be - Thomas Watson with a team of four
draught horses pulling a two(?) furrow plough
[From my own collection]

But by the turn of twentieth century the years of toil for the draught horse would be numbered and within the next 50 years the majority would be replaced by the “Agricultural Motor” or Tractor. Those few enthusiasts still owning and operating draught horses today are to be highly commended for not only preserving an age-old method of farming and allowing a modern audience to experience something which was once common throughout New Zealand but also for preserving these blood lines.

A draught horse team of four discing on the 'Mayfield' estate
[From my own collection]

But our “romantic” view of eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable draught horses coupled together in a team working the land rather masks the reality. The effort required to maintain a team of draught horses was intensive, requiring the farmer or employed staff to work upwards of 14 hour days during the busy season. That is not to say that the economics of it would not stack up today for a small scale farming operation – provided the farmer was prepared to put the time and effort in, including growing the required horse feed himself. There are some fascinating articles on Internet scientifically comparing draught horses versus the modern diesel tractor, particularly from the environmental and economic points of view. At the very least there could be a saving in fertiliser! The majority of modern agricultural equipment is not however designed to be drawn by a draught horse team so hopefully the scrap merchant has not gotten down on all that ancient old farm equipment stored under the trees just yet!

William Watson Jnr. (at left) and his brother Thomas Watson on
the binder. William died in 1914 from injuries he received
when he accidentally slipped under a moving wagon of
coal pulled by a draught horse team.
[From my own collection]

But let us return to the “good old days”. During the busy season, one would need to be at the stable by perhaps 5.30 am to feed and groom the horses before fitting their harnesses and coupling them together. A breakfast break at 7 am would be short-lived before heading out to the paddock and at work by 8 am. Morning tea,  packed in a wicker basket, would normally be brought out to the paddock by the woman folk in the pony and trap. All farmers generally had their main meal at midday so there would be a welcome return to the farmhouse – and something for the horses - but back to work in the paddock by 1 o’clock. Then another short respite at 3 pm for a welcome afternoon tea break, again being brought out by the woman folk.

With the day’s agricultural work generally over by 6 o’clock, it would be a return to the stables and unharnessing the team then putting out their feed before having one’s own evening meal. Finally, the horses would be let out into an adjoining paddock although they would usually feel more comfortable spending the night in their stalls. I might also add that one should never forget the woman folk who would also work long days slaving over their temperamental coal ranges and attending to various labour-intensive domestic chores to keep the farmhouse running - but therein lies yet another story!

Saddlery and associated items such as horse covers also had to be attended to and mended as necessary, stables cleaned out with fresh straw placed on the floor of each byre, harnesses and leads oiled (perhaps with linseed oil), and of course the health of the horses seen to. Shoeing would be undertaken by the local Blacksmith. Horses were, as now, always named.

While unfortunately a very grainy image, this still very interesting
photo shows no less than a nine-strong draught horse team
coupled together on the 'Mayfield' estate to pull a drain plough.
Their combined pulling power on the draw-bar would be quite
prodigous. It was not uncommon for up to 16 draught horses
to be used for drain ploughing work.
[From my own collection]

These honest and powerful “work-horses” carried out their work untiringly for little more than the expectation of a daily ration of water, chaff, oats, grass or green crop (when available), and hopefully a daily brush down. Again, my own Father at Heddon Bush in Central Southland personally worked draught horses for upwards of 25 years and had the greatest respect for them, being not only hard-working and generally docile animals but also quite intelligent, often not even needing to lead them. Over those years he only experienced one rather head-strong draught horse with a mind of its own.

Sunday – the Sabbath – on the majority of Southern farms was invariably a day of rest and / or recreation where no work would be undertaken over and above what was absolutely necessary. This was regardless of the weather. This would at least allow the horses to rest and recover some condition, especially during busy times when they could be worked six days out of seven. 

The old family horse stables at Heddon Bush which I refer
to below, taken around 1898.
[From my own collection]

But needing to provide and maintain a stable block was yet one more cost. But it could be used for other useful - and quite unexpected - purposes. I can well remember the now largely disused and borer-ridden family stable at Heddon Bush back in the mid 1960’s, with its very thick solid heart-wood stall posts (which held up the loft) worn and polished perfectly smooth from years of having the draught horses rubbing up against them with the old stuffed leather harnesses hanging from posts and now dried out, badly cracked and just gathering bird dirt and dust. Although the loft floor was unsafe we could climb up an internal ladder and have a peek. Here would be kept the oats and chaff, being hoisted up through a large upper doorway. In fact my family lived up here above their horses for close to two years after the old family home burnt down around 1901-02. Born in 1902, my Father was put into care for his first six months rather than be subjected to this decidedly "rustic" style of habitation.

One also has to remember that unless a farmer was willing to pay for feed to be bought in (at some cost), they had to set aside a percentage of their land for the growing of oats and chaff for their horses, thus reducing their area of productive – and profitable - land for growing cash crops or raising sheep. Time and effort also had to be expended on simply preparing the ground, sowing, reaping, and threshing this crop.     

William Watson of 'Mayfield' with the Clydesdale Gelding "Harry",
taken at the Winton Horse Bazaar in Southland, May 1901. I do not
know if William was buying or selling but he would not have
hesitated to pay good money to obtain good blood-stock.
[From my own collection]

Draught horses were however proudly shown off in local shows and their physical features, condition and blood lines discussed and commented on by a critical and very knowledgeable farming audience. My extended family were no exception, regularly showing their horses at the Agricultural and Pastoral Shows in which they not only took an active part in organising as Directors but also acting as Stewards on the day. Top-bred draught horses would attract the same sort of attention among farmers that the latest model of high-performance diesel cab tractor would attract today.  The considered purchase of a well-bred draught horse would be a significant and long-term investment for any farmer but still coming in at well below the cost of a new “Motor Tractor”.

A letter I hold written by my Grandfather's Uncle, a Veterinary Surgeon in Scotland and dated 1897, gives voluminous formulae for the medical care and treatment of horses, particularly of their feet and emphasises, as any modern horse owner will know, that the health of any horse simply cannot be neglected. With a delightfully dry sense of humour, his Uncle writes :

You say you want as usual some information and you are surely old and experienced enough to know that the first thing with a professional man on any case as with everybody else is the fee. I have heard of the Guinea but I am very sorry to say that I do not find it in your letter. The old story - Free Clinic and get all you can out of the old Dr ….” 

But if a Vet needed to be sent for the cost was preferable to an injury not healing or completely risking losing the value of their investment. There was still an element of risk in owning draught horses but for most there was simply no realistic or affordable alternative.

Bales of wool ready to leave 'Mayfield' for the Railway Station at
Centre Bush on the vast Southland Plains. Despite 30 years of
effort and a line through Heddon Bush actually being surveyed
and purchased, groups promoting competing routes, other
railway priorities, and the increasing use of motor transport
in the 1920's meant that the line was never built.
[From my own collection]

It would, however, still take some considerable persuasion to convince New Zealand farmers that the “Motor Tractor” was the way of the future. Significant issues were the high initial cost, reliability, spare parts, and suitability for the task expected of it. For most, the economies of scale simply did not stack up, the priority for the majority of farmers still being land acquisition, paying their mortgages, and simply making a profit in the face of fluctuating prices in an often unpredictable market. While naturally curious, the majority of farmers were quite content – or at least forced to be content - with the status quo and their hard working but labour-intensive draught horses. For my own paternal family, as with very many others, the high initial financial outlay, a crippling mortgage, and the depression precluded any earlier move to fully mechanised motive power other than seasonally hired traction engined threshing mills and occasional agricultural contractors. Their first tractor, a McCormick-Deering W12, did not arrive until June 1936, payment of necessity being made by hire purchase instalments.

William Watson of 'Mayfield' with his dog ready to go round the sheep,
taken circa 1908. By around 1913 he had purchased a Buick car, being
also one of the early motor car owners in the Central Southland district.
[From my own collection]

But by the very early years of the 20th century my maternal Great Great Uncle, Mr William Watson of ‘Mayfield’ at Heddon Bush in Southland, was however entirely convinced that the age of the “Agricultural Motor” had truly arrived and that it showed great promise. Through years of industrious hard toil bringing in his 800 acres virtually from “the rough” and by efficient farming management he now had the financial means to achieve his goals. William was not only an early Director and fervent promoter of the Southland Farmers’ Co-Operative Society but also an active member of the local Farmers’ Club and NZ Farmers’ Union (forerunner of Federated Farmers New Zealand), the driving force behind the local Railway (promotion) League, an enthusiastic and leading supporter of any good local cause, an active Elder of the Kirk (but on extremely good terms with his Catholic neighbours), and generally well-known and deeply respected by a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. 

A Horse and Foal at the feed box. Unbeknownst to them, they
would soon have rather more leisure time than their predecessors.
[From my own collection]

You can read the second instalment of this three part Blog series here : The Age of Mechanical Ploughing Has Arrived” – A Tale of Two Tractors (Part Two)

Copyright : The content of this blog, including images, may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without the express permission of the writer. Excerpts may however be freely quoted for non-commercial use subject to suitable acknowledgement being given, including a link back to this page.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Watson Family Papers and Family Archives (held by the writer)
  • Original photographs held by the writer. 
  • "From Rust to Restoration", edited by John Cutt, 1989
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • “A Century of Farm Tractors 1904-2004” (NZ), by RH Robinson
  • Dunedin City Libraries / Kā Kete Wānaka O Ōtepoti


  1. Great analysis.

    I think the working horses were part of the team - the farmer, his family, any paid staff and the working animals. If any part of the team was not looked after properly, the farm work would not be completed properly. And just as the human workers had to be decently fed and groomed, so did the animal workers. Whatever the cost.

    I did my Gap Year on a kibbutz in Israel where my task was picking fruit. In 1966 the workers in the collective shared the tractors but the horses were the responsibility of specific individuals. We started work picking peaches at 6AM six days a week, to avoid the blazing heat, and finished at 1PM. At mid morning, someone would ride out on the horses, packed with lunch, cold drinks and tea in thermos flasks. Not that much has changed since 1903 :)

    1. Thank you Hels. I'm always sorry that when I was being brought up on the family farm there were no horses of any description left, I love animals. And anyone I have ever met who has worked on a kibbutz has always had the most positive comments about the experience, hard work but shared with the camaraderie of good friends and the rural lifestyle. You are a person of many experiences and abilities!

  2. Hi Don, fascinating read. A small group have formed the NZ Suffolk Punch Horse Team with the intention of reviving this critically endangered breed in NZ. Part of this is finding their history here in NZ and some of the photos you portray suggest there could be SPH in there. If you have any information in this regard, please email me (Alison Sutherland) at


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