The Historical Spectator

The Coming Scarcity of Draft Horses


Superintendent of Fairs and Institutes, Dept of Agriculture, Edmonton, Alta.

We’ll always need good draft horses, says a Canadian agricultural expert writing in 1921. Motorized farm equipment will never be of more than limited utility, and the horse will always have the economic advantage. It therefore behooves breeders to invest in the future by keeping up a good stock in the expectation of rising prices.

There is one material difference between the breeding of horses and that of any other kind of domestic animals that is frequently lost sight of, and that is the much longer period required to produce the mature animal. Let the shortage in the hog market for instance manifest itself by an increasing demand, and productive conditions be at all favorable, farmers can catch up with the demand inside a year or so. If the demand for dairy cattle increases materially the breeder can overtake this demand in thirty to thirty-six months, but when the shortage in the horse supply becomes evident, five or six years at the very least must necessarily elapse before any change in the existing conditions can take place or the increasing demand in any way be satisfied.

The present partial depression in the horse business is only a repetition of what happened twenty-five years ago. At that period values of horses were much lower than they are to-day. For five successive winters, from 1893 to 1898, I took part in the Wisconsin Farmers' Institutes advocating as strongly as I could the continuance of draft horse breeding, believing firmly as I did that it was absolutely necessary to anticipate the coming of better times, better prices and a greatly increased demand. When my subject was announced at those meetings the audience usually lessened materially. Their interest in horses was at zero because of existing low prices. I argued and insisted that the current prices had nothing to do with the question of whether or not they should continue to breed horses—that it was the prices ruling five years ahead that should alone govern their breeding operations. Perhaps ten or fifteen per cent. of those Wisconsin farmers took my advice and continued to breed their mares annually, and I had the satisfaction of knowing afterwards that those men who followed my advice made lots of money while their neighbors who had lost faith in horses had to go into the markets and pay two and even three prices for good work horses for many years afterwards. The faith and courage of those men who took my advice were duly rewarded. Now I have a great deal of faith myself in history repeating itself because I have seen so many instances of it during my own lifetime.

Long before my day, on the advent of the steam locomotive, the British farmers almost stampeded, as they concluded that if the iron horse was henceforth to haul their produce to market, the live horse would necessarily be relegated to the scrap pile. What happened instead was that business and industry generally received such a “fillip” and expanded to such a degree that instead of fewer horses being needed there were far more horses than ever required. They were needed in increased number to haul farm products to town, and factory products to the nearest railway station, and as the industries of the country increased and prospered a tremendous impetus was thereby given to the horse breeding interests of the whole world. From that date onward horses of all kinds, but especially draft horses, have been required in increasing numbers the world over. Occasionally a temporary set-back has taken place, but only to be followed by stronger demands and higher values than ever. The present depression is coincident with that of all other farm products and is aggravated to some extent by the bogus cry of the machine men in favor of gasoline trucks and tractors.

While these machines have already replaced a good many horses both in city and country, and will doubtless continue to do so, the draft horse remains to-day as essential a part of farm life as he ever was. Recent seasons in Western Canada have been extremely favorable to tractor work and yet only a very moderate amount of success can be claimed for even the best kind of tractors. I understand that some machines have proven so unsatisfactory that seventy-five per cent, of them have been returned to the makers, and the factories have since stopped making them altogether. In no case have even the best tractors proven so economical as horses and if this be the case when weather conditions have been almost ideal for their success, what would it be in a wet season? These tractors would be anchored everywhere in the fields and the farmers who have depended on them and parted with their horses would be at their wits’ end to know what to do. It is then that the never failing draft horse would be appreciated as he ought to be and the absolute necessity of his existence fully realized.

The present unsatisfactory condition of the horse market is largely due to careless, haphazard breeding in recent years and the narrow cheese-paring methods of raising the colts. The average farmer is not sufficiently impressed with the vast difference that there is and always must be between a real first-class draft horse possessing size, strength, soundness and quality, on the one hand, and the smaller boned, lighter muscled, light waisted, nervous animal, on the other hand. One type may have cost about as much to produce as the other, but the usefulness and market value of the first named is infinitely greater and always will be. Many farmers also cling to certain hobbies that are of little consequence. For instance, they must have a horse of a certain color with certain markings, or no markings at all. They attach undue importance to trifling matters and overlook the real essentials. The market for draft horses will accept any color, markings or no markings, but insist on a given weight, good conformation, reasonably good quality, and above all else absolute soundness. These are the important points which the breeder should always keep in mind. Early generous feeding combined with plenty of daily exercise is another matter that no progressive farmer overlooks. There are ten times as many colts spoilt annually from neglect and poor feeding as from over-feeding, in fact there are practically no cases of the latter unless the colt is shut up and prevented from taking daily exercise.

Farmers should have abundant faith in the future of horse breeding and raise all the good drafters they possibly can because prices will assuredly be high long before next season's weanlings are ready for the market.

It is the opinion of horsemen everywhere that the future for drafters was never so bright. James Torrance, president of the Clydesdale Association of Canada, has the following to say: “In our own community it would be hard to pick up a carload of good sound draft horses, and from interviews with buyers I find the same conditions existing everywhere. During the days when grain and feed were high priced the farmer thought it to his advantage to winter his colts on as little as possible, or probably not breed his mares at all. As the result of the former practice we find scrubby and undersized horses all over the country. This condition is blamed by some on the quality of sires offered for service, but such blame is an injustice, for a visit to any of the larger fairs will show that there are plenty of good sires in the country. Unless the present rate of breeding is increased the numbers of good sound draft horses in the country will fall far short of the demand.”

R. R. Ness, of Howick, Que., says that he has as great faith in the future of the draft horse as in that of the dairy cow. He is backing up that belief by an investment of thousands of dollars in both stallions and mares. “But,” he says, “we must keep up the size. Quality is of equal importance, but it must be accompanied by substance.”

From Farmer’s Magazine, February 10th, 1921.