Trade in your tractor

2011-07-14 00:00

WHILE studying veterinary science at Onderstepoort years ago, Peter Dommett came to love the the massive draught horses that were kept at the university for use in a vaccination project. The white Percherons were large and impressive, and he felt an immediate connection to them.

Draught horses, which are seldom used locally by farmers, are used abroad by small farmers to do hauling and lifting. They are traditionally heavier than race horses and other lighter breeds, and are used instead of tractors to do ploughing and other work.

When Dommett began to farm he found at one point that he could not afford to buy a new tractor when his old tractor packed up. He explained: “It was, in hindsight, probably an act of God. Our tractor driver, who was a bit fond of his booze, put molasses instead of oil in our tractor and the whole engine seized.

“On a whim, some time earlier, when a pair of Percheron horses came up for sale, I bought them. They reminded me of the horses that were at university. Now with no money for a new tractor, I decided to use my draught horses and to make them work. It was a decision that would change my life.”

The horses took to the farm work without complaint and they taught Dommett to have incredible respect for the breed. He believes today that they can provide a realistic solution for small-scale farmers who do not have large capital to outlay for mechanised equipment. He believes that the draught horses can help Third World farmers break into commercial farming. He is so dedicated to promoting the use of draughtworking horses that he began to breed them and train them for other farmers who were interested.

On his large farm, Waterford, in the Bushman’s Nek area of the Drakensberg, you will see herds of cattle grazing in the shadow of the Berg, and you may notice small groups of magnificent Percheron horses. Dommett breeds most of the popular draught horse breeds — Shires, Clydesdale and Percherons. Some of the Shires came from the first Shire horses that were imported for the purposes of a South African Breweries promotion for Kronenbourg beer. Dommett, who had always admired the horses, managed to trace them and buy them years later.

He allows the horses to roam freely on the plains and while they are not all trained, they are used to people and do not gallop away at the sight of visitors. Dommett is against stabling and feels it is unnatural.

Like equine athletes, these horses are built for strength and power. But they are not show-offs and their calm demeanour is appealing. Their magnificent manes often contrast with their coats. The telltale feathering around their legs shows their breeding.

Dommett and his staff breed and train these animals for work on the farm. When the horses reach a certain age, he tests their temperament and makes sure they are healthy. His training methods are gentle and effective. He believes the staff must have the ability to work with horses and that the draught horses must have the right temperament or else they will not enjoy the work.

When the horses have had basic training he puts them into the fields to learn how to pull carts, ploughs and other machinery. Dommett says draught horses are worth their weight in gold because they can do many jobs that a tractor cannot do. They can multitask, and they look majestic.

Dommett estimates that draught horses can comfortably pull double their body weight for a full working day. An adult draught horse can easily weigh a ton. He said: “I can easily feed the horses on residue pasture and unused grassland. If I compare what the horses cost me and what a tractor costs me — there is no comparison.

“Horses cost one twentieth of the running costs of a tractor and while a tractor depreciates over the years, a good draught horse can appreciate in value as it can be used for breeding and training.” Dommett believes the Amish people in the United States are wise when it comes to their attitudes to farming.

He said: “They have great respect for the land. They have respect for their animals because they know you have to treat an animal properly in order to get it to work for you. They know how to make the land work without chemical intervention. We could learn a lot from them.”

While Dommett’s first love is the big horse breeds, he also has done a lot of investigation into the value of the common donkey as a working animal. Donkeys are often the cheapest form of workhorse in the rural areas and breeding Spanish donkeys has been an interest of his.

In his self-published book Alternative Draught Power, which he gives to all draught-horse buyers and enthusiasts, Dommett explains his philosophy about using horses to work the land and the connection between person and beast. He ends his book with a historical letter written by an Indian Chief to a U.S. government official in Washington who wished to buy a piece of land.

It nicely sums up Dommett’s love affair with the land and his heavenly horses.

“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle. Every sandy shore. Every mist in the dark wood, every clearing and humming insect is holy. The white man forgets the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. But our dead never forget the beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horses and the great eagles — these are our brothers The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of pony and man – all belong to the same family!”

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