It’s becoming more difficult for Bill and Lori Brown to find horse-drawn farming equipment. In a world where horsepower measures the strength of engines, the Browns’ hobby seems anachronistic. They travel to auctions in Colorado and Arizona, buy horses from Amish friends, and restore early 1900s-era farming equipment, some of which used to be Lori’s yard art.
Bill and Red, Dick and Dock and the others generally look the same. All have a light chestnut coat, with cream blazes splashing across their faces.
They stand roughly 18 hands, or 6 feet tall at the shoulder, weigh about a ton, and have Clydesdale-like hair hanging from the back of their heels. Their personalities distinguish them.
Bill is the showy one. He pulls slightly ahead of Red while pulling Bill the man as he sits on a mower. Bill the horse leans his neck out to the side in dominant prowess and Red trots on.
“We call them gentle giants. They’re just loves. They’re big old pets,” said Lori.
It’s an early spring day, early enough for a chill. Lori wears a red fleece and black jeans, blue eyeliner and blonde hair pulled back.
She has long French manicured nails, long enough so you look twice and wonder how the born rancher manages. “I’ve had them forever,” she says. She’s used to it.
Bill wears a khaki jacket, cowboy hat and blue jeans.
The Browns own nine draft horses — their hobby — and raise cattle on 19,000 leased acres that expand from Highway 188 in Tonto Basin throughout the lower basin. Their cattle graze on harsh brush-strewn hills that you can see in the distance from the alfalfa and barley fields that the Browns work with the horses, to feed the horses.
Big excavating machinery sits near the fields — the tools of hobby, heritage and livelihood intermingle as evidence that some defy modernity’s indoor obsession.
“That’s just our way of life,” said Lori. “When you’re in the Valley, you go to the mall and go shopping. Out here this is what we do.”
At least one hobby is the work; the work is the hobby. The Browns bought their draft horses three years ago. It’s something they’ve always wanted to do.
No reason, really, other than each grew up with animals, on ranches.
Bill’s family has farmed and ranched locally since the early 1900s, and his parents are in the Arizona Farming and Ranching Hall of Fame. Lori, whose ancestors arrived in the late 1800s, grew up on a cattle ranch in Pine.
Bill, 52, has lived on the H-4 Ranch since the 1970s. It’s one of the ranches he grew up on. He and Lori met in Flagstaff in 1989.
The Browns work dark to dark, seven days a week. Working the fields is relaxing, says Bill. For vacation, they’ve begun traveling to auctions to buy more equipment for their draft horses.
“It’s hard to leave your animals, because nobody takes care of your kids as well as you do, and that’s what they are,” said Lori.
Finding the equipment is part of the process. Some contraptions have steel wheels, a bumpy ride, but authentic nonetheless.
Bill has Amish friends from the Midwest, which is where he bought his horses. The Amish choose to live simply, without electricity or other modern conveniences.
The Browns are not Amish. “It’s more or less a hobby than anything else,” said Lori.
Bill takes the tack from the rich leather-smelling shed, each horse’s name inked on the wall over its bridle. Bill slides on the harness and the bridle, readies Bill the horse and Red for a jaunt to mow some grass.
Horses come matched in teams, generally placed with one another based on age similarity.
“Every time I harness up a team, I go, ‘This is by far my favorite team of horses,’” said Bill.
He trains the horses on voice commands, and the horses know who’s behind them. They test greenhorns and reporters presumptuous enough to take the reins, stepping faster and faster, likely led by the ornery Bill as he demonstrates his charge of the ranching kingdom. Bill the human takes the reins away from the greenhorn and Bill the horse once again assumes his rightful place.
Earlier, Bill and Red, surprised by a flock of birds, nearly took off. The horses wear blinkers to avoid those situations, but the trusting relationship between human and horse averts catastrophe.
Bill says he has cultivated his calmness. “If they were to sense that I feared something, that would transfer naturally to them.”
The horses trust Bill with their safety. “You don’t put them in a bad situation,” he said. No tight corners, no wire, no dogs to jump and scare the finely tuned, friendly beasts.
Teams of horses and people mow the 30 acres of alfalfa and hay fields come the first April cutting. “It’s a family affair,” said Lori.
Bill has three kids, and the couple has 6-year-old Daylen, who knows how to do everything.
“He runs all of our equipment. People don’t believe it, but he does,” said Lori.
Daylen, too, loves the outdoor life his parents lead. “He doesn’t want to go to school. He’d rather stay home.”
With four teams of horses, each cutting takes four or five hours, and occurs every four to six weeks during the summer.
The mower used to cut the alfalfa has a blade with teeth sticking up in a 90-degree angle that looks at rest like it could fall as a guillotine. When at work, it runs parallel to the ground, pulled by a team of horses, and leaving a wake of grass.
“Not a lot of people do this anymore,” said Lori. It’s a hobby — not a moneymaker, but a way of life.
The Browns have enough animals that they occasionally stage petting zoos at the fair. Goats, deer, miniature donkeys and horses — dogs run around, at least one toting a tennis ball in its mouth.
“It used to be there were a lot of farmers and ranchers down here,” Lori said.
“It’s kind of a dying breed.” Now, those remaining are mostly “old-timers,” she said. “We’re kind of on the endangered list.”
While strip malls and large homes have slowly risen and changed the landscape, lifestyles have complicated. We spend less time gathering food and more time in buildings. People buy eggs in the grocery store, beef from Canada.
“It used to be that the U.S. could tend to themselves,” said Lori. “We grew up poor. We had to do all of that stuff.”
The Browns have a six-acre garden, and they share the bounty with others in Tonto Basin.
Still, living history fails to pay the bills. The couple has an excavating business, they evaluate soil, and they run 100 head of black angus cattle on land leased from the Forest Service, among other things.
But the horses are seemingly the Browns’ babies, loved not just because they’re pretty, but because they’re so strong.
The necessity of Bill and Red as draft horses has all but disappeared.
But when Bill the horse shakes his head, and the powerful beasts turn as Bill the human demands it, there is something exhilarating about the speed and vitality with which they march into the fields.
The horses don’t know they’ve been replaced by machinery. And as long as Bill and Lori have anything to do with it, they never will.