Harnessing Horse Power

Tonto Basin ranch owners share love of draft horses

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Tom Brossart photo

The corrals are probably a bit bigger than most - after all, those are draft horses (think the Budwieser Clydesdales) on the Tonto Basin H-4 Ranch, owned and operated by Tom and Lori Brown. The couple is known around the Rim Country for hosting 4H Ag Days, but people all over the country (and up in Canada too) know them for the clinics they host on the use of draft horses in ecologically-friendly farming.

If the land under the care of Bill and Lori Brown loses fertility, everything on their ranch in Tonto Basin suffers. So their draft horse clinic aims to resurrect the art of farming with horses, a sustainable method of farming.

The Browns have a history of environmentalism. They were honored in 2008 by the Society for Range Management as a result of their work in redeveloping springs and maintaining 15,000 acres of land. The couple has worked on their family’s H-4 Ranch since the 1960s.

Despite the many years of use, the ranch radiates vitality. Animals have a healthy coat and the land grows lush alfalfa for the stock.

In 2006, they decided to purchase draft horses as a hobby, but now recognize how horses link to sustainable farming.

“Connecting with the land is critical,” said Lori.

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Tom Brossart photo

Riding on a forecart across the fallow alfalfa field, participants at the draft horse clinic learned how to drive a team of horses for farming.

Their clinic educates attendees from as far away as British Columbia and South Carolina on all aspects of working with draft horses, from purchasing equipment to correct harnessing and training techniques.

Steve Refield from Phoenix “came up to learn what I could about draft horses.”

The Browns partnered with Daniel Stutzman, an Amish farmer from Indiana.

Stutzman spent his youth breaking and working with horses in the field. Now he travels the states to attend draft horse auctions and find good stock for his 50-acre farm. He also helps other farmers find good horses.

The Browns purchased all of their horses from Stutzman.

“This is Red,” said Stutzman, “If all horses were like him, everyone would use them.”

Long the horse power behind Amish farming, organic farmers prize draft horses for their ability to restore the soil. In his article, “From Tractors to Horses,” Leon Wengurd discussed the benefits of making the change from mechanical to biological energy.

Instead of compacting the soil as tractors do, horses tear up the soil, aerating the land. Farmers use their waste as fertilizer. In lieu of sucking up expensive fossil fuel, horses eat what they help grow. Adding value, colts can be sold, wrote Wengurd.

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Tom Brossart photo

Bill Brown’s family has ranched in Arizona for generations. Bill, at left, and his wife Lori started using draft horses six years ago. Now he shares his knowledge at a draft horse clinic hosted on his family’s H-4 Ranch in Tonto Basin recently.

Kyle Skaggs and Teague Channing came from New Mexico to learn more. The young men each cultivate from five to seven acres of organic vegetables for a living.

“I’ve been doing this for about three years,” said Skaggs. He grew up in town, but spent much of his youth outside.

For him, organic farming is doing something real. Channing introduced Skaggs to Stutzman to help purchase a good pair of older horses. A pair of horses aged around 12 years have the patience to calmly work a field. Younger horses are better used for less technical work such as growing hay or grain crops to train them as they mellow with age, said Stutzman.

Skaggs uses the horses to help condition the soil, till, plant and harvest. Starting in the winter, he plants a cover crop of rye or legumes. The horses help him till and plant the seeds.

In the spring, he turns the winter plants under the earth, which fixes the nitrogen in the soil.

Before planting his cash crops of beets, carrots, garlic, onions and greens, the horses plow the rows to prepare for planting.

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Tom Brossart photo

Daniel Stutzman, an Amish farmer from Indiana, demonstrates how to correctly hitch up draft horses to a wagon during the draft horse clinic at the H-4 Ranch in Tonto Basin.

Because of the horses’ training and temperament, Skaggs can even use them to help harvest his root crops.

“Some carrots get split in two, but mostly the horses help save a lot of time,” said Skaggs.

On just five acres of land, Skaggs grows enough crops to provide for stores and restaurants in his town.

“When my carrots come in,” he said, “I can keep three grocery stores full for three months.”

The Browns plan to continue the draft horse clinic next year. For information on events, please see the H-4 Ranch Web site: www.H-4Ranch.com.

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