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Ankesh Kothari


Interesting thought.

Its a different thinking pattern and I like that. But how practical is the idea of replacing tractors with horses?

How does it affect the prices of crops?

Because we'll need more horses and more men than right now - crop prices will go up. Plus horse farming is not as efficient as tractor farming. It'll take horses more time than tractors too.

So the farmer has no incentive to switch to horses...

Kris De Decker


Ankesh, you are right: as long as the oil prices are low, horses make no chance. Especially because industrialized countries tax labour heavily (instead of energy or material use, for instance) and therefore discourage companies and farmers to replace machines with people.

However, everything changes when the oil price hits, say 400 dollar per barrel, or more. If oil prices keep rising, one day it will become cheaper to use horses and people instead of tractors. Unless we find another substitute for oil.



Some of us who are concerned with the impact of various ecological & resource crises, are already studying & planning for the use of horses in agriculture and other applications.

Kris is correct that horse transport is the wrong option for cities. When horse transport was common, city streets in some places were typically 12 - 18" deep (1/3 to 1/2 metre) in muck consisting primarily of horse dung. Those high leather boots that people wore in those days were not a fashion statement but a necessity to keep the dung off their clothing. And it took an army of men with brooms to even begin to keep the streets clean (the interested reader is welcome to search under the name George Waring for papers on the first efforts in this direction).

In dry weather the dung turned to dust and got into the air and thence into the lungs; brucellosis was endemic as a result. Wet dung gave rise to major infestations of flies, which carried disease to any food they could reach.

In cities then, electric transport or internal combustion is still preferable.

However, in agriculture, and for rural transport where roads traffic is light, horses wil no doubt make a comeback. The equation is purely economic: in transport, it's cost per unit weight per unit distance (e.g. cost per ton/mile, or possibly per 1,000 kg / km). In agriculture the cost equation is slightly more complex due to the increased labor requirement, but in any case there will come a point where those costs are less than the combined costs of fossil fuel based fertilizers and fossil fuel operated tractors, and at that point horses will come back into widespread use.

For an example of how horse tech will improve, look up the British Pagefield System of urban delivery (also used for refuse collection): horse-drawn vans, entirely modern in every way save for their motive power, were used for the local part of the trip; and the van boxes were winched onto a roll-off truck for long distance haulage to & from central depots. The point here being that the vans were up to date, with pneumatic tires and low working heights for the workers who loaded and unloaded the cargo. We can easily develop similar equipment today.

You raise a good point that horse breeding must begin soon to provide sufficient horses to meet the demand. This is going to become a very interesting issue as soon as horse power becomes economically desirable: those with the horses will earn a windfall.

I do have one criticism to raise. You say "Encouraging people to watch a horse's ass instead of a computer screen might prove difficult." I disagree: people already watch plenty of horses' asses* on TV and listen to them on the radio. Converting to the real thing will be easy.


*Horse's ass: American slang for a person who is stupid and obnoxious, or who is an unrepentant liar. For example, "Candidate so-and-so was just caught in another lie on the campaign trail; s/he is a real horse's ass."

S.P. Gass


Excellent article with several great points. I featured and excerpt and link to your story on my blog.

Kris De Decker


Thanks a lot for the additional information! And sorry for the late publication of the latest reactions - my email box crashed

A farmer


Wow...this is quite possibly the worst idea I have ever heard. It is almost as bad as using corn for ethanol. This would never be cost effective. There is a reason we switched from horses to tractors...tractors get more done in a shorter period of time, allowing us to concentrate on other aspects of the farm.



What about elephants?

Tracy Ryan


What about the animal-rights perspective on this? Are humans necessarily entitled to enact this sort of wide-scale abuse of horses and other animals?

This blog is really interesting, but I'm disappointed to see the ethics angle missing from the idea of "horse power".



Interestingly enough the ICE power vehicles where seen as the solution to one pollution problem cities where dealing with, the exhaust emissions of the animals. For farmers to return to using draft animals on there operations there has to be an advantage for them to do so. Even horses need fuel that means an operation has to dedicate some of the time to growing, harvesting that fuel. There is always the possibility things will to degrade to the point society has no choice, in that event nothing will resemble to today or yesteryear. We may have moved beyond the point where old tech can serve the increased population.



I think it's an awesome idea! It'd put an end to all the thousands of horses that are dying because no one cares for them.
Let us do it

Michi Phillips


I note that one of the reasons for the increase in unemployment in the US is the closing of family farms. Yes it will take man power to farm with horses again, but that is not necessarily a bad thing! First though we must change the image of the farmer from that of the uneducated hick to that of the eco-minded sexy-from-lots-of-physical-work neighbour.



Having grown up on a farm in North Dakota, USA, I can tell you that the situation would have to be truly drastic for this to ever happen. With tractors, two people can farm 1000 acres of grain crops (one additional person needed at harvest). My father (about 60 years old) now does nearly everything by himself while farming about 700 acres.

To do the same scale operation would take dozens of horses and at least a dozen people to manage them. I can tell you that the price of oil is less an issue than obtaining it. As long as diesel fuel can be bought and people are not willing to work for next to nothing, horses will see a resurgence only on tiny "hobby" farms. They will be used more as marketing than a truly useful part of the farm.



This is such a regressive idea it's almost baffling as anything more than a theoretical exploration. Consider the cost in additional man-hours, not just in directing animal power but in breeding, feeding, handling and otherwise caring for the animal work force. Saying you get similar productivity but require more people is oxymoronic; productivity is a measure of work done per man-hour. Lost man-hours to agriculture means loss of productivity and specialization in other fields - if a larger percentage of the population is required in basic production, the society in question is able to support less skilled production. The poster below who mentioned this as a means of job creation needs to look up the broken window fallacy.

Surely refinements in manufacturing and energy production methods would far outweigh any efficiencies gained by regressing to animal-based power. I'm very interested in seeing some comparisons of emissions and pollutants by 500 horses as opposed to a single 500 horsepower engine, and the material costs of the associated equipment for small teams of horse-driven farming equipment as opposed to one or two large multi-purpose tractors. I am willing to bet the payoff is not going to be very impressive even compared to today's technology. Alternative/clean energy tractors manufactured in local fab labs would almost certainly make the value proposition of animal power a complete joke, and they are closer than $400/barrel oil.

The Lyniezian


I would agree it is hardly either an efficient idea nor the best means of providing enough produce to feed modern populations. The upshot of it is of course more scope for employment. I would suggest the writer takes a closer look at permaculture, which actually bypasses traditional ideas of agriculture by letting the ecosystem provide the soil with its own nutrients (which normally get depleted and have to be added back in) and can provide higher yields than conventional agriculture for less effort. And hardly outside the spirit of this site- no high-tech solutions or modern intensive farming techniqus are necessary. A truly low-tech, if innovative rather than regressive, solution.



I always find it interesting how we limit ourselves so tightly to what we think we know, even when trying to extend our imagination. Personally, I love the notion that horsepower could make a comeback.

Most of the replies I've just read which focus on the unlikeliness of horses coming back into use, are assuming every other factor would be the same as now, which of course is as ridiculous as they claim 21st century horse drawn agriculture would be. NOTHING is EVER the same. Our world is not static, it's in constant change. And people are endlessly inventive.

I can definitely imagine reconfigurations of field sizes, crop varieties, working and ownership models, equipment weights and gearing, finance strategies, markets....all the factors supposed to be aligned to keep horse power as a conceit of the play farmers.

An interesting factoid not mentioned: the demise of the house sparrow in urban areas is often linked to the removal of horses, whose dung provided a rich supply of un- or partially digested hay seeds for the sparrows.

An additional value horses could provide is companionship and reconnection to the natural life cycles we too often ignore now. Sure many people can be caught yelling at a broken down car or tractor. But how often will the machine decide it has had enough and land a good kick?



Great article! However, this section seems a bit misleading:

"In Europe and in North America horses took over in the 19th century with the introduction of a new generation of machinery that was too heavy for oxen. These machines required much more animal power, but they increased yields and decreased the need for man power substantially."

Oxen are actually stronger than horses and can pull greater loads. Horses are faster, more precise (can plow a straighter row and can turn around more sharply), and more versatile, but they have less pulling power and endurance.

Horses were then and are now more expensive to purchase and maintain. Farmers who switched to horses from oxen were paying a premium to spend less time out in the field staring at an animal's ass.

Frank Kaiser


Why not combine high- and low tech?

Couldn't we attach GPS steered vessels to horses thus avoiding the driver looking at the horse's ass? (Compare this idea to robot jockeys in "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_jockey")

The future will for sure not look like the past.
It will be something new.

Frank Mancuso


100 years ago we had no oil and horses. 100 years from now we will have no oil or horses. We lived relatively decent lives 100 years ago and horses were a major part of mankind's progress. Oil changed everything. We had it, used it, sold it and prospered from it to become a world superpower. We exported it and others also used it and found it. As our supplies diminish the wealth and power it created for us will ebb and flow to those with it. Our only hope for survival is to begin to think 100 years ago. What oil is left must be used wisely, we must consider becoming an agricultural nation again bartering food and clean water for our needs, because as other countries become more like us we need to survive as the earths resources are depleted. And yes someday horses may once again play a role in mankind's survival. The BLM is removing our Wild Mustangs off their legal ranges in record numbers. The very rugged survivors that could virtually live on brush and little water may vanish forever. 500 years of survival of the fittest, natural selection and DNA that may one day be needed to mix with other breeds. We need to at least begin to think about such things before it's too late.

David Veale


I'm farming with horses right now -- and much prefer the view of their ass to that of my computer screen.

I don't think anyone needs be worried about animal welfare with working horses. While it's definitely possible to abuse them, they actually *like* to work, much the way a dog likes to go for a walk or chase a ball.

To the person who expressed concerns about emissions being comparable to those of tractors -- this is complete nonsense. Tractors emit fossil carbon, and require fossil carbon to manufacture and maintain. Horses require none of that. They can gather their own feed, and any carbon emissions are from feed which recently extracted it from the atmosphere as it grew.

Peak oil is upon us. Industrialization is at serious risk, and risks our very future if it continues. The past holds most of the answers for our future, imho.



Horse or other draft animal power in an appropriate use works very well, is efficient, not at all cruel or exploitative, is "green" as you can get and often is far better for the land and workman than any tractor. But, the good Lord didn;t ever build a horse with hydraulics, a 3pt hitch or a PTO shaft sticking out it's backside. So those of us that make use of animal power often find mixed power works best- use the tractor where the horse is clearly at a disadvantage and use the the horse where the tractor shows no advantage. It works.

One thing not mentioned is that any fool can care for and operate a tractor with little training. Animals require a lot more skill and some people just aren't cut out for it.

For those more interested take a look at www.ruralheritage.com

Penny V


Interesting to find a link to an article in Swedish - which is conveniently my mother tongue. Thank you, I'll give it a thorough read!



Farming with horses is a skill you can develop and enjoy. And use it's advantages where best suited.
Like the horse in light tillage work on a produce farm. Less soil compaction.
Tractor and horses, use the best of both. Agriculture has a huge diversity in many aspects and it could be healthy to keep it divers.

There are lot's of people working on modern horse equipment and related ideas:


Natasha Combs


Animal rights issues aside (Most farmers/ranchers are VERY kind to their work animals which are in fact still being used, just not as plow beasts), they are LESS efficient than tractors. To pull the amount of work and power that you get from a tractor, you would have to increase your manpower. You would also have to increase the amount of feed. So your estimates on Hectares of food is WRONG. Horses need an estimated 5 acres per beast to survive food-wise. This is above and beyond the amount of cropland they'd be expected to work. Plus you have to have someone training them for the plows, people using the plows, people caring for them, and so forth. Not to mention vet bills, burial/disposal costs, tack/replacement tack needed for the plows. This is a very cost Prohibitive move. Paying that many extra expenses, not to mention people would drive the price of food so high that people would be driven to return to their own fields for a means of survival.



When Rudolf Diesel invented his engine, automobile barely existed and he had in mind that his engine will mostly be used to power farm machines, running on a part of the farmer's crop turned into oil (as I know, peanut oil was used for the first tests of the Diesel engine). Hey, that sounds these "evil bio-fuel that may cause the world to starve", as some short-sighted environmentalists use to say. But then, what is the difference between feeding a tractor or a combine, and feeding a work-horse that also "runs on bio-fuel" ? Well, whether the horse is working or not, you need to feed it, while you don't feed a tractor that is not used. That (and the sanitary issues related to the horse dung which can be a disease vector) also explains why automobiles replaced horses. I am therefore skeptical about the efficiency of horses in agriculture. And perhaps it is possible to make slower tractors or to use electric trolley tractors, or...

However, I am not sure that the future of agriculture will rely on existing machines, whether they are powered by horses or engines. If permaculture proves to be the way to go for an oil-free agriculture and extends beyond amateur gardening (which is mostly the case now), then there is no more reason to plow (plowing oxidizes the inner part of the soil and kills its nutrients). Permaculture on a large scale may require some machines to produce food that is affordable, but they will be new machines that are adapted to the topography of permaculture fields (that are not flat). It is a technique that certainly requires animals (bees for pollination ; ducks, frogs or hedgehogs to eat the pests), but probably not horses.

Whatever, I have recently discovered this website and it is really great, I learned a lot. Congratulations for the work done !



It's sad to read this article which enthusiastically and thoughtlessly consigns hundreds of thousands of animals to a life of heavy labor and a lifestyle counter to their instincts, for our benefit. There is no way this can be done without the animals suffering. Further the writer doesn't seem to be familiar with anything but the pulling use of tractors, and they do much more than that. The multiplication of human labor to support this idea would, paradoxically, be a benefit -- the most recent problem is increasing mechanization and automation of labor, leaving more and more people unemployed -- but overall it just doesn't add up.

However, if you consider lots of little agricultural robots, like roombas ...



I make a living farming, and I grew up on horseback, but I can assure you that this is a most unpractical idea.

Farmers were, are, and will continue to be practical types. They gave up using draft animals for a reason, and that reason is efficiency. My grandfather farmed with horses and loved horses, but remembered the day they traded in the team for their first tractor for what it was - a step forward.

My family dryland crops areas on the ragged edge of being too dry to farm. We are successful at it because we pinch pennies and take care of our ground. Our biggest issue is wind erosion, so we stay out of the fields as much as possible to protect against it. High horsepower tractors mean we can pull wider implements and make less passes, leaving standing residue to protect against drying winds. A 32 horse team pulling a combine makes that impossible.

Also, this article fails to account for the dirty, harsh drudgery that would result if you tried to substitute animal power for other power forms on the farm. Horses didn't just pull implements, they provided power to a wide variety of stationary equipment that today is gas or electrically powered. There is romance in driving a team at the plow. There is no romance in dozens of animals chained to the yoke, endlessly walking in circles to produce the same paltry shaft power as a small gas engine.

Horses need to be fed every day. Equipment only needs to be fed when you use it. If we don't like feeding equipment fossil fuel then we need to come up with something better, but horses ain't it.



Outspoken concern for animal welfare is a recent phenomenon invented by people who have nothing better to do (due to lack of wars, food shortages, poverty and all those other tedious events that used to occupy people's minds during the past millennia). People concerned with animal welfare would do well thinking about all those poor monkeys doing mindless, repetitive jobs in order to fuel the world of animal rights activists with their energy-expensive gadgets (think assembly lines in tractor factories, clothes factories, etc).
I have no doubt that when (re)introducing animal labour, animal owners will be kind to their 'engines', simply because it is the economical thing to do. Animal welfare will become a problem once animals become as cheap as oil today (in the same way that cheap fossil energy is now causing no end of problems). As better people than me have already pointed out, animals have been, and will continue to be 'expensive' (for certain values of expensive).

Some opponents of animal power have raised the issue of feeding as a problem. While I do understand that some effort needs to be put in obtaining and presenting specialty foods, the same goes for tractors: diesel fuel has to be obtained (extracted, refined, transported) and fed to tractors; but there are differences: a horse that is not currently in use can be left grazing peacefully; put a tractor in a rapeseed field, tell it to feed itself and see how far that will get you. The perceived difference seems to lie in the effort required from the owner of animals/tractors: to feed a tractor, one call to the delivery company to top up the farm's diesel tank is sufficient and everything is taken care of. Why would this business model not be viable for animal fodder?
The difference will probably be stated as expense: having a tanker truck drive a hundred kilometers to deliver a thousand liters of diesel is probably cheaper than having half a dozen stableboys running around the place. The question one needs to ask is: for how long will this tanker truck stay cheaper than the stableboys?

An interesting question is also: how does a tanker truck driving to a farm compare to those stableboys in terms of energy and energy cost? And what would be cheaper (even today) when energy would have the same price regardless of the form it comes in? The aforementioned delivery of diesel fuel amounts to an energy cost of 298.8kWh (1), while putting six stableboys to work for a day costs 3.6kWh (4). That means that for the same amount of energy spent in delivering fuel, you can put six people to work for 83 days.
In this grossly oversimplified scenario, feeding horses would become more economical once a truck delivery becomes as expensive as 498 man-days. It may not be for tomorrow, but as oil reserves reach zero, oil price will reach infinity (which is a lot more expensive than 498 man-days).
Conversely, to put the cheapness of fossil fuel in perspective: 60 liters of diesel *should* cost the same as 498 man-days, as it represents the same amount of energy. This means fossil fuel today is too cheap and manual labour is too expensive.

The above calculation also demonstrates why farmers moved from animal power to tractors: the reason is not 'efficiency' as stated above (although efficiency may be a consequence), but fuel cost. Consequently when fuel cost rises sufficiently, farmers will again switch, in part or in whole, their choice of fuel from diesel back to oats; probably stating reasons of 'efficiency' yet again.

Needing more people to manage (local) farms would also be a good thing: as developed countries become more and more knowledge economies and industrial activity diminishes (ie is moved to cheaper countries), there is less work for those people whose potential physical skills surpass their knowledge. The cost of unemployment benefits for those who are unfit to operate in modern service and knowledge economies will increase and put a heavier (tax) burden on those who do qualify, increasing the cost of manpower and feeding the vicious circle by moving ever more labour-intensive activities to low-cost countries.
When there are sufficient local labour-intensive jobs available to meet the supply of available low-skilled labour, a lot of people can be kept out of unemployment statistics and the cost of labour can be lowered over time, breaking the vicious circle and benefitting the entire active population as well as the nation's competitive position. In addition, nations will also have to spend less in unsuccessful efforts to improve the educational standards of unemployed people, in a vain attempt to help them to a job. Crudely said: there will always be some people who will never find a place in a knowledge economy, so it may be more economical to create low-entry jobs for them than to increase their educational standards or pay them unemployment benefits. Any idiot can shovel manure, carry around hay and straw, clean horses and tack, etc.

Given all these controversial statements, let the storm of protest break loose :-)

(1) 30l/100km [truck consumption (2)] times 50km [distance] times 2 [driving back] times 35.86MJ/l [energy content of diesel (3)] = 1075.8MJ = 1075.8MWs = 298.8kWh
(4) 8h [working day] times 75W [sustained average output of labourer (5)] times 6 [number of stableboys] = 3.6kWh

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel_fuel#Fuel_value_and_price
(2) http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_fuel_mileage_on_a_tanker_truck (I rounded the 7 mpg to 7.84, which gives me a nice round 30l/100km according to Google calculator)
(5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_power#Available_power



Arithmetic error: in the above calculations it should be 30 liters of diesel having to cost the same as 498 man-days, not 60 liters.



Another big difference between a horse and a tractor is that the former has a mind of its own. A tractor has to be physically be driven by a human, turing the steering wheel and accelarating and breaking by physically moving two pedals. But a well trained well treated horse can (often) be directed using behaviour rather than force. Note that horses bulk at even small distractions, such as chains that jiggle, reflections on puddles, metal chanking and banging, chothing hanging on fences, and bight daylight (they have a natural tendency to move out of the shade, but not twoards bright sunlight).
So try to keep the field devoid of distractions that make them bulk.
Electric bicycle style power assistance (now used on The Docker) would improve the speed and convenince and reduce fatigue.



Id like to find out if men could replace horses. A group of people would be much harder on the soil however.

Lee D.


Actually, according to several studies in Small Farmer's Journal, farming with horses reduces costs and increases profits on farms under 300 acres or so in size. The value of the manure as fertilizer, and the sale of offspring were all included against the purchase price maintenance, and repair costs of a tractor use for an equivalent size farm.

Granite, there are some selfish people that I would not like to see driving horses. I do think that a culture of respect for the animals welfare can become dominant. I'm saying this as an experienced horseman that also has some experience working on organic farms.

It is actually happening already on more farms that some Tractor fans would suspect, and not only on Amish or Menonite farms. There has a been a renewed interest in using draft animals for farming. Last, in a world of constrained resources, tractors will become even more expensive. There will be a tipping point based on cost and not just on the religion of progress and dedication to the bigger is better philosophy.





I'm sure I read about a system which used ropes on pulleys to pull the farming equipment along, somewhere. Wouldn't that make more sense? The system would be agnostic with regards to whatever is powering it - it doesn't care whether the stationary generator uses diesel, hydropower, or even a team of horses (you'll probably want a flywheel to smooth out the power). It perhaps would allow the manpower savings to be retained, whilst moving to a different power source, and if horses (why not oxen?) are used their manure would be easier to collect and spread over the field.

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