HEAVY HORSES are agriculture’s latter day juggernauts. Impressive, powerful and the equine world’s gentle giants, they are often seen as a symbol of rural history.
Working heavy horses, particularly those that have been bred to plough, are understandably fewer in number than they were a century ago before tractors began replacing them.
Those who visit Yorkshire’s plethora of summer agricultural shows may feel as though they’ve seen them in all their glory, but to witness them in their more familiar role as a working animal during the autumn season of ploughing matches is to catch them how they used to be before they turned into their decorative show attire.
The Northern Heavy Horse Society hosts its annual ploughing match at North Cave on Sunday. It will include vintage tractors too but Irishman Brendan Glavin of Selby is in no doubt as to what provides the pulling power for those watching. He’s had heavy horses for over 20 years and his current pair of dapple grey Percheron geldings – Pacific and Picasso – will once again be competing with his son Steven holding the reins and the 80-year-old Ransome plough.
“People don’t go to see the tractors, they go to see these magnificent horses and there will be 14-15 teams at North Cave. They are very different to the heavy horses that you see at shows. If you took a pair of them I don’t think they would plough at all.
“We’ve had Pacific and Picasso from them being around 18-months-old. They came over from France and are now 12-years-old. They were jet black at the time but we all go grey don’t we? We bought them in the April and spent four hours a day working and training them until we went to this same event for the first time that year.
“Percherons are very intelligent horses and know what they’re doing. There are words that they understand for going slightly left or right. To get them to come left a little you say ‘half’ and to the right it is ‘gee’. At the age they are now they’re in their prime.”
Brendan was born in County Kerry. His father was a carpenter and his uncles were farmers whom he ploughed for from being 14 years of age.
“I never competed as a young lad in Ireland. I came over to England in 1962 at 18 to make my fortune and I’m still looking for it. The only thing I competed at back then was Gaelic Football in Leeds where I was centre forward.
“The first ploughing match I ever went to was at North Cave and the minute I saw the horses it all came back to me. I bought my first horses when I was in my 50s, a pair of Shires from the Bedfords that we called Tommy and Flash. I sold them to a man in Ireland, who was wanting them for a similar kind of thing to Beamish Museum, when they were 10-years-old and got a good price for them but it took me another 10 years before I was able to find a pair as good as the two I have now.”
While Brendan had some success as a ploughman it is his son Steven who has gone on to greater things and last year was runner-up to the world champion in the British national championships in Staffordshire.
Brendan is hoping that Steven can go one better next weekend when this year’s nationals take place in Kent; and that next year’s British and World championships, to be held at Crockey Hill near York will once again see them competing at the highest level.
“We go to 20 matches a year and Steven does really well but he and I both know that ploughing with heavy horses is 90 per cent about the quality of what you have in front of you and these horses are exceptional.”
The Glavins’ travels with their horses often take them over the Irish Sea to Brendan’s homeland.
“Picasso and Pacific have appeared on telly with the Prime Minister of Ireland and we also take them to Northern Ireland, to County Armagh, where their ploughing match broke the world record for most teams of horses working at the same time. There were 44 teams that day and what an incredible sight it was.”
Brendan and Ann also run their own Selby Ploughing Match each year and both the Selby and North Cave events raise funds for charity.
A mixed-use horse breed
The Percheron breed originates from the Huisne river valley in France and was bred for use as a warhorse before being used to pull stagecoaches, haul heavy goods and work the fields.
Famed for its well-muscled conformation, intelligence and willingness to work, the breed was used in Europe during the First World War and some, shipped earlier to the US, were brought back to France to bolster numbers.
There are now just seven Percheron breeders listed with the British Percheron Horse Society in the UK.
The Northern Heavy Horse Society Ploughing Match takes place at Westgate Farm, North Cave, East Yorkshire tomorrow (Sunday, October 4).