Gentle giants out in force for rearranged ploughing match this weekend

Heath Darley (right) with his wife Liz with their Clydesdales Ted(left) and Bill at Birdforth near Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom
Heath Darley (right) with his wife Liz with their Clydesdales Ted(left) and Bill at Birdforth near Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom
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"Gentle Giants". As terms of endearment go there cannot be a phrase in agriculture that defines one type of animal so succinctly.

On Sunday (November 17) many of them will, weather permitting, be out in force at Copmanthorpe just off the A64 to the south side of Askham Bryan College for the Northern Heavy Horse Society’s hastily rearranged annual ploughing match and working demonstration having been called off in October due to heavy rainfall at Seamer.

Billy Rudd 10 (left) and Charlie Rudd 7 nephews of Heath Darley feeding Toby the Shetland Poiny at Birdforth near Thirsk.

Billy Rudd 10 (left) and Charlie Rudd 7 nephews of Heath Darley feeding Toby the Shetland Poiny at Birdforth near Thirsk.

Clydesdale heavy horse owner and enthusiast Heath Darley, of Birdforth, near Thirsk, will be there with his Great Yorkshire Show winners, Ted and Bill. Heath swapped from something even heavier – an eight-tonne steamroller he had until 12 years ago – to his pride and joy Clydesdales that he competes with in the agricultural turnout classes complete with his beautifully liveried Oxford Blue and cherry red carts.

But it is his horses at work he enjoys best and he has a great relationship with them.

“Mine are very placid,” says Heath, in response to my reference to gentle giants. “But if heavy horses want to go, they will go, and there’s not a lot you can do about it when they do. That’s why it is all about the ultimate respect for each other – you and the horse.

“He – all ours are geldings – needs to be confident that he won’t be put into a situation where he could get hurt.

“That’s why horses are broken in, before going out to work or to show. I currently have Buddy, who we bought as a yearling and is now nearly four years old. He’s pretty much ready.

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“I enjoy working with our horses. It’s a family affair with my wife Liz and our daughters Katy and Anna. We regularly work the horses for the public at Beamish Open Air Museum and Hay Farm at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

“Those and the shows we attend at Harrogate, Scotland for the Royal Highland and lots of other more local shows such as Driffield, Ripley and Malton plus the ploughing matches and demonstrations are our holidays and leisure time.”

Heath began taking part at ploughing matches with his Clydesdales three years ago. It was the culmination of a long-held ambition.

“I’m not a farmer’s son but I used to work for Joe Holmes at Spellow Hill in my teens and before that I’d help Hubert Houseman at Arkendale, where I grew up.

“Hubert let me drive tractors and I became a farm labourer with Joe, feeding his cattle and handling jobs like power harrowing and drilling, but my father took me away from farming.

“He said I’d never get anywhere simply being a farm labourer. He found me a job with another Houseman, William, at Darley. I became an apprentice mechanic on HGVs. I’ve been a mechanic for 30 years.

“One thing I’d always wanted was to work with horses, plough with them. We moved here to Birdforth fifteen years ago as Liz had a horse and we wanted some land. Sadly, her horse Louis passed away and that’s when we got Ted, our first Clydesdale, through Paul Bedford at Whixley. Liz was petrified of the steamroller so that went and ever since we have concentrated on heavy horses.

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“I’m still very green at ploughing with Ted and Bill as a pair and a Ransome single furrow plough that I completely refurbished after it must have been left in a shed in Malton for many years.

“I’m nowhere near those who have ploughed with horses for decades, but I am listening and learning. One of the great things about showing and competing in ploughing matches is that everyone helps those who are new.

“I remember when we went to our first show at Pickering about ten years ago, the judge came over and had a word with me explaining what he was looking for and what I’d done wrong.

“He wasn’t at all patronising, just trying to help, and that’s the same with ploughing.

“All ploughmen will help you, put an arm around you to help you improve. I’ve had wonderful advice from well-known men like Colin Taylor of Newark and Jimmy Elliott who used to be at Beamish.

“You get to know how to do a break, put your markers out and how to achieve straightness, levelness, coverage, depth of ploughing and width of furrow.

“Once you get your mark you have to produce three rows either side of it and then the last element is to join your ploughing to your neighbours. That’s a whole skill in itself. I’m working on it.”

Heath is grateful to his mentor, neighbour, Alan Lees, for all he has taught him and helped him with, including currently the breaking in of Buddy.

“When we first moved here I saw Alan driving his Shires up and down our country lane. It was Alan who got me interested in them and it has snowballed to us now having three – Ted, Bill and Buddy.

“They, as well as the ponies and our Shetland draught horse Toby who is now 22 have given us all so much pleasure. Katy was at the head of Bill at this year’s Great Yorkshire. Katy and Anna both drive the horses too.

“We had no chance up at Seamer last month where there were twelve-inch ruts. That would have been too dangerous for the horses and everyone.

“On Sunday, providing we don’t get weather like we’ve been having, we are on good, flat, sandy land with great access and it should be an ideal time for anyone to come along and see the Shires, Clydesdales, Suffolk Punch and Percherons in action, and also take part.

“We are all about encouraging children to have a go at holding on to the long reins, completely supervised, or indeed those of older years who would like to experience again what they may have last done over 60 years ago. We are also extremely grateful to Askham Bryan College for granting the use of the field.”