The Draft Horse Whisperer
It’s going to be a good day for swearing. John Hutton indicates as much as he heads to the back of his barn, a long, bow-roofed structure that houses goats, pigs, horses, and, on occasion, a daring, gold-colored hen who darts around the farmer’s feet. It’s a mild, mid-February morning, and Hutton, who moves with the permanent precision of someone who always has a long to-do list, is gearing up for an afternoon in the woods. He strides past his two farmhands, who brush and bridle Hutton’s horses, and then pops outside to load up his wagon with a chainsaw and a couple of ropes.
Even by New England standards, Hutton’s Coppal House Farm, a rolling 78-acre plot of field and forest in Lee, New Hampshire, isn’t large. But what he lacks in size, Hutton makes up for in approach. His round face marked by a thick mustache and a toothy, engaging smile, he has an almost preternatural reverence for an efficiency that leans heavily on tradition.
Much of how Hutton powers his farm comes from his three Belgians, and his attachment to them rivals his feeling for his land. On a property that has sustained men like him since the 1700s, Hutton plows his fields each spring with his animals, picks some 25 acres of corn in late summer, and then, come winter, heads out to the woods to log.
As he checks over his wagon, Hutton’s farmhands, Meghan Boucher and Luke Keniston, harness his horses, who look, standing over the two assistants, cartoonishly big. Ice, a 2,000-pound, 8-year-old gelding, ducks his head under the doorframe as Luke leads him out of his stall. Standing next to him is Twiggy, a 1,700-pound, 10-year-old mare whom Hutton picked up six years ago. Off to the side, waiting patiently and all harnessed up is Ted, a smaller 1,600-pound gelding with whom Hutton has worked for almost 25 years.
“I don’t have to drive him in the woods,” Hutton likes to say of his old horse. “I show him the road once or twice and then just leave him alone. He doesn’t like to be micromanaged.”
A largely snowless winter has made for a strange season. Logging the way Hutton does it requires snow, which lets draft horses like his pull timber up to 12 times their weight. But the dry days have frustrated him; he and his team have been out only a few times. Not only is Hutton behind on hauling out enough lumber for his spring projects, but his horses are out of shape. In Twiggy’s case, there’s the further complication of getting her acquainted with the work: Today will be her first time logging. “She’s a super horse to work with but a little fast,” Hutton says. “But I think she’s slowed down enough.” He pauses and looks at the mare. “If you’re not used to swearing, you might hear some this afternoon.”
In short order, the horses are hitched to a long trailer, and Hutton, sitting up front, just behind his horses, directs his team down a narrow dirt road edging his fields, then turns down a trail to a forest of tall white pines. About a half-mile in, Hutton comes to a stop and jumps off the trailer. Quickly, he unhitches the horses. Ice and Twiggy are harnessed together; Hutton, holding on to a pair of long reins, steps behind them. “If it looks bad and they start coming at you, just get behind a big tree and let ‘em pass by you,” Hutton says. He pauses. “I’m not kidding.”
There was the time, about 25 years ago, when Hutton–still a young teamster and driving a wagon behind two of his horses–lost one of his reins. Towing Hutton behind them, the team sprinted toward his new truck, which sat parked in his driveway, and then jumped over its hood. The big Belgians cleared the target; so did Hutton, who shot into the air and landed, unscathed, in front of his team. “Unfortunately, the wagon didn’t do too good,” Hutton says, with a laugh. “It hung on top of the truck.”
There will be no such drama today. Hutton has a firm grip on the lines, and when he’s ready, he prods the horses forward: “Okay, go easy.” With that, he guides his team to a small clearing rimmed with clusters of felled trees that he cut down a few days ago. Luke Keniston follows his boss, and as Hutton gets the horses close to the first log, he snaps a set of tongs around the butt end of the tree.