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The Draft Horse Whisperer

The Draft Horse Whisperer
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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.

“All right, let’s find out if you have any power,” Hutton says, and then shouts the horses forward. They pull the pine, maybe 16 inches in diameter, easily to the middle of the clearing. A veteran team their size could comfortably haul a load equal to their own weight, Hutton says, but Ice and Twiggy are far from seasoned. So he builds his horses up, going after slightly bigger logs with each new load.

Twiggy, though, is hoppy. At times she jerks forward ahead of Ice, pulling her partner with her. Other times, she stops and lets Ice do the work. To help her, Hutton mixes stern directives with encouragement. He pats her gently after each completed load and fires his frustration at her when the logs barely budge. “Twiggy!” he booms at one point. “I’ve got news for you: Ted’s moved bigger logs than this and you’re a bigger horse than he is.” On it goes for the next several hours, Hutton prodding and pushing his animals like a coach at practice.

“My parents keep asking me when I’m going to get a real job,” Meghan says later with a laugh. “John and I aren’t sure what that’s supposed to mean.”

As a boy growing up in Stratham, New Hampshire, there was never any doubt what John Hutton would do with his life. Genetic disposition and family legacy ensured that. Hutton men had worked the land for several generations; it was the kind of employment that allowed them to get by, but not much else. A year and a half before Hutton’s birth, his father succumbed to financial pressures and sold off his 75-head dairy farm, settling his family on a nearby one-and-a-half-acre plot. He started over as a milk inspector, work that put him on the road and let his young boy travel with him as he visited dairy farms across New Hampshire and Maine.

Hutton adored the stories his father told him about the old farm. He loved even more the retired farmers and loggers his father knew. These men, who had toiled in the fields and woods with oxen and draft horses, became his heroes. Theirs had been a world molded by the big logging camps that had once dominated the northern landscape, felling some of the final giants of the New England forest with axes and crosscut saws. For Hutton they represented the last vestiges of a way of life that had largely vanished, replaced by machinery, and he hung on their every word. “I was pretty aware when I was young that I was around the last generation of these guys,” Hutton says. “I was just a sponge.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Friday, December 14th, 2012

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