The Draft Horse Whisperer
But the animals also add a dynamic to the work that Hutton can’t get from machinery. The old soul in Hutton treasures the relationships he’s formed with his horses. When he was 24, he bought his first one, a big retired pulling horse named Duke. The pair spent a lot of hours in the woods, and it was Duke who eventually broke Ted into the work.
Over the last quarter-century, Hutton and Ted have navigated myriad landscapes and weather conditions. The two have been out late plowing fields on a Friday night, then in downtown Portsmouth the next day, pulling a carriage for a wedding at the height of tourist season. They’ve worked when it’s 20* below, so cold that hoary froths of ice built up around the mouths and ears of his horses, and the only thing they could do to stay warm was to keep moving. “Once you get going, you’re down to a T-shirt in a half-hour,” says Hutton, a farmer who likes working in winter. “Besides, you don’t get stung by yellow jackets when it’s that cold.”
When Hutton talks about his horses, he speaks of them as he would any co-workers. He knows their limits, what sets off a certain mood, and how each one works under pressure. There’s also a reverence in his voice, an acknowledgment that they’ve taught him something as well.
“Ted’s got a humorous steak in him,” Hutton says. “You take him out in the woods, and after one or two logs he’ll want to see whether the line in the sand is the same as it was yesterday. He’s testing you to see whether the same rules from 20 years ago still apply. I have to swear at him when we’re working, because he just wants to push my buttons.”
Spending nearly four decades working with draft animals offers that kind of insight. But in developing that experience, Hutton has also emerged as an important link to the farming life that once built and defined New England communities. He’s an able storyteller and a willing educator, traits not often found in men like him, and he carries the legacy and the heritage of those farmers to make sure their history is accurately told. “I’ve said we either tell our own stories,” he says, “or somebody else is going to tell them for us, and we may not like how they’re told.”
At agricultural fairs all across Maine and New Hampshire, Hutton has worked as an announcer for pulling competitions, weaving colorful accounts and historical anecdotes into his play-by-play. In 1998 he caught the attention of Lynn Martin Graton, traditional-arts coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. She was in the midst of planning for New Hampshire’s presence at the following year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a 10-day event held each summer on the National Mall. She just happened to stumble across Hutton at the Deerfield Fair and was immediately struck by him.
“John was announcing and filling in with all this interesting history about the horses and how draft animals were used before the automobile,” recalls Graton, now the NHSCA’s acting director. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ And all the guys loved him. He’s extremely well informed and has an interest in history and is an independent scholar of this lifestyle and this history of farming. And he lives the life and does the work. He knows how to communicate emotionally and verbally with these animals.” So in 1999, Hutton joined some 140 other New Hampshire residents in representing the state in Washington; he served as the announcer and commentator for the festival’s draft-animal demonstrations.
About an hour into the logging work, a sweating Hutton sheds his work jacket. “Back when I was logging full-time I don’t think I weighed more than 170,” he cracks, patting his stomach.
On a good day, Hutton and his horses would have a fair number of the logs pulled out of the woods by the end of the afternoon. But that’s not going to happen today. The seasoned teamster in him knows that he can push his animals only so far. A century ago, loggers avoided working for men who regularly came out of the woods with fewer horses than they started with. If a teamster was hard on his horses, they reasoned, he undoubtedly was going to be even harder on his men, because they came even cheaper. “It takes a real teamster to have the same set of horses every year,” Hutton notes.
And that’s why he’s continously reading his animals, evaluating their temperament and performance. At certain points, even when the logs are tonged and the horses are ready to pull, Hutton waits, letting the animals learn how to stand still in case a situation comes up and he needs to fix or adjust some piece of equipment. He’s got a living to make, but he’s not going to overwork his animals to do it.