power from a bygone age
By Mike Williams
WHEN Robin Worthington left school he learned to plough on an old David Brown tractor, but since then he has swapped the tractor for a team of horses which he takes to ploughing matches throughout the country.
His enthusiasm for horse ploughing started with a collection of old ploughs, and he now has about 100 of them at Newholme, his smallholding at Fishlake near Doncaster, South Yorks. His collection includes donkey ploughs, mini-sized ploughs designed to be pulled by the farmer – or his wife, plus a reversible plough made at least a century ago to be pulled by oxen.
Most of the ploughs were made for horses, so Mr Worthington decided to buy a pair of heavy horses so some of his ploughs could be put to work again. He was also keen to try his hand at match ploughing and in 1991 he bought a pair of Shires, the oldest and heaviest of the traditional English breeds.
The Shires were followed by a pair of Clydesdales, Scotlands national heavy horse breed. His ploughing team consists of Jimmie, an 11-year-old gelding, and a mare of the same age called Rosie. He also has a youngster called Ben, which allows Mr Worthington to work with either a two or a three-horse plough team.
"I prefer working with the Clydesdales," he says. "They are nice looking horses and they have a very good temperament, but they are not as popular in England as the Shires. When I go to a ploughing match in this area Rosie and Jimmie are often the only Clydesdales taking part, but in Scotland there is more of a mixture and Clydesdales sometimes outnumber the other breeds."
Mr Worthington competes in about 30 ploughing matches a year, travelling as far afield as southern Scotland, Somerset and Ireland. Most matches are on stubble, which he prefers, but when he competes in Ireland he has to plough on grass.
"I find grass ploughing a lot more difficult, and my finish is not as good," he says. "I dont get a very good score when I compete in Ireland, but I enjoy going there."
Mr Worthington is modest about his success when stubble ploughing, but a large collection of trophies and certificates suggests he and his team are often among the winners. But good match ploughing demands good horses, he says, which must respond to commands, work together as a team, and produce the steady, even pull which helps to leave a good finish.
The relationship between an experienced ploughman and his horses appears to be similar to a shepherd and a well-trained sheepdog. Mr Worthington clearly enjoys the close understanding he shares with his team, but match ploughing, he says, is not a cheap hobby. A good team of ploughing horses will cost £4000 to £5000, although the cost can be reduced by buying two individual horses which have not previously worked as a team.
"Horses which are used to working together are already a team, and thats a big advantage," he says. "Buying them separately saves some money, but then youve got the job of getting them to work together. That can take a lot of time, you can get two horses which simply wont work as a team.
"You can also cut the cost by buying young horses to train yourself, but that also takes a lot of time and not everybody can train horses for ploughing."
Providing harness for the horses is also expensive. It would cost £3000 plus to kit out a pair of ploughing horses with new harness, but Mr Worthington buys old harness and does the repairs himself.
Other costs faced by the enthusiasts who use heavy horses for match ploughing include the blacksmiths bill and there is also the cost of a horsebox big enough to transport a pair of heavy horses.
And then theres the plough. Mr Worthington competes with a Ransomes RNE7 match plough made 70 or 80 years ago. It was designed for high cut work, has an extra long frame and mouldboard, and is equipped with the skimmers and other attachments needed to produce a prize winning finish.
"Youve a job to find a good match plough these days," he says. "Some of them are still about in the back of a barn, but people like to keep them because it was the plough granddad used when he won the local ploughing match. You can pick up an old general purpose horse plough for just a few £s, but a good match plough with all its attachments will probably cost well over £1000. *