Long before motorized John Deeres ruled rural America, farmers were using advanced mechanical equipment thanks to — you guessed it — horse power. The quicker you tend to (and harvest) your crop, the more you could grow, sell, or store. Horses are the unsung heroes of 19th-century farms, and these are just some of the horse-drawn farm equipment that changed the game forever.
You've probably heard the phrase, don't put the cart before the horse, but people weren't hitching their horses to carts until around 3500 BCE. A few thousand years later, circa 1300 BCE, the bridle was invented which let people guide donkeys, oxen, or horses in a much more controlled manner.
It didn't take long for our ancestors to understand how harnessing animal power for their farming practices could totally revolutionize their agrarian systems. Wagons, in particular, were useful because of their multiple purposes. They could haul people, hay, crops, and other supplies or goods around the farm.
By the 17th century, horses-drawn wagons had been plucked from their rural roots, trussed up by the aristocratic elite, and redesigned into luxrious, comfort-centric carriages.
2. Peg Tooth Harrow
These are one of those historic farm tools that an archaeologist in 5024 would look at with no context and confidently claim it was some kind of torture device, but they're actually really revolutionary.
Often used over disc harrows with animal-powered farming, the peg tooth harrow features horizontal rows fitted with wooden or metal teeth. They are commonly used for land leveling or soil puddling, which is often utilized in rice production. But they were an important tool in helping you prep the land so it was ready for planting.
"Rice has fed more people over a longer period of time than any other crop." UC Davis' Anatomy of Crop Plants Project.
3. Sleds & Sleighs
Freeze advisories and overnight snow might cause school cancellations, but farming doesn't stop for Mother Nature's pleas. Horse-drawn sleds make carrying loads across the farm much easier than trying to roll wheels through the snow. Sleighs, or sleds, were extremely common in the 19th century and were used for both transport and work.
Sleds were a mainstay for rural farming communities like those in Appalachia because you could source all of the materials to make them yourself from the land around you.
4. Reaper Binder
By the mid-19th century, the reaper (a machine used to cut down grain) got a makeover. Invented in 1871 by C.W. & W.W. Marsh, the wire binder was a new machine that bound bundles of crop with wire bands.
Taking this a step further in the 1880s, the reaper binder was born. This massive machine cuts down grains, like wheat, and binds it into piles and can't work without horse power. They were such a time saver that farmers used these Victorian devices well into the 20th century.
5. Steel Plow
The steel plow is the antique farm tool that put John Deere on the map. Invented in 1837, this single-blade plow was a revolutionary tool for tilling wide swaths of prairie land in a fraction of the time it took to do it by hand.
By the late 1800s, plows like this featured more blades to lift and turn the soil in preparation for planting and were situated on wheels so one or two horses could pull them while farmers could guide it from behind.
Take one look at push mowers from the 1950s and our arms start to ache, but imagine trying to tend a massive parcel of land before even push mowers were a thing. That's were the blessing of horse-drawn mowers come in.
Between the 1850s and 1900 there were over 100 brands of horse-drawn mowers made, which proves just how important the device was. One or two horses would pull these machines while a farmer rode on the back. The long arm full of teeth extends out to the side to cut down grass or overgrown fields for farming, making hay, or clearing an area for other purposes.
Some modern farmers continue to use horse-drawn equipment instead of gas-powered ones because of their better ecological impact.
7. Hay Baler
You know the uphill battle it can be to roll enough snow in a ball to make a snowman. Well, the same can go for baling hay. Hay baling machines feature a gas engine mounted to the baler itself that sucks up the hay and shoots it out in a bale. Horses pull these bad boys around the farm so no piece of hay goes unbaled. Baling was such a vital development because it meant that the hay could be compressed into storage which was then kept to feed the livestock.
Although many modern motorized vehicles aren't permitted in Amish communities, some have allowed gas-powered hay balers.
8. Field Roller
While it may look like something used to pave a road or flatten a Looney Tunes character, field rollers actually wear many hats on the farm. Invented in the mid-1860s, these huge rock slabs were used to level ground that's been dug up by livestock, break up dirt clods after plowing, and/or rollover seeds to push them into the dirt. It's one of those pieces of equipment that doesn't look very impressive from the jump, but without it, the farm would surely fall apart.
9. Disc Harrow
First patented in the 1860s, the disc harrow is a device that features a row of sharp discs. This razor-sharp piece of equipment is used to help prepare fields for planting by breaking up dirt clods and destroying weeds.
If you've ever had to till up a garden to prep it for spring planting, then you know what kind of back-breaking labor it can be. Thanks to the horse-drawn disc harrow, you don't have to have your chiropractor on speed dial.
10. Wooden Buck Rake
Once harvested hay has been raked into rows, a buck rake could be used to push each row into a pile. First mentions of this rake on stereoids start around 1865, but the concept stretched well into the 20th century. But today, most buckrakes are made to be attached to the front of a tractor.
11. Metal Hay Rake
Typically pulled by one or two horses, the metal hay rake (aka hay dump rake) made it easier to gather up cut and cured grass, or hay, from the fields. Invented in the 1870s, the horse-drawn hay rake was just another feature in this massive farming equipment boom that was the 19th century.
12. Manure Spreader
When you've got horses on hand you've got free fertilizer, but no one's volunteering to be on manure-spreading duty. This is where the horse-drawn manure spreader came in handy. Early manure spreaders became widely available just before the turn of the century and featured large wooden paddles, though today's versions are typically made out of metal.
These Equines Aren't Horsin' Around
Although modern farming really started taking shape in the 19th century, all of those fabulous feats of engineerings wouldn't have been possible with the horse labor used to make them work. Before the combustion engine was a glimmer on the horizon, horses were the glue that kept most farms running. And in some cases, they're still the glue that binds farms today.