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Horse Power
September 3, 2007 6:15 PM   Subscribe


 
Nice article, thanks!
posted by HuronBob at 6:21 PM on September 3, 2007


I'm open to the idea of using horses for power, but:

1) We already have problems with cattle being treated poorly--what about horses? And don't say "nobody is going to abuse their power source--it would be against their financial interests". Pshaw.

2) I think the argument should stand on itself, without being prefaced with WHEN I WAS A BOY and interspersed with GOOD HONEST SWEAT.
posted by DU at 6:29 PM on September 3, 2007


This would have been a lot more interesting / meaningful if he'd compared horses to biofuel-powered engines. It's pretty clear that right now, animals (specifically cows for beef) are a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and a major energy sink, it doesn't immediately strike me as a great idea to embrace the horse.
posted by mek at 6:31 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also, using horse calculators a la Mr Ed could replace computers.

I'm actually writing this on a pony.
posted by sien at 6:39 PM on September 3, 2007 [8 favorites]


PETA will love this.
posted by papakwanz at 6:43 PM on September 3, 2007


Mechanized farming vastly reduced the labor needed to produce a given amount of food, partly by replacing labor intensive animals with exponentially more efficient machines. It's not really feasible to turn back the clock, doing the same amount of farm work today done by machines with horses would require a metric crap-ton of horses and all the laborers to maintain and operate them.

Interesting idea, but I think the author VASTLY underestimates the sheer scale of consolidated, mechanized agriculture. To implement the horse again as a mainstay of production you'd ahve to rebuild the small homestead-small family farmer culture that he's so nostalgic for, and that just isn't going to happen (until the oil really does run out).
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:46 PM on September 3, 2007


As far as agricultural revolution goes, I'm much more excited about the idea of giant skyscraper farms than I am about bringing back horses.

Horses are lovely animals. They also get sick quite a bit, injure themselves easily, require a great deal of care, tons of feeding (and if they're grazing, lots of land to do it on) and someone who knows how to handle them--no longer a common skill for your average industrialized Westerner. Maybe for small-scale operations, sure, why not? But horses are not low-maintenance animals by any stretch.
posted by emjaybee at 7:09 PM on September 3, 2007


Even the Amish use gas engines to run their farm equipment - the horses just pull them. They also have forecarts with 25 HP B & S Vanguard motors that have a PTO shaft and hydraulic remotes. Some sects can even use tractors, as long as they have steel wheels on them.

emjaybee, if we were to bring back draft animals, we would do better with mules than horses. With mules you get the best of both worlds - the strength of the horse, and the brains and toughness of the donkey.
posted by rfs at 7:23 PM on September 3, 2007


I read a report that noted for the small land holder (defined as under 100 acres) horses were actually cheaper than mechanized farming. Have you priced modern tractors?

It's an interesting idea, and not as far out as the non-farmers in this thread paint it.

Of more concern will be the reduced crop yields no matter what the motive power when petroleum fertilizers are no long available at a price people are willing to pay.
posted by maxwelton at 7:30 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is that a pony request?
posted by YamwotIam at 7:33 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


To implement the horse again as a mainstay of production you'd [have] to rebuild the small homestead-small family farmer culture that he's so nostalgic for...

Like that's a bad thing?

Industrialized agriculture lays at the heart of a great many problems: from oil consumption to green house gas emissions (mostly methane, pound for pound far worse than carbon dioxide) to mass-scale application of petro-chemicals, growth hormones and antibiotics. As a result we've seen introduction of diseases on the farm and pathogens in our food supply, stunningly cruel treatment of livestock, and the decimation of the family farm. And, oh yeah... people have died from eating *spinach*.

There's more reason than mere nostalgia to advocate a back-to-basics approach when it comes to farming.
posted by deCadmus at 7:35 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


My great uncle used horses all his life on a small Iowa farm. All the cousins would help on a different family farm every weekend and his was one that had a natural rhythm to it. Great memories.

In his 70s, he was talked into buying a truck to get back and forth to town. Forgot to set the parking brake the first time and as the truck rolled toward the barn he chased after it yelling "Whoa, boy. Whoa!"
posted by hal9k at 7:45 PM on September 3, 2007 [8 favorites]




Like that's a bad thing?

I didn't say it's a bad thing, it's just unlikely. People are generally moving from the farm to the city these days, not away from it and back out to the farms. I'm generally for organic farming, sustainable living and what have you, but not at the expense of moving back out to my grandpa's farm and tilling the land with a horse. I think most people would agree with me, regardless of the environmental effects, maybe that's not the best mindset but I'm confident it's the most prevalent.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:49 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have some second cousins in North Dakota who use horses to do some of their farming. I don't think it's quite as crazy an idea as it sounds. And as for the "WHEN I WAS A BOY" stuff - the audience is probably farmers, no? Speaking as someone who is related to a lot of midwestern farmers, I don't think it's a bad rhetorical move.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:10 PM on September 3, 2007


Transformative, yes, but will it make you shit in your pants?
posted by mazola at 8:16 PM on September 3, 2007


Never trust an animal that can't hurl.
posted by user92371 at 8:22 PM on September 3, 2007


Bibilomu-u-u-u-las!
posted by homunculus at 8:34 PM on September 3, 2007


Horse-electric hybrid car. (And two-horsepower bus.)

Awesome marketing video.

Joke or not? I report, you decide.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:35 PM on September 3, 2007


The problem with "horse power."
posted by davy at 8:37 PM on September 3, 2007


Stand beside a great team someday, heads high above your own, massive muscles in every part. Get your hands on the lines, speak to them softly and feel those tons of intelligent power surge joyously into the collars. Feel the strength coursing back through your hands as the furrow opens behind you or the great wheels move beneath their load, and surely you will ask, how could we have abandoned this?

The money shot 'graph.
posted by rob511 at 8:37 PM on September 3, 2007


Sounds like he's plowing his horse's furrow.
posted by stavrogin at 8:50 PM on September 3, 2007


The answer to his question, "Why did we abandon the horse" is answered later in his own essay:
Horse power requires people, and the people have gone to the cities, their lands mostly joined into holdings too large for one family with a few good horses. The agricultural labor force would have to be greatly increased and farm size drastically reduced, or some system worked out for putting more people back on the land.
So OF COURSE everyone went to petroleum power. People are expensive. And they like to live well. Owning a farm may be secure, but it's terribly hard work, it never, never lets up, and you don't have that great a standard of living. If you can buy a tractor and do the work yourself instead of paying five guys to do it, of COURSE you're going to buy the tractor.

The horses are irrelevant; it's the manpower that matters.
posted by Malor at 8:52 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read a report that noted for the small land holder (defined as under 100 acres) horses were actually cheaper than mechanized farming.

100 acre farms are uncompetitive and don't represent a significant part of the overall farming economy any longer.

One time I had someone ask me if it was time to reconsider introducing the bow as a combat weapon. My response was that there were damned good reasons why the bow was abandoned in favor of the arquebus, and those reasons still apply.

And there were good reasons why farming stopped relying on horses and switched to powered machinery. Those reasons still apply, too.

You can't go backwards. Nostalgia is a terrible foundation for economic planning.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:55 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


You can't go backwards. Nostalgia is a terrible foundation for economic planning.

And in the future, nostalgia for the time when millions and millions of people could afford to burn an entire gallon of oil just to go to a store (where many gallons of oil were used to ship everything in from China) will be a terrible foundation for economic planning.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:59 PM on September 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


Nuclear and coal are viable alternative energy sources. Horses are not.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:10 PM on September 3, 2007


Think big. NUCLEAR horses. That's the ticket!
posted by mazola at 9:14 PM on September 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


I don't think that's realistic. The manure would be radioactive and useless for maintaining soil fertility.
posted by homunculus at 9:19 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


And it would probably spawn giant mutated Venus flycatchers, and/or tomatoes, and/or carnivorous flowers named Audrey Jr.
posted by mek at 9:29 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


The kind of small farm described in the article, where a prosperous and knowledgeable small farmer works with and cares for his horses is a beautiful thing. However, a lot of the working animals I've seen in countries where they are still used -- pulling trash carts, carrying loads to and from the fields, plowing, etc -- lead really harsh and miserable lives. Doing what he suggests, beginning the transition from oil to animal power, brings with it a huge array of really troubling ethical questions about our relationships with animals.

If you are cool with getting your mail delivery by horse cart, are you cool with the mailman whipping the horse to make it go up the hill to your house? Dogs in developed countries live pretty amazing lives, but a century ago they were pulling carts, turning spits, and all sorts of other difficult tasks. Are you cool with a cute doggy being worked hard day after day in front of you?

It's not just a third-world thing, where they treat animals badly but here in the enlightened west we would do so much better. All of my grandparents grew up on farms that relied on animal power, and from old photos and their stories, their animals led very tough lives. The horses were cared for because they were expensive and a poor farm couldn't afford to replace a horse ruined by poor handling. But bringing large wagon loads of firewood down from the mountains isn't easy work, nor is plowing, nor is walking in a circle for endless days to power a piece of machinery. Buggy whips weren't just for fetish night, you know.

So on the one hand I am totally sympathetic to this sort of article -- we are living deeply unsustainable lives, and something else needs to happen. But at the same time, I have trouble watching a donkey be whipped in front of me, whereas I don't have trouble watching a smoke-belching truck, no matter what I know about global warming.
posted by Forktine at 9:35 PM on September 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


I love me some horses, but I don't think this would work. From a sustainability standpoint, wouldn't this require a lot of land to be set aside for feed, all the while contributing to the greater greenhouse problem?

I wonder if we could scale it down. I was thinking on the idea of urban dog sleds recently, sort of a high-tech wagon, with a breaking system pulled by a couple of canine power-plants.

Though dogs are carnivores, and that may also require a lot of land for food production. Pigs might work better; as omnivores who will eat damn near anything. they are kinda like pink, meaty, Mr Fusions. But I don't know that I've ever actually seen swine used this way.

But then, I'm half awake and talking all sorts of silly shit.

Kind of like the article writers, actually.
posted by quin at 9:48 PM on September 3, 2007


I live in the downtown core of a tourist town, just a couple of blocks from all the crappy souvenir shops and charmless "attractions" the tourist flock to (why? why? why?).

Besides the "London Wax Museum" and the "Bug Zoo" that people can go to (plus an exhibit of Titanic artifacts on display at a museum that is mandated to explain the history of the region, and NOT the Titanic), flabby tourists can also take rides in horse-drawn buggies and trams.

Horse-piss stinks in the summer. The whole downtown core smells like a sewage pond. Lord knows every city in the planet stunk like that (and horse piss just stinks) and reeked of dung just one hundred years ago.

I like horses, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:08 PM on September 3, 2007


20 some minutes later I see 'breaking system'?

Holy hell, that makes a lot more sense if the line reads: 'braking system'.

Because I would think that a breaking system would be a really awful thing to have in most modern vehicles.

posted by quin at 10:19 PM on September 3, 2007


I don't know much about the economics of horses, but I used to live down the road from a guy who farmed with oxen. He swore up and down it was cheaper than using a tractor.

Those are some tough animals, oxen. Not very fast or anything, but they'll pull a plough through crappy soil, and don't mind being out in cold weather. He used to use two oxen on a yoke and said they would do most anything that a four-horse team would, in terms of general farming tasks. Apparently training them is a real art, though, and one that's very different from horses or other draft animals.

I wonder if he's still around.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:44 PM on September 3, 2007


The video of the horse mobile was introduced to the strains of Besame Muchorse.
posted by Cranberry at 11:10 PM on September 3, 2007


I don't think it's feasible either. The problem with animal power is that animals aren't machines - they have their own minds and make their own decisions, they age and get sick as biological organisms, and require vets (who require nearly as much training as a doctor), trainers, and controllers. It takes vastly more human labor to utilize them as opposed to our current machines. Devoting all those people to farming would drop the standard of living a massive amount, and it'd reduce our rate of progress substantially, since specialization allows many more people to be scientists, engineers, and all the businesspeople and such that fund them.

In the end, I think that method of living would still be unfeasible in the long term (it's not as if computers and cars would suddenly go away), and dropping the rate of progress so much might make things worse in the end. Right now, we're relying on developing technologies in the future that will allow us to live indefinitely without destroying the environment - slowing progress without living fully sustainably could kill us, in the same way a person lost in the desert might die if they conserved their water and stayed put as opposed to using it quickly while attempting to escape.

In any case, the labor-intensive nature will make it totally uneconomical in first-world countries until oil prices are far higher than they are now, so it's kind of a moot point anyway.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:11 PM on September 3, 2007


Wow, we're coming up with some pretty silly shit to slowly prolong our denial of the fact that there are way too many of us using up way too much energy and one day, most of us are going to have to die.
posted by tehloki at 11:40 PM on September 3, 2007


I'm looking at you, Texas.
posted by stavrogin at 12:15 AM on September 4, 2007


From 1910 to 1925, my grandparents farmed 160 acres in Nebraska with horse teams. My grandmother, especially, was an excellent team handler, and generally handled the teams for plowing, cultivating and harvesting, except for years when they grew more wheat, which demanded her efforts in the kitchen to feed traveling threshers, in the days before mechanical threshers became commonly used on family farms.

And yet, despite their expertise with teams, and owning good horses, my grandparents spent much of their wedding night recovering their wagon from a snowdrift, where it wound up when the team pulling it spooked, while taking them out to their farm after their wedding. As luck had it, they happened to meet one of the few automobiles (a Ford Model N, according to family lore) in service in Eastern Nebraska in 1909, and the team shied and bolted.

Even good horses in capable hands do unpredictable things. Dobbin, the lead on that same team (with Myer), hurt a hired hand a couple of years later, when he reared and kicked his way out of harness while cultivating, when they came upon a rattlesnake.
posted by paulsc at 12:59 AM on September 4, 2007


So, like make the horses drive the tractors around? I guess it's worth a try.
posted by parallax7d at 1:13 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


there are way too many of us using up way too much energy and one day, most of us are going to have to die.

And Lord Humongous will rule the wasteland!

I wonder if he likes horse meat...
posted by homunculus at 1:21 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


People lose track today of what an amazing advance the modern bicycle was.

Bicycles were an incredible technological advance over horses. People have no idea how much labor is involved in keeping up a horse -- labor equals cost. And then there's the food. And tack.

Bicycles, by comparison, were incredibly cheap. You could buy a bike as a clerk and ride to work -- you could live twice or three times as far from where you worked, and it opened up the job moarket to you in a similar way. You didn't have to pay for upkeep, food, etc.

And then there was the psychological power of moving yourself so fast, just by your own motive power.

We forgot all about bicycles when cars became practical, but bikes were standard basic transportation for American adults well into the 40s. (Of course, they still are in the rest of the world.)

The point is that romanticism for horses is just that: Romanticism. Yes, if you structure your entire economy to support it, you can get by and get by well on horse power. But that's not an economy that supports 6 billion people. (Man, I feel like I'm repeating myself this morning.)
posted by lodurr at 6:20 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


we would do better with mules than horses.

You do know where mules come from, don't you? To get a million mules, you'd need at least 200,000 female horses.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:27 AM on September 4, 2007


a guy who farmed with oxen.

Now that is retro, medieval even. Once the breast-strap horse collar became popular in Europe in the 12th century, a horse could pull faster than an ox - it could not pull more per animal, but it worked faster than the Ox, so overall it allowed the plowing of more land and thus the production of more food per farmer.

The horse is the only domestic animal whose global population has decreased over the past 100 years.
posted by stbalbach at 7:01 AM on September 4, 2007


We forgot all about bicycles when cars became practical
And bikes are now better than cars for getting around urban centers, on my experience living in Manhattan and DC.

The author of the linked-to article lost me with his throwaway line "to start with, stop paving over some of our finest agricultural lands."
posted by exogenous at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


And you don't need to rework your entire economy to shift toward bikes.
posted by lodurr at 7:18 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


You need something else if you're planning to pull a plow with a bicycle.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:51 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Feasibility is a matter of defining your premises, if you predicate the economic structure of society as it is now and insert the horse, than no, it’s not going to work.

But here it is in a nutshell:
“during the great changeover to mechanization from 1930 to 1950, capital investment in farm machinery increased 350 percent.”

What’s that Lakota curse about not being able to eat money?

It’s probable we can’t support the population we have now on horse power. It’s quite likely we can’t get to work from where we live now on a bike. But the simple fact of the matter is there are some places (perhaps, I’ll concede, very limited) where horse power can be used efficiently, much as bikes can, much as mass transit can, if we made the concessions for them.
Whether we decide to structure society around the principles of sustainability and then design our infrastructure to accomodate that (e.g. more mass transit interlinked with local bike paths, more efficient rail systems for long distance travel, greater modularization, water conservation, etc. etc.) depends on whether we’re going to give up the idea of trying to make a fast buck off of taking it easy personally rather than focusing on actual progress and tangible gains through planned obsolescence and monopolization.

“Are you cool with a cute doggy being worked hard day after day in front of you?”

There’s a scene in Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim spends perhaps the most contented moment of his life lying in the sun being drawn by a horse cart on a mild warm day. It’s not his horse, it’s some farmers horse who either left it or died or something (it was a war zone in Germany in WWII).
Billy is stopped by a pair of doctors who curse him out for making the horse pull him. He gets off the cart and sees the horse’s feet are bleeding and it’s almost crippled and he begins to weep uncontrollably.

This, I think, is analogous to our situation.

The cute doggy (et.al) is being worked hard whether it’s in front of us or not (pampered pets - special breeds, etc, aside, they sit with us on the backs of that work).
The question of whether it’s ‘our’ doggie (or our fellow humans) is only a matter only of perspective, we’re benefiting from it and either blinded to that pain or knowingly exploiting it.
At some point, like Billy, we’re going to have to wake up to that. Maybe horses have a part in it, maybe not, but the results - whether there’s a massive decimation of our population - will depend on the amount of work and investigation into options we do to transform our situation before we hit that wall.
Once we’re desperate we’re not going to be thinking as clearly and “cute” quickly becomes irrelevent around dinner time.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:06 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Should be:
“depends on whether we’re going to give up the idea of trying to make a fast buck off of taking it easy personally through planned obsolescence and monopolization rather than focusing on actual progress and tangible gains.”
posted by Smedleyman at 8:09 AM on September 4, 2007



You need something else if you're planning to pull a plow with a bicycle.

Steroids?
posted by exogenous at 8:12 AM on September 4, 2007


quin writes "Pigs might work better; as omnivores who will eat damn near anything. they are kinda like pink, meaty, Mr Fusions. But I don't know that I've ever actually seen swine used this way. "

I've seen pigs used to power machinery (mill, lathe, water pump) by walking in a giant hamster wheel. Humans are better though, the pigs were more of a proof of concept.

exogenous writes "The author of the linked-to article lost me with his throwaway line 'to start with, stop paving over some of our finest agricultural lands.'"

Do you think it was a derail of his point or are you unaware of the suburbanization of much of the rich agricultural land in North America? BC is one of the few places I'm aware of that actively protects farm land from development. And even then they are only doing a half assed job of it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:59 AM on September 4, 2007


I didn't think his statement "stop paving over some of our finest agricultural lands" was a derail - it just struck me as overly simplistic and much easier said than done. It didn't help that the remainder of the paragraph went nowhere near this complicated issue. The net effect was, to me, a massive blow in the writer's credibility, even though we probably would agree on basic principles.
posted by exogenous at 9:23 AM on September 4, 2007


You do know where mules come from, don't you? To get a million mules, you'd need at least 200,000 female horses.

Yes, I know where they come from ! It would still be a big reduction in the horse population needed.
posted by rfs at 12:47 PM on September 4, 2007


We could just use food.
posted by lodurr at 12:53 PM on September 4, 2007


"You need something else if you're planning to pull a plow with a bicycle.
Steroids?"

That's your answer to everything, Landis.
posted by klangklangston at 2:53 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


The scenario of a return to animal power was explored very thoroughly in a SF novella "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi in 2005. The premise is the fossil-fuel crash and a population crash as well in America. Of course, industrial agriculture wouldn't give up the fight. It industrialized. . . the animals.

Genetically engineered creatures based on mules and elephants wind high-tech springs, storing kinetic energy for use in motorized vehicles, boats, etc. Biotech companies enforce the patents on these creatures and the food they eat.

It's a deeply unromantic future.

Sorry I can't link to the text of the story, but it was in Fantasy & Science Fiction Oct.-Nov. '05.
posted by bad grammar at 5:21 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


That sounds fascinating, and quite believable. Thanks for the recommendation, bad grammer.
posted by homunculus at 9:26 PM on September 4, 2007


Bacigalupi is one of the more grimly visionary people working in SF right now.

Some notes on "Calorie Man" here, as cryptically noted above.

Bacigalupi has since said that he's not sure the worldbuilding works in "Calorie Man". He seems to be trying to get a more realistic feel for it in "Yellow Card Man" (which didn't win a Hugo this year -- not surprising, since it's really grim, but it was also beaten by a really good story). Its protagonist is a fallen shipping magnate, who reminisces about his erstwhile fleets of computer-designed and controlled clipper ships, and his rooms full of accountants hired in part for the strength of their leg muscles (they have to work treadles to power their workstations). I think they were both sort of misanthropic devils-advocate views of a post-peak-oil, post-climate-crisis future.
posted by lodurr at 5:27 AM on September 5, 2007


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