Montana man still farming with horses
Dick Huttinga grew up on a ranch near Bozeman, MT, and is still on that same place today – farming with draft horses. “I was two years old when my dad bought this place in 1950,” he said.
When Huttinga was older, he went into the logging business and for the obvious reasons used machinery instead of horses. Then in 1980 he was bidding on a timber sale that had some riparian areas where environmental protection laws would not allow the use of machinery. So he bought a team of horses to drag logs out from the streambank. But before he could use them, the Forest Service gave that timber sale to someone else.
“I never did do the logging with a team, but I kept the horses,” Huttinga said. He has since left the logging industry and now has a construction business, but he farms with his horses on the side. “The horses are my therapy. Construction is what we do to make a living, but farming is our way of life. I rent about 400 acres in addition to what I own – for enough hay and pasture.”
Huttinga has 80 head of Hereford-Angus cattle and feeds them with his teams twice a day during the winter. In summer he does some of his haying with horses – most of the mowing and raking – and uses a baler to make round bales. He feeds hay with horses, using a DewEze Super Slicer. “This is a hydraulic round bale processor. It is supposed to be pulled with a tractor but I put an axle under the front and installed a little engine to run the hydraulic system, so I could pull it with my team,” he said.
Huttinga raised draft horses for many years, and sold young horses and teams. He recently bought a team of 4-year-old Belgians. His other horses have all been Percherons. “When I bought my first team, they were supposed to be a ‘well broke’ team of middle-aged Percheron geldings, but they were not well broke. I was fortunate to have my dad and father-in-law around at that time. They both grew up farming with horses and had lots of advice and help for me. Soon after that, I bought a yearling Percheron filly and a stud and this put me in the horse-raising business,” Huttinga said.
That filly eventually had 15 foals. “She never missed a year after we started breeding her, but we quit when she was 18 years old. The last daughter out of that mare is still here; she’s 19 years old. The old mare was a good one, and the nicest horse to be around. We could ride her, and my kids all learned to drive her,” he said.
Huttinga now belongs to the Montana Draft Horse Association (MDHA). The MDHA’s main goal is to encourage more interest in draft horses. “The Gallatin County Ag committee puts on a farm fair every year for fourth graders. Eight of us bring teams and wagons and haul the kids out to a field and talk to them about water, irrigation, draft horses, etc. It’s a great experience for the kids,” he said. Last year it was a three-day event and 900 kids went through the farm fair.
In the Gallatin Valley a growing number of people are driving horses. “There’s a lot of recreation in this area, with dude ranches. People use draft horses for hay rides and sleigh rides in winter, wagon rides and dinner rides in summer. The ski resorts also do this. So there’s been an increase in use of horses for recreation, even though there are not many people farming with them as much as I do,” Huttinga added.
“My brother-in-law has a team he packs. He does volunteer trail work for the Forest Service and packs camps and equipment for them. He also does his haying with horses, and helps me once in awhile. When I thresh grain he brings them over to haul bundles,” he said.
Huttinga farms 70 acres for grain and barley hay for the horses. He doesn’t plow very much because his ground is so rocky. “I disk and use a grain drill I pull with the team. I also use them to spread manure and harrow.”
Huttinga’s also collected a lot of horse-drawn equipment. “I have a road grader that I put four [horses] abreast to pull it. I also have a belly-dump wagon and some other equipment that I use occasionally. A lot of people are thrilled to see horses doing these jobs,” he said.
The horses are more efficient than tractors and big machinery for doing several small leased acreages scattered around the neighborhood. “I have four acres here, six there, etc. I haul the horses around with a trailer and do the haying in a day.” Those small pieces are difficult to do with larger machinery. Huttinga would have to haul a swather 20 miles to do a small piece. It’s more cost effective to do this with horses, it saves on the cost of fuel.
The horses, even though they eat expensive hay, are cheaper to run than machinery that requires high-priced fuel. Tractors also don’t reproduce! “They break down and fall apart and you have to repair them; they don’t heal up on their own. Horses definitely have some advantages.”
He runs machinery all the time in his construction business, so the horses are a nice change of pace. “I enjoy my business but I enjoy the horses, too. It’s the best of both worlds but I wish I was just 30 years old again!”
He and his wife have four children. “My youngest son lives nearby, and if we have a field day where we’re doing some threshing, he’ll come over and drive the grain wagon.” Huttinga continued, “Once in awhile I’ll take some friends out for a sleigh ride, or a church group, and if we have more [people than seats] then we can get on one sled, he will drive the other one.”
On occasion he uses the horses for weddings of good friends, with a carriage for the bride and groom, but doesn’t make a business out of it. “I just enjoy farming and working them on the farm.”