Horses were once central to farming and transport, but have largely been replaced by trucks and tractors. However, some viticulturists have returned to using real horsepower in the vineyard.
We looked at six vineyards to find out why they’re reverting to these old-fashioned methods, how they train their horses and learn what benefits result from having horses work among the vines again.
MG Sol, Weinviertel, Austria
Michael Gindl has used horses in his vineyard for three years and has six horses altogether. His main horse is named Nanu, an Austrian Noriker.
What does it takes to train a horse for vineyard work?
“It really builds on the basis of [drawing carriages],” says Gindl. “The big difference here is that the speed is much slower, and the horse has to learn voice commands. In a carriage, you have the reins that tell the horse what to do. To a degree, that also is the case in the vineyard, but voice commands are more important.”
“We put a lot of sweat and work into our vineyards. There is absolutely no bullshit here. Just horseshit.” —Christophe Baron, Horsepower Vineyards
Nanu took two years to fully train, while Waldi, a gelding, learned within half a year.
“Just like humans, the horses are different, but it usually takes four months to a year to teach them,” says Gindl.
He uses modern equipment designed for horse traction to cultivate or weed under the vines. “I like the combination of renewable energy and modern technical advance that goes beyond the old-fashioned plow, even though we still use one,” says Gindl.
Since taking up this project, he has also made a point of training other winemakers to use horsepower.
Odfjell Vineyards, Maipo, Chile
Bernt Daniel Odfjell wanted to imbue his vineyard in the Maipo Valley with some of his Norwegian heritage, so he brought Norwegian Fjord horses to Chile.
“They are well-suited to farming,” says Odfjell. “They are hard workers, calm and friendly. You only have to whisper in their ear, and they get it. You don’t have to break them in. People worried that they might not be able to deal with the different climate, but there is no problem.”
“We have 40 horses, and they are an integral part of our biodynamic winery,” Odfjell continued. “We let them graze freely so we have natural fertilization, and they suppress the weeds. Their manure also goes into the compost. The idea of biodynamics is a full circle. During harvest, horses draw the carriages full of grapes, and they also plow without compacting the soil.”
Champagne Drappier, Côte des Bar, France
In Champagne, Michel Drappier is well versed in the concept of soil compaction, and has used horses to plow his vineyards for the past five years. One of his sons, Antoine, studied equine agriculture, while the other son, Hugo, majored in oenological and viticultural engineering. Each hoof exerts a quarter-ton of force, while a tractor distributes the weight more evenly. However, a tractor always runs along the same track while a horse, despite exerting more pressure, never puts its hoof in the same place twice. This results in far less compaction and better spread of the vines’ fine capillary roots.
Weingut Dr Heger, Baden, Germany
For Joachim Heger, a young Schwarzwälder horse named Willi made it possible to keep his old vineyards. Heger’s Häusleboden and Rappenecker vineyards were planted for horse traction in the early 1950s, but the land became harder to cultivate after Heger stopped the use of herbicides.
“Even a miniature [tractor] was too wide for the narrow rows,” says Heger. He was close to grubbing up the vines.
Kerstin Hüppe and Stefan Danzeisen, Willi’s owners, approached Heger, and they agreed to try Willi out on flat land. On the steeper slopes Willi initially refused to walk downhill. Now Willi will work on Heger’s steep volcanic vineyards to help weed and mulch. As a result, the old Silvaner, Muskateller and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) vines thrive without the use of herbicides or fossil fuel.
Horsepower Vineyards, Milton-Freewater, Oregon
After he founded cult biodynamic label Cayuse Vineyards in Walla Walla in 1997, Christophe Baron wanted to create an estate based on horsepower alone.
“It was time to close the circle,” says Baron, who is originally from France. The result was Horsepower Vineyards in Milton-Freewater, Oregon.
“We wanted to create a working farm with animals on the property,” he says. “We have vegetable gardens, orchards, vineyards and animals. We planted the vineyard specifically for our horse, Zeppo, who came to the property in 2008.”
“Horses are people, too.” —Brad Ford, Illahe Vineyards
Syrah and Grenache vines were planted with just three feet between both rows and vines, some of the highest density plantings in the U.S.
“Usually, there are 10 feet between rows and four feet between vines,” says Baron.
The higher density gives “more tension to the wines,” says Baron, since the vines have to compete with each other. It also creates shade in summer, which enable the grapes to ripen fully at lower potential alcohol levels.
A huge population of draft horses in Washington made it all possible. The horses plow, cultivate to suppress weeds and bank up earth for winter.
Zeppo passed away last year, which created more than just an operational setback.
“That was very tough, because you get very attached,” says Baron. “It’s completely different from a tractor. The horses need to be fed every day. They need to be brushed. That is what changed completely, the feel among our team. There was a sense of peace and calm.”
Zeppo’s half-brother, Red, works on the vineyard with four other horses, all Belgians: Fuego, Cielo, Bayard, as well as Bijoux, named for the draft horse used by Baron’s grandfather, with whom he farmed his Champagne vineyards in the Marne valley until 1957.
“We put a lot of sweat and work into our vineyards,” says Baron, with pride. “There is absolutely no bullshit here. Just horseshit.”
Illahe Vineyards, Dallas, OR
Bea and Doc are the two Percheron draft horses that help to farm Brad & Bethany Ford’s vineyards. The horses pull an Amish mower in the spring, and they transport grapes in a wagon to the winery during harvest. But the learning curve wasn’t so simple.
“It’s pretty easy for a farm boy who’s used to driving trucks with trailers to understand how the horse and trailer work and how to back them up,” says Brad. “The basic commands of ‘go’ and ‘whoa,’ ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t take too long to learn, but the subtleties of working with the animals is what takes years.
“I tried to do everything myself, but Doc knew that I didn’t have a good grasp, and he let me know by pinning me against a post. I got the hint, so I fell back on working with experts.”
The horses provide plenty of personality, too.
“Our mare, Bea, is more skittish and nervous, but Doc can get a bit lazy,” says Brad. “Doc calms Bea down, and Bea encourages Doc. Horses are people, too.”