Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 33 total)
  • Author
  • #39454
    Carl Russell

    I have always been attracted to doers. As a young child I loved to hang around people who were active. Most of these people happen to have been farmers, or woodsmen, or gardeners, and handipeople. Even while in school, I never was inclined toward education unless the teacher was able to contribute something human along with the process. Thus as I took on the adult enterprises that I have chosen, I realized that I had been studying my whole life under a wide variety of mentors.

    For the purposes of this thread I will get started with the mentors that I found when I needed guidance with draft animals.

    I was able to find several men in this region who grew up when draft animals were all they had for power. Some of them were still using them in the 1980’s and I spent as much time as I could visiting them and asking questions. I was never able to get a chance to actually work for or with them, but they all encouraged me to just get at it. I would watch, ask questions, then go home and try it myself.

    Some of the most important lessons that I learned were about the practical application of animal power. There were never any specific instructions, just bits of wisdom.

    By observing them and listening to them, I began to pick up many pieces of subtle knowledge, that they may not have even been trying in particular to show me. Like how to act around working animals, how to use your voice, how to create and adhere to expectations, etc.

    Just from my own experience, I believe that the examples that are set by application of knowledge far out-weigh the information that could ever be delivered by curriculum.

    As I try to respond to people who have questions, I try to keep that in mind. I want to make sure that I don’t get information confused with knowledge.

    How are you gaining, or have you gained, experience and knowledge? Where did you find your mentor(s)? Carl


    Back when my dad got his first draft horses in the form of Percheron weanlings our mentoring sessions began. We became fast friends with the old man that owned at that time over 100 head of Percherons and Belgians. The site of it was amazing as a twelve yr old boy. The man ran a large dairy farm with his nephew and some hired help. The hired help didn’t use horses much but both he and his nephew were great teamsters speaking quietly and training hundreds of colts over the years. They hosted many draft horse events and of course we were invited. We met many old timers and some pretty sharp younger horsemen from the area. As a young boy I listened to everything the old guys said and cataloged it away in my brain. They helped us train our first team.
    Dad worked them at events mostly when they were young so I didn’t get alot of driving time away from home. Usually one of my old buddies would toss me the lines of an experienced team and send me on my way while they had a BS session with somebody.
    Those old timers became some of the best friends we’ve had but sadly we’ve lost a few over the years but there are still some in their mid 80’s still working teams. I’ve kept all the knowledge that they passed on to me and on a quiet day when a situation arrises it’s almost like I can hear a voice from the past telling me what to do. Old time horsemen are a precious resource of vital information. All the “NEW” training methods that we hear about are mostly a marketing thing. Horses have been trained for centuries and most of the “NEW” methods are just a twist on an old idea. If you talk to the right people you’ll find things like natural horsemanship have been around a while.

    Donn Hewes

    In the late eighties I met Clarence Stancil shortly after I started doing farm work with horses and mules. He was near eighty then and in his youth worked many years as a horse logger in the wilds of Wa. State when horse logging was just logging. He was the type who did not say much and spoke so softly that you had to lean over to hear him, but if you spent time with him, as I did, you learn a ton, just by watching how he moved around animals and how they moved around him. Next week I am going on cacation in Wa. where I will visit Clarence and silently thank him for about the millionth time.
    I believe those of us who are actively using our horses on farms and woods and roads today, owe a debt to these mentors who are not our parents but nonetheless choose to pass on this craft to us. I think we are fast approaching the time where we should start to think about how we can provide this service to the next generation.
    In my youth I had the great pleasure of becoming a rock climber and a mountain climber. While I did have a few mentors who took me to the White Mts. in the winter at age fifteen and taught me a lot, much of my first experiences in rock climbing were with my best friend and a rope we bought and learned to tie around our waist from looking at a book. We would imitate things we saw others do and slowly we learned and grew into competent climbers. On our first trip to the Grand Teton the ranger asked us if we were sure we belonged there. We went the summit a week later after sitting out a storm that chased everyone else from the Mt. We were too dumb to know we should go down, but the next day we had the summit to ourselves. While these days are some of my fondest memories, it is not how I would recommend someone learn about the fine sport of climbing. Nor is it how they should start driving horses. Some will succeed but it not a good experience for many, not to mention what it means for the animals.
    I fully realize that good mentors may be far away or hard to find but I think they are vital to our growing community. Some of you may find one next door. Some may have to go out of your way to visit your mentor or get them to come over. You may have to work for them first. Then they can come and help you for a day. People ask how do I know the mentor is good when I am green? Their advice could be good or it could be terrible, how would I know. It is a good question, and there is no perfect answer. I would perfer a mentor who is currently using their animals regularly, althought an oldtimer can be invaluable. If they are currently using their animals you can start by working with them there. Is the teamster calm when they are working, are the animals calm when working. At first you may not know exactly how or why but it should look, sound, and feel comfortable. If it doesn’t that person may not be ready to be a mentor, as much as they may want to. Well I went on at length, but it is a subject I feel strongly about. Donn

    Gabe Ayers

    This is a great thread to further the success of anyone interested in working with animals in the forest or on the farm.

    Since I have served as a mentor to many younger horseman over the years it is an interesting reflection to think of those that influenced my actually being a mentor today.

    Having been born to a teenager in 1950, I was raised primarily by my grand parents. So my male role model was my Grandfather, Willie Farrar or Papa.

    This created a time warp with my male parent being a man that grew up in the time when animal power was the only method available to average people in rural America. Papa was illiterate and couldn’t read or write much more than his name. He could count pretty well. My grandmother said he had no choice but to work at home on the farm to help the family survive as he was a teenager during the early parts of the twentieth century. He was born in 1905. His father was a Sargent in the Confederate Army and fought in the civil war. So talk about a time warp, this was one unique to being born at the middle of the century. My family was poor and my earliest memories include the life of being a sharecropper in south side Virginia on what would come to be called tobacco row. I remember waking up in a tobacco slide on the way to the pack house being pulled by a gray mule that knew exactly what to do and operated on voice commands. We moved from farm to farm making crops that were sold and the proceeds split between the landowner and the people that actually did the work. This was the time of great abandonment of farms throughout the country. People were moving to the towns and cities to get work in factories and industry instead of farming. My grandmother always had a job in town as well as on the farm and in the home and Papa farmed and looked after me. Since his living was made through his skills to operate different animals in all sorts of situations there were many individual horses, mules and teams that I remember him farming and logging with. This work was always done with black sharecroppers that also lived on the farms with us in tenant houses. We all worked together and as I recall shared in the proceeds equally. Some distinct memories are the smells of sweat – human, animal and the smells of tobacco, sorghum, sawdust and manure. When the crops were sold, the molasses made and the hogs killed, we went to the woods for the winter and worked there until it was time to put in the plant beds for the coming seasons seedlings. The one remarkable recollection is that I never remember Papa being loud with his animals. He was always quiet and deliberate with them. I remember he always had favorites because those were the ones he would allow to baby sit me, as I often rode them while he worked, holding onto the hame balls, that I to this day don’t know what else they are there for. So my Papa was my mentor without me even knowing it.

    As I grew into a teenager, and as my grandmother described it, she finally “broke Papa of his farming habit”, he took a public job at a tractor dealer or went to town to earn a living too. But he never quit messing with animals. He had a relationship with the man that ran the killer barn that actually slaughtered horses for export as it was called Cavalier Export. He would pick up horses from this fellow that would call and tell him he had a nice pair and we would bring them home. Papa and my grandmother finally did buy a little piece of land that sat on the side of a major highway between Lynchburg and Richmond in a long sweeping curve. He had a big garden spot there that was visible for a long distance from both directions. He would bring those work horses home from the killer barn and work them in that garden spot until they were content to stand. He had me make a sign that we put out on the roadside that read: Garden Horses For Sale. We would drive them around and around the patch of tilled ground not in garden until they would stand quietly and he would sit under a white oak and sip on a PBR that he kept hidden in a cinder block hole under a board that I sat on. He always pretended to hide it from Grandma, but she knew it was there. He sold many horses and some mules that way. He did have one yoke of steers, that I remember would follow you anywhere. The killer man didn’t like killing those good serviceable animals either, so it was a win/win for him and Papa. Back then we used to haul everything in a cattle truck or a pick up with racks on it. I remember some rock and rolls rides home from the killer barn. So without really applying for the job, Papa was my first mentor even though I didn’t know it at the time. During this process I meet many other horsemen and farmers, who all addressed my grand father with respect. I remember him being called out to pull stuck trucks out of the woods, ditches and to work gardens throughout the community within driving distance with the animals. He enjoyed it and I did too, because I was always included in those activities and felt like a part of it.

    I of course went on to school and moved away to an area that had cheaper land I could afford to get started and when Papa was on his death bed he told me to go to the little farm get all the stuff I wanted to farm with. I still have some of his plows and hardware today and still use his singletree when logging with one horse to bunch logs for the team or train young horses in the woods. I now feel very lucky to have had this cultural background and try to share the same experiences with every young person I can, through our mentor apprentice training with HHFF. I suppose it is easy to see how we developed our “sharecrop” split on timber from this story. I think the important thing about being a mentor is knowing that those experiences for a beginner will last a lifetime.

    Later in my life of being a modern horseman I had two other significant mentors. The first was the man that sold me my first log arch. His name was Charlie Fisher of Valley Veneer Company in Andover, Ohio. I traveled to visit him after meeting a friend of his on the horse pulling circuit. Charlie also was not a formally educated man, but he introduced me to “worst first” although he didn’t call it that. He was a great horseman that had a big team that would tight tug every load and was awesome stout. He never used drugs or electricity to train or compete with his horses. He took me to several sites he had logged multiple times and they were the best forest I had ever seen. Charlie passed away a few years ago, but I think his son David is still working in the woods of northwestern Ohio. He was a great mentor and forester.

    My other mentor was/is one of writing about the culture of life in the country in the modern world. He was/is a writer that lives what he writes and influenced my way of thinking about modern rural life. I read everything he writes and have enjoyed countless hours of deep thinking about my own life. I eventually met this man and came to be friends and a partner in promoting the cultural values we all share on this forum. I have worked with him in the woods and came to know his family as an extended family of my own. I recommend this form of mentoring in this modern time of not having family and neighbors to learn from. Read everything you can find written by Wendell Berry.

    Each of you that are learning the skills of modern animal powered culture will one day be a mentor for someone, so enjoy yourself, carry on the culture with
    any mentor you can find and share what you learn with anyone sincerely interested. This is the only way we can keep this lifestyle alive. Maybe one day the skills will again become a part of mainstream education, but some of us elders may not live long enough to see that. We will give what we can to the next generation and hope for the same gift to be shared in the future with others. When we grant an apprenticeship through HHFF we require a commitment to teach others what you learn.

    Hope this story wasn’t to long for our readers. Thanks to everyone for sharing.

    Warm Salute,


    Mentoring is very important to the preservation of the craft of teamstership. The trouble I see with some new comers is that they put all their faith into books. They have read therefore they know. Books are valuable reference tools IF you have the right one’s but are second to practical experience. Each horse is a little different and working situations differ with climate, geography, terrain, commotion, experience and skills. There is no better resource than a good mentor. I am considered around this area to be a fair horseman but still listen intently when someone with more knowledge, skills or experience is speaking. I was regarded as a quiet kid when palling around with the local old timers. What I was really doing was listening, watching and learning. It’s amazing what knowledge you can absorb if you open your ears to those who have the knowledge and skills. Each of us should pass on as much as we can to anyone who wants to learn in order to preserve this craft.


    I spent the last two weekends plowing with our informal group of local horsemen. Last weekend we plowed 14 acres at my Dad’s farm and this weekend with better weather 16 or 18 at another farm. I had a chance to spend time with two of the oldest horsemen in the area Les Crawford a farmer/logger/horse trainer who is 84 and Don Hibbard 87 who hosted this weekend at his farm a longtime horseman/builder/farmer/Belgian breeder that turned to Brabant breeding when hitch blood contaminated the American Belgian. I always try to absorb as much knowledge and listen to stories of the old days each time I’m near these two remarkable men. They are both optimistic and look forward to our next gathering and both of them spent the weekend driving their horses. Sadly men like these are becoming extinct and it troubles me to think that someday my mentors won’t be around. If you know an old horseman take the time to visit them as much as you can because you can’t get that time or knowledge back.


    Thanks to all of you for sharing. I’m learning so much here. I’m attending a haying event in June where there will be quite a few mentors that I hope to follow around.

    Julie Clemons

    I was lucky enough to apprentice to Paul and Mollie Birdsall of Horsepower Farm in Maine. I planned to stay three months and ended up being there a year. If any of you are attending the Common Ground Country Fair try to catch Paul at the draft horse area and get him talking (this is not hard, it’s getting ahold of him in the first place). Mollie is no longer with us but you can go and sit on her bench near the Wednesday Spinners tent. Then come visit me at the Small Farmers’ Journal booth!!! (Lynn, Kristi and Scout Miller are also going to be at the fair this year – Lynn is speaking at 2pm on Sunday.)

    Paul and Mollie were on a once in a lifetime vacation to Australia when I arrived at their farm and so I was like the new babysitter or the substitute teacher who gets tested. I got kicked on the very first day by a horse named Mayday(!) and luckily just got an impressive bruise. When Paul got back he set about teaching me, like many of you I got the “enough so you don’t kill yourself or my horses” lesson and then turned loose on various jobs that slowly increased in difficulty. Mayday and her half sister Bonnie were the designated “apprentice team” and they were as trustworthy as horses ever get.

    No way really to explain what they gave me, without sounding trite. You all know. Every time someone comes to my house and is interested in the horse I try to give them a chance to at least ground drive her in the pasture, hoping I can flip the switch for them the way Paul and Mollie did for me.

    Carl Russell

    Paul will also be at NEAPFD both days, and he will be presenting on Sunday 10/18, a slide show about Horse Power Farm.


    Wow! Great stuff here. Somehow I had overlooked reading this thread before. Sure a lot to think about. Thanks all for sharing your stories about your mentors.


    @Joel 11107 wrote:

    Semantics. Mentors do not charge money for their knowledge.

    Mine only saw my team 1x. He told me how to harness them. He drove them around the corral 1x.

    When I had a problem he told me the same damn story everytime. The end was changed to help me thru my problem.

    When I met him he had a 14hh 1/4 horse that wore a 21″ collar. Wally was his riding horse as well as his roping horse. At 93 he still shod his own horse.

    As a younger man he was a cowboy in MT. When he was my friend he lived & worked on his son’s ranch.

    We were friends, me & this old man.

    Joel, that is a line from Jerry Jeff Walker’s song Desparado’s Waiting For A Train. Coincidence?


    Growing up in the burley tobacco region of the Appalachian Mountains, I was exposed at an early age to animal power. My grandfather and many of our neighbors used mules or horses for several farm tasks. Most all the tobacco ground was plowed, harrowed and cultivated with draft animals due to the steep slopes and poor road conditions around the feilds. My favorite memories are those days of helping him and neighbors work in the tobacco or doing simple farm chores using horses. I would watch the men work their animals. Some were gentle and soft spoken, others not so kind. Even as a young boy, I noticed how the animals were reacting to their work partners (Soft spoken and gentle always made the most progress). I tried to take in as much knowledge from those guys as possible. Most would mentor and answer my questions and others just wanted to get the job done. My grandfather was my hero. He would answer any question I asked and gave me every oppertunity he could to take the lines. As I gained more experiece, he expected my skills to improve. If I was having difficulty, he would show me what I was doing wrong. If I was doing good, he would let me go foward with my work. For that, I am very greatful. His knowledge is what I am passing on to my two young sons today.

    Gabe Ayers

    Our HHFF educational program through the mentor/apprentice network definitely compensates the mentor for lost of production while teaching an apprentice during a 8-12 week apprenticeship.

    It isn’t exactly the mentor charging for knowledge as much as the public charity subsidizing the passing on of cultural knowledge without it being an economic cost to the mentor. They don’t really make any money on it, given that it is a replacement for money they would be making if they weren’t teaching a student, that is why we call it mentor compensation. We have awarded thousands to mentors under this program.

    I agree with the sentiment of most traditional mentor’s don’t charge money for knowledge, but this is a way to support relationships in modern times that used to just naturally occur.

    It has always been a swap labor for increased skills/knowledge deal though. I remember several days working in the hay field when my only pay, as a kid, was to get to drive the team on the hay wagon at some point – as my reward for working all day… Same with the tobacco, hand leaves for tying just to get to drive the slide back to the field, pick up wood to drive the sled back to the wood shed.

    Joel is right – words have many meanings.

    Carl Russell

    Yup, I pitched a lot of hay, shoveled a lot of manure, cut a lot of wood, rode many miles on the fender of the tractor or sitting beside the teamster, and generally “gophered” for many years to learn about animals, crops, and woodlands.

    I’ll say it never felt like I was paying, but I sure as heck wasn’t getting anything for free.



    @Joel 11121 wrote:

    No ,Sir, it isn’t.

    ” There were old men with beer guts & dominoes, playing Moon & 42…”

    ….I was grown and he was almost gone.”

    Wow, I wouldn’t have thought anybody on this board would have even known who Jerry Jeff is. He played the Summer Music Festival at our fairgrounds in June, but unfortunately I was out of town that weekend. Heard it was a great show.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 33 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

By Carl Russell

Horse-logger, forestry consultant, and timberland owner from Bethel, Vermont. Operated Russell Forestry Services since 1986, specializing in ecological forestry and low-impact timber harvest with draft animals. With my wife Lisa McCrory own and operate Earthwise Farm & Forest, a 150 acre diversified enterprise, where we raise organic vegetables and grass fed livestock, use draft animals for logging and field work, and offer workshops on skills for sustainable livelihoods. 802-234-5524

341 MacIntosh Hill Rd., Randolph, VT 05060 carlrussell(at)