Sustainability

How Farming with Horses Makes Better Wine

The science behind horses’ impact on soil and vineyard healthand why some growers around the world are bringing back this traditional, yet difficult, way of farming

Photo courtesy of Odfjell Vineyards.

As a child growing up in Champagne, Christophe Baron would ride his bike down a dirt road to visit his grandparents and pass a lush green field where a woman regularly rode a large white horse. That animal made a big impression on a small boy, and he vowed that someday, he would live and work with animals, too.  

Baron went on to found Cayuse Vineyards on the Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley, followed by a project he calls Horsepower Vineyards, where much of the vineyard work is done with teams of Percheron and Belgian draft horses. After harvest, the horses pull the cultivators that cover the vines’ crowns with soil to keep them warm. In the spring, they power the plows that pull the soil back, aerate the ground, and cut down weeds.

Using horses at his biodynamic vineyard produces higher-quality wines, Baron believes, and he’s not the only one. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recently reintroduced horses at its vineyards to help decrease soil compaction as well. 

Beyond the practical reasons for driving horse teams through vineyards, there is also a desire among some to keep the craft and tradition of horse viticulture alive. “There’s something irreplaceable and really authentic about using horses,” says Horsepower’s equine and vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff. “We do it because it’s a choice to farm in a much more artisanal and ancestral way.”  

Working with animals instead of machines means treading more gently on the earth and farming at a less frenetic, more traditional pace. “We live in a world where everything is the same, where everything goes fast,” Baron says. “It’s always more, more, more.” 

But farming with horses is not just slowerit’s more time-consuming and expensive. “It makes no economic sense to farm with horses,” says Charline Drappier, the deputy director of Champagne Drappier, whose family started using Ardennais horses on its 71-acre organic vineyard to till, remove weeds, and aerate the soil about 15 years ago. “It’s a real investment, but it’s pure investment for very little productivity.”

Horses can also be a dangerous liability to owners who don’t understand how to work them. “Sometimes people see this very romantic picture of horses as gentle giants,” says Stephen Hagen, the owner of Antiquum Farm at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who previously farmed his vineyards with horses for several years and has been working with them since he was a teenager. “The truth is there’s nothing more dangerous you can do—besides maybe bull riding—than hooking farming implements to the back of two 2,000-pound horses and farming with them. That’s especially true when you’re working horses in the physical constraints of a vineyard. There’s a high degree of caution and skill that’s necessary.”

Horsepower Vineyards. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

What Horses Do that Machines Can’t

Cultivators drawn by four-legged critters rather than steel-and-rubber farm equipment make for a much more tactile, gentle experience for the ground and the vine, says Sokoloff. “You can feel through your hands and through the cultivator every stone you hit and every soil change.” If a tractor snags a vine, the driver will never feel it. Someone driving a team of horses is more likely to, and can stop before they tear the plant from the ground.

Even passing through the vineyard 14 times a year, horses put less pressure on the ground than a tractor because their hooves are gentler than tires, Sokoloff says. That means there is less soil compaction, which is bad for soil health and speeds up erosion. This has been an issue in Urville, part of the Côte des Bar region, where Champagne Drappier is located. Steep hills and tree removal to make way for vineyards have also contributed to this problem. That’s a big reason the company made the switch to horses, despite the negative return on investment, Drappier says. It was the right thing to do for the site and the community.

Erosion is also an issue in Baden, Germany, which drove the team at Weingut Dr. Heger to introduce horse viticulture several years ago.  On a five-acre parcel within the 71-acre vineyard where a thin layer of loess soil sits on top of the weathered volcanic rocks, farming with a horse named Willi instead of a tractor helps preserve the soil’s delicate crystal structure, says Markus Mleinek, one of the brand’s winemakers. 

Additionally, horses can often squeeze into narrow vineyard rows that machines can’t. At Weingut Dr. Heger, older vineyards were often planted with less space between the rows. In places where machines can’t do the work, such as this steep area with older plantings of Pinot Noir, Yellow Muscatel, and Silvaner, “the horse is a welcome support,” says Mleinek.  

Horsepower Vineyards’s Equine and Vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

At Horsepower, vine rows are planted with only 3.5 feet between them to create a beneficial microclimate for grapes, says Baron. “The fruit is in the shade, so it takes longer to reach physiological ripeness. You get fruit that is ripe at lower sugar levels. That translates to lower alcohol in the wine.”

At Odfjell Vineyards in Chile’s Maipo Valley, a herd of 24 golden Fjord horses wears many hats. The small but mighty animals pull carts loaded with grapes to the winery during harvest. As they move through the property, they kick up small bits of dirt, which naturally aerates the soil. In the winter, they’re turned loose in the vineyards to eat grass and weeds. While they’re doing that, they deposit organic materials on the property through their waste, which adds nutrients to the soil.

This cyclical process is key to Odfjell’s organic and biodynamic farming practices. “It’s important for us to keep the natural balance of this place, and what’s more natural than having an animal to eat the weeds and the grass?” says barn manager Fernanda Rousseau. “The less we use machines or trucks or artificial stuff, the better for us.”

There’s also a human sustainability element to working with horses. “The relationship you can have with a horse is something so good for people,” says Rousseau. It’s another way of connecting to the land and the natural world. The Odfjell family hails from Norway, and being with this ancient, native horse breed in their adopted land provides a spiritual connection to their farming ancestors.

Although small amounts of horse manure can be helpful, dumping too much on a vineyard at once can burn the plants, given the high nitrogen content in the waste. To counter this problem, Brent Young, the director of agricultural operations at Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Sonoma, adds his stall muckings from home to the property’s hot compost piles. The manure, wood chips, and other waste from the horses is combined with the droppings from the animals that live on the property, along with materials such as yard and kitchen waste. The materials are placed in windrows and turned regularly to maintain temperatures high enough to kill pathogens and weed seeds.

Once the compost has broken down and had time to cool off, it’s able to go on Jordan’s vineyards without the risk of damaging the vines. Although the manure isn’t necessary to the compost program, “it brings another form of diversity,” says Young. “It’s free, on top of that.” He has to pay for disposal if he takes the waste elsewhere.

horse viticulture
A horse team working at Illahe Vineyards. Photo by Bethany Ford.

The Uncertain Future of Horse Viticulture

Dealing with horse manure can be a challenge for properties without such a robust compost program, but it isn’t the only difficult part of working with live animals. “You can’t just hire anyone off the street” to drive a team of equines, says Sokoloff. “It takes a lot of training and a lot of commitment.”

Drappier’s brother Antoine, who is in charge of the horse teams, worked with a team of professionals for nearly 10 years before he was ready to manage the animals on his own. But these days, both trainers and teamsters are in short supply because jobs are few and far between.

The horses need to be worked regularly year-round to make sure they are physically conditioned to the work. Not being in shape is one cause of accidents, according to Hagen. “You need to think of [horses] like athletes. You wouldn’t just pull a sprinter off the couch and say, ‘You’re going to the Olympic trials this week.’ They would get hurt or they’d have a heart attack.”

Using horses to till may be gentler on the ground, but as more people move to no-till agriculture as a way to sequester carbon in the ground and protect the soil food web, they may no longer be necessary. Hagen, who originally used his horses to prepare the soil for temporary cover crops, has transitioned to a grazing-based agriculture system with a permanent cover crop. This model relies on different animals, including geese, pigs, and sheep, who graze the vineyard rows at carefully timed intervals to manage the cover crop.

One of Drappier’s top lessons learned is to pick the vineyards where horse cultivation will work. “You cannot do it everywhere,” she says. “It depends on the steepness and the type of soil.” In parts of the Champagne Drappier vineyard, there was too much limestone for the horse-drawn equipment to work properly.

Brad Ford, the owner and winemaker of Illahe Vineyards in the Willamette Valley, once owned a pair of draft horses for that he used to haul fruit to the winery—in part for his 1899 Pinot Noir, which is made using no electricity, stainless steel, or other materials largely introduced in the 20th century—and mow the property. He ultimately sold them for several reasons, one of which was that there was no community of farmers to share ideas, equipment, and resources.

Illahe Vineyard’s horses. Photo by Bethany Ford.

The Small Farmers Journal, a magazine founded in 1974, has done its best to support the small group of horse farmers that does exist. The other place people often turn for help is the Amish, who have been farming with horses for centuries. However, Ford says, “You can’t go to the Amish to get vineyard equipment. They don’t drink. If you go to Amish country, it’s not really a grape-growing country. Horse culture and wine culture are just barely touching each other.” Until there is a community of wine-focused farmers using horses, this method of farming will likely struggle in the U.S.

Ford is still a fan of using four-legged animals for vineyard work. “I encourage anything that’s romantic because it seems like the entire world is set up to discourage it,” he says. But instead of horses, he’s looking to add donkeys to his operation at some point. They can perform many of the same tasks as horses, but aren’t as big or dangerous. “They don’t get scared as much, and when they do, they don’t run away,” adds Ford. 

Horses will remain Baron’s animal of choice—not just to fulfill his childhood dream, but to meet his adult one of being a vigneron who does things differently. “This is our chance to do something unique, to be a leader and to be pushing the envelope,” he says. 

Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.

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