On the borders of a landscape famous for its wild horses, the New Forest, is Harbridge Farm. In this beautiful corner of Hampshire is one of the last bastions of real horse power, because Harbridge Farm is run with the help of the Percheron draught horse. In our previous blog Rarer Than Giant Pandas – Working Horses Today we came to the sad conclusion that the draught horse has almost disappeared from our landscape. But at Harbridge Farm, these magnificent beasts are still going strong.
A Family Business
Harbridge Farm on the Somerley Estate is run by the Robert Sampson and his family. Though the Percheron did not make an appearance until 1951, Robert says ‘[his] father never got rid of the horses on this farm’, preferring to work with horses for the most part. His father ‘changed to the Percheron 3 years before [he] was born’ and Robert himself ‘started working with them when [he] was 16’. As trained farriers, Robert’s sons Tom and Fred are continuing the family tradition.
It is clear to see that Robert loves his work. For over 50 years, he has worked his farm and horses all day, every day. When asked what his favourite part of the job is, he replied ‘I enjoy it all, you’d have to to do it’. Much of this enjoyment seems to come from his horses. His answer to the question of how horses compare to machinery was ‘I use horses because I love it. It’s a choice, not a comparison’.
The Sampson Percherons
Robert’s father needed to replace his aging Shire horses in 1951. He had seen the Percheron at shows and ‘liked how active they were, and also the lack of feather’, or the long hair around the horse’s hoof. This hair can be a real disadvantage during a wet winter as it can become matted with mud, and the damp can get into the horse’s hooves. The Percheron breed also has the ideal temperament. According to Robert ‘I have trained a great many horses in my life, and the Percheron horses are always the easiest’. This is because ‘they are quick to learn, and try to understand what you want on them’.
During the winter, the horses are used to feed out stock every day, and for ploughing when there is time. In the summer Robert uses them to ‘turn the hay crop’ and ‘haul a percentage of the bales to the yard. In addition, the horses perform ‘all sorts of other tasks throughout the year’.
Every horse on the farm has a personality, which brought Robert to his favourite horse, Willingham Axl, which he bought as a foal and trained himself. He ‘worked him for some task or other nearly every day of his life. Robert describes Willingham Axl as ‘willing, intelligent, trustworthy and extremely handsome, he had real presence’. It is understandable that Robert was ‘heartbroken when he died at only 16 years of age’, just over half the normal life expectancy of a Percheron.
One Small Tractor
Though the vast majority of tasks on the farm are carried out by the Sampsons’ Percherons, Harbridge Farm is home to one classic Field Marshall tractor. The tractor has done a lot of work over the years but now Robert mostly uses it to ‘drive the roller mill which I use to crush oats for stock feed’. In this video here you can watch Robert’s Field Marshall winching a large tractor and its trailer full of wood out of the mud!
Find out more from Robert and the heavy horses at Harbridge Farm on their website or get updates on day to day activities and working horse events on their Facebook page.
Location: Harbridge Farm, Ringwood, Hampshire, BH24 3PW