Last of the Six Across Team Feeders
Story and photos by Craig Kelley
2016 marked the year of a milestone event in the halls of history concerning the preservation of tradition in the ranching heritage world.
Craig Haythorn, the fourth-generation patriarch of Haythorn Land and Cattle Company of Arthur, Neb., established in 1884, became the last man (outside of the Amish community) to still use a six-across Belgian horse team for winter feeding of the livestock on their expansive property.
Haythorn Land and Cattle Company is the only ranch in North America that historically has held a “true ranch production sale” for over 4 decades. They offer for sale: registered Longhorn cattle, registered Quarter-horses, registered Draft horses and commercial Angus heifers every 5 years.
Haythorn told me, while on a visit to their ranch, that as of 2015 he knew of only one other like-aged rancher who still personally performed this identical setup age-old tradition. I hope that gives one some realistic perspective of the significance or scarcity of this traditional way.
Although not Texas-born, Craig is a graduate of Texas Tech and the Double-T hangs on their stud barn at the Haythorn Ranch.
While attending Texas Tech on a rodeo scholarship, Craig spent a lot of time at the Pitchfork Ranch riding young horses for then Wagon Boss Billy George Drennan.
Upon graduation from Tech, Haythorn was responsible for starting all the 2-year-old Haythorn Ranch colts back home. That responsibility also included laying the initial foundation under their young ranch-raised draft horses.
Their Quarter horse program was approaching its apex for the next 30 years that lay directly ahead. They were to have the largest mare herd in North America and were running 900 to 1,000 head of horses overall.
Haythorn Land and Cattle Company would later be the inaugural recipient of the AQHA “Best Remuda Award” in 1992.
Haythorn could recall being a small boy the first time he saw his father and grandfather driving the six-across teams of Belgians. He was 12 to 15 years old when he first went out alongside them to learn the discipline.
He was 28 to 30 years of age when he began team feeding on his own and is still at it today.
There was one other individual of Hawthorn’s age that also used a six-across team to feed with, but he retired at the end of 2015.
He was a fellow Nebraska Sandhills rancher by the name of Buck Buckles. Although Haythorn Land and Cattle Company ranch-raise their own registered draft horses, Haythorn told me he has maintained a multi-decade association with a trader-buyer-seller of finished out team horses by the name of Tracy Hanson, who lives in Minnesota.
For Hanson, this is a full-time occupation that has raised his family and afforded him the privilege of sending his children to college.
His expansive connections run so deep that Haythorn inferred to me that he can fill any order or request for any clients’ preferred age, color and sex of requested team of broke horses within a 7- to 10-day time frame.
Anytime a Haythorn draft horse client order cannot be fulfilled by Haythorn-raised animals, Haythorn recommends the buyer get in touch with Hanson for order completion.
During the 20-plus years of doing business with him, Haythorn has returned just one horse obtained from Hanson; over a reasonable period of time, the animal proved that he just didn’t have the will to work. That is a true testament to Hanson’s credibility as a supplier.
At the Haythorn ranch, the general rule for any calendar year is to begin the feeding season on March 1 and run through the first week of May. The ranch uses acreage for growing their own hay that will allow for approximately 6,000 tons for use annually.
The finished teams range in age from 18 to 6. The two oldest members are in the center or “on the tongue.”
The team works on both verbal and physical commands. “Gee” and “haw” denote right or left, respectively, the direction of travel by the animals.
Riding along on the wheeled trailer that houses the motorized cherry-picker for hay distribution, one should immediately pick up on the overall quiet that surrounds them.
The heavy hoofs of the Belgian team in the grass-covered sandy soil base, the soft clinking of the tack and harnesses, along with the chains dragging behind the trailer over the sandy grass, the wildlife, birds and cows make for a soft, soothing music.
Anyone can get a lot of issues worked through in their mind while out in this solitude, easing along in that soft melodic harmony.
A racing herd of deer or antelope can suddenly appear in front of you then, just as quickly, they are gone, while you are traversing through the endless ocean of sandhills, Longhorns and Angus cows and their newborn calves surrounding you. It’s an indescribable blend of the senses that leads to peace amid the obvious power of these majestic horses.
The morning feeding time of these huge Belgians, which stand 16 hands tall and weigh between 1,600 and 1,800 pounds plus, is a ritual that must be seen to understand.
They will travel out of their holding pen down the winding alleyways to the main barn itself. The 2 oldest lead the way, holding back the restless, anxious younger ones.
They are stopped at the barn entrance by a chest-high gate. Once Haythorn opens that gate entrance they will trail in, each individual animal going to its respective stall position for their morning oats, harnesses and tack outfitting, mirroring the exact order that they fall into the lineup on the tongue. If there is a new, younger animal being introduced into the team mix, it’s a quick animal territorial lesson as to where its particular stall space will be.
The older horses teach the younger horses that there is one way and one way only. As they take in their oats, Haythorn and another hand will brush, outfit with appropriate tack, then start them toward the barn out-door to line up for hooking up to the tongue apparatus itself.
They jostle, lean, and nuzzle amongst themselves while waiting for the rest to arrive in an orderly fashion and get everything duly assembled.
This exercise is a short-timed choreographed arrangement of respect and discipline, with verbal commands given to line everything up properly. This is the exact way it’s been done for more than 100 years.
After assembly completion, Haythorn steps up on the trailing platform edge of the tongue device with lines in hand, gives a light pop to the lines across their backs and a verbal command, and off they go. Majestic animals stride in unison down to a wide gate, down the lane, some 50 yards ahead, through that and another 50 yards to the trailer. Hook up to that and begin an 8- to 12-mile circle picking up and distributing huge masses of hay to the anxious, but orderly, waiting Angus cows, calves, and Longhorn pairs.
In the past, the team pulled a hay sled, an oblong shaped platform that held the gargantuan haystacks. It was a flat platform with rails, not wheels, underneath it. Today, the rails have been replaced with wheels to resemble a low-slung open type wagon bed. There aren’t any sides or railings attached to the bed itself.
The loading process is best described like this: Haythorn and the team pulling the sledwagon will stop in front of one of the many strategically placed stacks in any pasture. He then tilts the bed at a 30- to 40-degree angle so the trailer edge is touching the ground.
He unhooks the 6-across team on the tongue from the wagon bed. With the team itself now being line-driven, he guides them out and away from their usual position (of being attached to the end of the trailer), out and around to where they are now out front of the long edge of the trailer bed.
In the old days, there was a 12- to 15-yard long wire cable attached to the end of the sled that was used to wrap around the backside of any haystack. The positioned horse team would pull the stack forward and onto the sled bed. This is called cabling hay.
Today that wire cable has been replaced with a similar length of heavy steel chain. Since one end of the chain is attached to the end of the trailer bed, Haythorn will walk that length of chain completely around to the backside of the haystack, carefully positioning it around the base of the stack at ground level. He re-attaches the loose end of the chain to the horse team to form a semi-circle of the chain wrapped around the base of the haystack itself.
One may take a portion of that stack or the whole stack depending on the positioning of the chain wrapped around the haystack.
He returns to the team horses, picks up the lines and drives the team forward, thus pulling the chain-wrapped haystack forward and onto the trailer bed.
As the hay moves onto the bed, the edge that was once tilted to the ground begins to rise, due to the weight of that stack moving out across it. Once the trailer bed levels out flat again, with the stack sitting balanced in the middle of the trailer bed, Haythorn stops the horse team, unhooks the chain from the team and then re-attaches the 6-across team to their regular position at the front end of the wagon bed. He pops the lines and forward they go.
Haythorn has a hydra-fork picker unit powered by an old Briggs and Stratton gas-fueled engine on the trailer that he uses to distribute the hay out to the waiting cows and their calves. He will leave his position in the seat behind the 6-across horse team and climb up into the chair of the hydra-fork, which now puts him facing in the opposite direction of the horse team.
It’s from here that he verbally commands the horse team to move in the preferred direction while looking out at the landscape and livestock that is trailing the trailer bed.
He’ll occasionally glance back over his shoulder towards the team to confirm that the horses are still traveling in the preferred direction.
He will give a verbal command for them to continue forward, either in a straight or angled line of travel, so he can drop the hydra-forked plucks of hay off to the livestock.
The team is quick to take to any verbal command given. Any lengthy hesitation on their part, or failure to initially respond to any verbally-issued command within a reasonable amount of time, will bring a stern reprimand by Haythorn, calling out the guilty party by its given name. Trust me; I can assure you those don’t come very often.
To witness this choreographed picture of performance today is truly a step back in time to the era of the late 1800s. It unfolds exactly as it has been practiced for more than 100 years.
As Craig Haythorn and his team of 6-across Belgians steadily traverse the route for the day, then trail back home to get put up for the night, you cannot help but imagine all the thoughts and memories of yesteryear that must run through his mind, reflections of how his grandfather and father did this before him.
Today he is the steward who keeps this tradition alive, just as it has been done since the inception of Haythorn Land and Cattle Company in 1884.
“Six Across Team Feeders” is excerpted from the December 2017 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.