The Draft Horse Whisperer of Coppal House Farm

In woods and fields, a trio of sturdy Belgian draft horses are New Hampshire farmer John Hutton’s most trusted partners.

By Ian Aldrich

Dec 14 2012

Draft Horses Ice and Twiggy

Hutton drives Ice and Twiggy to the logging site.

Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod
John Hutton feeds his 1,700-pound mare, Twiggy.
Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod

It’s going to be a good day for swearing.

John Hutton indicates as much as he heads to the back of his barn, a long, bow-roofed structure that houses goats, pigs, horses, and, on occasion, a daring, gold-colored hen who darts around the farmer’s feet. It’s a mild, mid-February morning, and Hutton, who moves with the permanent precision of someone who always has a long to-do list, is gearing up for an afternoon in the woods. He strides past his two farmhands, who brush and bridle Hutton’s horses, and then pops outside to load up his wagon with a chainsaw and a couple of ropes.

Even by New England standards, Hutton’s Coppal House Farm, a rolling 78-acre plot of field and forest in Lee, New Hampshire, isn’t large. But what he lacks in size, Hutton makes up for in approach. His round face marked by a thick mustache and a toothy, engaging smile, he has an almost preternatural reverence for an efficiency that leans heavily on tradition.

Much of how Hutton powers his farm comes from his three Belgians, and his attachment to them rivals his feeling for his land. On a property that has sustained men like him since the 1700s, Hutton plows his fields each spring with his animals, picks some 25 acres of corn in late summer, and then, come winter, heads out to the woods to log.

As he checks over his wagon, Hutton’s farmhands, Meghan Boucher and Luke Keniston, harness his horses, who look, standing over the two assistants, cartoonishly big. Ice, a 2,000-pound, 8-year-old gelding, ducks his head under the doorframe as Luke leads him out of his stall. Standing next to him is Twiggy, a 1,700-pound, 10-year-old mare whom Hutton picked up six years ago. Off to the side, waiting patiently and all harnessed up is Ted, a smaller 1,600-pound gelding with whom Hutton has worked for almost 25 years.

Hutton rests with Ted, his 26-year-old gelding, at the logging site.
Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod

“I don’t have to drive him in the woods,” Hutton likes to say of his old horse. “I show him the road once or twice and then just leave him alone. He doesn’t like to be micromanaged.”

A largely snowless winter has made for a strange season. Logging the way Hutton does it requires snow, which lets draft horses like his pull timber up to 12 times their weight. But the dry days have frustrated him; he and his team have been out only a few times. Not only is Hutton behind on hauling out enough lumber for his spring projects, but his horses are out of shape. In Twiggy’s case, there’s the further complication of getting her acquainted with the work: Today will be her first time logging. “She’s a super horse to work with but a little fast,” Hutton says. “But I think she’s slowed down enough.” He pauses and looks at the mare. “If you’re not used to swearing, you might hear some this afternoon.”

In short order, the horses are hitched to a long trailer, and Hutton, sitting up front, just behind his horses, directs his team down a narrow dirt road edging his fields, then turns down a trail to a forest of tall white pines. About a half-mile in, Hutton comes to a stop and jumps off the trailer. Quickly, he unhitches the horses. Ice and Twiggy are harnessed together; Hutton, holding on to a pair of long reins, steps behind them. “If it looks bad and they start coming at you, just get behind a big tree and let ’em pass by you,” Hutton says. He pauses. “I’m not kidding.”

There was the time, about 25 years ago, when Hutton–still a young teamster and driving a wagon behind two of his horses–lost one of his reins. Towing Hutton behind them, the team sprinted toward his new truck, which sat parked in his driveway, and then jumped over its hood. The big Belgians cleared the target; so did Hutton, who shot into the air and landed, unscathed, in front of his team. “Unfortunately, the wagon didn’t do too good,” Hutton says, with a laugh. “It hung on top of the truck.”

Hutton and his old horse, Ted.
Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod

There will be no such drama today. Hutton has a firm grip on the lines, and when he’s ready, he prods the horses forward: “Okay, go easy.” With that, he guides his team to a small clearing rimmed with clusters of felled trees that he cut down a few days ago. Luke Keniston follows his boss, and as Hutton gets the horses close to the first log, he snaps a set of tongs around the butt end of the tree.

“All right, let’s find out if you have any power,” Hutton says, and then shouts the horses forward. They pull the pine, maybe 16 inches in diameter, easily to the middle of the clearing. A veteran team their size could comfortably haul a load equal to their own weight, Hutton says, but Ice and Twiggy are far from seasoned. So he builds his horses up, going after slightly bigger logs with each new load.

Twiggy, though, is hoppy. At times she jerks forward ahead of Ice, pulling her partner with her. Other times, she stops and lets Ice do the work. To help her, Hutton mixes stern directives with encouragement. He pats her gently after each completed load and fires his frustration at her when the logs barely budge. “Twiggy!” he booms at one point. “I’ve got news for you: Ted’s moved bigger logs than this and you’re a bigger horse than he is.” On it goes for the next several hours, Hutton prodding and pushing his animals like a coach at practice.

“My parents keep asking me when I’m going to get a real job,” Meghan says later with a laugh. “John and I aren’t sure what that’s supposed to mean.”

As a boy growing up in Stratham, New Hampshire, there was never any doubt what John Hutton would do with his life. Genetic disposition and family legacy ensured that. Hutton men had worked the land for several generations; it was the kind of employment that allowed them to get by, but not much else. A year and a half before Hutton’s birth, his father succumbed to financial pressures and sold off his 75-head dairy farm, settling his family on a nearby one-and-a-half-acre plot. He started over as a milk inspector, work that put him on the road and let his young boy travel with him as he visited dairy farms across New Hampshire and Maine.

Hutton adored the stories his father told him about the old farm. He loved even more the retired farmers and loggers his father knew. These men, who had toiled in the fields and woods with oxen and draft horses, became his heroes. Theirs had been a world molded by the big logging camps that had once dominated the northern landscape, felling some of the final giants of the New England forest with axes and crosscut saws. For Hutton they represented the last vestiges of a way of life that had largely vanished, replaced by machinery, and he hung on their every word. “I was pretty aware when I was young that I was around the last generation of these guys,” Hutton says. “I was just a sponge.”

By the time Hutton landed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1970s, he was working in the woods with his own animals–a pair of oxen, Butch and Buck, whom he used to collect cordwood for customers. Later, he started teaming horses, and it wasn’t unusual to find him logging with a pair of Belgians in the depths of winter in some northern forest. In 2005, after years of haying and hauling cows to market for other farmers, Hutton moved out of Stratham to own and operate his own farm, in nearby Lee.

Hutton drives Ice and Twiggy to the logging site.
Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod

Coppal House Farm is a property Hutton and his wife, Carol, a middle-school science teacher, have poured the last several years of their lives into fixing up. They restored old fields–barns, too–and moved into a new farmhouse in 2011. With the loss of his father’s farm hanging over him, Hutton has maintained an almost obsessive drive to stay diversified. He grows a range of vegetables for his farm stand and local farmers’ markets, and just this past year has started growing canola to press into oil. He’s also opened his property to the public. Each fall families pour into his place to weave through a giant corn maze, or hop on a wagon pulled by his three horses. In winter he hitches his horses up to a big sleigh for a four-mile ride through woods and snow.

Those horses, in fact, form the center of Hutton’s farm. It’s easy to dismiss his use of them as something for show, a marketing gimmick that makes for a pretty picture. But Hutton is nothing if not practical. He hates inefficiency, and the truth is, for a farm this size and the kind of work Hutton does, the horses offer an advantage.

“We’re a mixed-power farm,” Hutton says. “We have no illusions about the horses or the tractor. If the horses make more sense, I throw a harness. If a tractor makes more sense, I turn a key. I have no problem with that. None. Nada. But being able to combine the best of both, you use this where it’s most efficient. And it works.”

Each spring, Hutton gets an early start on his plowing because he doesn’t have to wait for the ground to completely dry before it can support heavy machinery. And in the woods, the horses let Hutton work without scarring up the land. “When I’m done, you wouldn’t even know I was there,” he says. “The environmental impact is zip. All we need is a space that’s as wide as a kitchen table. With a skidder, you’re spending more than $100,000, and you need an eight-foot-wide road.”

But the animals also add a dynamic to the work that Hutton can’t get from machinery. The old soul in Hutton treasures the relationships he’s formed with his horses. When he was 24, he bought his first one, a big retired pulling horse named Duke. The pair spent a lot of hours in the woods, and it was Duke who eventually broke Ted into the work.

Over the last quarter-century, Hutton and Ted have navigated myriad landscapes and weather conditions. The two have been out late plowing fields on a Friday night, then in downtown Portsmouth the next day, pulling a carriage for a wedding at the height of tourist season. They’ve worked when it’s 20* below, so cold that hoary froths of ice built up around the mouths and ears of his horses, and the only thing they could do to stay warm was to keep moving. “Once you get going, you’re down to a T-shirt in a half-hour,” says Hutton, a farmer who likes working in winter. “Besides, you don’t get stung by yellow jackets when it’s that cold.”

When Hutton talks about his horses, he speaks of them as he would any co-workers. He knows their limits, what sets off a certain mood, and how each one works under pressure. There’s also a reverence in his voice, an acknowledgment that they’ve taught him something as well.

“Ted’s got a humorous steak in him,” Hutton says. “You take him out in the woods, and after one or two logs he’ll want to see whether the line in the sand is the same as it was yesterday. He’s testing you to see whether the same rules from 20 years ago still apply. I have to swear at him when we’re working, because he just wants to push my buttons.”

Spending nearly four decades working with draft animals offers that kind of insight. But in developing that experience, Hutton has also emerged as an important link to the farming life that once built and defined New England communities. He’s an able storyteller and a willing educator, traits not often found in men like him, and he carries the legacy and the heritage of those farmers to make sure their history is accurately told. “I’ve said we either tell our own stories,” he says, “or somebody else is going to tell them for us, and we may not like how they’re told.”

At agricultural fairs all across Maine and New Hampshire, Hutton has worked as an announcer for pulling competitions, weaving colorful accounts and historical anecdotes into his play-by-play. In 1998 he caught the attention of Lynn Martin Graton, traditional-arts coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. She was in the midst of planning for New Hampshire’s presence at the following year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a 10-day event held each summer on the National Mall. She just happened to stumble across Hutton at the Deerfield Fair and was immediately struck by him.

“John was announcing and filling in with all this interesting history about the horses and how draft animals were used before the automobile,” recalls Graton, now the NHSCA’s acting director. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ And all the guys loved him. He’s extremely well informed and has an interest in history and is an independent scholar of this lifestyle and this history of farming. And he lives the life and does the work. He knows how to communicate emotionally and verbally with these animals.” So in 1999, Hutton joined some 140 other New Hampshire residents in representing the state in Washington; he served as the announcer and commentator for the festival’s draft-animal demonstrations.

Ted, now 26, was just a year and a half old when John Hutton bought him.
Photo Credit : McCabe, Jarrod

About an hour into the logging work, a sweating Hutton sheds his work jacket. “Back when I was logging full-time I don’t think I weighed more than 170,” he cracks, patting his stomach.

On a good day, Hutton and his horses would have a fair number of the logs pulled out of the woods by the end of the afternoon. But that’s not going to happen today. The seasoned teamster in him knows that he can push his animals only so far. A century ago, loggers avoided working for men who regularly came out of the woods with fewer horses than they started with. If a teamster was hard on his horses, they reasoned, he undoubtedly was going to be even harder on his men, because they came even cheaper. “It takes a real teamster to have the same set of horses every year,” Hutton notes.

And that’s why he’s continously reading his animals, evaluating their temperament and performance. At certain points, even when the logs are tonged and the horses are ready to pull, Hutton waits, letting the animals learn how to stand still in case a situation comes up and he needs to fix or adjust some piece of equipment. He’s got a living to make, but he’s not going to overwork his animals to do it.

Unable to get Twiggy to work in sync with Ice, he finally breaks her off on her own. Still, it’s a struggle. He tongs a medium-sized log, but she continues hopping around, barely moving it forward. He moves to a smaller log, with the same results. “We’re going to get down to toothpicks in a few minutes,” he hollers.

Just then, Twiggy lurches forward, bringing the felled tree with her. “There you go, sweetie,” Hutton says, following beside her. “I ain’t asking you to do anything you can’t do.”

Twiggy’s last log is one of her biggest. It’s still a bit of a fight to get her to move it, but she finally brings the pine to the clearing, from where Hutton will eventually move the wood back to the farm with his tractor. Hutton looks satisfied. “I just got to her so she has the confidence,” he says softly to himself.

Some three hours after they left, Hutton and his team head back to the barn. By the time they reach home, the horses are sweating and sheets of steam pour off their bodies. Overhead, the sky has taken on a steel-gray hue. Hutton looks up. The forecast is calling for a storm to roll through the region the next day. That means snow, and the chance for Hutton to get his horses back into the woods, where he and his team belong.

Coppal House Farm, 118 North River Road, Lee, NH. 603-659-3572;