Heavy Horse Ploughing

Ploughing is the skill of cultivating land for the growing of crops. Early ploughs were forked sticks or stag’s antlers which scratched the surface of the soil, but by Roman times animal power was being used to pull shaped pieces of wood to turn the soil. By the time of William the Conqueror the basic parts of the plough had evolved – a coulter to cut a vertical slice through the soil, a share to undercut the slice horizontally, and a mould-board to turn the slice over and bury any vegetation. In the 11th century wheels were developed to regulate the depth of the furrow.

Medieval ploughs were very heavy and pulled by teams of oxen, controlled by whip or pole. The oxen ploughed steadily and did a good job. Farms were small and the land would have been ploughed more often than today to control weeds.

The early ploughs had wooden beams and handles and wooden mould-boards shaped in different ways to suit the land in the area. Later mould-boards had small pieces of metal attached to improve their wearing qualities. The point was made of iron or steel, sometimes cast. Many of the parts were blacksmith-made, including the bolts and nuts.

In the 18th century – a time of much agricultural progress – a lightweight plough was produced which could be pulled by a pair of horses, which was faster than oxen. In the 19th century manufacturers took over production from the village blacksmith, and development was rapid. In East Anglia, especially, many competitive companies designed and produced a wide range of types of plough. Many of these traditional implements survive and are sought after by those wishing to plough with horses.

How a Plough Works

As a plough cuts through the soil the coulter makes a vertical cut. The share makes a horizontal cut at the same depth as the coulter, perhaps 6 inch. The mould-board is shaped to turn over the slice cut by the coulter and the share and lay it alongside and parallel to the ploughing line to the right.

The ploughman sets his plough so that the depth of the furrows is consistent. Adjustments can be made to this setting according to conditions. On a wheel plough, the depth of the furrow can be determined by adjusting the smaller land wheel and the larger furrow wheel vertically. The width of the furrow can be determined by adjusting the furrow wheel horizontally. If the horses pull the plough to one side, the line of ploughing can be corrected by horizontal adjustment on the hake.

To ensure the furrow slice is rectangular, the plough must rest flat on its sole plate. If it is set to lean over to the left, the horses’ work is easier but the furrows will not lie flat against each other.

When correctly adjusted, the plough will produce furrow slices which are straight, parallel and all the same height. The form and angle of the crests should be similar and they should lie flat upon each other. The crowns, also known as ridges or tops, should be level with the rest of the ploughing and the last furrow slice should be the same width as the rest.

Working Ploughing

Traditionally the fields were ploughed on rig work in which the width of each rig is 10-18 yards, with the rigs set out across the field. The headland furrow would be marked out about 8 yards from the hedge at each end to give a mark for the start of ploughing. The headland was ploughed by turning the land towards the hedge one year and the opposite way the next year. When ploughing was started the second year, the top or crown was set in the furrow that was left the previous year; this helped to keep the land fairly level and made working easier for drills, binders and other machines that followed the plough. Half the value of the crop comes from good ploughing.

Match Ploughing

Ploughing matches became very popular among country folks in the 19th century. They started as a result of challenges between ploughmen to see who could draw the straightest furrow, and developed into the complex competitions demanding great skill which we know today. The modern horse ploughing match is a sport, and ploughmen will travel long distances to compete.

The judging and point systems vary slightly between different ploughing societies, but the Society of Ploughmen’s rules will suffice to give an idea of how the match works. Out of 200 points awarded, 45 go to completing the crown (the first three furrows either side of the opening), 30 to the burying of grass and stubble, 35 for uniformity of ploughing, 30 for the firmness of the furrow, 10 for straightness, 10 for the ‘ins and outs’ of the plough at the end of the furrows, and 40 for the finish (the last three furrows either side of the mould furrow).


The two classes of horse ploughing mostly seen at today’s marches are general purpose and high-cut, also known as oat seed furrow. General purpose ploughing produces a more broken furrow which can easily be harrowed down to form a seed bed. High-cut ploughing produces a furrow suitable for sowing seed by broadcasting over the furrows. When it is done properly, the pressed and ‘polished’ sides of the furrows allow the seed to fall to the bottom and achieve an even distribution.

Nowadays, this style of ploughing is used very little in practical situations, but it attracts competitors because of the skill required to produce this very eye-catching style.

The plough used for high-cut work has an extra long mould-board which turns the furrows slowly to ensure that the soil remains unbroken. For the polish, the ploughman uses two attachments, a press wheel shaped to the profile of the furrow which runs in the previously ploughed furrow, and a boat-shaped weight to polish the sides of the next furrow.

Basic Ploughing Procedure

A typical plough plot is 8 yards by 80 yards. Before starting to plough, the ploughman should make sure that the plot has been measured out correctly by width and length and clear any excess straw out of the way. Then a maximum of three sighting poles must be positioned. Most ploughmen prefer to plough with one horse in the furrow and the other on the land, but some ploughmen like both horses to walk on the unploughed land. To do this it is necessary to have a much longer draw chain, and to make sure that it does not interfere with turning on the headland where the horses go past the adjacent plot. This would restrict the adjacent competitor from coming out of his own work, should both teams arrive at the same end at the same time.

General Purpose

In general purpose classes all land has to be moved. The first operation is opening up. The land wheel is raised to increase the angle of the plough and allow the ploughman to make the first shallow furrow 3 inches deep. This is ploughed following the sight poles which have been set up on the headland opposite the planned first furrow of the opening, and half-way down the proposed first furrow if wished. After a second furrow the return is made parallel to it, leaving the opening clean and wide enough to allow you to set the crown level and clean.

The completes the opening, which is then judged. The crown can now be formed and is the same as in high-cut ploughing. After ploughing five furrows each side of the opening, move over to the highest numbered neighbouring plot. If this furrow is not straight, bring it to the steward’s attention and allowances will be made. Continue ploughing, keeping the work level and with furrows 5 inches deep and 9-9.5 inches wide. Depending on the land and conditions and the plot measurements, some 32 furrows will be ploughed.

The finish is produced as in high-cut work. The ideal is to have a small ledge at the bottom of the furrow towards your neighbour’s work, and the mould, or earth, taken from this furrow should be two-thirds up the normal work.

It will be necessary to alter the hake when ploughing to make the plough pull in line. This is also important at the start and finish of the work. In all these cases the horses are working in an offset position (to the left), thus the need for adjustment.

High Cut

The first job in high-cut work is to set the plough, and a match ploughman should not forget the use of the skimmer, which pushes the weeds to the bottom of the furrow, burying them and so helping with the finished result. Often good work is spoilt at matches because the skimmer has not been used. It is important to get the knife coulter set right, just outside the shear or point, so that it gives a nice clean edge to the furrow wall. The bottom must also be level. The landslide should make a slight mark on the bottom of the furrow.

To form the opening, a scratch furrow should be created with a chipping share (a special share shaped like a small mould-board) following the line of the sight poles, with the return down the right side 23 inches from the first mark. The land wheel should be adjusted so that the first furrow is thrown halfway between the scratch marks at a depth of 4-5 inches. The return is in the opposite direction to form the crown or ridge. The next step is to go round the crown again pushing these first two furrows tighter together. The chipping share can be used to make the crown, but the normaltype should be used for the rest of the ploughing. A wider bar carrying the two plough wheels can be used, and this makes marks which can be followed to make the start easier.

There should be a nice V in the centre of the crown, so that when the press wheel is used it will press down in the V giving a nicer finish. The boat, which follows the press wheel, will finish this off to a high standard. The furrows must be kept exactly uniform for the press wheel to run down the middle of the work. The point or shear for high-cut work should have a slightly raised front edge, so that when the slice of soil is turned over it will be slightly concave; then the work will pack together giving a smart finish. The straighter you can keep this work, the better it looks.

The furrows in high-cut work are generally 8 inches wide and 5 inches deep. Five furrows should be shown each side of the crown before casting onto a neighbour’s plot, again always choosing the neighbour with the highest numbered plot. The rest of the plot, known as the split, is ploughed in until an 8 inch strip is left. This has to be turned towards your crown, leaving an open trench. The final path is made in the same direction along the trench putting up a mould furrow which is 1-2 inch lower than the previous furrows.

When finishing off high-cut work, the offside horse must walk in the furrow so that he does not treat the work. Many older ploughmen finish off with both horses in line in the furrow so that no footmarks at all are made on the ploughed land. High-cut work at ploughing matches is usually allowed additional time as it is a much more precise job than general purpose work.

Learning to Plough

The skill of ploughing is learned over many years. You cannot buy experience, but you may be fortunate enough to find an older ploughman who worked during the heyday of the horse on the land. Not all experienced horsemen are willing or able to pass on their knowledge, but many are. If you can interest them in your efforts to become a good ploughman, they will certainly repay you with help and advice. Think out your questions carefully: the best approach is to tell the ploughman that you are interested in horses and ploughing and would like to invite him to come and have a look at your work.

Types of Plough

The most common plough in use by farmers with heavy horses today is the wheeled, single-furrow plough. Many types of plough are used in modern ploughing matches, and all kinds of adaptations are available to suit the ploughman’s taste. A Ransomes YL general purpose plough is a good tool to start with, since the short mould-board gives a good class of work. The chief difficulty on modern fields is the tram lines made by tractors during spraying operations. If your land wheel drops into the rut it can alter the angle of the plough and make it difficult to achieve a good piece of work. One way round this is to have a long skid in place of the land wheel or, if you do not have a skid, put a little pressure on the right-hand handle of the plough where you reach the tram lines. By using the short-turn mould-board the soil is more broken up, which helps to cover up the variations in the land. For general purpose work the YL skimmer is one of the best for burying the stubble and weeds if it is not set too deep.

A plough which is now more widely used in ploughing matches is the long mould-board type, although more skill is needed in setting it up to get a good result in general purpose work. A longer draw chain from the hake to the whipple trees will help. This will allow the horses to move out of line and not affect the ploughing. A wider cross-shaft can also be of help in keeping the plough level. The wider the shaft the less the plough will roll about; a narrow wheel base is less stable. Also, weight on the land wheel side of the plough keeps it on the ground, giving a better class of work.

Other types of plough which may be seen at matches and demonstrated at working days include the swing plough and the reversible plough. Once common in Wales and Scotland, the swing plough has no wheels, but longer handles and a shorter beam than average, giving the ploughman more leverage. A swing plough needs a lot of muscle to keep it under control.

The reversible plough throws the furrow slice to the left or the right, so there is only one ridge and no open furrows or finishes. The ploughman reverses the throw of the furrow when he turns at the headland, laying each furrow in the same direction over the whole field. There are three types of reversible plough. The balance plough has two complete sets of handles, beam, mould-board, coulter and share, fixed at 90 degrees to each other. On reaching the headland the ploughman tips the plough up to bring the other set into use. The horses walk back down the furrow previously ploughed. The turnover plough also has two sets of parts. To reverse the action it is turned over sideways with the beam as axis. This is most popular in the west of England. The turnwrest plough has one mould-board with two faces. To reverse the action, the plough is tilted through 90 degrees.

A few ride-on American sulky ploughs have been imported into the UK and may be seen at demonstrations. The chief advantages of these are that they plough a wider furrow and the ploughman sits above the plough achieving more in a given time period. This plough needs three or four horses.


Ploughing matches have a attracted a great deal of interest among the general public, and they keep ploughing skills alive as well as acting as a gathering place for keen ploughmen. Experience gained at matches assists those people who are carrying out horse ploughing on their own farms, and vice versa.

Glossary of Common Horse Ploughing Terms

Balance ploughPlough with two sets of handles, beam, mould-board, coulter and share, fixed at 90 degrees to each other. At the headland the plough is tipped up to bring the other set into use.
BeamThe spine or main section of the plough, to which the handles are attached.
Blind passThe ploughman steers horses and ploughs alongside the ploughed land but without ploughing a further furrow in order to position himself to plough the next furrow alongside the last one.
BoatBoat-shaped weight dragged alongside the mould-board to press and smooth the furrow-slice previously cut; particularly used to put a 'polish' on high-cut ploughing.
BreastAnother name for mould-board.
Broken workPloughing so that the furrow-slice is broken as it is turned, using a sharply curving mould-board, sometimes with fins or blades attached to divide the slice as it passes.
ButtsShort furrows taking up odd areas beyond, or linking, the main ploughed areas.
CantA land or plot: area marked out for ploughing.
Casting offAlso known as splitting or throwing off.
Chipping shareA special share shaped like a small mould-board used to make the scratch furrows in an opening in high-cut ploughing.
CoulterThe blade attached to the plough beam that makes the vertical cut in the soil. See share, mould-board and skim coulter.
Cross-shaftMetal shaft at right angles to line of plough, which holds the two wheels.
CrownThe first three furrows each side of the opening. In some places it represents a larger number of furrows each side. Also known as the ridge.
FinishThe last part of the area to be ploughed, consisting of three rounds and the sole furrow.
Furrow wheelThe larger of the two wheels which travels within the furrow.
Furrow-sliceThe long strip of soil cut, lifted and turned by the plough. Also called the sod.
GatherPloughing around the opening or first furrows by continuously turning right at the headlands. This always turns the furrow-slice towards the opening. See splitting.
General purpose ploughingType of ploughing which produces a broken furrow which can be easily harrowed to form a seed bowl.
Grit furrowSee mould furrow, sole furrow.
HakeDevice on the front end of the plough beam which allows vertical and horizontal adjustment at the point of attachment of the draught chains.
HeadlandThe area at the end of the furrow between the ploughed area and the edge of the field, allowing space for the horse team and plough to be turned. It is usually ploughed last by going round and round the field.
High-cutPloughing which turns a furrow-slice that stands as high as is width, and gives a relatively narrow furrow, between 5 and 7 inches wide. These close-packed, sharp angled furrows best accept seed sown broadcast (by hand), and weather best through the winter on soil prone to puddling. Also called an oat seed furrow.
Ins and outsThe points where the plough share enters and leaves the ground at the headland. They should be well in line with the headland furrow so that the headland ploughing neatly completes the job.
JourneyOne day's ploughing.
Knife coulterAnother name for coulter.
LandThe area beside the furrow not yet ploughed; hence land-side, furrow-side etc. the land horse is the one that walks on the unploughed ground; the furrow horse actually walks in the furrow.
Land-sideThe side towards the unploughed land. The side of the furrow against which the vertical part of the slade presses.
LandslideThe vertical part of the slade.
Land wheelThe smaller of the two wheels which travels on the unploughed land.
MouldThe section of earth turned over by the plough.
Mould-boardThe conspicuously curving plate on the plough that turns the cut furrow-slice over. Also called the breast, wing or turn-furrow.
Mould furrowThe last furrow to be turned in a finish (two-thirds the way up the normal ploughing). See also sole furrow, grit furrow.
Oat seed furrowAnother name for high-cut ploughing.
OpeningThe first operation in ploughing, consisting of two scratch furrows which support the first full furrow-slices at the correct angle. Also called a veering.
PackingA term describing how well the turned furrow-slices press against each other to make good seams. Bad packing would let broadcast seeds fall through the seam; it would also encourage growth of weeds turned in.
PlotThe area in a ploughing match which the contestant has to plough.
PointAnother name for share, shear or sock.
Press wheelSolid profiled wheel which follows the plough to press the seams tight in high-cut ploughing, ready to take broadcast seed.
Reversible ploughThrows the furrow slice to the left or right, so there is only one ridge and no open furrows or finishes. The ploughman reverses the throw of the furrow when he turns at the headland, laying each furrow in the same direction over the whole field.
RidgeThree rounds around the opening, also called a backing or crown,
Rig/rig workSections of ploughing within a field, measuring 8 to 18 yards each, set out across the field to break it up into efficient-sized pieces for the ploughman to plough without having to walk too far to make the next furrow.
RoundA single pass in the direction of the ploughing. Thus three rounds around the opening forms the ridge.
RubbishParticularly stubble, weeds, grass and other surface material that, in good ploughing, should be properly buried so that it will rot.
Scratch furrowThe first shallow furrows turned which support the first full furrows.
SeamThe trough between the laid furrow-slices. Good seams are pressed close so that broadcast seeds will not fall through. See packing.
vSetting outMeasuring the area to be ploughed, and marking it with sighting poles placed in the headland furrows.
ShareThe blade attached to the frame of the plough which makes the horizontal cut in the soil. Often it is attached to a lever so that the point may be raised or lowered. Also called a sock, point or shear.
ShearAnother name for share, point or shear.
SkidA piece of metal to take the place of the land wheel where tramlines or uneven ground cause the small wheel to leap out of place.
SkimmerDevice in front of the coulter to collect weeds and push them into the bottom of the furrow. Also known as skim coulter.
SladeA right-angled metal section consisting of the sole and landslide of the plough, fastened to the bottom of the frame.
SockAnother word for share, point or shear.
SodAnother word for share, point or shear.
Sole furrowSee mould furrow, grit furrow.
Sole (plate)The base of the plough which slides along the bottom of the furrow.
SplittingPloughing land so that the furrow-slice is turned away each side of the finish by turning left at the headland and going around the diminishing area of land to be ploughed. Also called throwing out or casting off. The usual way of ploughing is to complete a gather round the opening and then split the rest of the land or cant.
Swing ploughPlough with no wheels but longer handles and a shorter beam, giving more leverage. Once common in Wales and Scotland.
Throwing outAlso known as splitting, or casting off.
TopAnother name for crown. 'Tops' of the farrow should be evenly matched.
Turn furrowAnother name for the mould-board.
Turnover ploughAnother type of plough with two sets of parts. To reverse the action it is turned over sideways with the beam as axis. Most popular in the west of England.
Turnwrest ploughThis plough has one mould-board with two faces. To reverse the action the plough is tilted through 90 degrees.
VeeringAnother name for opening.
WingDevice on digger ploughs positioned in front of the mould-board on the land-side of the share which carries out the slicing motion in the furrow bottom.


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