Customer: What’s with all the photographs of horses at Waterkloof?
Waterkloof: We use them in the vineyards.
Customer: Yeah right! Well, they do make for a nice marketing picture, but it doesn’t make any sense. Haven’t you heard of a tractor?
Waterkloof: Yes, we do have a tractor, too – but really, the horses do most of the work in the vineyards. Allow us to explain…
Christiaan Loots, Farm Manager at Waterkloof, hails from the Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn. While his family farmed the “Karoo classics” of ostrich and sheep, his father always kept American saddlebred horses. Christiaan thus grew up training and riding the horses.
Fast forward to the Cape Winelands in 2009 where, on the slopes of the Schapenberg in Somerset West, a major new planting and replanting exercise had been completed, a state-of-the-art gravitational cellar and restaurant had been built and conversion to biodynamic farming was underway at the Waterkloof estate. Christiaan, Farm Manager, was working with custodian Paul Boutinot to achieve the conversion.
Although horses are slower than tractors outside of a vineyard environment, the playing field levels in between the vines. Tractors work at 4km/hour, only marginally faster than horses at 3.8km/hour. Waterkloof also has a number of vineyard blocks planted at such a high density (for quality reasons) that a tractor wouldn’t actually be able to fit down the rows. Most importantly, horses work far more gently, so in order to lessen soil compaction and lower the overall carbon footprint, two workhorses were inducted into the farming team. Shortly after, another five joined the “Green Brigade” ranks.
Today, Waterkloof has a team of six workhorses, each responsible for 8 hectares of vineyard. They mostly keep to their individual 8 hectare blocks, but are sometimes rotated. Each horse has a handler, who works alongside the horse out in the vineyard and is also responsible for its daily feeding and care. The recruitment and training of the right handler is as important as that of the horse.
When a horse first joins the team, it undergoes thorough training in order to master the necessary aspects of working on the farm. They’re first introduced to harnesses and then start by pulling tractor tyres. They’re only ever ridden at a walk to get used to a slow, steady pace. “Spook proofing” gets them accustomed to loud and sudden noises.
The horses work twice daily, unless a handler is off sick or equipment is damaged. In the afternoons, they are walked to cool down and washed. A farrier visits monthly for hoof care and the equine vet conducts three “stable calls” per year. Given their slow metabolism, their diet consists mostly of oat hay, which is substituted with lucern or teff hay in summer.
Once trained and ready to work, their roles include applying compost teas and compost, applying biodynamic preparations, ploughing and, during harvest, transporting grapes from the vineyard to the cellar. A series of equipment is used to perform these duties – they wear either a plough harness or carriage harness, and pull the SP8 straight plough, under-vine dodge plough, a 500l spray pump with motor and 5 tine grop. Handlers ride in Roman-style carriages with trailers attached to transport grapes during harvest.
In Europe, horse-drawn equipment is readily available and boasts the latest technologies. Unfortunately, these implements are not available in South Africa. During visits to Bordeaux in France, Christiaan “stole with his eyes” and thus all of Waterkloof’s equipment was built from scratch.
“The blocks where the horses work have some of the softest soil on the estate,” says Christiaan. “That comes from plowing in the cover crop every spring, which is then immediately treated with biodynamic and compost teas.”
“The handlers take a lot of pride in their vineyard blocks and that has made our work as managers significantly easier,” he continues. “When clients visit the estate and see the horses working the vineyard, I think they are better able to appreciate the effort that goes into farming organically. And, for me, the wine just tastes better knowing that it was made using organic and old-school vineyard practices!”
Our goal is to make greater use of horses throughout the estate. While the technology to work the vineyards faster is not yet available in South Africa, Christiaan aims to continuously explore and develop the available technologies here on home soil. Waterkloof’s ethos for producing natural wine using hand and hoof will remain a paramount component of our farming philosophy.