During my life, I have had plenty of experience with horses of the four-legged variety, acquired mostly while raising horse-loving daughters. Generally speaking, I found them to be expensive, messy, occasionally dangerous, and by the way did I mention expensive? My daughters have grown up so we no longer have horses on the property but the experience gained from this time may prove valuable should society or our infrastructure deteriorate.
I have chosen to write today about a horse of a different color namely red Troy Bilt Horse rototillers which have become an interesting part of my life in recent years. Food production and distribution issues have developed in ways that I had never expected to see here in the US. Having lived overseas in places where these problems are commonplace, I have learned of the value of local and personal food production in the form of a garden. A decade ago, I started developing a 1/10th acre garden next to our newly built rural home. The land was originally a productive field but after the construction process the soil was more compacted construction debris than fertile. So began my quest to build it into a decent garden. As a kid, my father had a small backyard garden that we turned and prepared using a shovel and rake. Back then I remember seeing ads for Troy Bilt Horse rototillers with pictures of beautiful turned soft soil that begged to be planted in.
Unfortunately, there were no funds for such labor-saving devices so we continued to do things by hand. Remembering this, I located a well-used 1970s-vintage full-sized Troy Bilt Horse rear-tined tiller on Craig’sList and started my new adventure in gardening with a real tiller. My “new” Horse had an 8 horse power Tecumseh engine and I soon discovered one of the reasons they are called a Horse. There is a depth gauge that limits how deep the tines can dig into the soil. However, if you get greedy and try to dig too deep/too fast in hard packed soil, the tines will quickly pull you forward taking you for a poorly controlled ride.
The newer Horse models come with a “dead man’s switch” so that if you let go of the handles the engine dies. Mine lacked that safety future so my 210 lb. frame got to wrangle the Horse a number of times before I learned how to set the depth for shallow light passes. The trick in heavy soil is to make multiple passes going progressively deeper. Eventually, the soil is broken up into fine and well-aerated soil. One of the signature features of the Horse tiller is the ability to turn the handles to the side. This allows you to walk alongside using one hand to control the tiller after the soil has become loose so you do not pack it down by walking on it. The cover of the Owner’s Manual has a picture showing this.
Initially, I had to break up hard, machinery-compacted clay while trying to remove numerous rocks from the soil. We live in a township with “rock” in its name so this is still an ongoing battle. Many loads of a variety of manures and other organic material were turned into the soil each year along with other soil amendments. The Horse worked well for this purpose faithfully working the soil. While I recognize that there are gardening schools of thought that advocate minimal or no till gardens, this was not an option in my case. In the event we ever need to expand our current garden and “sod bust” I am confident that my Horse tiller will be a real asset since I do not have a tractor or plow for this purpose. It is also useful as a weed cultivator if you leave large enough rows.
Since I started with my original Horse, I have acquired a number of new additions to my corral (don’t tell my wife). I have always enjoyed maintaining and restoring quality-built machinery and have learned a lot about Horse maintenance and repair. The Horse is solid, overbuilt and generally reasonable to repair for someone with basic mechanical capacity. The well written Owner’s Manual is a wealth of information about the machine and even has step-by-step instructions on how to overhaul the transmission if that ever becomes necessary. There are still a lot of paper versions available and electronic copies can be found online.
Most of the consumable parts (tines, belts, seals and bearings) are still readily available new through MTD and a host of other online suppliers. Many of the larger hard parts are now obsolete but still available used through eBay albeit at sometimes inflated prices. There are forums on Yahoo and Facebook dedicated to these units. There are a fair number of “old timers” who built and worked on Horses when they were new who are still willing to help educate and advise newbies.
A brief history of Troy Bilt Horse tillers dates back to 1962 when Garden Way of Troy, New York started production of the rear-tined rototiller branded as the Trojan Horse. The first more modern Horse was produced starting in 1967 with the Series 1 Troy Bilt Horse. The base model was a 2 speed, 2 belt tiller that came with a 6 hp Tecumseh HH60 engine. Electric start was an option. After making over 300,000 of these with a number of improvements along the way, they introduced the Horse II in February 1978. These were four speed single belt tillers typically with 6 HP Tecumseh engines.
Eventually, a Horse III model equipped with a Power Take Off (PTO) setup was introduced. This featured a removable tine assembly that allowed the use of a number of powered attachments including a generator, chipper and wood splitter. They also introduced an Operator Presence Controls (OPC) that functioned as a “dead man switch” in case the Horse got away from the operator. Additional engine options became available including an 8 HP Kohler Magnum M8 and a Briggs and Stratton 7 and 8 HP which could also be equipped with electric start. They also offered a number of attachments such as a hiller/furrower tool.
In addition to the Horse model there were a variety of smaller and less robustly built tiler models such the Pony, Bronco and Econo-Horse. Well over 1 million Horse tillers were produced before Garden Way went bankrupt and was taken over by MTD in 2001. Unfortunately, the Garden Way quality was not continued in subsequent production. In the interest of cost savings, many components were lightened and cheapened so that the current Horse line is a far cry from the originals.
If you are interested in a vintage and hard-working piece of machinery there are still plenty of good used Horse tillers around. I recommend avoiding the smaller and more lightly built Pony/Bronco and Econo-Horse models. Part availability and repair challenges can be an issue with them. Typically, in the upper Midwest, $500 is the going rate for older functional full-size Horse tillers with 6 HP engines and no extras. $6-800 is a normal range for newer and better-equipped units such as those having larger engines and electric starters. Fully restored and cosmetically nice tillers can be well over $1,000. If you get lucky you may even stumble on one whose old owner may sell for a lower cost or even free to a good home. If you do not want to maintain a used Horse tiller there are few well-built new alternatives. In my opinion, the best currently manufactured tiller comparable to a Horse is the Honda FRC800. They appear to be solidly built, but they list for over $3,000.
When purchasing anything old remember the old adage of buyer beware. Good looks don’t get the garden tilled but can be indicative of how well they were maintained. A careful inspection is important as it can reveal mechanical problems needing repair that you can use when negotiating price. An engine that will not start or burns oil can indicate an obvious problem. This is not uncommon considering that many older tillers can be 40-50 years old. In addition, some tillers are left sitting full of ethanol-based fuel over the winter. This gas will often breakdown into goo or worse requiring carburetor rebuilding or replacement. (I never use ethanol-based gas in any of my small engine.)
Less obvious problems are leaking seals which can be replaced but may indicate operation with low lubricating oil levels. If the leaks are ignored long enough you will get very low fluid levels resulting in costly mechanical failure. Tines wear out eventually especially if used in sandy or rocky soil and can cost over $150 a set for good quality replacement set. Weather-checked or leaking tires can often be used with tubes but eventually need to be replaced. Probably the most challenging repair in my experience occurs when it becomes necessary to take a wheel off its shaft usually when replacing a leaking wheel seal.
The Horse uses a 1” shaft and the wheel has almost 4’ of direct metal-to-metal contact with that shaft along with a steel roll pin to secure it on the shaft. Since it is not uncommon for owners to leave tillers outside exposed to moisture all year, this steel will frequently rust badly. If you are lucky, a previous owner greased or anti-seized the shaft. If you are not lucky it can take heat, hammers, hydraulic presses and even foul language to break the wheel loose. In worst case scenarios it may be necessary to sacrifice the wheel by cutting it off the shaft when no other removal techniques work.
Once you purchase your new Horse, it is wise to get an Owner’s Manual and familiarize yourself with the machine. If possible, have the old owner give you an overview of the machine when you purchase it. Be sure everything is properly lubricated before using it. The manual describes what needs to be lubed and what to use for this. The Horse uses a 140 weight GL-4 gear lube which is very thick and somewhat hard to find these days. It is common for people to use thinner 90 weight which works but will more easily seep past the seals.
Make a habit of routinely checking fluid levels (especially engine oil) and looking for leaks each time you use it. One of the most common issues that Horse owners face is keeping the drive belt properly adjusted. Too loose and the belt slips and squeals. Too tight and the tiller “pops out of gear’ which is irritating. The manual gives a good explanation of the proper procedure to set this.
In summary, I really like Horse tillers. They do the job for a reasonable price and can be fixed by anyone with basic mechanical aptitude. In the event that you need to do some serious gardening and don’t have a tractor you could do far worse that an old-school Troy Bilt Horse.
Avalanche Lily Adds: We have used a Troy Bilt Horse here at the Rawles Ranch fro 10+ years, and we could not do our gardening without it!