Additional Notes on Horsepower
Additional Notes on Horsepower
The late great Morris Elverude.

Additional Notes on Horsepower

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

The late Ray Hunt, legendary horse trainer, subscribed to and read the Small Farmer’s Journal and once commented to a mutual friend that “people who regularly work horses in harness, especially farmers, have a deeper understanding of what you can expect from a horse.” Yes, many of us understand intuitively, don’t have to think about it much. Comes in large part from that regular routine of tying them up at the manger, currying them down and harnessing them. It’s there the horse learns to stand patiently and to respect you and your space.

It’s there we get our small vital chance to put our expectations before the horse’s anticipations. We remove competition from the hunger equation, they get to eat their meals without being pestered by the other animals. We get to offer up soft answers to their curiosities. We find openings where it is clear that we often protect or seem to protect them from boogey men, scary stuff, and the unknown. We get to stand firm, make them do likewise, and go to work, together.

But all of that comes under the heading of ‘way too much thinking.’

I have a young Belgian gelding, new to me, who seems to have some sort of issue with his nose and eyes. If I move my hands too quickly he will shy away, even jump a little. He’s no problem to halter or bridle, just doesn’t want you to mess with his nose or eyes: so I don’t. I figure I need to let him have his space and bide my time till I figure out how deep this “hole” is. But curious thing, the more I work him and am around him, I find in all other things he is rock solid. Noises, surprises do not seem to bother him in the least. Even after all of these years, and some success, it is obvious to me that I may never fully understand all the horses I will work with. And today that’s okay. Today I realize more important is that I understand myself and the possible consequences of my behavior with these sublime animals; that I realize it comes down to just getting the work done.

“The more I work the horses the less I know and the easier it gets.” Ray Drongesen 1974

“Pull ’em back dammit! Make ’em walk!” Charlie Jensen 1975

“I could do what you do if my horses were that well broke.” (name with-held) 1979

“The horses and I, we voted and I elected myself in charge.” Lynn Miller 1991

“My horses, they go where they’re told. Know what I mean?” Mike Adkins 2007

“I don’t know, I guess we’ve just been lucky to have good horses.” Kenny Russell 2008

“I don’t understand why my horses won’t stand still for me.” Drake Swan 2011

Your apprehension becomes their apprehension. Your reasonable and understandable requirements make of them winning partners. Your raw anger and ugly insistence robs you and them of comfort. Your solidity, your emotionless insistence, you being in charge, that they appreciate. Your relaxation becomes their relaxation. Your positive expectation hangs in the air like fruit on a tree easy to grasp. When you do not understand what is happening between you and your horses it is time to back off.

Go into the barn as you would a work area, expect your horses to accept you and enjoy the time shared. Go into the barn as you would your shop, approaching the bench prepared to work with the familiar tools to get the job done. Leave the psychology to small needy minds. The horses all have large minds always working to embrace instinct and repeat comfort; that’s what they would ask you for if they could talk – embraced instinct and repeated comforts. Allow that they might be working right along side of you.

If it don’t feel right – check it out! Instinct is a most important applied aspect in every successful teamster’s tool chest. When things seem not to be as they should be, when things feel odd or out of balance, when everything looks a little different to you but you can’t put your finger directly on the change – PAY ATTENTION. Take the time to check the animal’s comfort, the fit of the harness, the buckles and snaps. It could be in the air and they feel it but you don’t. I recall a time when the mares I readied to go mow were agitated without call. We drove half a mile from the barn to mow a field and within two hours found ourselves in a violent hail storm. Happily they paid close attention to me and we walked slowly through those white balls that beat us furiously. Then I realized that I had correctly sensed that they had felt something in the air, something perhaps in changing barometric pressure, that warned them.

Not to say this would ever happen to you, but I confess there have been days when my anger and frustration levels were quite high. Luckily I learned decades ago to trust my instinct that these may not be good days to work horses, especially young ones in training. Those perhaps with little or no experience at forgiving me. Because they do, or they can, forgive you. But in my experience its only the smart ones, those who listen to me. They are the ones capable of forgiving me when I mess up. The more time we share with each other, getting through jobs and tight spots, the more I can see the evidence of those smart ones listening and THINKING, actually preparing themselves to make choices. At first perhaps they don’t feel comfortable stepping through that puddle but with time, my voice as assurance and our repeats they think it through and make the choice.

The good workhorse listens

The better workhorse listens and forgives

The best workhorse listens, thinks and forgives

The good teamster knows these things

Not all horses are the same. They are various in appetites, temperaments, humor, speed, willingness to pull, sneakiness, and intelligence. The best horses are an abiding comfort and fantastic working partners.

If I am positive, matter of fact, business-like – my horses appreciate it and reflect that. If I am cooing and fussing and tickling and hugging – my horses get confused. Maybe that’s ‘cause they figure they know me and can’t get a handle on this other junk. Though they may be a comfort and pleasure at times, pets are mostly a nuisance we create for ourselves. I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would want to do that with a good horse or mule. Leave the stuffed animal syndrome in the house and enjoy the equine as potentially a phenomenal working partner, one that gets better with your clarity of purpose.

The only way to get good workhorses is to work them regularly, day in day out. All that other stuff is …