Are Your Horses Working For You

Are Your Horses Working for You?

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Are your horses working for you or are you working for your horses?

If your interest is that they work for you, there are useful bits and pieces of information along with system approaches which may benefit you in your pursuit.

This writing does not pretend to be a comprehensive detailed instructional.

First a morsel of historical perspective.

Are Your Horses Working For You
The author’s father, Ralph Miller, age 3 on top of “Old Jake.”

Some Time Ago

Up until 1915, much of transportation in North America depended on the horse and mule. And up until the great depression of the 30’s the primary motive power for agriculture remained the horse and mule. Official government policies and programs to put the country to work in industry, and on the other hand, to maintain the industrial fervor of the war years, resulted in rapid tooling to replace all work animals. A rush to commercial-patriotism, convenience and rapid growth caused a wholesale change across the continental farmscape, internal combustion was the engine of the future, the engine of industry, the engine of choice. It was no time to reflect on the social consequence of the change. If you were against it you were deemed as backwards, period.

Between the first and second world wars, a significant number of people, across North America, decided they wanted to hang on to their horses and mules in spite of the pressures of the post war industrialization of agriculture. Their reasons were various. In the beginning those reasons included, but were not limited to, the studied and well presented arguments of groups and individuals in favor of retaining the work animals because of their inherent efficiencies and because, as a piece of a truly cultivated farming, they were a critical component of a localized small farm culture which worked. To remove the animals, it was argued, would threaten the intrinsic economic stability of family farming (rapid growth in short term farm indebtedness, large scale unemployment, out migration from farm communities and farm surpluses were noted as possible results). To remove the animals wholesale from the broader farm landscape would also destroy certain elements of a cultural infrastructure which would in turn destroy the working systems of individual farms. For example, sociable neighbors would no longer be a critical element to assist with peak labor demands and calamity ‘insurance’. At the time these arguments and cautions in favor of preserving the work horse were regarded as curious and backwards. Time has shown how critically accurate those cautions were.


Now we find ourselves in the twenty-first century with the dubious wonders of the electronic age and stock portfolios and genetic manipulation. We are in what some call the “information age” where everyone has greater access to a shrinking pool of anesthetized factoids. That access is provided in large part by electronically connected boxes which are rapidly redefining ‘limitation’ (computers) . These units ‘dispense’ to the operator distilled snippets of unfiltered ‘information’. We aren’t actually in an information age, we’re in a “dispenser” age. And the result is ever increasing human alienation.

What used to be an itch many people had to get closer to a working truth has evolved into a full blown hunger. Those images which touch deeply receded nerve endings, images such as a person bent over a potter’s wheel, or the view over the shoulder of that man with pencil behind the ear and wood chisel in hand, or the child following a magnificent team of working horses drawing a harrow across a misty plowed field; though many are quick to discard these images as romantic it does not negate the fact that they remind us of human connectedness and artisanship and sanctuary. We are drawn to them. We say simply, I want this for myself. And we wonder at the enormous canyon of competency and knowledge that separates us from the skills necessary to enter this other world.

You can learn this craft, the skills can be acquired. It will be more or less difficult for you. If you learn, first, the nature of the working system – its strengths and limitations – it may help you to “see” the way to get things done. There is a uniquely inherent logic to the process but it can be invisible to someone who insists on looking at the draft animal system in the same way as one looks at internal combustion systems or industrial logic. There are fewer rules to working horses and more subtleties and opportunities.

Aspects of the System

Is it difficult or is it easy? Are the animals dangerous or relatively safe? Is it physically challenging or light work? Is it rapidly regretable or does it grow on you?

There is a certain duality to general perceptions of the working equine which is directly tied to the view of;

quiet, willing, fluid, partnership
anxious, struggling, submissive, contest.

In truth the system could go either way and it all depends on the teamster. First a discussion from the standpoint of the better view. (Later we’ll talk about those things that directly effect which view it might become.)

Think about what it means to work at walking speed and at ground level. The surface will be covered at a pace which not only permits close observation of all work, it invites it. In the absence of anxiety, it is a speed which matches perfectly the human spirit as well as the equine.

Many of the jobs to be performed will require that the animals pull implements behind them. The dynamic of this action is much the same as if you were dragging a weight along the ground with an attached rope. When the weight equals or exceeds your own, it becomes extremely difficult to displace, even more so if you are attached either too close or too far away. Something less than half your weight is nearer to a comfortable pull.

Think about this system as a group effort, the group being you the teamster, together with the hitched animals. Horses and mules are different, one to another, just as humans are. Some are quick on their feet and with their thoughts and observations. Others are less so. An efficient working unit is dramatically enhanced if all parties, human and equine, share a metabolic rhythm or natural speed of thinking and moving.

The system may be made to work more safely and efficiently if there is a harmonious relationship between the people and animals. The equine cannot be made to interact on human terms so it rests with the human quotient to understand how to best interact with the animals. When the interaction has the goal of mutual respect and trust the relationship may be outstanding.

The physical condition of the animals before and during work will affect how much ground is covered in any given day. Feeding and grooming practices become critical support aspects of the working system. When things are right the animals move ahead with certainty. When things are wrong or lacking the animals will slow, possibly become erratic, and could even die. The vitality of the system will depend on the teamster’s care of the animals.

It is altogether possible for a person to have a strong grasp of the basic draft animal working system, and even have some success with it, but still be stymied by a frustrating sense of inefficiency. You might hear or feel these expressions: “It just takes too long to get harnessed, hitched and to the field”; or “After a couple of days of hard work the horses just don’t seem to have any energy and they’ve come up with all sorts of ills”; or “They don’t want to stand quiet, they’re always anxious to go and it worries me so I don’t enjoy the process like I should.” or “I need to be raising foals for income but I can’t afford all the emotional difficulties of separating the mares from the foals when we go to work.” or “I have to have several people available to help me get them ready, get them to the field and clean up after them.” None of this should be the case. And there are things to do which will erase many worries, streamline the process, ease the tensions and make it work for you. But it starts with the teamster: If your horses are to work for you, learn what your responsibilities are and intelligently satisfy them.

“Old timers” are fond of saying that all it takes are lots of long hours in the field, ‘get yourself and the horses sweatin’ and keep them that way.’ It is felt that most training challenges and glitches in the system will work their way out by long hard hours of work. There is certainly something to say for this. However, it is far from the only way. It is my contention, born of a quarter century of experience, that foundation training and good common sense system structure will give us better results. The horse who stands quietly and calmly when needed, regardless of whether he is tired or fresh, is the superior work mate. This is accomplished by well set training and trust. And it has to be maintained. We train our work horses every moment we share with them, regardless of how old they are or how long we’ve been together. What we allow them to do twice becomes the beginning of a lesson. What we allow them to do four times has been imprinted on their brain.

We said that the system could go either way, towards a calm cooperative working or towards an excitable contest. One of the ways we end up with an excitable context comes from inherited or assimilated habits and conventions. There is a litany of unfortunate exclamations marking this territory. Some of them read as follows; “This is the way we’ve always done it!” “The true teamsters all do it this way.” “If your horses aren’t up on the lines good and tight, then either you don’t know what you’re doing or that’s a trashy team.” “If you coddle them, and make them pets, if you spare the rod, they’ll come to hurt you one day.” “I want them snappy, heads up, looking for a way out.” “I don’t want to go to town with no old plow horse, I want one that shows some style.” These statements are all possible indications that the resulting working system will be at least one part contest and one part ‘let me out of here!’.

Each horse or mule is an individual, just as we are. The calm, intelligent, alert person will likely create or enhance, in his or her animals, the same traits. Just as the excitable, unintelligent, daydreamer will lend aspect of those traits to the animals. Habits may be good or bad. Inherited good habits can be a powerful tool for success. But we must never lose sight of our own personal effect on the working system.

Are Your Horses Working For You
Western Brichen-style leather team harness properly adjusted.

Harness and Harnessing

Each horse or mule should have its own harness, one which is properly adjusted and comfortable for all work. The harness should not be heavier than is necessary for the application but by the same token it should never be allowed to break while work is underway. This may cause a serious problem for the horse. The style of the harness and indeed the application or job to be performed may have some bearing on issues of fit. But in general, good fit is basically the same for all animals and harness. If the collar is too loose or too tight, if the brichen is too high or low, if the horse is severely “checked”, if any part of the harness is irritating, chafing, scratching, or cutting the animal, if the bit is altogether wrong for the horse or mule, etc. etc. then the forward motion, comfort, endurance, attitude and attentiveness of the animal may be seriously impaired. When and if that happens, the horses aren’t working for you to the best of their ability.

Harness Styles and Condition: The effectiveness of your work animals will not be improved or reduced by the material differences between leather and synthetic harnesses. But general rules of fit, comfort, and strength do apply. There are significant regional differences in harness design. And for repair, parts and application purposes it may be in the best interest of the teamster to go with regional styles. In this short writing we won’t go into the regional variables except to say that the novice needs to be careful that an appropriate harness is selected for the work that’s to be done. For example; a light breast collar buggy harness would be wholly inappropriate for logging.

For work purposes, a hame and collar style harness will always be a better choice than a breast collar style. There are choices to be made in harness design including brichen vs. no brichen, back pad vs. no back pad, cruppers vs. no cruppers, check reins vs. none, levered bits vs. straight bits, blinders vs. no blinders, etc., and these choices can only be best made from an educated standpoint. For the novice this will mean getting local experienced counsel. However, we might suggest a few points that would have bearing on overall efficiency of the system.

If your choice is to go with used harness it is CRITICALLY important that you have a knowledgeable person test the strength of the hardware and leather. It could be tomorrow or six months from now, but the weak or rotten harness part that goes to pieces at a critical moment in your working with the animals may make a tight spot into a tragedy. Check inside buckles, bends in the leather, at key stitching points (i.e. tug plies), bit straps, all parts of the driving lines, breast and pole strap hardware, hame straps, etc. Be wary of the extremely well oiled harness, one which is very soft and pliable, it may be raggy and tear easily. With used Biothane or synthetic harness, run your fingers along all bearing edges to determine if there are any worn sharp edges or spots which might cut into the animals.

For the small farmer of limited means it may be worthwhile to consider a western brichen team harness style with easily detachable brichen-to-breast strap assemblies, allowing the harness to be used as a lighter team set or two singles for drag implements (i.e. walking cultivator or walking plow) or log skidding.

If collars, bits, harness and optional paraphernalia (i.e. jockey sticks, check reins etc.) are in any way uncomfortable for your horse you have lost efficiency and increased the chances of accidents or sores.

How the harness is stored when not in use, how it is accessed for harnessing, and the way harnessing is done can all contribute to long term efficiencies. Consistency becomes valuable; if the same horse’s harness is always hung in the same place and in the same way, if the procedure for harnessing follows the same steps, much time can be saved while advancing the goal of safety.

Housing and Feed

It does not take a fancy barn or stable to grant your animals comfortable and healthful surroundings. If they are to stay in the stall only for limited periods of time, to eat, for grooming and for harnessing, a stout tie stall arrangement with well ventilated feed mangers will suffice. If your animals are agreeable and so accustomed, a great deal of time in the work routine may be saved by utilizing an open double tie stall into which a harnessed team may be driven.

If the name of the game for you is a rigorous and full time field work schedule for the horses, one in which it is vital that the horses be ready, willing, and able to go back to the field day after day, feeds and feeding become very important.

While it is certainly true that excellent work may be done by your teammates on a diet of primarily crop residues, careful attention needs to be paid to the suitability of the crops for the horse’s digestive system and whether or not the exact ration you make available has enough total digestible nutrients (TDN) to maintain physical condition and provide energy for work. The simplest and best working ration is a combination of clean hay and rolled grains with the possible addition of pasture. (Please see the chart below.)

The horse has a sensitive digestive system and is prone to a nasty world of physical ills loosely categorized as colic. Without going into any detail, suffice it to say that you want to avoid colic wherever possible. And one of the first precautionary steps is control of diet. By control we mean not just what is fed, but how and when.

There are different opinions on issues of timing and feeding for work and/or performance animals. Our experience has been successful with a certain plan. We divide the days total hay (forage) ration into five equal units or portions. And then we divide the day’s energy supplement (i.e. grains, concentrates etc.) in five equal portions. Our feeding proceeds this way:

two units supplement plus one unit forage – morning
two units supplement plus one unit forage – noon
one unit supplement plus three units hay – evening

The idea behind this is that energy is required for the day’s work and bulk is better retained when consumed with a quiet and restful night immediately following. Another time trick is to allow that work animals have 15 minutes access to hay or roughage BEFORE any access to grain. This, in effect, slows the passage of grains through the digestive system allowing retention of a larger percentage of the available nutrients.

Molasses, we have found, will improve the overall digestibility of feeds.

Parasite control is important to feed efficiency. Wormy horses are robbed of nutrients. But care should be taken to identify and attack the actual parasite(s). Stool sampling is a valuable tool and may save money as well as improving effectiveness of worming routines. We have experienced some difficulties in years past with animals loosing energy when been wormed repeatedly with the same product. Most veterinarians agree that rotation of products is important.

Older horses can be made more efficient by offering appropriate amendments and/or aids. For example; we have a mare who suffers from anemia. When she’s working we give her a supplement called “Red Cell” and weariness subsides noticeably. Vitamin supplements can be helpful for all horses and targeted for particular issues.

Dental problems in the equine can make eating difficult. These problems need to be diagnosed and remedied by professionals.

It can be critically important to have feed troughs or mangers that “breathe” or allow dust to escape. And in turn, it is important that all hay be dust and mold free.

Working Mares with Foals and Pregnant Mares

It is tremendously advantageous to work pregnant and nursing mares.

When convenient housing and regularity of feeding are combined with the right “expectation” working nursing mares becomes a triple positive. The foals learn restraint and handling, the mares are kept in top physical condition, and the mares are allowed a chance to avoid postpartum depression and possessive anxieties.