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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

Softcover
Hardcover

The Gate and the Way In, First and Last

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Sometimes the way into the heart of a subject is a magic word, that acts like a key to open locked doors at a touch. Such a word is “art” when applied to working horses. There is something to the work with these animals, a resonant expectation that is undeniably intuitive, subtle, aesthetically pleasing, and all-of-a-piece with one’s feelings and character. Hence an art. Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

It is an artful book in more ways than one, lavishly graced with many fine color photographs by Kristi Gilman-Miller, alongside Lynn Miller’s own strong, centered paintings and drawings. These visual counterparts surround and conjure a vision of the partnership that is working horses. In effect they open its world, drawing the reader to the emotional center, the teamwork, where he or she will sense the presence and depth of that mindful, purposeful existence that includes working horses to get things done. We stand and move with horses in the field, in the barn. Study horses leaning into their collars to take the load. Watch others before and after work run free. Here is a living ideal, that engages the senses, that girds together the language and images of a lifelong learning process into an artistic whole.

Yet the art Miller speaks of and embodies in the writing can be hard. It is built on a platform of sound practice, yet exists beyond rules, exceptions and warnings, in the intuition that can outstrip logic in its mastery. As Lynn Miller points out, horses benefit by knowing what they’re going to do, by expectations and repetitions that keep them focused and calm, ready for what the teamster wants and needs them to do next. As always he insists upon close observation, of the horse’s health and stance, on examining the feet, checking the collar, the mouth, fingering everywhere the harness touches. There are no trivial matters, no irrelevant steps to achieving the artful ease he seeks. In this culmination full of stories that his Preface calls “wonderful contradictions,” he admits to idiosyncrasies, to ways of doing he has gathered over a lifetime, and points to how others did and do things differently. And the art can appear without warning, often in small, unexpected turns that can seem obvious yet may be anything but.

So in the end it’s neither pictures nor lessons but the stories that bear the load. In an understated but definite way, without fanfare, explanations or excuses, Lynn Miller sets his stories free to tell themselves. These are memorable moments. Not every teamster will have so many, nor will they be so strong. But these are the wages of a lifetime in harness, of close observation, thought and feeling, doing the work he loves.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

So let’s look at a few. Often there will be a wry edge and twist to his description, in lieu of any final lessons learned. The effect is to smarten the reader, as he does his horses, with challenges and encouragements. Listen to this potential disaster disarmed, as the bridle falls off his mare Lana, and gets tangled around her knees:

Matter-of-fact, I just walked up and fixed the bridle. I knew this team, I knew Lana. I knew what she was capable of. And that’s what I mean about that trusting relationship. That’s the kind of relationship you can and should have with these horses. But you MUST earn it. It takes time and an open mind. They’ll give it to you but you have to ask them for it, and if you’ll forgive a little cheekiness, you have to hold your mouth just so. (p. 211)

The tone to this conclusion is playful yet earnest. And in some of these stories there is a beauty and art to even the terrible. Miller has a young stallion, Abe, who has been beaten by a caretaker and run away. When they get the outlaw horse back, Miller struggles to be present to this abused and damaged animal, somehow managing to remind the animal of their connection, all the while he never confronts or challenges the horse. Averting his gaze and distracting his own mind from the animal’s menacing actions, he wins the stallion over with patience and a superb sense of timing, that over many months comes to see and offer each next step as the horse is ready for it. Their interactions are minute—a handful of straw scattered in his stall, a little mucking with a pitchfork, a halter unlatched and slipped off, a piece of binder twine draped a moment over the stallion’s neck, then pulled away. Yet in what seems a powerful, potentially lethal dance, they end up finding quiet answers for both man and horse, a healing that feels complete.

The real payoff of the book unfolds in the telling of these stories, that are understated and wise. Miller is never the outright hero, more the modest, patient observer willing to try practically anything to alleviate the situation. Often in a critical moment he has to recall and act on his own or others’ advice from years past; he has to summon the understanding and ability to act, without making a risky situation worse.

Is there beauty to this? I venture to say there must be. Miller has a notion that every moment with his horses in harness is either a teaching moment or an unwinding, a potential unraveling, a step forward as a team or a step back. So on p.172-73, while mowing a field he notices how his horses are anticipating a turn, wanting to move on their own initiative rather than awaiting his signal. These intelligent animals sense and know a lot, but they can’t see everything, and there are hidden dangers apparent to the eye of experience, that make it better that they be reminded to always await his command. The veteran teamster insists that they be patient, and reinforces their acceptance of his lead.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

By the end of the book the reader may feel quietly blessed by this gathering of stories about interactions with horses, that can’t help but be not just about matters of training and command, but about self-knowledge and self-worth. With so many years of work with so many horses, Lynn Miller might be forgiven if he kept to that high ground, sure of our understanding and respect. But the book is intended not as decoration for the wise teamster’s shelf, but as understanding for the reader that will support both everyday actions and lifelong choices. That might lead to the attainment of another’s hardwon art. And to that end, there are also a few stories here that show the author as beginner, as rank amateur, as unseasoned, given to careless or thoughtless oversights that might affect any of us starting out, still unaware of potentially lethal effects. And we could be forgiven for calling them doubly courageous.

So consider his story of Bud and Dick, a seasoned team pulling an Oliver riding plow borrowed from Ray Drongesen, back in 1975. Lynn Miller was young, but had been working horses going on half a dozen years, and he may have been forming or about to form the thought that would become the Small Farmers Journal, that first appeared to modest acclaim in 1976. He’d been warned by Ray that the seat was loose, not to be trusted. But he tested then trusted it anyhow, sharpened the rolling coulter to a razor’s edge, then got into the field and got plowing. This was in part practice for a competition, and he was lulled, perhaps distracted by the steadiness of the seasoned team and the precision of the plow’s controls. Then the seat broke and he was tossed forward under the plow, under the feet of his horses and the tongue of the plow, with one thigh up against that sharpened coulter, a steel disc meant to bite deep into sod. The horses had stopped in an instant. Then he says:

I tried to regain my presence of mind. I concentrated as hard as I could. I didn’t say anything for fear that they would take the sound of my voice to mean that I wanted them to step ahead. I didn’t say anything at all.

I concentrated and I thought, “Oh, please, dear God, if you do anything, Bud, Dick, if you do anything at all, please just back up. Just back up.” And I concentrated and looked up at them. (p. 325)

The reader is present at a miracle. A private one, but a miracle nonetheless. Those two good, smart horses looked at him, sensed their predicament, and read his mind. I don’t need to go on. What is offered in this final story of the book is the kind of blessing that tells even a beginner that he’s doing something right, and that maybe he should keep on keeping on.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

In the author’s note at the end, Lynn Miller calls himself “a work in progress,” that may be a nod to the hallmark of his style, a strangely linked ambition and humility. But we shouldn’t be misled. Art of Working Horses is an attempt to seize and offer up an ineffable, ineluctable and inexpressible drive that carries some fine men and women to make working horses the center of their character and purpose, a cornerstone to a lifetime of accomplishment. The art that awaits them (you, gentle reader) may be an affection and embrace wider than one’s species, far wider than one’s arms. With exactly 365 pages to this book, precious little gab and gush to it anywhere, and art on every page, perhaps the reader will settle into a patient rhythm, find deepening satisfaction in poring over one page a day for a year, for all the gems in plain sight, rough and polished, hidden here. This is one to live with, and carry on.

Spotlight On: Livestock

The Mule Part 1

The Mule – Part 1

by:
from issue:

There is no more useful or willing animal than the Mule. And perhaps there is no other animal so much abused, or so little cared for. Popular opinion of his nature has not been favorable; and he has had to plod and work through life against the prejudices of the ignorant. Still, he has been the great friend of man, in war and in peace serving him well and faithfully. If he could tell man what he most needed it would be kind treatment.

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

by:
from issue:

Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Oxen Experiences

Oxen Experiences

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from issue:

Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

Ask A Teamster: Tongue Length

My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.

Horse Breeding

This is an excerpt from Horse Breeding by M.W. Harper, a Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin from January 1928. In breeding horses the perfection of the animals selected should be carefully considered. Occasionally stallions are selected on the basis of their pedigree. Such practice may prove disappointing, for many inferior individuals are recorded merely because such […]

New York Horsefarmer Ed Button and his Belgians

New York Horsefarmer: Ed Button and his Belgians

In New York State one does not explore the world of draft horses long before the name of Ed Button is invariably and most respectfully mentioned. Ed’s name can be heard in the conversations of nearly everyone concerned with heavy horses from the most experienced teamsters to the most novice horse hobbyists. His career with Belgians includes a vast catalog of activities: showing, pulling, training, farming, breeding, and driving, which Ed says, “I’ve been doing since I was old enough to hold the lines.”

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

by:
from issue:

“Don’t let them out in the rain, they’ll stare up into it and drown…” Our experience with turkeys has been completely the opposite. While most poultry species aren’t exactly bright, we find that turkeys are lovely, personable, and most important for the self sufficient homesteader — extremely efficient converters of grain and forage into delicious meat. In 5 months, a turkey can grow from a few ounces to 20-30+ lbs.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

Interpreting Your Horse’s Body Language

by:
from issue:

The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Since the horse is useful to man only by reason of his movements, his foot deserves the most careful attention. The horse-shoer should be familiar with all its parts. Fig. 3 shows the osseous framework of the foot, consisting of the lower end of the cannon bone, the long pastern, the two sesamoid bones, the short pastern, and the pedal bone.

The Big Hitch

The Big Hitch

In 1925 Slim Moorehouse drove a hitch of 36 Percheron Horses pulling 10 grain wagons loaded with 1477 bushesl of wheat through the Calgary Stampede Parade. It is out intention to honor a man who was a great horseman and a world record holder. The hitch, horses and wagons, was 350 feet in length and he was the only driver.

Calves that Don't Breathe at Birth

Calves that Don’t Breathe at Birth

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Heart rate is one way to tell if the calf is in respiratory distress, since it drops as the body is deprived of oxygen. Normal heart rate in a newborn calf is 100 to 120 beats per minute. Place your hand over the lower left side of the ribcage, just behind and above the elbow of his front leg. If heart rate has dropped as low as 40, the calf ’s condition is critical; he needs to start breathing immediately.

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

by:
from issue:

I hear time and time again at the outset of each workshop, “I don’t know anything about working oxen.” And I say, “There is no more fun than being a beginner.” Myself and the staff get great pleasure in sharing our knowledge of working steers and oxen. For as long as there are those interested in working cattle, the men I mentioned early in this article will not be forgotten. I believe there will always be cattle worked on small farms and in the woods.

Developing Draft Colts

Developing Draft Colts

During October, 1910, The Pennsylvania State College and Experiment Station purchased a group of ten grade Belgian and Percheron colts and one pure bred Percheron for use in live stock judging classes. An accurate record of the initial cost, feeds consumed and changes in form has been kept in order that some definite information as to the cost of developing draft colts from weaning to maturity might be available for farmers, investigators and students.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Ask A Teamster Halters Off

Ask A Teamster: Halters Off!

When my friend and mentor, the late Addie Funk, first started helping me with my horses, he suggested that we get rid of my halter ropes with snaps and braid lead ropes on to all the halters permanently. Actually as I think about it, it was more than a suggestion. Knowing him, he probably just braided the new ropes on, confident that anyone with any sense would be pleased with the improvement. In any case, when the task was completed I clearly remember him saying to me, “Now nobody will turn a horse loose around here with a halter on.”

Ask A Teamster Driving

Ask A Teamster: Driving

I have been questioned (even criticized) about my slow, gentle, repetitious approach “taking too much time” and all the little steps being unnecessary when one can simply “hitch ‘em tied back to a well-broke horse they can’t drag around, and just let ‘em figure it out on their own.” I try to give horses the same consideration I would like if someone was teaching me how to do something new and strange.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT