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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 PST

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 Equine Eye

The Equine Eye

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The horse’s head is large, with eyes set wide apart at the sides of his head; he seldom sees an object with both eyes at the same time and generally sees a different picture with each eye. In the wild, this double vision was a big advantage, making it difficult for a predator to sneak up on him. He can focus both eyes to the front to watch something, but it takes more effort. Only when making a concentrated effort to look straight ahead does the horse have depth perception as we know it.

Chicken

How To Cure Chicken Roup: Then and Now

How To Cure The Common (Chicken) Cold

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

Ask A Teamster: Perfect Hitching Tension

In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.

Boer Goats

Boer Goats

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The introduction of the Boer Goat has stirred up a lot of interest in all sectors of agriculture. The demand for goat meat exceeds the supply; goat meat is the most consumed meat in the world. One of the main points about South African Boer Goats is that out of all meat goat breeds the Boer is the top meat producer whereas in the cattle business you have over 100 breeds of beef cattle that all compete for the beef dollar.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

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A great deal of interest has been shown the last several years in using multiple hitches in horse farming, especially in spring fieldwork. The question often asked is how to keep it simple and easy in driving and assembling the hitch as far as lines are concerned. We demonstrated our method at the Horse Progress Days at Mt. Hope, Ohio in 2003 and have been asked numerous times how we drove four, six and eight-horse hitches using only two lines.

Ask A Teamster Hauling Horses

Ask A Teamster: Hauling Horses

For a claustrophobic animal like the horse, being confined to a small box while speeding down the highway at 60 miles per hour is a mighty unnatural experience. Luckily, equines are adaptable animals and are likely to arrive in good condition – if – you make preparations beforehand and take some precautions. Here are some tips to help your horse stay healthy, safe, and comfortable while traveling.

The Broodmare in Fall

The Broodmare in Fall

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Mares are not the major emphasis in the fall since they have performed their task of foaling, lactating and being re-bred. After foals are weaned, most breeders tend to focus on weanlings and yearlings that are being prepared for shows, sales and/or performance in the case of long yearlings. Fall management of broodmares is far more critical than some breeders realize and can directly impact foaling and re-breeding successes next year.

Littlefield Notes Making Your Horses Work For You

LittleField Notes: Making Your Horses Work For You Part 1

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The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

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At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

On The Anatomy of Thrift Fat & Slat

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 3: Fat & Salt

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Fat & Salt is the third and final video in the series. It is the conceptual conclusion to the illustrated, narrated story that weaves throughout the entire series, and deals instructionally in the matters of preserving pork.

Living With Horses

Living With Horses

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The French breed of Ardennes is closer to what the breed has been in the past. The Ardennes has always been a stockier type of horse, rude as its environment. Today the breed has dramatically changed into a real heavy horse. If the Ardennes had an average weight between 550 and 700kg in the first part of the last century, the balance shows today 1000kg and more. Thus the difference between the Ardennes and their “big” sisters, the Brabants in Belgium, or the Trait du Nord in France, has gone.

My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

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In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw.

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.

The Mule Part 1

The Mule – Part 1

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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 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.”

Rabbits

Rabbits

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The domestic rabbit has the potential to become one of the world’s major sources of meat protein. As human populations continue to put pressure on the resources of the food providers, the farmers, the rabbit is likely to begin to interest, not only the farmer, but the family interested in providing food for it’s table. They convert forage more efficiently than do ruminants, such as cattle and sheep. In fact, rabbits can produce five times the amount of meat from a given amount of alfalfa as do beef cattle.

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