Ask A Teamster: Driving
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
I’m having some problems with a pony and I wonder if you can help me out. I’ve just taught him to drive, and for the most part he’s doing pretty well, but I can’t quite get him to relax. The first time I hitched him we went around the arena a number of times, but his head was in the air the whole time and he just never quite settled in. He seemed really tense. So I ground drove him some more over the next few days and then tried again. Same problem — he just seemed very nervous about pulling the cart. He has seen the cart a lot and we have pulled it behind him so he could hear what it sounded like. I think I’ve done all of the ground work to get him ready, it’s just when he’s hitched that it seems like it’s not coming together for him.
I don’t want to take him out of the arena until he seems more relaxed. I’ve been driving for a few years, but this is the first horse I’ve started on my own. Should I just keep driving him to give him the time to settle in and figure it out? I checked the harness fit and I don’t think that’s what’s bothering him. I’m just not sure what I’m doing wrong, and I’d hate to ruin him. He’s a 7-year-old Haflinger. He was broke to ride when I bought him and has been handled a lot.
The reason I am so worried is that I was at a recent driving club event where there were not one, but FOUR wrecks. At least two of them were runaways. Thank heavens nobody was badly hurt, but from what I saw, it was just pure luck that a horse or driver wasn’t severely injured. I know a number of trucks were smashed into and there was a lot of property damage.
Thanks for any advice you can share. Jane
I commend you for recognizing your horse’s concern and discomfort with the process of being hitched for the first time — and for quickly taking the action of retreating back to more ground driving before a mishap occurred. That head-up-in-the-flight-position and tenseness you observed are classic danger signs that people often ignore and continue in spite of, or miss the significance of altogether. Many times drivers keep such a horse going in hopes he will eventually settle down and accept the new task — but in my opinion that is taking unnecessary risks and does not give a horse the consideration he deserves. Some horses are able to hold themselves together and eventually come to accept whatever the uncomfortable challenge may be — but they may take a long time to become truly comfortable with it. Unfortunately, more than I care to mention sooner or later reach a point where their fright-flight survival instinct reaches critical mass and they run off or blow up — as was tragically demonstrated at your recent driving event.
Going back to ground driving without the cart was exactly the right thing for you to do. When a horse becomes concerned, confused, anxious, upset, fearful, etc., we should simply stop whatever we are doing, take a time out to calm him down, and proceed by doing something we know he can accept and be comfortable at. I call this “going back to kindergarten.” The sooner and more often we do it the greater the chances of preventing a mishap. Using this technique and thereby returning the horse to comfort will tremendously increase the odds that a horse will become accepting and settle down in spite of what he found fearful. Better to eliminate the fearful object/action, defuse the fright-flight reaction, work at something he can comfortably handle, and prevent a potential wreck. Responding this way each time with consistency will eventually convince the horse that he can depend on you to take care of him and keep him safe whenever something concerns or frightens him.
“Going back to kindergarten” allows the horse to relax and turns a problem into a success. There will always be an appropriate time later to work back up to whatever it was that was too much for the horse to deal with. And, if we can skillfully work back up to the original goal (hitching to the cart in this case) in small enough, bite sized, “baby steps” (over time and with repetition), then the horse will not be apt to become concerned with any of the steps along the way — including the original task he had difficulty with. But if he still can’t handle it, more repetition of “back to kindergarten” and “baby steps” will eventually take care of it. Keeping our horses feeling safe and comfortable at all times is one of the greatest ways we can prevent behavior problems, runaways and wrecks — as well as improve performance in general. Over 100 years ago Jesse Beery, an extraordinary horse trainer from the 1800s wrote: “Colts or unbroken horses are especially susceptible to fear. Almost every step in their management . . . lies in overcoming resistance excited by fear.”
You recognized the head up and tension as danger signals — communication from your horse that what he was doing did not feel safe to him. It is critically important that we humans learn the body language of horses and constantly observe, interpret, and react appropriately to what they are “telling us” or “asking of us.” If we don’t respond to them when they “speak” by helping them regain their comfort and feel safe, as a good herd leader would, then they may quickly reach a point where they decide to take matters into their own hands to survive. Using harshness, force, and/or causing pain (yelling, bit, whip, etc.) at times like this will do more to confirm their fear and trigger the flight response than to solve the problem. Legendary 19th century horse tamer John S. Rarey left us with these words of wisdom: “Almost every wrong act of a horse is caused by fear, excitement, or mismanagement. One harsh word will increase the pulse of a nervous horse ten beats per minute.”
The fact that going back to ground driving for a few days was not successful in alleviating your horse’s concern about being hitched to the cart gives us some very important information and also raises some questions:
First, your horse is telling you loudly and clearly, “I can handle ground driving but that noisy contraption with the sticks along my sides and the wheels scares me.” In other words, he is not adequately desensitized to certain aspects of the sights and/or sounds and/or feel of the cart. To quote Jessie Beery again: “His fear is governed by his sense of touch, sight and hearing; and it is through these senses we obtain a mastery and at the same time remove his fears … each one of these senses must be educated before the colt is [considered] trained.”
Second, it poses the question as to whether there may be some other weakness or omission in his training before you first started ground driving that needs to be dealt with. Look over my list of “Tests a Horse Must Pass Repeatedly Before Ground Driving,” (see box) and test him out to see if he can pass them all — on several different days and in different locations. If he passes you can proceed with ground driving. If not, work on the things on the list until he can willingly and comfortably do all of them in a very solid way, in several locations time after time.
The importance of ground work with horses cannot be overemphasized, but sadly it is perhaps the most overlooked and neglected aspect of training. Fully 90% of the training I do with horses is accomplished on the ground, and much of it is done informally as I go about my normal daily activities with the horses, rather than in formal training sessions. I am constantly teaching and testing the things on the “Tests a Horse Must Pass…” list.
Third, consider whether there is anything different about you and/or what you are doing when you hitch him to the cart and drive that may be contributing to or causing his concern. Horses effectively mirror our attitudes, emotions, actions, reactions and behavior. Perhaps he is picking up some concern, doubt, fear, tension, etc. from you. We commonly transmit concern to our horses by such unconscious, subtle things as a little extra tension on the lines, a change in our voice, abnormal breathing or holding our breath (yes they can tell).
If we are anxious, concerned, uncomfortable, impatient, worried, fearful, in a hurry, etc. our horses will pick up on it and become so as well.
Finally, there are other miscellaneous factors that may be causing or contributing to your horse’s behavior in some way. Obscure things like fit and comfort of the harness, wolf teeth causing irritation or discomfort with the bit, uncomfortable or severe bit, heavy shaft or tongue weights, and endless other possibilities. Whether or not such things bother a horse when ground driving, it seems they can be magnified when the horse is hitched and/or pulling a load. We should constantly be looking for and correcting these more obscure causes of discomfort.
Take It Slow
Never hesitate to return to more basic and comfortable tasks for the slightest reason — that is, BEFORE the horse gets anxious, confused, concerned or bored. Be sure to mix in lots of time out for processing and relaxing, as well as an abundance of kind words, and gentle caressing.
We humans are impatient. We think horses should be able to reason, understand, learn and accept things just as we do. But they perceive, understand, communicate, think and react very differently than humans. Unless and until they feel safe and comfortable, nothing else really matters much to them. According to horsemanship clinician Mark Rashid: “When it comes right down to it — I think it’s just like the old man said — there’s something about horses that we all need to understand: Their only real job in this world is to stay alive from one day to the next. Nothing else really matters.”
Although we think we go slowly enough for horses, break tasks down into small enough steps, repeat things enough, are gentle and patient and persistent enough, they are often telling us with their subtle body language that we are not — and unfortunately we often miss or ignore their pleas. And of course, their emotions, abilities and needs can vary from one moment or one day to the next — and according to their different personalities and personal histories as well.
For the sake of discussion let’s assume that your Haflinger can repeatedly pass all the pre-ground-work “tests.” And, when you are ground driving him, be sure he is willing, comfortable and relaxed. He should also be proficient at starting, stopping, standing patiently, backing and turning both directions when asked.
If not, you probably (hopefully) would not have progressed to hitching to the cart in the first place. Any horse that cannot consistently meet these requirements should continue to be schooled at the level of ground work and ground driving before he is asked to pull, or be hitched to, anything. By anything, I mean not even dragging a single tree on the ground behind him.
However, once a horse has repeatedly proven himself at ground driving and is judged ready to begin pulling things, as your horse seems to be, I recommend (as always) a gradual progression using small baby steps. From your question I’m unclear whether you taught him to drag things on the ground before hitching to the cart.
Break It Down
I am certain that hitching to the cart is too great a challenge for your horse without some lessons, or more lessons, on pulling other things — to transition more gradually toward the cart. My normal progression is to start with pulling just a single tree; then the single tree with a chain dragging behind (seems like an unnecessarily small baby step to a human doesn’t it?). Next, I add a small pole or two or a