Ask A Teamster: Helping Horses Learn a New Job
by Doc Hammill and Cathy Greatorex of Eureka, MT
photos by Cathy Greatorex
I have a team of Percheron-Morgan cross geldings that spent their life before me doing carriage rides, weddings, and other events. They are very well trained and traffic does not bother them at all. Even though I’ve been driving my horses for about 3 years I still consider myself a beginner. They still know more than I do at this point. I would like to start helping my neighbor by doing some farming stuff with the horses such as raking hay and spreading manure. My concern is that my horses have never pulled anything but carriages and wagons. My question is, if I try driving them on a piece of noisy farm equipment will they be ok or do you think it will freak them out?
I read your articles in the Small Farmer’s Journal and am saving up to come to one of your workshops in Montana. Thank you for all you do to help people with their horses.
RESPONSE: When I use the word horse or horses it is my intention for it to be extended to include mules, donkeys, and ponies unless otherwise specified. – Doc
It sounds like you have a nice team and are doing well with them. I’m thankful you contacted me rather than assume that your team, with a history of only carriages and wagons, would be able to handle an abrupt and sudden change to farm equipment. The reality is that they might accept the unfamiliar noise, vibration, and other differences just fine. On the other hand, they are equines, and being so are prone to becoming concerned, stressed out, and overwhelmed by things unfamiliar – especially things that move and make noise. The very nature of equines as a timid fright/flight animal causes them to be predictably suspicious and fearful. It is always best and safest to introduce anything new or different to them very carefully and gradually.
As humans we naturally think and react very differently than equines. It is counterintuitive for us to understand what it is really like to be a horse. We tend to expect horses to behave and react in ways we think they should, and then are surprised and disappointed, or downright upset, when they do otherwise. Each year I hear from dozens of people after they’ve experienced some type of mishap, wreck, or run away caused by horses or mules becoming psychologically overloaded when asked to do something new or different without being gently, carefully, gradually, and progressively introduced to it. Most of the problems I see and hear about with equines are caused by too much, too fast, too soon. Changes and differences that we humans are either completely unaware of, or consider insignificant are often perceived as frightening and overwhelming by equines.
Once we understand such things it makes sense for us to always “take the time it takes” and “do whatever needs to be done” to keep our horses feeling safe and comfortable no matter what we are doing or where we are with them. This applies 10 times for unfamiliar places, things, activities, etc. When equines feel safe and comfortable, their behavior and reactions are safer, and so are we.
The following story illustrates how Cathy and I introduced one of our seasoned teams to a side delivery rake – their very first piece of farm equipment. We recommend (pray) that you, and other folks, follow the principles and techniques of this process to help your horses gently, gradually, safely, and smoothly transition into pulling farm equipment.
Horse Drawn Haying with a Side Delivery Rake
by Cathy Greatorex
What a great workshop! Not only were we able to work through our typical hands-on activities with our students, we also had the opportunity to help our new team learn to accept a piece of noisy equipment, and we worked on our hay at the same time.
We had hay down in our biggest hay meadow, 25 acres. Doc decided to use Brisk and Solven, our Norwegian Fjord geldings to demonstrate to our students a safe, low stress way of introducing horses to unfamiliar equipment. We acquired this team last fall. They are a well-experienced team, with a life time of pulling carriages and wagons in a variety of situations. They work quietly and willingly. Brisk and Solven, however, are new to all farm activities. This noisy hay rake is the first piece of farm equipment that these horses have EVER been hitched to, so we wanted to make sure it was a safe and comfortable experience for all. They were visually familiar with the rake as they had been driven past where it was parked many times. In preparation for this new job they had previously been driven in this particular hay field enough to become relaxed and comfortable there.
Doc drove the team on a forecart to where the truck and rake were parked in the hay meadow. As he drove them to the idle rake to let them see, smell, and touch it he stopped several times to check if they were just curious or concerned. When their curiosity was satisfied Doc drove them away from the rake. I then drove the pickup with the side delivery rake attached, around the edge of the mowed hay meadow; the rake was out of gear – not raking hay. Doc followed with the team and forecart, starting about 100 yards behind the rake and then coming progressively closer. The horses were entirely comfortable being driven behind the rake at any distance while it was traveling out of gear, so Doc then drove the Boys beside the rake on both sides, and in front of the moving pick-up and hay rake. They were completely comfortable and passed this part of the test with flying colors.
For the next step the rake was put into gear so the reel would turn. I drove the truck where the hay had already been picked up so the reel was turning and making noise, but not windrowing the cut hay – a small intermediate step. Doc started following way back with the team and as before brought them closer and closer to the moving rake. This allowed them to experience the new movement and noise at a safe distance before coming gradually closer to it. Both horses accepted the change and stayed relaxed and comfortable. When Doc drove them up beside the now churning rake they were okay until the rake ‘disappeared’ (due to their blinders) behind the Boys. While they were not at all concerned close beside it while they could see it, they immediately became worried when it suddenly disappeared and they couldn’t – this is not unusual nor was it unexpected. Doc immediately but gently slowed them down, while comforting them with his voice, so the rake came past them back into their view. They relaxed as soon as they could see it again. After three times of passing the rake and having it pass them the Boys understood they were safe whether they could see the rake or not, so Doc tested them out on the other side by passing the rake and dropping back a few times. They handled that side just fine. All of these steps were repeated next with the rake traveling in gear and actually raking hay behind the pickup. During this phase the horses showed no signs of concern at the rake traveling behind, beside or in front of them, even when they were driven very close to it.
This advance and retreat technique is a method we use to expose any and all equines to new equipment, processes, environments, activities, and people. This process gave the horses multiple opportunities to see and hear the machine working, and to ensure they were comfortable with it before they were asked to rake hay with it. Breaking activities down into very small steps, like this, lets horses accept new situations in small increments and stay comfortable. If we see concern on the part of the horses, we drop back a step to again allow them to get comfortable. We go back (retreat) as far and as long as is necessary to allow the horses to regain their comfort. Once hitched to the rake we would not be able to “take them away from it” if they perceived something about it as a threat, in which case they might try to escape (run) from it on their own.
Incidentally, this process also gave us a chance to make a couple of necessary adjustments to the rake before we hitched the horses to it. It is good to make adjustments and make sure equipment is working well BEFORE putting the horses on it.
After one round of the meadow with the rake attached to the truck, Doc determined that the horses were not at all concerned about the noise, movement, or anything else associated with the side delivery rake. We stopped the truck and unhooked the rake from it. We then hitched the rake (again out of gear) to the forecart with Solven and Brisk; the Boys walked off comfortably.
Next, we put the rake in gear and when given their signal, off the Boys walked as comfortable and relaxed as ever. After testing them with the rake in gear we pulled into a windrow and spent the rest of the day raking hay with them.
Our students not only learned how to teach horses a new job in a safe, horse friendly, and effective way, they enjoyed the hands-on experience of raking lots of hay in a spectacular setting. Brisk and Solven continued to work quietly, steady, and calmly in the hands of the students – and have done so on the rake ever since.
Your horses will likely react to their first hay rake or manure spreader somewhat differently than ours did in Cathy’s description above. With equines, their attitudes, energy, and reactions can easily change from nanosecond to nanosecond. Things work best if we are paying attention and we respond, adapt, and help our horses as necessary – rather than pushing through to our end goal whether or not our animals remain in their comfort zone.
Sometimes we need to spend more time on one stage, or on every stage, than in the narrative above. In some cases it is imperative that we repeat a step several days in a row before advancing to the next stage. The key is to read our animals’ emotions and reactions and offer things in small bites they can handle psychologically. One of the greatest gifts we can give our horses is to constantly and consistently manage their emotional state to minimize stress and maximize comfort.
The example explained here is specific to the hay rake, however, the principles, approach, and techniques provide a blueprint that can, and should be, modified and customized to fit most any situation we find ourselves in with our horses. The secret is to stop and/or back off (retreat away) before (preferably), or at the instant your animal(s) become concerned/uncomfortable.
By learning about and respecting the true nature of horses, how they perceive and react to things, how to communicate and interact with them, and how to introduce things to them in ways they inherently understand and can willingly accept, it becomes much easier to do things while keeping ourselves and our horses comfortable and safe. When dealing with equines there is no truer statement than “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Cathy and I hope this helps you and your horses make a safe and successful transition into using farm equipment. Feel free to contact us if you have questions or if we can help you in any way with your horses or horsemanship.
Take care, stay safe, and enjoy your horses,
Doc and Cathy
Doc Hammill and Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and their horsemanship video series. They live in Montana. www.DocHammill.com