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Ask A Teamster Horse Don't Won't Can't Turn

Ask A Teamster: Horse Don’t, Won’t, Can’t Turn

by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana

Hello Doc,

I just started training my 2-1/2 year old cross breed draft to drive and need some advice. I have not done this before so I purchased your DVDs on teaching horses to drive to guide me. They are excellent!

Butch drives forward alright and will start, stop, and stand ok most of the time. The trouble comes when I try to turn him. He mostly responds by bringing his head up and slowing down not turning. If I try harder to get him to turn he usually stops and sometimes even backs up. He is very hard to turn right.

When I stand beside him and pull his head around with my hand on the line like you show in the video he gets the idea but as soon as I go back to ground driving he has trouble again, kind of like your horse in the video did sometimes.

A guy told me to use a whip on the opposite side of his neck to force him over and to pull harder and whip his rump if he stops or backs up. I don’t want to hurt his mouth or whip him so I am hoping you know a better way.

I enjoy your articles in the Small Farmers Journal and like your gentle approach.

Thanks, Mike

NOTE: I teach horses to drive single before driving them with another horse so most of what I offer here refers to training a single horse to drive. When I use the words horse or horses it is my intention for it to be extended to include mules, donkeys, and ponies – unless otherwise specified. Doc

Dear Mike,

I very much appreciate your consideration for the comfort and well being of your horse and applaud you for seeking a kind, gentle way of helping him learn to bend and turn.

What I intend to share with you here is a blend of principles, techniques, and equipment considerations related to your question. I have learned many important things since filming the “Teaching Horses To Drive” DVDs in 2005 and I welcome this opportunity to share some of them.

As with all things equine, many factors can potentially affect an animal’s ability and/or willingness to respond to our signals down the lines to the bit. Some examples are the animal’s personality, learning style, past experience, attitude, intelligence, conformation (body type), etc.; while others are equipment or mechanical type issues.

Of course, the human component is always a major factor in the success or failure of anything and everything we undertake with horses. We are the ones who can use our reasoning power to figure out what the animal’s needs and difficulties are and then creatively and skillfully come up with solutions. Horses and their mule and donkey cousins have an incredible ability to willingly cooperate and do as we ask: 1. IF they trust us, respect us and accept us as their leader. 2. IF we present lessons to them in clear, simple steps that they can easily understand. 3. IF the communication and cues we use and the lessons we present make sense to them, and are skillfully executed by us. 4. IF every appropriate response on their part is rewarded immediately and appropriately. 5. IF we pay attention, visualize success, and remain patient, positive, emotionally neutral, etc. 6. IF the animal experiences NO PAIN and little if any confusion or fear as we work with them. 7. IF all the celestial bodies are lined up perfectly for our success.


I suspect that your horse Butch is having the same difficulty interpreting the line cues to turn that my filly, Kate, experienced as we filmed her in “Teaching Horses To Drive.”

Prior to filming, Kate was a real pro at turning both ways on a halter in response to very light cues. We had also worked on turning her both directions in response to cues given by a hand on one line near the bit. I feel that horses thoroughly schooled and proficient at bending and turning in response to a gentle cue on the halter will more easily transition into ground driving if we also teach them to turn with a cue given by a hand on a line near the bit – before we attempt ground driving. As demonstrated in the video, I do this by placing a hand on one line near the bit and use the same gentle pump/release cues and the reward system as when teaching it with a halter and lead. I’m convinced that all horses would benefit from being taught both of these things BEFORE we ever attempt to drive them – regardless of the specific method of training used.

As we filmed the ground driving segment of the video, Kate like many new trainees, became confused when I tried to turn her from behind during her first drive. Like Butch she had difficulty with the change from turning on a cue given by a hand on one line near the bit, to the obviously greater challenge of turning when given the same cue during ground driving – at least I thought then it was the same cue. Rather than continue driving and use force to turn them, I prefer to help such horses learn to willingly and comfortably give to pressure, bend, and turn with a combination of the following techniques:

1. Going back to practicing with a hand on the line near the bit to gently, gradually, and progressively urge their nose out to the side. With patience and repetition they will sooner or later make a better association between the light, intermittent pump and release on one side of the bit (the cue) and turning their head, then bending the head and neck out to the side, and ultimately moving their feet and body sideways (the proper response). Every correct response to our cues, no matter how small, must be rewarded by an immediate release of pressure (reward). Once they understand how to make the cue go away by turning and are turning more easily, willingly and comfortably (both directions) we can try ground driving again. If the difficulty persists it may be advisable to quit ground driving and go all the way back to teaching turns more thoroughly on a halter and lead.

CAUTION: One of the worst mistakes we can make when teaching horses anything is to ask for the same thing too many times in a row. Settle for a small try or success and reward it, pause, pet your horse (don’t pat or slap them), then do something else with them at least briefly before asking for the original thing again. I often work on teaching and practicing many things in succession with horses because I feel they learn better and faster, it’s fun for both of us, we both stay interested and engaged, and they experience more variety in a given session. For example I might start by working on picking up a front foot, then bend the head to left, then back up, rear foot, head down, other front foot, bend head right, handle ears, follow me, other rear foot, follow me over a plastic tarp, original front foot, etc. Repetition is an important tool to help horses reinforce learning. However, if you want to bore, frustrate or irritate a horse make him to do the same thing repetitiously more than once or twice.

2. Working very gently and patiently over time to encourage turning while continuing with ground driving. Feathering one line and releasing a little on the other will encourage the first hints of a head bend to one side and then to the other. Asking for a turn with the lines just before the horse needs to turn anyway to avoid something (like a fence or an obstacle I’ve set up for that purpose) will help him make an association between what he was feeling on the bit (light cues on one side), turning (response), and the cues disappearing (reward). Light hands, “baby steps” and patience are vital – ask for a little, reward it, drive without asking more, ask again, stop and relax/process, etc.

TIP: It is very important when making turns that the line on the outside of the turn is released enough so it does not inhibit the horse(s) from turning. Pulling harder on the inside line when there is not enough release on the outside line is not the answer. Doing so usually causes horses to either not turn, not turn enough, slow down, or stop – and it torments them. Conversely, releasing too much pressure on the outside line when turning can result in turning too sharp and/or too fast. A gentle, rhythmic alternating pressure and release on both lines, constantly being decreased or increased to bring the nose(s) to the side with the inside line and keep it from going too far with the outside line is the key to smooth, comfortable turns – especially for horses just learning to drive. This applies no matter how many horses are being driven.

3. Using a helper to cue or lure the horse into turning. At first the helper merely holds the lead rope loosely and walks ahead of the horse around curves and turns in the round pen while I cue with the lines from behind. Only if necessary is the lead rope used to keep the horse following. As the horse makes associations between feeling line cues and starting to turn I do more with the lines and the helper does less with the halter rope. When I am able to affect turns with the lines fairly well the helper is asked to drop back and walk beside the horse. They are no longer luring or leading him but can step forward and do so again if necessary. At some point the helper is no longer needed. A helper is seldom necessary if techniques 1 and 2 above are used with consistency and skill.

The importance of good line handling skills and other good techniques, strategies, etc. cannot be overemphasized when starting young horses to drive – or when driving any horse for that matter. As I mentioned above other factors come into play as well. Sometimes a special piece of equipment or a subtle adjustment or modification of equipment can greatly facilitate learning and performance.


Most of my life I always strung driving lines through the line rings on hames, spreader rings, and the terrets on gig saddles/surcingles – it was the way everyone I knew did it, and no one seemed to question doing it that way. Line rings and terrets were put there to run the lines through so we did. Then in 2004 while watching Les Barden’s video on the New England D Ring Harness I noticed something unusual on the harness as his team worked in the video, but I didn’t catch enough detail to tell what it was. That fall while conducting a clinic in New Hampshire I had the privilege of meeting Les, and I asked him about it. He explained that hames were invented during the Renaissance when it was considered very prestigious and fashionable for horses to carry their heads up extremely high. Consequently, line rings and terrets were intentionally placed up high on harness so the lines would pull upward on the bit to force the horse into the high-headed posture that was so in vogue. Les told me that he “saw no purpose in pulling up on the corners of their mouths.” So, out of consideration for his horses he strung his lines through accessory line rings (drop rings) suspended about four inches below the standard line rings on the hames (photo #3). The effect was to create a lower, more comfortable and appropriate angle for the lines to travel from the bit through the drop rings to his hands.

When I returned to Montana I began experimenting with drop rings on my well broke, older Clydesdales. At first it was hard to tell if the lower line angle made any real difference to them, or if it affected their responsiveness, comfort, etc. – probably because they had learned to drive and work nicely years before without the benefit of drop rings.

It didn’t occur to me until later that horses like my Clydes with relatively long, upright necks might have less of an issue with high line rings than horses with shorter necks and naturally lower head carriage. I continued to use drop rings because the concept made sense to me and I wanted to evaluate them longer.

An obvious advantage of using drop rings showed up when workshop students started driving my horses again the next spring. The lower angle of the lines to the bit made it easier for those good old lesson horses to put up with considerate but inexperienced student hands on the lines. There was no doubt that the horses were not feeling as much “pulling up on the corners of their mouths” when signals on the lines were excessively hard, sudden or jerky from the beginners learning to drive.

At that point I was a believer in drop rings and knew I would continue to use them as Les did. I had no concept of how much more drop rings had to offer, but I was about to find out.


I learned a long time ago that horses always have reasons for what they do, and reasons for what they don’t, won’t, can’t do. Their reasons don’t always make sense to us but they sure do to them. So what is the reason so many horses struggle with this small but perhaps unnecessary turning challenge when learning to ground drive?

Shortly after we filmed Kate’s first drive for the video I started to make a connection between horses in training having initial turning issues, and the potential for drop rings to help simplify their learning process. It’s seldom a serious problem as they all seem to figure it out sooner or later. I just like to make things easy, comfortable and successful for horses whenever I can – and for us too. So I ponder, study and experiment with such things a lot.

By using the principles and techniques that top “natural” horsemanship clinicians have made popular worldwide in the last 20 years or so, horses can easily and quickly be taught to do amazing things. One very basic example is to willingly flex their head and neck laterally and touch their nose to their side on command. At some point, (when the celestial bodies were all lined up perfectly no doubt) I was thinking about how easily and quickly the horses trained by those clinicians learn to bend and turn when long lining (ground driving) prior to being ridden. I visualized how they hobble the stirrups (tie them together under the horse) and pass the long lines through the stirrups back to their hands. When the horse drives off there is typically little or no hesitation or resistance to bending, flexing and turning in both directions. Of course, they always do the all important ground work to prepare the horse beforehand – but some of us with driving and work horses do too. Yet my visions of our horses making their first drives are not so sweet.

The next time I had Kate harnessed I looked her over carefully as my mind compared the image of lines through riding stirrups with the way the lines were on her harness. By that time I had started using drop rings snapped to the line rings on her hames to see if that made a difference – hard to tell. Almost unconsciously, I unsnapped a drop ring and attached it where the back pad billet attaches to the trace (photo #6) – about where the stirrup on a saddle would be. Doing so put the driving line down on a horizontal line with the bit in her mouth – “… no purpose in pulling up on the corners of their mouths,” Les had said.

After moving the drop ring on the other side down we went out to the round pen for a test drive. The difference in how she ground drove and turned was amazing – not perfect, but real sweet. With the lines at that level a right turn cue on the line obviously meant go right to her, and a left turn cue meant left. After we drove around for a while with me smiling I couldn’t resist moving the drop rings back up to the line rings – Bam, back to the old confusion. Down – sweet. Up – not good. Down – sweet. Don’t you just love it when the celestial bodies line up?

Equines are among the most physically and psychologically sensitive and perceptive animal species in the world. To them every nuance of what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel has great meaning and importance. They are also highly cognizant of, influenced by, and responsive to the geometry and physics of the things they perceive with their senses. Distance, direction, angles, arcs, pressure, weight, movement, speed, etc. have great meaning and influence. They are constantly receiving, interpreting and reacting to miniscule bits of sensory information (stimuli) at levels far beyond our ability to imagine, let alone perceive. If I want to ask and encourage a horse to come to me using the body language of horses, I will be most successful if I am at the optimum angle and direction from his body. Farther forward or backward from this optimum angle means some- thing entirely different to him. The mouth of equines has the richest nerve supply of any part of their body. Mules have been known to eat all of the oats in their nose bags while sorting out and leaving tiny weed seeds in the bottom.

To animals like this extremely small differences in angles, pressures and such that we don’t, won’t, can’t even recognize, can change the whole meaning of things and elicit entirely different reactions, responses, and behavior on their part.

When we put a bit in a mouth and start sending touch/feel messages to it in our comparatively crude ways, such things as angles, direction, pressure, movement, speed, etc., must have more and greater meanings than we can comprehend. If you believe what I’m saying here, imagine what a difference a change of over 35 degrees in the angle driving lines pull on the bit could make to a horse. With the lines through the standard line rings on Kate’s harness they pull on the bit over 35 degrees higher (photo #2) than when they are through the drop ring at the bottom of the back pad billet (photo #6).

When teaching Kate to bend her head and turn on the halter the cues were given with my hand holding the halter rope at the level of my waist – 38 inches from the ground as it turns out. The cues I used when I held the line near the bit and ask for bending and turning were at the level of the bit when her head was in a relaxed working position – also 38 inches from the ground. In both cases the direction of the cues was at an angle out to the side as well as back, and at the level of the mouth. By comparison, during ground driving with the line through standard line rings the pull, in her case, comes from a height of 56 inches – 30 degrees upward from the mouth (photo #2). Significantly, the direction is straight back and not out to the side at all. When I moved the drop ring down to the bottom of the billet (photo #6) and ground drove Kate the line cues came from about 36 inches from the ground. Due to the width of her body at that level the direction of pull on the lines was somewhat out to the side as well as back – just like on the halter etc. With lines through standard line rings or terrets there is essentially no outward angle of pull because they are so close together. By comparing the angle of the driving lines in photo #2 (before) and photo #6 (after) it’s easy to imagine that a horse would perceive a totally different feel from them and give a totally different response. In fact, that’s exactly why the line rings on the hames were put up so high in the first place – those Renaissance dudes knew up from down.

For horses, particularly sensitive, responsive, just learning horses like Kate, such differences can significantly change the meaning of the cues they receive from us. Regardless of what we expect a horse should do when we give them a particular cue, they are going to respond according to what makes sense to them based on their nature as horses, the sensual input they receive, and previous conditioning (learned behavior including training). We should not expect horses that are just learning to give the same response when they receive two different cues unless the differences between the two cues are very slight – slight by horse standards, not ours. As horses become better trained and more experienced, small differences should become less of an issue for them – although consistency is a wonderful gift to give our horses throughout their lives.


It’s hard to believe it’s been over four years since I first moved the drop rings down low for Kate. The use of drop rings has become an indispensible tool for me as I work with students and their horses of various ages, breeds and levels of training in clinics and workshops – and with our own horses at home. Attaching drop rings at different locations on the harness allows me to be very specific in selecting just the right line angle for a given horse or special issue that needs attention. It’s like playing music with an instrument that has many notes to choose from, rather than just one. With appropriate use of drop rings I consistently see improvements in the comfort, responsiveness and performance of horses beyond what my students or I could attain without them.

Ask A Teamster Horse Don't Won't Can't Turn

photo #1

Photo #1 shows some examples of drop rings. I prefer them to buckle on because snaps are notorious for breaking or coming unhooked. Drop rings can easily be made from regular bit straps and 2 inch rings. Depending on the size of the animal(s) 4 inches is a good average overall length. Since at various times I work with everything from minis to drafts I like them adjustable from 3 to 6 inches. As you use them be sure the end of the strap never hangs down far enough to interfere with the line sliding freely through the ring.

Ask A Teamster Horse Don't Won't Can't Turn

photo #2

In photo #2 the line is passing through the standard line ring on the hame and downward to the bit (A-B). The horse is standing in a relaxed posture with her head and neck unrestrained and at a height about where she usually carries it when working. In this photo the line leaves the bit at a 30 degree angle upward (A-B). Because of this angle any cue, pressure or pull on the bit through the lines will be felt as a force pulling upward as well as backward. This holds true whether pressure is applied to one side of the mouth with one line or both sides with two, and whether driving a single or multiple animals. In my opinion this upward pull is unnecessary, uncomfortable and inappropriate. It transfers cues and forces to the wrong part of the horses’ mouth and sends unintended messages to the horse. I no longer recommend using the standard line rings for driving horses as they are too high.

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