Ask A Teamster: Horse Don’t, Won’t, Can’t Turn
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
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.
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
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.
ANGLE OF PULL ON THE MOUTH
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.
USING DROP RINGS
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.
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.
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.
In photo #3 the line passes through a drop ring buckled to the line ring on the hame. In this photo the driving line is 6 inches lower at the hame than in photo #2 and leaves the bit at a 15 degree angle upward (A-B). This adaptation reduces the angle of upward pull on the bit and mouth to one half what it is in photo #2. Given a choice this is the highest position for the line rings that I use anymore. Drop rings in this position are satisfactory for most well trained and experienced horses, and are high enough to keep the lines up away from shafts and neck yokes for safety. In my opinion this position is too high for horses just learning to drive and those issues to be worked on.
Photo #4 shows the drop ring attached to the back strap ring on the hame. This drops the line another 6 inches below the standard line ring and reduces the line angle (A-B) to about 10 degrees. This configuration produces very little or no upward pull on the mouth depending on the height the head is carried at a given time. The line in this position is very comfortable for the horse and makes it easy for her to accurately interpret and respond to signals (cues) sent down the lines – start, stop, back, turn left, turn right, speed up, slow down, swing (fan) left, swing (fan) right, etc. This drop ring position works well with horses hitched to a tongue. However, for a horse in shafts it may be necessary to raise the drop rings to prevent lines from becoming trapped between the shaft and the trace or collar, or tangled on a shaft.
In photo #5 the drop ring is buckled into the bottom hame ring or breast strap ring. Doing so creates a line angle (A-B) from the bit that is actually below a horizontal line through the bit by about 7 degrees in this photo. While this position for drop rings creates an angle of pull that I like, it restricts how far out to the side and back horses can bend their head. It can be useful for correcting some cocked head and neck alignment issues, but I usually prefer to have the line through a drop ring or shaft loop farther back on the horse when I want this line angle (photos #6 and #7).
Photo #6 shows the drop ring snapped into the hardware square at the bottom of the back pad billet. The angle of the line (A-B) in this example is 7 degrees below a horizontal line through the bit. This is the original “line through the stirrup image” position for the drop rings that I first tried on Kate. It is still my preferred option when starting a horse ground driving in a work harness. With this drop ring position, and also when they go through shaft loops as in photo #7 we can have a horse flex its head laterally far enough to touch its ribs (photos #8, #9, #10). However, as you can imagine from the photos it does not work with the ring positions shown in photos #2, #3, #4, #5, or #11.
In photo #7 the horse is wearing just the gig saddle/surcingle parts of a harness and the lines are threaded through the shaft loops rather than the terrets or drop rings (Never run the lines through shaft loops with shafts in the loops. The loops are only used for lines when ground driving). The line angle from the bit to the shaft loop (A-B) is only 4 degrees upward from horizontal. This configuration and that shown in photo # 6 are my two favorites for first starting horses ground driving. Normally people run the lines from the bit (A) through the gig saddle terrets (C) which creates an upward line angle of close to 30 degrees in this photo – comparable to the line angle in photo #2. (My favorite bumper sticker is, “Why Be Normal”)
CAUTION: Horses should not be driven hitched to shafts or a tongue with drop rings in the positions shown in photos #5, #6, or #7 as the lines may become trapped or tangled on the shafts, neck yoke or tongue. The drop ring positions in photos #5, #6, and #7 should be used only when ground driving. If the drop ring position in photo #4 is used with shafts be sure the ring is high enough to keep the lines from becoming trapped or tangled.
Photos #8, #9, and #10 progressively illustrate how a horse can learn to willingly and comfortably bend its head and neck laterally far enough to touch its side. With good technique it is possible to accomplish this with very soft, light line cues because the low angle of pull on the bit makes it easy and comfortable for the horse to do. Note the soft eye, positive attitude, and relaxation throughout the maneuver.
Photo #11 shows the tendency of the head to be pulled upward rather than to the side when the line runs from the bit up to the terret on the gig saddle. There is only one line (the left one) on this horse and the amount of pressure/pull I was applying when the photo was taken was very light – comparable to what I used to get the horse to flex to the side in photos #8, #9, and #10. Before I applied pressure to the line the mares head was in the relaxed, comfortable position and height shown in photo #7. Rather than bend to the left when cued with the left line, her head came straight up – notice the change in her attitude. Recall from photos #2 and #7 that for this horse the angle of the line will be about 30 degrees upward whether it runs from the bit through the terret in the gig saddle, or through the standard line ring on a hame (with the head at the same level). Therefore, the upward pull effect of the line demonstrated with the gig saddle in photo #11 also occurs with a collar and hames when the standard line rings are used (photo #2) – even though the hame rings are closer to the bit on the neck and the terrets are behind the withers.
Until a beginning horse gets completely comfortable with and proficient at all driving maneuvers and also pulling weight I drive them with the lines at the level shown in photos #5, #6, and #7. Next, I try them out at the line position shown in photo #4. If that position works for them I continue with the lines there, if not the drop rings go back down and try moving them up again later. Ultimately I want horses to be able to work with the rings up at the level shown in photo #3. I never hesitate to move rings up or down to help horses keep improving and working well – regardless of their age or experience.
I use and recommend drop rings for two horse teams and larger hitches, but there are some special considerations. When using drop rings with team lines the drop rings on the outside of each horse should only be attached either to the standard line rings (photo #3) or the back strap rings (photo #4) on the hames – but not any lower. What would happen at lower drop ring positions with team lines is difficult to explain, but it’s impractical, unsafe and don’t, won’t, can’t work. On the inside of a team, spreaders or drop rings acting as spreaders need to be used to create a line (cross check) angle from the bits that is equal to the line angle produced by the drop rings on the outside of the horses. As with all spreaders the dynamics get a bit complicated. Spreaders affect both the angle of upward pull on the bit by the cross checks, and how far apart the horses work. With or without drop rings, and regardless of how many horses are being driven, the angle of pull on the bit should be the same on both sides of a given horse. It doesn’t work to simply select spreaders and hang them from the hames so the rings are the same level as the drop rings on the outside of the horse. This is because when the lines are actually functioning as we drive the spreaders are pulled to the center and up by the cross checks. So either longer spreaders or attaching them lower on the hames would be required. How long, and/or how low can only be determined by comparisons made while driving. After the spreader length/height is determined the cross check buckles can be adjusted to bring the horses closer together or farther apart as necessary for the double tree/neck yoke length. Rather than spreaders, drop rings with very short straps attached low on the hames may be necessary to get a team close enough together to work on very short double trees.
SURCINGLES AND BITTING RIGS
I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I made a revolutionary new discovery by playing around with drop rings at various places up and down the harness. Training surcingles and bitting rigs with multiple rings for driving lines and attaching other equipment at different levels have been around for centuries. Like most equipment and training aids we use with horses, including our hands, surcingles and bitting rigs have been used appropriately (by considerate talented horsemen) and misused (by the other kind of horsemen) throughout history. My childhood recollections of them are from a Saddlebred stable near my home. I came to perceive them to be mere anchor points for attaching side reins, draw reins, over checks and so forth to a bit – in order to torture horses by forcing their heads up so high, and noses back so far they could hardly breathe. Consequently, I was never really interested in learning more about them until recent years – which is unfortunate because if I had I might have been driving with lower line angles to the benefit of horses much sooner. I feel no need for a training surcingle since horses are wearing harness before I first start ground driving them. I simply hang drop rings on the harness wherever I want them. Changing the position of drop rings on harness is as simple as reattaching them in a new location with the lines still in the rings. With training surcingles the lines must be pulled all the way out of the rings and rethreaded through rings in a new position – not very handy.
NOTE: Now that I am using drop rings for starting horses in harness I first start ground driving most of them with lines attached to the halter rather than a bit. I do this because it breaks the training process down into another small step and seems to work better for the animals. And, perhaps even more importantly because without a bit there is no chance of accidentally hurting the mouth during those sometimes awkward early drives. I start driving in a round pen with animals that have been well prepared with “Gentle Training” ground work, and I avoid the use of force to control them. Please understand that I am not at all opposed to the use of bits. When I think the time is right I introduce and use a bit on every animal I train to drive.
A round pen is my preferred place to do ground work with horses and to start ground driving them. By the time a horse is ready to start driving they understand the pen is a safe place for them and that there’s no point in trying to run away – it only takes them in endless circles. They are very familiar and comfortable traveling both ways around the circle so it’s easy to get them to move forward around the perimeter when starting to ground drive. If they get in a hurry I can step to the middle, rotate while holding the lines (long ones), and pretend I am still driving them – then go back to driving like nothing happened when they relax and slow down.
Slow, gentle, rhythmic serpentine patterns are great for teaching and practicing turns with horses. Gently tease the nose left and right away from the fence then back to it repeatedly as you drive around the round pen. Do very slight curves at first increasing them as the horse becomes more responsive to the lines. Don’t keep the serpentine pattern going very long or far at first (mental and physical challenge), mix it up with periods when you pretty much leave the horse alone and just drive around the pen (easy/reward). Stop and stand a lot (easier/bigger reward) and back up once in a while (challenge). I remember Doris Ganton, one of my mentors, saying she spent as much time stopped and standing as she did moving when she started a young horse driving. Stepping up and placing a calm firm hand on the horses’ rump when stopped helps him to relax and stay put. As the horse becomes more and more responsive to the cues to turn begin increasingly cutting across the circle. At some point, when he ends up in the middle of the pen bend him the other way and reverse directions in a figure 8.
Working serpentines and other graceful, rhythmic patterns not only teaches horses how to bend and turn but also helps them stay in the thinking part of their brain – as opposed to the reactive part. That way they are more inclined to keep their attention on the driver and where they are going, stay soft and supple, not cause trouble, and not get bored.
Most horses seem to be more able or willing to bend and flex their head, neck and body to one side than to the other. One way just seems easier for them, and in my experience it is usually the left. It’s very important to get horses flexing and bending equally in both directions. Teaching horses to bend their head around and touch their nose to their ribs is an excellent exercise – both physically and psychologically. I teach it first on the halter, next in harness with a hand on a line near the bit, and ultimately from behind the horse cueing them with the lines. Of course, I always have the lines running through drop rings or shaft loops as shown in photos #6 and #7. By bending and turning horses to the “stiff” side more than the “loose” side most horses will eventually begin to flex both ways equally. I have had good success with some tough cases by using a drop ring at the bottom of the back pad billet (photo #6) on the “stiff” side and one attached to the back strap ring (photo #4) on the “loose” side. Sometimes a similar configuration works for side pullers and horses that work with their head rotated (cocked) to one side. But that’s another story for another time. Most horses tend to get “stiff” and/or misaligned and out of balance if we don’t pay attention and keep them in alignment, balanced, and bending freely whenever we drive them.
Since Renaissance times, perhaps before, millions of horses have been trained to drive and work and spent their lives doing so with lines “… pulling up on the corners of their mouths.” There is no question but what horses can learn to drive and perform amazingly with lines in the standard line rings on hames and in high terrets. The lower line angles possible with drop rings will not make life better or driving easier for a single horse without a compassionate, patient, emotionally neutral teamster on the end of the lines. The understanding, knowledge, and physical skills of good horsemanship are available and relatively easy to learn, compared to the all important mental softness and flexibility and emotional softness and control. Like any other horsemanship tool, drop rings can be used in ways that benefit horses or torture them – it’s up to us.
Thinking about the horses I often see being asked to drive and work with heads checked or pulled up too high, ill fitting collars and harness, low breechings pushing on hind legs, and what have you, I’m reminded of a sign I saw as a kid: Keep your eye on the ball, keep your ear to the ground, keep your shoulder to the wheel, keep your back to the wind – now, try working in that position.
Thanks Les, for introducing me to drop rings. They have dramatically changed the way I work with horses and the results I get.
Mike, I’ve been wanting to share this information about drop rings in an article or video for some time now – thank you for the nudge.
Take care, stay safe, and be quiet, patient and consistent as you play with those horses, mules, donkeys, etc.
Doc Hammill D.V.M.
Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com