Ask A Teamster Round Pen Training

Ask A Teamster: Nervous Horse

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

I live in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. I’ve been driving for a little more than 1 yr. I have never met Doc (Hammill) but hope to some day.

Quinn and Frank are my current team of Belgians. I got Frank last Sept. He developed an abscess soon after, it took some time to heal so I let him rest this winter and put some needed weight on him. He is a very nervous horse and becomes instantly wet with sweat when I go to do anything with him. He does not bite or kick or become defensive. I do not know his history. He might have done some pulling. I started working him a few weeks ago and it does not start off well, but after a while he conforms and does fairly well. I’m using a butt rope per Doc’s instructions; Frank turns inside out if I don’t. I am kind but firm, and very patient by nature. Any suggestions?

Kimber South

NOTE: When I use the words horse or horses it is my intention for them to be extended in your mind to include mules, donkeys, and ponies – unless otherwise specified. Doc

Dear Kimber,

Your horse Frank seems typical of the many horses that I work with and hear about that have learned to associate humans (and certain things humans do with and to them) with psychological and/or physical discomfort. Whenever a horse is not comfortable with things we do around them or ask them to do on the ground, we need to resolve those issues on the ground, not in harness or under saddle. When things are not going well in harness and we cannot get our horses to maintain or return promptly to a state of comfort, relaxation, willingness, and compliance, I feel it is imperative to go back to basic ground work and build a stronger more complete foundation of trust, respect, and accepting us as their kind, gentle and yet assertive leader. Your horse is obviously not psychologically ready to be hitched and driven (in my opinion) since, “he is very nervous and becomes instantly wet with sweat…,” is not relaxed and comfortable starting out, and will turn inside out without a butt rope. A horse like this does not pass the ground work tests I require a horse to pass consistently and repeatedly before putting harness on and starting to ground drive, let alone being hitched and driven single or in a team. Passing these tests is important whether a horse is a youngster just starting training, or is an apparently well trained, well behaved, and experienced older horse. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this. Many if not most of the horses I see in harness could not pass the ground work tests I require.

At the risk of seeming self promoting I highly recommend that you work with your horse on the ground with the principles and techniques I explain and demonstrate in my Gentle Training – The Roundpen DVDs. When your horse can and will comfortably, repeatedly, consistently and willingly pass the ground tests demonstrated at the beginning of my DVD set Teaching Horses To Drive – A Ten Step Method, you will be ready to start through the 10 steps in the DVDs just as I do when first training a horse to drive.

Horses with holes in their foundation of trust, respect, accepting us as the leader (boss), and learning will never be truly comfortable, dependable, and safe to drive unless and until those gaps are addressed. Frank is not the way he is today naturally. I can guarantee you that his nervousness, anxiety, fears and reactivity when being handled and driven are man made. Approximately 90% of the relationship building and training I do with horses is accomplished on the ground without driving them – most of it without harness. Once we can get them to be consistently relaxed and comfortable, willing and responsive, compliant and respectful on the ground, we have a much better chance of consistently getting those same things in harness.

Anytime we notice psychological discomfort in a horse (impatience, confusion, anxiety, frustration, resistance, fear, etc.) before or during harnessing or hitching we need to work through those issues with ground work rather than proceed with harnessing and hitching. If we don’t have a comfortable, relaxed, cooperative horse as we work with them on the ground, why in the world would we expect to get it when we are driving them from behind where they cannot see us, read our body language, follow our lead, feel the gentle supportive stroke of a hand etc.?

If we are skillful with our hands on the lines and with our voice we can send very clear, specific, and appropriate communications to a horse when driving him single. However, when we start teaming horses up with a partner or partners our ability to be as clear, specific and appropriate for any given horse is diminished. This is because with typical line setups for teams of two or more a signal on any line is felt, and potentially affects more than just one horse. Beyond our words, the energy behind our voice is heard and reacted to (on some level) by all the horses. It is not as possible to do just the right thing at the right time for each horse in the hitch as when driving a single horse. Consequently when driven in multiples horses can more easily become confused, anxious, irritated, over stimulated, etc. (by messages not intended for them or not appropriate for them). Therefore, I am very quick to take a horse out of a team situation and drive them single in order to work through an issue involving their comfort and/or performance. If working them single does not produce the desired results fairly quickly, I quit driving them and do whatever ground work is necessary to help them become comfortable, relaxed, proficient, and safe – and therefore help them succeed rather than fail.

As humans (a predator species) it is completely natural for us to overwhelm horses with too much, too fast, too soon – then when they react with anxiety and fear we tend to lose our patience and become loud, threatening, forceful, and even hurt them. I am certain your horse has experienced this in some form in his past prior to coming to you. It is not natural or easy for us to remain emotionally neutral at all times, but I feel we must learn to do so when around horses – for their sake. We don’t know the extent of the traumas your horse experienced before you got him. I do know that you have the ability to learn to do things with him in ways that will help him overcome some, most, or perhaps all, of his issues with humans and with being driven – that is IF you are willing to learn and take whatever time, consistency, patience, baby steps and repetition are necessary to help him learn or re-learn to trust and be comfortable and relaxed in all situations on the ground and in harness. However, as you proceed, if you choose to do so with this particular horse, I caution you to consciously evaluate whether the process and results you are getting will lead to a truly workable situation for both you and Frank. I often share the following Pat Parelli quote, “80% of the people who attend my (Parelli) clinics have the wrong horse for them.” Most mature horses are physically capable of the work we ask them to do in harness. Unfortunately, far too many of the horses I see being driven and worked in harness are arguably not emotionally and psychologically prepared to do so – although the owners generally believe otherwise.

If your horse were simply being resistant and wanting his own way, my advice would be much different, however he is reacting the way he does out of fear. Until his fear is successfully dealt with he will not be a safe horse. As Dr. Robert M. Miller so often expresses, “Horses are physically strong and fast, but psychologically fragile.” As long as the traditional methods of horsemanship which employ intimidation, excessive force, pain and punishment continue to be used we will see horses that work out of fear of punishment, rather than out of desire to please their trusted companion and respected gentle leader.

Please let me know how I can help you help Frank come to feel safer, more confident, and bold in your hands. Thanks for reaching out for assistance. I hope this helps.

– Doc

Dear Doc,

You sent me a wonderful and helpful e-mail regarding “Frank,” a Belgian gelding with trust issues. I did as you suggested and used your videos and re-training techniques with good results but could never get Frank safely over his issues to where we trusted each other 100%. Frank was whooped on by pullers and it ruined him. Too many people get hurt thinking they can turn an animal around with love and treats. I was fortunate to have had an experienced teamster to help me with him. He is now a farm horse for the Amish which was really the only option for him.

In August I drove 2500 miles from Oregon to Indiana, hauling Frank and Quinn, and bought the team of Belgians I learned to drive on. Sold my other team (bye, bye Frank) and returned home after 5,000 miles! These boys are push button perfect! I have known this team for over two years before owning them. Rex & Red are both 12 yr old geldings.

I will be in Madras this year and hope to attend your work shop in Cottage Grove. I so want to meet you.

Thank you for your input, support and encouragement.


To me, Kimber is a good example of someone who diligently carried out an informed, appropriate, and rational approach to helping her horse overcome traumatic psychological issues from his past. Although she made significant progress with Frank, she ultimately realized and ACCEPTED that the levels of trust and safety she needed for what she dreamed of doing with a team were not realistically attainable for her with Frank. I admire her for ultimately recognizing her limitations and fulfilling her dream by making a better, safer choice. I’m sure she learned a lot and improved her horsemanship skills while working to rehabilitate Frank – and I’m sure he benefited from it. In addition to Frank her new team will benefit from what she learned as well. I can envision that the quiet routine and steady work of an Amish farm might just work out well for Frank too.

With appreciation for all the wonderful people and great horses I get to work with,

– Doc

Doc Hammill lives on a ranch in Montana. He and his partner Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness – through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and his horsemanship video series.