Ask A Teamster The Stick
Ask A Teamster The Stick
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Ask A Teamster: The Stick

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

Question: I recently acquired my first team of horses, Belgain mares 8 and 10 years old, and they are real sweethearts, well trained and dependable. I have learned from other team owners in my area, and driven their horses for several years before getting my own team, but still consider myself a beginner. One of my friends helped me pick out my mares and I’m very pleased with them in general. My concern is that while the mares drive and work calmly and willingly they have one habit that concerns me. When I back up and then release the lines to get them to stop they continue back for a few steps before stopping and don’t always stop together. Also, when we are stopped and just standing there they slowly begin to ease back, a little at a time, sometimes kind of jackknifing the wagon tongue. Telling them whoa in both of these situations works to stop them at times but not all the time. I’ve been taught not to use the lines to slap horses on the rump and am hesitant to use a whip or yell at them (which has been suggested to me) for fear of affecting their calm, relaxed attitude. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Carrie Torgeson, Wisconsin


It sounds like you’ve made some very good choices in getting started with draft horses. I commend you, first for being concerned about these seemingly minor infractions, and second for not wishing to jeopardize what your mares are doing well. If for no other reason, safety requires that our horses obey our commands to stop, and do so promptly. We can certainly have a wreck going backwards with horses, just as we can going forwards. Seemingly insignificant, little sloppinesses like you’ve described (and lots of others) have a way, sooner or later, of escalating into significant problems, or causing a wreck. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – is perhaps never more appropriate than when working with horses.

Like you, I was taught not to use the lines to hit horses on the rump. I discourage the practice, as do most of the good teamsters I know, except in an urgency/emergency when a better tool is not available. Used appropriately, the whip can be a satisfactory tool for correcting the backing problems you are having. However, I prefer to simply use a stick. The stick does not make whip noises (which upset some horses), it is easier for me to use, and, I feel, has other advantages over the whip. However, before we go further, let me make some general comments about using such tools as aids.

We have a seemingly endless variety of equipment and tools available to us for rigging up horses to work, and for training and/or “tuning them up”. The halter and lead rope are two of the most basic and universal. Halters, leads, collars, harness, bits, lines, single trees, eveners, and neck yokes are all standard equipment necessary for working draft horses and mules (bits and lines sometimes being exceptions – ie. in big hitches and for lineless log skidding wizards like our friend Peter A.) Perhaps my appreciation for, and use of, certain other aids comes from apprenticing under oldtime, western horsemen who, in days past, needed physical advantages over tough, wild broncs fresh off the range. It was generally an advantage if such aids neither hurt nor further upset these frightened, untrusting horses. Some of my favorites are gunny sack hobbles; the jockey stick; butt rope; buck back strap/rope; a 52 inch bat (whiplike with a 3 inch wide, flat, leather end rather than a lash), and the aforementioned stick.

Like all tools, equipment and techniques (including our voices) these aids can be used to advantage in kind, considerate, appropriate ways; or to disadvantage in harsh, inconsiderate, and abusive (or even dangerous) ways. In my opinion, the attitude and intent with which we approach and work with our horses, and use equipment and/or techniques on them, is of utmost importance. In response to the question, “What is the most important thing you look for in a horse?”, equine veterinarian and horse and mule expert, Dr. John Seimens, unhesitatingly answered. “Attitude” (at the 2001 SFJ Auction and Swap Meet Horse Soundness Clinic). Others of us were in complete agreement with John. To me, attitude is also of utmost importance in the teamsters. And if horses could choose their teamsters I’ll bet attitude would be their priority as well.

The Stick

The training/tune-up stick that I use is about 1″ in diameter and 5 to 6 feet long (longer as needed for driving hitched where you are further from the horses). Hardwood is best, but most any wood will do. I generally smooth it up a bit and round the ends to make them blunt. In a pinch, I’ve climbed off the wagon and picked up, or cut, some pretty crooked, sorry looking makeshift sticks.

There are several reasons I prefer my stick over a whip. I can do everything with the stick that I would want to do with a whip, plus more. The whip, being flexible, does not produce the solid feeling boundary that I can establish and enforce with my stick. For me, the stick is easier to use and control. Also, it doesn’t have a lash flopping around in a tickling, upsetting, or noisy manner at inopportune times. They are easily made and the wood is inexpensive if not free. For convenience you can have several.

Sense of touch is considered the horse’s most acute faculty. It has been said that real communication is established between human and horse principally through touch. The stick is used as an extension of our hand to communicate with our horses through the power of touch. With it we can easily extend our reach when working with them at any time – on the lead, in a tie stall, before and after driving, and while ground driving or hitched, etc. etc.. As time and the learning process go on it seems I use my voice less, and use touch more, when working with horses.

I not only like the fact that the stick can be used to silently clarify, enhance, reinforce or enforce verbal requests, but also that it can be used instead of a verbal message. This enables us to communicate with one horse in a team and not affect the other(s). Using the stick (or other aids) silently can also reduce the frequency of our verbal requests/commands/reprimands, so that we aren’t nagging at our horses too much. When the stick is used silently, horses don’t necessarily associate what it does to them with us. This can be an advantage. Perhaps in their minds – “When I stepped back (unasked) did I carelessly back myself into something, or did Carrie poke me in the rear? No, it wasn’t her. She didn’t even move or say anything to me. Whatever I hit was hard, it surprised me, and made me a little uncomfortable. I was fine when I stepped back up, so I think I’ll stay here and rely on Carrie to direct me. When she asks me to back up I can trust that there’s nothing there that I’ll back into”. Of course I don’t really know if a horse’s thought processes work like this, but their reactions are often consistent with this scenario. In any case, they have nothing to blame on us if we are silent and inconspicuous with our use of the stick (or other tools).

Ask A Teamster The Stick
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General Considerations When Using the Stick

Horses must be comfortable with the stick. Use it with a good, positive attitude and intent to enhance cooperation, rather than with the attitude of forcing the horse or punishing her. Never use it harshly to hit or cause pain, but rather as a clear signal.

  • For the horse to move (and in what direction)
  • For the horse to not move
  • To get the horse’s attention
  • To establish and enforce definite boundaries
  • And especially, to reward and comfort with rubbing motions

I try to rub a horse with it as a caress or reward much more of the time than I use it to tap or poke. That way the stick will be regarded as a safe, comfortable, positive object by the horse.

Use the stick with the intent of giving horses the information they need to clearly understand what you would like them to do for you. And, use it with a kind and patient attitude. Practice handling and using your stick in a graceful, relaxed, inconspicuous way. It should move like a part of you.

Like many of our tools with horses the stick is often used with the pressure/release principle. We apply pressure to the horse with the stick, the horse moves away from the pressure (stick), and the pressure is gone (released). Remember that horses tend to move away from intermittent pressure, but tend to push against steady pressure.

Often one tap or poke doesn’t produce the response we need from the horse, so a second or third application may be necessary to get the message through and produce the desired response. Repeat the tap or poke after giving the horse just a second to process what happened. Generally I increase the force of each consecutive tap/poke to send a stronger, clearer message. By slightly increasing the force with each consecutive application the horse chooses how much to put up with before moving away from the pressure. However, read your horse, if she doesn’t respond to a first tap but seems willing and inclined to respond, a lighter second tap may ease her into compliance, whereas a harder one might seem like punishment for thinking about it. However, if she has a resistant attitude, it may take the firmer second tap. If she’s confused beyond responding, pause and let her calm a bit, then start over. Ideally, we patiently apply the stimulus, with appropriate adjustments based on her response, and remove the stimulus or interrupt it as a reward. All with just the right timing. Timing is critical. Allow time for association and learning – but don’t miss appropriate opportunities to urge her onward. Sometimes when a horse cannot or will not respond favorably to a certain technique, we need to find another method to get through to them.

Horses like consistency. It makes them comfortable. If we are inconsistent in how we ask them for something, or what we expect of them, or if we change the rules from day to day, etc., we cannot expect them to perform consistently for us. Sloppy teamsters = sloppy horses.

Using the Stick to Enforce Whoa When Backing Up

All horses should be taught to stop promptly, on command, when backing up just as they are when moving forward. It is our job to communicate clearly to the horse(s) when we want them to stop by giving a verbal command, and also by releasing the pressure on the lines just a split second before we give that command to whoa. Releasing the line pressure prewarns the horse(s) of our intent to stop by removing the pressure they are backing away from The definite verbal whoa command gives them a clear message to stop, and exactly when to do so. It’s sloppy communication to simply release the line pressure and let them assume they should stop (or not) without the command.

The stick is a hand tool to assist us in clearly communicating with the horse(s) during backing up maneuvers. To teach or enforce prompt stops when backing, the stick is used by simply tapping the horse on the rump lightly, or giving a gentle poke in the rump (photo #1). If necessary, you can use it on both horses almost simultaneously by quickly touching one, then the other. Time your physical message from the stick so that it is felt a fraction of a second after your verbal whoa. Most horses very quickly learn to stop promptly on the whoa, and the reinforcement from the stick soon becomes unnecessary. Whenever they stop promptly on whoa, it is unnecessary to use the stick to tap or poke, but it’s the perfect opportunity to reward them – by rubbing it on their rumps or hips. Pause briefly after they stop to let them settle and realize it’s okay to stand there, before telling them how great they did and rewarding them with the rub/caress/scratch.

In cases where the horse does not stop on the first tap or poke, a second or third poke or tap will be necessary to teach or reinforce the stop. I typically increase the force used (within reason) with each successive poke or tap of the stick. This gives the horse a clearer and stronger message in the hope that he will recognize the growing consequences of backing up, and make the choice to stop. Don’t make the common beginners mistake of tightening the lines unconsciously, in an effort to stop the horse, when something goes amiss when backing. To do so is forcing the horse(s) back, and trying to stop the backing, at the same time – confusing for the horses and justification for them to blow up and have a wreck.

When you tap or poke to reinforce the stop when backing, be prepared for the horse or team to try to start out forward in response to the poke. If this occurs, a forward boundary should be artfully set and enforced with the lines, and if necessary a verbal whoa. Once stopped the stick can be used in it’s rubbing/caressing mode on the rump(s) or hip(s) to reward the performance and relax your companion(s).

Using the Stick to Prevent Creeping Back When Stopped

It’s common for horses when stopped and standing, to lean back against the breeching and sooner or later take a step back, and then another, etc. The effect of this creeping backwards is to eventually move what they are hitched to backwards (sometimes jackknifing as you described), or to back over the single tree if it’s on the ground behind them. This can easily become a wreck in the making. So, as good teamsters, it’s our job to nip creeping back in the bud, and thus prevent problems. Once again the stick works beautifully. Simply place the end of the stick about an inch from the rear of the potential violator’s rump – just above the breeching (photo #2). Hold it firmly there without touching the animal. If the horse moves back at all he contacts the solid, unyielding stick, usually recognizing and respecting the boundary. If he steps back in spite of the pressure, he has earned a poke forward to his original position, where he is left alone and finds comfort again. If, however, he tries moving out forward in response to the poke, a forward boundary should be artfully set and enforced with the lines. In instances where a horse is too impatient or upset to stay in one spot, don’t force the issue to the point of tormenting him excessively or causing a wreck – move out forward and come back to this lesson at a more appropriate time, and/or in a more controlled setting.

Ask A Teamster The Stick
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Other Uses For The Stick

1. Training To Accept Being Touched: The stick is a wonderful tool to use for getting untrusting horses to accept having all parts of their body touched and handled. Young frightened horses can very quickly be desensitized to being touched this way. Use it gently but firmly – don’t be tentative and merely tickle them, or make it seem like the stick is stalking them. Use advance and retreat by first rubbing an area where they are comfortable being touched (or relatively so) like the withers. As they relax and accept the touch, extend the area down the back and up the neck. Before they become too uncomfortable work the stick back to the withers, or as you progress, to the nearest comfort zone. Move into new areas gradually and patiently, retreating and advancing based on their response. Don’t neglect the head, ears, muzzle, sheath/udder, etc. A word of caution – the stick can become a missile when kicked or whipped around in some violent way by the horse. Be careful and avoid situations where this could happen. A safer choice is to use water from a hose on the feet, legs, and underparts of a horse that reacts violently to being touched there. The 52 inch bat that I mentioned earlier is a good tool to graduate to from the hose. It is more flexible than a stick and less apt to cause damage if it becomes airborne.

2. Getting The Horses Attention: A light touch on the rump with the stick is a great way of getting a horse’s attention. It can be done silently during infractions such as rubbing their head on their teammate (dangerous because the bridle can become hung up or rubbed off) or any number of other slips into unconsciousness. We tap them with the stick and when they quit rubbing to see, “what was that,” it gives us the opportunity to reward them for giving us their attention and having stopped doing the unacceptable whatever-it-was. An immediate “good boy/girl,” and a caress with the stick has been earned. We are thus able to reward them for correct behavior rather than punish for the infraction. An even more subtle wake up call can be given by simply laying the stick on them or starting to rub them with the stick to distract them from something, or to capture their attention (preparatory to asking them to start up forward, for example).

3. Setting Boundaries: We’ve already seen an example of this in creeping back, where we set a boundary to the rear with the stick. When leading horses that try to crowd us, step on our heels, pass us, bump us with their head, etc., the stick can be used to protect our space and keep them in the desired position relative to us. The stick can set and enforce boundaries either visually or physically. Held out horizontally from our side it acts as a visual barrier to a horse wanting to go past us on that side. Moved up and down, or towards the horse it becomes a stronger visual deterrent. This is usually enough to show a horse the boundaries. However, if the horse ignores the visual barrier nature of the moving stick we can cause it to tap him on the chest as he moves into its path – avoid contact with the head, but send a clear physical message via the chest that the boundary is real and to be respected. My preferred alternative to the stick in this leading a horse situation, is to use the end of the halter rope, swinging or flipping it to create a visual barrier – or to make a physical contact if necessary. Horses use their tails in this exact manner to warn off another horse that’s tailgating or trying to pass. The halter rope becomes our tail and we communicate with it calmly and silently in their language. The best part is that whenever we are leading a horse the tool we need is right there in the form of the lead rope.

Ask A Teamster The Stick
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4. Get Over: The stick works very nicely to teach a horse to “get over” right or left with their rear end. This comes in handy when we are at their head and need the rear end moved sideways, ie. when a team is put over the tongue to hitch and one or both swing their rear end away from the tongue (photos #3 and 4). My first preference, however, is to use a butt rope to prevent their rears from swinging out away from the tongue in the first place (and also from swinging out when backing, especially when ground driving). But that’s a story for another time. By pressing the end of the stick against a shoulder we can encourage a horse to move their front end to one side or the other. Remember to use a pattern of pressure-release, pressure-release, etc.

5. Teach to back up: It’s not particularly easy for horses to back up. Given a choice they will generally turn around to go back. When teaching horses to back up on command it is important that we make them feel safe and comfortable doing so. I recommend not pushing a horse’s chest or shoulder with your hand when teaching it to back on the lead. That could become confusing (or inadvertently teach the horse to back up) when he feels the pressure of a load via the collar. I prefer to use my stick or the handle end of my bat (the handled end of a whip also works). Try intermittently tapping or poking on the lower chest or upper legs while using pressure-release on the halter or bit, and giving the verbal “back.” My choice of sequence is to say “back” followed by pressure on the halter or bit, and then use the stick tap or poke last, if it’s necessary at all. This sequence is repeated slowly for each step backwards. If you want horses that are comfortable and confident when backing up, don’t rush them, and stop them momentarily every few steps to let them relax and regroup, before continuing.

While considering and using various techniques, equipment and gadgets, remember – some of our most powerful tools with horses are not physical or verbal, but the powers of our energy, intention, attention and attitude. Visualize what you want from your horses, fully expect that they will perform as you wish, set your intent for things to go perfectly. Don’t draw problems to you and your partners by putting energy into fretting, worrying or fearing.

Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series.