Beginnings: Arrogance – Ignorance
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Its been a long time ago now, from 50 to 55 years or so, back when I felt myself drawn to each and every image I ever came across of horses or mules working in harness. Didn’t know why. I was a city kid with no immediate background in the stuff. But the attraction was very strong and central to an overarching dream of someday having my own old-fashioned, general farm. Back in the fifties and early sixties, in urban centers, the conventional wisdom had it that agriculture had grown up for good and all. The industrialization of farming with its concomitant chemistry and heavy metal disease (big machinery) was, back then, already fashioning a base for today’s genetic engineering and cyber nonsense. Way back then anyone who expressed an interest, let alone a preference, for the old farm was branded as “backwards” and “sentimental.”
I was a kid and had no ammo to argue for my dreams. So I didn’t. Instead I just allowed myself to be carried away privately, secretly, each and every time an image tugged at me. Those images, big barns with open hay mow doors, rows of pruned fruit trees, a line of Jersey cows coming in at dusk to be milked, chickens pecking at proffered grains, sheep clustered ‘neath a tree for shade, grain fields wafting in the breeze, freshly turned earth steaming midmorning, old tractors popping along, all of it, any of it, took me some place I didn’t know, yet… it was some place quite familiar. It was like I carried around with me some sort of genetic memory of farming from days gone by. Sights would take me there, smells also and sometimes even sounds. And the one category of those things that had the strongest draw for me was any view of working horses or mules. They didn’t have to be moving, they could just stand there patiently, wearing the harness like a suit of utilitarian armor. Sure, the images of four horses at a gallop pulling a western stage coach, one guy on the high seat handling the lines, that was exciting. But, with time, that didn’t thrill me as much as the view of two horses pulling a walking plow with precision, or four horses walking side by side pulling a harrow across the plowed ground, or a big gelding skidding a log through the forest. And in each and every case someone, a teamster, was in careful attendance. A little later in life when I took up cowboying I had a tactile sense of what it meant to sit astride a horse and subtly get it to move the way I wanted. (I also had plenty of experiences when it didn’t work and the errant horse beat me up.) But in those early years I couldn’t quite figure out how a mere mortal, back behind the harnessed animals with just some leather straps in hand, could control the animals speed and direction. It didn’t bother me much, because back then I honestly didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to actually try to work horses myself.
Early seventies, I was managing a sheep and cattle operation in coastal Oregon on a farm that had a lot of christmas trees, not the carefully cultivated type, rather the volunteer Douglas firs that grew all over the hill pastures. They were uniform and of the perfect size. The owners wanted them removed and I got the idea that I could sell them to the holiday trade. But there was a challenge. In the winter time it rained constantly and those hillsides were mud waiting to happen. Neither the little Ford 8N tractor nor my pickup could make it up those hillside roads to retrieve the trees. So, for reasons I still don’t understand, I got it in my skull that if I had a team of draft horses I could go up and down those hills with loads of christmas trees. Long story shortened, my then boss loaned me the money and I went to a liquidation auction and bought two Belgian mares, both well broke. The seller threw in an old harness and collars. I was set, or at least I thought I was.
At that point in my life, I was in my twenties, I was riding an excellent cutting horse to separate cows for breeding artificially. Doing that work spring and fall and pretty regular. I figured if I could do that I could probably handle something as simple as driving a team. I had paid attention and thought I knew the system. It was Thanksgiving weekend. I had butchered one of my own geese for supper (it was in the oven) and was feeling particularly handy so I decided to harness up the girls and hitch them to a flat sled. I had no help and figured I didn’t need any. Got the horses outfitted and led them out to stand in front of the double-tree (no tongue on the sled). Then I rigged up the driving lines how I had seen it done and hooked the trace chains to the single trees. The horses stood perfectly still for the whole time. Then I stepped onto the sled and slapped the lines while hollering “Hyah,” like some idiot on television. The mares jumped ahead, at first hesitant, but with enough surprise to throw me off the sled. I dropped the lines and the mares broke into a run.
I ran after them yelling whoa, as if I had some reason to believe that would accomplish anything. It was a small three acre triangular pasture with steel posts and woven wire fencing topped with a single strand of barb wire. They ran towards a corner trying to slow down but every time they did the sled and evener would hit them in the heels and off they’d go again. I could feel a sharp pulsing pressure of fear and terror not just inside of me but in the air as well. They turned but the dynamics of the trailing sled pushed Queenie into the fence and then through it so that for fifty feet they straddled the fence popping and bending posts and getting tangled in the wire. Finally Goldie was tripped by the wire tangle around her pasterns, she went down and rolled to her back. Queenie stopped and stood shaking. I ran to them. The sight of the two of them that way drove me to tears. Still stupid, I methodically unwrapped the fence wire from Goldie. It took some time, luckily I had a pair of pliers with me to cut the tighter wraps. Goldie laid perfectly still, completely drained of strength, in a heightened state of shock, and watched me working. Queenie stood quietly. Must have taken over a half hour to get everything undone. I led the mares to their stalls in the barn and pulled the busted harness off them.
Had I been duped? Had I been sold a bad pair of horses? Something, right then, told me no. Maybe it was the incredible patience these two had to not fight the tangle and stand allowing me to free them from the wire. These were good mares. The problem was me. The problem was that I had no idea how uninformed I was. I remember asking myself, over and over again, “What have I done, What have I done?” I could not figure out what went wrong. Now of course I can look back and see all the problems, but then I was clueless.
I had heard about a local man, Howard Steele, who had a team of Belgians he used in pulling matches. He was a bit of a legend in those parts. I learned much later it was a positive, earned reputation because Howard was enormously successful at pulling and he did it quietly, purposefully and without any outside help, or swampers as they are called (people who held the horses and did the actual hooking to the eveners). He hooked his horses, Rube and Champ, himself. He spoke softly to them, he assured them and set as his insistence that they remain calm.
I went to see him at his small farm. I introduced myself and told him, in as much detail as I could recall and understand, just what had happened. I asked him if he could help me. He drew a diagram and told me to go home and build a tongue for the sled PRECISELY as he drew it.
Later, when Howard came to my place he said, “I want you to do exactly what you did before. I want to watch you harness and hitch those horses.”
“But,” I interrupted, “they’ll just run again…”
“Just do what I ask.”
So I set out to do just that. I had the team tied to a hitching rail and harnessed and was rigging the driving lines when he stopped me.
“Stop right there, I can’t take any more of this. Just stop right there. What on earth are you doing?” he said in an angry voice. He came forward and started unsnapping, twisting, flipping and moving harness parts and lines.
I asked, “Why are you doing that?”
He stopped and turned to glare at me, “You’ve got no right to have horses like this. YOU will never make a teamster. I’m not doing this for you. These horses need to be ‘unwound’ from that wreck. I’m going to fix this mess and drive them. You can watch if you want but don’t bother me with your stupid questions. Just stay out of our way.”
Struck dumb, or should I say dumber, I lit a cigarette and stood up against the shed wall and watched feeling humiliated and a little angry. Within minutes Howard had rearranged the harness and lines. Then he untied the team from the rail and walked behind with the lines. Speaking firmly but quietly he had them step ahead and with two attempts got them to drive over the new tongue in position to hitch. Lines off to the side, he went forward and hooked the new neckyoke then walked back, picking up the lines, and quietly hooked the trace chains to the single trees. The mares stood still but they were starting to twitch. It was easy to see they were nervous. Howard stepped on to the sled and, holding the lines still and with no slack, he spoke to them to go. They stood still. He pulled the lines back just a little then gave some slack and used a more forceful and surprising tone to his voice. The mares stepped ahead and when they heard the sled runners on the gravel they dropped their hips as though to lunge forward. My heart jumped. Howard stayed calm, standing on the sled, and pulled back on the lines just a little while quietly saying “steady”. The mares danced a couple of steps and then settled into a perfect walk. The man, team and sled went off down the farm road while I trotted behind with a mixture of thrill and dread.
Everything went smooth, smooth enough for me to ask Howard, “Can I drive them now?” he glared over his shoulder at me and shook his head no. He drove the mares for about a quarter of a mile on the sled, returning to where he had hitched. Stepping off the sled, lines in hand, he set to unhitching while he said, “I’m going to unhitch this team and then this is what you are going to do. You are going to promise me that you never again try to hook these good mares. Anybody knows that cigarette smells and horses do not mix. You are going to sell this team and this harness and thank your lucky stars you or they aren’t dead because of your arrogance and stupidity.”
In retrospect I understand now the core of Howard’s lesson, tough as it was to swallow. I did not make that promise to him and to my credit I went far and wide in search of instruction and successfully put those good mares to years of work. As for that first time hitching I believe, in my stupidity and ignorance, that I had the team lines backwards, the hames hooked so loose that they popped out of the collar groove which had the bottom hame strap choking the horses, the quarter straps snapped into the trace chains, and heaven knows what other mess-ups. The sled runners were steel and, without a tongue to work as a backing and breaking system, they ran easily on the wet pasture grass causing the sled to slide up into the back legs of the horses when they would try to slow or stop. Slapping the lines and yelling is no way to start a team of horses let alone a working relationship.
Smells are associative. It was simplistic to say that a smoker couldn’t be a teamster. I quit smoking in 1985. I worked horses successfully before and after that without noticing any adverse reaction from the horses. My mentor, the exceptional teamster Ray Drongesen, was never without a cigar in his mouth. But this is not an attempt to take anything away from the excellent Howard Steele. He had and has a system, a set of rules and rituals that served him well. He stuck to them, all of them, and they made him what he is.
I might add that I too stuck to my ‘guns’ and never gave up on my desire to learn the craft and earn the right to be called a teamster. It took a long time and many knocks and it remains one of my proudest achievements. Learning to work horses is akin to learning a new language or how to master a musical instrument, it requires real dedication and a long commitment. Learning to work horses shapes a person, permanently.