Bob Anderson: As One Horseman Sees It
by Kathleen Suits-Smith
In the span of his seventy years, Bob Anderson has pretty much done it all, and I daresay done it all pretty well. He spent fourteen years dairy farming on his own, and during his youth he was raised by an uncle who took contracts to draw heavy loads with teams of horses and spans of mules, so Bob saw and worked with a lot of teams himself. He can remember mornings when he would see twenty teams and drivers leaving the barn, and says that he owes a good deal of his horse sense to the way that he was brought up. Over the years he has trained innumerable horses, during the past decade he has started judging draft horse shows, and he remains a showman himself. Overall, Bob has the credentials of a teamster, trainer, judge, and it certainly seems, a gentleman. Here in central NYS, if you hear someone who has a problem with horses, the advice that is usually meted out is, “Go talk to Bob Anderson.” I’d like to share the opportunities I had to talk with Bob at various times one summer.
Bob and Norma, his wife of forty-eight years, live near West Edmeston, NY, in a wood-sided, ranch-style home set back off the road, like a quiet honeymoon retreat. The long driveway is flanked on the left by well-kept gardens and lawns, and on the right by various horse-drawn implements, a red barn, and three horses. M & M Snowcloud II, or “Mach” as he is called, an eighteen-year-old, retired Appaloosa show horse, resides there with Duke and Dutchess, Bob’s draft team. Duke and Dutch, Belgians with a bit of Welsh pony in their heritage, weigh in around 1400 pounds apiece, and are one of Bob’s many success stories. They were two and three years old when he bought them, and they were beginning to become runaways. Their previous owner had been injured because of their running, not permanently; but they’d run three times. Bob’s interest was whetted; all he needed, it seems, was a challenge to encourage him to buy this team and he had it. Bob brought Duke and Dutch home, worked with them on the concept of “Whoa”, and then started drawing firewood. All went well until one day when Bob had unloaded about half of the load and the team took off. Luckily, he had long lines on them, and was able to grab the ends and roll onto the sleigh as the horses were getting really underway. Since it was winter it was Bob’s good fortune to be able to turn them into a big snow bank, and after he was sure that they had stopped floundering around and weren’t going to be able to go anywhere, he walked away and left them. And leave them he did, from mid-morning until about chore time that afternoon. Then he shoveled them out, and they haven’t run away since. This sort of punishment is what Bob seems to build his training programs with. He full well realizes that a horse is a whole lot bigger than he is and could win in any test of brawn, but he also realizes that he’s a whole lot smarter than the horse is and he should win in any test of brain power. Though Bob does not spare the rod, or spoil the child, so to speak when the occasion calls for the horsewhip, he prefers to outsmart the horse and show him that there is no profit in a bad behavior, but there is praise in a good behavior. The horsewhip, for example, is about the only way that Bob has ever used to break a horse of kicking in harness. He simply wears the horse out. Everytime the horse kicks, he gets a liberally applied dose of the horsewhip, until he realizes that kicking and getting a whipping go together and the kicking should stop. But there’s a knack to using the whip or you can spoil the horse according to Bob, “You can’t just nick at the horse or after a while it doesn’t mean a thing. If you’re going to use the whip then you have to really use it. I’d rather see someone give a horse one good blast with the whip than I would see them give the horse a whole bunch of nicks. It means more and gets the message across a lot faster.” Another point that seems to be a cornerstone of Bob’s horsetraining is that the horse cannot be punished for something that he hasn’t been taught. “I would rather think that the horse should be punished for not doing what he has been taught to do, than for something that he hasn’t had a chance to learn yet.” It seems to Bob that the punishment should fit the crime and that a horse should never be punished for something that he hasn’t done yet. Another point of Bob’s philosophy of working with horses is that no one can teach a tired or hungry horse anything. If the horse isn’t well cared for and is overworked then there is no more hope of trying to teach him anything, than there would be of trying to teach a tired and hungry child. “There are no shortcuts to having a real finished horse. It takes time and patience. If I ever feel myself losing my temper, I tie the horse up and go away for a while until I’ve gathered up some more patience again.”
Bob Anderson sees a lot of horses and a lot of drivers through his showing, his judging, and his spectating at various draft horse events. If he is asked a question he will address it to the best of his ability, but if it’s a question that will clearly call for an opinion, he’s careful to preface his comments with, “‘Course this is just one man’s opinion, but …” ‘ and he goes on to give his answer. This is the way that he operates as a judge and the way that he operates as an advisor, unless of course, it’s a question of actual procedure with a team – a question about how to do a certain hitch, or how to avoid a bad situation. Privately, however, Bob freely admits to having much more patience with animals than he does with people, “It seems that people will often argue with you even when you answer to the best of your ability; an animal seems to be more accepting of what is said and done to them, and they seem to know when you’re giving it your best try.”
Many of my conversations with Bob over this summer seem to have boiled down to a sequence of bits of information (I affectionately think of them as Robert’s Rules of Horsemanship), and I would like to share them with the reader in just this way, in hope that the advice that Bob has to offer will help some of you who are currently involved with draft horses or who are wishing to become involved with them in the future.
“Stand off beside a relaxed horse and look for his good points.” Bob cites a good horse as having the following characteristics and he would hold these pretty much consistent in every situation that might be considered – showing, farming, pleasure, etc. “You should see a broad head, and a good eye; look for good roundness over the croup; some people say that the backend of a horse should have about the same contour as a coin. Look for good feet and legs. If they aren’t right to start with, they won’t get any better. It’s just my opinion, but I like to see a long, tapered neck, clean throat latch, and a relatively small head. It’s not different really for a show horse except that you should look for a horse that is up-headed, with lots of natural action in the feet. The horse should drive up on the bit, and maybe be a little tender-mouthed so that you don’t have to pull your arms off. In a farm horse, and I’m thinking of sustained pulling situations and everyday work, you don’t want a horse that is too tall because you have to put that harness on everyday. I would say 1600 pounds would be the tops in weight because a horse heavier than that don’t tend to work well on loose ground. If you can judge a horse’s teeth, be sure to look in his mouth. You should be looking for a good round foot where the coronet band is roughly half the size of the foot where it meets the ground. The slope of the pastern should have about the same slope as a well-cut foot. The horse should have a good, white chest, with the legs set squarely on the outside. If you’re a greenhorn, you don’t want a horse that’s less than twelve and if you’re knowledgeable, you don’t want a horse that’s over four.” Bob went on to discuss harness, “If you can afford to buy the horse, then you should be able to buy the harness. Don’t buy old harness that’s been laying around; if you don’t know leather you can really get some bad stuff, and bad harness is an easy way for people and horses to get hurt.”
The best advice that Bob feels he can give is, “Be honest with the buyer. If there’s something about the horse that the buyer should know, tell him.” Bob freely admits that he’s never been able to “dicker,” and he doesn’t have enough confidence in himself to be able to sell, but he feels that he’s always, “come out pretty much o.k. buying.”
“Keep a lot of patience and self-control, and take time with the horse. There’s so much satisfaction in taking a horse off of the trailer and then in six weeks or two months, to load him back on for the owner and know how much he’s learned. When I’m breaking green horses, I work with them two or three times a day, even harnessing and hitching them that many times everyday. Before I ever harness them I work the horses single, at halter, on the concept of ‘Whoa’ and ‘Back’ for about three days right in the alley in the barn. Then I drive them about 100 feet. They won’t go straight when you first start. Then I couple the two together for two or three days, and then I hook them on a wagon or sleigh. They may kind of go their own way, but they go at my speed. When I’m working with the horses single, I like to work with them for an hour in the morning and then an hour in the afternoon. I cross-tie them in the barn and walk away from them, and I leave them for a halfhour, or even an hour, just so they know that they need to stand. I never try to work with a tired horse, or a hungry horse. This has worked well with many horses over the years. Another thing that I ought to mention, I guess, is that I never put a harness on without running a currycomb over the horse. This cleans up the horse and brings out a shine in their coat. It also draws the driver’s attention to anything that might be starting to happen, like any soreness that could be developing.”
“Before you go into the ring, get your horse sharp; wake ’em up. Unless you’re told different, come in at a brisk trot. Don’t ever forget that first impressions count a lot so try to make your point early. I always look for the person who is doing it the easiest and seems to be enjoying themselves the most. If it’s a halter class, the judge is looking for near perfect conformation; a horse that is free of faults. I don’t think that a judge can really take off for a blemish unless it detracts from the entire appearance of the horse. If you look at the horse and the first thing that you notice is a long scar down the whole side of him, then I think that it does ruin the appearance of the horse and it should knock him down a placing. You can get into a long discussion of the difference between a blemish and a fault. I’d say that the difference lies in whether or not the horse’s ability to move and be useful is impaired. A blemish doesn’t ruin a horse’s abilities, but a fault does. It can get down to a real value judgement. A fault can become a blemish, say, after it has healed and the horse is no longer lame or sore. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who brings a blind horse into the ring is a damn cheat and should be excused immediately. When I’m judging the hitch classes, I’m looking to see how controllable the horse is, and if the driver looks as if he, or she, is having any fun. It’s a pleasure to drive a good horse and the driver should show that. I’m looking for a relaxed, but not a sleepy horse, that is up on the bit. I guess it comes down to who can drive his or her horse the best and the easiest. If you’re going to show horses, then you’d better be prepared to go into the ring and gracefully accept the judge’s opinion, or you’d better not go in at all. I’d say that the one thing that turns me off to an entry immediately is if the driver comes in and starts making excuses, or reminding me of sometime that I’ve shortchanged them, at least in their opinion, before.” As a judge, Bob is decisive, yet he leaves room for other people to express their opinions later to him. This was evident this year when Bob Anderson was judging the open draft horse show at Ballston Spa, NY in Saratoga County and was faced with a class of Norwegian Fjord Horses. He publicly admitted that he had never seen a Fjord before, let alone been asked to judge any, but he had read and heard a lot about them. He told the crowd, “I’ve never seen any before, and I’m hoping not to make a misjudgement. If anybody wants to come back later and straighten out my thinking, I’d sure like to hear from them.” He placed the class according to what he did know of the breed characteristics, and of what he has always thought a good horse should be, and there were no repercussions. According to Bob, about all a person can do to prepare for situations like this is to “read everything that you can get your hands on, look at all the pictures that you possibly can, and above all, be honest and listen to any sincere comments after the class.”
“A judge should have no friends because it needs to be an honest opinion. Give ’em an honest day’s work because that’s what you’re getting paid for. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be in there. My big objection to the way draft horse judging is done is that there’s nothing written down. Every judge is different. There should be some basic rules that are consistent for every show. The way that it is now, it winds up being just one man’s opinion.”
“Before you start, look your harness over to make sure that something isn’t going to break. Check your lines and traces in particular to make sure that you don’t hurt the horses and the horses don’t hurt you. Always look to the footing for yourself and the horses. I always carry an axe to get rid of the heavy brush.” Though Bob seems to be the pillar of calmness in most situations with his horses, he did have an incident in the woods that he admits shook him worse than he has been in “a good many years” that occurred with Duke and Dutchess about five years ago. “I was logging for some neighbors near here with Duke and Dutch, and Dutch came upon some roots and her whole front end seemed to drop down into them. She couldn’t get up and I couldn’t move the roots to get her out. After I was sure that she was going to wait without floundering around, I went to get my chainsaw which wasn’t too far away. The only way that I could think of to get her out was to cut away on some of those roots, but I was so afraid that she was going to start moving around with me sawing so near her that I would accidentally saw into one of her legs. I cut away enough to get Dutch out and I drove them out of the woods and didn’t go back. That shook me up about as much as anything has with horses in an awful long time.”
“Even if you have to have somebody lead your horses to make your first furrow, or I suppose have somebody make it with a tractor if one is around, do it that way until you have a least one furrow to use as a guide. Then unhitch your horses and just drive them back and forth a few times until they get the hang of one walking in the furrow and the other walking on the sod. Then you can hitch and start plowing.”
“Be damn careful not to get off with the mower in gear! Make sure that the sickle is sharp, but that you don’t have serated sections because it’ll pull too hard for the horses.”
“Always make sure that you stay behind your horses. You walk behind the drag so you always have control. Never let your lines go dead slack ’cause you’ll have no control, and the horses will continue to turn and go into the drag. There’s nothing worse than getting a horse right into a drag.”
“Be awful sure of your horses, and watch little kids because they aren’t always aware of what might happen.”
“If you watch a horse in pasture, he doesn’t very often back up, so I don’t think that backing is really a natural movement for a horse. They need to be taught to back at halter first, and the way that I go about doing this is to just look straight in the horse’s eyes, say ‘Back,’ and poke him in the shoulder with my finger or a stick. You have to teach a horse to back, first, and then to turn while he’s backing afterwards. If you have a horse or a team of horses that doesn’t want to back up a wagon, you can start by heading them up a little slope, just inclined enough so that you’re sure that the wagon will pull back a little, and stop your horses. Just as the wagon is pulling back, you anticipate that the horses will want to step back, too, and you say ‘Back.’ They may only go a couple of steps, but the next time, try to get them to back further, and before you know it, if you keep practicing, you’ll have them backing up the hill if you want them to. The thing that you have to remember again is to be patient.”
“To teach a horse to pull, you have to start with a very little weight and keep adding to it, a little at a time. The thing to remember is to never make a bawky horse, and you can do this very easily if you make the load too heavy too soon. Another thing to remember if you’re working with a young horse, is to never overtire him. A two-year-old has bones that are still soft, and they can be sweenied easily but a four-year-old will be able to take quite a lot.”
“The mistake that many people make when they’re trying to load their horses is that they get out at the end of the halter rope and then they turn around and face the horse. This only gets them into a tug of war, and the horse is going to win if it’s a question of sheer power. The way that I’ve been most successful loading is to walk with the horse into the trailer, with me heading the same way as the horse.”
“There’s a lot of knowledge floating around and people should take advantage of it. There aren’t many good horsemen who wouldn’t help a newcomer, so it just amazes me that people won’t ask for advice. You see some newcomers who can quote out of any book, but they’re what I call one-line drivers. They can’t balance things out. When they go to turn to the right, they don’t realize that they have to steady the horse with the left line. There are an awful lot of drivers around who aren’t experienced enough to make a good horse look even mediocre. Lots of times I see horses who know more than the people driving. Some people should never own a horse because they’re indecisive and undisciplined, and all they do is make undisciplined horses. The people can never make up their minds what they want the horses to do, and so the horses never really know what to do either. There’s a lot to it, and then again, there’s really nothing to it. I always tell people to drive with the lines to the width of their bodies. I guess that the problem you see with both horses and people today is a lack of experience. Horses now are used ten minutes a day as compared to ten hours a day, six days a week the way they used to be.”
Bob Anderson has frequently been called on to deal with vices that horses have picked up, and to get rid of these vices he uses a variety of tricks. He was kind enough to share some of these tricks with me during our conversations. The one thing that he stresses is that “It’s easier not to cause the vice in the first place than it is to get rid of it.” Here is a listing of some of the things that we discussed.
“A farmer near here had a nice team of mares that he used to use to spread manure with, and then all of a sudden I didn’t see him using his team anymore. I asked why he wasn’t using them and he told me that the one mare was so mean to get into the stall with that he’d gotten discouraged and pretty much decided to leave her there. I told him to bring her over to the house and I’d see what I could do with her. I put her in a stall and I tied her with a good, heavy, polypropylene rope. I fiddled around with her until I got a loop around her hind foot and then I tied the end of this rope up into the halter ring with about three or four inches of slack. Then I went outside of the stall and I stood to the side and teased at her with a broom, and she kicked but when she did, her head got yanked down in a big hurry. I touched her with the broom again and she did it again, and then after that I couldn’t even get her to kick. ‘Course you have to give both sides of the horse the same lesson, or she may start kicking again, but with the other foot. The ones that kick in harness, I just plain wear out with a whip, or use a kicking strap on if I’m hooking them single.”
“I don’t want people to get the wrong idea on this one, but what I use is a spike. I never, ever, poke it at the horse. I let the horse run his nose into it just when he’s getting ready to bite. Usually I’ll grind the spike so that it’s pretty sharp. For an older horse I usually use an old broom stick that’s about eighteen inches long and take them over the nose with that.”
“I think that balkers are made, not born, so the best thing is not to make one in the first place. I don’t think that there’s ever any way to really get them over it. I guess my best advice is to sell ’em.”
IF THEY WON’T STAND OR BACK
“If a horse won’t stand still for you, or won’t back up, I think that they just lack basic training. I’d take the horse and just start from scratch on the things that he doesn’t know. I’d cross-tie the horse and make him stand.”
ON PULLING BACK AT HALTER
“I take a good polypropylene rope, long enough to go around the horse just behind the withers, and through a ring between the front legs. Then I tie this through the halter ring into something solid, and try to tie the horse about six inches above the height of his withers. Then I give them an excuse to pull, like making a noise, or throwing something in the barn. I keep giving them excuses to pull until they just snug up the rope. If you don’t really think that the horse is really cured, you can tie them around the neck and through the halter for a while.”
Bob Anderson can go on and on with advice to people about how to cure problems that they have with their horses, and how not to cause problems in the future. He’s a veritable walking encyclopedia of equine knowledge, and he’s willing to share. His family jokingly says that he’s ten feet off the ground when he’s around horses and people who like to hear about horses, and I suppose they may be right. Bob really made the rounds during the summer of 1985 – showing, judging, parading, watching, and just standing around chatting in the horse barns. Just as Bob looks to see who can handle their horses the easiest and happiest in the show ring, you can recognize Bob both in and out of the ring because he’s the one having the very best time, and usually wearing the biggest smile. As long, of course, as there are horses around and people interested in learning about them. And learn is just what a person can do if you talk with Bob Anderson on his favorite subject – horses.
‘Course you know that’s just one woman’s opinion, but …