Ask A Teamster
I’m trying to fit a collar to a new horse I just got and I can’t seem to get it right. It seems close to fitting but the problem is it’s too tight on the sides a few inches below his mane, but it fits okay on the sides down lower. I’m also not sure how it should fit at the bottom of his neck above his chest. I see some horses that have a lot of space there and others with the collar almost touching the bottom of the neck. My guess is it’s a little too long there.
We have a horse, an 11 year old Belgian mare with a rather nervous type personality, who chews on the ends of her lines. It seems to be similar to biting fingernails in times of stress. Other than this little quirk she’s a reasonably good worker and well behaved. Should we get her into therapy? If we stop this habit will her pent up frustration just find another outlet? Perhaps a worse one?
Horses always have what they consider “good reasons” for what they do or don’t do. Their reasons and choices may not seem like good reasons or choices to us, but in their minds the horses are positive they have good reasons and choices. Our job is not to argue with them about their choice or the reason for it, but to give them a better reason to make the choice we prefer or need them to make. Unless we can softly and gently offer them what they consider to be better options, and at the same time consistently create gentle and effective consequences when necessary, we cannot expect their behavior to improve – and most often it will get worse.
I have been questioned (even criticized) about my slow, gentle, repetitious approach “taking too much time” and all the little steps being unnecessary when one can simply “hitch ‘em tied back to a well-broke horse they can’t drag around, and just let ‘em figure it out on their own.” I try to give horses the same consideration I would like if someone was teaching me how to do something new and strange.
When my friend and mentor, the late Addie Funk, first started helping me with my horses, he suggested that we get rid of my halter ropes with snaps and braid lead ropes on to all the halters permanently. Actually as I think about it, it was more than a suggestion. Knowing him, he probably just braided the new ropes on, confident that anyone with any sense would be pleased with the improvement. In any case, when the task was completed I clearly remember him saying to me, “Now nobody will turn a horse loose around here with a halter on.”
For a claustrophobic animal like the horse, being confined to a small box while speeding down the highway at 60 miles per hour is a mighty unnatural experience. Luckily, equines are adaptable animals and are likely to arrive in good condition – if – you make preparations beforehand and take some precautions. Here are some tips to help your horse stay healthy, safe, and comfortable while traveling.
Dear Miriam, it sounds like you have a nice team and are doing well with them. I’m thankful you contacted me rather than assume that your team, with a history of only carriages and wagons, would be able to handle an abrupt and sudden change to farm equipment. The reality is that they might accept the unfamiliar noise, vibration, and other differences just fine. On the other hand, they are equines, and being so are prone to becoming concerned, stressed out, and overwhelmed by things unfamiliar – especially things that move and make noise. The very nature of equines as a timid fright/flight animal causes them to be predictably suspicious and fearful. It is always best and safest to introduce anything new or different to them very carefully and gradually.
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.
When a team is properly hitched to a tongue and positioned so there is a little tension on the traces, the holdback system (pole strap, quarter straps, and breeching) will contact the horse throughout their length, but not be snug. If this system is adjusted too loosely, which is quite common, the quarter straps will hang down away from the belly. Before considering other factors be sure the breeching is not adjusted too low – very common. It’s difficult to get the quarter straps up against the flank and belly if the breeching is not up where it belongs. Slack quarter straps can be raised by hooking the trace chains shorter at the single trees. However, be certain that doing so leaves enough distance between the horses hind legs and the single trees so that the legs don’t hit the single trees under any circumstances.
I always chain or otherwise secure slip-on type neckyokes to the tongue so they don’t come off and cause an accident. Neckyokes unexpectedly coming off the tongue have caused countless problems, the likes of which have caused injuries, psychological damage, and even death to horses, and to people as well. Making sure the neckyoke is chained or otherwise secured to the tongue every time you hitch a team is a quick and easy way of eliminating a number of dangerous situations.
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.
In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.
The breeching (also brichen) is a component of the hold back system. It permits a horse or team to slow down, hold back, stop, or back up the load when they are hitched in shafts or to a tongue. It’s critical that the breeching be adjusted at the proper height and angle for safety, proper function, and comfort of the horse.
When we ask a horse to follow us in the round pen we can help him succeed by varying things a bit – changing direction and speed frequently, stopping periodically to reward him with a rub (“a rub” or two, not 100), picking up a foot, playing with his tail/ears/mouth, etc. In other words, working at desensitizing or sensitizing him by simulating things he will experience in the future (trimming and shoeing, crupper, bridle over the ears, bit, etc.).
With most common types of team harness the neckyoke is an essential component of both the steering and hold back systems. In addition to holding the tongue up, neckyokes permit the horses to pull/push the end of the tongue with them as they move right or left, thus steering the vehicle or implement. As part of the hold back system neckyokes function by transferring the – slowing, stopping, backing, and holding back the load – actions of the horses to the tongue, and thus to the vehicle or equipment.
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:
I work at a farm that uses their team of Percherons to farm, give hayrides, spread manure, etc. One of the horses gets his tongue over the bit. I’ve been told he’s always done this since they had him. I have always thought: #1. You have very little control, and #2. It would hurt! The horse is very well behaved, does his work with his tongue waving in the air, and sometimes gets his tongue back in place, but at that point it’s too late. They use a snaffle bit. Any suggestions?
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 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.
My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.
For horses being part of a group and interacting with others in the group is very important for comfort and safety. It is natural and important for horses to both rely on a leader and to have trusted companionship. We can be a friend and companion to our horses, but only if we earn and keep their trust. One of the primary principles and goals of Natural Horsemanship is 100% trust (others are 100% respect and 0% fear). It’s relatively easy to gain a horse’s trust if we use their language and logic and play by horse rules rather than trying to communicate and behave in ways that are natural and seem logical to us as humans.
One of the primary goals of natural horsemanship is to get our horses to trust us 100 percent. Great horsemen and horsewomen throughout history have known that in order to become truly and completely accepted as a friend, companion, boss, leader, and/or trainer to any equine we must first gain the animal’s trust. In his book, Colt Training, Jesse Beery, the famous 19th century horse gentler/trainer, author, and founder of the Jesse Beery School of Horsemanship states, “The first lesson we give a colt is simply to teach it to have confidence in us and that we are its best friend and don’t intend to hurt it.”
The problem resulting from wolf teeth are due to the bit hammering on them or bouncing over them and banging into the much larger premolar teeth behind. This causes varying degrees of aggravation and pain to the animal. The problems that result range from minor irritation (often unapparent due to the wonderful and tolerant nature of many horses and mules) to dangerous reactions and behavior.
I always enjoy Dr. Hammill’s articles on safety and training for workhorses. His words are invaluable encouragement and protection for beginning farmers and their horses. I generally agreed with everything he said in the “Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses” article in the Fall 2006 SFJ. I would like to add a few further thoughts on some of them.