Communicating with Horses
Communicating with Horses
Our Ardennes mare Merina de Lagrange being trained to obey and to get used to “strange” things.

Communicating with Horses

by Paul Schmit of Luxembourg

The relationship to our horses is built upon principles, wherein the main three rules are:


I (try to) apply these principles not only while working with our draft horses at home, but also during my daily work as a teacher. My students don’t have to admire me for one reason or another, but I ask for respect and discipline, two elements which count for both parties. To get the right understanding of the material to be learned is finally, the salt in the soup. The same is true, at least in my mind, for the communication with horses.

If you would take an opinion poll among teamsters, I think a vast majority would claim that they have great respect for their equine partner. However, the way some of them act around the animals tells you the truth. Where is the respect, if the competitor who gets the most applause, thus the most spectacular one, at a logging contest is the one who roars his verbal commands as loud as he can, while at the same time the harness as well as the hooves of his horse tell you a whole story of neglect? Where is the respect, if a teamster handles the lines of his multiple hitch, while driving through the obstacles of a carriage driving competition, in the same manner as he would maneuver a sailing ship through the wild sea? Where is the respect, if horses are given medicinal sedatives in order to better perform at so-called draft horse shows? I don’t see any respect within these acts, seen in the ring as well as behind the scenes of major European draft horse events, and the list of these examples can easily be enlarged.

Please understand me right, I don’t think that everyone participating at a competition with his horses is doing wrong, but if the prestige of winning a contest or the appearance in the most spectacular way counts more than the welfare of the horses, there is something wrong. Let me explain what I mean.

Communicating with Horses
Use of Ardennes draft horses for digging up potatoes in the last century.

The picture here above, taken in 1924, shows the Warnimont family having finished the harvest of potatoes. This photograph was taken in “Himel,” a field name which was given following “Himmlingen,” a nearby village to my home, which was wiped out by the plague around 1518.(1) The Warnimonts farmed for over one hundred-fifty years on one of the two manors in my village, “Téinten.” These bigger farmers had the income to employ some day laborers and keep more than one work horse in their stables, as is visible on the picture. Everybody looks happy in this photo. Sure, they enjoyed the rest after the hard work, but it was also, at that time, a special moment in their life to get pictured by a photographer. The two Ardennes horses in the background are hitched to a machine which was named a “Klëppelmaschin.” The wooden bars, also called “Klëppel,” shown in the center of the picture and having some resemblance with an Indian tepee, gave the name to this implement. Its manner of operation is comparable with the potato spinners used in Anglo-American agriculture.(2)

Today it’s not a special moment, at least for young people, to get photographed. To make a picture with a mobile phone and to send it easily and immediately around the world doesn’t impress anymore. This might not sound dramatic but with the prosperity in which our modern society lives today, at least in Western Europe, there are a lot of values which have been lost. A recent study, carried out by our Ministry of Education in 2005, has shown that 77% of the students in the secondary technical education in Luxembourg, aged 16 years, have been forced to repeat at least one year in their school career due to their bad marks.(3) This demonstrates that being born into prosperity, the youth often don’t see a reason for making an effort. The more important factor in their life is glamour, the prestige of having the newest generation of mobile phones and computer games or wearing the most expensive clothes.

I agree, not everything was better in the “good old time,” but the people shown here knew that without work, often harder than today, there was no life. But they also knew that extreme stress for the horses meant that the wheels on the farm didn’t rotate as usual the day after. Today, in Western Europe, most of the draft horses aren’t working partners anymore, they are leisure and fun partners. In this new relationship I’m personally missing the true values which were respected by the horsemen of the bygone era.

Discipline is a habit which has to be taught, to children as well as to horses. To sit quiet in a school desk is sometimes a challenge for a young child; standing still is the same for a young horse. Discipline is a basic element, but this has to count for everyone. Our way is not by rude manners but by being fair and consistent. This attitude not only helps us while working with the horses, but also in their daily care.

Communicating with Horses
Our Ardennes mare Jalouse des Joncs getting her feet trimmed.

We tried three different types of shoeing stocks, two of wooden structure being built by Belgian farriers and one of our own design with metal tubes. Finally we came to the conclusion that it’s better to not use them anymore. Our farrier, Claude Saeul, who is a good friend of ours, has accepted to go this way with us and teach our horses to get their feet trimmed while leaning on a simple stand. In the beginning it was quite strenuous for the farrier’s back and required a lot of patience, but today we have nearly reached our goal. Our draft horses walk barefooted as most of their work is done on soft soil, and we have not had to use the hard road surface every time to get to our fields. However, if there are some corrections to be made, as one of our mares tends to have a fissure split in a hind hoof, steel horseshoes are fitted. Luckily, this is a rare exception and maintaining the hooves well-shaped, especially the points, between the farrier visits, lets us save a lot of money and keeps the hooves in the most natural way. One of our purebred Arabian riding horses unfortunately needs shoeing during summer because of being ridden more frequently. After trying some alternative products, from plastic horseshoes with a steel or aluminum inlay from different manufacturers, to finally lace-up shoes to put on like the shoes we tie up every morning on our own feet, we consider a steel shoe fitted by a competent farrier as the best solution.

An absolute prerequisite, if some form of communication is taking place between people or between human beings and animals, is that one understands the other. Thus, the key to communicating with horses is to try to speak an intelligible language and to understand their behavior. It is not always the hard hand which guides you to success, but it’s more the skill of right communication. Thus ground work is an important part of our training program. As explained in my first article in the Fall issue of SFJ, we buy our draft horses in France, with most being two years old. By that time an elementary education is done. However, as most of the draft horses are bred and trained today to be sold for carriage driving, the young horses learn very soon that being hitched to a vehicle means trotting. Some trainers even prefer to let the horses trot for a time to calm them down. For farm work, where a slow pace and standing still is often asked of the horses, we train them to be patient and to keep cool, even if the implement behind is making some strange noises. These lessons are also repeated with our older horses in work.

The common horse training methods in USA, like using a round pen, are not so widely spread through Europe. Working with a single or a double lunge is usually applied. I’m surely not in a position to judge which training method is finally the best. Every method has its particular positive and negative aspects. Riding is also part of our training program, if time permits. It has the great advantage that it enables you to have a more sensitive and prompt contact to the horses mouth compared to when you have with the heavy lines of a multiple hitch on farm implements. In addition to the usual riding aids, the same verbal commands are used when riding as are used while being hitched. Traditionally, we use “hü” for mowing forward, “ho” for stopping, “har” or “har ëm” for turning left and “hëtt” or “hëtt ëm” for turning right. We give preference to the verbal commands and use the lines or reins more as an additional communicating tool. The horses learn very soon what is the task to be done, especially when working between rows, while raking hay for example. Their willingness to cooperate and to do some thinking is one of the reasons I really like to work with horses compared to the boring routine of driving a tractor up and down the fields.

Communicating with Horses
Irmi and Jalouse des Joncs harnessed to work.

Still improving

My first set of harness was a breast collar harness, which I bought in younger years as it was cheap and easy to fit to different horses. Very soon I learned that this type of harness isn’t made for the kind of farm work which I progressed to by the time. While participating in some clinics for horse logging in Belgium, I learned to drive horses with the jerk line, a method well-liked by loggers and farmers in some regions of Europe. Regretfully it’s often combined with the long shanks of severe bits and unfeeling hands. I have to admit that this counted also for me as a novice teamster at that time. Furthermore I was taught to fit and use a type of harness which might be considered as our traditional harness, as there are a lot of similarities between the harnesses used in Luxembourg and the Belgian Ardennes, and even up to the Flemish part of Belgium at the west coast. The conductor of these clinics, Pol Jaspart, who worked a long time as a professional horse logger, was using an improved type of collar, which has been developed by the harness maker Oger Deplus from Belgium.(4) He replaced the rigid structure of theses collars, similar to the hames on American collars, by 20 mm thick Polycarbonate. Traditionally this piece is made out of wood with a metal reinforcement and fixed permanently to the collar itself. Polycarbonate is a thermoplastic material which is used in car bumpers for example, and which offers low density, combined with sufficient strength, to withstand the forces applied to the collar. The disadvantages of this harness type are that it is not adjustable, only the point of draft can be changed in height, and there are only a few harness makers left who know the skills of making valuable equipment. In Luxembourg there is no longer any more in the collar making business, and in Belgium they are getting real hard to find. Furthermore, a comparison of the traditional collars which I keep in my collection, and American collars, showed that the European style is about 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) heavier. This might not seem a lot, but I think every possibility to reduce weight on the harness and thus reduce the strain for the horses should be used. The European show collars fitted with a lot of brass decorations, reach even 18 kg (40 lbs.), which is simply double the American work collar of the same size. I have also tested a prototype of a new fully adjustable European collar, also developed in Belgium, which offered the possibility to be varied in width and in length, but this was even heavier. The adjustments were not made by lengthening or shortening leather straps but by flat steel connections offering different holes to fit a pin. Regretfully, this harness maker, who did learn the craft of working leather as a retraining measure after losing his job in a factory, didn’t see a possibility to manufacture his well-designed collar in bigger numbers as he saw no chance to compete with the low price products from East Europe.

At some clinics of the “Interessengemeinschaft Zugpferde” at the farm of Karla Ebert and Erhard Schroll in Germany, I came in contact with the American type of harness, which is not only lighter but also more versatile than the European style. Very soon I bought and fitted a team set of American harness by Erhard Schroll to my horses. Today I’m importing all my harness parts from Aaron Martin in Canada. Sitting in front of a computer screen doesn’t count within my favorite occupations and I look at the world wide globalization with some skepticism. However, I must admit that the access to the World Wide Web as well as the electronic mailing, has helped us a lot in contacting manufacturers over sea and getting parts within a reasonable time.

The harness which we use is widely known as the Western brichen harness, with however, some minor changes we developed over time. Even if it’s considered as a safety feature, we don’t like to use a halter under the bridle, as this additional part doesn’t improve the comfort of the horse, especially while working in hot weather. I never work alone with my horses. Hitching, driving and working are always a two person job for us. My wife or Robert Lahr, a colleague from work, now retired, assists me. To hold the bridle properly in position, we got manufactured a full around nose band to use on our bridles. The bits are stainless steel elbow bits, also known as military bits, in 6 1?2” and 7” width. We use crossed lines, traditionally called in our region “Duebel Léngt,” which means double line. If a horse was worked with a “Eenzel Léngt” – single line, this meant that the jerk line was in use.(5) Having also tried open bridles, we came to the conclusion that it is safer working our horses with blinkers. Surely, these experiences, as everything I’m writing here, are not true for every horseman, for every horse and for every particular use. When harnessing, special care is paid to the blinkers in order to ensure that they are bent enough to the outside to not irritate the horse’s eyes.

Communicating with Horses
The Comtois mare Belle from Pol Jaspart extracting timber with improved harness in the Ardennes.

Instead of the leather front part of the traces, we use steel bars. We designed two different shapes, got them manufactured, field tested and finally chose the one which is shown in the picture above. The bars are made out of solid stainless steel tubes of 14 mm (~ 9/16”) diameter and have a length of 525 mm (20-5/8”) between the connections at the hames and the rings in the back band. These bars let, by the offset of 50 mm (1-15/16”), the horses shoulders to move more freely as there is no squeeze. The disadvantage I see is the fact that it adds some extra weight to the whole harness. However, compared with the standard leather pieces, there is only 300 g (2/3 lbs.) to be added. Our three horses wear 25, 26 & 27” adjustable field collars and I really like the possibility of adjusting them as well as the possibility to vary the hames. We strongly prefer to use felt or borg sweat pads under the collar. For every horse we have constantly two pads in use. This gives us the possibility to clean and dry completely one pad, even if time is short, while the other is in use.

Another item we add to the harness are safety links, also called marathon hooks, from Sprenger in Germany, which are used in the martingale as well as into the traces. These devices can get opened very easily even under strong tension. We have not yet been forced to use this safety element, which allows you to get the horses out of a hitch in case of an accident, but it reassures me to have it in use. The last link between the traces and the single trees are Pinney draught springs. These springs developed by Charlie Pinney from Cart Horse Machinery in Great Britain, not only improve the comfort of the horse while pulling a load but also serve me as load indicator. As the lengthening is a nearly linear function of the pulling force in the traces, it’s very easy by taking a quick look to the springs to determine how heavy and how equally the horses are pulling in the hitch. We use the lighter version of these springs as there are not the big impacts on the harness as in the forest where a stronger grade is recommended.

The next piece of harness we plan to improve is the back band, which we underlay with a borg pad when driving a single horse in a two-wheeled forecart. I don’t like this configuration, as there is still some pressure on the horse’s spinal column. The traditional harness used in our region made use of a cart saddle. It consisted of a wooden beam protected by a leather cover at the top, to protect it against the rain and a fabric pad inside. This piece of equipment spread the load over a greater surface while keeping some space over the horse’s spine. To realize a more lightweight version, I see a combination of the saddles used on Scandinavian work harnesses with our harness, but this is still an idea which needs some investigations in the future.

Communicating with Horses
Our Ardennes mare Irmi being ridden to get more stress-free.

Safety First

As mentioned before, our Ardennes are also ridden. Therefore, we got a saddle manufactured following our specifications by the Stubben saddlery in Switzerland. We use the same saddle on our three draft horses as there isn’t a big difference in the shape of their back. My wife’s riding horse differs much in shape during the whole year depending on the frequency of being ridden. As we think that a saddle has first to fit the horse and then the rider, we have more than one saddle currently in use for that horse.

For doing ground work with the horses we use a side pull or a bit-less bridle, if necessary in combination with a surcingle connected to a ring which is fitted with spreaders used as line keepers and a crupper. The rings on the surcingle and the line keepers allow us to change very easily the position of the person behind the horse. All the training is done within the closed area of our paddock surrounded by a wooden fence. Only if confidence has been established, on both sides of the lines, the training is extended to the adjacent meadows and then to the street.

After the basic elements of ground driving are set, hitching to a wheeled vehicle is the next step in the training program. On our first attempts we used a Pinney Powercart as it was, at that time, simply the only horse drawn vehicle available on our farm. For this purpose, this implement had the disadvantage that the chain drive in its ground drive pto could not be disengaged and thus made some noise that increased with the speed, which risked to frighten a young horse. Furthermore it was, as every four wheeled vehicle, easily possible to jackknife when a horse was backing. After this period of trials and errors, I did contact the Kühnle brothers, very famous European carriage builders from Germany, by mail and didn’t expect great things as I thought I would have to be at least a European champion to deal with them. To my great astonishment, I got contacted very soon by Paul Kühnle on the phone and I visited their manufacturing in the Black Forest to discuss our needs. Finally we bought a second-hand two wheeled cart, which has been equipped with an additional rear step for a second person, who needs to get on and off the cart very quickly. The balance is kept while moving the driver’s seat forwards or backwards by a crank. Therefore, I only count the rotations of the crank I have to turn in order to bring the cart in balance again. The weight ratio is checked, as we do it for every implement or vehicle before hitching, with a hand scale which holds the shafts. As the step is close to the center of wheels, the person at the rear doesn’t change the balance too extremely. Another advantage of this cart, especially for young horses, are the big wheels which have a low rolling resistance. Since this positive experience we are on good terms with the Kühnle manufactory and let them make some special parts for us, like the trace bars described above or parts for farm implements.

Communicating with Horses
Merina de Lagrange driven in the training cart.

As you can notice in the picture above, I always wear a helmet while driving horses. This might not look very traditional, but I prefer, similar to the safety links in the traces, to have a protection which I hopefully never have to use, instead of needing suddenly a protection which I simply don’t have. Among the nearly 450,000 people of Luxembourg, the ones riding or driving horses are surely a small minority; draft horse users may even be counted by one hand, but there are still tragic accidents happening. A couple of years ago two carriage horses of a four-up hitch were killed in a road accident which took place during a wedding. The last deadly riding accident was in 1998 and the last teamster lost his life in road traffic only twelve years ago. Every horse, even well trained, is still an animal and it’s impossible to investigate what’s going on its head on every moment. Furthermore, to drive on public roads has become a dangerous venture. I remember as a young boy, my duty on my grand uncle’s farm consisted in the early morning, after having milked the cows, to transport the milk cans with a small cart to the centre of the village where they were picked up by the dairy cooperative. After that, the cows had to be led to the pasture. The car drivers had been accustomed to share the street with me, a very slow moving road user as it went up and down the hills with the heavy cart and the cows walked with some sluggishness. There has even been the opportunity to have a small talk with a neighbor crossing my way. But this time has definitely gone. Today, if you look behind you while driving with horses on the roads, you can notice a grim look on most drivers’ faces. Every second they lose by slowing down means losing the car race they seem to play daily. Even if the car drivers respect the speed limit of 50 km/h (31 mph) inside the villages and 90 km/h (56 mph) outside the villages, they drive more than ten times faster than the horses and a rear-end or overtaking collision can easily happen.

– Paul Schmit


(1) Téinten 1839 – 1989, Gemeng Téinten, 1989

(2) The Traditional Farming Year, Paul Heiney, 2004

(3) Analyse des Klassenwiederholens im primären und postprimären Bereich Ministère de l’Education Nationale et de la Formation Professionnelle, 2006

(4) Le cheval de trait – un bon usage, Pol Jaspart, 1996

(5) Deemols – Deel II, Fernand Lorang, 2004