Farming with Horses
Farming with Horses

Farming with Horses

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

In 1974, looking down 800 feet of waving, sometimes parallel, pairs of emerging corn plant rows all I could do was choke back the tears, so bad it was painfully funny. Ray said, “At least you don’t have to try to cultivate that mess with a tractor. You’ll have to make some choices, some of the rows spread out so far apart you may have to pick which side to save, but Bud and Dick will watch those plants real close and do everything they can to avoid stepping on them, unless they’re laughing so hard they get dizzy and step wide.”

Charley added, trying hard not to laugh, “You know what they say Lynn, you can get more corn in a crooked row.”

As a young man, when I took firm hold of the notion of hands-on farming, it seemed most natural to be drawn towards the idea that I could, and should, employ work horses. It wasn’t I who convinced myself that I would use horses exclusively or even predominantly. That was a determination forced upon me round-about by an endless stream of critics and detractors. One loose group of them incessantly argued that a poor person could never afford to farm; the cost of the land and the equipment was too prohibitive. There’s a dare. And another group argued that nobody could farm just using animal power. Some even went so far as to say nobody ever actually did with any success. “Farmers only ever made money after tractor and chemicals were introduced, before that farmers made misery.” There’s another dare. Still a third asked rhetorically, “What are you trying to prove?” as if to say, “Don’t you know there are easier options?” Truth was far simpler: I couldn’t afford tractors and I loved every minute I spent working with the horses.

But I’m not here to bandy about on any of these contentions or points, I’m here to share with you how I had, for many years, some genuine success working horses. These thoughts stem from working observations and may be clouded by fumbles and inadequacy but the motive is sincere. I need to give back.

Farming with Horses

Workable Mysteries and Less Visible Solutions

As a rank beginner with no usable realm of influence, no inherited experience, no formal teamster education to draw from, I had no way of knowing that at the start I made it all harder than it needed to be. Please don’t mistake me, it IS work and it can be hard. What I want to explain is that the ready effectiveness that escaped me at the start had always been available had only I been shown that “expectation” (read insistence), the rigors of routine, suitable and correct repetition plus natural time signatures could make most beginnings smooth and enjoyable experiences. I had to learn that it was and is more about training myself than training the horses or mules.

Three things in retrospect jump back at me:

  1. You need to learn a whole set of basic truths and structural essentials, FIRST, otherwise failure awaits. If you can’t ‘learn’ these things then at the very least you must have guides, the answers, diagrams, resources at your finger tips. These truths include but are not limited to: what makes horses tick – why they might work for you – harness design and function – basic principles of harnessing, hitching and driving.
  2. After you have that learning and/or those resources under your belt, you need to find a way to step into a working routine, even if only for a short formative period of days, with someone else’s good animals, a routine where safety, calm acceptance and effectiveness are a given. Feel that this system works and that you might be able to learn it. This will give you a sense of what is possible and necessary. This will inflate your excitement and determination.
  3. You need opportunities, warts, stumbles and all, to learn WITH your own horses. Here YOU may learn to guide, apply and accept while your horses develop. Completely out of sequence I offer here that you, no matter your seniority with the system and no matter the age and training level of your horses or mules, you are training your animals every second you are working with them. And the things you do, the habits you develop will stay with you for a lifetime.

Fifty plus years ago, I started farming with horses because I had no money for tractors. Even before that I had some small experience. Because of my attraction to horses and mules in harness I had acquired a team of mares and used them for recreation, plowing, parades, wagon rides etc. I was a member of a couple of draft horse clubs and took in shows and matches for fun. Listening to old master teamsters, watching them work their horses, paying close attention to every little detail, I became a human sponge absorbing great chunks of vital information. It was easy for me because I was totally transfixed by the craft and “wanted” to learn. So with this as preliminary, I had a little bit of experience. That did not translate completely to what was coming next. You can know the basics of how to harness a horse but that isn’t enough – you must have a working understanding of the systems of animal power. When I made the leap to go from managing cattle and sheep ranches for absentee owners to having my own small farm, I had to teach myself to work six days a week with the draft horses in order to get my farming done. Seventeen acres of vegetables is a tremendous amount of work in and of itself. Ten acres was in corn, and two acres in beans, and three acres in pumpkins, an acre of potatoes, and an acre of miscellaneous greens. Then add in fifteen acres of hay and five acres of grain. Work, work, work. Each morning I had to get to the field at first light and set to work. I could not afford delays or setbacks. It was exhausting and in some areas I failed miserably but keeping the farm meant making everything work.

Spend three long weeks cultivating corn, beans and greens with a straddle row cultivator and two horses and you develop a difficult to describe intimacy with all parts of the puzzle. You also realize how insanely important it is that you planted your seed in straight lines.

As novice, go awkwardly to the field with a two row planter disregarding how straight you drive the team only to then return when plants are up and witness the snickerless head shaking comedy of your rows.

Spend, no exhaust, a week plowing with a single bottom riding plow and two or three horses and feel the fatigue of both animals and yourself. Only to see just ten acres or less done. Spend the same amount of time with four, five or six horses hitched to a two or three bottom gang plow and thrill to see thirty acres done. (If you were smart enough to use too many horses, you may find yourself and your horses less fatigued.)

However, know that, early on, fatigue can be an important ally for you and your work mates. In the beginning, after a few hours going back and forth in the field, I would notice changes in the individual horses, subtle things like those times of a brief rest on the headland when I asked the team to step ahead. I watched as Dick took a big sigh before setting out a little tentative in that first step. I forgive myself, in retrospect, thinking back then that I had worked them too hard and needed to cut short for the day when later I would learn that keeping them at it, perhaps at a little slower pace, would reap for me big benefits later. A little more each half day session is what brought them to conditioning. Also allowing that their fatgiue became mine and vice-versa, this is what grew our relationship in most solid and intangible ways.

And, as we all grew tired I found that I could use those times when I would ask them to stand and get their breath, rest for a minute. It was Charley Jensen who noticed as we worked our teams together in my field that I would allow the horses to restart whenever they were ready. “Don’t do that. Make them stand until you tell them to go. Every time you let them start out on their own counts towards you giving up control. And if they don’t want to go when you ask them make sure that they do, even if it is only for a step or two. Otherwise they’ll learn to balk.” I learned quickly that using light occasional line pressure and a firm but steady voice I could “interupt” a horse’s anticipation, stop them in their tracks before they took a step, even before they leaned forward. I learned that the command ”stand,” coupled with slack lines, would become my training friend.

And then I learned to trust my instincts and, in a sing song voice that would never equal my buddy Mike Atkin’s tone, “talk” to my team. “Ok, guys, we’re taking a break, gonna stand here, like it or not. Stand here til I’m ready to go. We got a lot of field to plow yet and taking a breather is something we all need to appreciate, so cock one leg, loosen them neck muscles and think thankful thoughts for the break and that good feed I gave you this morning.”

Soon I wouldn’t even need to say such things, I could think them and somehow the horses knew. Soon the quiet word stand meant all of that and more. It meant, “Breath, we’re gonna get through this.”

Rather than answering questions cold, I think that Charley and Ray enjoyed working with me in the field and mentoring in reaction, because my glaring errors at the work made it simple for them to see the direction I needed.

Side Note: I once had a Belgian gelding who, as a two and three year old, had been ‘trained’ with an electric shock collar and a running W. He was, at heart, a good and willing horse but there was never any way to know what little buzz, or twitching horse fly or accidental slap of the lines would send him first into a complete convulsive state of shock or eventually into a runaway. I was able to use him bur only with the greatest of care. After ten years of treating him well I can safely say it was not up to him whether or not he could trust me. It was up to his boogey men.

Hitching Aids and Hitching Ways

Yet there were many long, long days and weeks when I was alone and had to make it all work. In those beginning couple of years, because of costly accidents, I took great pains to make sure that hitching and unhitching the animals from implements was done either with someone to hold their heads or more often by some clever restraint. New as I was to depending on horses everyday, I still carried with me the caution that hitching and unhitching were the most hazardous times because there would always be those anxious moments of disconnect when I had to set the lines down to snap this, link that, arrange those. I believed that my only security were those lines in hand. Later I would learn of the luxurious comfort available in trusting and fully understood relationships, later.

In those trepidatious beginnings I had built hitching rings into walls and rails and arranged corners where I could lead the horses and have them stand secured until I had hitched and was ready to go. This meant always thinking about the next work. It meant arranging, when in from the field, to unhitch the manure spreader or corn planter or cultivator in one of those corners so that, next session or next day, I could lead the team over the tongue and tie at least one of them to the wall or rail while I hooked the neck yoke and then eveners. I had to make sure that there was a safe way to untie, with lines in hand and return to implement to swing the team away and to the field. I think about it all now and smile and sigh. Had I known back then what was possible I could have saved days, even weeks, of work.

Now I know that my early nervousness, my fidgety attention to the details of security, my over-thinking, my small nameless fears all robbed me of the full pleasure and effectiveness of working with a team. These days my horses will stand quietly while I take my time to hitch or unhitch. They do it because I expect it, they do it for the comfort and ease, they do it because it is the easiest thing for them to do, they do it quietly because they trust that it will be just another day of pleasant routine and repetition sandwiched between glorious time in the stall being fed and curried. They do it because they want to. Just as you should be doing it because you want to.

Side Note: Calm and determined can manifest itself in different ways with teamsters. Some appear ‘matter-of-fact’ or even blase in their calm (that might be me) while others are cushy and ‘ friendly’. My old buddy Jess Ross was comedic with his calm. If a horse was snorting or blowing about something Jess would crack a big smile, chuckle and say,‘Look at you.’ If a hitched team was acting up, he’ d laugh and hardly draw the lines in at all. Instead he’ d say something like, ‘What’s got your goat?’ or, ‘Ain’t we silly now?’ Watching him and marveling I never once saw his attitude make a situation worse, quite the contrary.

There are all manner of exercises and procedures you might, and should, employ to train the green horse to be so willing and quiet. Subjects for another time; right now I want this to be about training ourselves to fit the scheme. I taught myself to be in a grateful, meditative state when working with my horses. And I laced that frame of mind with an underlay of firm expectation. Without saying it, just the strongest of directed thought, I would think “Stand there Duke, there’s no where to go.\ ‘ Stand there and breath easy. Stand there and learn patience. Stand there and know that my job is to interrupt any whisper of a small anticipation you may have about when its time to go. Pay attention. Relax, while I pay attention. We are work mates. We go together when I give the word. We stand and wait when I give the word. So very simple, and so completely defining. And compounding because as you, my horses, gain in patience you train me to be calm.

Too simplistic? Nope. The opposite is true for many people, it’s too complicated, too illusive, too difficult to understand, to grasp. Because, on the surface it is about letting go when all of your first instincts tell you not to. This is about what it takes to make a successful experience of farming with horses.

And yes, the old adage is true as far as it goes. Yes, “sweaty collars make good horses.” Sweaty collars usually translates to time spent working. And sweat can work for you as well; you can get to this state of mind I talk about by working day after day after day and finding yourself loosening up through complete exhaustion and base familiarity. And maybe just maybe you will be aware enough to realize what you have attained, what you have made of yourself.

But just as likely, forcing yourself through difficulties this way, forcing yourself and your horse to “work harder darn it!” may compound the stuff that upsets you and, at end of each day, makes you ask, “what am I doing?” There’s a thin line between “I’ve got this!” and “Not again, I’m sooo tired.”

What will upset some readers, both experienced and inexperienced, is to hear me say that you can affect this all, the individual moments that knit together to make an entire pleasurable working experience, by choosing to use appreciative calm combined with observant well-informed determination. I suggest that you need to “lighten up” and allow yourself to enjoy the work.

But, of course there are situations that tax such notions. Likely, and unfortunately, you begin with novice horses, or, worse, whatever horses you can get your hands on. Here’s a cryptic and infuriating adage from deep inside horsemanship circles, “There are too many good horses out there.” It references the choice not to put time and money in on an unbalanced or neurotic horse. I know of several well-regarded horse trainers and problem solvers who put long hours in to realize dramatic change with problem horses. Some of those animals went on to become legendary work mates, but just as many became time bombs – waiting to explode or just get even. The best trainers couldn’t second guess the boogey men hidden deep in an individual horse’s brain. Or diagnose some nervous disorder, or physical problem with vision. You as a beginner are charged with stacking the deck in your own favor. Make the effort, in those early days, to find horses without “holes” in them. Horses who just might be willing to forgive your innocence and silliness. There will be plenty of time later in your career to test your skills with remedial teamstering.

Returning to actual nuts and bolts: Those first weeks of intense field work, as I said before, were aggravated by my apprehension. When I took the lines in hand to drive a team or more to the field I made certain that I maintained pressure on the bits, more than I needed to do. It was wrong. My posture was wrong, and it gave clear evidence that I did not understand the possibilities. When I took those lines in hand I was, even in hesitation, demanding control. The horses, feeling pressure in their mouths took the pressure to mean ‘We’re going to go now,” so they would, or would try to. And that would cause me, in further apprehension, to tighten up even more on the lines and say “Whoa.” What I didn’t realize is that I was sending mixed messages and confusing the horses. When I learned not to put unnecessary pressure on the lines, as we hitched or unhitched, I found the horses were calmer and accepting of a waiting mode. When I learned to “share” with the horses a readiness and a patience we were in the dance.

As a rule, when hooking the horses I tried to keep the lines in one hand. Sometimes that was difficult. If I needed to set the lines down I made doubly sure they were handy. My preference was to divide the lines slightly, right and left, and drape them over the hip if I was at the rear – or over the side if in front. This way it was easy to get hold of the lines in a fluid fashion. Keeping right and left separated slightly meant you could, if desired, take hold of them that way quickly and avoid the confusion that might result in your accidentally pulling the wrong line in response and getting tangled up. I learned this the hard way. One day, as I was hooking up a four abreast to a field harrow, on the last outside trace link I leaned down and, unbeknownst to me, let one of the two lines slip away. When one horse took a step I tugged slightly and said whoa but I had only one line and was pulling the horses towards me to the left. By the time I had gathered the other line and figured out which was which, I had the horses nervously coming full around, jack-kniving the harrow with me in a bad spot. I got it all stopped and straightened out by pitching slack and hollering whoa. Which, I know may seem counter-intuitive, but it was the only way not to make a bad situation much, much worse.

Farming with Horses

Taking the lines in hand; what posture do we bring? There’s evidence there to learn from. Look at the posture. Does it show engagement and effectiveness and calm? Are you ready? Are you grateful? Do those horses know how you feel about them? Is it all in the measure?

Good friend Bill Reynolds recently asked of me, “Would you write of how your farming and your painting needs one another?” I am in the process of writing an essay entitled “A Case for Painting.” In simple terms it does what Bill asked of me. I quote myself:

Farming, on the other hand, pays for the painting, not literally but certainly as trade off. I might paint constantly and to excess, losing myself. With farming as the ballast, there is always the next chore, procedure, the next work that needs doing. And keeping on with the farm is, no matter how tired, ridiculous, lax or slack I may be, a tradeoff that keeps painting moments fresh and more than a little urgent. And urgency is a perfect lube for painting.

For over half a century I have maintained my painting and my farming. Now, in this writing about the horse work I realize that the time I spent drawing and painting helped me to bring a more useful tone to the horsework. And time being at a premium, whether in the studio or with the horses, I learned by necessity to quit overthinking either.

So many of the outstanding teamsters I have known had other loved pursuits they balanced with the horse work: teaching, blacksmithing, fiddle making, sawyering, art, ministering, inventing, etc. I believe such combinations add to the effectiveness and the pleasure we might take from a life of working horses.

Farming with horses can be a success if you lighten up and take the work in hand each day with calm and gratitude. And hopefully you might find for yourself other loved work to give other illumination which might leaven the days and oil the mastery.

Farming with Horses

Lynn Miller is the author of many books on working horses including The Work Horse Handbook, Training Work Horses / Training Teamsters, and The Art of Working Horses.