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Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont

“Working with horses will stimulate personal growth and communication skills.” – David Fischer of Natural Roots Farm


I have a Polish-American friend who was raised in a community where almost all the men were employed in Pennsylvania coal mines. His Polish speaking father, along with all his Polish speaking uncles and cousins worked in those mines; even the teamsters who drove the mule teams to haul the coal up to the surface spoke Polish. So, when the miners went on strike and the bosses brought in scab workers from elsewhere to replace them, the mules refused to work; they only understood Polish and would not respond to English commands.

Within the Zen tradition, if there can be said to be a goal to practice, it is to enhance one’s capacity to feel compassion for other beings. Zen enlightenment does not seek to transcend this world, but rather to set our feet firmly down on the ground of relationality — the ground of all-being. Seen in this light; compassion is communication. Compassion is breaking free of the human pain of isolation. This is why even the wisest hermits must come down off the mountain and visit the marketplace. We need each other to discover our deepest truths. But deep connection to the other doesn’t necessarily only happen within the human realm. If we are lucky or wise enough to live in a landscape of farm fields and forests, the loneliness of existence can be greatly assuaged by the presence of all the non-human creatures, domestic and wild, that also call the land their home. Some of us find that time spent with our horses can set us free.

When we speak of the verbal instructions that we issue to our horses in the course of work, it is common to refer to them as commands. Yet, in our heart of hearts we know that what we are really doing is asking them to perform these various tasks for us. And even if we are working with horses that we have raised from foals and trained every step of the way, we still must admit to a certain mystery and wonder that these gentle giants concede to obey us at all. Considering this, our commands might be properly understood as requests.

A trained draft horse understands with perfect comprehension the verbal commands of her teamster. Such a horse can be expected to respond to the voice first and then the driving lines act as a secondary aid. Once a horse knows a practiced ritual, such as a milk delivery route, or the path back up the skid trail, the words used simply become part of the ritual. But it is nonetheless an important ritual, as even a very smart horse might get you into trouble by over-anticipating your requests.

To achieve a subtle level of communication with your horses it is best to keep these verbal requests simple and consistent. As far as the words used, there is a long tradition among horsemen whose etymology extends back into the mists of medieval Europe. And even today, there exist many regional twists and variations.

The five most basic commands for working horses are commonly spoken as follows;

Get up (or Step up); accompanied by a kissing sound or smack of the lips, to start the horses out.

Whoa; to stop the horses.

Gee; means turn to the right.

Haw; means turn to the left.

Back; means back up.

In addition to these five basic commands there are several nuanced phrases that can be introduced to the willing work horse. If we say “one step” we are asking the horses to do just that. There are countless instances in real work situations where having a horse or team trained to take just one stride forward is useful.

Many teamsters prefer to say their horse’s names before pronouncing a start-up command. The idea is to first get the horses attention so that they won’t be taken by surprise and start up with a jolt or out of unison with their teammate. When the two horses in a team learn to start out together the wear and tear on their shoulders and joints is greatly reduced.

The turn signals of Gee and Haw can be nuanced by saying, “come Gee” or “come Haw” to indicate that a shift to the left or right is what’s needed, rather than an out right turn. If, however, we want to make a complete turn and head back in the direction from which we came, we say “Gee come around” or “Haw come around”. And getting back to the one step command, we may find ourselves in a situation where we wish the horse to take, “one step Gee” to pull that log around a stump or to start the walking cultivator down the correct row.

The “back” or backing up request is probably most often used in the forest, but there are numerous occasions in the field where it will also come into play, such as when hitching up to an implement, starting out from a hitching post, or resetting a walking plow.

To slow or calm down the horses we say, “Easy” and if they don’t respond, reinforce with gentle pumping line pressure. While we may admire the talents of the five-gaited El Paso Fino, we want our work horses to have but one gait; walking. It may be a very slow walk on the plow or a brisk walk on the hay rake; but it is all walking nonetheless.

When it comes to the command to stop “Whoa” should only and ever mean just that. There should be no nuance to your “Whoa”. Absolute obedience to this command is a must for safe driving and it may even save the life of you and your horses in a situation of harness or equipment failure. Not only must the horses understand and obey this command, but they must also learn to stand quietly until you ask them to start up again. This means no shifting around, nor reaching down for grass, and especially no rubbing their heads onto their neighbor’s harness. It is only natural that the horses get sweaty and itchy while at work and will want to rub and scratch. However, if they are not corrected from this common behavior sooner or later either a snap will hook somewhere where it shouldn’t be hooked or a bridle will be peeled entirely off. A completely settled team of mature work horses might be able to patiently stand while you climb off the implement and come around to their heads to fix the situation, but young or less experienced horses may be prone to agitation and even panic. When the horses are supposed to be standing and they commence to head rubbing, pawing, or trying to reach for food, we tell them; “Quit”, and they know just what that means. Our aim should be to have horses trained to stay calm during mishaps, but just as important is to train them so as to avoid unnecessary mishaps such as a bridle peeled off because the horses were allowed to rub their heads on each other in the first place.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2


Those of us who have a few years of farming with horses under our belts are now experiencing a growing surge of young people who are hungry for our knowledge. These young people are living signs of hope and a cause for celebration. However, for me it has been challenging enough to learn how to drive and train horses mostly on my own. Now I am faced with the proposition of trying to train novice teamsters to boot. Not wanting to recreate another scenario of “the blind leading the blind” — I resisted teaching for several years even after working with horses had become an integral component of our farming system. Early on we experienced a few runaways and were lucky to survive a near catastrophic wreck. I was happy enough driving my own horses whom I had grown to love and trust, but I worried about exposing newcomers to the potential risks. It took several years before I felt confident enough with my skills, and had a team of horses that I felt were settled enough to deal with a beginner, before I started attempting to teach the young folks that come to work on our farm something about the craft. It has often been said that; if you really want to learn all you can about a subject you should try and teach it. When we attempt to instruct others we are challenged to articulate the “how” and “why” of what we do, and to develop a sound methodology for presenting the information in a coherent form. The ethical substrate of our visions will increase in direct proportion to our willingness to share them with others.

What I am learning is that it is always best to start with the basics, I mean the real basics. Ask the novice to muck out stalls and clean up the horse yard with a stall fork and a wheel barrow for a good long while before they ever even touch a horse. Not only will this convince them that a horse requires daily physical care it will also give the horses a chance to get to know this new person who is entering their environment in a non-threatening way. And yes, there is something of testing the resolve of the neophyte in this approach. In the Zen tradition it is told that the young person seeking to enter the monastery was made to wait for two days on the front steps before the door was even opened. Even so, I continue to do some of these daily chores myself, because, while it is true that a good leader is one who knows how to delegate, it is also equally true that no job on the farm should be considered too lowly, everything that is done is done because it is important — and the effective manager should be first in line to demonstrate this.

Even for farms that take on apprentices, with the implicit or formal promise of work in exchange for training, turning the novice into a competent teamster is a huge and time consuming commitment. While not in any way seeking to belittle the skill set required to be an efficient and safe operator of motorized farm machinery, the added element of one or two draft animals weighing upwards of a ton each makes teaching even basic farm tasks a formidable challenge. Some horse powered farms require that apprentices or interns have previous market garden or farm experience so that their training with the horses is not coupled with a basic orientation to the work of the farm, in other words, the trainees can then be immediately helpful on the farm, and then the time devoted specifically to training can be focused on getting comfortable around the horses. It seems there is a gap appearing in the supply and demand quotient between eager young future horse farmers and horse powered farms that are in a position to take on novices to train. We need new farm schools devoted to communicating the science and craft of working with draft horses. Perhaps as interest in horse farming as a vocation grows, we will see the development of Ag school curriculums step up to fill this knowledge gap. If every high school in the country had an adjunct farm with the option of learning to work with draft animals, then maybe universities and colleges would coalesce around this idea and develop two and four year courses with a major in land management utilizing live power traction. There is need and opportunity just beyond the horizon. (1)

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2


As with all facets of farming, working with horses might look easy from the sidelines but it actually requires a great deal of acquired knowledge and subtlety to make it function as an effective means of traction on the farm. Working with horses can be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there can and should avoid unnecessary risk and catastrophe. However, in order for the would-be teamster to successfully join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the untutored greenhorn it is vitally important that she or he find a good mentor. Finding such mentors is not necessarily an easy matter. The generation of those raised with agricultural horsemanship skills is fast disappearing. Fortunately, in the current renaissance of horse powered farming the opportunities for internships is increasing. The mentor/trainee relationship can take many forms, some of the more common arrangements are; work for training, pay for training, and training as part of an internship or apprenticeship. Also, there are a growing number of reputable teamsters offering driving workshops and clinics around the country. In addition, organizations devoted to the preservation and promotion of animal powered traction are on the rise, and annual events, such as plow matches and horse drawn equipment expositions and auctions are increasing in frequency and popularity. (2)

The novice teamster should take every available opportunity to attend public events that feature live horse power, such as; field days at living history museums, local plow meets, and events and workshops sponsored by regional draft horse associations. There is no substitute for seeing firsthand how a skilled teamster looks handling a well-settled team on agricultural implements. The novice needs to drink in this visual imprint of an accomplished team and teamster in action, so that later on, as she struggles to grasp the basics, she will retain an image of the goal towards which she is striving.

We must recognize that for new or transitioning farmers who have no previous exposure to the equestrian arts, setting out to farm with horses does carry some risk. We are in an exciting moment of agricultural transformation, where a new generation of pioneers is returning to the land and bringing working horses (and mules and oxen) back into the fields. It is a time where trial and error will be an inevitable part of the process, at least until there are enough people and horses working together again to re-establish those unbroken chains of succession such as exist among the farming communities of the Plain People.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2


When working with a beginner it is best to explain the theory behind the practice beforehand. While the student is actually working with the horse the mentor should remain quiet unless it is necessary to make a verbal correction or intervention. In this way, we can allow space for the student to quiet their brain and sink their intelligence down into the body — to feel with the hands, the belly, and the feet — all the sensations of grounded communication with the horse. When I drive I try to stay grounded through my legs and feet and to let the movement of my upper body be directed through the center. This way of driving is not unlike riding a horse, where the legs and the feet in the stirrups are dynamically employed, and the core of one’s body is aligned with the center of gravity of the horse.

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses. There have been countless volumes written on the correct etiquette by which proper ladies and gentlemen should endeavor to practice the equestrian arts of riding and driving. One element that is universally agreed upon is the importance of maintaining an upright posture while driving horses. A correct posture enables us to breathe more fully and to keep our minds focused and awake. We can also stay more readily in touch with the core of grounded strength within our own bodies and communicate that deeper presence to our horses.

Just as in training the young horse, so with the novice teamster it is better to keep sessions short and ending on a positive note. Don’t spend tomorrow’s energy today; short and consistent practice sessions will yield far better results than erratic marathon sessions.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2


Before the novice teamster begins to learn to harness a horse she should be able to; (A) halter and lead the horse (B) be comfortable grooming the horse (C) be able to pick up and pick out the horse’s feet. In addition, a few house rules are always in order. For instance; treat all livestock on the farm with respect and kindness. Take care of and put away all tools after use. Don’t feed the horse after she takes the bit — once the bridle goes on it is time to go to work. Encourage the novice to take time to simply study and observe the horses as they interact with each other and their environment; there are many paths to knowledge and many ways of learning. Studying the behavior of other animals can be a doorway into deciphering non-human and non-linear modes of perception. As we draw closer to the equine world view we may catch glimpses of an awareness that is fully present to the life of the senses. We might find ourselves temporarily breaking free from the deep rooted linear frame of human consciousness and dwelling for brief instances in a more cyclical time-scape where experiences of past, present, and future merge into an expanded sense of the moment.

When it comes time to begin actual training, start the novice teamster out working with a single horse on the ground. Ask them to learn to do basic ground work with the horse, beginning with haltering and getting out of the paddock without being marauded by the rest of the herd. Even a reasonably well-mannered horse is apt to test the complete beginner. The novice must learn that she has to take charge. With our food obsessed Fjord horses, given an opening their heads will go down and they will start eating. We know this, they know we know it, and we don’t let them do it except as an occasional reward at the end of work. But with any new person they will take their inch. Same thing with driving, when I stop my team I anticipate that the gelding will try to reach down and take a bite. I hold him even before he makes his move and say; “Head up, Tristan,” and so he is checked. In driving horses, anticipation is a major key to success. A first big test for the novice is to become the “lead horse” and say “no” when the haltered horse tries to reach its head for grass. Only when the novice can comfortably halter and lead the horse are we ready to move on to harnessing and hitching.

Nine parts of working safely with horses lies in knowing them well and anticipating how they will react. But to anticipate you need to know horse behavior in general and the particular quirks of the horses you happen to be driving. There also has to be some degree of give and take. To convince the horse that is prone to paw to quit pawing is about as easy as straightening the legs of a bow-legged man. Though irritating, it’s not a life threatening vice for a horse to have. We can work around it and make it work. It is true that the teamster must to a certain degree impose her will upon the team but the aim is not total control for its own sake, but rather to find that space where everyone is working comfortably. A teamster who constantly makes things uncomfortable for the horses may get work out of them with an overbearing hand, but such a teamster will never get joy out of them or out of the experience. Your horse understands that if you are trustworthy in the little things you will also be trustworthy with the great things.

We want to try and help the novice to see the horses as horses. We name our horses Dan and Bill, or Pat and Sue, and we get to know the eccentricities of their personalities. We develop relationships that have strong doses of affection and predictability; taken all together these ingredients of relationship add up to a measure of reliability. But even so, there is always the aspect of the animal other-ness of the equine. Somewhere in the back of our brain we retain a memory that these tame, funny, obedient, and hardworking animals are just one step removed from their wild brethren. A dairy cow turned loose from the barn would soon perish; like a hothouse petunia wilted by the wind and the sun. But under the right circumstances, a domestic horse will readily revert to the feral condition. It is this wild horse within the heart of our domestic charges that we must come to terms with if we are to penetrate to a deeper level of understanding horseness.

When we understand the horse on its own terms rather than constantly trying to mold it into the shape we imagine most desirable, we have hope of forging a partnership with the animal that will be truly safe and productive for both equine and human. To reach this level of understanding we must also tap into those instinctual aspects of our own psyche that remain feral and resistant to domestication. Then perhaps we will also gain a little more insight as to why we were drawn to step down out of the tractor seat to partner and share our lives with horses in the first place. As we develop more empathy for our horses we are compelled to be more patient and gentle in our approach to training; and then we can realize the best results. This is real empathy, not just sentimentality; the kind of connection to our horses that will uphold us when the stakes get high. I don’t prefer to trust my safety completely to the horses unless I have to, but when things in a driving situation go awry I’m glad to know that I can. My horses know that when things get screwed up with harness or hitch or equipment, if they stop and stand for me I can set things right. They didn’t learn that in a day — when you reach that point with a team you have some moments to cherish.

Many generations of horsemen have dealt with the wild horse within the horse by subduing it with intimidation and the fear of punishment. And yet in every generation a few exceptional souls have risen above their own fear and learned to gentle horses with patience and kindness. These “natural horsemen” (and horse-women) always find ways of working that allow the horse to express its own inborn nature in a capacity that is also beneficial to their human masters.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2


The final and most important instruction for the novice teamster should be: always review your harness and hitch before starting out — that final twenty second review of harness and hitch may save the teamster from a potential world of trouble. The person new to driving horses should understand fully the inherent risks. In a certain sense, anytime we venture out on a wheeled vehicle we are entrusting our lives to the horses. But the same could be said about our forays out in cars, buses, trains and planes — but in all those cases we trust our safety to the machines and their operators. When we drive our own horses we have first trusted ourselves to make sure that the equipment and the harness are all maintained in working order, and even more importantly; that our horses are sound and settled.

A critical piece to pay attention to during the 20 second review is the position of the driving lines at the center point where they cross between hames rings from horse to horse. Many teamsters will use a drop ring to neatly contain the cross-check lines at this junction. Sometimes, if we allow the lines to go too slack, this drop ring and the crossed check-lines can dip down in front of and below the cap of the tongue. Then, when the teamster draws up the lines, they can be stuck there and the teamster will have lost control of the horses just as she is asking them to start out. This will result in a situation that is potentially dangerous. To avoid it we need to stay vigilant and never let the driving lines get slack enough to droop down to where they can get caught under the tongue cap, and to always remember to do a visual check before we start out. Also, when we stop the team at a hitch post, the lines should be collected and their ends given a wrap or quick-release tie onto some easy to reach point on the implement, such as the post on the guard rail of the forecart. If I am out in the field, hitching or unhitching, or otherwise fiddling with equipment, my choice is to keep a hold of the lines, maintaining enough pressure to assure the horses that I am right there with them. Although keeping hold of the lines may feel awkward at first, if say, you are trying to make an adjustment on the walking plow, or unclogging a bound up sickle bar, it can become second nature as one discovers all sorts of ways to temporarily safe guard the lines; in an armpit, crook of the elbow, under the knee. The alternative is to wrap the lines on the implement and trust the horses to stand. Many teamsters have a comfort level with doing just that, but this author feels that the risk is not worth the convenience.

Another potentially dicey situation that commonly occurs when ground driving a team happens when one horse is pulling harder than his teammate. As he gets out ahead, the point on the driving line where the cross-check line bisects from the continuous line can get drawn through and ahead of the spreader ring on his teammate’s hames. When the teamster gets the horses corrected, the buckle of the cross-check line has now snagged ahead of the spreader ring, and she will then have lost partial control of the team, who will be receiving pressure on only one side of their bits. A truly settled team will stop and wait for the teamster to fix the situation, but under such confusing circumstances horses that are anything less than truly settled may begin to panic and even break away to the side of the bit pressure. The first remedy we can use to safeguard against this is to insert a ring into each buckle or conway junction of the cross-check lines where they join to the continuous line. This ring needs to be slightly larger than the ring on the hames so that, if the lines are pulled forward on one side by a fast stepping horse, this ring will prevent the cross-check buckle from getting through and ahead of the hames ring. Secondly, a buck-back rope can be used to help remind the horse that wants to step out to hold back in step with his partner.


And now it is mid-afternoon in early October and I am out with the team. We are using the walking plow to turn over some sod. The horses are fighting fit at this tail end of the growing season. The soil moisture content is near perfect for plowing and, by some miraculous mixture of scant knowledge and pure luck, the line of draft is correct enough that the moldboard is slicing and turning over a neat ribbon that glints in the slanting sunlight like a wave breaking over before me as I walk behind in the furrow. My breathing and my steps are in sync with the horses as the air, crisp as a ripe red apple, surges into our lungs. This work of fall plowing is all about the doing, but to the extent that my mind is still spinning, the thoughts that it weaves are exultant; savoring these precious moments of lofty exertion. This is our moment in the sun, the horses and I, each step we take but a further squeezing out of the precious elixir of this our farming life. There are so many times when that life is not this and we endure the frustrations of broken equipment, crop failure, a sick animal, a disgruntled customer — any number of things that can and do go wrong on any given day — but that is all behind us now. These few moments of pristine plowing with a good plow and a great team of horses is what makes all the other worth the while. At such a time the considerations of the relative economics of tractor versus horses simply pale and fade away. Ahead of us there is only the next furrow to be turned and then maybe a chance to let the horses and myself catch our breath and for me to tell them, “Good horses,” and to whisper my silent prayer of thanks for the abundance of life that they give to me.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

End Notes
(1) This author is aware of three centers of higher learning that offer accredited course work for working with draft horses or oxen; (1) Sterling College, Craftsbury, VT, (2) Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT, (3) UMass at Amherst.
(2) Among the premiere horse power expositions and auctions are the Horse Progress Days held on July 4th weekend at different locations in the heart of Amish country (the name of the event itself is telling; it is not called Horse Nostalgia Days, it is called Horse Progress Days, because the event is all about promoting the draft horse as a viable option for the modern small farm of the future). The Northeast Animal Power Field Days is now a well-established event; though a date and location for 2012 have yet to be set. There are many regional draft horse, mule, and oxen associations. Although it began in Vermont, The Draft Animal Power Network (DAPnet for short) has quickly evolved into a vibrant multi-regional forum with an active on-line discussion board and postings about related events.