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Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

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

“I call the transformed world toward which we can move ‘sustainable;’ by which I mean a great deal more than a world that merely sustains itself unchanged. I mean a world that evolves, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, toward ever-greater diversity, elegance, beauty, self-awareness, interrelationship, and spiritual realization.” – Donella Meadows


One of the key decisions a new farmer must make as he or she develops goals for the future farm is to decide what type of traction power will be used. Up until recently, even for organic farmers, the first and most obvious choice has been the tractor. But in our new circumstances of rising fuel prices, oil extraction disasters, and carbon-emission driven climate change, the option of animal power is once again gaining credence.

One great asset we have here in North America is the pool of knowledge and tradition of working horses that exists within Amish and Mennonite farming communities. Horse-powered farming as a way of life has not only survived among the plain people; it has thrived. The Amish have not only perpetuated horse drawn technology, they have continued to innovate. Their small foundries are the source of some of the most exciting new technological developments in applied animal powered farming. Any farmer who has either persisted with, or taken up farming with horses anew, can look to these industrious communities for practical inspiration and material resources.

One of the most immediate consequences of the Amish and Mennonite farmer’s choice to stick with horse drawn technology is how this technology has determined the scale of their farming endeavors. Ever since their introduction on an industrial scale in the first quarter of the 20th century, tractor powered technology has been steadily increasing the amount of acreage a single individual can farm. In contrast, the decision to farm with horses insures that farms will remain on a family scale; which translates in actual terms as small and diversified. The exponents of industrial agriculture like to cite facts, such as 126 people being fed by a single US farmer in 2011 compared with 6 fed by the farmer of 1911. But the question is beginning to shift now from “how much?” to “how much longer?” until the industrial food system collapses.

When we take on a whole farm management approach we are no longer seeing our land solely as a production machine. We begin to understand it as an environmental and social matrix in which multiple strands are woven together. The land in its totality begins to be understood as an interweave of biologically diverse communities. Taking into account the interdependence of all these life forms becomes a key component of our management decisions.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3


Physical strength and quick reaction time play a critical role in the initial training of young horses, but if all is going well these attributes are of diminishing importance as the relationship to the horse progresses. In time, it is ultimately our human capacity for discriminating intelligence that will lead us to become effective teamsters and teachers of teamsters. Our discriminating intelligence can also serve us as a teamster of our own emotional life. Our heart and mind may then be likened to a team of well-trained horses.

One of the ways the teamster controls the horses and leads them to focus is by having them wear blinders. Once a horse is accustomed to the feel of blinders he is able to relax more as he gets into his work. The limitation imposed on his peripheral vision actually helps him to be more attentive to the task at hand. The horse actually experiences a break in his field of vision during the transition between the monocular peripheral and the binocular frontal capacities. The blinders aid the horse by eliminating this disruption. The teamster is there to guide the team and to protect the horses from the “dangers” their instincts lead them to believe may be lurking round every corner. Communicating with clear intention through the driving lines, the teamster instills the horses with confidence. Our discriminating intelligence is a function of our attunement to the voice from within — the conscience. The conscience is the true master of our leadership role with our horses and it is the guardian over the rich web of relationships that comprise the fabric of our farming life.

When things don’t go right and a horse just doesn’t seem willing to comply and starts testing the boundaries at every opportunity, it is important for the teamster in training to not take it personally. From this perspective, learning to work with horses and trying to train young horses to work both present us with ample ground to work on ourselves. Every horse is different and to be both effective and compassionate our approach to training has to account for these differences. We don’t want to see a horse’s eye that is white-rimmed and wide but neither do we want one that is sullen and shut-down. I’d rather take the extra time to work on training a horse to drop a disruptive behavior than to resort to restraints that force him to change.

The first team I had the privilege to work with were Haflingers and 3/4 brother geldings. Dan was a solid and confident pony type, and Bill was more horse-like and flighty. He especially had issues about his ears. He thrashed around so much I was in danger of getting my head bashed or my foot stomped on every time I tried to put a halter or bridle on him. I finally stepped back and did nothing with him every day for a month except practice putting a halter on and off (with alfalfa cubes involved as a reward). I learned a whole lot about how with patience it is possible to gain trust and work through these kinds of problems. I eventually had to admit I was in over my head with that team and sold them to a fellow who had been a jockey and trained thoroughbreds for a living, he had them working in the woods within a week of bringing them home.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

While I’m all for being a partner to my horse, in all instances we need to remember the old saying about how; “The leader of the team had better have two legs.” However, we need not be harsh in order to assert our authority and in most cases a gentle approach will achieve much better results. When I was a rank beginner working with horses I used a loud commanding voice. When the horses weren’t listening my voice would get louder and would reflect my anxious irritation. Gradually it dawned on me that almost without exception, every skilled teamster I had ever had the privilege to observe spoke to their horses in soft soothing tones, and especially so when working with a nervous or confused animal. We know that horses have hearing that is far more sensitive than our own — shouting at them is almost always a futile recourse. This is of course a general statement, and I recognize that there may be certain horses or situations that do on occasion require a big voice and a large projected presence to keep things on track.

While I firmly believe in the viability of utilizing draft horses in the market garden, I also readily admit that it is not the easiest workplace for the horses themselves. The set-up of the typical diversified market garden of between one and ten acres presents the horses with relatively short rows and work periods of shorter intervals compared with the traditional field row-cropping scenarios in which draft horses have been employed. Horses that work short intervals will have a harder time learning how to pace themselves. Often times, just when the team has worked off their edge and is just beginning to hit the right stride that would allow for a protracted work session, the job is finished and they head back to the barn without the horses or teamster getting a chance to truly experience “no pressure driving”.

Draft horses that have to maintain a full work schedule quickly figure out that a slow and steady pace will allow them to stay in the game. It is important to let your horses stop and have a breather. Watch their flanks as they stand and don’t start up again until their sides stop heaving. However, if you are dealing with a team that is having a hard time slowing down to a sensible walk, don’t let them rest so long that they build up a head of steam all over again. In some respects, horses that are awake and want to go is a good problem to have. In the long run, their enthusiasm can be turned into an asset.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

If you are in a position of having to hold back on the lines to keep the horses walking, make sure that you ease up on the line pressure the instant they relax into an acceptable pace. You want them to understand that walking represents a comfort zone at every level. Horses naturally seek out the comfort zone in any situation (unless their anxiety overrides this impulse). From the horse’s perspective, they are not pulling anything; they are meeting resistance by pushing into their collars. We need to convince them that they don’t need to push so hard as to move beyond a steady walk. Of course, this is predicated on the assumption that we are careful not to ask too much of them. If the teamster is vigilant with pressure and release on the lines, the horses will soon begin to realize that their comfort level increases when they maintain themselves at a walk.

When you have a horse that is ready to work calmly at a walk then you have a horse that is ready to help train the novice teamster. Over the years we have found that single horse cultivating is an effective actual work situation into which to integrate the novice. If you are working with your seasoned horse, she already knows what to do and she is going to pull the walk behind cultivator cleanly down the row paths. To start, we’ll take the implement into a well-established crop that can handle a little dirt being thrown around. The novice can begin by learning how to steer the cultivator, while you walk beside in the adjacent row holding onto the lines. Once things are going well, the novice driver can have the lines looped over one shoulder and feel the thrill of getting real work accomplished with the horse.

When it comes to introducing the novice to team driving in a real work scenario we have found that a good option is to let the novice have a hand at harrowing in an open section of the garden, typically in a section being worked for seed bed preparation or for purposes of a bare fallow — when appropriate to the field, pasture harrowing is also an excellent option. Spike tooth, spring tooth, or flex harrows are all applicable in the garden. The essential ingredient is to have a set of driving lines sufficiently long enough that the novice can hold them and work the team and still have enough length beyond this that you can also take hold and walk behind. In this way you can act as a passive safeguard and coach, and be right there at the ready to take control if there are any mishaps. Harrowing in the open field allows the novice to have the latitude to learn to drive, stop, and turn without having to be too precise at the outset.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

The flex harrow that we use in the garden for seed bed preparation is actually designed to be a pasture harrow. The one we own also sees a fair bit of work at this duty. Our hill pastures are too steep to be suitable for harrowing, but our hayfields and level pastures on the bottom lands are harrowed in the fall after the compost has been spread. The harrowing further disperses the compost and breaks up any clumpy material that escaped the pulverizing of the beaters of the manure spreader, it also breaks apart and evenly spreads any residual cow pies on the fields that have been grazed. On level ground it is moderate work. The horses can work at a steady pace for an extended session without being overdone.

A more advanced work scenario to introduce is team driving on the walking plow. When we first started learning how to plow we were fortunate to have an experienced mentor to give us an orientation to the proper set-up of the plow. He willingly agreed to come over to our place and help us hitch the horses to one of his walking plows. He wouldn’t accept any pay for his time. He taught us the rudiments of understanding the line of draft and gave us the opportunity to get our hands on the plow and to get the “feel” of the share in the ground when it was moving as it should. He worked with us and our horses enough so that we gained a real sense of what one needs to expect of a trained team in order to successfully plow. These few mentoring sessions with such an experienced teamster were invaluable for setting a foundation. Once we were working on our own, we began with one person on the lines and one person handling the plow. We worked that way for several seasons before the horses and I were ready for solo flight.

In a similar fashion the novice can begin by taking up the handles of the plow while you walk alongside maintaining the lines. This scenario will have a degree of familiarity after having worked this way on the walk behind cultivator. Obviously the handling of the plow will present more challenge to the novice than the cultivator. But if the plowing conditions are good, and they can begin to get the hang of turning over a clean furrow — what a thrill for the beginning teamster!

Once the novice has got the hang of steering the plow we can let them try taking a few turns with the lines. The next big issue the novice teamster will face is convincing the horses to walk. She needs to understand that it is her responsibility to communicate with the horses and set the pace that she needs. If the horses walk too fast it becomes much harder to control the plow and the turning of the furrow is not going to be clean and smooth. She needs to convince the horses to find a short-stepping “granny gear”. There are other functions on the farm, such as mowing or raking hay, where we don’t mind if the horses step out lively, but not on the walking plow.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

During the practice of Zen meditation the aspirant is counseled to cultivate both a specific point of concentration and a concurrent “all-around” awareness. The mind is focused on the breath as it enters and leaves the body, but a subtler attention is also given to the myriad sensations that naturally occur, such as all the points of contact of one’s body to the meditation cushion and the floor, the sensation of light breeze on the skin coming in from an open window carrying the scent of orchids from the garden, the momentary buzz of a fly overhead, the wail of a distant siren.

When the novice first takes her hands to the handles of the plow she will have to learn to adjust with subtle pressure from side to side to keep the share steering true, especially in stony ground, but it is best not to be in the position of constantly chasing after the plow. Here the importance of having horses who are willing to walk slow and steady becomes most apparent. If the ground is stony or the cover or soil structure is variegated the reaction time required to adjust the plow will be far more manageable if the horses are keeping a reasonable pace. There is so much to keep track of when we are plowing; the horses, the lines, the hitch, the share turning the furrow. In order to keep present to all the action happening around us as we plow we need to cultivate this same inner attitude of all-around-awareness. One technique we can adopt to do this in a sane fashion is to choose a focus point for our eyes from which we can constantly depart and to which we should continuously return. The depth-gauge wheel is a perfectly obvious focus point because keeping a watch on the wheel will indicate whether the plow is cutting an even swath. If the plow is set correctly we will cut a consistently wide furrow to give the furrow horse a clear and level path to walk in.

To approach team driving on a wheeled vehicle we have found that having a second seat on the forecart is essential (a model with a bench seat will also do). Again, we have found that pasture harrowing offers a relatively stress free situation in which to begin. A flat open pasture or hay field presents an ideal space for the novice and the horses to get acquainted without the need for any precision driving — with you right there on the bench or tandem seat at the ready to take up the lines should things go the slightest bit awry.

Before we start driving on the cart we begin with a gentle but firm reminder; hold onto the lines. If you drop a line you have lost control of your horses. Whenever you are on an implement with a driver’s seat; tuck all the excess driving line under your bottom so that you are effectively sitting on the lines. In this way, should you chance to drop a line, you won’t lose it or have it get caught up in the equipment you are driving; it will be suspended there easy for you to catch and take up again, thus averting potential loss of control and risk of an accident.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3


Some teamsters find it challenging to share their knowledge with novices, not because they want to hold onto it, but because they are protective of their horses. It can take years to develop a working relationship with a team. That relationship can be replete with subtle and nuanced communication. Under such circumstances it can be very unappealing to the teamster to want to inflict the potentially clumsy and insensitive hands of the novice upon their horse’s mouths. On the other hand, the ability to adapt to change and be flexible about working with multiple drivers is not necessarily a negative for the mature horse. If done under adequate supervision, it will ask them to stretch and grow in ways that will help them stay engaged and mentally supple.

It is important to convince the novice teamster to keep commands simple and consistent and at a minimum. This is not to suggest that I don’t talk to my horses about all manner of subjects, but it is plain to see that they can easily distinguish between such banter and a serious command. And then there are those deeper work sessions where we’ve been plowing or raking hay for hours, a day when the air is cool, the wind is fresh, the flies aren’t biting, we don’t need to stop and rest much and we have established a wordless rhythm. Then I don’t even need to use voice commands and only the lightest gesture on the lines is needed to keep the horses in the action.

Long periods of extended focus don’t seem to be much in vogue these days. Digital applications, multi-tasking, and lives pre-scheduled on a hand-held device don’t lend themselves to work as a form of contemplation in action. But for all the seeming activity, we might also observe that any person who spends hours seated indoors before a shining screen plugged into cyberspace is really in a state of sleep not unlike lucid dreaming — the volition is still aware and active but the life of the body and the senses is in a kind of suspended animation.

In the Zen tradition certain meditators have been reputed to sit and gaze upon the full moon until their entire being internalized that reflective light. In such deep states of meditation, the meditator transcends loneliness and emptiness. Her awareness brims up from the core of her being until it reaches to every nerve ending, every pore of skin. This subtle and shimmering awareness is so replete that it fills her bodily form in the same way that water in a lake touches every surface, every aspect of the lake bed and all its shores, to form the lake in its entirety. At such moments the hardened battle lines that delineate the boundaries of the small self may become less fixed and certain; an understanding of the deeper patterns of connection in which we are all bound begins to surface.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

In a similar fashion, when the teamster is completely focused on the task at hand, then the mind, body and senses can attain to a singular fusion. This unison of the senses represents a breakthrough of awareness. By waking up so fully to the tasks at hand we are empowered to be more present, more available, and thus able to offer a compassionate and skillful response to the needs of our horses even as we ask them to accomplish heavy work on the farm. It is not up to the horses to trust us; it is up to us to prove ourselves worthy of their trust. What the horses can offer to us are new avenues to freedom and resilience, sustainability and hope.

As part and parcel of the industrialization and urbanization of our culture, in twentieth century America the farm was often portrayed as the place of drudgery and toil from which the clever and entrepreneurial-minded person would escape. The farmer was wearing blinders and was yoked to a life of slavery to the demands of livestock and crops. But now many of us are understanding that it is just in this linking of our lives to the demands of the livestock and the crops, in this reconnecting of our lives to the cycles of the natural world as expressed through the farm year, that a new kind of freedom, based on an acceptance and embrace of our inter-dependence with all of life, is being born.

To those of us who have come to farming seeking some deeper meaning for our lives, it is the connection to our horses and the glimpses they can bring us of this deep presence that entices us to carry on. Eventually, if one is to become a reasonably accomplished teamster, the ability to stay present to the moment by moment experience of driving is a must. The only way to successfully and safely work with horses is to be right there with them the whole time.

The hands of the master teamster are as sensitive and strong as those of any great sculptor or painter and as equally inspired and creative and steady in application of the craft. Those hands aren’t just holding the lines and holding the horses through the lines; they are light and lively and instantly responsive and even anticipatory of every move. While we begin training the horse by placing restraints and creating appropriate boundaries, what we ultimately seek to establish is an energetic connection. When we can catch glimpses of working the horses in this way something deeper may be drawn out of both human and equine — a more authentic expression of our true natures.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3


For those of us who love horses but don’t have the luxury of owning a “pleasure” horse, being able to make a living working with horses as our partners on the farm represents the best of all possible worlds. One of the wonderful things about working with horses is that you get out of them what you put into them. While it is true that the horses require daily inputs of time and money regardless of whether they work, on the other hand, the more the tractor is used the more it depreciates, whereas, when worked within reasonable limits, the horses will grow fitter and better trained.

While we may concede to the ultimate impenetrability of the true nature of a horse’s identity, are we willing to allow our own identity to dwell within such fluid parameters? Can we enter into the wilderness of Self and embrace our own existential mystery? Can we entertain the notion that beneath our own self-domestication there also lives the spirit of an untamed and highly intelligent and innocent animal that needs the same gentle authority and loving kindness we offer to our horses in order to successfully adapt to the constraints of social existence and attain productive lives? If we can we may then find that we have access to untapped fountains of creativity.

One of the key concepts in Zen is the perpetual rediscovery of a disposition known as; “Beginner’s Mind”. This is the assumption of an attitude that remains open and allows experience to stay fresh. Who is the novice teamster? The minute I am no longer a novice teamster is the moment when I lose the ability to let my horses teach me something new. When we work with beginner’s mind we have daily opportunities to learn more about driving and about ourselves. As a teamster I do not feel that I am pressing my horses into service, instead I work with the sense that my horses and I are all working together in the service of a greater cause.