Formulas and Fortitude
Formulas and Fortitude

Mike Atkins at US Plow Championship in Ohio.

Formulas and Fortitude

by Lynn R. Miller of Sisters, OR

Today there is no end to formulas that are supposed to give you a leg up, or at best some sort of guarantee of success, with draft horses. I say be wary. The best intentions, the best preparation, the best animals, the safest routine is NO guarantee of success with the working animals. All of those things are important but none of them replace your becoming a natural and comfortable part of the equation. Formulas cannot replace your personal fortitude or strength of conviction and clarity of purpose. And those things will result in a matched natural comfort with the animals.

In the letters section of this issue Tristan Klesick offers a courageous revelation. He’s given up on working horses because they don’t work for him. That’s a mighty big deal. Now, I’m not saying that I know he’s right, only he can know that. But what he’s offering is a very important insight for some people. He says he’s had good quiet teams of horses which, in every case, and with every advantage just seemed to get more and more flightly or tense around him. He’s saying that work horses, it turns out, are just not for him.

May seem a bit far fetched but it brings to mind all those folks who keep insisting they want a quantitative comparison of horses to tractors. Comparing workhorses to tractors is like comparing writing with a fountain pen to typing into a computer: One pretends to make magic (the tractor) while the other (the workhorse) makes magic of you – but only if you are ready and willing to have it happen.

Was on the phone the other day with my buddy Mike Atkins of Ohio and he was remembering the trip he and his brother made to compete at the Canadian Plowing Championships. (Mike is past U.S. Champion and plows with both Belgians and Belgian mules.) He took his span of mules and they did fantastically well. Mike’s a phenomenal teamster and someone who is justifiably proud of his workmates. Even so, he confessed to me; “Lynn, those mules of mine done me proud. They really surprised me. Every where we went was new to them, everything I asked them to do had some strange part to it, but they never missed a step. They were calm and sure and paying very close attention. If you had offered me a million bucks for them right them I would have turned you down. I was that proud of them.”

Mike may or may not agree with me. Knowing him as I do and having had the opportunity to watch him work his animals (and actually to have plowed with his horses) it’s clear to me that his quiet, sure manner and strong expectation are the defining aspects of how well it all works. Listening to him talk about how well his mules behaved in Canada I had a clear view of them “leaning’” on Mike. They know he would never ask them to do anything they couldn’t handle. They know he will always be there to keep them out of harm’s way. They know he will comfortably put them in the furrow where they belong and keep them there. They know that if they have a question Mike will answer it. Those mules are that good BECAUSE of Mike.

Lots of things go into that. Mike has his ‘routine’ and list of do’s and don’ts just like I do. But those formulas alone DO NOT make good work animals. AND perhaps most important, I firmly believe that good well-broke quiet animals DO NOT make good teamsters. It is the other way around. LRM