by Ike Bay of Portland, OR
As I enter my “geezer phase,” it is time to reflect on some of the knowledge I learned from some of the very special geezer’s in my life. Please excuse my limited language skills. It is all common sense, cause and effect analysis, and understanding the horse’s communications. REMEMBER YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HAVING FUN.
The basic rule of life, “BE AWARE” also applies to horse smarts. “Attention to Detail” and “Poor Performance is Always a Lack of Prior Planning” are also part of this rule. If you cannot see trouble coming or see potential trouble in how you set up situations, trouble will be there before you know it. Safety for you and the stock is always important. Keep focused ahead of the horse’s ears.
Basic rule of dog training also applies to horses; you gotta be smarter than the critter.
You can gain knowledge from educational materials (books, magazines, DVD’s. etc). You can only grow in your skills and abilities with hands-on time. Know the why of any instruction you get. I knew some great teamsters who could never explain why they did things a certain way… ”that is the way my daddy taught me”. Hobby teamsters do not drive their stock enough to be just going through the motions. Sooner or later it will back up on you.
Fear can be a good thing, but don’t communicate it. You have a command of the basics, now is the time to stop waiting for the blinding light of enlightenment from above and just spend a lot of time working your horses. That you are fearful is just a sign that you are smart and aware enough to realize the challenges you are facing. There is no short cut or guarantee. You just have to do it, and do it, and do it. Go slow and easy at the same time you are pushing the boundary to grow and learn.
Some folks are just not cut out for working stock. They can get by in limited activities with well broke teams; but if you want to really work ground with a variety of equipment and situations, you have to put in the hands-on time.
Horses learn from repetition. Encourage the good and discourage the bad. Every interaction with your stock is a learning experience: feeding, grooming, turning out, etc. You can teach stock that rules for inappropriate behavior are flexible or that the rules are ALWAYS in place and enforced. It is all up to you.
First plowing match I ever saw, a very elderly plowman was talking to some of the onlookers who had asked him a few questions. “How much do you feed a horse like that?” “As little as possible.” Don’t over feed your stock, draft horses don’t look bad with a little extra weight; but an over fed under worked horse is a real danger. “What if they don’t want to plow?” “They don’t know they have a choice!” Properly trained draft horses do what they are told when they are told.
Working stock, pets and kids with no manners are not fun to be around. This is your first job with young stock.
“Tired” is a basic training tool. Not running them into the ground, but good honest tired from long hours of hard work. They stop the silly things they did to avoid working. With “tired” they teach themselves. With “tired” they stop immediately when you whisper the command.
Short intense training periods only teach them that work never lasts long. Good for initial learning, but not for learning sustained work habits.
George Spiesschaert was my primary mentor. He told me to look at the behavior of the drivers and the stock and pick a teacher/mentor based on that. He also felt you should have one primary mentor and learn their system. What ever system you learned, it could always be modified by you. But first learn the system. Beware of mix and match. A little bit from several people could be a collection of the worst of all. George saw working stock and training as a system. Each horse is different and the approach is different but everything fits into the system’s broad parameters.
Lots of old harness floating around. Get new inch and eighth lines, as they are the cheapest insurance you will ever buy. Good wear leathers on the strap/hardware joints, adds life to old harness and is a must on new. I like the type where the eye goes around a loop. Threads give out before the leather, especially on the tugs where they rub against the hind legs. Take out the old thread and re-stitch with nylon in the old holes with hand sewing needles. This may require pliers to pull the needle through the tug. Good time to apply harness oil to the inside surfaces.
If corporal punishment is called for, hit them hard and seldom. Getting after them all the time (tap, tap, tap) with a whip will piss them off. Know the difference between tough and mean.
NEVER wrap a lead rope around your hand. ALWAYS start your team/hitch with tight lines. No slack lining allowed for green teamsters and green teams.
Always drive your horses. Just going down a road or around a pasture on autopilot teaches them nothing. At best, it is legging them up. Pulling an empty wagon is not an educational experience either. Wells Barney used a wagon to train but he had an old cotton wood log dragging behind the rear axle, when he came back from a four-hour drive they knew they had done something. Horses that won’t stand, are not broke. Put steel bottoms on your wood training sled. Lots of noise on gravel roads and they learn to ignore it. I like a seat with a back and a place to plant my feet. Do not be afraid to add weight to these training devises.
Every horse needs to know its name. Keep commands brief and clear. All of us remember a parent using “that tone” in calling our name. It meant we were in deep dodo. Horses do too. Often the people are the real problem. Horses learn in tie stalls; it’s where you introduce them to bits and harness, step up, move over, give me your head, don’t pull away, etc. If they won’t come when called or you can’t walk up to them in the pasture consider it a failing on your part.
Work your studs. They need to know everything every other workhorse on the place knows. Plus no romantic thoughts while working or wearing harness.